He found the journal under his seat. A morning train with coffee in hand, just like every morning, but it was different from every morning before it and every one after it. Because he found a journal. Stephen had never been an adventurer, he was simply too motivated. He was now working as an insurance agent because selling houses hadn’t worked out. His life was very routine. Mornings, train rides, work days, train rides, bars with friends on weekends, watching tv on weekdays. Church on Sunday morning, run Sunday night. He’d gotten placidly comfortable in this routine. But finding the journal was interesting, and it complicated his morning. And his life.
Carli had no semblance of normalcy in her life, no regular routine. She stood on the edge of the pier, took a deep breath, and jumped into the freezing ocean. The splash above her as she sank below the surface was jarring and water immediately rushed her with the pressure only an ocean and a mother can supply. Her eyes were shut tight; she forced herself to pry them open and look around. Thankfully, it was about a foot away from her hands, sinking as gradually as her future. Carli dove forward in one swift motion and by the time she was firmly seated on the pier, she was hugging it close. The baby doll’s gown was destroyed, but her face was intact. “I’m sorry, Mom,” the grown woman all alone whispered to the sky.
The street was quiet, though it had quite a few people on it. Most were staring at the woman whose clothes clung to her skin; they were tired but not absent enough to ignore the scene sharing their world. Stephen was the only one distracted from Carli’s walk down the sidewalk. Coffee and papers flew like a hurricane as the strangers collided, unaware that two destinies had just become one.
“Miss, are you alright?”
“Of course I’m alright, mister,” she sighed. “It takes more than a spontaneous dip in the ocean and a dump to the street to ruin my morning. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m the dry one who’s not sitting in the dirt. Oh no, where’s my bookmark?”
“Who carries a bookmark with no book?”
“I do, you see it?”
“Uh-uh. Oh my god, this stupid baby doll. Where is it?”
“Right here, is this yours?”
“Yep, that’s her. But she’s not mine; my mom’s.”
“Ah. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Well, seeing as yours is no more and mine is long gone, do you want to get some coffee? There’s a good place around the corner.”
“Yeah, it’s a pretty decent joint. I mean, I’ve got time, so why not? My treat.”
“Of course,” Carli replied. “And since we’re going to be having coffee- which is a ritual of immense importance- you should know that my name is Carli and I want yours.”
“Stephen with a ‘ph’. Tell me because I’m dying to know: is it Carly with a ‘y’ or Carli with an ‘i’?”
“With ‘y,’” she fibbed. She hated the name Carlina, she’d rather be Carly Rae or something cute, she told herself.
So they went to get coffee and headed back out to the sidewalk. They both remembered that they’d been traveling in opposite directions. But Stephen still had time and Carli knew her day was open anyway. Their conversation continued even there was no logical reason in realistic everyday life why it should. In time, both were running through spurts of laughter and confusion.
“Hey, I can pay you back for my order, if you come to my office.”
“Why your office, why not here?”
“So funny thing is I accidentally forgot my wallet. I think it’s on my desk,” she explained.
“On your desk?” he demanded.
“Dear god I hope so.”
“Tell me this: how did you forget your wallet?”
“I don’t really know, it’s just that I did because I don’t know.”
That made even less sense to Stephen, but he decided to go see her office. He had wanted to spend his days rescuing damsels in distress; if a child with heroic aspiration existed inside him still, this girl had roped him in and the adult who kept telling himself he still had time was along for the ride. She appealed like a magnet, he decided, to his obligation to protect a woman and assist her.
Their trip to Carli’s office- where she worked as a journalist- turned out to be interesting. It took his breath away to see where she did her job when she wasn’t working in her bed. And this was not a good thing.
“There should never be more soy sauce packets that writing utensils on a desk,” he began. She opted not to respond as she tossed through the clutter, searching for the cash.
“You ought to see how cluttered my little closet is. Hint: there’s so much clutter they had to give me a closet so you could even get in here.”
“This closet is horrific. Hey, you got those leg warmers my mom used to wear in the eighties stashed in here somewhere? Wouldn’t surprise me looking at this cause- oh my god you actually have leg warmers. That’s it, I can’t live like this, you’re going on the show about the hoarders being reformed.”
“You say ‘reformed’ like hoarders are criminals.” Her pause was quiet. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“Why do you even have all this stuff? Like, is there a boombox in here for Halloween props?” he asked, teasingly by the end so it didn’t sound rude.
“You’re here for cash,” she protested. “Why do you care?” Stephen didn’t know how to answer her. He turned and walked over to the desk, shuffling through paperwork. There wasn’t much of it, thanks to the arrival of a hard technical age.
“You have chocolate,” he remarked in pleasant surprise. Both, as it turned out, had a weakness for chocolate in every form.
“Please, help yourself,” she said in mild annoyance.
“You okay?’ he asked, sensing her tenseness. “Listen I have a friend who runs a cleaning service, I can’ make a call and have them help you clean this place up.”
“You think I need help from you or anyone else? God, you do. From your socks down to your stupid green tie you think I’m some dumb damsel in distress but guess what! You don’t know me and you don’t get to go reorganizing my life!”
“Why are you screaming at me? Just take a deep breath. You’re not making sense, and by the way, my tie is blue.”
“Shut your mouth.” Stephen felt like his life fit into a box and this woman was a circle he wanted to reshape. But the circle had things under control and she would not be reshaped by an uptight stranger whose interest in her was mostly pity.
“You’re cold as an ice cube tray, you know that?” he told her, staring into her blazing eyes. This was out of his comfort zone.
“You’re colder than a glacier and I guess you think I’m the Titanic,” Carli snapped. “And we don’t even know each other.”
And that was the moment the zipper on her shirt decided to snap. Carli swore mentally, feeling the weight of a piano had dropped on her face. It had been a long week in her world. Stephen, on the other hand, was more graceful in his reaction. He simply sidestepped her and attempted to wrangle it back into place.
“Do you have a spring somewhere in there?” he muttered in her ear. “The ends of old springs can be bent to fix things like zippers.”
“You think the world is a video game and you’ve got the controllers in your hands,” she declared. “Tell me if I’m wrong.”
“I’m very confused right now. We don’t know each other.”
“So maybe we can get to know each other. Tell me about the journal you’ve been clutching since I met you.”
“I found it. It has a bunch of recipes in it- every single page has these cool recipes and I want to try some unless I can find a way to return it to its rightful owner.”
“I’m learning. You?”
“I went to culinary school before I got kicked out and decided to be a freelance journalist instead,” Carli explained, laughing to herself. “My brother is a chef, actually. He just got promoted to head chef at this nice restaurant, because he proposed to the owner. Her name’s Michelle.”
“Oh my God,” Stephen whispered to himself. “My sister Michelle owns a restaurant and she just got engaged to her head chef,” he let his voice trail off. Carli picked it up.
“Alex…” He nodded, eyes wide.
“So we’re family,” she cried, laughing wildly.
Thanks for reading another of my short stories. This one took a turn that even I didn’t expect when I started writing. Please let me know your thoughts and check out more of my recent work, including another family piece called Man and a story especially for Pride month called The End and more.