A Second to the World
She was a faded sort of woman, and she knew it. It wasn't that she had ever been particularly colorful, because she hadn't been, but in her youth she had a soft, reserved sort of prettiness to her oval face with its big, soulful gray eyes. All that was gone now. She was forty and could have passed for fifty, because of the haggardness, the grey circles under her eyes, the heavy curtain of thick, dull black hair, too severe against the extreme paleness of her complexion. Average height, average weight, average clothes - she was the kind of woman you'd spend an hour with and have no way to describe the next day. Except perhaps to say that she looked tired.
She worked in a florist's shop, selling flowers to bashful young lovers and guilty old husbands, because she'd thought she'd be happy if she surrounded herself with beautiful things. She didn't know how to dress beautifully, how to make her flat somewhere she'd want to come home to, but she knew flowers were beautiful and she loved them. She had found a sort of peace in her work: she could be gentle and loving with her flowers as she could be with nothing else in her life.
She didn't notice the man who walked into the store at first, and he was not the sort of man one would notice; not unlike her, really. A perfectly ordinary man, a little on the shorter side, around her age. He browsed the store quietly for a few minutes, and she didn't offer him help, because it had been a long day and she felt very tired. She only gave him a vague smile. It was when he came to pay for a small bouquet of hyacinths that it happened.
The shop around her dissolved; the familiar, but long-forgotten, scent flooded her mind with memories. Suddenly it was 1980, and there she was, on the meadow, and Ian was there, too, carving a heart with 'Sheila + Ian' inside it onto the tree. She was saying, no, stop, you're hurting the tree, but he knew she didn't mean it and loved him for it. She loved him like you love when you're 18, believing that the gods had created the universe only so that their paths could cross.
He was holding her, now, and kissing her hard on the lips, and she felt like she would never grow old or haggard or unloved. She felt so happy she thought she would die from it, because no human heart could process this much happiness. She was so happy she thought that she would never need anything again because this single moment would last her all eternity.
And then - poof. She was back to the shop floor, wrapping the hyacinths in whispering pink tissue paper, tying a ribbon around their stems. What had been a lifetime to her had been a second to the world. She had to ask.
"That cologne you're wearing - it's Athos, isn't it?" Sheila asked.
The man looked surprised. "Yes, how did you know?"
"A friend of mine wore it, back in the day. It's been discontinued for years, hasn't it?"
"Since the nineties, I think, but they've just brought it back." He smiled shyly. "I used to wear it too. Back in the day."
"They've brought it back? How lovely," she said, because it was. It seemed the most wonderful thing in the world that they brought it back. "How lovely." She smiled, her first real smile in years, the smile that had lit up her face every day lifetimes ago.
The man looked at her curiously. He paid for his flowers.
"Well, goodbye," he said, a touch awkwardly.
Sheila smiled at him. "Goodbye." She hesitated. "Have a nice day."
The man hesitated too, then smiled back. "You too."
Kacper Nedza studies literature and creative writing at Central Connecticut State University. He is the assistant editor of Off Center Magazine, where he has published creative nonfiction.