Contest #18 shortlist ⭐️

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It was an impulse buy. The blazer on the mannequin caught Celia’s eye from the window of the thrift shop; her feet veered into the doorway before she even had time to think.

The clerk was busy with someone at the check-out counter in the back of the store. Celia looked at her watch and frowned. She could tell that if she waited to ask to try on the blazer, it would make her late to work and not just a few forgivable minutes late, not that her boss ever forgave anything. She hesitated a moment and then squeezed past the rack of purses blocking the display window and clambered awkwardly up to the mannequin.

“Excuse me,” she whispered to the mannequin as she maneuvered the jacket off. She slipped one arm in, then the other, sliding the blazer up to her shoulders. Celia didn’t even need a mirror to know that she loved it and couldn’t leave without it. She looked out the window, where a couple had stopped to stare, and smiled, tossing a small wave at them. Something surged through her, a tingling current that travelled up her spine. That jacket seemed to pulsate with possibility, as if to say, “I’m the one you have been waiting for.”

“Miss, can I help you?” The clerk’s voice held an edge of concerned vigilance.

“Oh, I’m fine,” Celia called out in her most reassuring voice. She must look positively crazy standing next to the partially disrobed mannequin. “I just saw this jacket and knew I had to have it. She shimmied out of the window nook and handed the jacket to the clerk, smiling giddily. “I’m ready to pay now; I need to run to work right after this.”

“Of course.” The clerk gave a tight smile , relieved to be getting a sale but no less wary, and led Celia back to the register. After clicking a few buttons she told Celia the price and accepted the credit card presented to her. “Do you need a bag?”

“Oh, no. If it’s alright with you, I’ll just wear it out.” Celia shrugged back into the jacket, shivering as the tingle started at the base of her neck again.  

Although she had intended to run, or at least jog, once outside, Celia couldn’t find it in herself to rush. She felt the energy of the spring morning with a new keenness. Everything seemed to be coming alive, from the buds on the trees lining the sidewalk to squirrels fighting over which tree was theirs.

Celia whistled a made-up tune and stuck her hands in her pockets, her left hand brushing against a scrap of paper. Pulling the scrap out, she glanced around for a trashcan and diverted her route to one a few feet to her right. It wasn’t until her hand was hovering inside the mouth of the trashcan that she noticed a bit of writing under the fold. Lifting the fold, Celia read the paper.

The stars are within in your grasp, so what are you waiting for?

The edges had additional marks of partial words, as though the scrap had been torn from something larger, but none of the other words were complete enough to be visible. She flipped the paper over, but it was blank on the other side. Celia hesitated with her hand over the trash can, then stuck the scrap back in her pocket and resumed her walk.

What was she waiting for? She thought about her job working as a call center operator for an insurance company, the hours listening to distressed people on the phone while trying to remain untouched by their financial and medical problems. It was a miserable job, and she often fantasized about quitting to help her get through the work day.

 But she had never been able to actually do it, always afraid of the uncertainty of being unemployed—afraid of the risk of finding out she couldn’t cut it at doing what she actually wanted. Staying in a known misery just seemed safer, at least until now. The energy gently flowing along her arms and torso made her feel brave and impatient.  

The stars are within your grasp.

She tried to imagine what it would be like to have the stars at her fingertips.

Up that high, you’d better hope you have wings, a cynical part of her replied.

Celia jumped when a dog started barking, interrupting her thoughts. A golden retriever gamboled over to her, tail wagging furiously.

“Oh, hello.” The pure joy reflected in the dog’s body language was nothing short of infectious. Once again, Celia found herself ignoring the responsible part of herself as she knelt to receive the affection of this new furry friend.

“Sorry, she’s very loving,” the owner at the opposite end of the leash smiled.

“Oh it’s no problem,” Celia laughed. “If I could be interrupted on my way to work with this much joy every day, I would love it. What’s her name?”

“Fiona.” The man smiled warmly. “And I’m Chris . What do you do?”

“I work at an insurance company, but…well I want to be a photographer,” Celia found herself saying with a small jolt of surprise. “I studied photography in college. This was just the job I took to get on my feet after graduating.” She left out the fact that she’d been “getting on her feet” for three years at this point. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this actually.” She smiled apologetically, feeling heat rise into her face. “I guess I’m just feeling my restlessness this morning.”

“I see,” Chris seemed to consider something before reaching into his back pocket. “This is perhaps a bit too serendipitous for me to ignore. I run a small portrait studio in town, and we could use an extra pair of hands.” He pulled out a card from his wallet and handed it to her. “If you wanted to bring a portfolio by sometime, I’d take a look and could maybe offer you some hours.”

Celia took the card, surprise, gratitude, and suspicion all competing to win over control of her tongue. “Thanks,” she finally said.

Seeming to notice her discomfiture, Chris added, “It’s probably not what you had in mind while studying either, but it might be a step closer than where you are right now.”

“It’s a very generous offer.” 

Fiona whined for more attention, and Celia knelt down again in obedience. “Can I ask why you’d want to help me?” She asked, looking up at the man.

“Well,” He shrugged, “I don’t know that I can give a good answer. Maybe because my dog really seems to like you, and I trust her judgment. But if I’m being honest, it’s just a feeling. I get the feeling that we were meant to meet somehow. Do you believe in stuff like that?”

“I don’t really know,” Celia replied.

“I don’t know if I do either, but I hope to hear from you.” He pulled gently on the leash and called to Fiona, “Come on, let’s get going, girl.”

Celia waved as they left. She looked at the card, something stirring inside. Looking up, she caught sight of her reflection in the mirrored glass of a shop front, the star-studded jacket gleaming brightly. Maybe you have wings…

Celia walked the last block to her office building. She was already twenty minutes late. She pushed the elevator button and waited a moment before darting into the stairwell. Jogging up the three flights, she could feel her heart pounding, whether from excitement, anxiety, or exertion she couldn’t fully tell, but by the time she reached the landing of the third floor, she had made up her mind.

She walked into the office, head up, and met her boss’s glowering gaze with a smile.

“Celia, my office,” he barked. “You were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.”

Celia felt the apology on her tongue but held back. “I got held up,” she said instead. “I’m just here to grab my stuff anyway.” She went to her cubicle and began packing up the few knickknacks on her desk.

Her boss followed her over, “What do you mean, grab your stuff?”

Celia paused to look him in the eye. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m quitting.” It’s done now, she thought. Cant’ take it back. Her head was spinning, her pulse pounding. She felt the way she did as a kid when she had peaked over the edge of a railing at the Grand Canyon, the sheer depth of the drop below her making her feel strangely elated under her anxiety.

“You’ve got a shift!”

“I know it’s not the best form to quit without notice, but this is what I need to do.” She shrugged. “It’s not like I’m under contract.” Grabbing her things, she made her way back to the stairway, her spine tingling under the jacket.

“You’re making a mistake,” her boss shouted after her.

Celia looked back at him and smiled squaring her shoulders. “Maybe,” she replied. “I’ll have to find out.”

 

December 06, 2019 18:53

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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