This story is by Kelly Murphy and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Sela O’Connell was wide awake and vigorously cleaning. Anxiety always brought out her latent cleaning instincts. So instead of sleeping in her 8×10 efficiency bunk, she was in her pajamas organizing and unpacking the new delivery from Earth, cursing herself for hiding in her bunk instead of supervising the delivery. The Cantina’s dry storage was an obstacle course, with crates placed at odd angles blocking aisles and doors; they were pretty much everywhere except the corner designated for new deliveries. Her cowardice was being punished. Sela grimaced. Diego probably did that on purpose to mess with her – not that he had any way of knowing where things went, but Sela preferred to blame him anyway. It made her feel better.
“Dammit,” Sela muttered. She dropped the twenty-pound bag of protein pellets and checked her watch. It read 0120 standard time. The tiny stopwatch in the corner showed she’d lasted twenty minutes without thinking of Diego – a personal best since he’d docked eighteen hours earlier. Butterflies ate up her insides. Last time she saw him there was yelling, red faces, harsh words, and arms flying because they both talked with their hands. A year ago, she was sure he hated her. She wondered if he still did. Sela shook her head. He wouldn’t be here. Diego was stubborn and hot-headed, but not cruel. He might still be mad but he didn’t hate her. She almost wished he did.
Sweaty and exhausted, she sat down on the cold floor, leaning against the stacked sacks of beans. Was it possible to be glad to see someone and wish they weren’t there? Groaning, she put her head between her knees. Her brain confused her. The fact that she only had herself to blame for the whole situation made it worse. Diego had access to the schedule; if he wanted to know when she came back, he could easily find out. But no, she did the enlightened thing and messaged him that her stint on Ceres was up and they should talk when she got back planetside. The colony shrink, Dr. Mo, saw the message as a big step forward. What she didn’t know was that Sela sent it with full confidence that Diego would never answer, and to be fair he didn’t. He just switched runs with the regular pilot and showed the fuck up to give her a ride home. The one time his pigheadedness failed her. Now she was going to have to face him. Fucking therapy.
A loud thumping broke through Sela’s reverie. Wiping her sweaty hands on her shirt she walked over to the security feed. Someone was restless and intent on breaking something. The guy’s back was turned to her, but she could see he was assaulting the water dispenser. Usually this kind of destructive bullshit pissed her off since resources – including spare parts – were tightly regulated, but tonight she welcomed the distraction and the fight.
“Hey asshole,” she said, moving through the connecting hallway. Balling her hands into fists, she entered the Cantina. “It’s shut down for a cleaning cycle. Read the fucking si –” She froze. Blood rushed to her face, sweat coated her palms, her heartrate simultaneously sped up and slowed down– wasn’t that a sign of a heart attack? Sela prayed it was.
The asshole froze mid-swing, then gently laid his flat palm on the front of the machine. His shoulders relaxed, he ran his free hand through his hair as the toe of his boot tapped the ground like it always did when he was nervous. Head shaking slightly, he smiled. She couldn’t see his face, but when he smiled Diego did it with his whole body.
“Oh, fuck me,” Sela, muttered. The blood that rushed to her face quickly drained away, all of her carefully planned cowardice ruined. His shoulders shook with silent laughter.
“That would be awkward,” he said, turning around. “Let’s get reacquainted first and then we’ll see where it goes.” He winked at her. “Since when do you curse?”
“Since some pendejo started beating the shit out of my water dispenser at one-thirty in the morning.”
“Fair enough.” Diego stood there twisting his fingers, dark hair hanging in his face because it was too long in the front. He shrugged off his jacket and folded it over his arm, revealing the top half of his flight suit. He was slender – always had been, but at 5’10” it looked lean and compact, not gangly and awkward as it could be on taller guys.
The head of steam she built on her way in deflated. She awkwardly shifted her weight from foot to foot, trying valiantly to look anywhere but his eyes. They were his best feature and keenest weapon, conveying so much with very little, but Sela was already caught in his gravity. She looked up. He smiled, and his eyes smiled too. It unnerved her how familiar this felt. How quickly her body normalized after the initial shock of seeing him. She was going to have to do this. Have this conversation. Say that damned word. If she didn’t, she would lose him forever.
He smirked at her. “Nice uniform. Is that regulation?”
He waved his hand up and down. “You’re wearing pajamas.”
She looked down at her hot pink penguin pajama bottoms. “Oh right. Couldn’t sleep and I wasn’t expecting company. Besides, I’m pretty sure that stubble isn’t regulation.”
Diego brought his hand to his chest in mock concern. “Couldn’t sleep? I hope that had nothing to do with me. As for my stubble,” he shrugged. “I never seem to get in trouble.”
“Of course you don’t.” Sela narrowed her eyes at him then after a beat rounded on her heel and walked to the back. She knew he would follow.
“If you’re thirsty I’ve got some water back here.” She grabbed a metal bottle from the shelf and tossed it to him. The corner of his mouth quirked up in a half smile.
“Thanks for not beaning it at my head,” he said, eyes glinting mischievously.
“It was tempting, but people with head injuries can’t help me unload crates.” She walked to one and patted the lid. He raised his eyebrows at her. “Oh yeah, you created this mess,” she said, gesturing at the scattered crates. “You’re going to help me clean it up.”
He laughed. “But I’m your guest. Guests shouldn’t be put to work.”
“You’re not my guest.”
“I have a message that proves otherwise.” He patted his pocket for emphasis.
“You printed it out? That’s so lame.”
“I’m going to have it framed,” he hooted. She made a grab for his pocket, but he danced away from her.
She glared at him. “Good guests give their host heads-up that they’re coming.”
“If you knew I was coming you would’ve found a way off this rock before I arrived.” Grinning, he shook his head. “You’re just like your mother.”
They both froze. Sela’s chest squeezed tight. Diego’s eyes widened, his hands raised, palms out, in front of him – like he stepped on a land mine and was waiting for it to go off. Sela stopped breathing. Apart from Dr. Mo, Sela hadn’t talked about her parents since she arrived on Ceres.
She swallowed hard. “Mom hated it when guests came while she was still setting up. It irked her that they sat around when the food wasn’t ready, drinks weren’t out, and she still had to get dressed. I think she put them to work to teach them a lesson. After that they always came on time or late.”
Diego’s body relaxed. “I remember. She put me to work more than once.”
“Not because you were early; she always considered you family. Family didn’t get special treatment.” Sela sighed. “The practice mortified Dad, it directly opposed his laid back nature.” Sela bit her lip to stop it from trembling.
Diego walked over to her, placing his hand on her shoulder. “I remember when we met. You were the little freshman and I was the swoon-worthy junior –”
“Who was president of the chess club and my math tutor,” Sela interjected.
“Chess-playing mathletes can be swoon-worthy, and I was on the soccer team too,” he said indignantly. “Stop interrupting, that was another of your mom’s pet peeves.”
Sela rolled her eyes. “Fine, continue.”
“Your mom invited me over because you got an ‘A’ on your midterm and she made my favorite meal –”
“Picadillo y arroz con frijoles negros,” Sela finished. Diego looked down his nose at her. She put her hands up. “Sorry.”
“I don’t know how she knew, but it was the best surprise. The food was delicious and your dad and I watched football while you guys cleaned up. One of the few times I didn’t have to help. That’s one of my favorite memories of them.”
“Mom didn’t want me to tell you she was Cuban –”
“And Puerto Rican.”
“No interrupting. Anyways, she wanted to surprise you and it was lucky that our favorite meal happened to be yours. They really loved you.”
Diego’s eyes shone with unshed tears. “Sela, the reason I’m here –”
Sela pushed away from him. “This couldn’t wait until I got home?”
“Your message gave me courage, and I needed to act before it went away.” Licking his lips, he leveled his gaze at her. “I’m sorry for the way I acted, not just when I found out you took this billet, but the whole six months before. Things between us had started to change and then the accident…” Diego’s voice broke.
“And then the accident,” Sela said.
“I was so scared of losing momentum that I focused on how I thought you should grieve. I was selfish.” He took a steadying breath. “I’ve missed you and I’m sorry. That’s all I came here to say.”
Relief washed over her, releasing the knot of emotion she’d nurtured for the last year and a half. For the first time in a year and a half she could breathe. She wasn’t mad at him. She hadn’t known until that moment. Diego smiled at her. Sela frowned at him.
“Who are you?”
“What? I can have profound personal insights,” he huffed, still grinning foolishly.
“Stop smiling at me.”
“Because I’m horrible and you shouldn’t smile at horrible people.”
Diego frowned. “You don’t believe that.”
“I don’t know.” Sela shrugged. “Thank you.”
“Not for apologizing – or not just for apologizing, but for apologizing first. I don’t know if I could have done it if you didn’t break the ice.” She looked down at her feet, collecting herself before continuing. She looked up at him. He was still smiling at her. “I’m so, so sorry and ashamed for the way I acted.”
“There’s no need –”
Sela held up her hand. “Yes, there is. I know I’m a grown woman, but my parents were everything to me and someone snapped their fingers and poofed them off the face of the Earth like it was nothing.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “My parents died and I didn’t know how to handle it. I was horrible to everyone around me, but I think I abused you the most because I knew you would take it.” Sela’s voice caught in her throat. “I acted in a way that would have shamed my parents.” She took a deep breath and looked Diego in the eye. “I needed a change – some distance – I don’t know why. I got perspective and peace. I don’t know if it was worth it.”
Diego grabbed her hand, pulling her into a tight hug. “It was. Any costs can be made up with time.”