I don't own the characters, I just play with them. No copyright infringement intended.
Rory's standing in front of a long shelf lined with breakfast cereals when it happens - a movement in a far corner of her field of vision, a vague alteration, a stir of elements, a faint motion that catches her eye for no apparent reason aside from a subtle change in her inner balance that comes with it. She turns her head instinctively, trying to determine the cause and meaning of this sudden unrest that washes over her. As her eyes focus on that point in space, the huge supermarket shrinks in a second and she ducks to the floor in a heartbeat, frozen still, clutching a box of Coco Pops to her chest.
I could be wrong, she thinks to herself wildly; she must be wrong, because it's just so very unlikely that she's right about this, so unlikely it's borderline impossible. I'm in another country, half-way across the world, it's just a weird trick of the mind, she rationalizes sternly as she gets ready to peer around the shelf again, completely oblivious to the stare that crouching next to the long line of assorted muesli awards her from an old lady that pushes a shopping cart past. She takes a breath and, craning her neck, peeks around the shelf again. Instantly, she knows she's not wrong, even though the angle is bad and the glimpse lasts for barely a second. It's not the hair or the profile, it's not the clothes or the bag over the shoulder, it's the attitude and the posture that dispose of any doubt that she's right, that it's not just her eyes playing tricks on her. She pulls her head back quickly, struggling to process what she's just seen but thoroughly unable to do it, like her brain had just stopped functioning completely and she just gazes into space blankly for a moment before another shopping cart enters her field of vision. This time, the stare that follows it registers; she stands up, drops the Coco Pops into the basket and retreats further down the aisle, fiercely trying to determine her next move as she peers through the shelves, keeping track of the bag and the blue jacket that move down the next isle.
He turns around suddenly and she ducks again; heads around her turn and she can feel people watching. In an attempt to preserve some dignity, she reaches for whatever is in front of her and drops it in her basket before she moves to the end of the aisle quickly and nearly runs into the next one as she watches him turn and walk towards the frozen foods. She follows, careful to stay out of sight, remembering to drop random items into her basket to avoid appearing like a stalker, all the time wondering what to do with this impossible situation, with this impossible choice she's suddenly facing. Just walk away, a voice inside her head says, just walk away and pretend it didn't happen, and she knows it would be the easiest thing to do, not to mention the smartest or the safest or the best in general. She also knows she can't do that, she doesn't want to, and it's scary how quickly she realizes that.
It dawns on her how truly pathetic she is when he turns around again and she crouches behind another shelf and finds herself facing various brands of toilet paper. This is ridiculous, she thinks bitterly and briefly wonders why it's always like this when it comes to him, why is everything always so out of proportion and why she always turns into such a jumbled mess of nerves and conflicted emotions every time he strolls into her life. Just walk away, the voice warns again, and she considers this seriously as she examines the patterns on the toilet paper solemnly. She's not sixteen anymore, she graduated from Yale, she has a job she loves and she's amazing at it, so amazing it landed her where she is today - she should be past this kind of stuff, she should be able to deal with it like a grown-up. She definitely shouldn't be hiding behind a stack of extra fluffy toilet paper, stalking a guy she hadn't seen in over a year. Except that it's not just a guy, she admits to herself resignedly as she stands up slowly and steps out of the aisle, looking around, listening to her heart beat louder with every breath. She can't see him anywhere and this brings a weird sense of relief, and a fleeting thought that maybe he's gone and maybe it's better that way, maybe it's some sort of sign that he just disappeared, a twist of fate that shouldn't be tested. Resisting the temptation to look around for him, she heads towards the cash registers slowly, feeling like she's walking on hot coals every step of the way.
She turns around a wine display and suddenly he's there again, only this time there's no time and no place to hide because he's just too close not to notice the movement, even though he's not looking at her yet. The bottle he's holding has his full attention for the moment, but she knows that will change soon, and she just waits for it to happen and tries to think of what to say when it does. The bottle gets put back on the shelf and he glances at her briefly at first, but a second later, recognition registers on his face and the gaze returns in full force, dark and deep and unsettling. She swallows hard and tries for a smile, but the look in his eyes doesn't change or shift from her face, and even though he's staring, she admits it's a much more normal reaction than her own skulking behind the shelves was.
"It's weird, I know," she says reluctantly and wishes he would smile. He doesn't.
"That's the understatement of the century," he declares calmly, still watching her carefully. She squirms slightly under the penetrating gaze and it bothers her that his eyes betray nothing. It's like he's made of stone.
She points to the frozen pizza in his basket. "Dinner?"
"Yeah," he nods and looks at the pizza; she relaxes a little when the faintest ghost of a smirk forms on his face as he checks out her basket. "And that must be the weirdest collection of items I've ever seen thrown together," he says, raising his eyebrows at her.
She instantly remembers she has no idea what she gathered from the shelves during all that sneaking around and she glimpses at her basket fearfully. The Coco Pops she recognizes, but there's also a bag of Whiskas, a family sized jar of mayonnaise, a nail polish in the most hideous shade of orange, a can of oven cleaner and box-load of disposable razor blades. She closes her eyes and wishes the earth would open up and swallow her whole.
"You know, I can't even decide what to start with," she hears him chuckle. "I don't know what's harder to imagine, you scraping an oven or painting your nails that color. It's like a deeply disturbing cross-over between Lucy and Rosanne."
She's grateful he doesn't mention the razors, or the fact there are enough in that box to shave a yeti completely bald several times over. The smirk is in place when she looks at him again, and he suddenly looks familiar, like a boy she once knew, and she's grateful for that too, although she's still waiting on that smile.
"I'd go with the red," she says and nods towards the wines. "Maybe zinfandel, even though wine wouldn't really be my first choice with pizza."
The smirk fades and he looks at her. "The wine comes after the pizza," he says noncommittally but doesn't look at the bottles again, he just looks at her.
"Right," she nods, feeling bereted, and tries to think of what to say next.
"I can't believe you're here," he says out of the blue. "I mean, if Elvis materialized in front of me or aliens landed in the next aisle, I'd have an easier time believing it."
She shrugs. "Well, you're not alone in that."
"Half way across the world, and here you are." He shakes his head incredulously and suddenly she understands the absence of the smile – he's not happy to see her. She looks at him closely and there's surprise in his face, there's shock even, but there's no joy there, not even a little, and somehow, that hurts.
"What are you doing here?" he asks solemnly.
She wants to say something witty and inconsequential, but she knows from the way he's looking at her that it wouldn't go over well, and more than anything, she wants that look to change into something recognizable, something she caught a brief glimpse of earlier.
"I'm on exchange from my paper for a year," she says simply. "They have a program with the local daily, and it was a great opportunity to experience something different."
He looks surprised. "I thought you were supposed to be following the campaign," he explains, and she wonders how he knows that. "I talk to Luke," he shrugs in response to the unspoken question.
"I did, for a while, but I soon realized I missed having a place to put all my books," she admits plainly. "It turns out I'm not really cut out for the road."
"I guess not," he says ambiguously and he doesn't seem surprised. She actually suspects he knew this about her long before she did.
"What's your excuse?" she asks back, feeling she's entitled to some answers as well.
A swift shadow crosses his face and he shrugs. "Do I really need one?"
The evasiveness is familiar, and as infuriating as it always was. She knows immediately she's not getting an answer. "Fine, don't tell me. I'll make sure I stay up all night guessing, if that's what you were going for, so don't lose any sleep wondering if it worked, because it did."
The smirk appears again but it's more of a reflex than anything else. "Don't forget to make a list," he reminds her graciously. "I'd love to see what you come up with."
"Sure, I'll have it for you first thing in the morning, arranged both alphabetically and by probability. Just let me know where you would like me to drop it off," she retorts bitterly and his eyes narrow. He says nothing and she shakes her head. "Right, that's another secret then, your current place of residence? Sorry, my mistake… Let's see, email, perhaps? That might work, it will allow you to keep all your secrets and there's the added benefit of being able to pretend you never received it if you should choose to ignore me all together."
It's suddenly too familiar, this agitation inside her and the look that develops in his eyes in the face of it, and she knows she's taken it a step too far for just a chance meeting. It's incomprehensible that she feels angry at him for keeping his distance when she knows he has every right to do it after the way she acted when they last saw each other. He didn't deserve what she did then and he doesn't deserve what she's doing now. She doesn't even know why she's doing it again.
He turns away from her and picks out a bottle of red wine. It's not zinfandel, but she chooses to interpret it as a vague peace offering nonetheless.
"So how long have you been here?" he asks casually as he walks down the aisle.
"A little over a month," she replies, careful to match his tone. "Although it seems longer somehow."
"And why is that?"
She shrugs. "I don't know. I haven't met that many people, I guess. I've found some excellent coffee places though, and read more than a few good books, so I'm not really complaining."
"I didn't think you needed people," he challenges carelessly.
"No, that's you. You don't need people," she says calmly. You never really needed anyone, she wants to add but holds her tongue.
He takes a moment to think this over, but eventually he nods his head. "Yeah, I guess I don't," he agrees, but it comes out slightly jaded and she looks at him curiously. There's something more back there but it doesn't show on his face. Very few things do, anyway.
She wants to know how long he's been here as well, is he even here really, or just passing through, and passing through on his way to where, and a hundred other questions she won't ask because he won't answer them, but she is a journalist, and she knows there are many different ways of asking the same question.
"So how come you left Truncheon?" she asks casually, reaching for a box of rice. "You seemed to have a really good thing going there."
"What makes you think I left?" he asks right back.
She shrugs. "Your current location strongly implies that you did."
"Just because I'm here now doesn't mean that I've left," he says simply. "It just means I'm not there right now."
She rolls her eyes in silent frustration. "Okay, I'm doing the best I can with what I've got, and that isn't much. If you would share a bit more information, I promise my conclusions would be significantly less stupid. However, since you clearly have no intention of doing that, you'll just have to suffer through whatever I come up with on my own."
"Wow, I actually forgot how fast you can talk. Or maybe I just repressed it," he says exasperatedly and shakes his head. "I didn't leave Truncheon, I'm… well, on sabbatical, I guess."
"Well, you're looking at me, aren't you?"
He's much too smart not to have understood what she's asking, so he must be doing this intentionally, but she doesn't understand the motive behind it.
"What I meant was – why here," she explains, determined not to fly off the handle again.
He shrugs. "Why not?"
She suddenly feels an impossible urge to punch him in the face. "I give up," she says dismissively. "You win."
"And what did I win, exactly?"
She looks at him furiously. "I don't know, Jess. You tell me – what did you win? Because really, I can't figure it out."
She walks a little faster and gets in line at a cash register, silently reprimanding herself for allowing him to get to her again, and worse even, for letting him know that he did.
"What's with all the hostility?" he asks when he reaches her. She looks at him and, predictably, his face discloses nothing.
"Just forget it," she snaps at him and moves her shopping onto the conveyor belt. As she watches that horrible nail polish and every other insane item travel towards the till slowly, she feels nauseous when she realizes she's about to pay for them all, and for what? She hands the money over and collects her change before she shoves everything into a plastic bag and exits the store quickly. She doesn't turn back, finally deciding to listen to that voice she ignored earlier.
He catches up to her half-way down the street. "So, you're just going to walk away?"
"Yeah, pretty much," she says in a flat voice.
"No goodbye?" he inquires casually.
"No, the hello was scarring enough, thanks," she bites back and walks faster.
"You're being a little melodramatic," he points out as he matches her pace.
"That's me, I'm a real drama queen," she laughs bitterly.
"I seem to remember chasing after you like this once before," he remarks as he sidesteps a streetlamp, and she rounds on him so suddenly that he steps back quickly.
"Don't do that," she warns sternly. "Don't reach back there and taint my memories, I want to keep them as they are. I dearly wish I could somehow erase the fiasco that was tonight but I can't, so I'll have to live with it, but I'm not letting you destroy the rest of it for me."
"Fiasco? There's a big word you don't hear very often," he smirks.
She shakes her head. "Why am I still talking to you? I must be out of my mind." She turns around and starts walking again. He follows without a word, and after a few meters, she stops and faces him again.
"Will you stop following me?"
"How about immediately?"
"No, not immediately."
"Why are you doing this?" she asks, annoyed and agitated and tired of this game. "What is the point? You made it perfectly clear earlier that I'm the last person in the world you wanted to run into in that supermarket, and now you do this insane switch, it doesn't make any sense!" She looks at him exasperatedly. "What do you want?"
"I don't know!" he snaps back. "I didn't exactly plan any of this!"
"Yes, while on the other hand, I woke up this morning and decided to run into you tonight, and have therefore had all day to prepare for the big event!"
"Now you're just being deliberately spiteful," he warns with a frown.
"Well I'm sorry! I left all my good will and lovely manners back there with those numerous attempts to be kind and civil to you while you were busy acting like a royal jackass!"
He rubs his hands over his face. "Can we please stop yelling? My head will split open in a minute," he says imploringly and she bites her tongue and takes a breath, glaring at him.
"Okay, obviously, I didn't handle this very well, but you're the last person I expected to see… not just here, but ever, and seeing you here… well, I still don't know what to do with that," he admits sincerely.
She looks at him and for the first time that night, she gets a glimpse that goes beyond his face and it's chilling because she can tell he really doesn't know how he feels about seeing her again, and it hurts, because she knows exactly how she feels about it.
"It's not that complicated," she shrugs and takes a deep breath as she looks at him. "You either want to see me again or you don't."
He doesn't say anything and they just stand on that corner for a small eternity before she suddenly feels very tired and empty and drained, and realizes she wants to cry, right now, even before he says whatever he decides to say. She can't wait for the words and she doesn't want to hear them now, so she digs inside her bag and pulls out a card.
"Here, my cell phone number is on there," she says quietly as she hands it to him. "I'm leaving now, before either of us makes this worse."
She turns around and walks away quickly, feeling his eyes follow her down the street.
All writers love reviews, good or bad. They are precious insights into our reader's minds. They usually make us try harder. They often make us get better at what we do. They always motivate us to keep going. They show us what we've done well, what we've done badly and what we could have done differently. Ultimately, they make us happy.
Just something to think about :)