by Steven R. Stewart
Steven R. Stewart grew up listening to his dad's ghost stories and never recovered. He attended Uncle Orson's Literary Boot Camp in 2009 and currently lives in Oklahoma in a small house full of girls. This is his first published story.
Mark is making a Greek with extra olives when Shelly walks into the pizza place. She stops in the doorway, clutching her purse to her chest, looking around like she thinks she might be dreaming. She starts to turn, as if to walk out. But Mark has seen her.
For the first time in ten years.
Mark stands with a wad of shredded cheese in his hand, poised to sprinkle it over the pizza. He stares as Shelly fumbles for a cigarette in her purse. The customers have gone quiet in their booths, watching this woman--they can guess who she is--light her cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Mark says. If she hadn’t lit up, he might have gawked at her forever.
She finally looks at him. “Sorry.” She puts the cigarette out. “New rules?”
“We need to talk,” she says.
“Outside?” Shelly points with her lighter. Her hands are shaking.
Mark hangs up his apron. He strides past Shelly and helps one of the automatic doors open with a shove. Shelly follows to the courtyard of the spaceport.
Mark sits on a bench beneath a lighted sign that says “Mark and Shelly’s Pizza.” There is a big red slash through Shelly’s name. Shelly stands across from him and draws on her cigarette like she has been drowning without it. Still lighting them off each other, Mark notices, but she looks good, hasn’t aged a day.
“I don’t know what to say,” she says.
“You need help getting started? How about this: Ten years. Ten years, Shelly. I’ve been making pies, new faces every day, sleeping alone in a crumby, shoebox apartment. I lost the two bedroom; the port downgraded me after you left. And every day, I wake up and you’re still gone.”
Shelly is silent. Two pigeons flutter down from the overhead dome. They pick at the bits of pizza crust that dot the sidewalk.
“So who is he?”
Shelly almost laughs. “Mark, please.”
Mark’s jaw tightens. “Who is he? You guys got kids?”
“Mark, look at me.”
“No.” Mark stands up. “You see that sign? That’s us now. You crossed yourself out when you left. And don’t try to tell me you’ve been sailing solo these last ten--”
“Damn it, you’re going to hear me out on this!”
Shelly takes his face in her hands and forces him to look at her. “Look at me.”
And then he gets it. She hasn’t aged a day.
“I was angry,” she says. “I took those free passes the port gave us. I was going planetside to see my mom. I would have been gone for a few days. Sub-light. No relativity shit. Well, I was crying and snotting all over myself, and I couldn’t read the gate signs. I got on a colony run. I kinda rushed through the gate. My pass was to anywhere, any price, so--”
Mark sits back down and drops his head into his hands. “How long?” he says. “How long has it been for you?”
“Most of it to accelerate and decelerate. I got on the first ship back. And I am back, Mark. I always come back, don’t I?”
“And I’m always here waiting. Every time you decide our life is too much for you, and you take off. I’m always here.” Mark shakes his head.
“I know, baby.”
“I’m going to need some time to sort this out.”
“I know.” Shelly is wearing her sympathetic face. Then Mark tosses her a ring of keys.
“No smoking,” Mark says. “That’s one of the new rules. You can figure out the rest on your own. The new apartment is 8489.”
Shelly stops crying a little too easily and stares at the keys. “Wait--”
“I’ve always wanted to visit a colony. Haven’t had time for a vacation since you left. Short-handed and all that.”
“Mark.” Shelly’s voice is desperate. “I’m here now. You can’t do this to me!”
“If it’s too hard for you,” Mark says, “then leave.”
Shelly acts like she’s been slapped. “But we can start over!”
“I don’t like the idea of you being with an older man. Oh, the couple at table six is waiting on their Greek. Extra olives.”
Shelly stands speechless under the lighted sign, the ring of keys dangling from one finger.
Mark waves as he walks away. “See you in eight weeks. Honey.” He doesn’t look back.
This story was first published on Thursday, September 2nd, 2010
I wrote this story while working security at a local university. I was writing a lot of flash fiction in my down time, staring out the enormous sports center windows that overlooked campus. I had a huge list of story ideas on my computer, and writing little micro stories was the easiest way I knew to cross something off the list and get it out of my head. Years before, when I attended that same university, there had been a pizza place on the outskirts of town with two names on the sign, a man's and a woman's. The woman's name was crossed out in bold, red tape. I often wondered what could have happened between those two people that caused their relationship to end with such a public prank. The thought rolled around in my head for a few years until it was ready to become the story you've just read. I never did find out the real story behind the pizza place and its sign.
- Steven R. Stewart
RATE THIS STORY
Please click to rate this story from 1 (ho-hum) to 7 (excellent!):
Please don't read too much into these ratings. For many reasons, a superior story may not get a superior score.
5.5 Rocket Dragons Average, 6 Median
5.5 Rocket Dragons Average, 6 Median
JOIN MAILING LIST