practical gifts – a short story

"I've been reading your journal," he said.

She nodded, her expression blank. "I thought you would. I should have got one of those ones with the little lock. Though I suppose that wouldn't have stopped you." She sipped the tea, realized it was cold, and put the paper cup down on the worn Formica table between them.

"What did you think?" she asked, looking at the cold tea in the cup.

He scratched his chin. "It was strange that it stopped when it did. I mean, I know why it stopped, but if I was reading it without knowing anything about it, it would have been . . . well, strange."

They were both silent for a moment. He made a face and tapped his finger on the faded tabletop a few times. There had been a few other people there when they had come in, but now all the other tables were empty.

She reached into the pocket of her shirt and took out a pack of cigarettes. She put them on the table and tapped the bottom of the pack until one cigarette came out the top.

He looked around. "Can you smoke here?"

She folded her arms. "So, what are you going to do about the apartment?"

He shrugged. "Well, I–"

"You can't afford it by yourself. You know that. You're going into your savings already, aren't you?"

"Well, a little. But–"

"I know, all my shit is still there. Just toss it. I don't need any of it."

He pursed his lips and shifted in his chair. "You know I won't do that."

She laughed suddenly. "True. You've never thrown anything away in your life. I guess you probably won't start now." She took the cigarette and stuck it in the corner of her mouth. As she did this, he was reaching into his jacket pocket for a lighter, but the pocket was empty.

He leaned back in his chair and looked at her. It was strange to see her with her hair so short. When they'd met, her thick honey-blond hair had been so long that she'd been able to sit on it. Now it was faded and chopped off very short, sticking up and out in various odd directions.

She was looking out the window at the gray sky, but she ran her fingers through her hair, making it even more disarranged. He looked around at the ugly, faded green walls, the fluorescent lights, the grills over the windows, the tables scrubbed so many times that the finish was almost gone. It looked like his high school.

"It's going to rain," she said. "Are you going to be okay driving home?"

He made a face and shifted in his chair again.

"Why did you stop keeping your journal?" he asked.

She put the unlit cigarette down on the table. She sat motionless, looking at the far wall of the room.

After a moment, he reached under the table and picked up a plastic bag.

"I brought this for you," he said, holding it out. "My mother always said that practical gifts are the best."

She hesitated for a moment, then took the bag in both hands, opened it and looked inside. She took a deep breath, and then let it out slowly as she slowly removed the bag's contents and placed the items on the table one by one.

There was a notebook, a school notebook with a black and white pebbled cover, and two felt-tip pens. She tapped the notebook very lightly with her forefinger, then carefully lined it up so it was even with the edge of the table. She placed one of the pens on either side of it, nudging them so they were both parallel to the edges of the book.

She reached for the cigarette that she had put down and carefully positioned it in the center of the notebook, then she abruptly pulled her arm back to her side, twitching her wrist so her sleeve slid down to cover her wrist again. The she reached for the cigarette and her fingers started to pick at the paper, unfurling it, the tobacco falling onto the clean table top.

When the cigarette was destroyed, she turned, picking up one of the pens in both hands and twisting it sharply, as though she was trying to snap it in half. But he was sitting next to her by then, and he cupped his hands around hers and held them until they were still.

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About Anthony Lee Collins

I write.
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