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The Stranger At The Table

I studied the stranger sitting at the other side of the table. I knew what he would see, red hair and brown eyes on a skinny woman on the wrong side of forty.

I saw a man with sharp, hazel eyes. I don't think he missed much. He was almost six feet tall, I guessed, with dark hair cut shorter than was currently fashionable. Crisp blue jeans and a beige workshirt that almost exactly matched his skin gave me the impression of 'institutionalized homogenization'. Either he was more timid than he appeared or he'd been recently released from prison, not that either really mattered to me.

I think what caught my eye was his aura of strength. Not just physical strength, but strength of character, too. There was something about him...

I don't know how long we sat, just staring at each other, but when I realized it, I could feel the heat of embarrassment creep up my face. I don't normally gawp at men, no matter how interesting I find them.

His eyes twinkled as he watched me.

"So," I finally managed to stammer, "You have a name?"

He nodded. "My name's Nick." He looked around. "Nice place you have here."

I tried to see the pub through a newcomer's eyes. Everything was done in solid oak, deep blues, dark greens. A circular bar with a solid wall bisecting it, divided the games room from the dining area. A pocket-sized dance floor and the kitchen and storage areas, hidden from sight, finished the circle.

I don't remember much of what Nick and I talked about. It wasn't really important, but it was fun.

"Maggie!" a voice bellowed. It was Tony, the boss, reminding me of the time.

I scrambled to my feet and Nick rose as well.

"I should be going, too," he said. "Later, Maggie." Then he was gone, two bills and the empty beer glass on the table as the only indication that he'd ever existed. His abrupt departure hurt.

For a long while, I was too busy to think, but Tony had noticed a change in me.

"You like him, don't you?" he asked during a brief lull. There was no need to ask who 'him' was.

I frowned thoughtfully. "He seems nice enough, Tony. He's fun to talk to, but..." I shook my head. "Not that it matters. He was just... being kind." I shrugged and moved away. I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about Nick.

"Just be careful, Maggie," Tony's soft voice cautioned. "He'll be back, you know. I recognize the look."

I didn't believe Tony, but there wasn't much point in arguing about it. 'See you later' didn't always mean what it implied, I'd discovered.

The door opened as Tony and I were finishing the last of the cleanup. Nick walked in, stopping when he saw me. My pleasure, I'm sure, showed on my face, but it died when I saw the expression on his face.

Tony took the dishtray from me and nudged me toward the door. "I'll finish up," he said. "Just remember what I said."

The snow that had started that afternoon hadn't been obliterated by the traffic. We walked through a silent, almost magical world. The sodium street lights gave everything a warm, yellow glow, the few cars at that hour a low hiss beside us. Unlike before, we didn't speak.

"Maggie, Tony's right. He warned you against me, didn't he? I saw the look he gave you." Nick said abruptly, bitterly. "I'm no good for you. I've spent the last ten years in jail."

I shrugged. "Tony worries about everyone, Nick. I'm used to it. Neither one of you has told me anything I haven't already noticed myself. Except for the part about you being no good, of course."

That seemed to anger Nick. He grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me to face him. "So I'm not good enough for you. I've got one helluva temper I can't always control. I'll hurt you."

I smiled, then, suddenly feeling safe, and thinking perhaps I'd suddenly gone crazy.

"It's not funny." He gave me another shake to emphasize his warning.

"Nick," I put my hands on his arms. "Nick, I know you've just been released. The outfit's standard issue, isn't it? I'm not afraid of you, you know. I trust you. If I didn't, you'd still be sitting by yourself."

His hands dropped away and he stepped back. "You knew?"

I shrugged. "Well, I'd guessed, anyway."

His expression changed, closed up. His chin rose defiantly. "I don't need your pity," he snapped, and walked away.

"Pity!" I squawked in my astonishment. I caught up to him and yanked at his arm, demanding his attention. "Pity? You think I feel sorry for you? You make me feel a lot of things, buster, but that ain't one of them."

Nick was easily six inches taller and twice my weight, but that didn't stop me from jabbing my finger into his chest to make my points. "You've got a lot to learn about me, boyo. For starters, I never feel sorry for any one. It's a waste of time. Secondly, you've got a sense of humour that isn't based on bodily functions or hurtful remarks. It's a bloody rarity and I like it. And I need a friend just as much as you do, so quit being such a chickenshit. Are we going to be friends or not?" I glared up at him, angrily brushing my tears away with a coat sleeve. "Isn't that why you came back?" The last sounded lost, even to me, and I blushed, but didn't look away.

Nick searched my face for a long while. Finally, after an eternity, he inclined his head in solemn agreement. "Friends."