Still going. I'm probably at about the midpoint now, but we'll see. There are always either more or less words than I anticipate between each natural stopping point. I could just stop mid sentence, but that doesn't seem very reader friendly. So probably 2 more posts, maybe 3 before the conclusion?
The line shuffled forward a few steps and Kaitlin shuffled with them. She was fairly sure that she had forgotten how her knees worked. Was she being awkward? Maybe? Oh god, she was. She absolutely was being the most awkward. All she had to do was walk a few steps and not act like a doofus. Hundreds of times, many hundreds of times, she had stood in this same line in front of this same counter in this same coffee shop waiting for the same low V-neck wearing barista taking his slow ass time. Sometimes she felt tired or irritable, sometimes she felt rushed and overextended, but never awkward. Now she was feeling judgemental and guilty for feeling judgemental. Or maybe she just felt anxious. Did it show? Could Malcolm tell? He totally could. How could he not? Anxious was leaking out of her pores. She pressed her arms a little tighter to her sides so the smell of anxious couldn’t escape from her armpits.
“Busy this morning.”
Malcolm's voice sounded so calm and easy. How could he be so comfortable when she couldn’t remember how to stand like a person. And he smelled so good. Just a simple clean soap smell with maybe a touch of wood, like sawdust. His smell this close to her made her tongue feel dry. How was that fair.
Kaitlin felt the words “Yeah, right?” croak from her throat as she looked up at his face. Malcolm's bright half smile, the deep brown of his cheeks, and those gorgeous almost black almond eyes.
Not. Fair. At. All.
The line shuffled forward again.
“I’m glad you- we- could, you know, finally make it out- get together.” Malcolm sounded a little less smooth just then. Kaitlin could feel her heart slow to a manageable rhythm. At least some part of him might be close to her level. Stumbling over a few words didn’t stop him from being so damned pretty though.
He added “I mean Medicine is demanding, right? Like timewise and workwise.”
“I’m only first year, but yeah I guess so. Engineering can’t be so super easy either.”
Kaitlin could feel her cheeks warming. She just hoped against hope that she didn’t look like a frickin tomato. This was the longest she had ever talked to Malcolm without the buffer of a group of mutual friends. Maggie had told her that she heard from Lane “that if Kaitlin asked Malcolm to go for coffee, that he would for sure say yes”. It was all very junior high, but it still sent Kaitlin’s stomach into backflips. Then she had gone up and asked him at Janice and Dean’s house party, well her and two beers had gone up and asked him. She felt floaty and hadn’t been sure that it was real, but here they were, saturday morning, standing in line for coffee. Together.
“We only have to memorize a few equations. Mostly we just play a lot of basketball” He said, laughing it off and looking up to the menu board.
“Same. Well, except it’s anatomy and tennis for me.”
“Tennis? I tried badminton, but I never played tennis before.”
“We should!” Kaitlin felt her voice jump in volume and she wrestled it back down. “I mean, if you wanted to try it out sometime, I could- I would be happy to teach you” Kaitlin fought off images of long brown legs and short white shorts long enough to close with a weak grin.
“Maybe for a second, or third date?” Malcolm had replaced that half smile with a sly sideways glance.
If she didn’t look like a tomato before, there was no way she didn’t now. That heat had spread from her cheeks to the tips of her ears.
The line shuffled forward and they found themselves in front of the counter. Together.
Captain V-neck barely focused on them, wiped his hands across his ‘Burks’ apron, and tossed off a bored “So what’ll you have?”
Kaitlin was devoting an unreasonable amount of attention to the warm latte in her hands. She studied the tiny puckered pinholes in the lid. The the wisps of steam that drifted up and away into the crisp october air. None of it was interesting in the slightest, but she made a real effort to keep her eyes locked on that lid. People don’t die of nervous embarrassment do they?
They started talking about school, since that was easy neutral territory. They both asked the same simple, customary questions, and gave the same, simple, rote answers. It felt to Kaitlin like they were participating in a conversational ritual with no clear goal, but it was better than the alternative. She was mostly thinking about just sinking into the cracks of the concrete and disappearing entirely. She kept her mouth moving so by the time they had walked the two blocks from the coffee shop to the river path, Kaitlin could feel herself relaxing a bit.
She started to realize how fast she had been walking and slowed enough to take in the orange and yellow crested trees. Malcolm slowed with her.
“It’s pretty down here.” He said, stopping to regard a group of vibrant poplars.
“It’s a nice place to run. Lots of people, but it’s not usually crowded.” It had been weeks since Kaitlin had gone on a proper run, but she wasn’t going to say that out loud. Besides, it wasn’t a lie. She really did like this stretch of the river path. She looked up at Malcolm while he closed his eyes and took a deep breath of cool air. Maybe this was going okay. She hadn’t felt like a complete disaster in at least four minutes. He had laughed at her jokes. That had to be a good sign.
“You live close, right? Maggie said you live on this side of town.”
Kaitlin was startled and felt her eyes involuntarily snap skyward. Had she been staring? Maybe. Did Malcolm catch her staring? Maybe.
“Uh” Kaitlin uttered. Seemed an easy enough question, but it took a second for her brain to change gears and process it. “Um. Yeah. Yeah. We live just over there. Like three blocks from Burks.”
“That’s convenient, for running I mean. I live way east. Past the university. It’s all just copies of the same couple of houses. Nicest place over there is the parks between the ‘burbs.” He smiled as Kaitlin walked her eyes back over to his. She could feel herself smiling back and only a little warm in the cheeks this time.
“I don’t really know much of the city. I just moved here for school.” Kaitlin trailed off. She felt like there was nothing interesting she could add after that, and her smile faded. The last thing she wanted to do was bore Malcolm with small town stories. Of course, he went and asked anyway, because that was the ritual, right?
“Oh yeah? Where are you from?”
They quickly drifted back into that same question/answer pattern, but more relaxed, maybe a bit more sincere.
They strolled past dozens of mid morning joggers and cyclists trying to shake off a week of sitting on their butts. The air was warming as the sun slowly rose in the sky. When they came to a small bend in the river path Kaitlin stopped short to take in the view. Shafts of sunlight were streaming through the trees and tiny spikes of gold formed on the ripples in the river.
“That deserves a picture.” Kaitlin breathed, and slid her phone from her pocket.
“I’ll hold your coffee” Malcolm offered.
She handed him the cup and took a couple quick shots. It seemed like maybe she was missing an opportunity here.
“Want one with us in it? I can send it to you.” She asked
“Yeah. That’s a good idea.”
Kaitlin stepped back off the path and felt the warmth of Malcolm sliding in behind her as he moved into frame. She was starting to hold it together. Only a tiny bit of her felt like sinking into the soil and blending in with the tree roots. He brought his face up beside hers and she tried to get both of them and the trees behind into one balanced photo.
She really didn’t feel like moving though. This was nice, just like this.
“Here you go.” Malcolm brought her cup up into view and she reached for it with her free hand. Her fingers wrapped over his and she looked up at her phone screen just in time to see Malcolm’s beautiful eyes, now fully wide with surprise, slide out of view over her shoulder. She gripped hard as she felt his hand slipping away, both of them crushing the remnants of the latte into warm spray. She felt herself being pulled down by the hand, then the shoulder, then the ground dropped from underneath her. She was being yanked down, butt first, still clinging to Malcolm’s hand. She opened her mouth in panic, but her voice was absent.
Kaitlin’s phone, still locked in selfie position, lit up in her hand. Her ringtone “Yakety Sax” barked out at her. She snapped up to sitting, her spine rigid. She had to detangle her other hand from something to mash at the face of the phone. Instinctively, she answered the call and slapped the phone to speaker mode.
“Hel-wha-Who? What is- Who is this?”
“Please don’t move.” A calm, businesslike voice. Female maybe? The voice echoed like whoever it was, they were speaking to Kaitlin through a culvert.
“What? Why? What?” She felt immobilized from the tongue down. Kaitlin wasn’t sure she could move even if she hadn’t felt scared out of her mind.
“Sorry to interrupt. I was wondering if you might need some help.”
“What?” Kaitlin screamed into the phone.
“Who is that? What-” Malcolm screamed up at her. Or maybe he was screaming at the phone, it was hard to tell. Either way, she flinched when she noticed his face lying right beside her hip. For a second there, she had forgotten that he existed. No, that can’t be right. Some hollow static from the phone cut her off mid thought.
“I’m sorry that I interrupted. I just wanted to know if you might need some assistance. Kaitlin Doyle and Malcolm Aldridge, is it?” The voice on the phone pattered back at her. The sound of Kaitlin’s name caught her attentions. That was something real she could latch onto. “ I just want you to stay put for a second while I access your accounts.”
“What accounts?” Malcolm spluttered.
“What accounts?” Kaitlin parroted.
“If you could just hold on for one second, and again, please try not to move.”
There didn’t seem to be anything Kaitlin could do at the moment. The voice on the phone was saying to stay put. Her legs were in total agreement, so they stayed frozen to the ground. Looking. She could probably look around? That didn’t count as moving right?
So she looked around. Aside from her phone screen there seemed to be a dim red orange light filling the cavern. Okay, cavern! That was a thing! This definitely looked like a cavern. A big one. What else, what else? Stone floor. Smooth stone floor. Tile? Nope. Bigger. Huge stone blocks, mostly smooth with cracks and imperfections. So stone that has worn smooth, not stone that has been machined smooth. Okay. Good, good. Malcolm! There he is. He doesn’t look very calm. Rapid breathing, dilated pupils. Maybe a panic attack? He’s not looking back at Kaitlin. He’s looking straight ahead at something right behind her. What? She turns her head and glances over her shoulder.
Not ready for that yet. What else, what else? Some dirt on the stone floor. Hmm, dirt? So probably not water. What wears stone smooth? Water. But if it were water the stone would be wet and there shouldn’t be dirt. Okay, that’s sorted. She should probably check again. She didn’t really see what she saw, right?
A nice slow turn of the head. Nothing flashy. Just a nice slow glance. Really take it all in.
Yeah. Still there.
“What?” Malcolm whispers the question, but Kaitlin understands every nuance of that one syllable. It’s not just “what am I looking at?” - it is that, but not only that. It’s what to everything. What is this place? What are we doing? What happened? What is happening?
Kaitlin reached out to Malcolm’s hand again. There is no infatuated fumbling. There is no heart stopping, electric moment of contact. She needs an anchor. She can tell by his “What?” that he needs one too. Her fingers mesh with his and she whispers back an answer.
“Yeah. It’s a giant skeleton.”