He saw her for the first time near a tiny shop of oddments, staring at the assorted matchstick men arrayed on the windowsill with an expression of quirky amusement. She was dressed simply, grey woolen sweater over a blue shirt and jeans that looked just slightly worn at the knees. Her hair was neck-length and waved glad and free in the light breeze. That was the most enduring memory he had of that first sight, even years later, as he ruminated silently on a chair, watching rain patter against the windows.
She was not a beauty, but she was pretty, and had an air of intelligence and trusty competence that he admired. Her apperance, her aura, charmed him even as he was busily pacing to work. On impulse he stopped, abruptly and turned to face her, but at that point she broke from her reverie at the shop window and turned to go. They faced each other, two strangers, by the sidewalk. For a moment, arrested in time, their eyes met. Then the electric contact was broken, and she smiled at him and nodded, and walked past him. But, as he watched her receding off into the distance, he saw her look back at him, surreptitiously, twice.
Her eyes were most startling blue- cool yet warm, like the uproarious embers of a crackling fireplace that soaks the cold yet gives the heat. And her smile, not one a woman gives to any mere pedestrian, a polite smile, perhaps, but more intimate than he could have hoped for.
At work his thoughts strayed oft ever to that crystal memory of the young woman at the shop, which resulted in an unfortunate mix-up of certain documents, which merited a glowering twenty minutes in his boss's office. But during lunch, during his walk back to his apartment, his mind was ever on her. Passing by the oddments shop, he did not see her, but he decided to wait at the shop window a few moments, to see what she had been staring at.
Perched on the platforms were matchstick men, not soldiers, but, as it seemed, of normal people going about their lives. It was like a diorama of sorts, the type you could buy, bring back, and make by yourself as an interesting addition to any house's decor. The man, gripped by a feeling he didn't really comprehend, entered the old shop with a slight feeling of apprehension and bewilderment.
A tiny old woman greeted him warmly. "I'd like to buy one of those matchstick kits," he said, thinking, perhaps she might- might- He didn't know what.
Later on, in his apartment, he took his newly bought set and stared at it late into the night.
The next day, as he walked by the little shop she was there, again, staring at the matchstick family, the little painted figures portraying the comforting homeliness of family life. She seemed almost like a child gazing longingly at a toy, but at that moment, again, she turned and looked at him who looked back- and smiled.
"Oh hello. I saw you yesterday, too, didn't I?"
"Err, yeah, yes, that was me. I'm sorry, I couldn't help noticing that you, uh, liked those matchstick figures."
She started, then seemed to retreat into herself, as though thinking up some fond memory from the past. "Yeah. I...used to play with some of those when I was young."
"So did I. Those matchstick things, I mean." Inwardly, he cursed himself for his tongue-twistedness.
They stood there, in the middle of the crowd, hesitant. Abruptly, she laughed, a tinkling of bells to his ears. "I'm Dana Brown. Call me Dana." She introduced herself with a slight tone of laughing amusement. "Nice to meet you."
"I'm Peter Granger. Pete for short." He smiled with relief and pleasure and held out a hand. "Nice meeting you too." With unrestrained vitality she grasped his hand, smiling all the while with a certain shy amusement, and pumped it. Their eyes met again, and this time they lingered.
After a while, Dana broke off. So did Pete. "I have to go. I'm quite late already," Dana said. "I'll be back here tomorrow. See you then, Pete." She smiled again at him - she was a great one for smiling - and set off at a brisk pace, looking back once or twice and smiling at him again. Pete felt a wash of inexplicable pleasure well up deep inside of him, and he strode off to work, unafraid even of his boss's temper.
They met again the next day, at the shop window. Dana stood there, as always, but this time, she was not staring at the little rows of matchstick men. When he saw her, it seemed as if her breath caught. "Hi," she said, awkwardly, when he reached her. Pete was no less shy in his greetings. Again they stood there, not knowing what to do. Then, at the same time, they both intoned, "Wait," and proceeded to dig in their poclets for the papers which they had both independently written their phone numbers the night before. Dana and Pete both stopped and stared at each other with a slight bewilderment before breaking out in quiet, shared laughter. Pete looked into Dana's eyes as he placed his scrap into her hands, and hers into his.
Then that treasured moment passed again, and they parted, with only the words "Call me tonight" hanging in their minds.
That night Pete lay in bed, thinking happy thoughts. He had rarely felt this kind of warmth in his heart before.
He still had the scrap of paper that held Dana's number. Sitting up he searched his pants pocket for it, and, hands shaking with the prize, proceeded to get the phone and dial the numbers. It seemed an eternity before someone picked up the phone.
The voice was tinny and distorted, but it was Dana. Pure Dana. "Hello?" her voice said.
"Er, hi, its me, Pete. Pete Granger. We agreed to call this morning, and I'd, uh, like to talk, if it isn't, uh, inconvenient?"
"Oh, hi!" Dana's voice was sprightly. "Oh, no, I'm quite free now, in fact, I was about to call you!" She laughed again. Pete could hear the mirth behind the words.
They decided it would be prudent to have a chat in more proper circumstances, so they arranged to meet in a cafe in the city at the next Sunday. For the following week they met at the shop or chatted on the phone. Then the Sunday came, at long last. At one o'clock, Pete was taking strides up and down his bedroom, impatient and consulting his watch every five minutes. When at long last the time came to go he rushed out of his apartment hurriedly, almost forgetting to lock the door. Dana was already there when he arrived, clad in a warm brown cardigan.
"Sorry I'm late." He sat down with her on the table and smiled tentatively. But something was wrong with Dana. She smiled back, but in that smile was a shadow of doubt, of trouble, unlike her usual fulsome self. Pete grew concerned. 'What's wrong, Dana?" Her blue eyes seemed muted as she looked at him, then cast her head down.
Pete waited patiently for Dana to collect her thoughts. He ordered two token drinks from a passing waiter, then waved him away.
"It's rather hard for me to say this, but you're...a good person, Pete, I can tell. I...its not anything to do with you, Pete, but I want to say this. I want to confide in someone...I need to."
Pete listened inquiringly.
"I've never in my life said this to anyone. Anyone." She raised her blue eyes to look at him again.
Pete was mystified. "We've known each other for only two weeks and you trust me enough? Are you sure you want to do this?"
Dana fixed her gaze on his face. Firmly, she said, "Yes. I'm sure. Pete, you're the only person I've ever met whom I feel...I can trust. I never had many friends in my life, and" she sighed, "well..." at this point she looked dangerously close to tears.
"My parents died when I was ten. I loved them, and when they went...I almost couldn't take the pain. I remember I almost tried to slit my wrists." Looking at Pete's horrified expression, Dana quickly added, "But I didn't. After they...had went I was forced to go live with my uncle. My uncle was a ruin. A gambler, a drinker, he squandered everything he had, mistreated me. I had to learn to make myself breakfast, to leave for school early so that he wouldn't catch me and shout at me, or beat me up savagely. Every afternoon when I came back he would be out drinking. What money I had, I had to scrounge for in the house. At night..." her voice broke. "At night he would come and try...things. But he was always too drunk. I ran and hid in the bathroom until he tired of it."
She paused. "I had to forgo University for now, because I didn't have the money and my parent's trust fund was just maturing. Even that wasn't enough. What I'm doing is trying to get a scholarship of some kind. I live alone now, in a rented house, with that trust fund and what I earn from doing work at a store."
"Can you imagine how it must have been like, Pete? Every day, coming home to this bleakness? Coming home to this abusive man who never cared? My closest kin. How much I sacrificed for the sake of surviving my ruin of a childhood and girlhood later on. I was always downcast at school, always working hard. I made little friends because of this. Everybody shunned me because I was so 'miss high and mighty'." She laughed, without humour. With bitterness in her mouth. "I've tried, you know. Even though I tried so hard, when I was seventeen, school ended and I chose to apply for a scholarship to a faraway place, they rejected my application. I needed to work even harder."
She sighed, burying her face in her drink. "When I was nineteen my uncle was admitted into hospital. By that time I was already independent enough to be rid of him. I can't say he was too sad to see me go. I remember the shouting match we had, though. He tried to bludgeon me with a chair. I just ran. The wind felt like freedom. Then he got violently ill, probably because he had insomnia and was taking his sleeping pills along with his booze. Went to hospital. He died. And when I heard the news I felt...happy. Liberated. I'd never felt so free before, not in my whole life." Her voice was wracked with a curious sense of guilt. "I swore to myself that I'd never feel sad again. It was as if my fortunes hinged upon my uncle's life-or death. What sort of person would think that, Pete? Feel wild, unrestrained joy at the death of a relative? I can't even feel guilt now, and I feel guilty over that."
Pete shook his head. "No, Dana. Anyone would feel that way. I would."
Dana said, "No, Pete. You don't understand. Its not only relief, or happiness. It's triumphant, sneering. I cursed him. Cursed his memory. I had no mercy."
Pete nodded numbly.
She continued."I had liked to think I'd put the past behind me. But when I looked in the windowsill, looked at those things I played with before...looking at those figures leading happy lives, looking at families, I can;t help but feel...cheated, lost. I don't want to be alone anymore, Pete. And when I met you..."
She laughed again. "I...I suppose it is amazing that I'm confiding my life's pain to someone I've barely met, but...for what its worth," softly now, "thank you, Pete, for being my confidant. I feel less burdened now, now that I've poured out my guilt." She heaved a vast sigh and finished her drink.
Pete left his own untouched drink on the table and tentatively laid a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll never tell anyone. And I suppose I should say," his cheeks felt hot, "I, too, feel grateful that you chose to confide in me. I'm flattered you trust me so much after such a short time knowing me."
She smiled, and some of that old mirth he had loved even before knowing her name returned. They stood. "You know, I'm also studying for a scholarship."
She looked at him, still recovering from her previous bout. "Thats nice."
They stood up, together, and Pete slowly offered her a hand, which she took. He looked, as he had many times, now, into her smoky irises. And that was Pete's second memory of Dana when they had met and Dana had professed her trust for him in a way he would, and could not forget, a memory that he would cherish unto that day when the roving tides of war would sweep their lives away, in the onrushing storm of dusk.
If you noticed the last part is a reference to the other story involving Pete and Dana. Please forgive the cliches, stumbling and the all-out cheese moments. My first try at a "romance" story. Don't expect too much.