The girl next to him at the end of the bar sits on her own and joins the dots. He watches as her pencil scratches across the cheap, pulpy paper, ricocheting across the page. He wonders how long she’s been there, if she was there when he arrived with his co-workers. Did he see her here yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that?
His workmates chat loudly at his other side. They stand between him and the window that faces on to the city where evening’s progress towards night is happening so slowly, he fears it may never happen. The office politics blend into the rest of the background bar chatter and he’s able to focus on the girl. As the world thins out, he can zoom in to the friction of the tip of the pencil against the page and the chips of lead along the line appear as obvious as chunks of coal.
If she senses the attention, she ignores it. Her eyes never waver from the page. He notices that she’s about halfway though the book. He wonders if she’s working through the puzzles in order or if she just started at a random point. No, he decides, it would be in order. Join the dots is all about order.
He could talk to her. He’s single. She’s not wearing a ring, although that doesn’t mean much. But even if they had partners waiting somewhere — at home or at a different bar or jogging purposelessly towards their own reflections at the gym — there’s no harm in just talking. A break from the usual brand of conversation might help the hours pass a little quicker for both of them. And maybe it would lead to something else; a meal, a movie, whatever. But he can’t see a way in. The opening line doesn’t come and the longer it stubbornly sits somewhere between the back of his mind and the tip of his tongue, the more he starts to panic that it’ll never come and even though he knows no one could possibly sense his anxiety, the sweat that’s oozing from his head will eventually provide the tell tale sign to these surrounding strangers.
An elbow into his side snaps him out of the cycle. His focus resets and he turns to see someone — a guy from HR whose name he doesn’t think he’s ever known — stare back at him, head cocked to the side as though impatient for a response. Words still feel jammed behind that opening question and as the pressure builds, a wave of goosebumps crest down his arms and chest. The HR guy shrugs as though it doesn’t matter and walks away.
When he turns back, the girl’s gone. Her drink sits abandoned and untouched next to the book that’s creased open with the pencil lying in the gutter between pages. He shifts along into her empty space and tries to look beyond the lines, to see the picture she was etching out, but he quickly realises that there is no picture. Instead, there are only lines out of sequence and unconnected dots.
Conversations continue. People arrive, leave and are replaced. The city swallows them up. Apartments sit unoccupied and the evening maintains its petulant resistance to the night. He picks up the pencil and turns to a fresh page.
Gavin Broom lives and writes in Stirling, Scotland. He’s been published over fifty times both online and in print and in the last year has read at Dire Literary Series in Boston, MA and Last Monday at Rio in Glasgow, Scotland. He edits fiction for The Waterhouse Review.