April showers bring May flowers, April showers bring May flowers, thought Melissa as she bent her head into the rain and strode up the street towards her favourite café. But May is a long way off and meanwhile we have these frickin’ showers to put up with.
A penetrating cold went along with the driving rain, and both seemed to suit Melissa’s mood today. It had been a month to the day since she’d finally given Wendell the push, but just because she’d broken up with him didn’t mean she couldn’t mind about it. He’d moved on but that was only because he had someone else in place, ready to go.
Melissa ducked into the café, feeling as gloomy as the lowering storm clouds outside. She ordered the tuna melt this time, and a chocolate milk. She set off with her food towards her usual table but before she could get to it, a tall man in a dark brown raincoat hurried over and set his tray down, almost underneath hers. Irritated, she turned away, scanning the room for another spot.
“I’m sorry,” said the man in the raincoat, and then added, “Do join me, won’t you, Melissa?”
Melissa did a double-take. Did she know this guy? He didn’t look familiar at all. Maybe someone she’d met at some party or other? She gave him a tight-lipped smile, just in case she did know him, and turned away, saying, “That’s all right, thanks. I have a book.”
“Not A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History, for your History 201 course?” said the stranger. Melissa looked at him again and yes, he definitely was a stranger. How did he know about her History 201 course? The book wasn’t even in view; she had it tucked in her purse.
“No,” she said, and began to walk away with more determination than she felt—wondering if instead she should stay and ask this bold weirdo how the hell he knew her name and about her history course. The man in the raincoat rose from the table—her table!—picked up his tray, and followed her. She turned briskly around.
“Do you not want that table?” she asked. “Because I do, if you don’t.” She emphasized the last word.
“You usually sit there, I know,” said the man, standing in front of Melissa. “You like to sit there because you can have your back to the wall and watch for your ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. And there’s this nice convenient fake plant to screen you if they do come in.”
“Excuse me, but how the hell do you know all this stuff about me?” Melissa demanded.
“I have a dossier on you,” the man replied.
“What?!” Melissa didn’t know whether to be angry, or frightened, or both. “Are you–what are you? Are you, like, from the Dean’s office? Or, or CSIS or something? I didn’t do anything. Did I? Why would anyone want a dossier on me?”
The stranger merely smiled and stood, waiting patiently, holding his tray.
“Look,” said Melissa, trying to sound sterner and more in control than she felt, “if you’re not going to tell me what this is all about, will you please just leave me alone so I can eat my lunch in peace?”
“Ah, but it won’t be a peaceful lunch anymore, will it, Melissa?” said the man. “Because even if I leave you alone, now you’ll be wondering about it all, won’t you?”
Enraged by this whole crazy situation as she was—and, if she let herself admit it, a bit scared and creeped-out too—Melissa privately agreed. Walking away now would give her no peace. She gave a short, sharp sigh.
“Okay,” she said, dragging out the “o” and the “a” to let the man know how strange she found the whole situation. “But, as you so astutely observed, I sit with my back to the wall.”
His face lit up as she set down her tray and he quickly moved to sit down opposite her. “I’m so glad you’re staying,” he said, and he did, indeed, seem delighted. “So you’re having the tuna melt? It’s good, but I like the veggie wrap best. That’s what I’m having.”
Freakier and freakier, thought Melissa. Out loud she said, “Okay, about this dossier. Why do you have it and who are you, anyway? Should I know you somehow? What’s your name?”
The man either had not heard, or was choosing to ignore her questions. “I also prefer chocolate milk, but I chose white because it’s better for you. They say you should take on something for Lent, as well as give up something. I gave up alcohol but I took on eating healthy. Are you doing anything for Lent, Melissa?”
It flitted through her head to say, “Yes, I gave up eating lunch with bizarre strangers, but clearly that’s not working out for me today.” Instead she chose to try to drag him back to the topic at hand by asking, “Isn’t that in your little dossier about me?”
He took the bait with surprising swiftness. “It’s not a little dossier,” he said, and for a moment, he looked as annoyed as she felt. He recovered quickly, though, and, smiling again, said, “Go on—ask me something about you.”
Melissa blinked. This was like some sort of first date from hell, or from some alternate reality where all the rules were changed and instead of talking about herself, she had to invite this loony to talk about her, for her. She stared at him for a moment, and in the pause she heard the rain slamming against the café window in a gust of wind.
“I think I just want to eat my lunch,” she whispered.
“Go on,” he said, leaning forward. “Ask me anything. Ask me your favourite colour—orange. Ask me your favourite number—fifteen. Ask me your favourite song—Sometimes When We Touch, but it has to be the Rod Stewart cover.” His eyes were shining. “Your favourite course: philosophy. Your childhood dream: to catch a unicorn—”
“Stop!” Melissa cried. This was ridiculous! Some of the answers were wrong but she now knew where this man had got this amalgam of information. The childhood dream was painfully right, and how it stung, to be betrayed in this way.
“How do you know Wendell?” she asked, the fury and confusion in her piling up on one another until she thought she would explode. The stranger was just sitting there, watching her uneasily now. “WHAT ELSE HAS WENDELL TOLD YOU?” she shouted, half rising from her seat, her voice drowning out the sound of the rain on the window and the murmur of surrounding conversations. Other diners in the café glanced over and then became studiously interested in their own meals.
“Who’s Wendell?” said the man, belatedly.
“How dare you,” Melissa said, her voice back to a whisper. She was glaring at him as she sat down again. The man shifted in his seat and would not look at her. “You can’t pretend to know everything about me and then also pretend you don’t know who Wendell is. You even mentioned him. You said I sit here so I can see if he comes in with his new girlfriend and I can hide from them behind this fake plant. You know a lot less about me than you think, if this famous dossier of yours was compiled with Wendell’s help. I lied to Wendell because I was so sick of his questions, as if knowing my favourite colour was a doorway into who I really am. Did he tell you my favourite food?”
The man scuffled his feet under the table. “Shrimp,” he said.
“Wrong,” said Melissa. “Did he tell you my favourite flower?”
“Roses,” said the man, glancing at her almost furtively before looking down again.
“Wrong,” she said. “Did he tell you—”
“But why did you lie?” the man interrupted. “He was your boyfriend, he loved you! Why did you lie to him?”
“Because I didn’t love him,” said Melissa—too smoothly, she realized, so added, “anymore. Because I knew he didn’t love me anymore either. Because I thought it would be funny to see him try to find fifteen orange roses for me for Valentine’s Day to prove he still cared, even though I knew he would also be finding a dozen roses for her as well at that point. Valentine’s Day also not my favourite day of the year, by the way.”
“But, why?” the man asked again. He seemed wounded.
“Why do you care?” snarled Melissa. “Who the hell are you, anyway? To want to know so much about me? You tell me something about you, how about.”
He looked defeated. “I’m Hank,” he said.
“Like that’s supposed to tell me anything,” Melissa retorted. She had finally gained something in this shifting situation and if she could hold onto it with scorn, she would.
Hank’s face fell. “You mean, Wendell never even mentioned me? I’m his cousin!”
“Oh, Hank,” said Melissa, as comprehension dawned. “The obsessive cousin? The one with OCD?”
“I’m not that bad,” said Hank, and he smiled. “But I do prefer to call it CDO. Keep the letters alphabetical. It’s a joke,” he added.
Melissa was staring at him.
“Okay,” she said, “but that still doesn’t explain why you’d want to keep a dossier on me.”
Hank looked down at his hands where they lay folded in his lap. “Wendell always talked about you so much when he was home, and I saw a picture of you, and then when you guys broke up, well, I thought maybe....” He trailed off.
“You want to go out with me?” Melissa was astonished. “You came all the way from Antigonish to try to go out with me by freaking me out?”
“I thought you’d be impressed by how much I knew,” said Hank. “I thought it would be intriguing and mysterious and draw you in.”
Now Melissa was looking at him in a considering way, and suddenly she said, almost to herself, “Why not?”
“What?” said Hank. “What did you say?”
“Let’s do it,” said Melissa. “Why not? But we’d have to take it slow,” she warned. “You already know so much about me, but I hardly know a thing about you.”
“But that’s not true,” Hank objected. “You told me you lied to Wendell. So I have just as much to find out about you.”
“Well, then,” said Melissa, “here we are, having lunch on our first date. What do you want to know?”
Hank lit up again. “Was it really your childhood dream to catch a unicorn?” he asked.
“No,” said Melissa. “I’d actually always wanted to catch a troll. You know—like under the bridge in Three Billy Goats Gruff? I had a troll trap, and I was going to use unicorn meat for bait. And my favourite day of the year is actually April Fool’s Day.”
“But that’s today,” Hank said.
“So are you fooling, or telling the truth?”
“You’re the expert. You tell me,” Melissa said. She took the first bite of her tuna melt, and glanced out the window as she chewed. There was no sign of Wendell with his new floozy, and it was still raining hard.
Mary Steer’s fiction has short-listed or placed in various contests including the John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Award, the Brilliant Flash Fiction Springtime Writing Contest, and the Elora Writers’ Festival short story contest. Her work has appeared in publications in Canada, the USA, the UK and Ireland. She is working on a novel, but is constantly being seduced by the siren call of flash fiction and short stories. Links to her published work may be found at her website: www.marysteer.com Mary is on Twitter as @marysteerwriter and on Facebook here.
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