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Hefin had no explanation for why he’d dropped anchor alongside this woman. He didn’t know why he’d been watching her for weeks. He had no idea why he, a man who did his best to say as little as possible to as few people as possible, would say almost anything to get her to stop crying.
“There’s a right way to be unemployed?” Her eyes were huge and wet. The hot-looking red spots high on her cheeks made the gray irises, in contrast, look like mica pressed between glass.
“There’s likely a right way to do everything, but I’ve a bit of experience with bein’ out of work, in particular.” Her brow, as densely freckled as the rest of her face, folded into a map of wrinkles and she looked back down at her knees and moved the box of tissues back to the printing shelf. When she reached forward, it shifted the air around them. She smelled like plain soap, warmed up against skin.
Hefin gripped the edge of the carrel tight so he wouldn’t do something else he would have no explanation for. Like loosen the curl of pale red hair her tears had stuck against her cheek.
“At this point, I have a decent amount of experience with unemployment myself.” She said this to her knees.
“Oh, no. You’re still a novice, for sure.”
“I’ve been out of work for nearly six months.”
Hefin made a gesture like he was swatting away a fly. “That’s nothing.”
She looked up and Hefin ignored the lurch of pleasure that bumped against something in his chest when she met his eyes. “Yeah?” Her voice was cracked and husky. “What’s something, then?”
Hefin gazed at the ceiling and pretended to count to himself on his fingers. He tried not to think about why he was working so hard to make this woman feel better. “Try two years on for size.”
She looked up, then, the wrinkles still cross-hatching her forehead, her eyes still big and shiny. But she looked him right in the eyes and maintained contact, and he thought it was the first time she’d managed that. “Are you telling me you didn’t have a job for two years?”
“Yeah. That’s what I’m tellin’ you.”
“Here?” She kept glancing away, but he kept his gaze ready to meet hers, and she kept finding it again. This felt like some kind of victory Hefin was unwilling to consider too closely.
“I guess by ‘here,’ you mean in the States?”
“That’s right. I’ve worked with plenty of forms like that yellow one you bring to the desk every day, plus I had the hoops set in front of me to jump through by an immigration attorney I could barely afford.”
“You didn’t come here for a job?” Her body relaxed in the hard carrel chair, and she started to lean toward him a little. Hefin felt something akin to walking to the edge of a cliff with the intention to jump and finding, instead of resolve, another jumper and a breathtaking view.
He didn’t like it.
This unexpected suggestion of rescue.
“No.” He bit off the impulse to elaborate.
“Oh.” She looked away again.
She clearly wanted to ask but stopped herself. Her instant acknowledgment of the boundary he erected compelled him, in direct opposition to the pressure in his chest, to break it a little.
It was something about how he had never once seen her so much as sigh, all these mornings for all these weeks that he’d watched her get that miserable yellow form signed. Something about how her back was always straight and how she never missed a morning. How she smiled when she slid her yellow form across the desk even though it was admitting another day of failure.
How she walked across the atrium, her chin high, her bright hair flying. How she didn’t slow down, even a little, except when she walked past him.
“I married an American.” He swallowed. To her, maybe these were small confidences from a stranger meant to put her at ease after losing her center so publicly. To Hefin, well, maybe it was those mica shards in her eyes.
“So you left behind a job?” Her voice had evened out a bit, and this was definitely a sense of accomplishment he was feeling. Fuck.
“A life, even.” Her gray eyes widened, slid away again. This time, he let his gaze drop, too. Her sneakers were red canvas jobs, the kind with old-fashioned white laces and high sidewalls.
Her left one had worn through over her little toe, the hole big enough he could almost see the next toe, too, and for a mad moment he imagined stroking a fingertip along the crease.
The thought was enough to motivate him to stand, abruptly.
She cleared her throat. “Did you work at wood carving—” She looked down again, and he watched red splotches spread over her neck near the collar of her tee. Shy?
“In Aberaeron?” Hefin leaned back and perched on the desktop, tried to keep from looming over her.
She sort of smiled, for the first time, and met his eyes again. Both her incisors were crooked and overlapped her front teeth a bit. Cute is what he thought, even as he employed a mental hair shirt against gray-eyed women who cried in libraries and had pretty toes. Jesus Henry Christ.
“Where’s A-bear-ah-ron?” She didn’t stumble over the name of his hometown, but said it slowly, even tried to flick her r a bit.
“Ab-ba-eh-ron,” he repeated slowly. “In Ceredigion, Wales.”
“Ab-ba-eh-ron,” she said, deliberate and true. “Cara-jig-eon?”
He thought he might be smiling at her. Which would be not the thing. “Nearly. Welsh is hard to sit in the mouth.”
“Unless you’re Welsh.” She directed her first real smile toward him, not quite meeting his eyes, which was a good thing for him because he didn’t want to handle those eyes and her crooked white teeth at the same time.
“Unless you’re Welsh.”
“So did you?” she asked.
Her fingers were worrying the hole in the knee of her jeans. Another glimpse at something he would rather not know about. Her knobby, freckled knee and the heart she’d drawn on it with ink pen.
“Did you work as a—woodcarver? In Ab-ba-eh-ron?” She tried the r again and it was such a sweetness, he gave up and smiled right at her. She looked away instantly, this time at the ceiling, as if she were rolling her eyes.
“No.” He meant to erect that barrier again, shut this down, but all the small places she had opened and let him see, in the briefest of conversations, made building a wall against her seem brutish and awkward. A very good reason to let her alone as soon as possible. “I was an engineer.”
“Oh,” she said. The confusion in her face unfurled his regret. “What kind? Is there a wood engineer?”
“Likely. But, no. I was the kind who couldn’t get a job in the United States. I actually only work as an artisan, on projects like this, freelance. Before this I worked occasionally as an engineering consultant. Started in on that after the long stretch of well-done unemployment I was braggin’ to you about.”
She seemed to mull this over, bothering the hole in her jeans again, driving him mad. “Do you miss being an engineer?”
He wasn’t prepared for that question. And hadn’t let himself think about the answer for a long time. Couldn’t let himself think about it, truly. So he told her, “No. I don’t.”
But he did. All the time. More since the portfolio he’d been asked to put together after unexpected emails and phone calls from old colleagues, far away. He wasn’t yet used to it.
The idea of having a life back.
“Because you like what you do here, as an artisan, better?”
“Because it’s not a question worth asking, not for me. Right now, this minute, I live here, this is what I do. Just like you have to think that any job you aren’t getting is simply what you’re not doin’.”
She scrunched her face at that. “Well, yeah. Duh.”
He laughed, relieved that a little of the gravitas had gone out of their talk. “I mean that more philosophically. You’re partway there, already. You come in here, every day, with your papers and your email. It’s what you do. You’re livin’ already. No need to make it more than that.”
“That sounds like resignation.”
“Nah. It’s just takin’ out the wishing and the unnecessary grief. You can’t live in the past, working the job you had before, you can’t know what it is you’ll do tomorrow or a year from now. So just do what you’re going to do today. Stay on that. That’s your tack.”
“And this makes you happy?”
Hefin smiled but looked down again at his hand gripping the edge of the desktop. He supposed he’d led her to a question like that. He supposed he should have remembered that a woman who wore red sneakers and drew hearts on her knees would need to know a question like that could be answered. There was no help for it, or for him. “What do you think would make you happy—?”
And just like that, he wanted to know. Her name, and how she’d answer.
He didn’t want to be curious about how she’d answer. But he was. Just like he hadn’t wanted to be curious about her. But every morning he’d stood at his workbench watching the double doors in the marble atrium open and close, watching for a woman with determined posture and golden blond freckles and wary gray eyes.
He didn’t remember what it felt like to put your shoulder against the avalanche like that. To believe you had any strength against it. To have a heart for something other than pumping blood.
“Des Burnside,” she said, meeting his eyes again. “It’s actually short for Destiny.”
Of course it is.
“Des,” he repeated, then before he’d thought it through, “Hefin Thomas,” and held out his hand for her to shake.
She hesitated, just for a moment, the splotches on her neck that had just faded blooming bright again, but she took his hand. He could feel all of her small bones and had to resist running his thumb over the knob of her wrist. It seemed like he was resisting a great deal around Des Burnside.
“I don’t know what would make me happy. Not anymore,” Des said as she pulled her hand away.
“I can’t be sure that’s the point,” he said, before he could think better of it. She looked into his eyes again, this time a little closer, and he watched the fine sun and smile wrinkles gather by those pretty eyes.
“Hefin.” Her eyes wrinkled a little more. “I don’t think I would have ever worked that out.”
“From how you introduced yourself. To the tour groups and stuff.”
“Oh. Right. Not much of a public speaker, I guess.” He wished he could shake off this feeling of luff in his sails, like he’d lost the wind in the lines. “Hefin Thomas.” He said it slowly, as he had the name of his hometown.
“Does it mean something?” The rosy islands on her throat converged into a scald. “Hefin?”
“Nothing so romantic as Destiny,” he teased her, but he just didn’t know what to say; couldn’t remember what the word that made her name meant, exactly.
Her eyes lit, but she didn’t smile. “It was my mom who was the romantic.”
Her gaze settled somewhere he couldn’t reach. “Summer,” he told her. “Hefin means summer. The season of course. There’s a spring in your last name, Burnside, but not the season.”
She did smile, then. “No one knows that. That a burn is a brook—a spring.”
“It’s a good Irish, maybe Scottish name, I’d guess.”
“Yeah. My grandpa came from Ireland.”
“There you go. Great romantics, the Irish.”
“Maybe.” Her flush met rosy tendrils along her jaw, making her skin seem more tender. Exactly the kind of thing he wasn’t noticing.
“Do you miss Wales? I’m not sure I even have an idea of what Wales is like. I mean, it’s by the sea, right?”
“Where I’m from, yes. Aberaeron is actually a seaside town, right on the middle coast.”
“And so you’re landlocked here, in Ohio.”
God yes. He thought. But wouldn’t say. “I’m living, day by day, just fine, remember? It’s your lesson, too.”
“But do you miss it? Do you and your wife visit?”
He couldn’t help his eyes from closing. “Well, you can never quite go home again, as they say. It’s been a bit longer than I’d like since I’ve seen my folks. And I don’t know if my wife’s been, lately. We divorced.”
“Jesus. I’m sorry.” Des looked like she was actually a bit in distress, and Hefin felt badly. And not for himself.
It was a strange feeling.
“No, Des. Don’t be. It’s been some time.”
Des cleared her throat. “It’s just—you’ve been so nice—talking to me like this. And I’m returning the kindness with nosiness.”
He shook his head, he didn’t know why, and Des lowered hers. He took a deep breath. He needed the oxygen for what he was about to do. “There’s another thing you’re doin’ wrong, in this way, more as a job seeker.”
Hefin was gratified to see her shoulders stiffen a little. There she is.
“You’re always snuggled up to the computer, chasing ads the person who posted them likely has already forgotten about, cloggin’ up the entire Internet with your résumé.”
“Um. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” There was a bit of good bite in her voice.
“While you’ve been busy with your Internet, plenty of work’s been pilin’ up right in front of your nose.” Hefin took a few steps back to a corkboard mounted on the circulation desk.
“What do you mean?”
Hefin pulled off the flyer he’d noticed there this morning, ignoring every one of his instincts that this was a bad idea with the idea that his instincts have obviously never been any good, after all. He’d actually thought just to tell his friend who put the flyer up that he’d noticed that this woman, Des, was likely job searching, but telling Des himself—he could hardly take in his own impulse.
He could hardly believe he was having an impulse, when as much as he could figure, he had made himself incapable of impulse.
“Take a look.” He handed her the paper.
She read it for a long time. Much longer than it should actually take to read the 250 or so words printed on it. She looked up, and he was utterly horrified to see crescents of unspilled tears gathered in her eyes, the mica gone nearly green.
“Oh no, it’s not a sad story,” he reached for the flyer, and for a long moment they both held it, pulling it toward themselves. He couldn’t decide if he wanted it back in earnest or if he just wanted to hold the tension of that bit of connection a few moments longer as the cheap paper pulled tight.
As if out of his own body, from above, he watched his fingers loosen from the paper, it slide away from his fingertips, back safely into her hand.
“Did you just give this to me to read, or can you help me with this? Do you know someone here? I thought you were just freelance?” Her voice was whispering again, staying a level under what he realized was the choke of tears.
He couldn’t think about what he was about to do. It was as if a stiff crosscurrent had unexpectedly taken him away from following the shoreline, in the middle of an otherwise mild sea. Nothing for it. Nothing to think about. Better not, in fact, to think at all.
“Well, I don’t know, is the thing.” Looking for a mooring, he tried to catch Des’s eye as she pressed her fingers to her temples. “It’s just that I’m a bit chummy with the woman hiring and she even asked if any of the part-timers on my crew would be interested, or if we knew someone who was. It just seemed to me that you’ve obviously proven reliable, coming in here every day, and that you have computer skills that she’s really needin’.” He rubbed his neck against helplessness. “Don’t fuss.”
“Okay,” she said. And smiled. “I won’t—fuss?”
Hearing her voice steady was enough to bring Hefin back into his body. Anything else he had to consider, other than those tears drying, he could mull over later. Another day always came, after all. She looked down at the flyer again. “This isn’t because you feel sorry for me? Because I lost it in front of the whole library?”
Yes. “No, Des, of course—”
“You know what?” She straightened her shoulders again, and it made Hefin want to laugh. Or pull her to him by her skinny hips. But he would not think about that. “I don’t care. I’ll take it.”
He did laugh, then. And the wrinkles returned to her forehead.
“I mean, if your friend is interested. Obviously?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“You’ll introduce me?”
“Right away, if you have time.”
“It all sounds awesome.” She met his look and the shiny flecks in her eyes were silvery again.
“You’d think so,” Hefin said. He wondered what it would be like to think something was awesome. He watched Des looking around the library with her new, glinting eyes and thought it was possible he already knew, a bit.
“If I would like to meet your friend? Now? I won’t take you away from your work in the atrium?”
“No. Freelance, remember? The crew will be glad to have a breather from me.”
Hefin tried to push down the feeling of unreality as he grabbed her bag for her and led her to the double doors into the staff area. He had watched this woman for weeks and weeks, come close to starting a conversation with her a dozen times, but never managed it, unable to think how. Now, she was right beside him, her fine and shining hair lifting with static from a crooked barrette, her freckles like sand and gold dust.
She was real. It was her that was grinning, sliding her hands into the pockets of her worn jeans so that they dipped and pulled across a bottom that shouldn’t have been possible on such a thin woman.
Hefin took a breath, to see how it felt. His blood seemed to move around his body, as usual. His view settled back down so he felt like he was seeing what was in front of him instead of watching his actions from above. He was fine. This would be fine. It would have to be.
Des grinned, unencumbered. Hefin swung her bag into the space between them. Where he would build his jetty. Sea change was just that, a change in the sea. Something to adjust the rudder against, watch for in the tides, nothing more. Inevitable, but not destiny. Truly.
About the author:
Mary Ann Rivers was an English and music major and went on to earn her MFA in creative writing, publishing poetry in journals and leading creative-writing workshops for at-risk youth. While training for her day job as a nurse practitioner, she rediscovered romance on the bedside tables of her favorite patients. Now she writes smart and emotional contemporary romance, imagining stories featuring the heroes and heroines just ahead of her in the coffee line. Mary Ann Rivers lives in the Midwest with her handsome professor husband and their imaginative school-aged son. Visit her website here