Handpicked Short Stories TerminalSeries

Melting Ice

I served the hundred and fifty-eighth coffee with a polite smile on my face. It was a poor decision to wear the new shoes when I knew I’d have to stand for hours. To take a breather, I walked to the glass that separated us from the rest of the airport. The arrivals area was flocked with people.

My breath caught as he walked into my line of vision. The jeans stretching over his long legs; a blue shirt that matched his eyes and chestnut hair just long enough to curl at his nape. I’ve been watching him every Saturday waiting for someone who never came. It was the fifth consecutive week. I couldn’t tell much from this far, but the set of his shoulders looked stiff with tension.

“Celeste, can you give me a hand?” Lucia hollered. I went into the kitchen leaving him to wait for whoever-it-was.

It wasn’t until another two hours that I could sit. Sipping my latté, I eased my aching feet from the shoes. As I turned around, the cup in my hand froze midway. Before I realized, I was on my way to meet him.

“Mark,” I whispered stuffing my hands into the apron pocket. The temptation to smooth his ruffled hair was dangerous.

There was no response. I turned away cursing my stupidity.

“Celeste?” The murmur sent shivers down my spine.

I looked at the agony etched in his chiseled features. “Umm… I wanted to see if you were okay.”

Mark continued to stare until I grimaced. “Your hair is shorter.” He observed.

“How are you, Mark?” I returned.

“Not good, Celeste.” He whispered not taking his eyes off me. I stared dumbstruck.

“Would you like some coffee?” I asked.  

Surprised, he nodded and stood.

“You smell the same.” He murmured as we walked to the café.

“It’s my special blend,” I replied automatically.

“So, you work here now?” Mark asked looking at the name tag pinned to my apron.

I shrugged. “My little café got a three-year contract with the airport. It will be renewed if the ratings are good.” It took years for my dream of owning a café to come true. I figured having one at the airport was less risky.

“I’m happy for you.” Sincerity rang in his voice. I thanked him, sliding away my hand from under his. My skin tingled. Could he feel it?

“You got pretty famous yourself,” I remarked folding my hands on my lap. Mark’s pictures were being sold at an exuberant price. The man could breathe life into a dead twig with his photographic skills; strange how his emotions were frozen.

“I suppose so. There are many downsides to it.”  Mark replied staring into his coffee.

“I’m sure you can manage. Setting limits has never been a problem for you.” I blurted and bit my lip.

Mark flinched at my tone but recovered.

Finally, he said. “I guess you want to know why I was crying.”

I shrugged as my insides yelled yes. The knowledge that someone could melt the ice was like a punch to my gut.

“I was waiting for my dad and sister.” He added in a low voice. “They did not come, again.”

I released the breath I had no idea I was holding. At least it wasn’t a woman. Not that it meant anything.

“Celeste, can we meet again? Dinner, maybe.” Mark looked… tensed.

“I was hoping to talk to you, please.” He requested when I remained silent.

I agreed. “Wednesday, lunch.”

“Okay. I’ll pick you up. We can go to your favorite pizza house.” His eyes lit up a little.

I shook my head even as my heart soared that he remembered my favorites. “I don’t live there anymore. I’ll meet you at one.”

Mark’s smile dimmed. Saying the coffee was a treat, I excused myself before I’d give in.

*****

The lunch went better than I hoped. Mark was there waiting for me. His eyes widened at my appearance. With a lavender skirt that matched my eyes, white floral shirt, and minimal makeup, I looked classy. My short auburn hair fell in soft waves around my face.

He looked handsome as ever but with fine lines of stress around his eyes. I gradually relaxed and enjoyed the limited time with him, when he ruined it.

“Celeste, will you pose for me?” Mark asked. The intensity of his stare kicked my heart into an overdrive.

I couldn’t do it. It was a matter of self-preservation. “Sorry, Mark.”

Mark looked like he wanted to protest. Instead, he murmured. “I understand, Celeste. I made too many mistakes. Can I at least drop you home?”

Was I imaging the desperation in his voice?

“I… have to meet a new baker for the café, Mark. We are unable to handle with limited staff.” I replied hoping he’d see that I wasn’t making excuses. Maybe, I was.

He nodded. “Thank you for the time, Celeste.”  

Mark gave me a quick hug and left. I couldn’t take my eyes off his retreating form. I suppressed my need for his arms around me, for his lips on mine. But, I wasn’t going to accept anything less than love. He wasn’t capable of it. Squaring my shoulders, I went to negotiate a deal for my café.  

*****

“Celeste.” Mark’s voice stopped me short. It was Saturday. He was at the airport again.

“Hi, Mark.” My voice was composed. I even managed a small smile.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but can you please sit with me for a few minutes?” He asked uncertainly.

I looked at Lucia who nodded. She could manage for some time.

“Thank you. You keep me calm.” Mark’s words shocked me. I was still unable to adjust to the change in his attitude. What happened to the ‘I don’t need anyone’ man?

As we sat waiting, Mark told me about his past. Why couldn’t he do it sooner?

“This is a test, Celeste. Ginni will come with dad one Saturday. I have to be here to take them home. I deserve this after I behaved so badly.” Mark’s voice was filled with regret. He held my hand as if his life depended on it.

“They are still your family,” I murmured.

I couldn’t take my eyes off from our entwined fingers. “I buried the best moments of my life to satisfy my ego. All they wanted was for me to join dad’s business. But, I wanted to be a photographer. Then, I overheard that I was an adopted child. I shut them out. I used it as an excuse to get away from home. I put as much distance as I could between us.” Mark continued.

I stared at him. Mark gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I was a certified jerk, wasn’t I? They wanted to hand over their entire property to an adopted son. I left them without a second thought.  I twisted their motives, their love and justified myself for years.”

“What changed?” I asked.

“Mom passed away waiting for me. They couldn’t contact me because I was in the Amazon. I flew as soon as I knew. But, it was too late. Dad went into depression and had a heart attack. One mistake, Celeste, I ruined everything. Ginni, my younger sister, took the responsibility of them all these years. I don’t deserve to be loved. But, I want it so much, it hurts. What a fool I was to think I don’t need their love.” Mark quietly answered.

“They do love you,” I added. So do I, but I couldn’t say it.

“Yes, even when I was being an arrogant pinhead,” Mark said with a sad smile. He pressed a soft kiss to my palm.

The announcement for the flight arrival blared. We stood holding hands.

“Dad!” Mark gasped and ran.  

I was rooted to the spot watching him greet a frail old man in a wheelchair. A beautiful woman stood behind, looking wary. The moments passed in a blur as tears streaked down my face. Not once did he turn to look at me. I needed to understand that I wasn’t a part of his life, ever. I ran back to the café my heart shattered again.

*****

I met Mark when I was working as a part-time waitress in a restaurant pursuing my diploma in management. It was two years ago.

Mark introduced himself as a photographer and said he would pay me on an hourly basis if I posed for him. I needed money, so I agreed after making it clear that I wouldn’t pose naked.

“You will be a clothed angel,” Mark explained a mischievous smile on his lips.

For the next two months, we visited every park, street, café, salon, office, and even warehouse for the photo shoot. I laughed, cried, pouted, jumped, and danced forgetting that I was acting the part of an angel.

Mark and I continued to meet occasionally. He was witty, intelligent and easy to talk to. Though I sensed there was more to him, I was content with what he gave me.

The photo shoot was for an international contest. Mark won the first prize. I was elated. For the first time, I went to his house as a surprise.

Mark was stunned to see me as he opened the door.

“Congratulations!” I beamed and hugged him not noticing that his hands were still to his sides.

“Thank you, Celeste.” He sounded formal, cold.

“What’s wrong?” I asked my smile faltering a little.

“You could have wished me on the phone. Anyway, come in.” He replied stepping back.

“You are right. I apologize for disturbing you.” I stumbled towards my car blinded by the tears.

Mark stood at the door making no effort to stop me. Later, he called to apologize. I was too hurt to respond. That was the end.

*****

Saturday arrived, but without Mark. He had no reason to. I was thankful for having a busy week. It prevented me from thinking about anything.

The drive back home took longer than I expected. I needed a good soak in the tub. I was tired, hungry and smelled of ketchup. A little kid decided to wield the ketchup bottle as a gun.

A silhouette in the corridor stopped me short. “Mark?” I whispered.

“I was waiting for you.” He replied waiting for me to open the door.

“Why?” I stepped inside trying to stay calm.  

He looked terrible with his messed up hair, dark shadows, and a wrinkled shirt.

“I… came to apologize,” Mark said running a hand through his hair. My heart lurched.  

“You shouldn’t have come, Mark.” I turned to look at the stricken expression on his face.

“Are you involved with anyone? I should have asked before.” He tensed.

“What? No. But…” I trailed off as he crushed me to his chest.

“Mark!” I gasped even as my hands slid over his back.

Holding me close, he spoke fast enough to make my head spin. “I was wrong, Celeste. I told you I made a lot of mistakes. The biggest was to let you go. I pushed you away because I was afraid. You got under my skin. After you left, my life was empty. I thought I could stop myself from falling in love with you. But, I did not realize I was already in love with you.”

“Mark…” I began. He cut me off with a shake of his head.

“Please, listen to me. You made me understand realize my stupidity. I travelled to escape from the pain and guilt. I only became miserable. Losing my mother was another stab to my already bleeding heart. Do you know I went to your old place?  I had no one to ask about you. Then, I saw you at the airport a few months ago.” Mark paused taking a deep breath.

“You knew I worked there?” I asked stunned. I cupped his face. The stubble tickled my palms.

He nodded. “I saw you by chance. But, seeing you happy, I left. When you spoke to me that day, I was relieved. I wanted to see if you were willing to give me another chance.”

“Second chances aren’t easy, Mark,” I replied. Tears filled my eyes. My hands refused to let him go.

“I understood that when you declined to pose for me. It was an attempt you get you back. I decided not to disturb you again. You had every right to refuse me, to move on.” Mark spoke more to himself.

“I couldn’t stay away from you. When dad and Ginni arrived, I wanted to introduce you to them, but you left. It was clear you did not want me. Celeste, I was a fool. Please, I beg you to give me another chance. I’m not going to hurt you again. I swear.” Mark urged touching his forehead to mine.

I closed my eyes to stop the world from spinning out of control.

“You didn’t need me anymore.” I mumbled.

“You are my life. I waited a week because I thought you were better off without me. But, call me selfish; I need you.” Mark breathed.

“I want some time, Mark.” I sighed.

“You don’t have to tell me anything now. Just say you’ll think about it.” Mark pleaded.

Biting my lip, I nodded.

“I’ll wait for you.” He was unwilling to leave. I didn’t want him gone.

“What about other women?” I had to know.

“There are no other women, Celeste. I tried to date. But, they weren’t you.” Mark pulled me closer resting his chin on my hair. The heat from his body surrounded me. My tears soaked his shirt.

“Your family?” My voice trembled.

He smiled. “They are eager to meet you.”

I pulled away keeping my hands on his chest. The pounding heart somehow assured me.

“I still need to think.” I murmured. I couldn’t do it with him this close.

Placing a light kiss on my forehead, Mark walked away saying he would be waiting for me.

I took three days to meet him.  

Entering his studio, I saw my pictures from the first photo shoot adorn the walls. Though the door said closed, I knew he was inside. Mark was near the window. He turned and stood still waiting for me to speak. The man looked like a wreck.

“Can I pose for you?” I teased him with a smile.

I was in his arms the next instant. A shudder ran through his lean frame.

“Oh, Celeste! I’m never letting you go.” He murmured feathering kisses on my face.

“Neither am I.” I hummed lifting my lips to his.

Minutes later, heady and breathless from the soul-searing kiss, I stared into the blue fire of his eyes. Love found its way to melt the ice. Now, it would bloom for a long, long time.  

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