You, Who Is A Stranger Every Time We Meet

Submitted into Contest #37 in response to: Write a story about someone who keeps coming across the same stranger.... view prompt

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Mystery

The lone barista behind the counter slides Lyra’s regular-sized Frappuccino to her. 

“Here’s your usual with extra whipped cream. Please come again!” The barista flashes a set of braced teeth.

Albeit Lyra has no recollection of visiting this café, she sends her a polite nod and trots toward the seat she reserved using her belongings. Despite the crowd, the opposite chair remains unclaimed. Just Lyra and her medical books. Euphoria.

She places the cup near her pouch, into which she shoves her hand to feel for the sharpies before she notices the colors on the text. 

Ah, right… Everything’s already highlighted.

Her phone vibrates, and she unlocks it – thumb to home button.  

Uncle Ricky: I wired this week’s cash. Be safe. Stick to your routine.

She doesn’t reply.

“Is this seat taken?” A voice as sweet as peaches and as strong as coffee.

Lyra sees a tall boy, twentyish, grinning down at her. She’d have preferred to lie, but she knows the power of her guilty conscience. And lately, guilt has been wearing her down, as if every breath inhaled cost someone else theirs.

Survivor’s guilt, is it?

“No,” she finally says and brings her items closer to give him some space.

“Thanks.” He plucks his beanie from his head to ruffle his caramel-colored hair, dressing the shoulders of his painfully bright yellow sweater with some dandruff.

Under his strong nose lie an espresso and plate of chicken wrap and grilled cheese sandwich. The last – her favorite pick – catches her eye, and she wishes she’d purchased something to munch on.

He notices the gawk, and she instantly returns to her books, fumbling with the pages before burying her face in them. 

“I think I ordered too much,” the guy clears his throat. “Think you can help me finish the sandwich?”

“Uh….”

The primal guideline to avoid murder is to reject strangers’ offerings, but he had just ordered it, so perhaps he didn’t have time to slip in poison?

“I’m Zayden.” An unwanted introduction.

She utters appreciation for the snack through pursed lips and rejoins her study load, but he has other plans.

“Say, uh, Lyra, right?”

She meets his eyes, suspicion seeping into her face.

“Don’t worry, I’m not some weirdo,” he acts as if that diminishes her skepticism. “I saw your name on the first page when you opened your notebook. Anyways, do you fancy Ryan Nixon’s music?”

In fact, he’s Lyra’s most cherished artist.

“I bought tickets for his concert tonight, but my friend bailed. I don’t want it a-wasting.”

Zayden sets off tingly sensations in her mind.

“You don’t have to go with me. Here’s the ticket. You can enjoy it on your own. Plus,” he jerks on his collar to present a logo on the tee underneath, “Gloverton Med School. I’ve seen you around, so we’re not complete strangers.”

The danger signals fluctuate tentatively as she finds the entirety of nature’s life force within his pale green eyes.

“I don’t mind… I guess.”

“Great.” He beams. Wrinkles form around his eyes, and she wonders if his face ever aches.

Then, muteness reigns over them until he finishes his “meal.” She’s completely immersed in her books.

 

“If you wanna go with me, Lyra,” he stands to leave, “I’ll wait near Riverside Plaza’s main entrance – behind the concert hall.”

She picks at the edges of the ticket.

 

Precisely twenty-four minutes later, Lyra begins to long for her bed. She holds her bag open at the edge of the table and uses her forearm to sweep the books and writing utensils in, accidentally knocking off her notebook. It lands face-down on the first page. When she picks it up, she notices a queer detail.

The line dedicated to her name stands empty.

Ah, right, new notebook…

 

***

 

In a boutique situated at the end of her street, Lyra examines a frilly dress that runs marginally below her knees. The letter said it’s her birthday, and the plan constitutes a one-woman party: ordering in and playing some music.

She appraises the details of the dress before someone pries it from her hands.

“Oh, no. That wouldn’t look good on you.”

What a rude invasion of personal space. However, her vexation retires when the employee, casually dressed, simpers innocently. The newly-opened store hadn’t yet gotten around to uniforming the staff. 

“What’s the occasion, Ma’am?”

A woman from the next aisle over eyes the two of them. It’s the same woman who’d judged Lyra for choosing the dress a few seconds back. Is it unsuitable for a twenty-eight-year-old?

“Um… Nothing. Just a… special dinner.”

“Well, if I may,” the employee winks playfully, “I have quite an impeccable taste in women’s fashion.”

Without permission or warning, his hands wrap around her small ones, and he leads her across the store to a different shelf.

“Let’s see…”

He caresses the stubble on his chin as he examines the rack overflowing with items, the hangers on the edge slanting upwards.

“This.” It’s a yellow off-shoulder dress. “Oh, but you –“ His face falls. “What do you think of the color?”

“I don’t like yellow.”

“Right? Reddish is more your type. The dull red.” He goes back to scouting.

Her favorite color.

She gazes at the thoughtful employee. His brows are almost touching, and she sees him grit and release his teeth, the gears revolving in his head. She doesn’t notice the inaudible titter that escapes from her.

 

Half an hour later, Lyra steps out of the trial room for the seventeenth time, adorning her unshapely body with an outfit of his choice. Occasionally, he nodded vigorously, but mostly, he pouted, ran his eyes down on her twice before shooting a rejection. She couldn’t make out a difference; all of them are –

“Ravishing,” he says sometimes, and her heart farts.

Four more outfits. She doesn’t mind the effort as it allows her a glimpse into a potential life of camaraderie. Two weeks following Lyra’s enrollment at her ideal university, she lost her parents. It left her severely void of relationships, academics, dreams, and just about everything else.

 

Outside, a younger employee approaches the man to see if he requires any “assistance picking out clothing for the girlfriend.”

He chortles excitedly at the statement and turns her down, much to her surprise because apparently, she’d “have some trouble.”

A feeling of pride washes over him. Months of shopping with Lyra paid off, and he’s finally able to understand her odd body structure, one that’s neither thin nor fat. She’s just… a mix of different types, which renders it difficult to find clothing that brought out her inner beauty. 

 

From the short-listed dresses, Lyra finalizes two. 

“Um… Thank you.” Lyra tells him after the checkout.

“No worries, Ma’am. Is there anything else you’d like? Jewelry? Make-up? What’s the occasion? Perhaps you’d like to purchase a gift?”

 “It’s um… It’s my birthday, so I don’t need – “

A gasp. An exaggerated one. “Hold up.”

He exchanges a meaningful look with the cashier and reaches over the desk. When he straightens, there’s a small box in his outstretched hand. He handles it with care as if it’s a diamond. Instead, it’s a silver necklace with a butterfly pendant that twinkles under the ceiling light. Simple yet elegant.

“You’re in luck because this is the last one. Our system chooses a few lucky customers, and they receive this item for free. But, since it’s your birthday, we’ll make an exception.”

“Oh, it’s… It’s beautiful, but – “

“No buts.” He drops the item into her bag. “Happy Birthday,” he says.

And she catches something in his eyes before he blinks it away. A feeling of melancholy saturates the air.

“You’ve been very helpful.” Lyra picks at her nails. “How… Is there anything I can do? To thank you?”

The employee glances at a luxurious watch wrapped around his wrist. “My shift’s over in a few minutes, and I have another sur - job later tonight. I could use a boost of energy, so perhaps some coffee?”

She was attempting to go along the line of leaving praise to help with a promotion, but now that she already pulled the lever, she knows the guilt of dismissal would strangle her.

She agrees.

Once she’s out of sight, the employee sighs at the cashier. “Thanks, man.”

The employee hands over his credit card, and the cashier runs it through. He rips out a receipt that reads three times the amount on Lyra’s.

“Signature, please.”

The man picks up the pen from the holder and signs, “Zayden Norwood.”

~

Late, I’m late!

Via text, Uncle Ricky asked to meet. He must’ve come all the way here to get an anniversary gift for his wife.

Upon reaching Riverside Plaza, she bends over, hands on knees, and pants asthmatically. She scans the flock of busy shoppers for a man with pepper hair, thick lips, and a large stomach. Nobody stands out, but there is someone pacing toward her. He looks similar to Uncle Ricky and has an uncanny resemblance to his son Steven.

“Lyra?”

She blinks twice. “Did Uncle Ricky send you?”

His emotions frenzy, transitioning from confusion to doubt to realization until it finally settles on pity.

“Yeah –“ His eyes sharpen. “No, actually. Lyra. I… He…” He composes himself. “Didn’t you read the letter on your door?”

“No… I, uh… I’ve been off because of a… recent accident.”

She didn’t even brush her teeth or hair. Her uncle rarely asks to meet, but since he wired her money the last week, she thought it’d be rude to keep him waiting. So, she slipped on a loose dress over her pajamas and dashed out.

“Accident? Your parents’?”

“How did you…?”

He appears to calm his nerves. “If I recall correctly, there’s a picture of the letter on your phone. You should read it… In a private space. Mom wants to check on you. We’re worried about your income, and since we don’t make enough anymore, we can’t help you. Sorry…”

“You’re not making sense.”

“Lyra, I-I’ve been using my da-your uncle’s phone since he passed a few years ago.”

Her lungs curl up inside her ribcage.

 

On the kitchen counter, Zayden Norwood drains his third espresso to energize himself. Rather than appreciating a day off, he prefers working to blur the memory of his dead patient. A careless mistake, it was, but the management indicted a resident; Zayden’s talent for neurosurgery is irreplaceable. And he shamelessly tagged along because he needed to develop a treatment.

A phone call.

“Hello?” His voice is hoarse. 

“Um…” Gasps. “Uh… Who are you?”

Lyra!

“You’re the one who called.”

“Um… So… Uh… your number’s saved as ‘Uncle Ricky,’ but… who are you?”

He’d told Steven to keep his blasted gap shut and terminate communication with her.  

How am I going to explain everything without stressing her out?

“Ah,” Zayden forces a chuckle. “Lyra, I’m your uncle’s best pal. R-Ryan…” He glanced at his cup, “Espress…wood. What can I do for you?”

“Um… Why… You wire me money every, uh, week, right?”

“Yes. It’s nothing compared to Ricky’s deed. See, he saved my… wife from an accident some years back.”

“You gimme twice as much, and…”

“I earn a lot. Say, would you like to meet?”

Her words are messier than usual, and his doctor-senses quiver.

She didn’t take her shot!

“Where are you now?” Worry tinges his tone. “I’m out with my family, and we’d love for you to join.”

He doesn’t know how he’ll arrange a “family” on such short notice, but Zayden needs her location. The background sounds imply she isn’t home. Being alone at a time like this can go wrong in numerous ways.   

“Mr. Espresswood, I’m s-sorry… I –no. It’s fine.”

“Let’s –“

Beeeeep… It sounds an awful lot like his patient’s cardiac monitor. 

 

Lyra lies on her bed, back slouched, legs extended, and arms drooping to the side.

“Before proceeding,” Lyra’s letter said, “give yourself an injection found in the bedside drawer.” It lessens the blow of stressful discoveries:

Every sunrise, she’s struck with the raw pain of her parents’ death, and then, Uncle Ricky’s. It’s a vicious cycle of grieving that can only be broken by time itself, but Lyra’s clock stopped running around the same time her parents’ heartbeats ceased.

With a memory that resets every 24 hours, healing was impossible. 

A mind that’s only nineteen. A body of a woman in her thirties. The contrast frightened her, and it would only progressively worsen. Her mornings were mysteries, while the nights ended as horror stories. 

Healing’s impossible…

So, with the intention of ending everything, she’d picked up a knife. But, along with it came a message attached via string. “The strength you’ve used to come this far, use it to keep going.”

She’d dropped on all fours and wailed with the ferocity of someone being dismembered alive. The soundproofing of her apartment didn’t matter; she just wanted to release her suffocating fury at the world that was taunting her so mercilessly.

Despite the frustration, she knows the sender of the message is right. On the bed, she glances at the embodiment of her aforementioned strength: a “manual” – 12 books and counting – she crafted for herself over the years.

“Keep track of days on calendar… Mark consumed meals to avoid bingeing… Check all supplies before sleeping… Record days’ events in your diary AT NIGHT. Don’t cry.”

Although she’s the writer, it doesn’t feel so. The Lyra from yesterday, she doesn’t know. The Lyra of tomorrow, she’ll never meet.

Then, there’s the diary, it’s pages crunchy from the dried tears she sheds as she feels the pain, this time, of someone else’s. Of the Zayden Norwood that constantly reappears in her life. Throughout the past decade, he’d helped her through rough patches. They watched movies side-by-side, played basketball, shopped, and fought off a pack of muggers.

All the events she passes off as coincidences turn into meaningful encounters when she returns home to update her diary. By then, it’s too late, and cheating her system of protection to read it in the morning only results in excruciating agony. As now.

Knock knock.

She doesn’t open the door and hopes that if she ignores it long enough, it’ll disappear. Fat chance. The door suddenly opens. A man stumbles in. 

Please be a serial killer…

The visitor, too, looks shocked at the unlocked door. 

“Lyra?” He turns on the lights.

Ah, he must’ve been here before.

“Are you… Zayden?”

His concerned eyes examine her bleary expression before he nods. He nears, hunkers down at the drawer, and rummages through it.

“You didn’t listen to yourself, did you? Your injection numbs everything.”

He knows about that too... But I can’t remember telling him.

“How many times have you done this?”

He stiffens.

“How many times have you had to pretend you don’t know me?”

“Lyra –“

“For how long will you continue?”

He pivots. The untreated acne marks on his cheeks subtract numbers from his age. 

Taking her hands in his, Zayden whispers, “For as long as it takes for me to find a cure. And if I never find one, I’ll relive these moments as many times as there are stars and galaxies in the universe.”

“These hands,” she turns them over, “feel unfamiliar … I don’t know you.”

Anguish makes its way into his face before he smiles it away. She wonders how many times he’s done that in this lifetime.

 

After Zayden’s light meal and a short movie, Lyra heads to bed, telling him to show himself out – her first sentence after hours of silence. Instead, he climbs onto the spot next to her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

“Does this feel like home to you?” She asks.

“Very much.” The low hum of his chest is therapeutic.

“In my head, I’m still nineteen… Lying down with a thirty-five-year-old, it’s weird.”

“Give it some time.”

As she does, Zayden patiently answers a thousand queries. First encounter? On the day she left medical school, she’d crashed into his bicycle.

Why continue to see her? Because he adores her. How come? He observed her stagger through the same despair repeatedly and wanted to make her smile. Soon enough, he wanted to do more than just that. 

Why stay despite knowing that he remains an unsolved mystery to her? Because he likes to add a little joy to her life. Has he ever desired more than these superficial “first” meetings? Countless times, because with her life being stale, there’s only so much progress he can do on his own. Yet, the thought that his actions result in slight elevation of Lyra’s misery drives away the longing to move on.

 

It’s four a.m., and drowsiness begins to greet. He pulls her up, her head on his shoulder now. The discomfort had petered, and she can’t decide whether to feel relieved or disgusted with herself.

She murmurs, “How many stars and galaxies are there?” Her blinks slow down to match the running speed of a snail.

“Even if I run out, I’ll find a way to make some.”

“You can’t create galaxies, silly.” Her eyes are closed. She appears blissful.  

He pats the blanket to secure her warmth.

“This is the first time you calmed down without the shot. Progress,” he approves.

Progress? But, we’ll return to square one tomorrow when I wake up.

Or maybe in a few hours. She never tested it. Or perhaps she did but hadn’t recorded it.   

“Will you be here when I wake up?” 

“Of course.” His breath kisses her forehead.

“I’ll forget you…”

“But, I won’t, and that’s enough.”

She doesn’t respond, so he stares at her a little longer before finally succumbing to his sleep. He doesn’t cry.

~

The next morning, Lyra sits up groggily after kicking the blanket away aggressively. Her eyes are sore. Rub, rub, then stretch. Her wrist knocks against something, so she cranes her neck to check. 

Next to her, a stranger sleeps.

April 17, 2020 17:58

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2 comments

Hayley Igarashi
19:36 Apr 26, 2020

"A mind that’s only nineteen. A body of a woman in her thirties. The contrast frightened her, and it would only progressively worsen. Her mornings were mysteries, while the nights ended as horror stories." I loved every second of this, Em. As someone who watched 50 First Dates and couldn't quite shake how horrifying it would be to suddenly wake up older (and pregnant!), I think you did a truly excellent job of showing how heartbreaking and aggravating it would be to age in this way. And a pitch perfect last line. I always like a little bi...

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Em P.W.
14:01 Sep 20, 2020

First off, I'm extremely sorry about the late response. Things haven't been all that great, and I decided to take a break from writing. I logged back in to see if I'm up to writing again, and I'm absolutely delighted to see your comment. Thank you for your kind words which suddenly became so much more: I feel motivated enough to open up a document and type away. Thank you, Hayley. :D

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