By Geonn Cannon
Next to the P in SOUP
Rachel lifted her leg from the tub and watched the water slide down her calf before she submerged it again. She shifted in the water and let herself sink a little to let her hair get wet. She'd been soaking for almost half an hour, her toes and fingers already hopelessly pruned. She had started out reading, but found herself unable to concentrate on the words. Her mind kept going back to the date she had later in the day. With a *firefighter.*
She had spent the last few days trying to remember what had possessed her to make the first move, but it was hopeless. Alex Crawford was not her typical date. She tended to go for intellectual types, the kind she found in libraries with their noses buried in a giant book. She liked shy women, women who wore glasses and frumpy sweaters, the kind that really came out of their shells given the right prompt.
She shuddered in the bath and smiled at herself.
Alex definitely wasn't her typical shrinking violet. But something about the way she had looked at the hospital... Rachel wasn't a believer in love at first sight; in her mind, nothing stronger than lust was possible at first sight. The only time she had ever been in love, it had taken her a long time to realize it. Almost too long. She brought her hand out of the water and brushed her cheek, leaving a wet trail behind anyway.
Whatever the reason, she was drawn to Alex Crawford, firefighter with nerves of steel and a quiet demeanor, and was powerless to stop herself.
She craned her neck and looked at the clock next to the sink. She had plenty of time, but she decided bath time was over. She had to get herself gussied up for her date.
Ki-hyun Hair and Nails was a narrow shop with tables along the right wall, a waiting area set up along the left. The front window was half-covered by the ornate sign that Kim had painted himself, showing a sunset over what Alex assumed to be a Korean beach. The tables could be turned so they were flush against the wall or angled out so Moon could sit on one side with the client on the other. At the moment, half the tables were angled out for nail clients, although the place was vacant.
Kim, a sweet old man with snow-white hair and an eternal smile on his face, had his back to her, sweeping hair from the floor around the chairs. At the moment, he was wearing a bright pink shirt underneath his pale white apron, softly singing in his native tongue. Alex held up a bag from the Subway down the street and said, "Hey, Kim... ready for a break?"
He looked up, eyes shining when he saw Alex and his jaw dropping when he saw the sandwich. "Six-inch tuna?"
"On wheat. Do I know you or what?"
He put down the broom and headed over, taking the bag and pecking her on the cheek. "You're too good to me, too good. You should come in here more often!"
"That's what I tell her, all the good it does," Moon griped. She was walking out of the back room of the store, pushing aside the curtain that covered the entrance, and shook her head when she saw Alex. "It's so much worse than I thought. You, what, rub soot on your head when you're at fires? This is what you do to cause poor Moon to have a heart attack?"
"You should hear her when someone with split ends comes in," Kim chuckled. "End of the world time."
Moon went to the nearest seat and swiveled it around, patting the back. "Okay, Firelady, you come and sit here. I have another appointment at five minutes past five and I am going to need every minute between now and then on your atrocity of a head."
"Sweet talker," Alex grinned as she walked over and took her seat.
Kim sat down in the waiting area and crossed one thin leg over the other. Alex looked at his reflection in the mirror and said, "I thought you were sweeping?"
"And miss seeing my wife work a miracle? Never!" He took a big bite of his sandwich and grinned.
Thirty minutes later, Moon turned the chair around to face the mirror and held her hands out. "There and viola," she said. She clapped once and then planted both hands on her hips. "How do you think about your hair now, Firelady?"
Alex turned her head to look at the sides. "It's... um... nice."
"And... I don't know, a little shorter?" She laughed at Moon's stricken look. "What? I'm sorry! I really don't... um, I really can't tell what you did."
Moon gasped and snapped her fingers at her husband. "Get me the clippers. I shave her head."
"No, no, just... what, point it out to me."
Moon sighed and stepped around Alex's seat. She picked up a bottle off her table and pointed it at Alex like a gun. "First, this is a miracle product. Very important. You should try to find a bottle of this that you can afford on your salary, because it's very, very expensive and rare. It's called conditioner."
"I use shampoo," Alex said, but she took the bottle from the irate Korean.
"Shampoo. Okay. Fine and dandy. Next time you go to a fire, I hand you a little bitty fire extinguisher and have you go to work with just that." She walked around behind Alex and clutched her head with both hands. "Your hair, it cries to me, Alex! It cries and I can't bear it! Oh, the screams of terror from your poor, neglected hairs. Each one, like a screaming banshee to me!"
Throughout her tirade, she whipped Alex's head back and forth, forcing her to hold onto the arm rests. When Moon released her, Alex said, "Okay, okay, fine." She looked again at her reflection. "So this is all just from conditioner?"
"It's not *really* a miracle gel, sweetheart. I also highlighted it." She put her face next to Alex's, referring to the mirror. "Here, here... it's a little lighter brown. Brings out your eyes."
"My eyes are blue," Alex said.
"You want I should give you blue highlights? Punk rocker blue or little old lady blue? I have both." She feathered Alex's hair, motioning at the mirror when she finished. "You see? Moon worked miracle. Made you look delicious and oh-so irresistible. Your date, bah, won't know what hit her."
Alex grinned. "Thanks, Moon... how much do I owe you?"
"One promise. You will put on make-up before you go on your date. A little lipstick, even. Maybe eyeliner. Just *something,* because your date, she deserves to be proud of who she is with, right?"
"Okay, Moon, I promise."
"And details. That will be my tip. I want all the details. Tomorrow."
"I'm back on duty tomorrow."
Moon's eyes widened and she took a step back. "You will put my masterpiece under a helmet? With smoke? Oh, why do you torture me so, Alex? Why do you let my beauties live only one day?"
Alex grinned and leaned in, pecking Moon on the cheek. "I'll give you all the juicy details as soon as I can. And I'll do my best to keep it from getting too mussed."
"On the job," Kim called from the back room. He'd finished his sandwich long ago and was watching TV. He pushed aside the curtain and said, "Avoid mussing it on the job. Finger-mussing during the date is okay."
"Dirty old man," Alex and Moon muttered in stereo.
Alex headed upstairs and checked her closet, finally settling on a white shirt under a black vest. She wore a pair of jeans, hoping to give the date a casual air. She nervously applied some lipstick and fiddled with some eyeliner, kicking herself for feeling so anxious. This was high school graduation, her first kiss and coming out to her best friend all over again. She messed with her hair again, finally seeing the highlights Moon had added, and exhaled sharply. "You'll do fine. *She* asked *you* out. She's already interested. Ball is in her court."
She checked her wallet, made sure her cell phone was charged and turned on her answering machine before she stepped out into the hallway. It was six-thirty, giving her half an hour to get to Rachel's apartment.
Spring Creek Apartments stood four stories tall, a narrow slip of brick building nestled between two others. Alex approached from the west and looked up the alley next to the building. Her mind immediately began calculating the problems she would face fighting a fire here; narrow alley, close proximity to the neighbors that could cause the fire to spread more easily... with a strong enough wind, the entire block would be in danger.
She put the thoughts out of her mind and found the buzzer marked "TOM." After a moment, Rachel's voice came through the tinny speaker box: "Alex?"
"Hi, it's me, it's Alex. I'm a little early..."
"No, it's fine. Come on up."
The buzzer sounded and Alex stepped into the air-conditioned foyer. The building didn't just seem cool, it seemed chilled. She resisted the urge to shudder and headed across the faded yellow tile, glanced at the stairs before she settled on the antique elevator. Taking the stairs would give Rachel a few extra seconds to get ready, but four flights of stairs also increased the risk that she would start sweating. The risk of sweating was already bad, considering how she reacted around this woman, so she didn't want to tempt fate.
As she rode the elevator up, she second- and third-guessed herself about her decision not to bring flowers or chocolates. She just wasn't sure if that was in style anymore, or if Rachel only ate healthy things or, God forbid, if she had allergies! She sniffed her wrist at the thought and prayed her perfume was all right.
The elevator deposited her at the fourth floor. The stairs led down to her left and the short landing offered her only two door options. The first and closest, to the right of the elevator, was unpainted and neglected. Straight ahead, however, was a lovingly maintained green door with a gold 4-B hanging above the peephole. She stepped up, rapping her knuckles just below the number and stepping back to make sure Rachel could see her.
"Just a second!" The voice came from deep inside the apartment, so Alex relaxed a bit. She looked down at her hands, wondering whether or not to put them in her pockets or clasp her wrist behind her back or... she sighed, knowing that holding flowers and chocolates at least gave her something to do with her hands. It was probably why the practice began in the first place.
She fiddled with the edge of her vest and wondered if she should have heeded Moon's suggestion of a dress. *'No,'* she told herself firmly. *'Not at Vollie's. If someone spotted me, I would never hear the end of it.'*
Just as she was about to knock again, the door swung open and Rachel appeared in her robe. She held up one hand and held the robe closed with the other. "No, no, before you ask... You're right on time. I'm just... a little rushed here. Sorry. Come on in, make yourself comfortable."
She opened the door a little wider and Alex stepped inside. Rachel motioned towards the living room and said, "I'll just be a minute." She disappeared down a dark corridor that branched off from the small entryway and a few seconds later a door closed. Alex wandered past the wall that divided the kitchen and the living room, impressed at the size of the apartment.
The living room was the hub of the apartment, everything else stemming from this central point. The only light came from two lamps on either side of the room, making Alex want to kick off her shoes and curl up for a nap. The couch and armchairs were focused on the picture window rather than the television. Alex walked across the room, her eye drawn to the ceiling as she stepped over the threshold. A nearly opaque skylight dominated, directly over the couch. Alex resisted the urge to whistle at the sight, instead glancing at Rachel's bookshelf.
Books swarmed the four shelves, some crammed diagonally across the tops of others. She recognized a few author names, one or two books she'd been meaning to look for at the library and more than a couple that she'd bought herself. She heard the bedroom door open and smiled, turning to see Rachel. "You have great... wow."
"Great wow?" Rachel said, smiling. She was wearing a red kimono-style blouse, the sleeves ending just below her shoulders and leaving her arms mostly bare. The high neck of the shirt was just barely touched by the loose strands of Rachel's auburn hair, her eyes dancing in the weak light of the living room. She was wearing a black dress, cut above the knee. "What were you going to say?"
"I..." Alex swallowed. "I'm sorry. It was something about... books."
Rachel laughed again. "So I guess I look all right?"
"Understatement," Alex said.
"So... shall we?" Rachel said, motioning at the front door. Alex stepped forward and followed Rachel from the apartment, waiting for her to lock the door before stepping into the elevator. Rachel pushed the button for the lobby and they stepped back until they were standing side-by-side in the small car. Rachel looked over and said, "You look really great tonight."
Alex scoffed. "Next to you, I probably shouldn't have bothered. You look outstanding."
Rachel laughed. "I think you mentioned something about that. But no, I'm serious. You did something with your hair, right?"
Alex grinned in spite of herself. "You just made an over-dramatic Korean woman very, very happy. Yes, I did get some highlights."
"It suits you." The elevator doors opened and Alex put her hand in the small of Rachel's back as they stepped out. Rachel said good-night to someone passing by them in the lobby and let Alex hold the door for her as they stepped out into the night. There was a chill in the air and, without thinking, Alex put her arm around Rachel and drew her in. Rachel smiled and said, "Thank you."
Alex didn't reply, but rubbed Rachel's bare shoulder to keep it warm until they reached the Jeep. "That thing you do with your hand..." Rachel said.
"What... putting my hand on the small of your back?"
"Yeah, that," Rachel said. She smiled for a moment and then nodded as if coming to a conclusion about something. "I like that."
"Oh," Alex said. She opened the door for Rachel and jogged around the front of the car, sliding behind the wheel. "You buckled?"
Rachel patted the seatbelt and said, "Yep. I'm starved; I skipped lunch in anticipation of tonight. What kind of food does Vollie's serve?"
"Steak, they have a lobster plate..." Her face paled and she looked at Rachel. "Oh, God, you're not a vegetarian, are you?"
"Once, in college. But I was drunk and it didn't mean anything."
Alex laughed out loud and said, "God. I'm so nervous about everything being perfect for tonight. I even decided against bringing chocolates because I didn't know if you were a health food nut or... n-not that I'm calling you a nut..."
"Alex!" Rachel laughed. "Relax! This is a *date.* If it goes perfectly, it goes perfectly. If not, we'll have a funny story to tell our friends at dinner parties. First dates do not make or break a relationship."
Alex exhaled. "I'm sorry. I just... I keep feeling like I'm on a job interview. That if I don't impress you, I won't have another chance and that I'll lose you." She exhaled. "And now I'm scaring you off..."
Rachel smiled in the darkness. "Alex? What are you doing next Saturday?"
"I'm... uh, I think I'm working."
"I don't know. I'm probably going to be off for one of those days, I think..."
Rachel nodded. "Okay, then. Either Friday or Saturday, you're going to come to my apartment and I'll cook for you. It'll be our second date, which means this date is a moot point. Does that make you feel better?"
Alex took a deep breath and said, "Strangely enough, it does."
Rachel reached over, resting her hand on Alex's forearm and squeezed once before taking her hand back. Alex shuddered, forcing herself to keep her face neutral.
Riding a few blocks in silence, Alex stole a glance at Rachel and saw the other woman smiling absently. "What?" she asked.
"Oh, sorry. I've... it's been a while since I've been on a date."
Alex nodded. "Ah. So... wait, shouldn't you be the nervous one, then?"
"I don't know," Rachel said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm just... numb."
When Alex looked over again, she saw pain in Rachel's eyes before she turned away. She wanted to know more, but there seemed to be a barrier between them in the car that hadn't existed a few minutes ago. Alex hesitated, then reached over and put her hand on Rachel's thigh. "I'd like to wake you up again."
She pulled her hand away, kicking herself for sounding like such an idiot, such a moronic cliché. She turned to apologize and saw a tear on Rachel's cheek. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't..."
"No, it was the right thing to say," Rachel said softly. "Thank you."
They continued to ride in silence until a tan brick building rolled into view. Alex said, "Okay, here we are." She pulled into the parking lot, passing an antique fire truck that was on display like the newest SUV at a car lot. Two bright lights were focused on either side of the truck, revealing banners that said "VOLLIE'S." A smaller font went on to warn that this was "Restaurant Parking Only" and that "Violators Will Be Torched."
"You were supposed to tell me what that meant..."
"Vollie's," Alex said. "It's what we call volunteer firefighters. Like the new guy is a probie. It's firefighter lingo."
"Oh, okay," Rachel said. "And you said they have steak?"
Alex nodded. "Some of the best, melt in your mouth steak in town."
"I can't wait," Rachel smiled.
Alex parked near the fire truck and took a moment to get her things together so Rachel could get am up-close look at the display truck. The cab was open-air, with a hose wound on one side and a ladder neatly folded on top. She tried to imagine one of these dinosaurs responding to a fire in this day and age and couldn't. When she turned, Alex was standing at the back of her Jeep and smiling over at her.
Rachel hooked her thumb over her shoulder and walked back over. "You get to ride one of these every day?"
"On a bad day, I ride it three or four times. And ours is a tad more modern..."
Rachel stepped off the platform, accepted the hand that Alex offered, and said, "I would hope so. But still, it's impressive... such an elaborate display for a restaurant!"
"Wait until you see inside," Alex teased. She guided Rachel up the sidewalk.
The building was designed to look like a firehouse; the windows were framed by faux garage doors. A stone Dalmatian stood guard at the front door and Alex rubbed his head as she passed. "For luck at my next fire," she said. Rachel pulled her hand from Alex's and headed back to rub both hands over the cold, gray head of the statue.
She walked back to Alex and grinned. "That should take care of you for the next few fires."
Alex laughed and opened the door to the main restaurant.
There was a line, but the hostess spotted Alex and waved her forward. "Alex!" the girl said with a bright smile. She turned to the next couple in line and said, "Folks, this woman is a Shepherd firefighter. Would you mind if we allowed her and her companion...?"
She didn't have a chance to finish; heads started nodding immediately. The hostess guided them through the main restaurant to a secondary room.
It was smaller, more intimate, with more space between the tables. Each table had a black lantern with a small candle burning inside, transforming the dining area into an intimate dining room. The hostess sat them in one of the back booths where they could have a little bit of extra privacy, even though the rest of the room seemed to be empty, and promised to send a waiter over to take their order.
"This place is fantastic," Rachel said, lowering her voice despite their solitude. "I don't know why I've never heard of it before."
"Firefighters really keep it afloat. A lot of citizens get perturbed by the long line, even more of them are irritated when we get to jump right to the front of it." She shook her head. "They'll eat at a restaurant made in our honor, but show us a little bit of courtesy..."
Rachel picked up the menu and said, "My father used to pay for civil servants when he saw them in restaurants... if someone was wearing an official t-shirt or a uniform of some kind, he'd discreetly ask the waitress to bring him their check and he would pay for it. Ninety percent of the time, we were gone before they had any idea what he'd done."
"That happens sometimes... but don't order the steak and lobster and then cross your fingers."
"Yes, ma'am," Rachel smiled. She opened the menu and scanned the photographs at the top.
Alex glanced up from her own menu and gasped when she saw what page Rachel was currently on. "Rachel, don't look at the..."
"Oh, my God!" Rachel whispered.
"...soup page," Alex finished. She sagged in her seat and closed her eyes in anticipation of what Rachel had seen.
Next to the P in "SOUP," Alex Crawford was standing on a sidewalk in a drenched, formerly white t-shirt. Her hair was plastered to her skull from the spray behind her and she was looking off to her right like someone on the cover of a romance novel. She had both hands in front of her, holding a limp stretch of hose, obviously having just extinguished a fire. The photo was in sepia, the edges given the same charred effect the rest of the menu had.
Rachel covered her mouth and looked up at the mortified Alex. "Oh, my God!" she repeated.
"I didn't know they were taking that picture. Well... I mean, I saw the flash, but I did not know it was for something this public and I only agreed to let it be in the menu in the interest of charity. Can we please move past the mocking stage?"
"Mocking?" Rachel said, looking at the picture again. "Dear me, you are hot."
Alex looked up. "What?"
"Can you buy one of these menus?"
Alex blushed furiously and tried to snatch the menu away from her. "Give me that."
"Uh-uh," Rachel said. She turned in her seat so Alex couldn't reach it. "I'm taking this home. I'm having it framed." She clicked her tongue and said, "My date is a celebrity. I don't know if I'll be able to contain myself."
Alex sighed. "Do you want me to order for you, or are you just going to have soup?"
Rachel turned the page and said, "All right, all right." She scanned the photos in the rest of the menu, all of them local firefighters, as the waitress approached to take their drink orders. She was dressed in custom-made bunker pants, extra-wide red suspenders and a t-shirt that read "Vollie's Fire Department" over the left breast. She was a perky redhead whose nametag read Sheila. They ordered their drinks - a house wine - and salad - Caesars for both - and sat back to wait for Sheila to return. Rachel smiled. "So. The picture... do you still model?"
Alex groaned and put her head down on the table as Rachel laughed.
To be continued in Chapter Seven
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