Short Fiction Monday: Midsummer

Some character profiles, bits and pieces of something I don’t yet know the shape of. ]

Short Fiction Monday: Midsummer

I had just started work in a new city when I met Summer Mei. I was still unpacking, boxes littering the apartment and piling up in the corners. She heard me banging around up the stairs, trying to wrestle a bunch of dishes and assorted cookware up into my apartment, and came out to see what the noise was. She saw me struggling and immediately grabbed the other end of the box.

“Here. I have this end.” I couldn’t quite place her accent– American, maybe, but I could see her eyes and her expression.

Watching and reading people is my job; I’m a professional negotiator and I worked for years in college as a salesperson. The woman who helped me with the box had an air about her that made me instantly feel guilty about making noise, about taking up space at all. I’d seen her face as she left the apartment, cold and annoyed, and I saw the mental calculations she did– helping me would rid her of the annoyance faster. I appreciated her help, but it made me feel very small. Despite the two of us being about the same height– I estimated that we were just about the same size, she had a presence that made her seem taller, more central, more real. I wanted to fade into the background.

It also became apparent quickly that she was much stronger than I was. She could have carried the box of kitchenware herself, easily, possibly with one arm. I wondered if this was another calculation– did she not want to waste time with the usual polite back-and-forth that would ensue if she offered to just take it herself?

“You’ve got the silver two-door. Nice car.” I blinked. “How’d you know–”

“Trunk’s open, saw the other box like this one in it. I mean, lucky guess.” She grinned, then, an expressive, mischievous look that transformed her entire face. I was grinning back before I realized it. I wondered whether the cold, calculating face she’d worn a moment ago or this beaming, insouciant one was more “her”, a better window into the person behind the expression. Maybe both.

The two of us got the box up to my apartment easily, and as she stepped through the doorway, years of childhood etiquette lessons crashed down on me and I instantly wished I had something to offer my guest. Tea, I could make tea. I mentally flipped through the boxes that were strewn about the place to remember where I’d kept the pot, cups, and leaves. Satisfied that I could at least find those, I spoke up.

“Thanks so much for the help. Can I offer you some tea?” I expected her to decline– after all, I was fairly sure she was only helping me to minimize the time she spent distracted by banging dishes. I needed to offer, though; I would have felt guilty about it for weeks if I hadn’t, and I didn’t expect I’d see my neighbor much after today. I saw a flicker of uncertainty cross her face, another glimpse of that calculating expression, before the bright smile returned. I decided I was going to choose to believe that the smile was more “her”.

“Sure, yeah, I can do that. Let me close up some stuff downstairs, I’ll be right back, yeah?” I nodded, and she bobbed a quick bow as she left, backing out of the doorway. In the instant between her turning down the stairs and my front door closing, I caught a glimpse of the holster at her back. I’d missed it while wrestling with the box, and we’d been facing each other the whole time we’d carried it up the stairs, but seeing it now left me stunned. Guns were illegal here, what was she doing with one? Was she a cop, maybe? I thought cops had to be in uniform to carry weapons. Something else? My curiosity overwhelmed me as I unpacked tea on autopilot. Some deeply-rooted etiquette habit managed to even find some cookies in one of the boxes to go with the tea, and I set up a table and some chairs while waiting for water to boil and speculating wildly about this woman I’d just met.

She came back with a knock on the door, and held up a bag of tortilla chips and a bowl of something green sheepishly. “I didn’t have much that went with tea, but I’ve got some chips and…” She searched for a word, finally making a kind of duck sound. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I assumed it was the green stuff. A dip, maybe? Definitely an American accent.

“Come on in, it should be almost ready.” I smiled, more comfortable in my own home, serving tea to a guest.

“Thanks,” she paused, “huh, I didn’t catch your name. I’m Summer Mei.” I couldn’t help chuckling, hearing the name of this woman who was in so many ways my opposite. She narrowed her eyes. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, nothing, I’m sorry. Just a funny coincidence. I’m Ciruela Winters.” I watched Summer blink, and I waited to see how much she picked up on. After a moment of mouthing my first name, she burst out laughing.

“What the hell is it about plums? I don’t even like plums.” That’s at least three languages she’s familiar with. Interesting. I grinned in return, I also can’t stand plums. We shared a laugh, then I poured the tea.

“You know, Winters. I’m going out for drinks tonight, want to come with? There’s a new place I want to try, and if it sucks, I want someone else to complain with.”

I thought of all the boxes I still had to unpack, and how little I had to spend on frivolous things like drinks, how I barely knew this woman, and a long list of other practical considerations that screamed “don’t do this, Cir”.

“I mean, don’t worry if you need to unpack or anything, I definitely know what it’s like to unpack. Figured you might want to unwind, though.”

Screw it. I threw the list of reasons not to out.

“Oh, this all can wait. Sure, I’ll go out tonight. Sounds fun!”

This is how I met Summer Mei. I’m still trying to decide if it was the biggest adventure of my life or the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

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