Maybe We Could

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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Maybe We Could

I recognised her immediately, even though she was facing partly away from me. I knew within half a second that it was Kate.

There had been two Kates in my year at university, and both had been part of my group of friends. The two were also pretty much best friends with each other, and I’d always wondered if they initially bonded just based on their shared name.

One of them was taller, but this Kate was the other one, and the one I’d had feelings for. At the time, it took me a year or two to work out that I liked her, because I saw her more as a friend than anything else, but things do change. I never did anything about it, which isn’t unusual for me, and after a couple of years passed, everyone graduated and away we all went. I lost track, except for the occasional social media checkup, and that was all twenty years ago. Unbelievable. Twenty years.

Which brought me to today, when I was walking along the street and just about to pass a little café I’d always meant to try. It was only mid-morning but there was already short queue to get in, and there she was. I think I almost stumbled, and then I slowed my pace to get a proper look at the woman whose identity I was already certain of.

As I drew level, my scrutiny must have caught her attention, because she turned to look at me too, and we would have spoken at the same time if I hadn’t been silenced by the sight of her again after all these years.

“Will! My god!”

I’d moved alongside her position in the queue as we exchanged the expected initial pleasantries, then started to learn what each other was up to at the moment, and when it came time for Kate to go into the café, she invited me to join her. I was aware that it was out of character for me, but I accepted without any attempt to allow her to withdraw the offer in case it was just politeness, and so we were seated in a few further moments. I had a feeling of surreality wash over me, as if I’d shifted in time, and I had a sudden vivid memory of sharing coffee and pastries with her in a different café near the university, during a time that was now decades gone.

We talked, and we ordered food, and we talked some more. We found out what each of us was doing for a living now — the same as planned at university for me, and not at all for her — and we found out that we live about a twenty-minute walk apart these days, despite never having bumped into each other before today. Then I ventured to ask if she was married, since I couldn’t see a ring on her finger, and she shook her head, but in a qualified sort of way.

“Used to be,” she said, “but it didn’t stick. Four years.”

I think I raised my eyebrows, and I think she interpreted it in the way that I meant it, and I think that she might have smiled a little, though there was also embarrassment mixed in. I hurried to speak before she could say whatever it was that she felt she had to justify.

“I was in a long-term relationship until recently,” I said. “Almost thirteen years. Never actually married or had kids, but everything else I suppose.”

“How recently?” she asked, and I hesitated a little. My reluctance seemed to make her feel a bit better about her own situation, and for that at least I was glad.

“Been about six months since I moved out,” I said, and it was only then that I realised how six months isn’t exactly a long time, but it’s also not really recently either. A wordless part of my mind wondered if I’d made a misstep, but Kate just picked up her decidedly non-alcoholic cup of fancy coffee and held it aloft.

“To whatever doesn’t kill you,” she said, and I nodded in relief, raising my own cup to join her in the toast.

She talked about her work a little, and I was content just to listen, and to find out more about what her life was like now. She was simultaneously the same but also different to the young woman I remembered, but there was more that was familiar than otherwise. I found it interesting, because while she’d certainly been the focus of my attention for a while all those years ago, I couldn’t honestly say that I’d known her very well.

I asked if she was still in touch with anyone from those days, and she mentioned a few names that I recognised, including the other Kate. She asked me the same question, and I gave a very similar answer, but in both cases we’d retained contact with just a handful of people. It seemed like the normal way of things, and I noticed that she moved the conversation away from that subject almost as quickly as we’d got onto it, as if the past wasn’t a place of much interest to her anymore. Kate responded to the thought even though she couldn’t have known that I’d had it.

“Just seems like at that age, I had all these ideas about what my life would be like,” she said. “Doesn’t turn out at all like you thought it would, or like you planned. I think it’s better not to get stuck in the past.”

“No argument here,” I replied, and I meant it.

The waitress had taken away our plates a while ago, and I’d surreptitiously paid the bill when Kate went to the bathroom. Or at least I thought I’d been surreptitious, until she playfully accused me of doing that very thing when she returned, and then called me out on blushing at being caught.

She glanced at her watch, and I took the opportunity to do the same. It was a little after eleven in the morning, and I would have to be going soon. I wanted to ask for her contact details, and it would have been a perfectly reasonable thing to do for two reminiscing adults, but something about the social trappings of the situation made me feel unaccountably nervous. I thought that it was probably a holdover from the last time I’d known her. I had a little war in my own mind, mostly telling myself to stop being so bloody stupid, and in my state of distraction I was startled when she pushed a napkin into my field of view with what was obviously her phone number written on it.

“I liked you too, you know,” she said. “Back then. This feels like I thought it would.”

I discovered what it actually meant to be lost for words, when your brain just stopped suggesting possible responses anymore and threw its metaphorical hands in the air, while somehow also metaphorically elbowing you in the metaphorical ribs repeatedly.

“I, uh,” I began inelegantly, and then some obscure faculty managed to suddenly land on the correct answer. “Just back then?”

“Are you asking me, or yourself?” she asked, and by god I admired the fact that she seemed a hundred percent comfortable with talking this way. It was an evening conversation, but it was happening before lunch and she didn’t seem flustered in the least.

“Not just back then,” I said, trying to sound equally comfortable but failing to do so. She smiled, though, and that was something. I chose to hear an unvoiced me too, and I knew it wasn’t wishful thinking. I picked up the napkin and pocketed it, bemused to realise that I might actually have forgotten to take it in my general state of pleasant shock.

I caught sight of my watch again, and I suppose I must have frowned. I definitely didn’t want to go, but life always gets in the way.

“Maybe…“ I began, but Kate didn’t need the full sentence. She nodded decisively.

“Maybe we could,” she said.

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