He wasn't her best friend. He wasn't the big man on campus. They didn't know one another and had never seen each other before. He was just a boy and she was a girl, meeting by chance over a bowl of fruit salad and a disagreement about Sylvia Plath.
It was February 17th and fifty-five degrees outside. For Chicago, this was very unusual and all of the snow on the ground, mounds several feet high from the Great Chicago Blizzard of 2011, was melting, leaving large puddles of water and slush for people to hop over as they streamed outside to experience yet another strange weather phenomenon. The sun wasn't shining and the sky was overcast, probably bringing rain later that afternoon. But no one cared about that now as they shed their heavy winter coats, allowing themselves to be bitten with a spring bug that would more than likely be snuffed out when this warm wave disappeared and the brutal winter weather returned.
For that reason, the small coffee shop was nearly empty, no one wanting to linger indoors, and Charlie didn't have to be at work that day. An unexpected discovery of a mouse nest in the storage room the day before, a seemingly dozens of mice scurrying across the floors, had given the employees a welcome day off as the infestation was seen to. Charlie went to the coffee shop as she did every morning on the way to the salon but this time, she was armed with several books, prepared to spend the day with some lazy reading. She ordered her usual cup of hot chocolate along with a small bowl of fresh fruit and a croissant still warm from the oven in the back kitchen and then with her hands and arms full with her goods, she turned and went to claim an overstuffed red armchair in the front corner by the large plate glass windows for herself for the next few hours.
She shed her red coat but left her scarf wrapped around her neck and sitting down, she picked up the croissant from the small round table in front of her first. Buttery flakes glistened on her fingers as she ate and sat sideways, tucked into the chair, her knees drawn to her chest and her eyes watching the people outside. She didn't believe in things like perfect days – perfect was a figment of the imagination – but if there was such a thing, Charlie suspected that this day would be the winner. She didn't see herself as the clichéd bookworm like she was sure she looked like – silent with a stack of books in front of her instead of outside, enjoying the day. She had friends and they went out on occasional nights for drinks and she wasn't necessarily against talking to people she didn't know. But like everyone else, she enjoyed quiet moments to herself, especially when she read. She loved to read and had ever since she was a little girl and her mother, a librarian, used to take her to work with her.
And unlike her friends who always seemed hopping from one relationship to another, Charlie preferred her own company.
As if he had the ability to read her thoughts, a man suddenly appeared at the green sofa across the small table from her, a paper cup of his own drink in one hand and a book in his other. "I hate that book," he then declared bluntly and Charlie's head whipped up to look at the intruder, her eyes widening with surprise. He was grinning and he then motioned his head towards the top book on the small pile she had brought with her.
Her wide eyes narrowed almost defensively and her back stiffened. "How can you hate The Bell Jar?" She wondered.
He kept grinning. "Very easily."
"Well, what are you reading?" She asked, swinging her legs back around, facing him. He didn't answer. He simply held up the front cover towards her as he plopped down, comfortably and casually, on the couch across from her as if this had been planned even though she had never seen him before. She made a face and he laughed into his coffee.
"Not a fan?" He asked.
"I hate that book," she echoed his previous statement. "You have a lot of courage to insult Sylvia Plath while holding that in your hands."
"So do you hate Holden Caulfield or J.D. Salinger?" He asked and it was obvious that he was enjoying every second of this conversation.
"Oh, how could I possibly choose?" She asked, unwrapping her plastic fork from its packaging and he laughed.
She speared a piece of kiwi and chewed on it, taking a moment to look at the strange young man sitting across from her. He was watching her as well, seeming to be doing the same thing. He was tall and thin – wiry almost – with pale skin, square jaw, dark brown eyes and equally dark brown hair that was sticking up in some spots as if he constantly ran his hands through it. He was handsome in a way that she couldn't put her finger on. It wasn't conventional good looks. Perhaps that was why he was handsome – because he didn't look like every other man walking down the street. He wore blue jeans and scuffed Puma sneakers on his feet and a plain dark green hooded sweatshirt.
"What's your name and why are you sitting here?" Charlie then asked, this time, piercing a piece of watermelon with her fork but she didn't bring it to her mouth.
His lips twitched in a smile. "This couch is comfortable and I usually always sit here when I come. It's not my fault that you sat in my area," he answered.
"I was here first and the place is practically empty. You could sit anywhere," she gestured to the nearly empty coffee shop around them.
"What, are you five? I was here first?" He teased and she rolled her eyes. He suddenly then leaned forward, thrusting his hand out towards her. "I'm Milo."
She smiled, shaking his hand. "I'm Charlie."
"That's a boy's name," he continued to tease with a grin. He had nice teeth, she noted.
"I've never heard that before," she quipped. "Just like I'm sure you've never heard that you have a dog's name." He laughed at that and leaning back into the couch, he sipped at his coffee. "And it's short for Charlotte," she then explained though she wasn't sure why.
"You don't like Charlotte?" He asked.
She shrugged, pausing to answer as she chewed on the piece of watermelon. "It's fine. It's a family name. I've just never felt like a Charlotte." She paused and then shook her head slightly. "And I have no idea why I just told you that."
Milo kept smiling. "My name was supposed to be Miles," he said. "But the nurse who typed up the birth certificate, her fingers slipped and when she showed my parents, they realized that they liked Milo more anyway."
Charlie stared at him, wondering if he was serious and even though he was smiling, she knew he was and she felt her mouth fall open. "Seriously?" She still felt the need to ask.
"Seriously," he nodded, smiling, and then he leaned forward, sliding his book onto the table next to her stack. He then began looking through the ones she had bought. "Well, besides the top one, these others aren't bad."
"I'm so happy to have your approval," she sighed. "Why do you hate Sylvia Plath?"
"I wouldn't say I hate her. I mean, I understand how important she was to feminist writing and I do enjoy her poetry but… come on. The Bell Jar? If you want to write a novel about depression and suicide, if you want to write a novel about yourself, at least make Ester Greenwood a little more sympathetic. Honestly, reading that, I could have cared less about her. I found it all to be juvenile."
Again, she felt her mouth fall open. Milo looked at her, seeing her reaction to his words, and he shrugged. "I… wow," she then said, slightly in shock. "You're criticizing a character about being juvenile while possessing a copy of The Catcher in the Rye."
Milo looked at her curiously for a moment, a pull between his brows and at one corner of his mouth, his lips tugged upwards. He tilted his head slightly to the side. "Have I offended you?" He wondered.
"A little bit, yeah," she answered truthfully, nodding her head. She had no idea why though. She enjoyed Sylvia Plath, yes, but she wasn't her favorite author in the world. Maybe it was because her mother had always loved her so much.
"I'm sorry," he instantly apologized and it sounded completely genuine.
"No," she quickly said. "It's fine. At least you have an actual opinion about this. It's… refreshing." She then took a sip from her mug of hot chocolate that she had nearly forgotten about. Milo reached over and snatched a grape from her fruit salad and she automatically, almost instinctively, slapped his hand. "Okay. That offends me. I don't even know you. Where have your hands been?" She frowned at him.
Milo grinned. "Do you really want to know?" Charlie's face screwed up in an expression of disgust and it made him laugh. "I'm kidding. I'm kidding." He held up his hands for her to see. "See? They're very dry because I'm always washing them," he informed her.
She took another cautious sip of hot chocolate though it was no longer and was even hardly lukewarm. "You need moisturizing lotion then. Here," she turned and lifted her messenger bag from where she had rested it on the floor next to the chair. Digging around for a minute, she then pulled out a small bottle, flipping the cap open. "Hands, please."
He paused but then with a smirk, he shrugged as if saying What the hell? and stuck his hands out towards her. "It doesn't smell… girly, does it?" He asked as she squirted a dime size drop into one of his palms.
Yes," she nodded without missing a beat. "In fact, that's what the scent on the bottle is labeled. Girly," she said. She then smiled. "It smells like lotion, Milo. Now rub it in. For living in Chicago, you should know to take care of your hands in the winter." He smiled but said nothing as he lathered the lotion in his hands. "Here, don't forget in between your fingers. For me, that's where they get the driest." And then before she could stop herself, she reached across the table, taking his hands and she began to glide the lotion in between his fingers. She could feel him staring at her.
"This is oddly erotic," he commented and she sighed.
"Let's not ruin it by you speaking," she said making him grin. She could feel his eyes studying her closely and she lifted her own eyes to meet his. "I'm not usually like this," she shook her head.
"I like it," Milo assured her and she wondered if it should have worried her that he seemed to know exactly what she was talking about. "You're annoyed with me."
She smiled, pulling her hands back from his. She picked up her plastic fork and stabbed a blueberry. "Well, I won't deny that but I like to look at it as… pleasantly perturbed."
He laughed and then picked up his coffee cup but he didn't take a sip. "Why aren't you outside with the rest of the city? It's not every day that it's fifty degrees in February."
"It scares me," she admitted, turning her head to look out the large window. "The warm weather like this. Whenever you hear people talk about the blizzard of '67, they always remember how warm it was the day before the snow came."
"We already had a blizzard this year. They didn't plow my alley for a week," Milo said.
"Yes, I heard that when a city gets too much snow, the Winter Man checks them off a list and moves onto the next one," she said with a placating smile.
He blinked at her and then a slow smile crept across his face. "The Winter Man?"
"The man in charge of winter," she said matter-of-factly and his smile kept growing.
"And what about Punxsutawney Phil?" He questioned. "He didn't see his shadow this year. That means spring is coming early."
"Yes, I always listen to a groundhog for my weather," she responded dryly.
Milo snorted into his cup of coffee. "No, you just follow a fictitious winter man."
Charlie smiled because she knew that this was probably the most random, most unexpected conversation she had ever had in her life. And she was enjoying herself immensely. She wasn't a shy girl. She had never had problems striking up conversations with people she didn't know. It used to drive her parents – her father more than her mom – crazy, the way she would just walk up to complete strangers and start talking with them. More times than not, riding the 'L' train, her dad would gently place a hand over her mouth so she wouldn't start a conversation with the person sitting next to them. People who lived in the city liked to keep to themselves; never talking to strangers, never making eye contact. And when Charlie grew older, she understood why. It was a way to keep themselves safe. Eventually, she grew out of talking to anyone she saw but she still had the occasional conversation with a complete stranger – mostly when she went out to the bar with her friends and a man started talking to her, trying to flirt with her.
She didn't feel like she was flirting with Milo, though. She felt as if they were just talking. It was very relaxed and she wasn't angry that he had randomly decided to intrude upon her planned self-imposed solitude of the morning.
"Why did you sit here?" She couldn't help but ask.
"I told you," Milo shrugged, reaching for another grape from the bowl. This time, she didn't slap his hand away. "I usually always sit here when I come. And your coat caught my attention."
"My coat?" Charlie frowned, looking at the mentioned coat as it draped over the arm of the chair. It was a red hooded coat, knee-length with toggles. It was her favorite coat. Her mother had given it to her two years ago. It was the last thing she had ever given her.
"It's a Little Red Riding Hood coat," Milo smiled.
She laughed. "That's why you sat here?" He didn't answer but he kept smiling. "You're very interesting," she then told him. "Not like most guys."
"Or maybe you're just hanging around the wrong guys. Many of us are interesting."
"And many of you aren't," she smiled.
"Well, then, today's your lucky day then," he teased. "Getting to meet me and all." He turned her stack of books towards him so he could read the title on the spine of each one. "Someone loves to read," he noted as all the books were well-read and well-loved, the spines cracked dozens of times and some of the pages loose from being opened often.
"They were my mother's who passed them down to me," Charlie answered before taking a sip of her now cold hot chocolate.
She set it aside and watched him. Her heart seized in her chest when he carefully pulled a slim volume out from the middle of the stack and looked at the front cover: Charlotte, Sweet Charlotte: the Complete Poems of Sabrina Close. He gazed at the front for a few minutes before turning it over and looking at the back. It was as if it happened in slow motion. She watched as he looked at the small black and white picture of the poetess and then read the very brief biography. She could see his body still and then slowly, Milo lifted his eyes and looked at her.
"Charlotte…" he then said, glancing down at the title of the book again for just a second before looking at her again. "Sabrina Close is your mother," he then concluded.
"Well, she was," Charlie shrugged, trying to be nonchalant about the whole thing but even after two years, she still had no idea how to react when people made the connection.
"Right, was," he shifted almost uncomfortably at his slip. "I'm sorry," he added softly.
"It's alright," she stabbed a piece of pineapple with her fork but she didn't bring it to her mouth. "Well," she paused. "I mean, it's not alright but… what can you do?" She turned her head to look out the window and she could feel his eyes on her, watching her.
"We studied her in my college English courses," Milo said, leaning back in the couch, bringing the book of poems with him. "She was one of the few that we studied that I could actually stand."
A smile cracked across her pursed lips. "I'm sure she would have appreciated that."
Milo opened the book and then flipped a couple of pages. It was Charlie's turn to watch him. "Charlotte, sweet Charlotte," he began to read out loud. "With your pale blonde hair and large brown eyes I always felt should have been blue, with your teasing smile as if you were telling a joke that no one else understood. I never wanted you-"
"Please don't," Charlie shook her head quickly and Milo lifted his head to look at her, an almost curious gaze in his eyes. "I hate that poem."
"It's her most famous though," he told her as if she had no idea. "And it's about you-"
"I hate that poem," she repeated with no other explanation. She finally bit into the piece of pineapple still on her fork. "What do you do, Milo, besides stalk unsuspecting women in red coats?"
Milo grinned at that and their moment of awkwardness had passed. He returned the book of poems to her pile on the table. "I'm a capturer of death as my sister likes to say." And then at Charlie's confused look, he laughed slightly. "I'm a crime-scene photographer."
"Oh!" She laughed slightly. "How did that happen?"
"I always liked photography. Loved it, in fact, but after college, the only jobs I could find without allowing myself to starve to death as the stereotypical struggling artist were at those god-awful department store photo studios. One day…" he shook his head. "It's kind of morbid. You might not like it."
"Did you kill someone and then take their picture?" Charlie asked.
"No," he nearly frowned but she smiled.
"Then tell me," she said.
He took a deep breath. "Last year, there was a woman and it was her wedding day and in her white dress, she dove from Water Tower Place…"
"I remember that," Charlie nearly shivered. "I work in a hair salon just a block away and the screaming and the sirens… you were there?"
"I took the picture," he admitted. "The one of her on the car. I don't know why I did. She just looked so… ethereal. There was almost a smile on her face and I couldn't stop myself. I took her picture."
"I remember," she said again. "So many people were complaining when the papers ran it on the front page."
Milo nodded and he picked at an invisible piece of lint on his jeans. "My dad's a Chicago cop and the department decided to hire me since their previous photographer had retired. I've had the job ever since."
"And you show up to crime scenes and photograph everything?" She asked and he nodded. "You have one of those invisible jobs," she then smiled.
"Invisible jobs? Thank you," he laughed slightly.
"You have one of those jobs that people never think about but obviously, people have them. Like… fork lifts. You see them in stores and in factories and you never think about it but there are people out there who sell the fork lifts to the businesses. Same with light bulbs. There are light bulb salespeople all over the country, lighting this place up," Charlie explained and she noticed the smile tugging at his mouth. "And in the movies, when the detectives are about to break a case and they go through all of the crime scene photos, well someone had to have taken all of those photos in the first place."
"I can honestly say that I've never thought of it that way," Milo said.
Charlie smiled. "My dad says that I think too much about things like that."
He shrugged. "It's better than not thinking at all. You mentioned a salon…"
"Yes, I know. The daughter of acclaimed poet Sabrina Close is a hair stylist."
"What's wrong with that?" Milo asked curiously.
"People just don't expect it. When they find out who my mother was, they expect me to be a writer or a poet or an artist. Something more like her."
"Well, cutting people's hair, that's art, isn't it?"
"I just, I love cutting people's hair. It's so funny but when they're in my chair and I'm finished, they'll look at themselves and give themselves their 'mirror face'," she then turned slightly in her seat and Milo grinned as she attempted a sexy pose with narrowed eyes and pouted lips. "And they just feel so good and happy because they look good. It's kind of rush to know that I helped them feel like that. I love it." Charlie grew quiet and then shook her head slightly. "My mother never understood it. She felt I was wasting my life. She wanted me to be like her. So did a lot of people."
They were quiet after that. Milo sipped his coffee and Charlie finished up her fruit salad, pushing the bowl towards him. He smiled when he saw she had left him all of her grapes. As he popped one into his mouth, his cell phone began to buzz with the announcement of a new text message and he pulled it from his pocket, flipping it open to read.
He sighed. "I have to go. Work…"
She nodded, giving him a smile, hoping that she could hide the disappointment she knew to be in her eyes. He stood up with his book and cup of coffee but he lingered, not walking away. She tilted her head to look up at him.
"I want to see you again," he then said quite bluntly.
This time, she knew she couldn't hide her surprise. "Really?"
"We still have to talk about why you hate this," he held up The Catcher in the Rye and he smiled as she laughed. "Will you be here again?"
Charlie opened her mouth to tell him the time she usually was here in the mornings before work but she changed her mind. "I'm sure you can find me again if you want. After all, you found me today, didn't you?"
He nodded, smiling with amusement. "I'm a firm believer in luck."
"Well, I'm hoping that luck strikes twice then," she smiled. "Have a good day, Milo."
"You, too, Charlie," he said and then left the coffee shop, the bell tinkling above the door to announce his exit.
She exhaled a deep breath, still smiling, her heart beating wilding at the base of her throat, and turning her head towards the window, she could see him walking down the sidewalk and she tried to watch him for a long as she could before he became lost amongst the other pedestrians.
"You're an idiot," she then muttered to herself. She shook her head and ran her fingers through the long, pale blonde hair that her mother had spoken about in the poem. "A complete and utter idiot."
She saw the grapes still sitting in the bottom of her bowl and she pushed it away before standing up, slipping on her red coat and gathering her books. She no longer felt like staying here for the day.
A/N: Character pictures are on my profile. I can't decide if this will be a one-shot or something more.
PS - I've been away from FP, and original stories, for a while now so it would mean a lot to me if you would review if you took the time to read. Thank you!