Winter holds on in mid-March with a stubborn, icy grip. Despite the bright afternoon sun, the air is crisp. Those meandering through New York’s harbor still dress in layers of thick clothing for warmth.
In the midst of the crowd that has gathered, a young thief breathes into her threadbare gloves, rubs her hands briskly together, and joins the masses to begin her work. Bright coppery curls tucked under a cap are her only distinguishing marker. Pale green eyes hide behind a shadow and her plain clothing helps her melt into the background. Just one poor immigrant in a sea of other immigrants.
Most of these poor souls do not have the money to visit Liberty Island, so they come here instead. Hundreds of unsuspecting victims bundle close while they shuffle along the pier. Many stop to gape in awe at the colossal splendor of the Statue of Liberty.
Just as well, for their diverted attention allows the pickpocket’s careful fingers to work without too many mistakes.
In this line of work, mistakes can be a death sentence.
Within the hour, she has garnered enough money to last her till Sunday, if she is careful. She dares not press her luck for any more. And, anyway, it is foolish to keep too much on her person. Plenty of other thieves to watch out for in this city.
Hiding everything within her full skirts, she slips away from the crowd and begins walking. She daydreams about dinner and the full meal that will fill her belly. She may even splurge just a little and wash it down with a pint of ale.
Someone pushes past her then. The sudden motion pushes her off-balance and jars her back to reality. Heart pounding, she pats her skirts. She hears the quiet jangle of coins from beneath the folds of fabric. Thank goodness.
Now more curious than frantic, she watches the other person, a girl close to her own age – maybe a few years older. The other girl moves swiftly toward the end of the street. A thick mass of people have all but blocked off that side and she stops behind a particularly thick wall of bodies. Her foot taps impatiently while she looks to the left and to the right to find an open path. Her reddish brown hair threatens to pull out of the haphazard bun tied at the nape of her neck.
The thief moves closer. The other girl’s clothes are old, but clean and well taken care of. Even closer now. A silver pocket watch glints in the sunlight at the girl’s waist and catches the thief’s eye. She gasps. That watch could buy her new gloves. Maybe even a new outfit.
Just another step. Almost there.
Fingers brush against skirt fabric. It rustles. The other girl whips around. Fingers wrap around the thief’s neck and without warning she is shoved. Her body trips backward. She slams against a brick wall, the other girl surprisingly strong for her size. The thief feels fingers squeeze against her throat when she struggles. The other girl’s face, now scowling, leans in so close that the thief can feel warm breath on her cheek.
“You picked the wrong target, street rat,” the other girl hisses.
A knife presses into the thief’s side and she stops struggling. She says, “I’m sorry,” in a strangled choke. Tears gather in the corner of her eyes. “Please don’t kill me!”
The other girl rolls her eyes. “Good lord, you are bad at this.” She releases her hold and steps back. A sudden rush of air fills the thief’s lungs and she doubles over and takes several frantic, ragged breaths.
“What’s your name?” the other girl asks.
The burning in her throat makes it hard to form words. “Keelie.” Her voice sounds scratch and foreign to her ears. “Keelie Flynn.”
“Well, Keelie Flynn, I’m Annie McCain.” She holds out her hand. Keelie stares down at it, dubious, before she takes it in her own. “I’m surprised you aren’t starving or in jail, what with that sad little display just now. Though,” she adds, looking Keelie up and down, “you do look a little worse for wear.”
Keelie flushes. “I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.” She turns away – then back again. “Why do ye care?”
“I don’t.” Annie pockets the knife and leans against the brick wall to Keelie’s left. “I just happen to be the best pickpocket in New York City. Wouldn’t mind having an assistant of sorts. I could show you the ropes.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Just a cut of the profits. What do you say?”
Keelie takes a moment to think it over. While a small part of her wants to say no, she is tired. And hungry. And, to be honest, she really is a horrible pickpocket. “Okay, then,” she says. “I’ll do it.”
“Great! Now then,” Annie says with a smirk. “Lesson number one: when you pickpocket a female, always move the skirt with the breeze. Not against.”
Keelie Flynn and Annie McCain are two characters in an upcoming novel collaboration with Heatherlyn Egan. I hope you enjoyed this little preview of the characters! Don’t forget to let me know what you think in the comments below. 🙂
Weathering the Storm is a new-adult short story that I wrote several years ago. Recently, I dusted it off and did some major re-writes. The newly finished version is below for your reading pleasure. I would love to hear your thoughts! 🙂
Weathering the Storm
It was raining again. Those days, it always rained.
She hated it. The gray, dreary weather that had made its home here these past few weeks reminded her too much of her own life: lackluster and a little bit lonely.
Even with the constant threat of wet weather hanging overhead, the sudden downpour surprised her. All morning had been mild, if not pleasant. Recent rain showers left a deep earthy scent where the ground began to open up. The air hung thick and heavy around her. When she stepped outside, it stuck to her skin and hair. Clouds rested overhead, full to nearly bursting, but not the storm clouds she had grown used to. Even the animals came cautiously out of hiding.
It may have been pleasant to start but nature, she decided, was menopausal. It waited to have its little mood swing until she was only a block away from her usual Saturday haunt: a quaint little café just off the front of campus. Hot, muggy air mixed with a cool breeze while she walked. Mere moments later, the sky opened up. While rain hammered at the pavement, soaking her to the bone, she raced down the now deserted street toward the brick building on the corner.
Call her overly optimistic, but she had hoped for a clear sky that day. Just once. Seems like one thing after another went wrong lately. She was running out of ways to cope.
When she neared the entrance, she glanced at the large chalkboard sign that always stood just outside the café to advertise its daily specials. A large awning above kept most of the downpour at bay, but tiny droplets of water escaped through tiny spaces between the panels. They dripped onto the sign and smeared the chalk, rendering many of the words illegible. Wonderful.
At least she had finally found a dry spot. She rolled up her newspaper — a failed umbrella she had grabbed in a hurry a few shops back – and pushed at the door. The blast of cool air felt good on her warm, damp skin. She closed her eyes and stood under the vent for just a moment. The scent of rich, bitter coffee mixed in the air with sugary sweet baked goods fresh out of the oven. Both mouth-watering aromas drifted toward her. She breathed it in and some of the tension in her muscles eased.
Her disheveled appearance drew a few curious stairs. She ignored them. After a brief survey of the room, she picked the emptiest spot and took a seat in one of the plush leather chairs by the windows. Wet clothing clung to her skin. It bunched in odd places and made it difficult to get comfortable. The feel of it bothered her until, unable to stand it any longer, she bent to peel the fabric of her skirt off her thighs and rearrange the crooked hem. After a few failed attempts, she gave up. It felt awkward, but the chair squeaking every time she moved was much worse. Instead, she gathered up a pile of napkins from the dispenser on the table and tried to soak up what water she could.
She really hated the rain.
Satisfied that she had done what she could, she leaned back and stared out at the sodden city landscape, thinking it a miracle that the whole of Manhattan was not underwater. The sewers must have been good for something, after all. She gathered up her hair and squeezed the last of the water from its strands and, fearing the frizzy mess that was to come, pulled it back into a haphazard bun. Wayward strands escaped, anyway.
The waitress sauntered over a few moments later; a tall, long-legged blonde who gave her a sympathetic smile. She flushed, embarrassed, but ignored the pointed stare.
After the ordeal of getting there, she decided to order something fattening and delicious, along with an obnoxiously elaborate coffee – the kind nobody admits to ever ordering (but everyone secretly wants to). “Oh,” she said before the waitress walked away, “and an extra shot of espresso.”
It was going to be that kind of day, she decided.
She stared out the window absently, or tried to. Rain streaked the glass so much that she could only make out blurred shapes on the other side, so she gave up and fiddled with her phone until the food came. Then, after the waitress left, she cupped the tall mug in her hands and brought it up to her lips. She stayed like that for a moment, just letting the warmth seep into her skin while she turned her eyes once again to the large windows in front of her table and let her thoughts drift.
When he came into the café, she almost didn’t recognize him.
She could blame the way the soft music in the background had hypnotized her, or how the dimmed lights played tricks on her eyes. The plain truth, however, was that he simply looked so different. He had cut his hair shorter, no more the long and unruly locks he used to sport. He wore a button-down shirt and pressed denims instead of a faded rocker tee and ripped jeans. He had recently shaved.
But his eyes… those crystal baby blues framed by thick lashes. Those eyes she would know anywhere.
It was natural that he would be the last person she expected to see standing there. Two years had gone by since their senior year of high school. Two years since they last spoke, and the conversation had not ended well. She recalled the shouting, doors slamming, packed bags and a taxi cab, where she went off to college and left everything behind. Including him. At that moment, she had vowed to never speak to him again. She purposely avoided any of his frequent haunts. Every thought of him was pushed far into the back of her mind. As far as she was concerned, he no longer existed. But that moment, seeing him again, made her wonder what made them fall apart. The reasons no longer seemed so important.
Funny how life liked to throw little curve balls now and again.
Her mind snapped out of its trance to catch him shaking off his umbrella and idly observing the room. She watched his gaze move closer, until it rested at last in the direction of her seat. He seemed just as surprised at her presence as she was with his, but quickly regained his composure and proceeded to walk toward her.
“Is this taken?” he asked of the empty seat next to hers. His rich voice melted over her – at least some things had remained the same – and it took her a moment to comprehend what he asked.
She blinked, then shook her head after a moment and motioned for him to sit. The chairs were angled slightly toward each other, giving her a clear view of him, and also no way to hide. The waitress made her rounds, then, and stopped briefly to check on them. He ordered coffee, black.
After the waitress left, he looked over at her and stared a moment. Then an embarrassed laugh escaped. He said, “I’m sorry. It’s just been a long time since…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “How are you?”
She smiled on the surface. Butterflies wreaked havoc on her insides. “Doing all right.” That was a lie. At that moment, she was a nervous wreck. “And you? How is life treating you these days?”
“Oh, I can’t complain,” he replied, leaning back.
Awkward silence ensued, so she took a moment to look him over as he fiddled with the change in his pocket. He did look mostly the same on closer inspection, even the same nervous habit of drumming his fingers on his knee. Yet, it all seemed so different. He was a stranger to her now. She could not think of what to say and it made her heart wrench. Had she changed as well? Did he notice?
Why was he not saying anything?
She spoke up, the silence making her crazy. Motioning to his clothes, she said with a smile, “You clean up well.”
“Thanks. I’m all grown up now,” he said with a hint of humor in his voice. “I hung up my rocker look for business casual.”
“No more band?” she asked in surprise.
He shrugged. “Someone once told me that I needed to get off my ass and do something with my life.”
A flush crept up her neck. Those were her words, said in anger, and they had come back to haunt her. Guilt gathered like a rock in the pit of her stomach. She looked down at her hands.
“She was right.”
Her gaze snapped up to meet his. He smiled thoughtfully, then his gaze turned to the window. “I was floundering,” he said after a moment. “Adrift. It took losing her to make me see that. I quit the band later that summer. Enrolled in the music program at Columbia and started the following spring.”
Words failed her. Could she have really had such an effect on him? Did he really give up on his dreams because of her? That band had been his whole world. A crushing weight settled on her shoulders. Feeling awful, she stared down at the busy pattern on the carpet at her feet.
The harshness in his voice made her look up and meet his intense gaze. “Don’t,” he said again, softening his tone. “I remember that look. You said nothing that I wasn’t already thinking. I was just too stubborn to admit it and it took time to see that. I made my own choices and I’m happy with them.”
He did look happy, she noticed. Much more relaxed than the restless teenager so full of angst. Just then, he grinned and spread his arms. “I’m going to teach music,” he added, and she smiled at his enthusiasm. “Besides, I still play a little. Casually, with some friends at school.”
His words eased her mind. He opened up to her more as he talked, seemed to come alive, and the transformation was breathtaking. He spoke of all he had learned, was still learning. His cheeks dimpled with each smile. When the subject turned to kids he mentored about music, his whole demeanor softened. He really wanted to make a difference in their lives.
With each minute that passed, she felt that undeniable pull that had drawn her to him in high school. When the conversation slowed, part of her dreaded the silence. She smiled at him and said, “Wow, that’s really amazing. I’m proud of you.”
She meant it.
“Enough about me. I’ve completely hijacked this conversation.” He leaned forward and tilted his head, and she felt warm everywhere his gaze touched. He seemed to be memorizing her face. “What about you?” he asked. “How are things?”
She took her turn filling in the gaps of their time apart. Made the dean’s list (again). Had an accounting internship lined up for the summer. Yes, she still kept in touch with her pen pal from France. Then, the conversation dialed down to the required small talk. Her parents were well. His dad retired and moved down to Florida. Her brother joined the military to pay for school. His sister got married. He had no serious relationships. Not while he focused on school. She had one – only slightly serious – but that ended a year ago. That one was nice, but, just not the one.
Just not him, though she kept that thought to herself.
The conversation naturally waned. She checked her watch; a reflex action. Then, they sat in silence for a while, enjoying the atmosphere and their drinks, now slightly cold. Occasionally they turned to one another to make a comment or joke.
She wanted to listen to him talk more, to get lost in the sound of his voice. She tried to think of something else to say, or ask, or do, to spur the conversation. Nothing came to her. She looked around the room, then at him, then down. Suddenly self-conscious of how she looked, she smoothed the fabric of her skirt, played with her hair, sure that it was a mess and her makeup was all smudged.
He said, as if reading her mind, “You look nice, by the way.”
“Nice, or different?” She had no clue where in the world that question came from.
He sat for a moment, thinking. “Different… but nice.” She looked away and suddenly felt his hand on her own. “We all change, you know. That’s life. It’s not always a bad thing.”
She blinked at him, confused, but the waitress interrupted them before she could ask what he meant. He reached for both tabs. “This one is on me,” he said with a smile. She blushed. It seems she did that a lot since he walked through the door.
With no other excuses to spend more time in his company, she reached down for her purse then stood to her feet. He did the same. They stared at each other for a moment before she spoke, breaking the spell. “Thanks for the coffee,” she said.
“My pleasure,” he said. The tone of his voice told her he really meant it.
After a second to gather up the courage, she stood up on tiptoes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, pausing to breathe in his cologne. He still smelled like the ocean. His body froze beneath her hands and broke the spell. She pulled away. A dazed look crossed his face and, embarrassed, she blushed again. “I’m glad we ran into each other,” she said. With reluctance, she turned to head toward the door. Before she had taken a step, his hand reached out and grasped her arm.
He turned her around and she turned her head up to look at him while he searched for words. A moment passed and he cleared his throat. “Listen, my friends and I are playing for this charity event on campus tonight. If you’re interested…”
“Sounds fun,” she answered; too quickly, she thought. Her heart thudded in her ears. Still, she tried to keep her voice calm and could only pray he had not noticed. “I’d love to.”
Those dimples appeared again when he flashed her a smile.
And, did he look a little relieved?
He wrote down the details on a napkin – along with his number, though she never really forgot it – and handed it to her. She took it with a smile and tucked it into her purse for safe keeping. They said their goodbyes again. He held the door for her to step outside first, then they turned to walk in separate directions.
To her surprise, the downpour had stopped. She held a hand out from the awning first, half expecting an illusion that would burst as soon as she stepped out of its safety. No rain. Not even a drizzle. Satisfied, she started walking down the sidewalk toward home. For a moment she watched water run along the curb and down into the sewer drains, leaving the street wet. The asphalt glistened from sunlight that now peeked through the breaking clouds. Birds chirped happily from the small ornamental trees lining the city walk.
Looking up, she spotted a rainbow in the distance and smiled thoughtfully.
The rain, she felt, would not return.
© Danaye L. Shiplett. All rights reserved.
Also available to read on Figment.