A Redhead Temperament

READ SHORT STORY BELOW (about 1800 words)

“If there were a million ways to accomplish something and no apparent way to fail – I’m the one who would find a way to disappoint.” Seymour paused briefly, but she remained unconvinced. “I’m telling you, I specialize in finding previously unknown ways to screw up. It’s my superpower.”

It was becoming challenging to hide her impatience. “Look, if you don’t want to do it, you could just say no.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I don’t want to ruin your life.”

“Damn you, Seymour! I’ll take the trash out myself!”

Although he would periodically tell her that he didn’t like to cause an upset, he couldn’t help to remain intrigued by the vigorous eruptions from an otherwise diminutive, 24-year-old redhead. But before she completed her outburst, he was already moving towards the door with trash in tow and retorted without looking her way: “Hey. That used to make you laugh.”

Seymour gently positioned his foot to keep the cat inside while quietly closing the apartment door, intending to convey that he wasn’t departing mad. While making his way to the dumpster, he recognized the gag was getting hackneyed and on top of that, she seemed to be having a moody morning. Actually, just as he tossed the trash, he realized that she hadn’t laughed in a while, even when he wasn’t cracking overused jokes.

Back inside, he poured some cereal while she sat across the table, under the spell of her phone. “Look, I get it, that line has lost its punch. But I was just trying to lighten things up.”

She started blurting before looking up: “I’m done. This isn’t working. I’m moving back home.”

Without skipping a beat, “Well, at least the cat will miss me. I feed her more than you do.”

“I mean it this time.” She put her phone down. “And why do you keep calling her ‘the cat’? Her name is Sally Pally!”

They were ten when they met. It wasn’t the first time they had seen each other, since they were on the same school bus, but it was the first time they spoke. Or, technically, it was the first time she spoke to him, since he didn’t get a chance to say anything at all. She bounced herself next to him on the bus and exclaimed, “My name is Tally.” While he was turning his gaze away from the window she abruptly bounced away and took another seat.

He had no interest in girls up to that instant, but afterward, he couldn’t help noticing her and sometimes oddly wondered about the nature of a princess.

“Look…” He paused between spoonfuls of Cheerios. “I promise to reduce my bad jokes by 1% or less.” They had been having these conversations for some time and he learned to take them as nothing more than Tally-melodrama.

“I’ll be moving a few things out today.”

“Well, if you need my help, just say the word and I’ll wrap whatever you want with Christmas paper and some pretty bows and then I’ll help you open them back up later. We’ll pretend they’re gifts. But this time, let’s wrap some of my stuff, too, so we’ll both have presents.”

Within a week or so after she introduced herself, she was standing in front of him while they were getting off the bus at school. He offered an inquisitive, “Hi Tally” before heading to his regular door.

She pushed the Cheerios box aside with her trademark pout. “You don’t take anything seriously.”

“I take hugs seriously and I think you need three.” Usually, around this time in the conversation, she would expound some grievance and then they’d talk some more and all would be good. Often, he wouldn’t even recall what they discussed. But today was different.

“I’m pregnant.”

The first time they had a conversation was when she was walking down the bus aisle and she accidentally dropped her backpack next to him as a group of kids bumped into each other like human dominoes after the last one tripped forward into the group. She was looking the other direction and talking to a friend when she was jolted and lost her bag. He held it up in her direction as she was turning around, as if he had planned the moment (in fact, he had been waiting for any such opportunity). “I can tell you what’s missing — without looking inside.”

She grasped the bag in acceptance and paused with a quizzical look.

“My magic only works if you sit.”

She chuckled and told her friend they’d talk later. The pink bag rested on her lap, with her face expectantly radiant.

Seymour was seldom lost for words. But in this instant, his spoon froze in the air and he looked intently at her as his mind raced to decipher if this was just another over-dramatized prank or something sincere. He had gotten pretty good at reading her over the years but still wasn’t able to ascertain if there was some as yet unidentified nuanced expression that would give things away or if he just felt her intention intuitively.

“Pink bags talk to me.” He looked at her with an impish grin. “Well, at least yours does.”

She smiled and watched.

The bus jerked to another stop and more kids got on making a loud commotion about whether baseball was better than football. But neither the magician nor the princess broke their gaze.

In this instant, he was a living contradiction, juxtaposing his body as a posed statue holding a motionless spoon of Cheerios against his hyper-driven mind and his accelerating attention probing to grasp every hair on her head, the moisture on her lips, any perceptible flicker of her eyelashes, or the tiniest motion of her face. He felt as if he could perceive the blood flowing through her veins in addition to her cells colliding and interchanging on an atomic level, all while penetrating a universe beyond her brown and gray eyes, deeper than he had previously experienced. It was as if he could grasp the invisible strands of some alternate realities of the past, present, and future, whereby anything could happen and everything did, and it was all a matter of awareness and decision.

“Your bag is telling me it’s missing a picture of your future.”

She raised an eyebrow, appearing skeptically amused, at the same time as the discussion of baseball versus football got louder and the conversation passed them by, en route to the back of the bus.

“No worries. I have it right here.” He reached for his shirt pocket.

Sally Pally jumped on the table, spilling some of the Cheerios and milk. Seymour quickly but gently grabbed the gray tabby and placed her up on her favorite kitchen overlook, atop the bookcase and next to the window.

He snatched two playing cards from his shirt with the effortless style of a well-rehearsed performer. Instantly, he moved one to his other hand and held both cards forward. Then he swiftly waved each card in circles over the pink bag with the picture sides down, still unseen by the girl.

Seymour grabbed some paper towels from the kitchen counter and proceeded to clean the spilled milk. He found it odd that he never considered the sound of the ticking clock as loud as right now. Tally’s phone buzzed on the table, but she didn’t move — a rarity. Yet, the buzzing reverberated the very marrow in his bones.

“Pick a card.”

She gingerly retrieved the one on her right.

“Now look at your card and tell me what it is.” He continued to hold the other card in the air.

She turned her card around. “It’s the king of hearts.”

“Very good. Now, your pink bag has been telling me it’s looking for its future match.” He paused. “Can you hear it?”

She chuckled doubtfully, “No.”

“Not a problem at all. Just open the front pocket and the bag will show you.”

“What?” She immediately started laughing when she noticed the tiny corner of a card sticking out of the front pocket of her bag. As she pulled it out she laughed louder. “How did it get there?” And an instant later, “It’s the queen of hearts.”

“It’s been there all along, just waiting for the day its match would appear. And today, you found it.”

She sat back and smiled broadly, “What’s the card you’re holding?”

He turned the card to face the picture towards her. “The jack of hearts helped you find your match.” He deftly placed the card in the front pocket of her pink bag. “Now your bag is happy.” He smiled. “You found its match and provided it a new friend.”

She laughed some more, “Oh, you’re a clever boy, aren’t you? How did you do that?”

A boy from the back exclaimed above the din as if intending to finalize a debate: “Football is better because you get more points!”

While tossing out the milk-saturated paper towels and enduring the loudest clock-ticking he ever heard, the bottom kitchen drawer next to the trash bin caught his attention — just as the ticking inside his head suddenly stopped.

As he was pulling the drawer open he simultaneously recalled an old box of cards he hadn’t seen in a long time — and coincidentally, the edge of a long-lost pack was visible amid a drawer of forgotten clutter. Seymour extricated the carton from some old and tangled computer wires, kitchen appliance instruction pamphlets, and other odds and ends.

Back at the table Tally’s phone had stopped buzzing and she eyed the small box with wariness as he sat back down, but she said nothing.

Even Sally Pally seemed to have some cognizance of the occasion. Instead of staring out the window from atop the bookshelf, she curiously gazed down at her two subjects sitting across a table from each other, as if her feline intuition could sense beyond the mundane tableau and anticipate that a human moment was about to unfold.

Seymour opened the well-used box and started shuffling the deck. It had been a long time, but the tactile sensation and motion of the plastic-coated cards felt as comfortable as if he held them yesterday. The sound of the rapid riffling was like listening to a favorite song that somehow he hadn’t heard in too long. He experienced a mixture of feelings: one part nostalgia; another part puzzlement that the sound could be so long absent; but mostly he felt a familiar aliveness suffusing inside. With nary a care in the world, and confident of a bright future, he presented her the deck: “Pick a card.”

by George Alger


Subscribe to LIMINAL STORIES (free) for more short stories and flash fiction.

more info