Someone said, “Hey, Dave,” and I looked around to see who had called out my name, but no one in the coffee shop seemed interested in me.
That’s when I spotted him. It happens to all of us at some time or other. You see someone who looks familiar and you can’t remember how or when you knew them. But if you’re like me and you have something to hide, the sight of them is distressing.
Normally, I look forward to stopping for a latte on the way into work, but after seeing this guy, “normal” would never have quite the same meaning for me. I’d never seen him there before, but now that I had, I couldn’t get my mind to focus on anything else until I figured out how I knew him. I even forgot about the “first thing” meeting I had with my boss.
Nothing about the man at the counter buying a coffee should have frightened me or made me suspicious of him. He didn’t have the dark threatening looks of a killer in a Film Noir. He was, in fact, wearing a nondescript dark business suit, white shirt, and red tie, very much like the clothes I had on. And yet, I sensed danger in his presence, causing my breath to come in small quick bursts and my muscles to grow tense.
He was either younger than me, or had better genes, because he had considerably more hair and considerably less gray. And while mine aged my appearance, his gave him an air of refinement, the kind coveted by politicians. It occurred to me I might not be able to place him because he’d aged since I’d seen him last, but it didn’t help me with his identity.
The clerk brought him his order quickly and they didn’t put a lid on it, so I knew he’d be staying to drink it. I averted my face just enough to see him but not be seen by him. Then like a deer watching a nearby predator, I eyed him with apprehension as he walked to a table on the far side of the room.
Even though I’d be late for work if I didn’t leave soon, I didn’t dare stand up for fear the movement would draw his attention and expose me to his scrutiny. As minutes ticked by, my breathing became shallower, my heart beat a little faster, and I felt unpleasantly warm.
When I could no longer stand the suspense, I resolved to confront him, to go over there and grill him with questions until I knew why his presence caused me so much anxiety. I boldly slid my chair back to stand up then immediately lost my nerve. I made two more abortive attempts to face him before resigning myself to my cowardice. Wishing I had a newspaper to hide behind, I put a hand up to hide my face.
It occurred to me he might be a celebrity with a dark past, someone I’d seen in a news broadcast, but ever since I’d spotted him I’d been troubled by the feeling he was not only a part of my life now, but that I’d known him when he was younger. While I concentrated on resolving that enigma I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye.
Glancing furtively in his direction I saw him get up to leave. Like a pardoned death-row prisoner, I should have felt relieved because the ordeal would end soon, but I feared I would be in peril until I solved the mystery.
When I saw him start to walk toward me rather than the exit, my stomach flipped over. Like a kid hiding under his covers I looked away and hoped for a miracle.
His question, “Don’t I know you?” not only startled me, it had a disturbingly accusatory tone to it.
Standing just two feet from me, he must have seen my hands shaking, and when I replied, “I don’t think so,” I was sure he could hear my voice falter.
By then I was certain my safety depended on placing him before he placed me, so I willed my mind to locate him among half a lifetime of memories.
While I struggled with that, he pressed his case, declaring, “I’m sure I know you from somewhere.”
Afraid my voice might give away my identity, I just shook my head, and during the awkward silence that followed, Lauren, my clandestine lover, came into the shop. When she spotted me she smiled and headed our way. Focused on threading her way through the crowded room without bumping into someone’s table, she hadn’t noticed the man standing next to me with his back to her.
As soon as I saw Lauren I knew how the guy could be from both the present and the past. It was her smile that did it, a smile I knew well, and the same smile I’d seen in the wedding picture Lauren kept it on her bedside table, the one that always left me feeling guilty. That’s where I’d seen him, in his wedding picture taken years ago when he was much younger.
He obviously knew the sound of his wife’s voice, because he spun around when Lauren said, “Hi, Sweetheart,” to me.
She stopped short when she recognized him, probably assuming from his dark countenance that he knew about our affair. I should have said something clever then, something to suggest that meeting his wife there was just an accident, and I might have done that if another thought hadn’t struck me. What were the chances he couldn’t place me because I’d changed since my wedding picture was taken, the one my wife kept on our bedside table?
Bio: I spent 27 years working as a computer analyst, have done some free-lance technical writing, and have a degree in history. My short story Dead Lucky was published by Short-Story.Me, and Food For Thought was published by perihelionsf.com. Two of my short stories, Both Killer Lesson and Cemetery Dead Ahead, appeared in Darker Times Anthology Volume Two published by darkertimes.co.uk. I have also had five illustrated articles published by Fingerlakes.com.