This story is by S.J. Siedenburg and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Her pen scratched on paper. Laura looked up for a moment with a stressed forehead, then returned to her open notebook. She had half a sentence written, but she was stuck on how to finish it. Laura dropped her pen in the sloped binding of her notebook and wrapped her hands around a warm mug of latte. She rubbed the smooth ceramic with her thumbs and tried forming the opening sentence for her new article in her head.
The small bakery was certainly the perfect place to write about. The small independent shop was situated downtown near the marina within a hub of apartments. The decoration was retro-chic, complete with a record player and vinyl collection.
The bakery’s glass door opened and a cool spring air drifted in carrying the bakery’s smells of fresh baked bread, sweets, and roasted coffee beans to Laura. A small girl with her attentive mother had entered, and the girl’s eyes widened when she saw all the treats. At the counter she pointed to the glass cases and rose to her tip toes for a better look.
The mother paid for the girl’s cookie, and the two sat down at a far table. How pleasant they looked. How radiant their smiles were. Laura thought the girl’s name should’ve been Joy. Life seemed so bright in her eyes, so simple.
A pop sounded behind Laura and she flinched. Someone had set the needle to a vinyl record and a rock ballad began to play. She readjusted in her seat and rubbed the ceramic some more.
If only she could feel that joy again. She had only yesterday, but sometime in the night it got up and left without a reason. How happiness could change to anxiety in a few short hours was beyond her.
She rubbed her mug again.
Out of the window Laura saw a young woman with rich red hair approach. She entered the bakery, and after a moment of searching the shop, she set eyes on Laura and tossed her a white smile.
Laura stood. “Hi, Shane! How are you?”
The woman took her into a tight hug. “Good! You?”
Laura hesitated a moment. “Um—Fine.”
They stood back and Laura returned her happy expression.
“It’s been too long!”
“I’ll go order and then we’ll catch up.”
“Alright.” Shane turned away and Laura returned to sitting. It was good to see Shane again. She was always bubbly and honest. So many people weren’t. She wasn’t.
Another pop sounded behind her and she flinched. Laura took a deep breath.
Shane returned with a mug of coffee and a warm croissant on a plate.
“How’s lifestyle journalism going?” She brought her chair close to the table.
“Going well.” Laura smiled and tapped her notebook. “This place will be a winner. How’s teaching?”
“Kids are kids.” She smiled and took a drink of coffee. “I have some tough ones in my class this year, but the sweet ones make up for it.” She looked so content.
Another pop. The flinch. Laura caught sight of the mom and daughter leaving in smiles. More customers entered—the afternoon rush for coffee in to-go cups. More noise. More people. Shane talked on and Laura struggled to comprehend. She tried to gather her thoughts, but they ran through her mind too fast. Her breath became stuck halfway in her lungs. Her pulse rose and her face flushed. She couldn’t manage herself. She wanted to leave, and she was guilty for wanting to.
“I’ll be right back. I need to go to the restroom.” Laura smiled and pushed back her chair.
Shane kindly excused her and ate a piece of her croissant.
Laura kept her head low and wove through the customer line to the restroom, fighting to hold in tears.
The room was unoccupied and Laura entered timidly. With the door shut the intense noise dulled.
Laura checked herself in the mirror. Her eyes were too red. Laura focused on breathing: four counts in, six counts out; four counts in, six counts out.
She pulled a brown paper towel from the dispenser and put it to her bottom lashes to soak up the liquid brimming at her eyes.
She was frustrated. Nothing had gone wrong that day—nothing worth crying over—yet there she was, in the middle of a pleasant get-together with a friend, unable to breath. The day was as bright as yesterday, and how she wished she could go back to yesterday.
Laura took in more breaths, monitoring the redness of her eyes and face.
Slowly the tears retreated. She grabbed a concealer stick from her purse and ran a streak at the bottom of her eyes and at the sides. She had done this procedure many times. With careful application the red would become less blatant and the rest would recede peacefully.
There: She looked alright. In a few minutes her eyes would be better. Her breathing had calmed considerably, and her pulse had slowed to a trot.
“You got this girl,” Laura said to the woman in the mirror. “You got this. You’re good. All good.”
She tried a smile. Her breath caught. No, she was okay.
Shane was waiting outside; she needed to go. Would Shane notice something was wrong? Well, there wasn’t much else Laura could do. Laura reached for the handle.
The door released the raw sounds, but the customer line had gone down considerably and more space had been made for air.
Laura found her table and rejoined Shane with a bright smile.
The conversation ensued again with the standard subjects of careers, family, entertainment, and men. She neared breaking a few times, but she managed to hold it in. She fidgeted with her mug and smiled.
There was laughing and talking, and Laura enjoyed herself. She had a wonderful chat.
When the coffee and food was all eaten they left together. As Shane climbed into her gray car she promised to text over some dates for more outings, and with a final flourishing smile, she drove away, leaving Laura on the shadowy sidewalk.
Laura stood still a moment facing the moving traffic. She wished she had appreciated the time more. What she had enjoyed seemed too blurred by her preoccupations. But time couldn’t be recalled.
The sun had fallen below the tops of the buildings—it was late afternoon. A couple blocks over she remembered there was an artsy park. The air seemed too fresh to leave just yet, so she began walking.
Laura walked through streaks of sun and shadow. Seagull calls echoed through the blue sky. The scent of spring flowers graced the air as it brushed past her.
The park came along, and Laura’s mind was blank for most of the walk, but the park regained her consciousness. It had been some time since she last visited the place. She had written an article on it last year.
The park was a circle, with decorative concrete walls rising and falling along its edge, and bushes planted beside them. She passed through an arch with stone murals, and descended the steps to the center. The circle’s ground was concrete with shimmering sparkles of all colors. Within the circle was a spraying fountain with pounded metal fish in mid-jump. A man in a suit hovered along an arch with his suit jacket unbuttoned and a phone to his ear, and a couple in their thirties hung around the fountain.
Laura found a spot to sit on the steps. The circle was cast in shadow, and Laura drew her coat closer. Cars swooshed across the way, but the alley behind her was quiet.
She sat for some time, eyeing the arches and the occupants. The fountain’s splashes seemed more constant the longer she sat. A constant stream, always flowing in the same manner, watching the sun and spring flowers bloom in the fresh air.
The day, the nature, was beautiful. She wanted to match their excellence, their cheer, their beauty. She cleared her mind to all but the nature, and she let her soul absorb it. She wanted to be happy, and she let the beauty become her contentment for that moment. As the fountain continued to fall she felt a security return she had forgotten existed. She was strong and beautiful, and she could still live life to its fullest.
The air rustled about her. Laura smiled faintly. Within she felt calm. As each moment in the circle steadily passed she steadied. The sun’s radiance was smiling at her, knowing she needed encouragement.
She scoffed under her breath. Funny how it all returned, a cycle looping again and again like the fountain. Some lasted for weeks, others for days, others for moments. But they always ended.
Laura took out her notebook and pen from her purse: The ending of her sentence had come to her. She finished the final strokes of her words and settled the period to the sentence. She relaxed her hand and looked to the sky, content.