On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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A Lot In Common
He still couldn’t quite believe that this was happening. What were the chances?
Stuart shifted in his seat, forcing himself not to look around the restaurant yet again. He was early, and there was no reason to start wondering whether he had been stood up. She would be here, just as she’d said.
Her name was Lynn, apparently, and today she’d been in the coffee shop he dropped by every morning on his way to work. She struck up a conversation while they both waited for their orders, and to his absolute amazement, she’d asked him to have dinner with her. Stuart actually had to check that he’d heard her correctly, because nothing like this had ever happened to him before.
She was alright-looking, and a man of his age had to be content with that, but he’d been in a state of bemused detachment the entire day, struggling to believe that the encounter had actually taken place. It had been a long number of years since he’d had dinner with a woman, after all, and never in his life had the woman been the one doing the asking.
His plan was just to make it through the meal, with no expectations of anything else. Maybe he’d pinch himself and wake up at some point. He’d considered getting a quick haircut after work, but then realised how absurd that would be. So here he was.
He saw her walk in, and she almost immediately spotted him and began to walk towards the table. Stuart stood up, trying to look like a gentleman and feeling like a schoolboy. He smiled, and for some reason he nodded at her then immediately winced at the fact. She didn’t seem to notice.
Lynn handed her coat to the waiter who had appeared at her side like a vampire from mist, and she pulled out the chair directly opposite Stuart and sat down.
“Sorry if I’m late,” she said, even though they both knew that she wasn’t.
“It’s me who’s a bit early,” he replied, first chastising himself for not going around and pulling the chair out for her, and then chastising himself for the ridiculousness of the idea in this day and age. “I’ve only been here for a few minutes.”
The lie was mutually acceptable, and she nodded in return. Stuart tried not to read anything into it, and thankfully the waiter once again teleported into view with a pair of menus. Once he’d gone, it was Lynn who spoke first.
“So let’s get to know each other,” she said, and Stuart blinked.
It was direct, but maybe that was just how things were these days. He had decided to let the evening go where it may, so he just smiled. “What do you want to know?”
She smiled too, but like she was checking her makeup in a mirror, and he had a brief stirring of disquiet which he quickly pushed away.
“Have you ever been married?” she asked, and he shook his head.
“Some long-term relationships, but never actually tied the knot.”
“So probably no children?”
Again, he shook his head. “Wasn’t really part of my plan. Do you have kids?”
“A daughter,” she said, her face brightening in a way he knew was entirely subconscious. “She’s seventeen now. Laura.”
“That’s a nice name,” he said, because it was an appropriate thing to say, and also because it was true. “Were you married, then?”
“No,” Lynn replied. “Single mother. Politics?”
Stuart blinked at the quick change of topic, but he knew the previous subject was sensitive. He made a mental note to somehow work it into conversation later that he’d been raised by a single parent himself, after his father died.
“Pretty left-leaning,” he said. “Tolerance. Civility. Let people live their lives without discrimination. Pro-choice, pro-social safety net.”
She nodded, a little hesitantly. “I agree with some of that, but I’m a little more towards the centre or so. What about religion? Is faith important to you?”
“I respect people’s beliefs, but I don’t have any myself,” he replied. He was aware of the slightly apologetic tone, and found that he was slightly irritated at himself for it, despite it being understandable given the circumstances.
“Oh,” Lynn replied. Her tone made it clear, but she said it anyway. “Faith is really important to me.”
Stuart nodded, trying not to seem deflated. “I find myself feeling envious of people with strong beliefs sometimes,” he said. He meant it as a diplomatic offering, and hoped it would be received as such. It was difficult to tell.
“I guess you’re wondering how being a single mother fits in with religion,” she said quietly, and he frowned. He genuinely hadn’t been thinking it, but if she wanted to talk about it, that was OK too.
“I know that some religions might have a problem with it, but I don’t,” he said. “Was it like that for you?”
She shrugged, and in just that single moment he could see how she had looked when she was much younger. There was something unguarded and almost girlishly self-conscious about the movement. And then it was gone.
“Well, it was a journey, in every respect,” she replied. “I had IVF via a donation, because I wanted a child without waiting for a relationship.”
Stuart was both impressed and unsettled by her candour, and for whatever reason, he wanted to match it. He found himself speaking before bothering to assess whether he should.
“I actually, uh, I was involved in that once,” he said, and he knew that he had probably blushed. Which was stupid, especially at his age. But he had no choice except to plough onwards. “Donating, I mean. After I saw a documentary about people having trouble conceiving. It was a while ago, right enough. Strange experience.”
The last remark was meant to inject some levity, but it didn’t seem to have that effect. She looked at him for a long moment, and it was like she was having a silent conversation that he wasn’t part of. Then she nodded.
“I remember when the law changed to make the records public,” she said, and he nodded. He remembered it too. Children conceived via donated genetic material had the right to learn the identities of their biological parents. It was a good thing, undoubtedly, but it had troubled him at the time. He took a deep breath and exhaled quickly.
“Big topics for the start of the evening,” he said, smiling, and she tilted her head in some sort of agreement as he continued. “I guess it seems like we don’t have too much in common so far, but I swear I’m a quick learner.”
The lame joke fell flat, especially since she then reached into her purse and took out her phone. She woke the device but didn’t dismiss the lock screen, and he was confused when she then laid the phone on the table and rotated it so he could see it properly.
Her wallpaper was a photo of a teenaged girl, presumably the aforementioned Laura. She was bright-eyed and pretty, and he thought there was even something vaguely familiar about her.
“Those records are a double-edged sword, I suppose,” she said, watching him carefully now, even as the first whispers of realisation dawned on him. He looked up at her, seeing the other part of the similarity as she spoke again.
“And we actually have quite a lot in common.”
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