Authors: Laura Miller
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locals or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright ©2012 by Laura Miller.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means or stored in a database or retrieval system.
To the Dealer of dreamsFor fairytales
We have but one danceto a lifetime of songs.Table of Contents
A Blink of an Eye
About the AuthorHauntings
The evening was a Southern stereotype – warmer than comfortable, more humid than not, but then again, what more could I expect from aCharlestonsummer? I was learning very quickly that this was the only way they came – hot and sticky. Thank God for the breeze that made its way over the waves in the harbor and to our faces, though. Without it, I just know I would look like a soggy newspaper with all of its ink running down its thick, cemented pages. Minus the natural fan, my make-up and sunscreen, along with my cheery expression, would have taken off for the imaginary finish line at my painted toes hours ago.
With that thought, I caught a strand of my long hair that was being tossed in the salty breeze and secured it behind my ear as I took a step onto the city’s shell sidewalk and waited for my company to join me.
“Now, where would you like to go, Miss Lang?” I heard his beautiful voice echo from behind me then.
It was as if his words had come from heaven.Miss Lang.Yep, that was my name. I tried unsuccessfully to replicate in my head the exact way he had said it. His voice had this thick, Charleston accent, where every word had more syllables than ever intended, yet each word seemed as if it had been carefully chosen and presented in a way that only a man born and raised in the heart of the South could – distinguished and from a different time. I smiled up at him, and he flashed a coffee-stain-free grin back at me. I was quite aware of just how rare his pearly whites were. This whole place ran on coffee beans and their fumes, though I hadn’t figured out why. You’ve got the beach to your right, palm trees to your left. Do you really need a better pick-me-up? And on top of that, I had found out fairly early on that businesses here operated on a 32-hour work week. No one in this town worked on Fridays. No one. Here, Fridays were dedicated to the two Bs – Beach and Boats.
“Well, Miss Lang, where’s our next stop?” he asked again, extending his bended elbow toward me.
Without so much as a thought, I slipped my arm into his.
Even when he was trying to act impatient, his smile was still gorgeous – almost debonair-like – to match his jet-black hair, sun-tanned skin and soft, brown eyes.
I put my roving thoughts on hold and turned my head toward the sky to instead marvel at my pleasant predicament. At the same time, I felt a smile unexpectedly escape my glossy lips, and Ididn’t even try to hide it.
The sites of downtown – the pier, the market,Marion Square– began cascading through my mind like an old-time slide show. There were too many places to choose from, though any place would do – as long as I had my company. And maybe life wasn’t that complicated after all because wrapped up in my arm was Anthony Ravenel – first-year lawyer, quiet but deliberate. His office was a door down from mine at the firm, which seems now to be a pretty serendipitous coincidence – considering he had become such a close friend and that with his family’s old money, he really never had to work a day in his life. But then, I guess much like all of us at112 Broad St., unfortunately, law was his passion.
“How about…,” I began, and then let my wordstrail off as I continued to ponder my great dilemma, our next grand adventure.
I could feel strands of my dirty blond hair being tossed in the soft breeze again, gently tickling the part of my sun-tanned back where my sundress began. I wasn’t a true Charlestonian, so Fridays still involved me locked away in a small office with no windows to the world, but there was always Saturday – just enough time to get that Vitamin D that I used as an excuse to get a free tan.
My marveling continued then as I noticed that Anthony had been watching me intently, as if each word that poured off of my lips held some precious, untold secret. I can’t remember the last time I had this much undivided attention. Even my clients didn’t pay attention to me this well. I made a mental note to choose my words carefully and to not mistake his psychiatrist-like listening skills for a therapy session. This was my co-worker after all. Though, I was starting to guess that on the flip side of the coin, it was a whole, different story. I was quickly getting the feeling that he wasn’t seeing me as just a co-worker tonight. No, it definitely seemed like something a little more. And now that we’re on the subject, he sure didn’t look like the same guy that shared a wall with me 50 hours of the week either. Tonight, somehow, he was the perfect kind of seductive and dangerous – the kind that could strike up a sweet conversation with you outside the hard walls of the courtroom but then murder you with dagger eyes and knife-sharp words during his opening arguments inside. And then, he was still different somehow. I hadn’t figured out if it was that his future was more thought-out than anyone I had ever met or if it was somehow that his heart always seemed to know exactly what it wanted that made him inherently different from most guys. Then again, he was also straight and to the point – no drama, no jaded past. He was, no doubt, someone a girl like me could appreciate.
“How about we go…,” I began again, recovering from my spiraling thoughts once more, but thistime, a sound stopped me short.
Almost instantly, I halted and dug my sandal’s heel into a soft space between the pieces of uneven sidewalk beneath us to keep my weight from tumbling forward. I could feel that Anthony halted too, bracing me as if to catch my fall. At the same time, I felt the corners of my mouth fall out of a smile as my eyes darted feverishly to the direction of a familiar, yet long-forgotten memory.
The adrenaline that rushed in waves through my body started at my heart and then sprinted to my fingers and knees, causing little, tingling sensations. And on the inside, I panicked.
The hum, which cut like a knife into my togetherness, was coming from an unfamiliar, dark-colored sedan resting at a stop light on the street directly in front of us. I noticed the melody first, but as I stood there, blocking out everything – the trotting hooves of carriage rides, muted conversations – I could faintly make out lyrics too.
“Julia, are you okay?” the beautiful man beside me echoed, sounding slightly concerned.
My heart was beating violently against the walls of my chest now. My breaths were quickening. My legs were struggling to hold my weight. The tiny heel of my sandal had, by now, become a part of the ground beneath me, and I was just merely an extension of this small piece of earth. And somehow, in what had only amounted to a matter of moments, my world had grown so small – and nothing mattered more than hearing that melody in the near distance. And yet, somehow, I managed to find a word. Well, almost a word.
“Hmm?” I asked half-heartedly. Even I could tell I was clearly distracted and disinterested in my company’s, for now, unimportant question.
“Are you alright?” he asked again cautiously.
I tried to recollect myself even as my senses were being drawn into the Siren’s sedan-like lair.
“I’m sorry,” I answered him in a soft, unusually preoccupied voice. The voice even surprised me. “I just… that song,” I stuttered. My eyes were planted straight ahead.
He moved closer, and suddenly, I felt his fingers interlocking mine. I was aware enough to notice that they were larger than mine, a little rougher than mine, but I was too lost in something other than us to respond outwardly to his brave gesture, though I don’t think he had ever touched me like that before. In fact, who was I kidding? Of course he had never touched me like that before. Co-workers don’t hold hands.
“I hear the music. What about it?” he asked. He sounded puzzled, though his detective work remained patient and slightly curious.
“I know it,” I whispered now as I struggled to still hear the lyrics from my past and the man’s heavenly voice beside me all at the same time. I wasn’t sure which one I’d rather be hearing at the moment. The beautiful man’s voice was safe and predictable. The lyrics, on the other hand, were from a time when everything was perfect, but anything but predictable.
Anthony drew his face closer to mine without saying a word. I could smell the sweet hues of his cologne as his strong chest pressed against my shoulder. I was just beginning to realize how warm and strong his hand felt – maybe it was because there was such a sharp contrast between his and mine. My hand was growing colder and clammier with each pressing second. The whole moment was all so new, so foreign – my co-worker holding my hand, that sound – both of those events simultaneously. I mean, I would usually feel butterflies in a time like this – a first for us – the first move. Yet now, I just wanted him not to be near me, not to feel my ice-cold hands, my slimy scales for skin. And oddly enough, now, I just wanted him to stay quiet and still because regardless of how I wanted to feel or how I thought I should feel about him or his hand-holding or his cologne or his chest’s close proximity to my body, it took a backseat to an unfamiliar, dark sedan and its not-so-unfamiliar echo in the distance.
“Is this one a favorite – the song?” he whispered, still trying to reel me in, I’m sure, and rightly so.
He remained patiently interested in what had so violently stolen me away from him. My eyes, however, continued to pierce my distraction as if I could physically see what the lyrics that poured from it meant.
“No, it’s not a favorite,” I lied. My half-truth was soft – almost in auto-pilot, the kind that was distant and low. It was still too early to let him in. And it wasn’t completely a lie. The truth was that I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to feel about it. Like him, I was hearing the song’s entire version for the first time.
Having said my peace, I returned my full attention back to the sound as if I had no control over its pull.
Anthony paused then, but I still said nothing. I had barely noticed that I wasn’t blinking. I guess I thought I might miss some of the lyrics or something if my eyelids lingered over my intense, green irises too long. My glossy lips too were wrapped up in my body’s so-called revolt, never touching each other as I stared longingly. And my chest rose and fell as if it took great pains to control its pattern.
“Do you like the artist then?” I could faintly hear Anthony ask me– almost as if from a distance.
I swore my heart stopped momentarily then as I unintentionally squeezed his hand tightly – tighter than one should squeeze a hand she was holding for the first time.
The artist. If he only knew.
I still said nothing.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Julia?” he asked, sounding just short of worried.
No, was what I wanted to say, but I didn’t, as a decade of memories and what seemed as if it were a heartfelt confession flooded my mind and lay heavy on my jaded heart. I could tell Anthony was starting to grow concerned by my short leave of absence and my sudden, distressed state. His voice held a lingering uneasiness, and I knew I wasn’t being fair, but I still couldn’t tear my stare away from that old sedan even as the traffic light turned a blaring green and the vehicle sped away, taking its melody with it.
I stared for long, drawn-out seconds until I was unable to see the car any longer. Then my eyes followed a conscious path from my elbow to my clammy hand to his hand and then up to my company’squestioning, soft, brown eyes.
“Yes, I’m fine. It’s nothing,” I said softly, hastily, habitually tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear.
His big, chocolate, long-suffering irises made him look like an anxious puppy, waiting for its master to recognize its presence, waiting for her to say something, waiting for her to come back to him. He was so gorgeous – the mysterious, foreign kind of gorgeous – if you could call the South a foreign land. Really, he was the kind that you dreamed about – and here I was getting lost in some loud, old sedan. I knew that he probably didn’t get this type of behavior very often. And he was so innocent, still so oblivious to my past and the people who had shaped it. And he looked as if he wanted me to say that I was fine and that my world hadn’t just turned on its end, but I wasn’t fine, and I wasn’t ready to act like I was either. I wasn’t ready to come back yet.
I took a second to take one more glance back at the cobble-stoned piece of the world where the old sedan had been resting just moments before. The car was definitely gone now, and by now a much larger, rusty pick-up truck with an early American flag plastered across its back window had replaced it. There was no music pouring from its speakers – no more lyrics, no more words. With the sedan, had gone the song, and it had left my world painfully quiet and eerily still.
I turned back toward the harbor as my eyes caught once again the surprisingly sultry creature still attached to my hand, still waiting unwaveringly for my reply. I counted it a blessing that he was still there, that he hadn’t fled in my brief lapse of worldly consciousness. It was time to come back. After all, it wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t just dropped the entire weight of my past onto my chest.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “How about the pier?” I both asked and stated with the best sincere smile I could muster up, forcing my attention back to him, back to us. I must choose my words carefully, I reminded myself.
“And, no, he’s not my favoriteartist,” I said to him softly.
I took a deep breath in and then let it out slowly. Then, I flashed another half-hearted grin back up at him just before taking one last look over my shoulder.
“He used to be,” I whispered.Second Glance
Icould feel the fire warming my face as I stretched my bare fingers closer to its flames. The smell of burning logs filled the air around me and sunk deep into the fibers of my hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans. My eyes were entranced by the orange blaze, watching it sizzle and pop as it ate away pieces of the cedar’s bark little by little. The night surrounding the fire was unseasonably crisp, but not altogether unusual for aMissourisummer, and voices echoed in my background over the flames’ constant chatter.
“Hey, Julia,” I heard one of those voices call out from behind me.
Before I could turn around, a lanky, teen-aged boy jumped over the log I was sitting on and plopped down next to me.
“Oh, hi, Jeff,” I said cheerfully, after he was already making himself comfortable. “Getting a little chilly out there away from the fire?”
“Nah, I’m alright,” he said shyly, then paused.
“Hey, I can go get ya some hot chocolate, though. That should warm ya up, if you’re cold,” he added proudly as the corners of his mouth rose slightly.
I started to answer him when a tall, athletic-looking figure squatted down behind the lanky boy. I could see in the bonfire’s light the athletic boy’s hand come to his face and cover his mouth as he whispered something into the lanky boy’s ear.
Within seconds, the lanky boy stood up, dusted off his faded blue jeans and planted his eyes squarely on me.
“I’ll be right back,” the lanky boy announced. In his voice was an unspoken plea for me to stay exactly where I was.
Then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared back into the black night, undetectable by the fire’s flames.
I stared down the tall, athletic boy in front of me, my green eyes bright and suspecting of mischief.
“Will Stephens, what did you say to him?” I asked, scolding him playfully.
“I told him his truck lights were on,” Will said, grinning and taking a seat beside me on the log where the lanky boy had just been sitting.
“Are they?” I asked, somehow feeling as though I already knew the answer.
“No,” he mumbled, grinning softly into the fire’s flames.
A smile grew on my face as I caught Will’s fierce blue eyes. He was boyishly handsome – that I could admit easily. He wore his usual – worn-in jeans and tee shirt – seemingly unfazed by the night’s chill. He stood six-foot-four, had a medium build and a golden tan. His short, russet, slightly curly hair had been bleached by the sun to make the ends just a little lighter than the roots. It made him look like he belonged on a beach in Southern California, instead of in an old corn field in easternMissouri. Though, his true origin was unmistakable. He spoke in that perfect Midwestern inflection – the kind where the words flowed faster than a Southern drawl, slower than a Northeastern accent – recognizable mostly by the way he drew out his shorta.
“When are you going to sayyes?” Will asked, without skipping a beat, causing my stare on him to break.
I turnedmy gaze back toward the flames.
“Depends on what the question is,” I said slowly, with a coy smile, allowing my eyes to eventually meet his again by the time I was finished with my sentence. “Same question,” he echoed back – almost bashfully this time.
I paused for an instant.
“Then, same answer,” I said softly, locking my eyes on his. My green irises screamed that I was serious, but I still had a smile planted on my face.
“Come on, Jules,” he protested. “I know you like me. And you’re gonna love me, someday,” he added in a playful, persistent affirmation.
My eyes grew big, just as the corners of my mouth turned up a little more.
“Love?” I asked. My voice held a natural surprise to matchthe rest of my physical state.
“Jules, just let me take you to Donna’s,” he implored – effortlessly resilient.
I laughed softly and shook my head.
“That sounds like a date, Will,” I said, stuffing my hands into the pocket of my hooded sweatshirt to ward off the night’s chill.
“Yeah, it kind of does,” he admitted, smiling and nodding his head.
I paused to catch the side of his face that the fire was illuminating. His eyes were on the flames. His expression was happy but thoughtful.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” I asked, keeping my stare on him, just in case he cracked.
His eyes cast down, but his smile remained. I watched him tug at a loose piece of bark on the log beneath us and finally pry it free and toss it into the fire’s flames.
“Jules, I was always serious,” he said, his expression never wavering.
I still stared at him, intent on beating him in his on game, though. I didn’t know Will to be serious.
“Will, you threw rocks at me in third grade,” I reminded him.
He glanced up at me for a moment and then quickly returned his eyes to the ground. I could see his even, white teeth through spurts of the dancing flames. I could tell he was grinning.
“It was out of love, I promise,” he assured me, while meeting my eyes. “You could think of it like Cupid’s arrows, only they were rocks.”
I wrinkledmy forehead and pursed my lips.
“No?” he asked and stated at the same time as if to echo my expression. “Well, I guess I just had a funny way of showing it back then.”
“Will, you purposely got my favorite volleyball stuck up in the gym’s rafters,” I proceeded.
His eyes flashed sharply toward mine, and his smile widened. He even chuckled a little and shook his head.
“You still remember that?” he asked, with a surprised look on his face.
I glared at him with a callus, yet playful expression.
“It was last week, Will,” I reminded him.
“Can I just take you to Donna’s – to make up for all my past wrong-doings?” he pleaded as his hopeful, baby blue eyes met mine yet again.
Our gaze lasted just long enough for my straight face to unintentionally grow a smile. Yet, I continued to draw out the silent seconds while I tossed his invitation around in my head.
“You know, you kind of owe me,” I admitted softly.
But before I could answer Will further, several girls sprang from the darkness and proceeded to find places on logs on the opposite side of the bonfire. They were giggling, and their eyes were on Will.
“Will, sing us a song,” a bubbly brunette finally commanded from across the flames.
The bubbly brunette was Rachel, my best friend – a self-proclaimed meddler, but loyal as they come. I met her the summer before our freshman year of high school at a volleyball camp. My first real memory of her was in the dorm room at the university where the camp was being held. I remember the light was still on, and I could see through my tired, squinting eyes that Rachel was sitting on her twin-sized bed, wearing what looked like freshly pressed, silk, pink pajamas with tiny, fuchsia bows lining the tops of the pants and collar of the tank top.
“Hey, can you hit the light?” I remember asking her through my narrowed eyes.
“Okay, in a second. Some of my bows are coming untied,” Rachel had replied.
The light was piercing, but my stare was curious.
“You know you’re only going to sleep, right?” I had asked her, somewhat bemused.
“I know, but the ribbons will bother my face, and plus, I have to look cute. You could meet Prince Charming in your dreams, you know,” she had said, remaining confidently unfazed by my comment.
I remember smiling, not even mad, just puzzled by her strangehabits and too tired to reply.
We seemed to have been pretty inseparable ever since that night really. Wherever she was, I was. Wherever I was, she was – that kind of thing.
“Rach, I can’t sing,” Will protested bashfully, his head down, searching for another piece of bark to pull off of the log beneath us.
“What?” Rachel asked. Her voice went up in pitch as she said the word, and she pretended to look shocked. “Then why was THIS in your car?” she asked again proudly, picking up an object from the shadows behind her and passing it around the edge of the fire toward Will.
“My car?” Will asked in a deep, velvety voice – unusual for his age – as a six-stringed acoustic guitar became visible in the orange flames.
“Yep, your car,” Rachel said, as if it had been perfectly acceptable for her to have retrieved it.
A surprised expression flashed across Will’s strong features.
“Jules, remind me to lock it next time,” he whispered to me, as his rough hands gripped the guitar that by now had reached him.
I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
“Play us something,” Rachel continued to demand.
Will, seemingly at aloss for words, found my stare.
“The girls want a song,” I said to him smiling, offering him no escape route. By now, I was curious too.
He looked down at the strings of the guitar and grinned.
“Okay,” he conceded softly, shaking his head back and forth as he began to strum the guitar’s strings, eventually producing a soft, familiar melody.
I recognized the chorus to be the old song that comes to life through my jeep’s speakers every time I turn it on. It surprised me how well he could play it. It was as if I were listening to the song being played on the radio in the jeep or on TV or something. He was good – really good even.
He tickled the guitar’s strings a little bit more, almost as if he were prolonging the part where the words came in. But then, eventually his voice came, and he caught me off-guard yet again. His voice was deep, as usual, but his sultry hum made his usual deep voice sound even more soothing and kind of seductive. Will, seductive? Those were two words I had never put together. In fact, I almost choked on my own thoughts. And most surprising of all, he was good – way too good to be in an old corn field in the middle of nowhere, that’s for sure.
His first words came out soft and timid, as if this were the first time he had ever had an audience, but as he continued, his protective walls seemed to shatter and slowly fall. And before I knew it, he was singing as if entertaining was what he was born to do.
I listened in a state of controlled awe as the girls on the other side of the fire joined in the next verse.
Then, Will grew quiet, as his fingers strummed the last chorus on the instrument cradled in his basketball-conditioned, muscular arms. And as his guitar fell silent a few moments later, Rachel and the other girls joined me in speechless amazement – our eyes on Will.
“Wow, Will,” Rachel exclaimed first. “I’m not going to lie. I was really expecting a voice from the boy who starts a band in his garage only to still be in his garage 40 years later with a beer belly and a mullet. I wasn’t expecting a rock star.”
Will’s eyes darted toward me, but quickly hit the ground by our feet again before they could catch my awestruck stare. His bashful smile was contagious, though, and it helped to break my frozen expression.
I glanced at Rachel with a face that held a million questions.
“Well, I can see that maybe you two have something new to talk about, so…we’re just going to get some more hot chocolate,” Rachel said before motioning for the other girls tofollow her away from the fire.
Within a moment, Will and I were alone again. There was a slight pause before either one of us said anything, but it didn’t last long. I just couldn’t hold it in anymore.
“Will, that was really good,” I gushed – near awestruck again. I was surprised at how easily the words just kind of fell out of my mouth. I was usually scolding him, not flattering him.
“Really?” he questioned me sincerely. I could tell he wasn’t just fishing for more compliments.
“Will,” I said, half laughing. “All these years…How didn’t I know that you could play the guitar – or sing?” I questioned him. “And that good?” I added.
He continued to smile, and his eyes remained tantalized by the fire’s flames.
“Not many people do know, I guess,” he confessed softly. “I’m pretty good at keeping secrets around here.” He winked in my direction as he rested the base of the guitar against the log next to him.
He still came off bashful, but I could see glimpses of his old confidence slowly coming back. I kept my eyes on him even as his attention turned back toward the flames. I knew I had a look planted on my face of something between intrigued and baffled, and I knew he could read me like a book, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t help it. He was good – really good, and I found myself fascinated by a side of Will Stephens I had never before seen.
“So, I see,” I said, smiling wildly.
“Do you write songs too?” I asked. Maybe there was still more I didn’t know about him.
“I try, when I get a chance,” he said modestly. “Writing’s the best part really. It’s the words that change people’s lives in the end, right?”
I paused to take in his question. He played the guitar, sang and wrote his own songs, and now he was talking about changing people’s lives. I was beginning to realize quickly that in all the years I had known him, I had never really got to know Will Stephens.
“Hmm, I guess that makes sense,” I said in reply to his question. “I’ve never reallythought about it,” I confessed.
I watched his eyes follow the dancing flames in the fire. I could see he was smiling.
“I’ll have to write a song for you sometime,” he said – almost inaudibly – as his eyes met mine again.
A smitten smile unexpectedly shot across my face, and I quickly hid it as best I could – purely out of habit. Will Stephens doesn’t get smitten smiles.
“Do you write a song for every girl you have a crush on?” I asked sarcastically, trying my best to recover my poker face. I felt like I was coming unraveled. It was a completely new feeling for me – like someone had just released a million, tiny butterflies loose in my stomach, and they were feverishly flying up into my head and making me lose my mind.
“Well, I will once I write one for you,” he retorted quickly.
I smiled – completely uncontrollably. I didn’t even try to hide it this time. The truth was that I was kind of already getting used to the intrusive, little butterflies overtaking my being. They could stay, I resolved.
“I’m pretty sure it’s brown-eyed girl though,” I added playfully, in an attempt to railroad the subject as I now, under the butterflies’ control, pulled off a piece of the bark and threw it into the flames before returning my hand safely to my sweatshirt’s pocket. “In the song, you said green-eyed girl.”
Will paused for a moment as if caught in his own mistake.
“Let me see,” he said then, as he gently touched his hand to my chin and turned my face toward his.
Gone was the instinct or necessary desire to violently shift my face away from him or to get his hand away from my chin as quickly as possible. I simply just sat there – motionless, letting his hand take control of my movement. Who was this new person I had become?
“Nope, pretty sure it’s green-eyed girl,” he said assuredly.
A slight smile lingered on my lips.
“Will Stephens, what am I going to do with you?” I asked softly, as his hand slowly fell from my chin.
He remained silent then, almost as if he had lost his words, yet his piercing baby blue eyes remained on me.
“Jules, I’m sorry about the rocks, your ball and every other stupid thing I’ve ever done,” he said sheepishly.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You get the ball down for me some day, and we’ll call it even.”
“Okay,” he said softly, smiling and shaking his head, returning his gaze to the flames. “But I’m not gonna stop askin’, you know?”
I looked at him – amused.
“I considered that,” I said, laughing. “And what if I never sayyes?”
Will looked to be pondering my question.
“Well, then I suppose I would have spent my life doin’ something worthwhile,” he said. “My parents can’t be disappointed in that.”
“Will,” I said in protest, laughing again and lifting my eyes toward his.
He was already looking at me when our eyes met, and for a split second, my world mysteriously paused.
His wild, bright blue irises were all I could think about then as I became completely and hopelessly lost in his world.
“Will,” a voice suddenly shouted out from behind us. The voice was shrill and intrusive, elbowing its way intoour little world – literally.
Both Will’s and my attention jetted toward the direction of the sound behind us as we watched a lanky boy emerge from the darkness and plop abruptly down onto the log between us, forcing both Will and I to shift apart.
“Will, those were Ben’s lights, not mine,” he informed Will hastily – not evergiving Will his full attention.
“Here, Julia, here’s some hot chocolate,” the lanky boy announced, facing me and presenting to me a steaming, Styrofoam cup.
I removed both of my hands from my sweatshirt’s pocket and cradled the cup as Will recoiled and shifted his weight away from the boy now wedged between us. I watched Will quickly divert his eyes to the fierce, orange flames again as he habitually ran his hand against his thigh.
“Thanks, Jeff,” I said as the distracted, lanky boy found a stick and proceeded to poke at the fire’s ashes.
I watched for a few, long seconds the lanky boy menacingly prodding what was left of the logs before mygaze turned up again.
What I glimpsed next made me smile. My own eyes had caught the bright, blue gaze of Will Stephens, and for the first time in the history of humanity, his irises didn’t look so juvenile – his stare didn’t seem so mischievous.
“What’s your favorite sport?” I asked.
“Aah, basketball,” he said confidently.
“What’s your favorite food?” I continued.
“Umm, I don’t know. Aah…,” he stuttered.
“Will, the game doesn’t work if you don’t answer the first thing that comes to your head. It’s supposed to be the truth. You have to do it fast,” I tenderly protested with a happy smile, though I tried to show him the most serious face I could conjure up.
“Okay, pizza,” he said, grinning, yet slightly defeated.
“What’s your favorite summer job?” I asked.
“Umpiring,” he answered quickly.
“Okay, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I continued.
“Okay, Jules, that one I really don’t know. You know that. Skip,” he pleaded.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’ll answer for you – a famous musician.”
He was smiling and shaking his head when he looked up at me.
“What’s a hobby not many people know you have?” I asked.
“Aah…playing guitar, I guess,” he said.
Who are you going to marry?” I rambled off quickly.
“You,” he answered without missing a beat.
I stopped suddenly. My expression went from almost blank to a wild smile in a matter of a simple second.
“Really?” I asked, just wanting to hear him say it again.
He smiled wildly also. “That surprises you?” he asked. “I’ve only asked you out every day I’ve known you.”
“I know, but I guess I just didn’t really think that far ahead,” I said, smiling softly and bringing my legs to a bent position, halfway up the hood of his SUV.
“You really want to marry me?” I asked.
“Of course I do. Well, if that’s okay with you?” he asked sheepishly.
I smiled a happy smile as I pressed my head against his muscular chest. I could smell the cologne that lingered on his tee shirt. It had become both a welcoming and comforting scent. It was attractive andfamiliar all at the same time.
“You want to grow old and wrinkly with me?” I asked.
“Maybe old, but not wrinkly,” he said back. I could tell he was smiling.
I wore my best half-smileand squinted my eyes up at him.
“Oh, that’s right. I was blessed with the good genes, so that means, you’ll have to grow wrinkly on your own,” I retaliated as I gently pinched his side.
Laughing, he squirmed slightly and then pulled me closer to him. And for a moment, neither of us said anything.
Then, I breathed in the subtle smell of wild flowers as I slowly leaned back against the windshield again. Thousands of fireflies flickered in the deep ebony, open fields around us, while what seemed like a billion stars extended from the highest point of the night sky to the tip of the shadowy tree line.
“Do you remember the first time we officially met?” Will asked,breaking the peaceful silence.
I thought hard, staring up into the endless sky, almost as if searching for the answer there.
“Was it the first day of school?” I asked finally.
“Yes,” he said confidently.
“Do you remember what you were doing?” he asked.
“Umm…no, I don’t think I do,” I replied, shaking my head.
“You were trying to get your duffle bag into your locker, and you were struggling so much that a book fell from your arms and hit your bare toes,” he said.
“You were watching me?” I asked with a surprised smile lighting up my face.
“I noticed you,” he said. “I don’t know how I couldn’t have. You were making such a fuss.”
I laughed. “Why didn’t you offer to help?”
“You looked too cute to interfere,” he said. “Your nose was all scrunched up and your eyes were closed so tight.”
“Oh gosh,” I groaned. “That was your first impression of me?”
“Yes, and it was then I knew I wanted you,” he said, smiling softly.
“Right,” I said. “I’m sure that was the defining moment.”
“It was,” he confessed.
“You really are beautiful, you know,” he said next, as his eyes returned to the heavens’ sea of stars.
I smiled wider, surrendering to another warm breeze gently pushing across my face.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” I teased as I glanced up at him again before refocusing my attention too on the night’s sky.
Moments went by before either of us spoke again. It was I who finally, yet reluctantly, punctured the quiet with my find.
“Look, a shooting star,” I exclaimed, pointing to the vast west sky above, unable to control my excitement.
“Make a wish,” I said as I quickly shut my eyes, causing my nose to rumple and forcing a happy grin to my face yet again.
Then, I peeked out of one eye for a second to see Will following my lead. His eyes were closed tightly also. I was happy he had played along. He wasn’t exactly the make-a-wish-on-a-star type, like I had been raised to be.
I held my eyes clinched together until I recited a wish in my head and then looked back at Will. He was just opening his eyelids as well.
“What did you wish for?” I asked.
Will turned on his side and faced me. The moon was almost full, and the light reflecting off of it lit up his face just enough to make those blue eyes of his subtly visible. He really was gorgeous – the kind of subtle gorgeous that you found once you ripped away a childhood of rock-throwing, the kind of familiar gorgeous that could make you melt if you weren’t too careful. And his smile – that was his secret weapon. It had always been – even if I had never let him know that I had thought so. I was pretty sure he could solve all of the world’s problems with just that one, sweet smile of his.
I watched his irises make a line from my lips to my eyes. Then, in one gentle motion, he carefully tucked the few blond strands of my long curly locks that had lain to rest on my cheekbone behind my ear. His soft touch attracted my full attention.
He paused then for a couple more seconds, presenting me with just enough time to take everything – his sultry lips, his warm, blue eyes, his seductive smile – and bottle it all up, for safe keeping, of course. Then, as if there were no turning back at that moment, our eyes met, and he leaned closer, and hovered over my lips. My heart pounded, and the now, welcomed butterflies flocked in by the millions. But this time, there wasno lanky boy to interrupt them.
I felt his lips finally meet mine, and I surrendered to his soft, gentle kiss.
I smiled when his lips eventually withdrew from mine. My heart continued to pound as he kept his piercing blue eyes on me. He seemed to be taking in my joy, just as I was taking in his. I probably could have run a marathon right then and still have been standing at the end, smiling and unfazed.
“You gonna be my butterfly forever?” he asked me then, softly, almost a whisper – his voice raspy, but comforting.
“Your butterfly?” I whispered, smiling, though a little bemused.
“Yeah, you’re as beautiful as a butterfly. C’mon, you know you want to be,” he coaxed playfully.
I laughed gently.
“Well, you’ve never asked it that way,” I whispered softly. I was thankful that he probably couldn’t see me blushing.
“Does that meanyes?” he asked, grinning.
I paused for a moment.
I felt his hand take my hand as he intertwined his fingers with mine. I surprisingly loved the way my hand felt in his – loved and safe.
“That meansyes,” I confessed softly, allowing a smile to span across my face.
“That’s what I’ve waited my whole life to hear,” he said, smiling, as he kissed my forehead and then retook his place beside me.
We returned to unreserved silence then, as if emptying our souls without a word. It was funny how the same lips that had always incited so much speech – usually scolding – could also take it away so effortlessly. And now, with the silence, I couldn’t help but replay the previous set of moments in my mind over and over again – as if confirming their reality, as if verifying that it was, in fact, Will Stephens sitting beside me, the same Will Stephens that had been just another menacing boy a week ago – before I turned back toward him.
Yep, it was him – the same guy. He looked so different now.
“You still never told me what you wished for,” I whispered into his ear.
He turned and faced me again.
“Well, since it came true, I guess I can tell you. That is how it goes, right?” he asked playfully.
“Of course,” I whispered, nodding confidently.
“Well then, I wished for my first kiss – but only if it could be with you,” he went on.
I refused to say anything then, as if a word would force us into the next moment, and I had no desire to do that. It surprised me at how much I wanted to inhabit our most recent minutes together and rerun his last words on a continuous loop for the rest of my days. Had I really fallen for Will Stephens?
Bringing our locked hands closer to my lips, I kissed the back of his hand and then positioned it so that it softly touched my cheek.
Will’s eyes met mine then.
“What did you wish for?” he asked softly, curiously.
“I can’t tell you. Mine hasn’t come true yet,” I confessed with a mischievous smile.
Will chuckled and kissed my lips again.
“Will you tell me what it is when it does?” he asked, after unlocking his lips from mine.
I thought for a moment.
“Yes,” I said softly, smiling and gently biting my bottom lip.
“You promise?” he asked.
“I promise,” I assured him.
He shook his head, as if satisfied with my vow.
“Jules,” he whispered.
“Mm hmm?” I asked softly.
“I’m glad you finally saidyes,” he whispered again.
“Me too,” I said.
“It was worth the wait,” he said, smiling up into the heavens.
Rachel and I arrived at Will’s house in my jeep at five after nine. The sun was well on its way to making its exit from the world that day, and though it was still barely daylight outside, it would only be a matter of maybe minutes before the sky was completely swallowed by darkness.
“So, you have no idea what they’re up to this time?” Rachel questioned me when we pulled into Will’s driveway.
“No idea. Your guess is as good as mine,” I replied as I slid the jeep into park.
“You guys are late,” I heard Will protest just then, while marching vehemently around the corner of the back porch with a duffle bag slung over one shoulder. His two buddies followed close behind him.
I hadn’t even had the chance to reach for my door handle before the boys closed in on my vehicle in a single-file line.
“What?” I questioned and then laughed. “It’s only five minutes.”
The three guys’ faces screamed seriousness, well, except for one. One was giving everything he had not to smile, but in the end, wasn’t being very successful at it. Though, all three of them looked very much like they had a job to do, and by the way it seemed, it was no doubt of an urgent matter.
“You got the camera?” Will questioned me.
“Yeah, I brought it,” I said, trying my best to hold in my giggles.
“Good, you two are our press tonight.” Will exclaimed, now smiling, as he threw the duffle bag intothe back of the SUV.
Then, Will and the other two boys climbed over the jeep’s sides and squeezed tightly into the backseat.
I watched them through my rearview mirror.
“Wow, you guys all fit backthere?” I remarked, surprised.
The army of severe faces just stared back at me in silence.
“Okay, where am I going?” I asked, shrugging off their glares.
“To the windmill,” Will announced, sounding very much like he was on a vital, secret mission.
Of course, I knew what he was talking about and where it was. Everyone did. At the edge of town was this huge, old windmill that hadn’t been in use for as long as we’d been alive. What I didn’t know was why we were going there.
I glanced over my right shoulder so that I could see the three boys now stuffed into my backseat like a Polish sausage in its casing. My puzzled expression did nothing to deter the boys’ looming smirks across their mischievous guises. I turned around again and teasingly glared at Rachel, hoping by some sixth sense that she had come up with some answers in the last couple of minutes, but Rachel only shrugged her shoulders and slowly shook her head back and forth.
“Don’t look at me,” Rachel demanded. “I’m only along for the ride – and maybe to save you from whatever mess these boys might put you into tonight.”
I smiled and peered again at the boys through my rearview mirror as I slid the jeep into reverse.
“You guys better stay out of trouble tonight,” I said playfully as I eased the SUV into drive and pulled out of the driveway.
“Don’t worry, even if we don’t, at least Spiderman will save you,” the half-smiling boy spilled to me as he tried desperately to wipe the devilish smirk off of his face.
Will elbowed his chatty friend next to him.
“What does that mean?” I, now more confused than comforted, questioned the boy.
“Never mind him, Jules. Let’s just get to the windmill,” Will exclaimed, sending a stern glare in the direction of his blabbering partner in crime.
I shook off the boy’s bizarre comment and continued down the street. In less than ten minutes, we arrived at the windmill located at the southeastern edge of town. The area was mostly unlit except for the little bits of moonlight that, by now, peeked through the passing clouds every once in awhile. A small, chain-linked fence that wrapped around the windmill’s base only promised to minimally ward off trespassers. The barrier standing four feet tall was the only thing that worked to separate us from the thirty-something-foot wind contraption.
As the jeep neared a narrow driveway, almost completely obscured by weeds, I tapped my breaks and slowly eased into the tiny, white-graveled area and brought the jeep to rest facing the windmill.
“Okay, now what?” Rachel protested, as she turned around to see the boys.
“Now, it’s time,” Will’s friend said as he and the other boy spontaneously flung their legs over the sides of the jeep and hit the ground running, leaving Will behind.
“They are having way too much fun with this, Jules.” Rachel said, half seriously, and turning back toward me.
“I know, but we’re bound to find out what this is all about soon, right?” I questioned her.
“Let’s just leave ‘em and go get some ice cream,” Rachel whispered.
“I can still hear you, Rachel,” Will said, smiling from the backseat.
Rachel stared at me with eyes that looked like she had just gotten caught with her hand in the brownie batter. Her face made me burst into laughter, and soon both of us were giggling contagiously.
In the meantime, Will had evidently set out to put his plan into motion. Reaching into the back of the SUV, he grabbed the duffle bag, walked to the back of the jeep and dropped the bag so that the rays of the taillights made it ever so visible in our dark surroundings. Then, he marched toward the tall, once-wind-powered structure and scaled the fence, as his buddies looked on from the outside.
“Turn your lights off, Jules, and grab your camera,” Will shouted to me. I was still sitting in the driver’s seat next to Rachel, still giggling at the sight of the three, severe-looking boys taking immediate charge of the still mysterious situation.
“When are you going to fill Rachel and me in on this little conspiracy of yours?” I shouted back to Will as I switched off my lights and then turned off the SUV.
Seconds went by with no answer, and soon it became painstakingly evident that my question had fallen into the Great Abyss. I looked at Rachel, and then, as if we both had simultaneously surrendered, I begrudgingly grabbed the camera from my center console, and we both pushed open each of our doors and slowly made our way to the boys, now standing on the opposite side of the fence, next to the base of the metal-framed tower.
“Okay, you ready?” Will’s friend asked, nudging Will’s arm.
“Almost,” Will said. He was staring at the duffle bag just barely visible in the moonlight behind the jeep as he answered.
“Ready for what?” I asked innocently.
We were just arriving with our so-called press materials when Will leapt back over the four-foot fence and darted toward the jeep again. I wanted to ask more questions, yet I suspected that they too would inevitably fall to the unforgiving ground beneath us. And at this point, I wasn’t even exactly sure if I wanted to know the answer anyway. Instead, I remained silent, resolving to figure the rest of the mystery out on my own, as my eyes followed Will’s path back to the jeep until he finally disappeared from my site.
“Boys, seriously, at least tell me how long this is going to take,” Rachel questioned impatiently. “I’m leaving for this trip to my grandmother’s tomorrow, and I haven’t packed yet – not like there’s anything to pack. It’s not like there’s going to be anything to dothere or anyone to impress…”
“Rachel,” I whispered softly, elbowing her arm and interrupting what seemed like it was going to be an endless soliloquy.
I was staring at Will – or what had been Will moments ago.
In the moonlight, we all witnessed something straight out of the comic books. In spandex from head to toe, Will emerged from the darkness wearing a red and blue, webbed suit, complete with a spider-eyed mask. In seconds, Will had become none other than Spiderman.
“Will, what are you going to do,” I asked somewhat concerned, while trying to hold back wanting to laugh.
As I questioned Will, I watched the other two boys taking their positions on the other side of the fence. Spiderman too soon followed, easily swinging his long legs over the barricade and landing on the other side as well.
“Will Stephens! You are not climbing that windmill,” I scolded him as his scheme became more and more evident to me.
“Are you crazy, Jules? I’m not going to climb it,” he said with a crooked smileas he motioned to his friends.
The boys hoisted Will to where he was just off of the ground, and Will grabbed a hold of a rusty, metal bar that connected the windmill’s two, horizontal legs.
“Okay, Jules, you can take the picture now,” Will shouted down from his perch. “And Rachel, watch for cops, will ya?”
My gaze went directly to Rachel, who rolled her eyes.
“Hey, like I said, I’m just an innocent bystander. You kidnapped me from my home thirty minutes ago. I’m seeing nothing, and when you drop me off at home tonight, I will have seen nothing,” Rachel replied, smiling back at my questioning look. “How would I explain this anyway?”
I laughed at Rachel’s remark and turned my eyes back onto my boyfriend illegally climbing a big windmill for no real, apparent reason.
“You look ridiculous,” I said to Will as I surrendered playfully and reached for the camera in my jacket’s pocket and aimed the lens toward Spiderman. “Let’s just get this over with.”
I snapped several photos before Rachel’s shrill frightened me, causing me to fumble the camera.
“I see lights. Someone’s coming,” Rachel shouted up at Will.
All eyes, including Will’s, jetted toward the lights inching down the all-but-abandoned road as instant panic set in.
The old windmill sat secluded almost five miles down a deserted, gravel path. There were no other paths leading out except for the one that we had come in on, and we would have to hurry if we wanted any chance at escaping without detection.
“Will, get down,” I shouted, turning my camera off and shoving it back into my jacket pocket.
Rachel quickly took off toward the jeep, while Will jumped from the boys’ hold and off of the metal frame. Within seconds, the two boys had scaled the four-foot fence and were darting toward the SUV as well. Rachel was already in the driver’s seat, shouting at everyone else to get into the car by the time Will’s buddies made it to the jeep. One boy grabbed the duffle bag sitting on the ground behind the SUV and jumped into the backseat after the other. Then, Will scaled the fence, grabbed my hand, and together we ran to our get-away car.
“Wait, Jules, my tennis shoes,” Will said aloud. “Keep running. I’ll go get them.”
Within seconds, he had let go of my hand and was darting toward the backof the jeep, leaving me behind.
But before I could even realize what was happening, a sharp pain raced through my ankle, causing me to fall into a disheveled ball to the ground.
“Will,” I screamed, grabbing my ankle.
“Jules,” Will shouted as he paused at the jeep’s door, shoes in hand. He had to have been able to see me. The jeep’s lights were, by now, blinding me, adding to my misery.
“Go,” Will shouted to Rachel through his mask, throwing his shoes into the back of the jeep. “Come back and get us in an hour.”
“I can’t leave you guys here,” Rachel protested. “What if it’s a crazy trucker and this turns into a horror movie?”
Will paused to look at Rachel. His face was both puzzled and amused.
“You’re watching too many movies. It’ll be okay. We’ll be fine. Now go,” I heard Will say again quickly, as he tapped the jeep’s hood and jetted back toward me.
Rachel glanced toward the lights in the distance and reluctantly put the car into reverse and then drive and peeled out of the rock-mixed-with-dirt, makeshift parking lot. And within seconds, she and the two boys were onthe open road and out of site.
When Will reached me, he scooped me up into his arms and hurriedly carried me over a raised piece of land on the far side of the tower, away from the gravel road. He laid me down on the ground, resting my back up against the dirt and grass-filled hill. Then, he found a place next to me.
“What happened?” Will asked, after he had successfully sheltered us from detection.
I squinted as I repositioned my foot and then turned my face toward him. Through my throbbing pain, I bore an awkward smile. I couldn’t help not to.
“I stepped in a hole,” I said, groaning. “I think I rolled it or sprained it or something.”
Will grabbed a rock about the size of a bowling ball andgently lifted my foot onto it.
“This should help. Try not to move it for now. Does it feel like it’s broken?” he asked.
“No, it’s not broken. I’ll be fine,” I answered him, wincing.
The sound of tires rolling over loose gravel caused both of us to freeze then. Will turned onto his stomach and peered over the short levee and through its tall, swaying grasses, like he was in some kind of war movie. The clouds had completely covered the moon, and now, the only thing visible was the mysterious car’s two lights. Will watched the headlights slow as the vehicle crept past the metal structure. I lay against the warm soil with my back to the suspenseful scene, still frozen in my place, wishing I could see what was happening, my heart pounding.
Seconds drew out until I could no longer hear the gravel crunching underneath the tires’ weight.
“Will, who is it?” I whispered nervously.
“I think it’s Brian,” Will whispered back.
“It had to be him working tonight, didn’t it?” I whispered. “I still think he missed his calling as Oscar the Grouch’s puppeteer.”
Will’s eyes stayed on the stalled car for an agonizing minute before the gravel began to give way again under the pressure of the patrol car’s tires. Will let out a sigh of relief as he watched the vehicle slowly push forward, continuing along its straight path.
“Red taillights,” Will exclaimed, sounding relieved.
“Well, I think we might have just evaded danger once again, Mary Jane,” Will, now almost giddy and, I’m sure, full of adrenaline, announced as he met my eyes.
I relaxed my head back against the grassy earth again.
“My hero,” I said sarcastically, smiling and letting out an enormous sigh of relief also.
I felt exhausted and in pain, yet fullof life, all at the same time.
“How is it that you climbed up and down that old windmill and cleared a chain-linked fence twice as I watched from the safe ground below, and now I’m the one who winds up injured?” I asked.
“Why, I’m Spiderman, Honey,” Will said, while making himself comfortable on thesoft, grassy ground beside me.
I laughed and rolled my eyes. I somehow found him utterly irresistible in that moment, even in his one-piece, full-body, spandex suit, still complete with its webbed mask.
“You know, Mary Jane got to kiss Spiderman after he saved her,” I reminded Will.
“Well, then, my damsel in distress, I must get a kiss,” Will proclaimed, pulling off his face mask and leaning over me.
I raised my head and touched my lips to his. For a moment, I reveled in the feel of his unrivaled kiss. And butterflies welled up in my stomach as he eventually withdrew his lips from mine and gently kissed my forehead. Heaven must come with sprained ankles, I caught myself thinking.
Will was a great kisser. His lips were tender and soft and knew just how to fit perfectly against mine. I loved the way his kisses made me feel – like I was the only girl in the world that could complete him. And even while hiding from the law and lying in a dirt-filled ditch with a throbbing ankle positioned on a hard, rough rock, Will still managed, somehow, to make me feel safe and beautiful and happy.
“You know this was my plan all along – to get you alone tonight,” Will announced proudly.
I turned my head toward him.
“This was your plan?” I questioned him, smiling. “You’re plan was that we would come as close as possible to getting arrested, that I would twist my ankle and our friends would leave us out in the middle of nowhere? That was your plan?”
“Well, when you put it that way, that wasn’t it exactly, but I still have you here next to me,” he said sheepishly, sending a coy wink my way.
“I love your laugh, Jules,” Will said, a little more seriously now.
“I love yours too, Spiderman,” I said back to him, still smiling.
“We’re going to spend the rest of our lives like this, you know?” Will informed me then.
I looked at the dirt and grass stains pressed deep into my tank top and shorts and then at my leg propped up on the dirty rock at my feet.
“Oh, God, is this all I can hope for?” I asked as sarcastically as I possibly could.
Will hovered over me, smiling coyly.
“What do they call your kind?” he asked playfully. “Is it hopeless romantic?”
I looked into his beautiful blue eyes and smiled wildly as he continued.
“I meant, I want to spend the rest of my life under the stars, surrounded by life and everything that comes with it – twisted ankles, close calls, tree frogs and all – beside you, through it all,” he said sincerely.
I could tell by his voice that he wasn’t joking this time. And I was speechless. He was the songwriter for a reason. I’m just his speechless muse.
“Will Stephens, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else with anyone else but you tonight. And when you put a ring on this finger, I will consider myself the luckiest girl in the whole, wide world,” I said happily.
Will paused then, and his eyes found mine.
“Are you feeling lucky tonight?” he asked me, exposing his bright, wide smile.
“What?” I asked, giggling and a little thrown off-guard.
I watched him spin around and start gathering things from the ground behind me.
“Will, what on earth are you doing?” I questioned him, unable to see for myself.
“One second, My Love,” he reassured me.
He continued to fidget with something beyond my view.
“Okay, close your eyes,” he said finally.
“Why?” I lightly protested.
“Trust me,” he echoed back.
I reluctantly closed my eyes, heard some rustling and then heard him speak.
“Okay, open,” he said.
I opened my eyes to him kneeling beside me, a braided grass ring in his hands.
“What is…,” I started.
“Jules, will you marry me…someday?” he asked, before I could finish.
He looked so sweet and innocent, and beautiful, with his dark curls shooting up every which way – the result of his head being pressed against the grassy ground just moments before.
I giggled happy giggles.
“Yes, Will, I will marry you…someday,” I said, grinning from ear to ear.
Then, he slid the ring onto my left hand and kissed my forehead.
Just then, the ground in front of us was illuminated – this time, by another set of headlights.
Will turned and peered over the embankment. I held my breath until he looked back at me smiling.
“Our carriage awaits, My Future Mrs. Spiderman,” he announced happily.
Will stood up, brushed the dirt off of his spandex suit and helped me to my feet – or one, good foot, at least. And in one, solid motion, he scooped me up into his arms andmade his way toward the lights.
The two boys in the backseat welcomed us with cheers and shouts.
“We thought the police had picked you up,” one of the boys bellowed out.
I lightheartedly rolled my eyes as Will glanced at me and smiled.
“Not this time, boys,” Will remarked back.
He then sat me gently into the passenger’s seat next to Rachel, and then he too jumped into the backseat with his two buddies. When they were all tightly packed into the back of the jeep again, Rachel once again put the SUV into reverse and then drive and headed back down the gravel road toward town, leaving the site of the previous hour’s commotion in the dust.
Two days later, I hobbled down the wooden stairs of my parents’ rural route home. Will had rewrapped my ankle with bandages the night before, and I managed to getaround fairly easily on it now.
Making my way to the kitchen, I spotted the weekly newspaper sitting as usual on the table. I glanced at it, looked away briefly, but then something caused me to take a second look. A photo had caught my eye.
Without any more hesitation, I snatched up the ink-filled weekly as my eyes went directly to the image plastered on the front page below the fold and then raced over thewords in the snapshot’s caption.
Spiderman makes his way up what is believed to be the old windmill southwest of town earlier this week. An anonymous source dropped this photo off at the Journal’s offices Monday morning. So far, no one has come forward with leads as to who might be the man or woman behind the mask of the town’s elusive hero. For now, we can only rest assured thatNew Milfordis a little safer knowing that Spiderman is in our midst.
I laughed out loud, unable to conceal my all-knowing smile.
So this was his scheme all along, my eyes now returning to the photo.
“What is it?” my dad asked me, walking into the room and interrupting my thoughts.
I jumped slightly.
I watched him make his way to the refrigerator, grab the orange juice, set it down onto the kitchen table and then face me, waiting for my reply.
I hesitated as my eyes feverishly darted to the photo again. It could be anyone up there. He’d never know, or at least, a girl could hope anyway.
“Did you see the front page today?” I asked in answer to his question.
“No, what’s on it?” he asked, reaching in my direction.
I reluctantly handed him the newspaper, face up, then watched his features for his reaction. I could see his eyes widen as a gaping smile broke across his face.
“Well, I’ll be. That’s Spiderman alright,” he said, cracking a full smile.
He read the caption, and then I watched as his eyes returned to the photo again. He snickered some more and then continued.
“Crazy nut. Well, that’s one way to get more dates. He might not be my hero, but I bet he’s somebody’s,” he said, chuckling and winking an eye in my direction.
Oh, God, did he know?
He handed me back the newspaper and shuffled toward the toaster resting on the countertop at the other end of the kitchen.
Well, if he did know, at least he was going to let it go. I sighed a sigh of relief, and then I held the paper in front of me once again, my grass ring in view, and got lost one last time in its front page image and in the night I hoped I’d never forget.
Moments went by, and the memory just kept replaying itself in my head. And before I knew it, I was smiling like a goofy, little kid, lost in my own little world, until my dad’s words from across the room suddenly jerked me back to reality again:
“By the way, you never told me what you did to that ankle of yours.”
Ileft Will wrestling with the patchwork quilt as I ventured to the edge of the bluff. I could see downtown beginning to come to life like someone had just shaken the summer version of a tiny snow globe. Little street lights were illuminating miniature figures that were making their way around the old, red-brick buildings and paved streets. Only this time, instead of the mini people donning tiny, wool coats, they wore shorts and tee shirts, and freshly cut grass took the place of fake snow, devouring the ground where the mini people walked. I wondered for a second if I shook itup, would grass fly everywhere?
Between a set of railroad tracks and the muddyMissouri River, a life existed – one of a more mature nature, if you will. Only several shops constitutedNew Milford’s downtown – a dime store, a tiny, one-room movie theater, the post office, a bait shop and a restaurant that changed hands every so often. They were the lucky ones – the only businesses that had survived a levee break in the last flood.
A freshly red-painted train caboose had, for decades now, made its home on a green, little patch of the world outside of the one-room post office. Every small town that I had ever been to had had a caboose. It was as common as a water tower adorned with the high school’s mascot or a lumberyard in the center of town, I guess. Although, now that I was thinking about it, the caboose did seem a little odd. What purpose did it serve – or was it just for decoration? Did the elders of all small towns really think it was ornamental – like a welcome sign or flowers?Welcome toNew Milford. Can I interest you in a photo next to our caboose?
My forehead wrinkled slightly as I pondered to myself the great questions of modern times before my eyes left the caboose for more grass-globe images.
My gaze rested on a spot on the levee. Park benches and a small, white gazebo sat overlooking the river, begging passersby to pause from the world for a moment – to take in the way the current pushed its way south or the oaks that swayed in the wind on bluffs far off in the distance. The levee had always been my beach, the world beyond it, my ocean. That’s as close as it got here, anyway. No waves, no dolphins, no white sand, no sea gulls. If you were lucky enough, though, every once in a while you did get to see a crane, or a beaver.
A smile crossed my lips. If you could be so lucky, I thought as I took one last look at the world below my high perch before making my way back over to Will.
I could hear the crickets and tree frogs starting their night song in the small, wooded area behind us. A faint smell of lilac filled the air. There was always lilac in this part of town. Where there were grandmothers, there was always lilac. And by now, a blanket of darkness had just swallowed up the sky, capturing us in its shadowy web.
“You need help there, Chief,” I asked Will playfully, avoiding a small tree branch strewn across my path.
“Now, you ask, after all the work’s done as usual, My Dear,” he answered playfully.
I paused and smiled at him.
“Get over here,” he demanded with a grin.
I took a couple more careful steps and slid down onto the patchwork quilt spread out over the dirt and grass below it. Will scooped me into his arms and together we fell back onto the blanketed earth.
“How much longer do we have?” I asked him.
“Oh, probably about a couple more minutes,” he replied, squeezing me closer to him.
“Sing to me then,” I protested happily.
“What do you want me to sing?” he asked, smiling wildly.
“One about us,” I said.
We were both on our backs. My head was resting against his chest. I could hear his heartbeats.
“Okay then,” he said softly.
There was a slight pause before he began, but when he did, his voice was almost a whisper – raspy and sultry – perfect. “Though you’d rather watch a sappy ending Than a football game And you’re not very good at fleeing the scene Without a sprain, I wouldn’t want it any other way I’m yours forever, My Butterfly So, looks like you’re stuck with me ‘Til the end of time.”
“How romantic,” I gushed sarcastically.
“I wrote it myself – just now –just for you,” he said proudly.
“Thanks. I’ll just do some creative interpreting, I guess,” I joked and raised my head slightly off of his chest so that I could see his face. “But seriously, though, minus those passionate words, you can really get a girl’s attention. You should sing, you know, for people, as a career. You’ve got a gift. You can’t hide it forever.”
“Why can’t I?” Will bantered back, using his hand to nudge my head closer to his body again.
I followed his lead, and he kissed my forehead.
“Because someday, somewhere, somebody’s gonna find out. Then what are you going to do?” I continued.
“Tell them I’ve got everything I need right here,” he said, wrapping his arms around me.
I smiled wide and allowed his muscular arms to form around my body, though I was determined to get my point heard.
“Wouldn’t it be a dream-come-true though?” I persisted. “Plus, you would be doing the world a severe injustice if you didn’t.”
Will lowered his face to mine and then brought his lips to my ear.
“Mine is a far simpler dream, my Sweet Jules,” he whispered in that sultry voice of his – the voice that only a year ago I wouldn’t have heard the same way.
“See what I mean with that voice. I almost believed you,” I said, laughing.
“Jules, trust me. My life’s a dream already. I don’t need to go chasin’ something somewhere else,” he said.
“But you’re not at all attracted to the thrill of it all, the lights, the fans that would adore you?” I asked sincerely.
“Okay, okay, don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself?” he asked me, laughing softly. “Fans?”
“Well, you won me over, and I’m not easily convinced – you said that yourself,” I reminded him.
“Alright, my littleHollywoodagent,” he said, continuing to smile. “You’re right, I’ve got you, and that’s all the fan I ever wanted.”
He softly kissed my lips, while someone went and let loose butterflies in my stomach again. He had won, and the butterflies were the sign to prove it. I was forced to surrender. I really didn’t want to argue with him on that point.
I sighed – a content, happy sigh, as the first fireworks soared to our height over the muddy water below. Reds, whites and blues sprinkled the night sky and lit up the countering bluffs in the distance.
I could feel Will’s hand caressing the strands of my long, blond hair now and laying each piece gently back down onto my shoulder.
“I love you, Jules,” he said softly.
His words sounded like a love song in themselves – one that I had never heard before tonight. My heart raced, and little jolts of excited energy shot through my body faster than little squirrels upon realizing winter would come early andthey hadn’t gathered any nuts.
I followed the path of his words to his lips and then met his eyes. I watched for a second as the red and white lights danced against the background of his blue irises.
“I love you too,” I whispered back.
Then, I returned my head to his chest, listening to every heartbeat, as he squeezed me closer to his side, and I watched the lights dance in the night’s sky – fully content with my happy, little, grass-globe world, caboose and all – praying those lights would dance forever.
Iplopped down onto the plush, beige chair in the living room of Will’s basement. Will lay sprawled out lengthwise on a worn-in, auburn couch. The familiar video game controllers and cords, left abandoned, stretched across the cream-colored carpet in front of the entertainment center, and small, overstuffed pillows and colorful throws representing several different sports teams littered the chair and the couch that Will lay on.
“What are you up to?” I asked him as I made myself comfortable in the soft chair next to the couch.
Will remained quiet just long enough for me to sense that something was wrong, though I waited for him to speak first as I racked my brain trying to figure out what that something was.
“You didn’t tell me that you were going away,”Will finally said, accusingly.
“Away? What do you mean?” I asked. I had a slight smirk on my face.Awayseemed so vague. It almost sounded criminal – or worse.
“I know you applied toMissouri,” he charged.
“And?” I punched back, though I knew I would have more explaining to do later. I knew he would never settle for that answer.
“It’s hours away, Julia,” Will said sternly, solemnly. “There’s several good schools right down the road.”
I paused for a moment, mostly to hold back my disdain for his disdain.
“Will, they’re hardly just down the road,” I protested. “AndMissouri’s a good school for me, you know that.”
Will remained silent and used the remote to flip through the television channels rhythmically. I watched him continuously press the channel button, not even bothering to see what was on each one, while he stared expressionlessly into the TV’s screen.
I moved over to the couch and took a seat on the piece of plush surface near Will’s stomach that had not been taken up by the tall, muscular figure. I swiveled around so that I faced him and then gently took the remote from his hand, muted the TV and set the channel changer down onto the surface of the coffee table.
Taking away his distractive device was easy. Getting his full attention proved harder. His stare remained plastered to the screen.
“I didn’t tell you because I’m not even sure that I’ll even get in and because I wanted to avoid this,” I said, opening up my hand and pointing it face up toward him.
It wasn’t the real reason, and I knew I should have told him, but he, now, had given me a temporary leg on which to stand, so I stood my ground. Who was he to say where I could go to school?
“Avoid what? Me being a part of your life?” Will asked sternly. “Don’t I get a say in anything? Does it matter where I want you to go?”
Confused by his line of questioning, I paused to evaluate the conversation and to manage the mercury in my anger thermometer, which by now, was rising quickly toboiling, before continuing.
“Will, I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you, but at the same time, I should not have to ask you where I can and cannot apply to schools,” I protested.
There was a slight pause.
“Well, if you’re going to leave anyway, then what’s the point of us staying together? We should just end it now,” Will said coldly, still glaring into the muted television screen.
His cold words struck me hard and right to the heart. Sure, we had argued before – mostly about silly, little things like what time certain stores closed or how long it took to get to some places or what the real words were to certain songs, but this was different. I had never heard him hint at giving up on us before, and I had never heard words so cold come from the same lips that made me feel so loved.
“Will, you don’t mean that,” I demanded softly, growing more and more irritated with him.
I watched his eyes as they followed the figures dancing on the television set.
“Will,” I said concernedly, demanding his attention.
His eyes made no movement toward mine. Furious, I grabbed my keys from the coffee table and made my way to the basement exit. I had nothing left to say, and even if I had, he was too stubborn right now to listen anyway.
When I reached the brass knob of the wooden storm door, I took one, last glance back at him. His eyes were still planted on the television’s screen. I let out an angry sigh then, just before I pushed open the door and marched outside, letting the wooden entrance swing shut behind me.
Outside, the night sky had already blanketed the world, making everything pitch black, and the contrast between the bright, living room inside and the darkness outside at first shocked me, but in the end, did little to slow me down. Despite being blinded for several seconds while my eyes adjusted, I kept moving. I was livid by now, but there was still that crazy-person part of me that wanted him to follow after me. I wanted him to say he was sorry and hold me and make everything all better again, whichI knew he had the power to do.
My heart stabbed at my chest when I reached my jeep, only to glance behind my shoulder and find that he wasn’t there.
“Forget it,” I whispered angrily under my breath.
I lifted the door handle, jumped into my jeep, swung my seat belt across my chest, heard it click and felt blindly for the key on my key chain that would start the ignition. In the dark, my fingers shifted from one metal object to the next, feeling for the largest one with the rubber coating on top. While brazing over each item, I came to a strange, long piece of metal with what felt like a tiny hook at the end. When seconds went by and I could not so much as conjure up an image in my mind of what the object could be, I felt for the dome light above my head and switched it on.
“My luck,” I whispered again as I gripped the steering wheel with both hands and laid my head against its rounded top,letting out an irritated sigh.
It had been a golf club attached to his set of keys – not mine.
Moments of dead silence allowed the argument to begin replaying in my mind again. He had been so selfish, so thoughtless. I hated his cold, cruel words, but they, at the same time, seemed so insincere. In fact, he almost looked scared. Could he have been just as terrified of me leaving as I was at the thought of leaving him? His words stung, but I knew that he had not meant them – could not have meant them.
Lost in my own meandering contemplations, I suddenly heard the front door of the house open, which forced my eyes to follow the sound.
Soon after, an outside light flickered on, and then I could see, standing in the doorway to the beige-siding house, Will, with a slight smile in his expression that had been absent just moments before, holding up my set of keys.
I tried to hold back my own smile as he sauntered toward me, his eyes seductively piercing me. He had made me angry. I had to show himthat.
His lips finally burst into a full grin as he edged closer and saw my own frustration uncontrollably waning.
After closing in on my jeep, he opened my door, unbuckled my seat belt and took my hand. I willingly stepped out of the driver’s seat, planted my feet on the street along the curb and leaned my back up against the side of the vehicle. I watched him as he gently closed the door and pulled me closer to him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into my ear as he embraced my body. “I love you more than the world itself, and I can’t imagine life without you.”
He paused, kissed my forehead and put his lips to my ear again.
“You’ll get in, and I’ll be happy for you. And we’ll find a way to be together – no matter what. If I have to sing songs on the sidewalks ofNew Milfordto get to you, I’ll do it,” he said, softly laughing.
An overwhelming feeling of love overtook me then. It was as if he alone held the keys to my sanity and my safety and my happiness, and he had just used them to give me life again. So much for showing him that I was angry.
“I’m sorry too,” I whispered back. “I should have told you. But let’s not fight anymore. I love you,” I said, nestling my headinto his broad, muscular chest.
And in those three words, I felt like I understood then that life would not always automatically generate a perfect puzzle joined together by fireworks and fireflies. And though I had hoped that we would not fight like that again, I ultimately knew that life would not be that easy on us. Some jagged pieces that didn’t seem to quite fit together were always going to be in the box – this, I somehow knew. But what is a puzzle without the hard to fit pieces? Why would people even bother to put it together without the challenge and the excitement in seeing the image slowly become one, united likeness? In the end, I had to believe that when all of the pieces were touching, they would leave behind a beautiful depiction of life. And I knew that if Will and I could somehow find a way to be together in the final act that we would always find a way to combine the jagged pieces to construct a beautiful ending. I held tightly to this assumption as I surrendered to his gentle embrace and hoped in his promise.
“Jules, we’re gonna grow old and wrinkly together, you know that, right?” Will softly whispered into my ear.
I smiled as he squeezed me tighter and seemed to take in the flowery scent of my hair.
“I know,” I whispered.
“Hey, Good Lookin’,” Will called out as he snuck up behind me, took the couple of books from my hands and put his arm around my waist.
I jumped slightly, but quickly recovered when I realized who it was.
“Hey,” I said, smiling. “You scared me.”
“Just waking you up, my Sweet Jules,” he said in his sultry voice.
The voice was cheerful and comforting.
“I mean, today, it’s calculus and physics, but tomorrow it’s the presidency,” he continued, giving me a wink.
I smiled at him coyly. Then, I grabbed my backpack and duffle bag, closed the jeep’s door and turned toward the lingering figure towering over my much smaller frame.
“And are you prepared to be the First Gentleman yet?” I asked. A sarcastic smirk lingered on my lips.
“Sure, but only as long as I can turn the backyard into an eighteen-hole golf course. Oh, and I would like to be addressed asWill, Will Stephens,” he said in his best James Bond impression.
“What?” I asked. I shook my head slowly and squintedmy eyes for effect as I spoke.
“It’s just one, measly, little golf course and one, measly, little name request. I don’t think the American people would mind,” he said with a mischievous half smile. “Rooseveltgot a zebra,” he added.
My bewildered stare caught his.
“What?” he asked. “I was listening in History the other day.”
I stared into his baby blues for a second longer before speaking.
“You’re ridiculous,” I said, smiling up at him.
Then I turned and started making my way to the small school building at the bottom of the hill. Will followed after me.
“Lady’s first, My Love,” Will said as he suddenly reached in front of me and grabbed hold of the metal door with its two, tiny, glass windows. “I know you’ll come to your senses eventually.”
I faked a laugh and thenwalked through the tall doors.
It took me two tries to manipulate the latch that freed my sticky locker door from its base, but on the second try, the slender door popped open.
“You walking me to class today?” I asked Will as I slid a couple of textbooks onto the locker shelf above me and grabbed two others.
“Is today any different than any other day, Jules?” he asked rhetorically and in a voice that made him sound as if he was being put out.
“Of course,” I said, chiming in on the opportunity. “Today is the day you realize that you can’t possibly live without me,” I said, grinning in his direction.
“I thought that was yesterday,” he said, smiling back, pleased that he had beat me at my own game.
My grin grew as I shut the stubborn locker door and steppedtoward Will three lockers down.
“Okay, let’s get goin’. I’ve gotta stop by Coach's office before class too,” Will said, taking the couple textbooks from my hands.
“Okay,” I replied. “Why do you so urgently need to talk to him this morning?”
“I don’t. He’s got a cookie jar,” he said, sounding as if I should have known. “You have so much to learn about life, My Dear.”
I rolled my eyes again as we set out down one of the two hallways that made up the small high school building. We reached the tiny classroom seconds later, and Will followed me in and set my books down onto a small lab table next toa life-size, plastic skeleton.
“Thank ya, Hun,” I said, smiling.
“Just remember. I want it to be eighteen holes, and maybe we can have a press conference, just so everyone knows how to say it. It’sWill, Will Stephens. It doesn’t have the same effect if it’s not said right,” he reiterated.
“Okay, OO7,” I said, humoring his ridiculousness.
“Oh, and have fun in your next quote, unquote class, otherwise known as study hall,” Will jeered at me as he quickly kissed my cheek before the teacher in the front of the room could turn around. “I’ve got to quote, unquote, check some English answers after this hour,” he said in a hushed tone, at the same time, making quotation marks with his fingers.
“Okay, my little scholar. I’ll see you later,” I said, smiling back at him.
“By the way, I’ve decided what I want to be when I grow up,” he said before he turned to walk away.
His words came out so casually that I almost didn’t notice he had said them at all.
“Really?” I asked, slightly delayed, and I’m sure looking somewhat shocked by his announcement.
“What?” I asked.
“A firefighter,” he announced proudly.
“A firefighter?” I asked. Was he serious? Was he joking? I was trying to figure it out.
“Yeah, it just came to me last night when I was driving by the fire station,” he said. “You know, I drive by that building everyday and never think about it, but last night, I thought, I can do that. I could do that for the rest of my life and be happy.”
He was smiling. He looked like a boy who had just won an all-day access pass to a theme park.
“You sure about this?” I asked him earnestly. My expression was as blank as the chalkboard in the front of the tiny classroom.
“Never been surer. Well, except when I met you,” he said, sending a wink my way.
I paused for a second, while a smile resurfaced on what was my vacant face.
“That’s great, Honey. I’m really happy for you,” I said, not being completely truthful. Though, I forced the corners of my mouth to turn up even so.
He smiled back at me as he turned to go.
“Wait,” I said, stopping him. “Does this mean you get to wear those sexy firemen outfits?” I asked in a hushed tone, half teasing, half serious, trying not to show him my hesitations.
Will looked at me, still smiling, not completely surprised by my comment. Then, he nodded his head slowly in confirmation, while raising one eyebrow.
“Then, you’ve definitely got my vote,” I said, smiling wider.
“Good, well I’m gonna be late. Don’t let Mr. Bones over here sweet talk ya too much,” he said, elbowing the life-size, plastic skeleton.
And then, he was gone.
My stare slowly faded from the doorway then and landed on a spot near the skeleton’s ribs. Thoughts cascaded through my head – lots of thoughts, from all directions.
His news left a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth. Firefighters were heroes – I knew this. Everyone knew that. But at the same time, there were always costs. Costs I didn’t even want to imagine.
My smile was fading when I noticed that I was still staring at Mr. Bones. I quickly turned my gaze down before anyone could misjudge my meandering thoughts for an odd obsession with the plastic figure.
Couldn’t he have decided to be an accountant or a banker or a teacher or something safe like that – anything but a firefighter? Didn’t he know how dangerous the job was or what it all entailed?
And sure, I was thrilled that he had found something he was passionate enough about to pursue as a career. He had fought the questions and pressures of classmates, teachers and the school’s counselor about choosing a livelihood for so long now. It must have meant the world to him to have finally found his calling – his heart’s desire. And he would be great at it. There was no doubt in my mind about that. He had always had that kind of connection with the community. Of course, camp counselor and little league umpire would never prove to be quite as dangerous, one would hope.
And what about college? I had always marveled at its intriguing nature – a new place, new faces, new experiences and most of all, independence. But then again, Will had never really bought into the whole college scene’s allure either, I guess. He hadn’t ever been too interested in anything new at all really. And when it came down to it, I guess, his choice was, after all, honorable and courageous, even if he didn’t see it that way, and despite my own reservations, it wasn’t, after all, my choice to make. And he had already planted his heart and had made up his mind, and there would be no changing it. I knew this much. Beyond that, he had been smiling – that little, goofy smile of his when he thinks all the world is right. That’s what really mattered in the end.
I shuffled to a chair behindthe lab table and fell into it.
He had been smiling, and now I was smiling again too thinking about him and his decision and my decision to support him – reservations or no reservations – because in the end, I knew that our lives were about to change. And I had already promised myself that I would spend the next several months bottling his smiles for safe keeping – for a time when they wouldn’t be an arm’s length away.
By Thursday morning, I had my worn-in, ebony jeep packed with the essentials – clothes, TV and CD player – and I was just about ready to set out on my new adventure when something in the distance caught my attention. While searching for an available space to stuff the last of my treasured possessions, I heard a car treading over gravel on the county road just up the hill. The sound caused me to look up from the dusty floorboard.
Through the leafy oak trees that lined the rock-covered path, I could see a red SUV kicking up sand-colored dust and gravel as it hurriedly made its way to the edge of my driveway. As a wave of excitement jetted through my body, I quickly found a tiny crevasse on the jeep’s floor and squeezed the final duffle bag into the last existing available space inside the vehicle. Then, I brushed the strands of my hair that had fallen into my eyes away with the back of my hand and waited anxiously.
The SUV came to rest behind my jeep moments later, and the boy in black, basketball shorts, a cut-off, red tee shirt and red and white tennis shoes stepped out and stood rigidly in front of me. His tee shirt made it possible for me to see his tan muscles protruding from his biceps, and I couldn’t help myself from noticing that his calf muscles, left exposed where his basketball shorts stopped, were just as defined. I wondered for a second if he had planned his outfit especially for today, yet quickly tossed the idea out. Will didn’t plan, and besides, this was his usual attire. Maybe I was just now realizing how much Iwas going to miss it, miss him.
Today, he also wore his favorite hat bearing a popular brand of golf clubs across the face of the cap’s crown. I always thought the cap gave him a certain ruddy and handsome look that was completely irresistible. Today, as always, and even after three years, butterflies danced in my stomach as I watched his still figure watch me.
“You all packed?” he asked finally, through a half-smile.
“I think so,” I said, taking a glance inside the jeep.
Will watched as I then took two tries to close the passenger’s side door, leaning against it with all of my might.
“I told you you’d get in,” he said softly.
I paused and smiled up at him.
“Well, we can’t all make it into the fire academy,” I said.
Will’s eyes fell toward the dusty ground at his feet, and his cheeks turned a slight reddish color.
“I brought you something so you remember to remember me,” he said playfully, though slightly somber.
He stood stiffly in front of his driver’s side door, still facing me.
I gave him a gentle smile that froze into a half-smile as I spotted the sadness in his deep, azure eyes. My heart leapt out of my chest for him as I slowly made my way toward his motionless body. I never took my eyes off of his as I neared his figure, and when I was close enough to touch him, I swung my arms around his neck, brought his face down to mine and pressed my nose against his.
“How could I forget about you?” I asked rhetorically. “If I forget about you, I’ve lost three of the happiest years of my life.”
His lips gradually formed a smile, while his eyes lingered in mine for a long second. Then, he pulled away and reached inside his open window, grabbed an object from his passenger’s seat andslid it in between our embrace.
I slowly pulled away from his warm body when I noticed the bright, orange-petal flower resting in his hand. I smiled affectionately and reached out for the flower’s emerald stem, marveling at its beauty and the love that I knew was held within its petals.
“It’s a butterfly weed,” he said softly, releasing the flower into my hands.
My stare was on the flowers.
“It’s pretty for a weed. I’ve seen it before?” I asked.
“Yeah, along roads and in fields, pretty much everywhere around here. They keep cuttin’ ‘em down, but they always grow back. They never give up,” he added softly but confidently.
I stared into the flower’s bright center. I was smiling again.
He then kissed the part of my forehead where my hairline began as I happily examined my new bouquet and took in his words.
I could see now and even feel that the bloom’s willowy stem wasn’t soft or textured or even alive, but instead was mere plastic and its petals, silk. Will had given me plenty of flowers in the past – I admit that he had spoiled me. But none had been like this one.
As I stood quietly, tracing the flower’s design and pondering his flower selection, I glimpsed a small, hand-written note attached to the flower’s stem by a fine, white ribbon. I gently grasped the note in one hand and allowed my eyes to float over its hand-written words:
I’ll love you until the last petal falls, Jules.
My heart instantly melted, and I immediately wrapped my arms around his neck again and kissed his lips. He was successfully chipping away at my brave, outer shell that I had miraculously crafted and had hidden behind throughout this whole leaving process. It had been the first time that I had seen him truly beside himself. The loneliness in his eyes made it seem as if he had already begun to miss me. I wanted to heal his abandoned expression. I was excited to start this new life, but now, all I wanted to do was hold him forever inmy arms and never let him go.
“Do you know why they never give up?” Will asked me softly. He was looking down at the sandy-colored dust surrounding his restless feet.
I shook my head.
“No,” I whispered.
Will paused for a moment and then met my eyes again.
“Because they want the butterflies to come back to them. They need each other to survive,” he said softly.
My sad eyes, full of love, remained on his.
“Julia,” he said again, almost in a whisper.
“Hmm,” I replied. I could feel the waterfall welling up behind my eyes.
“You’ll be my butterfly, right? You’ll come back to me?” he asked sheepishly.
My eyes then filled with salty tears almost instantly as my own butterflies in my stomach fled my body and were replaced by an overwhelming flow of emotions springing up from my chest and resting at the base of my now aching throat. I wanted to tell him so much, but through my tear-filled eyes and racing mind, I could only manage to communicate one, complete, yet wholly honest thought.
“I love you, Will Stephens, and I’ll never forget you. I’ll be your butterfly. I’ll always come back,” I said.
Will held me tightly in his embrace, until my parents came out to say goodbye. I left Will’s grip for an instant and wiped my tears with the back of my hand before hugging my mother and father. Then, I let Will walk me to the driver’s side of my jeep one last time before I left home. I pulled him close, and he gave me a kiss, and then he hesitantly opened my door and watched me climb into the driver’s seat.
“Drive carefully, Jules, and call me when you get there,” Will said, leaning into the driver’s side to kiss me again.
“I love you,” he said to me, with what I could tell was the best smile he had at the moment.
“I love you too,” I said, giving him the best smile I had also, through my drying tears.
Then, I backed my SUV up and then slid the gear shaft into drive before stepping on the gas pedal and slowly making my way up the long, curving driveway. At the top of the path, immediately before the start of the county road, I tapped on the breaks and blew Will a kiss. Will spotted my familiar gesture through the passenger’s side window, and like clockwork, put his fist up in the air to catch it. Then, I waved goodbye one last time and then bravely reset my focus on the county road in front of me. But no sooner had I got a half of a mile down the road, the sadness from the pit of my stomach welled up into my throat again, and the tears returned. The salty wetness gushed from my eyes as his figure grew smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror. My heart ached at the thought of him no longer being by my side to comfort me, and I missed him already, but I knew I had to go. This was the first step toward my dreams. I forced myself to think about my new adventure and the new things in store for me where I was going. And I focused on rebuilding my hard, outer shell again, trying desperately to stop the tears that poured onto my now cherry-colored cheeks as I continued down the rocky path, my butterfly weed on the seat next to me.
College kept me busy, for the most part, and fairly quickly, but without knowing it, I had fallen into a pretty consistent routine that would ultimately involve me rushing home at the end of my day to call Will. I had decided very early on that this had become, by far, the best part of the routine. My happiest moment came when I heard his deep voice on the other end of the line for the first time since the night before. Just the sound of his sultry words sent butterflies racing through my stomach, and tonight was no exception. In fact, tonight, three years ago to the day, I had finally saidyesto our first date.
“Jules,” Will exclaimed happily after he picked up the phone.
“Hey, Honey. Happy Anniversary,” I said, bursting with excitement.
“Happy Anniversary to you too, Babe,” he exclaimed. “I really wish that I could be there with you right now.”
“I know, me too, but I’ll be home in two weeks, and we can celebrate it then. I promise,” I said, trying to remain as optimistic as humanly possible.
“I still think that you should skip practice this weekend,” he said, chuckling. “Who haspractice on a Saturday anyway?”
“Crazy people who can tolerate running in circles just a little more than the average person,” I playfully countered. “But if you skip your exam Saturday, I’ll skip practice.”
“Okay, you got me, but you better believe that two weeks from now I’m going to be about all the Jules-deprived I can possibly be and still be breathing, so you better get your cute butt out of Columbia as soon as you possibly can thatday,” Will demanded playfully.
I could tell that he was smiling on the other end of the phone.
“Don’t worry. I’ve already got a list of things that I need to pack, so as soon as class is done, I can throw everything into a bag and head out the door,” I informed him proudly.
“You and your lists,” Will teased.
“That’s why you love me, Honey. You need an organized mess like me to keep your life together. How was your day, by the way? I never…,” I started but then stopped.
“Hold on, Jules,” Will said abruptly.
I could hear the dreaded set of tones ringing in the background through the receiver. The sound made my heart sink.
“Jules, I’m so sorry, but I’ve got to go. Can I call you later?” he asked hurriedly.
I hesitated but then gave in.
“Sure,” I said somberly – out of pure habit.
I realized, like many times before when those same set of tones went off, that a response ofsurewas my only option. I knew he had to answer the call. I knew someone else needed him more than I did at the moment, but I couldn’t help but wish he didn’t have to go. I had come to dread the high-pitched succession of tones that signified his district and that set him scurrying forhis keys and then out the door.
“Thanks, Jules. I love you. Bye,” he rambled off hastily.
Before I could say goodbye as well, Will was gone, and the other end of the phone was dead.
Taking a deep breath and then slowing letting it out, I stared at a spot on the beige-colored wall in my dorm room, feeling defeated. Then, after a long minute, I set the phone down onto thebedside table beside me.
I understood his position. I understood what his job entailed – what his dream entailed. Yet a selfish part of me still wanted back that time when he didn’t have to leave at a second’s notice.
I sighed, lay down and pulled my covers up to my face. Rolling onto my side and curling up, I reached for my cell phone on the nightstand and brought it close to my chest. He would call me later, I knew, and I would be waiting. I might not hear the call, and on the slight chance I did, I probably wouldn’t remember the conversation. Nevertheless, I would be waiting.
Ipictured myself standing on one side of a cliff, and him on the other side, as I unconsciously scanned the words on a page in my textbook. I couldn’t reach him, but I was trying. He was there. I could see him, but there was no way to get to him. In between us stood only two, towering walls of rock just far enough apart that a jump across the dark, bottomless cavern was surely not in either one of our best interests. But if I could only reach him, my world would be perfect again, I pleaded as the letters on the page blurred to unrecognizable blobs.
Though I had tried desperately to ignore the extra miles and the new, abbreviated visits and phone calls, I knew that my fears were slowly but surely catching up to me.
I saw the possible end a little more each day, and the more I thought about it, the more the thought pierced my heart. I ran the idea over in my mind, over and over again, yet I couldn’t quite believe wholeheartedly that it truly was the end. Will had been my prince charming, my only desire. I had never pictured myself with anyone else, and I still could not. I felt desperately heartbroken and lost for the first time in the years that I had known him because, deep down, I knew, somehow, he had slowly faded away from sight in my rearview mirror – like the rest of my high school life. I wanted him back, and even though I believed that he continued to dwell in my heart somewhere, I also feared that quite possibly we had outgrown each other. Can you dothat? Can you outgrow someone?
I felt lost in my racing thoughts at my small, dorm room desk when my cell phone burst to life.
Startled, I set my pencil down onto my economics textbook and glanced at the phone’s screen. My eyes caught his name stretched across the display window, and my heart fluttered and then sank. I took a deep breath, and then I carefully pressed the small, emerald button. I both feared and knew what I had to do next.
“Hey,” I said, sounding unusually heavy-burdened.
Despite my somber tone, Will started theevening conversation as usual.
“Hey. How was your day?” he asked.
“Same old, same old,” I replied. “How was yours?”
“You know, pretty much the same too,” he said but then paused.
“Is there something wrong, Jules?” Will asked.
The tone of his voice customary to our usual conversations had by now lost its luster too, and I cringed when his lukewarm words reached my ears.
I wondered for a moment if I should say it – say everything that I was thinking. Did I really want to? Was I prepared for where it might lead? I had no idea, but finally, I just bit the bullet and opened the floodgate.
“It’s just that I feel like we’ve grown apart, and I know that sounds really cliché, but I don’t know how else to say it,” I gushed, without holding anything back.
I stopped, waiting for Will’s response. It surprised me at how easily I had spit out the words, but what surprised me even more was that with the feeling of brokenness and uneasiness that followed also came a tremendous sensation of relief for having finally voiced my thoughts to him out loud. Nevertheless, I waited, hoping he could convince me that it was going to be okay and that we would make it, even though I feared that, this time, even he might not be able to convince me.
His sigh shattered my cascading thoughts.
His simple exhale was worse than a shot right to the heart. Instead, it was a white flag – as if he had just admitted defeat, had just given up on us – and half-heartedly at that.
“It hasn’t been the same, has it?” he questioned me then. “I know it’s been hard.”
He sounded solemn and, at best, disconnected as the words fell out of his mouth. My heart sank further inside my chest. He knew too, I knew then. But what was it that I knew again exactly? What exactly had gone wrong?
“It has been hard,” I agreed softly. I was motionless, stunned.
And then there was silence – until I couldn’t take its deafening sound anymore.
“It’s just that I’ve been busy with track, and you’re doing your training, and when we do finally see each other, I feel like you aren’t really even that excited, and…,” I said, letting my words trail off.
Oh, gosh. I had said it. I had administered the first strike. I stopped and waited in terror for his rebuttal.
“Jules, I’m tired,” he interrupted. “You don’t have to answer to fire calls at two in the morning just to go back to bed and answer another one at five.”
I jumped right in then without hesitating.
“You’re right, I don’t, and I understand that,” I said slightly angered. The terror was melting into blind confidence. “But since you’ve been doing this, you never found a way to make it work. You never found even the tiniest bit of energy for me. Will, I may not be answering fire calls, but I’m working my butt off up here. Plus, I’m the one driving home to see you every month. You’re never here. I feel like I’m the only one trying anymore.”
“I try,” he said softly.
“How, Will? How do you try?” I pleaded.
“I stay up and watch movies with you,” he protested.
“First of all, you don’t stay up. I know you’re sleeping. Secondly, I don’t want to always watch movies. I want to get dinner. I want to go dancing. I want to do things,” I continued to plead.
“I have a job, Julia. You’ll understand how that works someday,” he said coldly.
My anger was hitting its peak.
“Really? Will, this has nothing to do with me going to school or you having a job, and you know it – and I can’t do this anymore,” I protested firmly.
The words just fell out of my mouth as if I only had this one, last chance to say everything. I kind of thought that I would feel liberated having said them, and I had, but that moment had come and gone. Now, I just sat there terrified – of my own words – not really sure if I even believed them myself.
Dead seconds went by and neither Will nor I said anything. Then, Will finally spoke.
“What does that mean for us?” he asked as straight-forward as a person could say those words.
His lack of passion stabbed my heart strings yet again and forced me to try out another set of words for the first time. I almost hoped, in a weird way, they would somehow salvage our past or, at the very least, fire up his fervor.
“Maybe we should take a break or something,” I replied.
“You mean break up?” Will asked me firmly.
“Well, just to give us some time to think about it,” I offered.
“Julia, you and I both know that there is no such thing as a break. There is only a break up. Is that what you really want?” he asked me sternly.
No, but that word would never reach his ears. My heart was breaking, but I remained confident in my confessions. The past several weeks had been hard on both of us. I knew this. Life had torn us into two, different directions and only because I felt I had already lost him, I found the nerve to fight against almost everything in me and answer him bravely.
“Yes,” I stuttered finally, after a long pause.
My eyes began to fill with tears and the back of my throat ached now even as I tried to remain strong in my persuasions.
“Yes,” I said again softly but with more conviction.
I had come too far to turn back now. The truth was that I wanted to see what life without him would be like – no arguments, no missing him every day, no letdowns when he had to change weekend plans with me last minute. I hated the words that rolled so easily off of my tongue, but I sensed again a small bit of freedom in them as well now, and I held onto that freedom for courage, even while I secretly waited for him to convince me that my imagined liberty wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“Well, I guess that’s it then,” Will said resolutely, without a waiver in his voice.
There was silence for a long second. Was this really it? Was this really happening?
“I guess so,” I said in an almost whisper, responding to what I saw as his final, white-flag surrender to our relationship.
“Take care,” Will said softly, yet his words still cold.
“You too,” I whispered.
I pressed the red,ENDbutton, set the phone down gently onto the surface of the wooden desk and stared at it vehemently as if it were a ticking time bomb and I could deactivateit if I weren’t careful enough.
Years in the making, and that’s all it took. Sad and angry, my heart ached and stabbed at the walls of my chest. He had not fought for us like I thought he would have, and I was crushed. I wondered if he had thought less of me than I believed he had. What did I really mean to him after all of these years? Why wasn’t he calling back and apologizing?
I sat there surrounded in my swirling thoughts, not able to escape the fact that now, suddenly, my world was eerily different. It was almost as if someone had put me in an unfamiliar room and had turned off all of the lights. What happened to growing old and wrinkly? What about the fairytale? He was the one that made me believe that a fairytale even existed. He was supposed to always be there, but now he was nowhere to be found, and I was left imagining a world without him in it. It all seemed so cold and sad, and I blamed him for it.
I fought back the tears that welled up behind my eyelids as I picked up my pencil again. A piece of my heart wished that I had time to sort through the conversation that I had just had with the boy I had loved unswervingly for the past several years, yet that piece of my heart nevertheless could not outweigh the whole of my head that told me that there was no time to think about what was the past now – what wasn’t probably even real in the first place.
My head forced my thoughts back onto my economics homework in front of me and back onto the sociology test I had the next day,for which I still had to study.
And with a single tear winning the battle and dropping to my textbook below, I turned the page and began to slowly read its blurry words. At the same time, I slid off the grass ring that had for so long graced my finger and set it carefully next to the ticking time bomb.
Ithrew my lip gloss and cell phone into my dark brown, leather purse and flipped off the light to what used to be my bedroom. Now, it hardly resembled anything that I would call mine. My mother had, just months after I had left for college, converted the room into a “guest quarter,” as she so blissfully called it. The “quarter” even came complete with its own theme. Yes, what was once the shrine that paid tribute to my entire childhood, had now become “the country room,” painted light emerald and decorated with white, lace curtains and a mammoth picture of a field of purple flowers that hung over the bed. It was as if she had been planning it for years. I could even picture her dancing about the room and listening to some old, 60s record as she stuffed my prized 4-H trophies and band posters into a box and hid it away for good. I cringed at the thought of my precious bands being wrinkled and crammed into an eternal box as I made my way down the hallway, anticipating each creek in the hardwood floor.
It was New Year’s Eve. The holiday had never really been my favorite, mostly because it was at the wrong time of the year. How were you supposed to get excited about starting anything when it was ten degrees outside and all you could really think about starting was a vacation in any place south of where you were?
Christmas had been alright, though. My mother had decorated the place to the hilt, as usual, right down to the little ceramic Christmas mice that she would adhere to the banisters. Each mouse extended across a tiny sled and donned a miniature stocking hat and colorful mittens. The figurines made the normal and natural walk down the stairs awkward and slightly dangerous, but through the years, I guess I had come to look forward to their meandering presence during the holidays. With the mice, came Christmas.
Thinking about how I had grown to love the expected consistency of my Christmases at home, my thoughts turned to the one, obnoxiously missing piece. It had been my first Christmas without Will in years, and I had found it cruelly evident that he had not been by my side. I had survived, however, and now, I was just the tiniest bit excited because this New Year’s Eve would be different too – a good different or at least I hoped it would be anyway.
It had been a couple of months since I had last spoken to Will, and though I didn’t expect a love reconnection, I was excited to catch up. I missed his friendship, and honestly, a piece of me still hadn’t healed from our last conversation. He had been my best friend for more than three, amazing years, and now, where his friendship had been was left a void that I had not even thought about filling yet.
After forcing my limbs through the arm holes in my favorite, worn-in, ivory wool coat, I jumped into my jeep and turned the key. I hated the months from December to February with a passion. Last night, it had dropped to a very unpleasant 14 degrees, and now, the air temperature pierced the thinnest parts of my nose and ears. My teeth chattered as I struggled to pull my pale pink scarf around my neck, waiting impatiently for the heat in the vents to grow warm and then hot. It very rarely occurred to me to warm up the jeep before actually getting into it like everyone else in this great state did.
I’m on a beach. I closed my eyes and rubbed my hands briskly together. I’m basking in the warm sun. It’s 85 degrees and perfect.
I opened my eyes and caught a leafless tree glaring at me from outside my so-called beach. Long ice sickles clung to its branches – they too seemed to be mocking me. The world out there looked dead and lifeless. I was surely in a British film.
Who was I kidding? It was cold out there, and it was cold in here, and even a warm image wastoo hard to conjure up tonight.
After several, painful minutes, and when the inside of my jeep was at least bearable, I forced it into drive and made my way into town.
When I arrived in town, I could see Rachel waiting for me at the place we had nicknamedThe Elleyears ago. It had gained the name because of its most eye-catching feature. A bigLin the lumber yard’s sign, nailed across the front of the building, had obnoxiously overshadowed the rest of the letters in the business’ name for decades. TheLgleamed bright cherry red, as opposed to its counterpart letters’ deep chocolate brown. Further, the bigLhad always been slightly crooked, in contrast to the painstakingly straight letters that followed it.
I slowed the jeep and pulled up next to Rachel’s deep emerald sedan and motioned to her through the sealed passenger’s side window to get in.
Rachel grabbed her purse and gloves, crawled out of her car and dove into my now, warm nook on wheels.
“Hey! How was your Christmas?” she excitedly shouted over the drone of the heater still on its highest setting.
“It was good,” I answered, omitting some of the truth, as I pulled away from our meeting place. “It was pretty much the same as usual. Uncle Ben wouldn’t stop talking about his awful Jayhawks and Aunt Sharon and Mom spent half the night exchanging recipes of miracle creams that promised to fight aging and the other half of the night trying to get Uncle Joey and Uncle Mark to stop talking about football.”
“What about yours?” I asked.
“Pretty much the same for me too, except that Lucas brought home his pet ferret and Aunt Kim’s daughter accidentally let it out, and we spent half the night looking for Artie the ferret in the air ducts.”
I tried to hold back my snickers. My friend looked so disheveled as she told her Christmas story.
Rachel turned and looked at me with a scowl.
“Julia, it really was horrible,” she said with a perturbed look on her face. “It was Christmas, and I was looking for Artie the ferret.”
I tried to stifle my laughter still, but it only seemed to make it worse.
“You’re awful, you know?” Rachel said, laughing now as well.
Within a couple of minutes, I turned down a narrow, one-way street. I could faintly hear the voices and see the warm light coming from within the house, which looked to be full of life. I pulled next to the curb and put the jeep into park.
“Okay, Rach, we’ll go on three,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, squeezing her gloves over her fingers and taking a deep breath.
“One, two…three,” I counted.
Onthree, we both flung open our doors and flew out of the jeep as if our lives depended on our quickest exit. Stung by a frigid gust of air, we, decked from head to toe in scarves, coats and mittens, both sprinted to our friend’s house in a world-class-athlete kind of manner – or at least, that was the manner we were going for.
When we reached the wooden entrance, still bearing a festive holiday wreath, Rachel knocked on it. And within seconds, Kathy greeted us at the door.
“Come in,” she said cheerfully, giving each of us a hug. “Make yourself at home.”
Kathy had always been one of those people who was far beyond her years. She always seemed to know the right thing to say, and she was always, without falter, well-mannered and extremely polite. And could she throw a party? Kathy’s house had been the New Year’s Eve party every year since I could remember.
Rachel and I quickly stepped into the warm house, and it was just short of heavenly. Finally, mybeach.
I took off my coat, hung it on the wooden coat rack next to the door and made my way to the living room, while Rachel stayed behind in the entryway talking to Kathy. I didn’t have time to talk; I was on a mission.
I squeezed stealthily past the bodies that inhabited my path. I saw everyone but the person for whom I was searching. He’s here, I know. I saw his SUV parked outside.
I continued to scurry through the horde, acting like I wasn’t on the quest of my life – only being stopped a couple of times. I did the normal,Hi, how are you?and kept moving.
I eventually made it to the living room, and when I looked up, I swore I had been transported to some romantic movie set – because our eyes met, and for a moment, we were the only two people in the bustling room.
He looked like his handsome self, although he had a strong five o’clock shadow now, and his hair had grown out just enough that small, wavy tuffs of it lingered on the tops of his ears. The look worked for him though. It was different, but a good different.I stood frozen in the doorway.
After taking a deep breath and letting it out, I gradually made my way through the throng toward Will, but as I did, I noticed something else that was different about him, but this time, the difference was just short of unsettling. And immediately, I knew then that this couldn’t possibly be a romantic flick that I had just been transportedto – more like anything but it.
I swallowed hard, and restarted my heart. Whose hand was he holding? A knife had just pierced my body. I had not expected this emotion. I expected excited, maybe even nervous, but not this.
I felt hurt and then awkwardly thrown off-guard, until that turned into a silent rage. But I knew I had no case on which to stand. That was the worst part. I could say nothing. There was nothing really for me to say. I wanted to turn around and walk back through the living room door in which I had just come. But of course, we had just had that weird, eyes-meet movie scene just moments before. And now, I had no other option but to move forward. So, I took another, cautious step toward him.
A couple more forced steps and I had already reached him and the unfamiliar one attached to him. I immediately introduced myself to the new, curly-locked brunette on his arm. I shook the girl’s hand, making sure I forced myself to smile and to be polite and friendly – do everything that I was supposed to do. The girl looked nervous, but she smiled as well. Then, after the brief introduction, I met Will’s eyes again.
“Hey,” I said softly. “How have you been?”
He looked nervous too. Good.
“Good,” hesaid, nodding his head slowly.
He kept it short and to the point, as if saying too much would cause him to wilt away.
I caught myself wondering if him wilting away would be all that bad.
“That’s great,” I lied, continuing to force my smile.
“So, did you go to Will’s high school?” the girl interjected, interrupting Will's and my stare.
Both Will’s and my attention turned to the girl, who had been fairly invisible in the last couple of seconds. He hadn’t told her. The girl’s innocent question struck me hard and made my heart sink to the pit of my stomach. It hurt, but of course, it had only been two months. I’d be surprised if he even knew her middle name.
I looked at Will, searching for a response that would make our chat a little less awkward than it already was. Then, the answer came.
For a second there, I thought that I saw a faint request in his puppy-dog eyes. I could almost see him begging me to answer the question simply, but I desperately wanted not to. I wanted to inform the girl that I was the ex-girlfriend. Just the wordex-girlfriendhas such a stinging ring to it. I feel like it says that I’ve already won the game in play – as if it were a game to win. And now, it seemed like such a good word to use and such a perfect time to use it – but instead, I humbly took his hint and bit my tongue. He would owe me later.
“Yes, I did. I went to Will’s high school,”I said, refusing to elaborate.
“Julia,” Rachel interrupted then. She had appeared out of nowhere. “Chris wants to ask you something about track and find out how outstandingly well you’re doing,” she continued, pulling me away, while staring straight at Will with her dagger eyes.
“It was nice to meet you,” I said to the girl over my shoulder. I was smiling and polite– just as I was supposed to be.
“You don’t mean that,” Rachel whispered, whisking me away.
“I know,” I whispered back to her, sounding defeated.
But before Rachel could steal me away from the scene permanently, I glanced back at Will one last time. I saw his eyes were still on me. He mimed the words,Thank you. I could also see that the gesture remained undetected by the girl who sat next to him, and I chose, against everything in me, to keep it that way. I managed a half smile and then turned my head away from his gaze and exited the room with Rachel.
“It's a rebound, Jules,” Rachel whispered to me. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. Just don’t pay any attention to him tonight and remember when life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show life that you have a thousand reasons to smile.”
I habitually nodded my head in reply to my friend’s words, but not even everything in me could have forced my mind to think of anything but him then. He was with someone else. He was holding hands with someone else, and I wasn’t the one sitting next to him. How had my world changed so drastically in such a short amount of time?I was all but crushed now, in pieces on the floor in the other room, yet I compelled my lips to smile as I greeted another friendin the dining room with a hug.
New Year’s resolution – try not to cry.
As I threw on my gloves and flipped up my jacket’s hood, I stepped outside and immediately felt the cool, spring air cast a chill over my exposed skin. I hate being cold – almost as much as I hate ex-boyfriends, I found myself thinking as I crossed my arms around my body.
In the end, it had taken several months to get over my New Year’s Eve experience. And for now, I was over wanting to tie Will to that old caboose downtown and pay what tourists there were to pummel him with tomatoes. I thought it would be more fun than a photo.
And I guess I had eventually found a way to turn my bitterness into not-so-bitter bitterness as well – I found it’s calledtime, and it seemed to be the only thing that really worked.
“Time makes everything better,” I could hear Rachel saying in the back of my mind – in that little voice of hers that often overshadowed my own thoughts.
The outdoor track across the street was, at best, a five-minute walk, and within no time I felt the bounce and cushion of the track’s red, rubber surface under my feet as I stepped onto its eighth lane.
“Nice gloves, Julia. I must have missed the snow storm through all of the green on my way in,” a voice called out from inside a huddled group on the other side of the track. The voice was deep and carried a slight Northeastern accent.
“I haven’t heard that one in a while,” I said, sending a playful smirk in the direction of the chiding voice.
“Okay, okay, let’s get going, guys. Enough chitchatin’. Warm up well. We’ve got a six, five, four, three, two, today,” shouted a man with a clipboard and a stopwatch.
Lovely, I thought to myself.
“Hey, Julia, remind me to ask you something after the workout,” the Northeastern accent softly said as I neared him. It sounded like he knew something that I didn’t, and it peaked my curiosity.
“Ask me what?” I asked.
“Just remind me,” he answered back, smiling.
“Okay, sure,” I said as I tugged at my gloves, found an open eye in the wire fence, stuffed them into it and then joined the group already starting to jog around the track.
The workout came and went as usual – nothing out of the ordinary, and yet again I had survived. I reveled in my small joy as I fell onto the track’s rubber surface to pry my spikes off of my swollen feet.
“Phew, that – was – pain,” I said to no one in particular.
“Tired already?” the six-foot-one sprinter with the Northeastern accent taunted me.
I looked up from my disheveled state and smiled at the seemingly cool and collect figure staring in my direction. He had muscular arms and legs and strawberry blond hair and looked as if he were totally unfazed by the trial we had just endured. He was a year older than me, a sophomore, and he had become a good friend of mine in the time that we had known each other. A pre-med student and standout athlete, Brady had many alluring qualities that attracted my close friendship. Yes, I saidfriendship. Despite being coerced by the girls on the sprint squad to take him seriously, I was convinced that any relationship beyond a friendship with my now, good friend was completely out of the question. Even if I wanted a relationship right now, I was sure that Brady and I had crossed into thejust-friends zonea long time ago.
“Tired. Never,” I said with a crooked smile in answer to his question. I tried with great pains to slow my breathing so it wasn’t quite so easy to see how out of breath I really was.
“Hey, you wanted to ask me something. What was it?” I asked. I had almost forgotten.
“Oh, yeah, there’s a concert tonight at the Blue Star, and I have an extra ticket. Do you want to come?” he asked.
“Who’s playing?” I questioned him.
“The All-American Saints. It’s a new band. You probably have never heard of them, but I thought we could try it,” he said, almost sheepishly.
He wasn’t acting his usual confident self. What was different about him?
“Okay,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. I didn’t really have anything else to do later that night, and I had already caught up on all of my homework over the weekend. Besides, it sounded fun – even if he was acting weird.
“Who else is going?” I asked as I successfully forced one spike off of my foot and watched it fall to the rubber surface in front of me.
“It’s just me and you. I’ll pick you up at seven,” he said as quickly as he could get the words out of his mouth.
And before I could ask anymore questions, he had disappeared behind the swarm of jumpers huddled together in the middle of the track. I paused from untying my other shoe and stared bemused in the direction in which the tall figure had just been standing. Just me and you? I knew that I had a puzzled look superglued to my face. We never did things asjust me and you. It was odd, but I guess it wasn’t that odd. And it surely couldn’t be worth too much thought. Right? I had learned that guys were odd creatures many years ago, and besides, Brady probably bought the tickets only to find out that everyone he had asked was either too busy to go or didn’t want to see a band, the likes of which they had never heard. That was probably it.
I went back to untying my spiked shoe.
When I finished, I slipped on my tennis shoes, stood up, threw on my jacket, un-jailed my gloves from the wire fence and headed for the box I called home to get ready for the concert that I had concluded would just be part of another night with a good friend.
“Ilike ‘em,” I said, almost shouting, so that Brady could hear me over the drums and constant hum of the crowd.
At the same time, I was trying unsuccessfully to drape my jacket over the back of my chair, while also juggling my phone and breathing in a combination of old building and a dozen perfumes and colognes. Aah, night life. Was it strange that I actually kind of liked the combination of juxtaposing smells? The scene and its attributes kind of reminded me of what life would look like – and smell like, I guess – if you bottled it up and kept it for a long time. I would bottle up tonight, I guess. Why not? I was watching a band with a good friend, who just so happened to be easy on the eyes, I might add. Life could be worse than tonight.
“Here, I’ve got it,” Brady said as he helped me force the jacket to latch on the opposite side of the chair.
“Tha-nks,” I said – almost as if it were a question.
My eyes tracked his expression. I was waiting for him to make fun of my inability to perform a simple task – as if the endless banter never got old. But nothing came. He simply steadied the jacket on the chair, caught my stare, smiled and refocused his attention back onto the band.
His reaction made me giggle quietly to myself. He must love this band. It had him acting…well, smiley.
“Where are they from?” I asked, straining my voice. I was sure he knew and would be eager to tell me.
“Memphis,” Brady shouted back.
“Hmm,” I said, shaking my head. “They’re pretty good. I wonder why they haven’t been discovered yet.”
“They’re an alternative rock band from theMidwest. It takes a while, I guess,” Brady replied, a permanent smile planted on his tan, chiseled face.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said, smiling also and following his gaze to the four-member band on the tiny, worn-in platform.
The band just barely fit onto the modest stage that was maybe three feet off of the ground. People, mostly in their teens and twenties, lined the wooden edges of the raised area, holding out their hands in hopes of touching the hand of a star – well, before he was a star anyway. Of course, they might have well have been famous. They had managed to captivate the attention of the entire hall of young adults, which each had an attention span of no more than 30 seconds.
And I wouldn’t have taken my eyes off of them again either if it weren’t for my own depleted attention span. My electronic distraction, also known as my phone, and its obnoxious glow suddenly caught the corner of my eye. My hand instinctively darted toward it and scooped it up.
But before I tossed it like a hot potato into my clutch, I glanced at the name on the screen.
My heart raced for a split second. I hadn’t talked to Will since New Year’s Eve. What could he possibly have to say?
“Do you need to answer it?” Brady asked, taking his attention away from the band as well to flash me a gentle smile.
“No,” I said, the corners of my mouth rising, forcing my heart to slow again.
“Okay,” he said, nodding his head and returning his attention back to the band.
My eyes followed his lead, but my mind fell onto some kind of misguided safari. And by the time the band was wrapping up its last song, I had already jumped off of the safari and had entered an imaginary dream land – complete with time machines that allowed you to go back and forward all at the same time.
And on the outside, from my corner of the playhouse, I was methodically dissecting the way each member busily unplugged amplifier cords and took swigs out of water bottles and exchanged glances with fans that just knew that he was going to be the next big thing someday. But on the inside, and for a fleeting second, I imagined it was Will doing the same things. I imagined his deep, soothing voice and crooked, half smile and his new, scruffy facial hair.
My eyes followed a band member to the corner of the stage, and I watched as he took a napkin and a pen from a brunette with long, silky hair. It was the girl from Kathy’s New Year’s Eve party. Well, it wasn’t, but it was in my head anyway. And suddenly, Will’s voice didn’t seem so smooth and his facial hair just made him look lazy and like a bear.
“Are you ready?” I heard Brady ask me, breaking my stare, my lapse from reality.
“Yeah,” I shouted, noticing for the first time that I no longer had to shout. “That was fun,” I added, forcing myself back to where I actually was.
I was smiling when I caught Brady’s gaze. And for a strange moment, his peculiar smile – that he had been displaying all night – appeared mesmerizing, as if no one was moving around us, no one was pushing out chairs or brushing past us or trying to get the band members’ attentions. For a moment, the room seemed silent and completely calm. Maybe I was still inDreamLand.
“Hey, do you want to get some hot chocolate at the shop down the street?” Brady asked me eventually, puncturing the vacuum that I or he or we had just either created or had just so happened to find ourselves in for the last several moments.
“That sounds like a good idea,” I said, nodding my head.
It only took a couple of minutes for us to walk down the street and find our way into a small, local coffee shop. It was three stairs down and we were completely underground, surrounded by drawings of bridges and tall weeds and roads that wound into fields of clovers – images that would fit pretty well in “the country room,” I noted. The drawings were all signed and for sale by local artists trying also to make their big break. The narrow, small room was cozy, dimly lit and full of soft, leather chairs. Brady and I made our way to a small counter with a chalkboard displayed behind it and planted our feet.
“It’s on me,” I said to Brady after I decided on a triple chocolate hot chocolate and he chose the regular hot chocolate.
“No, no, no,” Brady said, reaching for his wallet in the back pocket of his dark jeans.
“No, you bought the tickets,” I said, trying my best to persuade him.
“Your money’s no good here, Julia. Plus, ladies don’t pay,” he replied, smiling and pulling out a bill from his wallet.
Ladies? Brady had never referred to me as anyone but “one of the guys,” much less a lady. The gesture seemed kind of misplaced, but then again, he had always been pretty gentlemen-like, almost like an old soul.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling, opting eventually to give in and let him pay.
The barista handed us each a steaming cup of hot chocolate within minutes, and then we made our way out of the coffee shop and to a small, downtown city park that wasn’t too far down the street.
I could feel the smooth hot chocolate glide down my throat as I took short, frequent sips to ward off the night’s brisk air. The smooth chocolate felt good after a night of shouting over the band.
“How about here?” Brady asked me as he pointed to a small, wooden bench under a maple tree just starting to grow back its big, green leaves that the winter had stolen from it.
“This is fine,” I said cheerfully, taking a seat and resting my back contently up against the back of the bench.
“Thanks for asking me to come. It was fun,” I said, after I had turned toward my friend now sitting beside me.
“It was nothing,” he said, resting his hot chocolate cup on his knee. “I’m glad you saidyes.”
His comment set me back for a second. I had heard that phrase before. It had come from a bear – a scruffy-faced, lazy bear. I guess I was still working on the bitterness. I shook it off and kept my eyes on my friend. There was something different about him tonight. Maybe it was his hair. It had gel in it. I rarely saw him with gel in his hair. No, maybe it was the way he was dressed. He was wearing dark denim jeans and a black, long-sleeved shirt under his dark leather jacket. It seemed to compliment his deep brown eyes exceptionally well, and it was a far cry from sweats and a tee shirt. Though, he could hold his own in either outfit.
Just friends –It would always be a blessing and a curse, I thought, smiling slightly. I looked away and took another sip of hot chocolate.
“Julia,” Brady said then, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
I could hear the breath escaping through his lips. I looked up at him with a concerned expression. His whole demeanor had changed, and I wondered what had caused it. Was there still something he had to ask me? Was everything okay? My breaths quickened then. Were there still more surprises? I waited on my answer as he continued.
“I’ve liked you for awhile now,” he sputtered and then paused, awaiting my reaction.
I swallowed quickly as my eyes darted back to the ground in front of me. I wasn’t completely sure what I had heard. I sat frozen, puzzled and shocked. A foreign excitement churned in my stomach, though I still wasn’t quite sure where he was going with all of this.
Moments went by in silence. I slightly panicked.
“And I like you too, Brady,” I said, smiling.
I had taken the safe road, not really knowing if there was even a different road to take.
Brady smiled and shook his head back and forth as he looked toward the ground, seemingly at his shoes, seemingly frazzled.
“No, I mean, I like you, Julia. I like you, like I-want-to-take-you-on-a-date, and I-want-to-kiss-you like you,” he confessed sincerely.
My heart stopped, and as if a smile restarted my frozen beats again, the corners of my lips rose. I was sure I had heard him right this time, and though I kind of felt guilty for making him elaborate, I loved what I had heard – twice. Who wouldn’t?
His words were both reassuring and electric all at the same time, and as if my expression had given him the response he had longed for, Brady leaned over and kissed my chocolaty lips.
After he withdrew his soft lips from mine, he took my hand in his. His hand wasn’t really soft, but it was warm.
I smiled and rested my head against his strong shoulder. I was still trying to fully grasp what was going on. What had just happened? Who was this guy beside me? Just moments ago, we had been two people who had long ago crossed over into the doomedfriend zone. Now, we were holding hands. A million questions were running around dizzily in my head, bumping into each other and raising havoc, but at the same time, the moment didn’t feel wrong or awkward. It felt right.
And with that revelation, I wrapped my free arm around his arm closest to me and felt the perfect contours of his bicep. I had always wanted to do that.
I was very much aware that the arm wasn’t Will’s and the thought slightly stung. But I was quickly lifted with my next thought – No, these muscles were much too big to be Will’s. I smiled.
It was all still so surreal to me. I had to have been dreaming. I was, for sure, back inDreamLand. This kind of stuff didn’t happen in real life. Inside, butterflies burst forth from my stomach in all different directions toward my limbs. Inside, I was dancing crazily and doing cartwheels. Outside, I stared in utter amazement at my hand in my friend’s as I tried to grasp the reality, the newness of the moment.
And as my thoughts continued to crazily run amuck, I gently squeezed his bicep again and smiled.
Just friendswasn’t all that bad, but this – this, I think I like a little more. Yep, I could get used to this.
A Blink of an Eye
“Julia, is that you?”
I looked up from the teacher’s desk to see a short, bubbly woman standing in the classroom’s doorway. Before I could say a word, the figure spoke again.
“Well, how are ya? It’s been so long,” the woman exclaimed.
Then, I watched her scurry into the classroom and finally take a seat in one of the small, student desks in front of me.
“I heard that you were back in town, and I’ve been hoping that I’d run into you when I was over here sometime. What have you been up to these days?” the woman asked again before I even had a chance to answer her first question.
Will’s aunt, who was also the elementary school’s nurse, had always been a favorite of mine – mostly because of her inquisitive nature, which did some work in the town’s most illustrious industry – its rumor mill.
“I’ve been substituting, trying to stay busy,” I replied, happy to be in the presence of someone older than twelve for the first time that day.
“How has it been going?” she asked. A concerned look rose to her face, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. As far as I knew, every kid had made it through first hour. Though, I quickly remembered that it was just one of her two, usual expressions. There was either a smile or that same I’m-sorry-to-hear-that look. There were only two options. That’s all you got with her.
“Well, so far, no missing children, no injuries, thus far, knock on wood,” I said.
I knocked on a corner of the old wooden desk a couple of times.
“Good, Good. So, what are you working on there?” she asked, straining her neck slightly in my direction.
She was craftily skimming the rumor mill even as we spoke, but how could you fault her? She was a curious soul – like a fly just before it gets stuck in the butter.
“Oh, this?” I asked.
I looked down at my stack of papers.
“I’m looking for apartments,” I said. “It might be tough to find places to rent out there, so I figured I’d better get started now.”
“Out where?” the woman asked abruptly, displaying a puzzled look – one slightly more severe than the usual concerned look – on her rosy, round face.
I had just assumed that she had known about my leaving for school in the winter. I knew thatNew Milfordhad not grown that much in the four years that I had been gone. Perhaps there were exceptions to the small-town rumor mill after all. Was it possible that not everyone knew everyone else’s business and that Will’s aunt was living proof? The thought was surprisingly refreshing, though I refused to take it as fact. I knew better.
“I’m moving toSan Diego,” I said. “I got accepted into a law school there.”
“San Diego?” she stated and asked at the same time. “That’s so far away.”
Her reaction seemed slightly somber, which wasn’t quite the expression that I was expecting. But before I could explain, the forty-something-year-old woman continued.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, I heard that you were coming back into town, and I had half-hoped that you and Will would get back together,” she elaborated. “But now that you’re leaving, I guess that’s out,” she said, smiling softly and turning her face to the tile floor in between her desk and mine. A sad disappointment lingered in her eyes.
Will’s aunt had a way with words. Her words weren’t always the ones that you wanted to hear, but they were always the ones you needed to hear. Though, I wasn’t quite convinced I needed to hear those particular words just now.
Her confession, though unsettling, brought it all together, however, and it was both flattering and heart-wrenching all at the same time. I loved Will’s family, and I hated to disappoint any one of them, but in the end, it was life. People separated. They moved on. Fairytales faded. New ones formed. Life kept going. And my life wasn’t the only one that had kept going. Will’s had too. I had learned through the ever-present grape vine that Will had went on, while I was in college, to pursue his dream he had first confessed to me that day in high school. He became a full-time, active duty firefighter about a year and a half ago and moved toSt. Louis. Though he rented a place right outside of the big city, he also bought a house inNew Milford. I had heard that he kept the house in our hometown so that he had a place that made him feel like he had never left – a place to fish and run around and to do whatever it was that small-town men do that never quite grow up, I guess. It sounded like him anyway.
“How is he, by the way,” I asked, smiling, continuing the conversation, yet still not exactly sure how to respond to the librarian’s confession.
“He’s doing well,” she said, nodding her head. “Although, he hasn’t quite seemed himself lately. In fact, he hasn’t quite seemed himself for a long time now, and we’re a little worried about him.”
She paused, and then as if an imaginary light bulb went off in her head, she dramatically continued.
“Hey, maybe you could talk to him while you’re here. He has a house outside of town next toCedarLake, and he’ll be back there this weekend,” she explained.
I smiled and nodded my head. I suspected the seemingly spur-of-the-moment idea was not so spur-of-the-moment.
“I could try to do that,” I said, still smiling.
“Oh, I’d love it if you could. He’d love it,” the women said happily as she shot up from her desk and scurried back to the doorway – as if her great mission had just been accomplished, and now, she was off to solve the town’s other great impasses.
But just before she reached the door, she turned and faced me again. I watched her as she took a deep breath and then let it out before she spoke.
“Don’t count him out, Julia. He hasn’t given up on you,” she said resolutely and then quickly disappeared into the hallway.A Visit
It was Saturday evening, and I had a nagging desire to see Will. His aunt didn’t have a bad idea. She might have had ulterior motives wrapped up in it, but it wasn’t a bad idea. And sure, I probably wouldn’t have attempted to make the visit on my own initiative, but now that a request had been made, I was slightly intrigued by the notion. And after all, it would be good to see him again, catch up and say goodbye before I left town. What could it hurt?
I threw on a jacket and searched the desk for my keys, bypassing the phone on my nightstand. I could call him first, but I was kind of in the mood for a sneak attack. Those were more fun anyway.
I grabbed my keys and headed for the door.
In my jeep, I paused only to crack the window and to find a radio station playing anything that wasn’t the sound of an old man rambling about the price of soybeans.
In less than ten minutes, I pulled off of the only highway that meandered its way through town and drove a short distance to a small farm house at the end of a narrow gravel road. I had known it was this house when his aunt had described it the day before. I had passed by the little white, two-story building almost a million times in my lifetime, and I had no trouble finding it again today.
As my jeep closed in on the old, wooden home with blue shutters, I spotted Will’s SUV in the white-graveled driveway. Then the nerves set in. They weren’t overwhelming – just enough to be annoying. I had run into Will a time or two while I was home from college and even a couple of times while I was at school and he was visiting a mutual friend. Those times had been short and the conversation even shorter. We had never spoken of the New Year’s Eve night. We never talked much about what was really going on in our lives. What each of us knew about the other was, of course, from the rumor mill. I often wondered what his mysterious call was about the night of that concert years ago, but surely, he had said what he was going to say by now. And for all I know, he had called me by mistake.
And now, I wasn’t entirely sure of how he would react to my sneak attack. I knew he had his fickle moments – those moments when I had no idea what he was thinking. All those years we had been together, I had really thought I knew him. These days, though, he was as unpredictable as an alley cat. One minute, he’s purring on your lap. The next, he’s scowling at you from the window sill, and you’re left wondering if he’s plotting your demise over there, just waiting for you to fall asleep. That’s Will. One minute, he’s fine and civil; the next, he’s reserved and cold.
I wondered what today would be like when I turned the ignition off moments later and stepped out of the jeep. The small house had an unattached garage, which led to a concrete sidewalk and three tiny, concrete stairs that I took to the house’s front porch. The wooden slats of the tiny porch gave way slightly under my feet, making low-pitched creaky noises, as I made my way to the door.
I let out an excited and slightly nervous sigh before pulling open the screen door and knocking three times on the solid, wooden, storm one behind it. I regretted for a short second not calling him first. What was I thinking? Everyone calls before stopping by. What did I have to gain in a sneak attack anyway?
When no one answered, I felt a small piece of relief. Maybe he wasn’t home.
I waited a minute and then followed the miniature wrap-around porch to the back of the house. I figured I would just look to see if he was out back. If he wasn’t, I was out of there.
At the same time, a tiny piece of sadness replaced my nervousness. I was, oddly enough, looking forward to catching up with him. I have Rachel to thank for keeping me connected to my past, and believe me, she does a good job of it. But Will holds a different connection to that time. I was kind of looking forward to getting lost in it for an hour or so.
I turned the corner of the wrap-around porch, lost in my own regret, when I saw him. He was there, just sitting in a chair next to the lake about the size of a football field, with a thin, dark fishing pole resting in his hands.
I could really only see his back, and he was wearing an old baseball cap, but I could still tell that he looked good. And not a good for the circumstancesgood, but a good,good. And I suddenly remembered how I could have fallen for him years ago.
I paused for a moment before I took another step or made my presence known, and gazed around the backyard. Golf balls littered perfect, freshly cut, green grass. Trees lined the lawn and the back of the lake, and everything was still, peaceful, quiet – perfectly still. Gone were the nerves and the regret for not calling. This was home, and I loved that I could see it in its natural state for even just a moment.
“Will,” I eventually called out from the porch. There was a smile in the way I had said his name.
Will turned in his chair toward the direction of my voice.
I noticed his bright, blue eyes first. They seemed to smile even before I could see his lips rise at their corners.
“Hey,” he said, immediately setting his fishing pole onto the ground, rising up from his wooden lawn chair and making his way toward me. He had a surprise in his voice.
I kept my eyes on him, uncovering one memory at a time about the way he assembled his steps – smooth, long strides, his right foot slightly turned out, something the average glance would never notice – as he made his way toward me.
“Your aunt said you would be here this weekend,” I said, starting to explain my presence, while I leaned into his embrace when he reached me.
“Well, here I am,” he said, gesturing toward the lake. “Pull up a chair.”
I followed him to the edge of the water again and sank deep into an oversized, handmade lawn chair. Then, I shoved my hands into my jacket’s pockets and crossed my legs to ward off the late evening, September chill and made myself comfortable.
“Are they biting?” I asked, thankful that he had taken my unannounced visit well so far.
“A little, but I haven’t caught any yet,” he said. “It’s probably getting too cold. I heard you were back in town – for how long?” he asked. He was still smiling.
The rumor mill was still alive and well. The thought was oddly comforting.
“I’m here for a little more than a month,” I said softly. “I’m substituting up at the school.”
I noticed his smile begin to fade. I suspected it had something to do with me leaving again, so I continued in hopes of distracting him.
“I don’t mind it. I actually kind of like it, and it gives me something to do in the meantime,” I finished.
“I see. Then where are you going?” he asked hesitantly.
I hated telling him that I was leaving. Suddenly, I felt as if we were in high school all over again and I was telling him for the first time that I was going away to college. And strangely, I could tell he felt the same way – whether it made sense to or not.
The truth was that I still cared a great deal about him, and I would still do anything to protect his heart. Despite the fact that our relationship status had down-graded years ago, his friendship meant the world to me – even in its infrequent and sometimes irregular forms.
“I’m going to school inCalifornia, and then we’ll see from there,” I finally managed to get out.
“California?” Will blurted out. “And more school? What are you going for now?” he asked somberly, and now with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
His whole demeanor was beginning to change – quickly.
“Law,” I replied.
“Law,” Will said to himself. “Well, that’s your dream,” he continued, forcing a smile and nodding his head.
I was relieved to see a smile again.
“But whyCalifornia?” he asked. “That’s like a whole, different country. You know there’s no grass or trees out there. Wasn’t there something closer?”
“It’s warm though,” I confessed with a grin.
“So, if I find a way to get rid of the winter here, you’ll stay closer for once?” he asked, still smiling.
“I’ll stay forever,” I promised.
“What about palm trees?” he continued. “What if I plant some palm trees, would that help?”
I smiled and shook my head.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” he said, smiling also.
There was a brief silence as the tree frogs started their nightly song in the thick brush behind us.
“Well, I guess you’ve got the arguing thing down already,” Will blurted out eventually, somewhat changing the subject. “You know, for the whole lawyer thing.”
I hesitated for a second.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “Thanks for that, by the way.”
“Happy to help,” he said, chuckling.
Our smiles again faded and were replaced by a reflective silence. It was just enough time for me to wonder if I had been wrong to come tonight. He didn’t seem like he was in the mood for reminiscing or even talking, for that matter.
“Happiness is like a butterfly, you know?” Will blurted out then, interrupting my thoughts.
I looked back at him with a puzzled expression infused across my face.
“What?” I asked. There was a slight hesitation in my voice, though I was slightly intrigued. Where was he going with this?
“The more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit on your shoulder,” he recited.
“It’s Thoreau,” he added.
“Hmm,” I said slowly. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to his seemingly out-of-place statement, and I definitely didn’t have a clue as to what he was talking about.
I nodded my head in mostly apathetic agreement and then quickly changed the subject. Maybe this is what his aunt was talking about him not being himself lately. I reminded myself I would take his friendship in all of its forms. Then, I smiled warmly.
“So, how have you been? What have you been up to these days?” I asked excitedly.
“Working, golfing, fishing,” he rambled off. “You’re looking at it.”
His words had grown somewhat cold.
I nodded again as I watched him bob the fishing pole up and down so that the bobber methodically bounced in the water, causing circular ripples.
“How’s living inSt. Louis? Do you like it?” I asked, trying desperately to keep the conversation going. I felt like I was trying to row a johnboat against theMissouricurrent.
“It’s fine. It’s all fine. Are you seeing anyone?” he blurted out softly, changing the subject unexpectedly again.
I cocked my head to the side so that I could see his shadowed face under the bill of his cap. He looked mysterious and almost seductive under that baseball cap of his – kind of like a famous country singer that was a model in his past life. Okay, that might be a stretch, but there was still something about him that didn’t make him look like he belonged in this one-horse town.
When he continued to stare into the water, I slowly returned my gaze back to the lake as well. I should have been more surprised by his question, but I wasn’t. He had a wonderful habit of throwing that same query into every one of our conversations since our own demise. I hated it, and I hated answering it too. I wanted to get lost in the past for awhile – not the present. And I had no idea how he would react to my reply each time. In the end, I wanted to tell him that I had found someone really special, and I wanted him to be happy for me, but then I knew this hope was in vain. No matter his relationship status, he never reacted positively to my response. But, in the end, I understood. Of course, I understood. I wouldn’t exactly jump for joy at the mention of his love interests either. So why did he always ask about mine?
“I am,” I finally said in answer to his question. “I’m still seeing Brady.”
“Uh-huh,” Will said slowly, continuing to stare at his bobber, still bouncing up and down on the water’s surface.
Now, it was my turn to ask him, I guessed.
“What about you?” I asked, trying to stay positive, a forced smile reappearing on my face. I didn’t really want to hear the answer.
“What about me?” he asked.
“Well, how’s Miss New Year’s Eve?” I asked. I couldn’t help but grin, remembering the commotion that was that night. Now, it felt like a lifetime ago.
“Gosh, you still remember that? Jules, that was years ago. That whole thing was just a bad idea,” he admitted, shaking his head.
I let my laughter out of the hold I had had it under.
“Didn’t work out?” I asked, now trying to stifle the remaining giggles.
“Did you expect it to?” he asked, smiling too now.
I paused for a second.
“No,” I admitted, shaking my head and smiling softly.
“Me neither,” he said.
For a moment, we sat in silence again, watching the ripples soothingly bunch together and then disappear into the outer edges of the lake.
“Jules, I’m sorry about that night. I…,” he started, turning toward me.
“Will, it’s fine,” I stopped him. “It was a long time ago,” I said, smiling and catching another glimpse of his baby blues.
His eyes went back to the bobber when I finished. He wasn’t smiling, but he was nodding his head.
Then, as if a silent timer had gone off, he reeled in his fishing pole, set it beside his chair and stood up.
His movement forced me to turn in his direction. Where was he going? What was he doing? In a moment, he had just transformed into an alley cat again. And now, I felt more like his trapped mouse than his alley-cat friend. It was times like these, though, that helped to remind me that the two of us were just simply two, different people – two, different people who had taken different paths in life and had changed along the way. He was an alley cat now, and I was still the opossum. I slept during the day everyday and roamed for food at night every night, and I would play dead when expected. It was always the same routine. I was the predictable one. Alley cats don’t understand opossums, and I no longer understood him and he no longer understood me, and that had become evident throughout the years.
I watched him dust off the back of his jeans.
“Well, I have to go to my parents’ house for dinner tonight,” Will said, now stretching his muscular, long arms and towering frame to the sky. “Mom’s making her specialty. I promised her I’d be there.”
I hesitated for an instant, nodded my head and then spoke.
“Okay, yeah, can’t miss that. I’d better get going then,” I said, taking his awkward cue. “It was nice seeing you again.”
I rose from my chair then, fiddling with my jacket and somewhat dissatisfied by our conversation and my decision to see him at all. Because now, my phrase,What could it hurt?looped across my mind like it was on a digital billboard continuously mocking me. I was quickly realizing that seeing Will might not have only hurt our friendship, but also my chances of having a nice, drama-free Saturday evening. I was silently admitting defeat when Will’s alley-cat voice threw me off again.
“Come,” he blurted out in his deep, raspy tone.
I instantly stopped adjusting my jacket and looked up at Will. I wasn’t exactly sure what he had meant by his sudden outburst or even sure if I had heard him right.
“What?” I asked softly, hesitantly – confused.
“Come with me,” he propositioned me again.
I smiled, and my eyes darted to the ground near my shoes. Had anyone else asked me the same question, I would have politely declined. However, it wasn’t just anyone who had asked me. It was Will, and I had nothing to do that night, and I loved his family and hadn’t seen them in a long time. A dinner couldn’t hurt. I bit my tongue. Well, it couldn’t make it worse. In fact, a dinner with his family might salvage my Saturday night.
“Okay,” I said softly, while nodding my head and smiling back at him.
Will smiled too.
“Let’s go,” he said, seemingly happy again, grabbing his fishing pole and making his way back to the small porch.
I watched him walk away for a second, temporarily paralyzed, stuck on a tiny patch of dirt and grass, wondering what I had just agreed to.
“You coming?” he called out cheerfully, turning his attention back to me.
I smiled, nodded and followed after him.
Ifollowed Will to his parents’ house in my jeep and walked with him up the stone walkway to the door of his childhood home – something I had done so many times before.
I was a little hesitant at how Will’s family members would react to me being there, but each one greeted me with hugs and smiles as usual – just like I had never taken a four-year leave of absence from their lives.
The meal too played out as if I had never left. Then, after dinner, I followed Will, glass of lemonade in hand, out to the deck that overlooked a piece of the Uptown. I immediately spotted a familiar, cushioned lounge chair that hadn’t seemed to have moved an inch in four years, and I fell into it. The chair felt safe. I was home again.
Satisfied, I took a deep breath in and with it, inhaled the autumn smell of fallen brown, saffron and yellow leaves mixed with burning logs. The air was still somewhat warm, but the breeze was cool. I took one more sip of Will’s mom’s homemade lemonade and set it onto the floor beside me.
When my eyes returned to the horizon, they caught the flash of several businesses’ lights that were just starting to come alive along the main highway that stretched through town. And in the west, the very last piece of the crimson, setting sun neared the edge of the earth as a quiet darkness slowly crept across our sky.
My eyes followed the lines of the sunset until I noticed a familiar-looking object in my view, resting up against the wooden banister.
“Do you still play?” I asked. There was a curious excitement in my voice. I could even hear it myself.
Will followed my eyes’ path to the six-stringed instrument. And without missing a beat, he sauntered over to it, picked it up and took a seat in a chair next to me, laying the guitar gently in his lap.
He was smiling as he slowly and methodically swung its strap over his head and wrapped his other arm around its base.
“This song is all yours,” he said with a boyish grin now planted on his face as he slid a pick out from underneath the guitar’s strings.
More surprises from the alley cat.
“Mine?” I asked, strangely flattered. A smile battled and eventually won its way to my face as well.
“Yep, all yours. Everyone needs a song – this one will be yours. I’ll never use it for anyone else,” he vowed as he began leisurely plucking its strings.
“Okay,” I said, smiling, agreeing to play along with his little vow.
The melody was slow and soothing, and immediately, it captivated me, almost seeming to transport me to a beautiful and enchanting place in a world where nothing ever seemed to go wrong. I remembered that world. I was seventeen in it and the muse of a talented seventeen-year-old, small-town boy. I let myself believe I was in that world again as I took a deep breath, exhaled and then watched religiously as his fingers gently tickled the guitar’s strings, and his same, familiar, soothing voice softy came to rest at my ears.
The voice was home too, and I hung onto each word, lost in my past: “It’s a summer night And I can hear the crickets sing But otherwise, all the world’s asleep While I can only lie awake and dream And every time I close my eyes A butterfly comes to me It has soft, green eyes A sweet soul Brave wings And each time, it hears me sing…”
Will stopped singing, yet he continued to play the melody on the guitar a few more measures before his fingers stopped strumming as well.
I hesitated before I spoke. It might have been because I was slightly tongue-tied. It might have been because I was hoping that there was still more.
“Where are the rest of the words?” I asked, smiling softly. “What does the butterfly hear you sing?”
“I’m, I’m still working on the rest,” he said, smiling his coy, alley-cat smile. “You can hear it again when I’m finished. I promise.”
“Well, when will it be finished?” I asked curiously.
He paused, and his eyes found a place on the wood floor before meeting my eyes again.
“I’ll find a way to get it to your ears,” he said, smiling coyly. “Don’t worry.”
I smiled at him softly.
“Okay,” I said, nodding my head slowly, my gaze still on him, watching him almost suspiciously. “I’ll wait if I have to, I guess.”
I brought my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around my bended legs.
“You should play – for people – you know. I might even do you the honor of being your biggest fan,” I added, urging him on with a smile.
Will’s face lit up, but he was shaking his head.
“You never give up, do you?” he asked, chuckling.
My eyes caught his. I didn’t say anything, though my expression was telling.
“Nah, work keeps me busy,” he said, eventually shaking his head. “Besides, I don’t mind just playing like this – for friends, for you.”
I could definitely tell that my cheeks were blushing now as my eyes darted directly to the engrained lines on the floor again. I prayed that it was dark enough now that he couldn’t see the fire in my face.
We were both quiet for a long minute, while my eyes traced those lines in the wood floor over and over again. Then, something brave came over me. I was still seventeen – for now.
“Will,” I said, breaking the silence. “You know you’ve got a piece of me always, no matter what this crazy world has planned for us, right?”
He shook his head slowly, taking in my words, almost as if it were perfectly normal for me to have said them.
“Yeah, I know, and you’ve got the other half of me, damn the luck,” he said, chuckling softly.
“How are we ever gonna function separately?” he asked.
“I’m sure we’ll make do,” I said, smiling, watching him stroke the strings silently on his guitar.
After several seconds, his eyes met mine again. I continued to smile, yet I quickly forced my gaze to the horizon in the distance.
“I probably should be going,” I said then, softly, shifting my eyes back to him eventually.
“Okay,” he whispered, nodding his head slowly, as if he were being forced against his will to agree.
Now, he was the one that focused on the engrained lines on the wooden porch floor. My eyes settled on him again. It seemed as if he had something else to say but was afraid to say it or didn’t know how to say it or something. And I wasn’t sure if he would hold onto it forever.
I took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly. Then, I reached down to grab the glass of lemonade on the other side of my chair. But as I moved, I suddenly felt his hand gently come to rest on my opposite hand.
My face quickly darted back toward his. At the same time, my heart quickened. His hand was so familiar, yet something told me that it should be foreign to me now, and everything else told me that it shouldn’t be on mine. But my hand was cemented to the wooden chair underneath it, and it would hurt too much to even try to move it. I knew this, so I simply let it be, as my eyes settled on his own baby blues. And for a moment, neither of us said anything. It was almost as if this were the last time we would ever see each other – like this, anyway.
“Promise me you’ll come if I ever change my mind about the singing gig,” he whispered finally. “Promise you’ll come and listen to the rest of the song.”
My heart slowed and the corners of my mouth rose slightly. I paused, dragging out the seconds, though consciously refusing to get lost in his sea-colored eyes, like I had done so many times before.
“I promise,” I said softly.
My eyes lingered on his and his on mine for a second more, but a sudden thought of Brady led me back to my path, and I pushed myself up from the lounge chair, slid my hand out from underneath his and walked to the glass door that led to the inside of the house. I was no longer seventeen – or else, I wouldn’t be walking away.
Once in the kitchen, I set the glass in the sink, quietly slipped on my sandals and made my way to the front door.
My hand rested on the brass door knob for a second before I paused and turned back toward his tall silhouette standing several feet behind me.
“Thanks for tonight, Will,” I said softly.
“Don’t mention it,” he whispered, with a half smile escaping from his lips.
I smiled too, and then I slowly turned back toward the cherry chestnut door, twisted the knob and slid through its frame and back into the chilly, evening air.
When I reached the stack of metal mailboxes, I used the smallest key that dangled from my overly cluttered keychain to open the tiny compartment. Then, I pulled out two envelopes – one was most likely junk mail and addressed to April, my roommate; the other was smaller and hand-written and bore my name across its front. I smiled when I saw that the return address on the small, ivory envelope was Brady’s. I paused for a moment to rip open its seal.
Brady had made it a point to send me letters sporadically during our time apart. Though his letters were never very long or in depth, they were very sweet and never failed to make my day. Smiling, I hastily pulled out a piece of cream stationary and allowed my eyes to carefully browse over the words:Dear Julia,
Though I miss you like crazy, I’m kept afloat by the thought of us. At times when I think that I cannot wait another minute to see you, I think about a time when our lives will no longer keep us a world away – a time when forever is ours. I love you, Julia.Waiting on forever,Brady
My smile grew. Brady had a way with words. He was quite possibly a man after my own heart. I appreciated the fact that he could take a piece of paper and pen and transform them into a mini work of art. He was my own, little Shakespeare.
Folding the stationery over itself and sliding it back into the envelope, I reached for my phone in my back pants pocket of my jeans and found Brady’s number on speed dial.
Within seconds, I heard his Northeastern accent pouring through the speakers.
“Hey, I got a love letter from someone today,” I said playfully when he answered.
“You did? Who is he? I’ll take him right here, right now,” he said in his best, raging lunatic voice.
“Relax, I think he’s harmless,” I said, smiling.
“And who are you calling harmless, exactly?” he chimed back.
I laughed as I took a seat on a bench outside of my Banker’s Hill apartment building.
“So, what are you doing tonight? Saturday night. Got any big plans?” he asked.
“Hmm, well I think we’ll head out to the farm and go skinny dipping in the lake and hope Cranky Joe doesn’t catch us,” I said, smiling.
“What? Really?” he asked. A sense of surprise shot to his voice.
“No, I’m kidding. Where would I do that here? I wish though. Life was so much simpler back then,” I confessed longingly.
“So, that’s what you did for fun out in the sticks?” he chided.
“Doesn’t it sound fun? Well, at least fun at seventeen, I guess?” I asked.
“The skinny dipping part doesn’t sound half bad, but I’m not so sure I can say the same about the lake. Aren’t there alligators in there?” he asked.
“What? Brady, it’sMissouri, notMississippi,” I said, laughing.
“Crocodiles?” he asked, hesitantly.
“No,” I said, still laughing.
“Oh, well,” he said. “It’s not all that bad, even if you can’t go skinny dipping with the alligators or the crocks. You’re onto bigger and better.”
I paused for a moment without saying anything.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I finally said softly, my smile fading slightly.
The weather was always beautiful. The palm trees were nice – don’t get me wrong. And an ocean in your backyard – it doesn’t really get any better than that. So, I’m not really sure why a lake in the middle of nowhere made me smile secretly to myself. Maybe it was the simplicity I missed – even if it came with an endearingly intrusive nature, like when you walk into the grocery store and the owner asks how your grandmother has been doing. It’s funny, though. The ways of a small town seemed peculiar and almost foreign to me now, but nevertheless, there remained always a special place for their allure no matter how distant they became to me. This was the one thing that I wished Brady could understand or at least appreciate. Coming fromHamilton, a city inNew York City’s metropolitan area, Brady could relate very little to my youth. ThoughHamiltonwas its own, little community, it surpassedNew Milford’s size over a hundred times. And Brady, to top it off, found no solace in small towns. Despite my subtle persuasions, he could see no benefits whatsoever of living in a place the size of “a pea,” as he called it, secluded from major hospitals, booming businesses and towering high rises.
This bothered me on some level, even though I felt as if it shouldn’t. After all, I too had escaped from my community’s claustrophobic grip years ago, and I too couldn’t imagine going back to live there permanently. But maybe I thought that somehow and somewhere along the line my small town had become a piece of me, and by Brady not appreciating it, it meant in some twisted way that he didn’t appreciate me fully either. I knew that my meandering ponderings turned into misguided logic somewhere down the line, but nevertheless, try as I may, I couldn’t shake the feeling of unintended rejection.
But even though Brady didn’t comprehend me wholly, it was hardly enough to stunt how I felt about him, however. After all, I could never fully understand what it had been like to grow up in his life in New York either, and he had so many other ambitious qualities that more than made up for his inability to see the world retroactively through my sixteen-year-old eyes. In the end, he could have come from Mars and still have been Mr. Perfect. And anyway, I had always wanted more than a quiet existence in ruralMissouri, and more importantly, in the end, I too had changed, and I knew that I couldn’t expect someone to relate to a world that not even I wholly understood anymore.
“Bigger and better,” I said again, expressionlessly into the phone, as my eyes caught the sails of a sailboat coming back into the harbor in the distance.Fame
Ihad made it to Saturday morning, and my alarm had just reminded me of that fact. I quickly reached over and swatted at it. It continued to ring. I swatted at it again. Silence.
I rolled over, groaned, and in the meantime, somehow elbowed my roommate’s cat in the head.
“Allie. I’m sorry, Kitty,” I called after the frightened cat now scurrying out of the room.
Now, I was up, but I made no attempt to put the covers and pillows back together as I ventured out into the living room. April was still sleeping – or would be until the cat alerted her of my murder attempt.
I slid some open books over on the coffee table in search of the remote. I didn’t find it there, so I turned to the couch and spotted a corner of it sticking out from underneath a throw blanket. I grabbed it and switched on the television, which was in the process of running a familiar commercial.
A big, sleepy yawn later, I made my way into the kitchen and reached into the cabinet for a small, white ceramic bowl.
“That’s what I said,” I mumbled, habitually reciting the catchy commercial jingle, while finding the box of frosted wheats in the pantry.
What do bunnies have to do with bread? I aimlessly wondered then as I poured the little white and tan bails into my little, ceramic bowl.
At the same time, I continued to passively listen to the television.Good Morning Todaywas just returning from the commercial break, and I quickly recognized the anchor’s familiar voice.
“Mr. Shawn Neville, your lovely voice means Saturday morning. I love you,” I said to no one listening then as I habitually grabbed the carton of milk from the refrigerator and poured it onto my cereal bails.
After I had filled the bowl halfway with milk, I stuffed the carton back into the refrigerator, scooped up the bowl and grabbed a spoon from a drawer.
Oh, music time. I hadn’t missed it, I thought then, as I made my way back into the living room and plopped down onto the soft couch, cereal bowl in one hand, spoon in the other.
My eyes, planted on the television’s screen, followed the character’s facial movements as I methodically crunched on the little, round bails, one by one.
“That’s your news for this hour,” I listened to Shawn Neville announce. “Now, we’re going outside live to our concert series performance with Anchor Heather Hughes.”
I scooted closer to the edge of the couch. My eyes had by then caught onto the methodical habit of my ears and had glued themselves to the TV as well as I watched the camera’s shot move from inside the studio to a stage just outside of it.
The live performances had long ago become my favorite part about morning news shows. I waited eagerly to see which band I would get to hear today. I think a part of me was still hoping to see that small band that Brady and I saw on what would become our first date those years ago. I really thought they would make it.
“So, Will, you were discovered in a smallSt. Louispub. That doesn’t happen everyday,” my ears, without so much as a warning, heard the anchor remark.
Suddenly, I dropped the spoon into my cereal and let my bowl fall to my lap.
“What?” I heard myself ask out loud.
“No, I don’t recon it does, but I’m happy and thankful to be here,” the figure in dark jeans, a white shirt and a cowboy hat said from inside my screen.
I felt almost numb as I stared, mesmerized. I could see him standing there on the small stage and amongst a sea of people, holding his guitar across his body. I could see him, but the problem was that I was having a hard time believing it.
“Well, we’ve got a whole lot of people who are also thankful that you’re here, and I’m sure they’re ready for a song. So, why don’t you take it away?” I listened to the anchor ask him.
“What?” I heard myself ask again. My words felt like someone else was saying them. In fact, I felt like someone else was me. I couldn’t possibly be living this exact moment right now. I was beyond shocked, beyond confused. I was dreaming. I had to be dreaming. I must have gone to bed hungry, and now, I’m dreaming that I’m eating cereal, and Will is the weird thing in the dream that doesn’t make sense. All dreams have that – the weird thing. Right?
For the next several minutes, I watched the handsome singer, captivated by his familiar, soothing voice as I listened to his lyrics flow from his lips to my ears. It was him. It was his voice. He was the singer on the stage. The singer was Will. I tried with everything I had to wrap my mind around the moment, the moment that was now transporting me back years to a summer night around a fire, a fall evening on his back porch – a hundred times in just as many places.
When the music stopped and the show went to a commercial break, I sat in the chair silently and as still as humanly possible for what felt like an eternity, allowing every piece – every image, every word – to sink deep into the depths of my self. And when I had convinced myself that what I had just seen was, in fact, real, I jumped up and darted into my room, coming out with my cell phone in hand.
My hands were shaking as I punched in Rachel’s speed dial number.
I waited anxiously for her voice.
“Hey, what’s up?” I heard her answer on the other end seconds later.
I didn’t say anything. I had just noticed my words were gone.
“Hello? Julia?” I heard Rachel say.
“What, what is Will doing on my TV?” I somehow managed to get out, though I knew I sounded frazzled – like I had just woken up to a neon pink sky.
“Yeah, I’ve already seen it. I was going to call you, but I didn’t want to wake you. I taped it. Didn’t he look good?” she asked, obviously not at all as fazed as I was.
“Wait, Rach, back up. You knew about this?” I asked her, partially already accusing her of a lie by omission.
“Of course. Everybody did, including you. I told you about it last week,” she said.
“Told me about what?” I demanded.
“That he was going to be on this morning,” she said.
“That he was going to be on?” I questioned.
I grew completely silent for a second. It’s confirmed. I’m dreaming. This can’t possibly be real. What was she talking about?
“Rach, how did this all happen?” I finally continued.
“Well, his agent or recording company or something knew somebody who worked for the news station, and…,” she started.
“No, I mean, how did this all happen?” I interrupted. “He’s singing, and he has an agent – and he’s singing. Will doesn’t sing in front of people.”
“Well, he does now, Honey,” she said, with a smile in her voice. “Law school’s really gotten to your head. I told you all of this.”
“What? When?” I protested.
“I don’t know – months ago, but nothing’s really happened until recently,” she informed me.
“What was I doing? Was I studying? Rach, I told you not to tell me things while I’m studying. Things like this happen, where I wake up to Will standing in my living room, and I have no idea how he got there. So, start over. How did all this happen?” I demanded again.
“Okay,” she said patiently. “I’ll start from the beginning. Will ran into a recording artist at The Home of Blues inSt. Louisone night about six months ago. This guy recognized Will from the weekend before when he had filled in a gig for a friend at the same bar. The guy happened to be a recording artist, and he eventually got Will and some other guys to record a demo. Then, a small label signed them a couple months later, and the rest is history, I guess.”
“Wow,” I said in a state of nothing but utter shock. “What changed his mind?”
“What?” Rachel asked.
I knew just enough of what was going on around me to tell that Rachel sounded distracted.
“He never wanted to sing like that. What changed his mind?” I asked her again.
“Oh, I’m not sure. Hey, Jules, I’ve got to call you back. Rover’s getting into the cat food again.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll talk to you later,” I said, sounding defeated and the most puzzled you could possibly be – all at the same time.
I ended the call and let the phone drop to my lap as my attention rushed back to my television’s screen and to the morning show returning from the commercial break. How had I not known? How could I have not known? My mind was in a fury of dizzying thoughts.
I watched intently as the camera panned back to the TV anchor, standing to the side of the outdoor stage. She was holding a microphone and gushing over the singer and his band, which was now softly playing in the background.
“If you know District 9’s story, you know that they’re a real fairytale of some sorts,” the anchor said enthusiastically.
“Less than a year ago, they were randomly plucked from obscurity,” the anchored continued. “Now, with the help of some great marketing and the release of their first album and one song in particular, they’re here today. The next song they’re going to sing for us is that song. TitledLet Go, the ballad rocketed to the top twenty and then topped the charts in a matter of a few, short weeks after the song hit national airwaves. And can you believe that most of the band members, including the lead singer, are firefighters? I guess you could say that they’re all-American heroes,” she said, as she turned away from the camera and back to the stage.
“Take it away. It’s District 9,” the suited woman then said to the gathered public as the assembled fans in the background cheered wildly.
After a short count, the band began playing. I watched fixedly, still frozen in my place. My heart had sped up by several more beats per minute by now. I listened to the words pour off of Will’s lips as I watched his fingers strum the guitar’s strings. From the looks of things this morning, it seemed as if he reveled in the spotlight. He looked happy up there. That was the only thing that seemed different about him – he looked happy to play in front of people. Everything else looked exactly the same. But I still was not completely convinced I wasn’t dreaming either.
Will finished singing the last lyrics of the song, and the crowd erupted into applause and more cheers, which ultimately made me smile for the first time since I had noticed him on my television’s set. The smile was completely involuntary. I had barely even noticed its presence.
He was handsome, standing on that small stage with his ivory, acoustic guitar swung across his muscular body. His eyes were a fierce shade of blue, and his hair was just long enough to show off his natural curls. And he was smiling. I had decided that he looked very much the part of a true rock star or should I say, country star.
Wow. My friend’s conversation had left me with so many unanswered questions. Like, when had he seriously contemplated becoming a professional musician? And, he was still a firefighter? As far as I knew, that’s what he still had done, and the anchor had said it too. But how had he balanced it all? And how had he gone from playing melodies for me on his quiet back porch to playing songs for millions of screaming fans on my television screen? It was perplexing and amazing all at the same time, and I was mystified and so, so puzzled, to say the least.
“He did it,” I whispered in amazement, still trying to convince myself that all of this was real. “He had done it,” I said again, allowing it to sink in.
“But what was it that made you change your mind?” I whispered aloud to the handsome, blue-eyed signer inside my television’s screen, as I leaned back and allowed the back of the chair to catch my fall.
Iwas in the process of bringing up another load of dirty clothes to the laundry room when my phone, resting on the coffee table, burst intomy favorite melody. As I walked toward the glass table, I shifted the plastic laundry basket onto my right hip and reached for the phone.
When I saw the familiar number, I flipped the cell open and continued again on my path to the small laundry room.
“Hey, Rach,” I said into the phone.
“Hey, sorry I had to go so quickly. Rover gets sick if he eats the cat’s food,” she explained.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“So, you saw him? I can’t believe you didn’t know,” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, me neither. But next time I don’t respond to that big of news like you think I should, say it again,” I said.
“I thought it was odd, but I know you’ve got your own stuff going on over there on the other side of the world. I just thought maybe you weren’t interested in us cowpokes anymore,” she said, with a smile in her voice.
“Rachel,” I scolded playfully.
“I’m kidding. I’m kidding. Next time, I’ll be more aware of your unawareness,” she chided.
“Thanks,” I said, laughing.
“He looked really good though, didn’t he?” she asked.
“You’re engaged, Rachel,” I reminded her teasingly, countering her exaggerated enthusiasm.
“Girl, I know that, and happily engaged, but you’re not,” she jokingly jeered back.
“Rachel,” I reproached again, shaking my head, but continuing to smile.
“I know, I know. You’re with Mr. Perfect. How is Mr. Med School, by the way? Isn’t he coming to see you soon?” she asked – a hint of mischief mixed with excitement filled her voice.
“He’s doing great,” I said. “He’s been pretty busy lately, but then again, so have I. And, yes, he’s coming in fourteen days.”
“I see you’ve got the countdown going already,” Rachel said, pausing only to laugh. “Hey, I know you’ve got Mr. Perfect and that you two are going to get married and live in a big, beautiful mansion and have the whole, white picket fence and two-and-a-half-kids thing, which means you probably don’t want to talk about Mr. Firefighter and Big-time Music Star, but…”
Rachel paused for dramatic effect before going on.
“But,” I said.
“But,” she continued, “I would be doing a major injustice to you if I didn’t at least tell you that I think he’s still got a thing for you,” she confessed, as if she had been holding the secret in a little box in her mind for ages, and now, she couldn’t possibly bare to hold it in any longer.
“What?” I questioned puzzlingly. “Rachel, we’ve been through this a million times. That was high school. Everyone’s moved on from it by now – except for you.”
The whole soliloquy had elicited a grin from me because I half knew where it was all going. I, by now, had also gotten all of the clothes stuffed into the dryer from the previous washer load and had swung the lid closed. While using my shoulder to balance the phone against my ear, I turned the dryer dial to thenormalsetting with one hand before starting the machine with the other.
“No, no, I know, but I’m serious,” she continued. “I talked to him at the reunion, which by the way, you are not weaseling out of in another five years. I am not going to another one of those without you. Janette Smith was unbearable. All she did was talk about her accountant boyfriend, who was just hired by the bank here in town and how he’s so successful and blah de blah, and Will was sitting right there. I don’t think she had any clue of what he had done or what he was about to be. Hey, kind of like someone else I know.”
“Funny, Rach,” I interjected, as she continued.
“Anyway, I know that he’s still the same old Will, but seriously, her and her big-time accountant boyfriend must live under a rock,” she said. “In your defense, they should know. It’s all over town. But anyway, I kept looking at Will, waiting for him to say something, but he never did. He just sat back quietly and let her think that life hadn’t changed for him since high school. It was actually pretty comical after awhile. But anyway, that being said, after Janette finally left, Will and I talked about his singing career and how he was doing and how his family was dealing with it and all, and then he asked where you were.”
Rachel paused, and I waited for her to continue. When she didn’t, I spoke up.
“So?” I asked wondering how that added up to Will still having a “thing” for me.
“Well, it wasn’t the way he asked or even that he asked at all that was unusual. It was the way he reacted after I answered his question that struck me as odd,” she continued.
“Okay,” I said, now waiting to hear the “odd” part.
“He gave me that hollow-eyed stare he gives, and he just nodded his head,” Rachel continued.
There was silence then, and I hesitated before speaking.
“Rachel,” I stammered. “Honestly, you’re going to have to come up with something better than that to make me a believer. He stared at you blankly and nodded his head. How does that tell you anything? Doesn’t he do that all of the time?”
“I’m being honest, Jules. He did the exact same thing when I asked him how he was holding up after you two broke up years ago, and I know he was a wreck then,” she added.
“Rachel, it was his idea to break up,” I reminded her.
My comment seemed to have hit a wall before it ever reached the other end of the phone. I waited for Rachel’s response, but it never came, so I continued emptying my laundry basket of whites into the washing machine. Now, to both humor my friend and to satisfy my curiosity, I guess a little, I continued the conversation.
“Well, how did you answer him?” I asked, sounding only as if I were playing along and that was all.
“I told him that you were still inSan Diegodoing the whole law thing and that you would have loved to have been there – at the reunion, but that you had exams that day,” she said.
“That’s it? He knew half of that already. Anyway, I told you that I think he’s dating someone, right?” I questioned my friend.
She was quiet for a second.
“Remember?” I asked again. “I overheard his cousin say that he had found ‘the one.’”
“That’s right, I forgot about that. I haven’t seen her. She wasn’t there. He came alone. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for you though,” she happily offered.
“That’s not necessary, Rach,” I said, laughing.
“Okay, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for myself then,” she said, before pausing.
“Hey, Jon’s calling. Let me take it and call you back,” Rachel quickly rattled off.
“Okay, Miss Popular, I’ll talk to you later,” I said, still amused by the entire conversation I had just had with my friend.
I closed the phone and squeezed it back into my pants pocket.
Rachel’s overly active imagination never ceased to amaze me, even after all of the years I had known her.
“Poor Jon,” I said under my breath, smiling.
Jon was Rachel’s fiancé. The two had just recently gotten engaged and had already set a wedding date for next spring. Rachel had met him in college. I had always thought that they complemented each other well. Jon was laid back, while Rachel was outgoing and always wanted to be inthe know. He kept her grounded, while she kept him spirited. Spirit was probably the most endearing quality about my friend. Rachel’s mind never stopped churning out new schemes and ideas that pertained to the love life of her friends. Her plots were all very playfully devious, but always in good nature. I knew that she only wanted the best for those she rallied behind, and in the end, I was glad that Rachel was in my corner. Believing this, I knew that I couldn’t be too hard on her when she brought up my former high school sweetheart. Rachel had always rooted for Team Julia and Will, and after we had broken up, she had taken it upon herself to follow the relationship to its absolute end, which Rachel didn’t believe was reached until marriage, either to each other or to other people. Although I knew Rachel was pulling for the former as opposed to the latter, a part of me believed that she used my and Will’s lives as her real-life novel, only she had to discover the words on the page herself through crafty questions and careful observations. Nevertheless, I loved this part about Rachel. I only hoped she wouldn’t be devastated when life ran its fateful, meandering course and I didn’t end up with the man my friend had been rooting for all along.
Icouldn’t see his face, but I knew him, and no doubt about it, loved him. He was fiery and familiar, strong and comfortable, and he held my hand with a firm gentleness, almost as if he promised in it that he’d love me honestly and never let me go. But who was he? I traced the contours in his abs and chest as we lay in the tall grass. Maybe it was the shadow the sun made as it bounced off of a nearby oak. Maybe he just didn’t have a face at all.Who are you?
I continued to trace the paths etched out in his muscles as I lay my head onto his strong chest and listened to the soft echoes of his heart beating. His body was so familiar – not at all mysterious, though his identity still remained a mystery to me.Who are you? I persisted.
As I followed the rising and falling of his chest, I felt his other hand come to rest on top of mine. I felt safe, like I was home.
I looked up then, and slowly, the shadow lifted from his face, and I smiled.
“Will,” I whispered. “I knew it was you.”
I drearily rolled over and reached for my cell phone blaring on my nightstand. It was eight in the morning.
“Speak of the devil,” I mumbled, as I struggled to regain a worldly consciousness, at the same time, burying my head back into my pillow before answering.
“Hel-lo,” I managed to get out. My voice was scratchy and deeper than usual.
“Good morning, and happy birthday!” I heard him shout on the other end of the phone, unfazed by my heavy-eyed greeting.
The call surprised me, though it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary. We had always wished each other a happy birthday, and the tradition had continued even after we had parted ways romantically years ago.
“Thank you,” I replied, pulling the phone slightly away from my ear and realizing that it was, in fact, my birthday. The thought made me smile. “And how have you been, Rock Star?” I asked playfully, now sitting up and starting to come to.
I had called him the day after I had seen him on TV for the first time. He had been somewhat short, but I had also expected that. Short conversations had been our forte for the past several years now.
“I’ve been doing great,” he quickly rang back.
“Good,” I replied softly.
“So, what are your plans today, Birthday Girl?” he asked cheerfully – changing the subject.
“Oh, nothing too much. Brady’s flying in later, then dinner,” I said, trying to downplay my excitement a little.
“The doctor?” he asked sarcastically.
“Yes, the doctor,” I said, playing along.
“What about you?” I asked.
“What about me?” he shot back quickly.
“I heard that you met someone,” I stated and asked at the same time. I sounded as thrilled and excited for him as humanly possible – under the circumstances and at eight in the morning, though I’m pretty sure it just came out sounding as forced as acongratulationsto the winner after I had just been declared the loser.
“Where did you hear that from?” he rang back just as quickly. He sounded surprised by my statement.
“I overheard Kassi mimicking you at Mona’s wedding,” I explained nonchalantly.
Will remained silent. He seemed to have been formulating his next thought, but then I thought I heard him smile on the other end of the phone.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I have. I met her a little while ago,” he replied confidently.
The words didn’t come as a shock to me. After all, I had already known the answer. But I had to admit that hearing the words come from his mouth so easily surprised me at first – even cut a sliver into my heart a little. Nevertheless, I acted unfazed.
“She does realize that you’re not just some big-time country star, right?” I questioned him playfully.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that deep down she just sees me as the small-town country bumpkin that I am,” he confessed.
I laughed and shook my head. I neglected to press him for more details, though I desperately wanted to. I wanted to know where she was from, what she did, how he had met her, but in the end, I stifled my possibly never-ending barrage of questions. What stopped me from inquiring further was partially due to the fact that I was still half asleep and partially due to the overwhelming truth that, deep down, I didn’t really want to talk about his budding love life on my birthday. After all, Brady would be arriving in several hours, and I had waited what seemed like an eternity to see him again.