Category Archives: Short Stories

Whiskey Lullaby

Whiskey Lullaby

“Very clever,” he sneered, his piercing blue eyes savage and cold. The right side of his jaw was throbbing, the way it did just before an explosion. It reminded her of a ticking bomb.

I’m. Tick. Gonna. Tick. Kill. Tick. You.

She had nothing to say. No defense for what she had done.

Her hope had been blind. She hadn’t imagined this. The closing of the door, her gateway to freedom blocked, his body trembling with rage again. Again, again, again. She didn’t think she would survive another again.

“Did you think he would save you?” he asked, his nostrils flaring. He had locked the door and begun closing the gap between them.

She backed into the wall, knocking a picture frame from its hook. It fell and shattered, sending tiny jagged fragments of glass across the hardwood floor.

It was the picture from their wedding day. The only one where he’d been smiling. She had loved it once. Had touched it gingerly as she passed it on her way to the kitchen.

My love.

He was still gripping his shotgun, and for a second she wondered if he was going to aim it at her.

Her heart beat wildly, like some caged, feral creature within her chest.

He threw the gun across the room and was upon her in an instant, his strong hand closing around her throat. It took her an instant to realize what was happening. She did not know she was suffocating until she tried to catch her breath. How long had she been holding it?

“So help me God,” her husband growled, his breath wreaking sweetly of whiskey, “if he ever comes ‘round here again, I’ll empty that shotgun into the back of your stupid fucking skull.”

Her fingernails dug into the backs of his hands, drawing blood. He didn’t seem to notice.

His blue eyes bore into hers.

He won’t let go, she thought. Not this time.

 

That morning he had hit her. She had forgotten to buy more whiskey when she went to the store the day before, and he had drained his last bottle dry.

You did it on purpose, you whore.

Afterwards, as her black eye was beginning to bloom, she sat cross-legged on the ground in front of their house, the fallen pine needles and frozen soil sending sharp little pains through her legs. I can’t deal with you right now, her husband had told her, the keys to their only vehicle dangling from his fingers. He left her stranded, as he always did. They lived deep in the mountains of Northern California. They had no neighbors, no friends. He had begun putting bricks upon her tower of isolation the day after their wedding, when he went through her archaic cell phone and deleted any contacts he deemed inappropriate. High school friends, relatives, old boyfriends, one ex-fiancée. She had no access to the Internet; social media was forbidden. Six months after their wedding she was fired from her job, and she was not allowed to look for another. You will find someone else, her husband had said. You will leave me.

As she sat in the forty-degree air in nothing but her house shorts and tank top, her eyes cold and dry, she turned her cell phone over and over in her hands. A string of ten numbers passed repeatedly through her mind. She hadn’t dialed them in over three years, but their memory hadn’t faded. Sometimes she caught herself reciting them quietly as she fell asleep at night, or as she pumped gas or pushed a cart down the aisle at the grocery store. 209-555-8139. One of the contacts her husband had erased from her phone. The one that mattered most. She had memorized it long ago.

There were times she would punch the numbers into her phone just to see them against the backlit screen, just to prove they existed. Dial, delete. Dial, delete. She never pushed Send. How could she? What would she say? I’m sorry. I should have never left you. He wouldn’t possibly believe her. He had probably changed his number the day she called off the wedding. The day she confessed she had met someone else.

Her eye throbbed, and again she found herself dialing the number.

She didn’t know what would happen when she went through with it. Didn’t know the moment she said his name aloud, her voice would crack and she would weep as she hadn’t wept in years.

Cody, Cody.

She could say nothing more.

 

“Just stay on the line,” Cody Poorman told the only girl he had ever loved. “Sarah? I’m getting in my truck right now and I’m coming to you.”

Sarah Burns. She wasn’t just the girl that got away. She was the girl who had devastated him. Destroyed his entire life. Sabotaged his youth, his innocence, his dreams. They had begun dating their freshman year of high school, and he had proposed when they were seventeen. At the time, she was pregnant with his child, which she lost a few months after saying Yes. It was buried beneath the willow tree behind his family’s house, a grave he frequented every night. The end of their love story began at that tree. She had withdrawn from him after the doctor confirmed their blood was incompatible. Together, they would never be able to create life.

She broke his heart the month before they were supposed to walk down the aisle. Three months later she was engaged to a coworker from the casino, and in the time it took her to find a thrift store dress and a pawn shop ring, she and her new fiancée drove up to Lake Tahoe and said their vows. The night Cody Poorman heard of their union was the first night in his young life he sought solace in liquor. It would be the first of many.

He had always been a good student, particularly in English. He was quiet, serious. Literary and romantic. Sarah had been the adventurous one, always pushing his limits, coloring his world. She was the kind of heroine about whom he would have liked to write a story. So vibrant, so alive. She made friends in the strangest places: the Starbucks parking lot, walking his mother’s dog down Main St, meandering through tombstones at the old Gold Rush cemetery. Old people, young people, homeless people. Sarah Burns had once loved people. She had once loved to laugh.

She came from a rough home. Her father was in prison, her mother an abusive drunk. When Sarah turned fifteen, she had moved in with Cody’s family, who loved her as one of their own. When she left Cody, she left them all.

His mother had cried.

“That girl doesn’t know how to love herself,” she had said. “She doesn’t know how to let herself be loved.”

Cody didn’t become an angry drunk, or a sloppy drunk. Instead, drinking fueled a certain recklessness he didn’t know he possessed. He drove too fast around blind corners, blew stuff up down at the abandoned bridge, went to parties and slept with girls whose names he never cared to know. His old friends receded, bemoaning the Cody they once knew, while his new friends wondered where the hell he’d been. He didn’t tell them. He surrounded himself with people who didn’t know about Sarah, or the baby, or his long-gone dreams of becoming the next Hemingway. Everything he had buried beneath the willow, everything he mourned.

When she called him and wept his name, it was the first time he had heard her voice in three years. Even now he didn’t know why he had never deleted her number, or changed his own. Perhaps after all that time, he still held onto a shred of hope that she was not lost forever. That she would come back to him.

He had heard the rumors, of course. Sarah Burns- or Sarah Radcliffe, as was her married name- had never moved from the area. She and her husband lived in an isolated cabin forty-five minutes up the mountain. She had no contact with anyone except her sister, Kat, with whom she was permitted to speak on limited occasions, and who had come to Cody’s auto shop whenever she had car trouble. She would give him scraps of unwarranted information while he worked on her rusted ragtop. He pretended to dismiss the news carelessly, though Kat knew better. She had always hoped Cody would end up with her sister. Just like everyone else.

The last time she had come, Kat told him she thought Sarah’s husband was beating her.

“She won’t come out and say it, but I’m on to her. She’s scared to death, Cody.”

Cody’s work had paused while he let that sink in.

“That’s too bad,” he said presently.

Kat waited, but Cody resumed working on her car.

“Aren’t you going to do something about it?” she had asked.

He hadn’t answered, and she found another mechanic.

When Sarah’s name flash across the screen, his heart seemed to stop and he knew she was about to wreck his world. Again.

He also knew there was nothing he wanted more than to give her that opportunity. After all she had done. After all she had broken. Because as he listened to her weeping, he realized he was forgiving her. That was all I wanted, he would think later. To know you were hurting too.

She was able to babble an address, some details of what had happened.

I can’t do this anymore, she cried. I’ll die.

He drove as fast as his truck would permit on the winding mountain roads.

He had flashes of a new life as he drew closer to her. He imagined her arms wrapped around his neck. The salty taste of her lips as he kissed her while she cried. The length of her hair as he pulled it gently through his fingers. He could see her smiling again. He would write her a story with a happy ending, if only he could hold her again. If only he could protect her, deliver her, become her savior, perhaps some part of him- perhaps both of them- could be resurrected.

When he pulled up to the cabin, he saw her sitting on the ground. Sarah. She was a wraith of the girl he had once known. Her highlights had grown out, her hair dark and greasy and pulled back in a mess of a ponytail. Her cheekbones protruded, and both large eyes were swallowed in deep shadows. Around one of them spread a deepening purplish-blue, the same color as her lips from the cold. In the time it had taken him to find the place, the temperature had dropped eight degrees. It would snow tonight.

He leapt from his truck and went straight to her. He reached out to touch her but changed his mind.

“Are you all right?” he asked, getting a better look at her eye. “Should I take you to the hospital?”

“No,” she shook her head. “Just get me out of here.”

He looked around quickly to see if she had packed any belongings. She was barely dressed, and she gripped nothing but her phone. The front door to the cabin was slightly ajar.

“Let’s get you into some warmer clothes, huh?” Cody said, gently taking her elbow. “Do you need to pack your things?”

“We have to leave now. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

“You’re sure?”

She was already walking towards the truck. He scrambled to remove his Carhart jacket and throw it over her shoulders, but she didn’t seem to notice. Instead she reached for the door handle and froze, her eyes on the road.

Her husband’s red Dodge was approaching.

It flew around a bend in the road and stopped abruptly at the end of the drive, kicking up a spray of gravel. Henry Radcliffe leapt from the driver’s seat, a shotgun in his hands.

Cody cursed. In his desperation to reach Sarah, he hadn’t thought of packing a weapon.

He stepped in front of her, shielding her with his body.

“What the fuck are you doing at my house?” Sarah’s husband screamed. His foot twisted a little and he faltered. He’d been gone for two, maybe three hours. Long enough to go into town and have a few drinks.

Cody felt Sarah behind him. She was trying to push him out of the way.

“Henry, don’t,” she cried as her husband barreled closer. He paid no attention to her. His eyes burned into Cody. He lifted the shotgun and pointed it at Cody’s chest.

“You get off my property or I’ll send you straight to hell.”

Go,” Sarah plead into Cody’s ear. “You have to go.

“Get in the truck,” Cody told her, then raced around to the driver’s side and jumped in. He started the engine and looked at the empty passenger seat. She was standing at the window, tears streaming down her face, shaking her head slowly.

Her lips formed the word again.

Go.

Henry Radcliffe had reached the bed of Cody’s truck, shotgun aimed at the back of Cody’s head. He was kicking the truck and screaming.

“Sarah,” Cody shouted over him, “get in the truck!”

There was a crack like thunder as Sarah’s husband blew a gaping hole through Cody’s tailgate.

“I’ll kill her too, you sonofabitch, you don’t git right now!”

Cody Poorman would never forgive himself for pealing out of Sarah Radcliffe’s driveway, alone. He would never forget that last frightened look in her eyes before she turned and ran into the cabin, disappearing from his life a second time. And he would never stop playing through everything that happened that night, and everything he thought he could have done differently.

 

Henry didn’t kill her. Not that night.

The way Sarah Radcliffe died would never be directly correlated to her husband. It couldn’t, because Henry Radcliffe’s death preceded hers. He was killed two years after the night his wife tried to leave him. He took a turn too fast in icy weather. The guardrail yielded like foil.

After failing to rescue Sarah, Cody had called the police to report a domestic disturbance. They checked in on the cabin, and while there were clear signs of spousal abuse, the wife wouldn’t own to it. She had fallen down the stairs, she said. But she would be all right. Everything was fine.

She never sought help, and she never left. In the two years before her husband’s death, there were other incidences, other bruises and wounds, but she took them all in silence. Once after a few drinks, Cody worked up the courage to dial her number, but it was disconnected. He waited, wondering if she would ever try calling him again. She didn’t.

There was a time- after the death of her husband- when she had considered it. She had dialed that familiar number, had erased it and dialed it again. But it had been so many years, and how could she show her face to him after what she had done? She had never brought him anything but misery, and the last time she had called him she had nearly gotten him killed. Whenever she thought of that, her face burned with shame. Cody Poorman was far better off without her. She did not deserve him.

Once she was widowed she returned to what she knew: dealing black jack at the casino. It was under new management, and she was reformed. Reliable. Her husband was no longer around to beat her senseless, make her call in sick. She sold the cabin to pay off his debts and moved in with her sister Kat, who waitressed at the casino restaurant. Together they joked of playing slots as old spinsters. Sarah swore she would never remarry, and Kat was a lesbian in a small town; the pickings were slim.

The night she turned thirty, Sarah traded shifts to get off work at the same time as Kat, who wanted to go dancing at a new club downtown. But Kat appeared early, her face ashen as she approached her sister. “Cody Poorman’s mom just called me,” she told Sarah. “She doesn’t have your new number. She needs to talk to you.”

 

“It’s a manuscript,” Cody’s mother said as she slid a stack of white printer paper across the table towards Sarah. “He meant for you to read it.”

It stood about an inch and a half thick and was held together by a large file clip. Sarah looked but was afraid to touch it. She didn’t trust herself to speak.

On the front page was the title, Sarah, and beneath it was a bright orange note with his handwriting.

I’ll love her till I die, it read.

Sarah’s hand flew over her mouth and for a long time, both women were silent. Finally, Mrs. Poorman sniffled and Sarah realized she was not the only one crying. She could not bring herself to look up into the other woman’s face.

No one had seen or heard from Cody during the two days leading up to Sarah’s birthday. When the police finally broke into his apartment, they found him facedown in bed, surrounded by empty whiskey bottles and the manuscript Sarah now had in front of her.

“He was a sad boy,” his mother explained. “Even before he met you. He would have these fits of melancholy. I never knew what to do. How to help.” She reached across the table to grab Sarah’s hand, and it was all Sarah could do to remain still. She wanted to run. “I asked you to come here because I wanted you to have this,” Mrs. Poorman nodded towards the manuscript, “and because I want you to know you’re not to blame for what happened. Cody loved you. He always loved you. But he didn’t know what to do with that kind of love. He held on so tightly. He didn’t know how to let go.”

Sarah took the manuscript home and hid it away in a drawer. She couldn’t bear to look at it, to think of it, to know it remained in this world while its author lay in the ground beneath the willow tree, next to the child they had lost when they were just children themselves.

She had never been much of a drinker, but after Cody’s funeral she could find nothing else to numb the pain. Whiskey was the tonic her mother, her husband, and her first love had sought. Now two of them were dead and gone, freed by the poison that had sent one into a ditch, and sung the other to endless sleep. She found herself longing for her own lullaby.

“Do you ever think your future is behind you?” she asked Kat many years later. “That somewhere along the way, you missed it?” She was thinking of Cody, of their child, of the willow. She always thought of these things. “I only dream of what I’ve lost,” she continued. “I look forward to nothing.”

She suffered from nightmares. For a long time she was too frightened to sleep, but after a while she resorted to certain remedies, pills which caused her to sleep so deeply she did not dream.

They found her much the same way they had found him: facedown in bed, two empty bottles on the nightstand. One had contained whiskey, the other sleeping pills. The whiskey bottle left a ring of residue on a stack of printer paper, the manuscript she had long avoided and hidden away. In desperation, she had finally read the story he had written for her: the story of a girl with long waving hair and clear blue eyes, who fell in love with a boy and learned to be loved by him in return. It was a sort of fairy tale; the future she had forfeited, the past that had never been.

She had felt something like solace at its conclusion. Not from atonement, but from the kind of serenity that came with knowing atonement could not be had. And yet he had forgiven her, loved her anyway. With that knowledge she had taken the only picture she had of him and written, Lay me beside him, and clutched it to her breast. As the world spun and her eyes closed she felt herself slipping into peace. For after all this time, she was finally returning to him.

 

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She Don’t Love You (She’s Just Lonely)

Benjamin August had three tickets to The Stars.

The band, a Texas country outfit, was a local favorite, “formed and raised” right on 6th Street in downtown Austin. In the past year alone they had three chart-topping hits, and it was rumored their new record label was working overtime to take The Stars mainstream. It had been nearly eighteen months since they last played a gig in Austin, and Ben had been determined to see them when they returned. He and his two closest friends, Dodge Merrick and Ryan Whitaker, had been listening to them since college.

“Dodge won’t be able to go,” Ryan told Ben as soon as he mentioned the tickets. They were having lunch at their favorite burger joint, P. Terry’s.

“What? Why not?”

“He’s filming in Port Aransas. I thought he told you.”

Dodge was a professional sport fisherman and had recently landed his own TV show. He was gone a lot these days, so much that his wife was threatening to leave him. When his friends asked if he had considered leaving his job to save his marriage, he replied, “It’s a raw deal when a man has to choose between his boat and his woman.” He paused to take a swig of beer, then smirked. “I’m sure gonna miss her.”

“Well, damnit,” Ben said. “What about Trish?”

Ryan shook his head.

“My beloved girlfriend hates The Stars. She hates Texas country in general.”

Ben pretended to shiver. “I don’t even know why you’re dating her, man.”

Ryan laughed. “You could invite Molly.”

Ben choked on a French fry.

Molly?” he repeated.

“Didn’t I tell you she’s back?”

“No. You definitely did not.”

“Ah. Well, she’s back.”

“Like, back back? I thought she and Peter were in Africa for the long haul.”

“Peter…” Ryan paused for effect, “is still in Africa.”

Ben considered the implications of this, but couldn’t quite bring himself to hope.

“So Molly came home alone…” Ben summarized. “Is she sick? Nobody died, right?”

“Dude,” Ryan stopped him, “my sister and Peter are separated.”

What?

“Yeah. They are probably getting a divorce. It’s crazy.”

“Is she okay?”

Ryan shrugged. “I guess so. You know Molly. She’s pretty tough.”

Yes, Ben knew Molly. There was hardly a time in his life when he could remember not knowing Molly. Ryan had been Ben’s best friend since the first grade, and Molly was Ryan’s older sister by two years. They had attended the same school, and Mr. Whitaker used to take Ben and Ryan hunting on their property. Molly refused to hunt, but she would always be at the house reading or watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when the boys returned. The Whitakers also had a pool, so Ben spent most of his summers there. Some of his favorite memories revolved around the three of them- Ryan, Molly, and himself- lounging in the sunlight listening to music and laughing about nothing. The image of Molly Whitaker in a two-piece was Ben’s definition of beauty.

Then came Peter Preston from California.

The Preston’s moved to Austin when Peter and Molly were fourteen, and for whatever reason- Ben could never quite figure out why– Molly adored him. Peter was everything she wasn’t: quiet, serious, shy, reserved. But they had similar interests in everything from books to music, and both were serious students who aspired to have careers in medicine. They had all the same classes, and it wasn’t long before Peter was a permanent fixture in the Whitaker household, just like Ben.

For a few years, however, Peter Preston from California was effectively placed in the “friend zone” along with Ben, though Peter didn’t seem to mind. Ben watched Molly and Peter for signs of affection that ran deeper than friendship, and while he was threatened by the closeness of the two, he began to believe he may still have a chance with Molly after all. For a few years, Peter nursed a crippling crush on Madison Detton, one of the most popular girls in school, while Molly dappled in relationships every once in a while, only to break the poor guy’s heart once she felt he had begun to monopolize her time.

Their senior year, Peter and Molly’s relationship reached a new level of intimacy, and Ben felt certain his heart was engaged in a losing battle. Peter gave up on Madison Detton, and Molly realized that perhaps she was so disinterested in other guys because she was, in fact, in love with her best friend. After graduating high school and completing their prerequisite courses in Austin, they got married and moved to San Antonio to study medicine together.

Ben remained in Austin, got a degree in graphic design and landed a great job with a start-up company downtown. He forced himself to stop thinking about Molly, and eventually found himself falling in love with a coworker named Sasha. After two years of dating he was ready to marry her, but when he proposed she turned him down, admitting that she had been offered a job in Paris and was planning to accept. She left him and, heartbroken, he swore off women for the rest of eternity.

“That’s a little melodramatic, don’t you think?” Ryan had asked him one night over beers. Ryan Whitaker was not the romantic nor committed type, and before Trish, his longest relationship had ended just shy of seventy-two hours. He was a prominent player in Austin’s nightlife, boasting over a hundred one-night stands in the last several years. Trish had taken him by surprise, the one-night stand who became a roommate who became a girlfriend. They had been together for nearly a year now.

After Ben’s breakup, Ryan tried to present his friend with opportunities to start enjoying women again without the unnecessary complications of commitment. Ben, however, had never been interested in flings, and while he indulged Ryan by going out with him, he never brought any of the women they met home. Besides, he was only attracted to the ones who reminded him of Sasha, who had reminded him of Molly, and he knew given the chance he would fall in love with them, which was something he was not ready- or willing- to do.

So the news of Molly Preston returning to Austin- without Peter Preston from California- blindsided Ben. He hadn’t seen Molly in years, yet somehow the thought of her still sent him into a panic. She was the standard by which he judged womankind. He had loved her since he was six. Six. More than twenty years. And now she was here, husbandless, and he had an extra ticket to The Stars.

The situation couldn’t be more perfect. Or more perfectly terrifying.

“You should invite her, man,” Ryan said. “It would be good for her.”

Ben shook his head vehemently, betraying his cowardice.

“It would be weird coming from me,” he argued. “We haven’t seen each other since high school. Just tell her I have an extra ticket and if she wants to come she’s welcome to it.”

Ryan already had his phone out.

“Are you texting her now?” Ben asked.

Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Did you want me to wait for something?”

“Nah, man.” Ben stuffed the last of his burger in his mouth and swallowed. “I gotta get back to the office. Let me know what she says.”

As he stood, Ryan’s phone dinged.

“She’s coming,” he said.

Ben felt a jolt in his chest.

“Oh,” he choked. “Okay. Cool.”

 

The concert venue opened at eight o’clock, and when Ryan and Ben arrived an hour early, the general admission line was already wrapped around the building. Ben scanned the faces for Molly, wondering how she might have changed since the last time he saw her.

He and Ryan had grabbed a couple of Turkish kabobs on their way over, and once they secured their place in line they started to eat. Ben was feeling edgy, and the food stuck in his throat. Ryan was telling him about a new show he had started watching with Trish, but Ben had trouble listening. He shifted his feet and worried if he was wearing enough deodorant. God, it was hot tonight.

She still had not come by the time the doors opened, and Ben tried desperately not to think the worst.

Ryan, however, didn’t seem to be bothered.

“I can go inside a save us a place by the stage,” he told Ben. “She just texted me to say she’s on her way. Why don’t you wait out here for her?”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Sure.”

Ryan disappeared while Ben extracted himself from the crowd as it entered the building. He checked his phone, then slowly paced the sidewalk. He thought of Molly, of those summers by the pool, and realized this was the first time she would be hanging out with just him and Ryan since Peter Preston moved to Texas seventeen years ago. He wondered if they would assume their old camaraderie, but he knew that was impossible. Too much time had passed, and he had loved her too long, and just the idea that the long-established distance between them was now coming to a close made him supremely uncomfortable. What the hell was he even supposed to say to her?

Ten long minutes passed before she appeared, rounding the corner of a building with a cup of iced coffee in her hand. He blinked, hardly able to believe just how little she had changed. Her long hair was still the same shade of brown, pulled back into a ponytail that swished back and forth as she walked. Her eyes were shielded by a pair of golden aviators, but the curve of her jaw, the bow of her lips, the signature white tank top she wore, and the swing of her hips in those faded blue jeans all identified her as the first girl he had ever loved.

He took a deep breath, and before he could wonder if she would recognize him she smiled. She walked right up to him and put her arms around his neck.

“Oh my god,” she said.

Oh my god, he thought.

“Ben August! It’s so good to see you!”

Her arms dropped before he could even figure out if he had hugged her back.

“You too, Mol. How’s it going?”

He regretted the question as soon as it left his lips, and she smiled unconvincingly as she nodded and replied, “I’m fine.” Then she brightened. “I’m excited about this show. Thanks for letting me tag along.”

“Let’s get in there, huh?”

“Yeah.”

He led the way, walking just ahead of her. He handed off the tickets and the two of them meandered through the thick crowd until they found Ryan, who hugged his sister and exclaimed, “You made it!”

Ben offered to grab everyone a beer, and as he walked away Ryan smiled and leaned in close to Molly.

“Ben’s freaking out a little,” he told her.

Molly’s eyes widened. “Why?”

“You know he’s always had a thing for you.”

“Oh god, Ryan. That was a hundred years ago.”

“You knew?”

She looked at her brother sideways. “Of course I knew. He wasn’t very good at hiding it. But we were kids. Doesn’t he have a serious girlfriend now?”

Ryan shook his head. “Left him.”

“No! What happened?”

“She moved to Paris. Got some crazy job offer and didn’t want to do the long-distance thing.”

“Poor Ben.”

“Yeah. He’s tender, so be nice to him, Mol.”

“When am I ever not nice?”

“That’s what I mean. Be nice by not being too nice. Don’t lead him on.”

“Ryan! I’m still married! And I highly doubt Ben still thinks of me that way.”

Ryan shrugged. “You never really get over the first,” he said, and Molly’s eyes fell.

No you don’t, she thought.

Ben returned with three beers, having already finished his first at the bar while Ryan and Molly talked. He hoped the alcohol would help him relax a little. He had remembered Molly was beautiful, but that memory was of a girl. Now she was a woman, and the memory did her little justice. Everything about her was painfully perfect.

He handed her a bottle of Blue Moon and she thanked him. She reached into her back pocket and produced a koozie, which she slipped around the bottle.

Ben smiled. “You always carry a koozie with you?”

She smirked and tilted her head. “You never know when you might need one.”

“It’s weird,” he said suddenly.

“What?” she asked.

He tilted his bottle towards her. “Drinking with you,” he replied. Then he nodded to Ryan. “All of us drinking together. I don’t think that’s ever happened.”

“Not legally, anyway,” Molly said, “but we went to a few parties in high school, didn’t we?”

“We threw some parties in high school,” Ryan corrected her. “It was our only way of fraternizing with the upperclassmen.”

“I’m just saying I don’t think we’ve ever been out together,” Ben said, then winced, hating the way he sounded. “As adults,” he added.

“No,” Molly agreed, “you’re right.”

“Crazy how things change.”

She nodded but said nothing. He checked the time. The show should start soon, and then talking would be impossible. He seized another opportunity.

“So,” he began. “Africa.”

“Mmm,” she murmured through a sip of beer. She swallowed. “What about it?”

“How was it?”

She avoided his gaze, staring hard at the stage. How to summarize two years in a foreign country? Two years that began as an adventure, morphed into a pattern of disillusionment, and ended with a splintered marriage?

She wondered just how much Ben wanted to know, then decided to spare him the story. Most people didn’t want the story, anyway. They wanted the fun-sized response, a condensed answer that gave them just enough to leave them pleased with themselves for asking.

“It was fine,” she responded. Then added, “But I’m glad to be home.”

Ben frowned.

“Fine? That’s it?”

But he could see her discomfort, could feel her going cold, and it caught him by surprise.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “If you don’t want to talk about it…”

She didn’t, and the tears in her eyes said as much. She smiled through them and said, “It’s all right. Maybe some other time.”

Some other time. Would there be another time? Could he take her to coffee? To dinner? Could he just sit and listen to her voice, watch her lips as they moved, her hands as they brushed the hair away from her face?

He felt a bolt of courage at the sight of her vulnerability and reached out to touch the small of her back.

“Hey,” he said, “no worries. I’m here.”

She looked at him then, allowing her eyes to be caught and held by his.

He indicated to her beer.

“Can I get you another one before the show starts?” he asked.

She smiled.

“That would be great.”

Soon the opening band began to play, and the music and the beer and the energy of the audience created a surge of happiness and anticipation. By the time The Stars came onstage, everyone was feeling pretty good. Ben had relaxed, and Molly was smiling.

The audience swelled, pushing closer to the stage. Molly, Ryan, and Ben were squished together, with Molly standing just in front of Ben. He could feel the curve of her ass pressing against the top of his thighs, could smell her clean, floral shampoo. She seemed slightly uncomfortable with their proximity at first, but before long she relaxed, surrendering to the music, the alcohol, and the knowledge that she was not alone. These past months without Peter had been the first time in her adult life when she was on her own. She had spent time with her family, had worked doubles at the hospital, but most nights she found herself staring at the plain white walls of her apartment, listening to the muted sounds of the city and wondering what to do with this kind of loneliness. It was so new, so foreign to her; an emptiness too thick to fill.

Even before leaving Peter, it had nearly been a year since her husband had touched her. Now, with the solid warmth of Ben- one of her oldest friends- behind her, she relaxed into him, allowing her head to fall back against his chest. Out of the corner of her eye she could see her brother glance at them before pretending he didn’t notice, but she didn’t care. She had promised she would be nice, but this was nice, wasn’t it? Ryan would not understand, but neither did she. Some things that once made sense had ended in flames, while this made no sense at all, but it didn’t need to, because for this moment alone it felt right.

When she fell into him, Ben closed his eyes. How long had he wondered how it would feel to hold her body against his? Slowly, tentatively, he again moved his hands to the small of her back, then allowed them to slide over her hips, and together they swayed to the music. The next song was his favorite, and he dipped his head low enough to speak into her ear. “You wanna dance?” he asked, and in response she turned and took his hand. There was hardly room, but their feet moved to a stationary two-step, and he gazed at her as he had long desired but she averted her eyes because she was remembering a time that was not now, when she had danced with a man who was not him.

She pulled away before the song was over, and sensing that she was suddenly a thousand miles across the sea, he put his hands in his pockets and did not touch her again.

When the show ended, Molly said she thought she’d had one too many beers to drive and wondered if she could share a cab with Ryan and Ben. They dropped Ryan first, and Molly’s apartment was next. As they drew closer, she couldn’t stop thinking about those barren walls, or the living and dining rooms that had so little furniture they still echoed. She hadn’t lived there long, and since things were still unsettled with Peter and because she worked so often, she hadn’t bothered to turn the apartment into a home. Right now it was just a space; a blank, impersonal space, and right then it was the last place she wanted to be. She could imagine herself being swallowed by it. She could imagine herself disappearing.

Ben noticed her picking at the seat and chewing her lip and asked if she was okay. She looked like a frightened animal backing itself into a corner.

She stared out the window at the city lights.

“I just don’t really want to go home right now,” she told him. She opened her mouth to explain, then changed her mind. She already sounded like a child, she thought. Ben probably couldn’t wait to be rid of her, especially after how she had acted at the concert.

He was silent for a moment, then he spoke quietly. “Ryan told me about you and Peter.”

She looked down at her lap.

“Ah,” was all she said.

“I’m so sorry,” he told her.

She nodded. She was sorry, too.

“I don’t know how to do this,” she murmured. “He was my best friend for over half my life. I’ve never been on my own, you know? Being here without him… it’s just all so new.”

They arrived at Molly’s building, but when she reached for the car door Ben stopped her.

“You could stay with me tonight, Molly,” he told her, the words sounding strange to his own ears. His heart, he noticed, was beating painfully fast. “Just so… you know… you don’t have to be alone.”

For several seconds she just stared at him, and he felt like a fool. He wished he could rewind the moment and let her go.

“Okay,” she said then, and her hand fell from the door handle.

“Okay?” he repeated in disbelief.

She nodded.

They continued on to Ben’s place, a small house he had purchased while dating Sasha. He had always meant to share it with someone. It was one of the few things in his life of which he was proud.

They didn’t speak the rest of the ride, and when they arrived at the house, Ben unlocked the front door and led Molly inside. It was one in the morning and everything was dark, and he expected himself to blink and find it was all a dream.

“Um,” he began, fumbling his way into the living room to switch on a lamp. She was so quiet he was starting to doubt she was even there. “I don’t know where you’ll be most comfortable. You could take my bed, and I can take the couch, or…”

Suddenly he felt her hand on his arm, and he stopped talking and tried to catch his breath.

“Ben,” she said, and said no more.

She stood before him in the darkness, and though he could not see her he reached out and felt her, and she trembled beneath his touch.

“You’re shaking,” he told her.

She moved closer, and he wrapped his arms around her. Her lips hovered near his neck, and he could feel her breathing.

“Yes,” she said.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.

But she did not reply. Instead she lifted her lips to his and kissed him softly.

It was a dream. It had to be a dream. One he had dreamt so many times before.

For the briefest moment he held back, but it was too much. Twenty-three years too much. She was here, and she was real. For now, that was all that mattered.

He pressed her against him and kissed her the way he had wanted to kiss her all his life, unleashing an animalistic hunger, a desperate thirst. He savored her taste, consumed her touch, reveled in the sweet and musky scent of her. He pulled down her hair and it poured like silk through his fingers.

Some small and distant part of him called out, but he did not want to listen. There was no voice that could stop him from taking that which he had so long desired, no matter the senselessness of it. He could feel her holding back but wanted only to pull her closer, could sense the depth of her loneliness but wanted to believe it was love.

Molly suddenly pulled away, and it was as though she took all the air in the room with her. Ben stood breathless, his eyes searching the darkness of her face while his arms remained closed around her. He was dazed, his mind still lost somewhere in that kiss.

“No,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. If he turned on the lights he would see she was crying. “No, I’m not sure,” she said again. “I’m so sorry, Ben.”

He blinked, for it was a dream after all. And just as if he had woken he had no words, only the bereft and hollow feeling born of leaving a place to which one will never return.

Molly Whitaker was still nothing more than a fantasy. Before him was Molly Preston, a broken woman struggling to pick up the pieces of her life. He realized he did not know this woman, and he experienced a stab of sorrow in her presence. But in the turn of a moment that sorrow melted into compassion, and instead of speaking he gently cradled her head into the crook of his neck and there he held her for a long time.

She slept deeply in his arms that night, and he continued to love her the way he had always loved her: apart and in silence, asking for nothing.

He did not see her again. Several months later Ryan told him that Peter Preston had returned from Africa, that he and Molly were giving their marriage another shot. Ben experienced a familiar but brief pang of jealousy before having the most vivid memory of Molly from their childhood. She was thirteen and standing in a patch of sunlight by the pool at her parents’ house, her wet bikini creating a puddle at her feet.

“Benjamin August,” she said, the brightness of her smile competing with the sun, “I just thought you should know that you are one of my very favorite people in the whole wide world.”

Then she ran and leapt, disappearing back into the water with a splash.

He hadn’t thought of that memory for years. It had been a time when, in a way, she’d been his.

She’d belonged to Peter the night he had kissed her, the night she had slept with her head on his shoulder, the night he had almost convinced himself that she could love him back. And she belonged to Peter now, which was as it should be. It was Peter she loved.

But Ben remembered her in sunlight, and he smiled. For once, the memory was enough.

 

 

 

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Austin

Austin

She stared complacently into the eyes of a creature she had once feared. It was gazing up at her, equally fearless, crouched at her feet and waiting.

“I have nothing for you,” she told it. She held out her empty palms to prove her point. “See? Nothing.”

In response, the baboon scratched its nose and looked towards its mates, who were busily scavenging a nearby safari vehicle whose windows had been left open. A pair of sunglasses was confiscated. A set of headphones.

Tourists, Molly Preston thought, amused. Soon they would rush from the visitors’ center to find their belongings being investigated and prodded by intelligent eyes and razor sharp teeth. They would ask their drivers to retrieve them. The drivers would shake their heads no.

Her husband Peter emerged from the restroom, wiping his wet hands on his khakis. He glanced towards their vehicle to see if their driver had returned, but Molly was alone with the baboon. When the beast spotted Peter approaching, he slunk to all fours and sauntered away. Molly watched him go, though her thoughts were elsewhere.

“He hasn’t come out yet?” Peter asked as he drew nearer. Molly shook her head.

“He’s still signing us in.”

Her husband glanced down at her bare legs, and she immediately felt self-conscious. She hadn’t worn shorts since they moved to Tanzania two years ago. For a woman to show her knees was culturally taboo, but the tourists didn’t know that, or maybe they just didn’t care, so the tourists did it all the time. For once Molly wanted that same freedom. She didn’t want to be the humanitarian in Africa. She just wanted to be the girl from Austin in her cutoff shorts and boots.

It turned out to be the wrong morning to exert her independence, though she would never admit it. At least not to Peter. The air was cooler than she’d expected, and her exposed skin was riddled with gooseflesh.

Peter frowned.

“I wish you hadn’t worn those,” he told her.

“Nobody knows us here, Peter. To them, we’re just ignorant Americans.”

“That doesn’t make it any less offensive.”

“We’re on vacation.”

“You don’t take vacation from cultural sensitivity. Not if you’re trying to make a difference.”

She tried not to let him see her roll her eyes. How many times had she been on the receiving end of this speech?

“I hardly think the elephants will mind,” she said, trying to make light of it.

“You’re going to freeze.”

“I’ll be fine.”

He didn’t respond, but instead climbed into their vehicle and shut the door.

She inhaled deeply, slowly. Though neither of them would say it aloud, they had not only come to the Ngorongoro Crater to escape the bustling metropolis of Arusha, where they lived and worked. They came because after eight years, their marriage was deteriorating, and they needed to see if there was anything left to salvage.

There were no children, for which Molly was grateful. If Peter had his way, they’d have at least one by now. Eighteen months ago he had treated a malnourished newborn who’d been abandoned at their clinic. He had brought her home and together, he and Molly nursed her back to health. Medicinally, they had always made a good team: a pair of ER doctors with degrees from UTSA. Their staff of nurses- mostly Tanzanians, two Canadians, one Kiwi- named the little girl Grace, and while Molly saw the infant as no more than a patient, Peter grew emotionally attached. When he began referring to Grace as our little girl, Molly panicked. She began researching local orphanages and missionaries who could take Grace in. Peter tried to fight for the child, but Molly refused. She wasn’t heartless, she insisted. She just wasn’t ready.

When Grace was six months old, she went to live with a missionary family in Moshi, roughly two hours’ drive from Arusha. Peter refused to take her, so Molly went alone.

Peter still had not forgiven his wife.

When their driver returned, the three of them settled silently into the large vehicle and entered the park. The sun was just breaking the horizon, to which Molly muttered, “Oh thank God.” She was shivering.

Peter was turned towards the window, and Molly wondered if coming here wasn’t a mistake. They had spent a good chunk of their savings on this trip, but they were avoiding each other just as if they were back in Arusha. For the past year- ever since Grace left- Peter and Molly had disintegrated into a couple of doctors who lived and worked together. There was the occasional argument, which no matter its nascent was inevitably routed to the subject of Grace, but mostly there was silence. Screaming loud silence.

As they traversed the rim of the Crater before making their descent, they came across a herd of Cape buffalo, emerging from the brush one by one to leap across the road. The vehicle came to a stop, the creatures moving just beyond the front bumper. The driver had yet to turn off the headlights, and the buffalos’ eyes flashed red as they passed.

Molly gripped her seat and leaned forward.

“In all our time here,” she murmured, “I’ve never seen one.”

Peter said nothing, though he was just as transfixed as she.

Their expectations of Africa had been vastly different. She realized that now, and she could hardly believe it had taken her so long. For Molly, Africa was meant to be a grand adventure. A prolonged vacation, something that would eventually be captured in a photo book to show the kids. “Look what Mommy and Daddy did before you were born.” It was meant to be temporary; just a chapter in the Preston’s Book of Life, before they returned to Texas and settled down like normal people. For Peter, there was no end. Africa was their life. There was little about the Preston’s home and routine in Tanzania that was not recreated to resemble their home and life in Austin. Peter had been a workaholic there and he was a workaholic here. He was saving lives. There was no time for climbing Kilimanjaro, or snorkeling in the Indian Ocean, or hiking along the Great Rift Valley, and there had certainly never been time for safari. As their eight-year anniversary had loomed before them, Molly had made an executive decision and booked their trip without consulting him.

“I’m going on safari,” she had told him once everything was arranged, “and I’d really like you to come with me.”

“And if I don’t?” he’d asked.

“Then I’ll still go.” Her voice caught in her throat, and she chastised herself for the tears that burned behind her eyes. “But I don’t think I’ll be coming back.”

Peter knew he was losing her, which didn’t come as a surprise to him. He had let her go the morning she took Grace to Moshi, and it was only natural she would begin to drift away. She had given him a year. After everything they had shared- the Christmases, the trips to California and Nantucket and Iceland, volunteering in Haiti, the AP classes in high school, the all-nighters at UTSA- she owed him that much. They had been best friends for over half their lives, had realized they loved each other only when faced with the prospect of going their separate ways after graduation. Back then, life made so much more sense when they were together.

But the year after Grace yawned between them like an abyss. Molly was going to leave, Peter knew this. Whether or not he went with her on this last adventure, they were beyond saving. Had he fallen out of love with her? Perhaps. Did he hate her? He thought he had, but not anymore. Now he felt nothing. And that’s how he knew they had died.

He agreed to take this final trip with her not because he thought it would make her stay, but because it was the last concession he was capable of making. He knew there would be no grand reconciliation, no passionate reunion. They were beyond that now. They would see a few giraffes, some elephants, would eat some goat pilau and chipati with beans and chips mayai, drink a dozen or so bottles of Tusker beer, and then they would return to Arusha, where she would pack up her things and leave for good.

He sneaked a glance at her as she stared wide-eyed at the beasts crossing the road. She was a beautiful woman, with long, chestnut-colored hair and vibrant green eyes. And both of them were still young; not yet thirty-one. He briefly wondered if she would find someone else, but the thought made him uncomfortable, so he dismissed it. He told himself it wasn’t because he didn’t wish her every happiness- he did- but because she had been his girl since their senior year of high school. To imagine her with anyone else was… well, difficult. But to imagine her staying? Impossible.

Once the herd of buffalo had passed, they continued their descent into the Crater. Large discolorations across the plains gained clarity and became individual animals, grazing en masse. There were countless zebras, who twitched and barked as the vehicle drove among them. Peter and Molly stood to peer beyond the elevated roof, each claiming opposing sides. The brisk wind whipped Molly’s hair into Peter’s neck, and it stung.

“Can you put your hair up or something?” he asked impatiently.

She reached into the back of the vehicle where she had tossed her straw cowboy hat when the morning was still dark. Now by daylight she saw a wool blanket folded neatly beneath it. She twisted her hair on top of her head and placed the hat over it, pulling it low over her forehead, then shook out the blanket and draped it over her shoulders. When she stood once more, Peter regarded her with an expression akin to amusement.

“You look ridiculous,” he said, and she saw the shadow of a smile.

“I look like me,” she replied proudly. Boots, cutoffs, white tank top, cowboy hat. She had even donned her favorite pair of rhinestone cross earrings, which she never wore in the city lest they be mistaken for real jewels and ripped out of her ears. She had heard of such robberies before. It was why she had not worn her wedding ring in two years.

For a moment Peter was transported to a night during their college days in San Antonio, when she had worn this exact outfit. She had always been unabashedly Texan, while he had spent his childhood in San Francisco and had never in his life owned a pair of Ariats. His family moved to the Texas hill country when he was fourteen, where he met Molly on the first day of high school. Though they had attended several rodeos throughout their teenage years, Molly was never able to convince Peter to dance with her when the bands played. Not till that night- on her twenty-first birthday- when she dragged him to a piano bar on the River Walk, dressed as she was now. They had been smoking Djarum Blacks on the patio when one of the dueling pianists pounded out the opening chords of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places”. Molly had gasped, tore the cigarillo from Peter’s lips and stomped it out, then dragged him back into the sweaty haze of the bar where she placed one of his hands on her waist and held the other at shoulder height. “This is your birthday present to me,” she had shouted above the music. “You’re gonna learn how to two-step.”

Despite the painful awkwardness of his movements, he had loved the way her smile lit her up in the darkness of the bar. He had loved the feel of her hip moving within the contours of his palm, the way she threw her head back and laughed when he stepped on her foot for the third time. He had loved the way her cross earrings sparkled in the neon light, and the way her hair hung low, tickling his fingertips.

He hadn’t thought of that night in years.

They passed through a herd of wildebeests, and Molly spoke aloud, more to herself than to Peter, “Look how unique they are. I’ve never seen anything like them.” They had the stern face of a bull and the sloped spine of a hyena, but they moved with the grace of a horse. She spotted a mother suckling her calf, and for a moment she suffered an encounter with an old, familiar guilt.

She had tried to love Grace, she had. She had tried to want children, to long for motherhood. Many nights she had lain awake wondering, What the hell is wrong with me? She had loved Peter with a love that bordered on desperation, and she had wanted to give him everything. To be his everything. But to adopt a child for the sake of her husband had seemed an injustice to the child. What if she could never learn to love her as her own? She would have resented Grace. Peter. Herself. So she had done what she felt she had to do.

And now Peter resented her.

His initial anger had not surprised her. She had expected it, had felt she deserved it, and she was prepared to ride it out. Surely he would forgive her someday.

She glanced at him from beneath the brim of her hat. He was crouching to peer out the windshield, and she studied his profile. She remembered the first time she saw him in Algebra 2. He had been one of the only other freshmen in the class, and he was so skinny and quiet and awkward that she immediately wanted to be his friend. Not because she pitied him, but because she knew he would not be pretentious. She had never liked to waste her time earning the favor of those who flaunted their merits.

He was of Scottish descent, with reddish-brown hair that stuck straight up and green eyes that sometimes melted into to a shade of blue, depending on what he wore. He had a strong nose and a fantastic smile; one of those smiles that made you feel as though you’d won a prize each time you saw it, for it was not given generously. She had once taken pride in her ability to make him smile.

He must have felt her eyes on him, for he turned to her.

“Did you bring the camera?” he asked.

She shook her head no, and he looked away.

“Of course,” he muttered, and she heard everything else he would not say aloud.

“I didn’t forget,” she told him. “I just didn’t know if this was a memory we’d want to look back on.”

She watched him, half dreading his response.

He sighed and dropped his eyes, then nodded once.

“I guess you see things differently,” he replied, “when you know you’re only going to see them once.”

They passed a lake, which from a distance appeared to have a film of pink across the surface, but as they drew nearer they realized it was overrun by flamingoes. The occasional wildebeest wandered like a shadow amongst them, and further on towards the edge of the lake there were no flamingoes at all. Instead silvery domes broke the surface of the water, emerging one after the other to reveal a family of hippopotamuses. Their ears twitched and fluttered, and one yawned, giving spectators a view of enormous, uneven tusks.

Molly had been to Africa once as a child. Her father, also a doctor, was a sportsman, and flew his wife and only child to South Africa on a hunting expedition when Molly was ten-years-old. She and her mother had spent long days shopping and swimming at the resort while her father disappeared for a week and a half. His trophies were later shipped back to their house in Austin, where he displayed them proudly. Warthog, springbok, bat-eared fox, zebra, cheetah, impala. Molly could remember looking up at them, their glass eyes staring off into oblivion, and wondering if they silently judged her for letting them perish at the hands of her father. She had never grown comfortable beneath their lifeless gaze, and in her heart had always longed to return to Africa where she might see them thrive once again. When she first came to Tanzania and learned of the Ngorongoro Crater, a conservation area for wildlife, she knew she had to see it for herself.

She fought back tears when a trio of elephants materialized across the plain and made their slow progress towards their vehicle. The Prestons watched in silent reverence as the beasts moved gracefully through the grass, their trunks swaying rhythmically to the cadence of their stride. They passed before the sedentary vehicle, close enough for Molly to see their long eyelashes and the deep grooves of their skin. Their majestic strength and beauty overwhelmed her, and she had to remind herself to breathe.

Peter heard his wife sniffle and turned to see the tears rolling down her cheeks. She had always harbored a fierce love of nature, had never been able to bring herself to point the nose of a rifle outside one of her father’s many deer blinds to take life. For this she was branded a hippy in high school, and it made sense to the other kids that she befriended Peter, the only Californian on campus. She had taken the teasing good-naturedly, as Molly did with most things. It was one of the many reasons Peter had loved her.

But she could also be reckless and impulsive, which drove Peter crazy.

After seeing the elephants, they drove on until they came to a roadblock, where several other safari trucks had come to a standstill. At first they could not see the reason for the delay, but before long it was obvious: a pride of lions had claimed the road for sunbathing. Some lounged on the warm dirt while others moved about languidly, their sharp shoulder blades undulating with every step. One lioness approached Molly’s side of the vehicle and passed close enough to touch. Its golden fur shimmered in the sunlight and it moved with such grace and calm that Molly reached out the open window to touch it. Alarmed, Peter grabbed her arm and yanked it back.

“Ouch!” she cried, tearing her arm from his grip. She rubbed where his fingers had clawed into her flesh. “You hurt me, Peter.”

“That was a stupid thing to do,” he chastised, his eyes flaring green. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Their driver eyed Molly sternly in the rearview mirror.

“You mustn’t disturb the lions, madam,” he told her.

Doubly rebuffed, Molly frowned. To Peter, she whispered, “I’m not a child.”

“A child would have had more sense,” he replied.

“It wasn’t going to hurt me.”

“And you know this, how?”

“I just know.”

He rolled his eyes, which made her seethe. She turned her back to him, effectively communicating that she was no longer going to speak to him. It was just as well, for he had nothing left to say.

The rest of the day passed between them quietly. They pretended to distract themselves with the animals, while each argued with the other silently in their minds.

It was nearly dusk when the driver announced it was time to depart. They rounded a bend in the road but came suddenly to a stop, for sauntering towards them was a mother cheetah and two cubs. At once, Peter and Molly forgot themselves.

Despite the tension between herself and her husband, Molly found herself smiling.

The mother cat continued to approach while her young hung decidedly back. She came right up to the hood of the vehicle, sniffed the air around it, then swung her long legs up and pounced onto the truck. The driver shouted something in Swahili while Peter cried, “Oh my god!” and Molly shrieked.

The cat gazed at them through the windshield, and the driver honked in an attempt to scare her off. Undaunted, she began to paw at the glass, then raised herself up on her haunches to inspect the roof, which was still raised. She stuck her head into the vehicle, and Peter and Molly threw themselves on the floor, not quite knowing what else to do. As the driver shouted and batted at the cat, she opened her mouth in a hiss, her whiskers splaying. She tried to bat back but had trouble maneuvering her paw through the opening and down. She licked her lips once, but soon lost interest, or gave the venture up as lost. She dropped from the windshield, then gave a great leap off the hood, where she landed in a little cloud of dust a few feet from her cubs. They immediately went to her, and together the three of them disappeared into the tall grass beyond the road.

For a long moment no one said anything. Once he had recovered himself, the driver turned in his seat to check on the Prestons, who were only just picking themselves up off the floor.

“Are you all right?” he asked them. They responded with shell-shocked nods. “I have been a guide for fourteen years,” he said. “I get families who say to me, ‘We want to see a hunt! We want to see a kill!’ and then the animals are not hungry and the families leave disappointed because there is no excitement. But the animals do as they please. Something like this has never happened to me before. We are fortunate, eh? No hunts, no kills, but what excitement!”

They drove on, and it was a long time before anyone said anything. The sun hung low over the horizon, draping the sky in a Maasai cloak of red. When Molly Preston’s heartbeat eventually slowed, she felt a strange peace settle over her. Also, she was exhausted. She looked at Peter, who was already looking at her.

“Are you glad you came here, Molly?” he asked. She could barely remember a time when he had called her by name. He had always used an array of endearments: Love, Sweet, Honey, Sugar, Darling, Wife. Even before they started dating, he had called her Austin and she had called him Frisco. Only in the last year had he started calling her Molly.

“Yes,” she replied. And then she took a chance. “I’m glad we came here together.”

He looked away.

Then, “Molly?”

She closed her eyes.

“Yes?”

He found himself regarding her boots. So out of place in a place like this.

“You’re not happy here,” he said. “In Arusha, I mean.”

She sighed. “No, I’m not.”

“But you would stay if I asked you to.”

“Yes. If you wanted me.” She touched her finger where her wedding band should be. “I made a promise to you eight years ago.”

Now he sighed.

“I would release you from that promise,” he murmured, “if you asked me to.”

She shook her head.

“I would never,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

“And I can’t…” he faltered. Swallowed. “I can’t ask you to stay. Not anymore. Not like this.”

“Like what?”

“With your heart always somewhere else.” Then his face lightened with a wry smile. “I think you need to go on home, Austin.”

She began to cry, but after a long moment she nodded.

“I think so too,” she said.

 

They separated, and she moved back to Austin, where she stayed with her parents while acclimating to life in the US. She laid low at first, getting reacquainted with old friends, taking long walks with her mother, and staying up late with her father when he was on call, drinking coffee and playing RISK. At first she had very limited communication with Peter, but after a few months she emailed him to say she had been hired on at their old hospital. The memories, she told him, were almost overwhelming. She wrote about that Thanksgiving they had pulled double shifts and ordered lasagna from their favorite Italian restaurant, which they ate from Styrofoam containers in the break room. And the elderly man whose wife was an opera singer, and as he lay dying she sang to him, filling the halls of the ER with the most beautiful, most tragic song they had ever heard. And when they stumbled into an unlocked screening room to make love, only to find one of the other doctors and a nurse had beaten them to it.

She didn’t mention a divorce, and neither did he. Instead he kept her abreast of the goings-on at the clinic, and she relayed messages from former patients or old friends she ran into around town, and he told her of an Australian doctor who was new to Arusha and in search of a place to practice. Eight months after their separation, Peter partnered with the Australian and told his wife he was considering a furlough, and while she hoped he would come to Texas, he only mentioned California, where his family had returned five years before. “I’ll give you a call once I’m stateside,” he wrote. She wanted to reply, Come see me, but did not. Instead silence filled the distance between them, and for months she heard nothing more.

She got an apartment and fell into a routine, working long hours and spending much of her leisure time with friends and family. Despite her husband’s silence, she was determined to wait for him, determined not to move on until their future was decided. But she had her moments of weakness, too. Moments when the nights were too long, and the silence was too loud, and the story of her marriage felt as though it belonged to someone else entirely. On one particular night, when she was attending a concert on 6th Street with her brother Ryan and his longtime friend Ben, she felt something akin to hunger. When Ben brushed against her during the show, or bought her a beer and allowed his eyes to linger on hers a second too long, her loneliness swelled to a deep and throbbing ache. That night he invited her over, and she went and, shaking, allowed him to kiss her. It was the first time anyone but Peter had kissed her since she was a teenager, and despite the tenderness of Ben’s lips and the sweetness of his touch, she found herself wishing he was not Ben at all, but that he was Peter. She pulled away from him, and because he was kind and because she was beautiful and broken, he demanded nothing but held her for a long time.

A week later, she was attending a medical seminar in Dallas when her phone lit up with a message from her husband, asking her to call him. She didn’t see it until hours later, following a lecture, and when she did she nearly cried out. She went immediately to her room at the hotel and dialed his number, all the while reminding herself to breathe. But instead of his curt, “This is Peter”, she got his voicemail. At first she heard nothing but her own racing thoughts, but then something in Peter’s receiving message caught her attention. “If this is Austin…” – There was a pause, and Molly gasped – “I still love you.”

She dropped the phone.

I still love you. I still love you.

Doubting what she’d just heard, she tried calling him again, and again she got the voicemail.

Austin, I still love you.

She didn’t leave a message. She couldn’t. She was speechless. After all this time, after everything that had happened, he still loved her? That voicemail was so unlike Peter she might have believed it was a cruel joke but for the sound of his voice and the way he had called her Austin. That nickname from so long ago, the first he had ever given her.

She didn’t know what to think or what to do, so she did nothing. Instead she attended the rest of the seminar, though her thoughts were fixed on Peter. She wondered if he would see that she had tried to call, if he would call her back… but her phone was silent, and after three days, when she finally returned to Austin, she had built up the courage to call again.

He didn’t answer, but had changed his voicemail to say he was gone for the weekend. However, the end of the message was still the same, and Molly dissolved into tears when she heard it again.

Austin, I still love you.

Hardly able to speak, she asked him to call her and left it at that.

On Sunday night, Peter Preston dialed his wife’s number. When he had seen that she called those first couple of times, he had wondered what she’d thought about the voicemail, and feared the worst when she left nothing in response. It was nothing more than he deserved, but still… She needed to know that he hadn’t moved on. That he didn’t want to move on. Not anymore.

He had been angry, yes. And when he had first decided to take furlough and return to the States, he wasn’t entirely certain he would return to his marriage. He would see his parents in California, then meet up with Molly to discuss their future. A divorce wasn’t out of the question. They had been separated for over a year, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask her to come back to Africa with him. He wasn’t even sure he was going back.

Before leaving Tanzania, he went to Moshi to see Grace. The missionaries who had taken her in- a husband and wife named Frank and Claudia- were happy to finally meet the man who had saved Grace’s life, and Peter was amazed at how healthy and fat the baby had grown. He stayed in Moshi for hours, playing with Grace and talking with her guardians. They were good people, genuinely interested in Peter, and when they asked about Molly he found himself confessing his and his wife’s story. He realized he had never spoken of it with anyone, and the more he talked the more difficult it was to stop. When he was finished, he realized his cheeks were wet with tears, and Peter Preston had not cried in years. Embarrassed, he fell silent for several moments.

Then Claudia asked him if he still loved Molly. He had felt numb for so long he had ceased to wonder whether or not he did. But now he looked at Grace, and he saw how well-loved and cared for she was by these people, and a dull ache bloomed inside of him. The ache was not for the daughter he might have had, but for the woman who had changed her diaper and warmed her bottle and woken with her at all hours of the night for the first six months of her life. It was for the memory of his hand on her hip, for the coffee in her dorm at midnight, for the lasagna at Thanksgiving. For the Texas girl on safari, with her long legs and straw hat and dangling earrings. Yes, yes he still loved her. Of course he still loved her.

“Then forgive her,” Claudia told him, and in that moment he knew he already had.

Now the phone clicked over to indicate Molly had answered, and for a few long seconds neither husband nor wife said anything. The silence was pregnant with questions and apologies, explanations and confessions, longing and wonder; but after surrendering to their mutual loss for words, there was nothing left between them but a quiet understanding.

Molly began to grin.

“Hello?” she finally spoke. “This is Austin.”

Her sudden brevity surprised him, so much so that he started to laugh.

“Hey,” he said, expelling a sigh of relief.

Molly waited, then asked, “Peter?”

“Yeah.”

“What happens now?”

“I was wondering…” he hesitated, “if maybe I could take you out and we could talk. Or I could come over.”

“Come over?” she asked. She shook her head. “Come home, baby.”

He smiled, and when he could trust himself to speak he said, “I’m on my way.”

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Interstate/Kiss Me in the Dark

IMG_0082

There was a knock on the door.

He froze. It could be anyone; his manager, one of the other band members, an old friend who’d seen his name on the marquee and wanted to say hello.

Jesus, Cameron, it’s been a long time!

Three years, exactly.

He was alone, and he slowly approached the door. Heart hammering in his chest, he squinted into the peep hole.

Shit.

He knew it. He’d had a feeling.

It was her.

Her straw-colored hair had grown past her shoulders, but there was no mistaking those blue eyes. She’d lined them in black, the way she used to when they would go out on the town together. Once upon a time.

He had wondered- hoped– she’d come. He had tried to call her but the line was disconnected. It had been so long since they’d spoken, he wasn’t sure she was still in town. She used to be a manager at the grocery store down the street, and she would have driven past this lodge every day, the marquee announcing the weekend’s entertainment. They brought in live bands every Friday and Saturday, and his homecoming would have been a big event, one to which they sold tickets instead of enforcing the usual cover charge.

Award-winning musician Cameron Black makes his way home.

He wasn’t playing the whole weekend, as he did back before he was selling out shows. He was just here for the night. Tomorrow he was headlining an event in San Antonio.

He opened the door, and when she saw his face she smiled and opened her mouth to speak but found she had forgotten everything she had planned to say.

Maggie Hall. Once his best friend, now the stranger standing outside his hotel room door.

“Hey,” she said finally. She jabbed a thumb towards the front office. “I’m sorry, I knew the girl at the counter, and she told me your room number…”

“Mags, oh my god,” Cameron breathed. His body was taking over for him. Years of familiarity, of late nights and drinking games and long drives and pranks drew him to her. In an instant his arms were folding her against his chest and he was inhaling the scent of her perfume. She smelled different, but she felt like the girl who’d gotten away.

“I can’t believe it,” she giggled happily, “I can’t believe you’re really here!”

She squeezed him tight, and he could feel her breasts pressing against his chest. He cleared his throat and pulled away.

“You heard I was coming, huh?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes.

“It was impossible to miss. You’re all over the paper, the radio. You don’t know what I had to do to get a ticket.”

He raised an eyebrow, and she laughed.

“No, no, nothing like that,” she said, waving away his thoughts. “You’re just such a big deal now. Everyone here tonight had to know someone just to get in.”

“I would have given you a pass. I tried calling.”

“You did?” she looked genuinely pleased, then disappointed. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. I had to change my number a while back. I should have told you.”

“Yes, you should have.” He smiled, though it did not quite reach his eyes. “But I understand why you didn’t. We haven’t spoken in, what, two years?”

“God, has it been that long?”

“Since you married Cody.”

“Oh, right.” She looked away and sighed. “You didn’t hear what happened?”

“I never hear anything about you anymore, Maggie.”

It made sense, and she nodded. She might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. She had lost most of her friends shortly after she got married, and she wasn’t much for social networking. The only people she spoke with these days were her mother, her best girlfriend, and her lawyer.

“Cody and I are getting a divorce,” she said.

Cameron looked down at her hand and for the first time noticed she wasn’t wearing a ring.

“Seriously?” was all he could think to say.

She nodded.

“He cheated,” she told him.

“God, Mags.”

“A lot,” she added. “He cheated a lot.”

She waited for him to say I told you so, but he didn’t.

“I’m so sorry,” he said instead.

“You warned me. I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe he’d changed.”

“Are you okay?”

She took a deep breath and nodded.

“I’m getting there,” she replied. “This is my first time out in six months.”

“I’m glad you came.”

“Me too.”

She looked past him into the room, where his suitcase was open and his clothes were scattered all over the floor.

“I see you’re not quite the neat freak you used to be,” she teased.

“I don’t take the time to unpack anymore,” he said.

His phone buzzed in his pocket.

“Shit,” he muttered, glancing at a text. “They’re wondering where I am.”

She smiled.

“You should probably get down there, Mr. Fancy Pants.”

He smiled wryly and dove into the room to grab a flannel shirt out of the pile of clothes. He threw it over his tee shirt, which was dark gray and read This is it.

“I can’t believe you still have that thing,” Maggie said.

“What?”

“That tee shirt I bought you.”

He looked down as if he had forgotten what he was wearing.

“This is my favorite shirt,” he said with a grin. “Why would I get rid of it?”

She didn’t want to give him a reason, so she said nothing.

This is it.

It’s what they had always said to each other during their favorite moments. Floating down the Frio River in August. Watching the fireworks at the end of a concert on the 4th of July. Sailing in the Gulf, licking salt off a Dos Equis at a cantina in Mexico, getting chased by ducks at the River Walk, driving through the hills at three in the morning with the doors off his 4-Runner and Garth Brooks blaring on the stereo.

It was the greatest moment of their lives. It was all they had.

He stepped out of the room and pulled the door closed behind him, then he put an arm around her shoulders the way he used to and together they walked towards the lounge where he was to perform.

Then something occurred to him.

His arm twitched, but he didn’t remove it.

“Did you come here with anyone?” he asked.

She laughed, that loud honking laugh he had always found so contagious. He relaxed.

“I came here to see you, Cameron Black. Just you.” She gave him a little squeeze around the middle, where her arm was draped across his lower back. “But Eva will be joining me tonight.”

“Eva Zevala? She’s still around?”

“Yes. And it’s Eva Hunt now.”

He looked at her sideways.

“Hunt, as in Jackson Hunt, owner of this establishment?”

“Yessir. Married him last fall.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“He’s twice her age and she’s nuts about him.”

“Now I can see how you acquired your tickets.”

“Jackson almost didn’t let me in. He was being such an ass. Eva had to do unspeakable things to him just to…”

“I don’t want to know, Mags,” Cameron grimaced.

She laughed again. Eva had been their third wheel since high school, and she had always been the wildest of them all.

They rounded a corner, and Cameron’s arm dropped from around Maggie’s shoulders.

“I gotta go in through the back door,” he told her. “I’ll see you after the show?”

“Absolutely.”

As she walked away from him and towards the front entrance to the lounge, she smiled to herself. She had been so frightened he wouldn’t want to see her, so frightened he would be cold. But that wasn’t like Cameron. She had been the one to push him away, to isolate herself from his intentions to rescue her from a bad marriage. She had been so afraid of his love for her. Of her love for him. Afraid it went further, deeper than either of them quite understood.

She presented her ticket and waded through the sea of people to find Eva, who stood an inch taller than every other woman in the room and whose long, black hair seemed to glow blue from the neon lights. She was standing near the stage, a beer in each hand. Someone budged her from behind, causing the beer to slosh onto her designer heels, and she whipped her glossy head around to deliver an explicit rebuke. When Maggie sidled up beside her, Eva handed her one of the beers and rolled her eyes.

“Got you this,” Eva said, then raised her voice loud enough for the surrounding ears to hear. “But the fuck tard behind me spilled it, so you can thank him.”

Maggie just giggled.

“I’m not worried about it,” she said, and took a sip. Bud Light. It was always her go-to at the bar because she could afford it. And there was just something about the taste of a crisp, ice cold Bud Light on a hot Texas night. She closed her eyes and held the beer against her cheek to cool down.

Cameron would be on the stage at any moment, and she felt her heart racing at the thought of seeing him again so soon- so close, so real. She had seen him in magazines, on CMT and various award shows, and he had looked good, but nothing could have prepared her for what she saw when he opened that hotel room door. All throughout high school and their early twenties, he had remained clean shaven, and he had been tall and soft like a teddy bear. She had loved that about him. His face had been kind, clean, and handsome, but he had changed. He was no longer the boy she remembered. Now he was a man with sharper edges, an unshaven jaw line, strong arms and a flat stomach. His jeans hung from his hips in a way they had never done before, and his eyes looked older, grayer. Still soft, but matured, as if they had seen more than they had bargained for.

“So,” Eva turned to Maggie and studied her with her huge green eyes. “How did it go?”

Maggie blushed, and it was not lost on Eva.

“Oh. My. God,” Eva said.

“Good,” Maggie replied, unable to meet those eyes. “It was good.”

Eva’s lips tightened the way they did when she slipped into interrogation mode.

“And?” she prodded, her long bangs shivering against her eyelashes. “Spit it out. What happened?”

Maggie shrugged.

“It was almost like nothing’s changed. I mean, a lot has changed… obviously… but we just… we just picked up right where we left off. He’s still Cameron. Maybe a little jaded, but it’s him.”

“He hasn’t been lost to fame?” Eva teased. Kind of.

“I didn’t get that impression,” Maggie said. “He was really glad to see me. I was afraid he wouldn’t be.”

“Did you tell him about Cody?”

Maggie nodded.

“What did he think?” Eva asked.

“He seemed genuinely sorry.”

“He would have wanted to be wrong. He wanted you to be happy. But he knew Cody was an asshole. Just like the rest of us.”

Maggie didn’t want to hear this lecture again. She placed a cool set of fingers against her forehead and began to rub.

“I know, Eva,” she sighed.

Eva studied her friend a second longer, then looked towards the stage.

“I saw his new music video,” she said, then whistled. “Damn, he got hot.”

“Oh my god, Eva.”

“What? You know I’m right.”

“It’s Cameron.

“He could be the Pope, and if he looked like that, I’d still think he was hot.”

Maggie brushed an invisible hair out of her eyes. The reality of her oldest friend’s transformation made her uncomfortable. She wanted the show to start.

She glanced around the bar and saw some faces she hadn’t seen in years. She hoped they wouldn’t recognize her, hoped they wouldn’t approach her after the show and ask her questions. She suddenly wished she were invisible, and then the lights went down and she was.

To everyone except him.

Cameron came onto the stage to a deafening reception. The room exploded with applause and raised voices, and bodies pushed against Maggie and Eva to gain proximity to the stage. Eva spilled her beer again.

“Shit! Mother fucker!” she spat.

“Should have worn your boots,” Maggie shouted.

“My boots cost more than these damn things,” Eva shouted back, “but these’re still Tom Fucking Ford’s.”

When Cameron reached center stage, the spotlight illuminated his face and Eva forgot all about her shoes.

She leaned close to Maggie and nudged her shoulder.

Hot,” she said.

Maggie just shook her head, refusing to agree. But she did agree. Cameron looked amazing. Standing there below him and staring up at his hard-earned fame and beauty, she suddenly felt simple and dull. He was one of country music’s most eligible bachelors, and what was she? A soon-to-be divorcee from Food Mart, who was still wearing the boots her father had bought her when she was sixteen. Beside her, newly married Eva Hunt was far more glamorous, but then again, Eva had always been glamorous.

Maggie bit her lip to avoid muttering the word Pathetic to herself.

In an instant her mind was silenced as she realized Cameron was gazing directly at her. He leaned in to the microphone and looked left towards the bar.

“Hey, Joe?” he said, and everyone grew quiet.

Joe, the bartender, had a considerably smaller voice when he replied, “Yeah, Cam?”

Cameron pointed at Maggie and said, “This pretty girl is drinkin’ on me tonight.”

Joe gave him a thumbs’ up while the audience whistled and cheered.

Cameron winked at Maggie, who mouthed the words, Thank you.

He stepped away from the mic long enough to take a sip of water and say, “This one’s for you, Mags.” His drummer counted off, and the band began to play the song Cameron had written for Maggie just before she got married. It was the last song she had heard him play live, and she remembered the sting of the tears that ran down her cheeks while she had listened. That may have been the moment she realized she loved him, but it was also the moment she knew she would push him away. It had been the song to break her heart, but now it was different. Now it was the song that brought her back to him.

“The way he looks at you hasn’t changed,” Eva told her.

Maggie shut her eyes to keep them from tearing up.

“I know,” she said.

It was what she had come here tonight to find out. No one had ever looked at her the way Cameron did, and she had wondered- hoped– he still would.

 

He played till midnight, a full two-hour set. Afterwards, when the lights came back on and Josh Abbott bellowed from the speakers, the house began to clear, making room on the dance floor for those who would stick around till last call. The band began clearing the stage, and for old times’ sake, Cameron lent a hand. He had long graduated from packing his own gear, but tonight was different. Tonight he was home.

He wasn’t left alone for long. Old friends and new fans surrounded him. He handled their small talk and requests for autographs gracefully, but he searched their faces for the one he knew best. He found her standing to the edge of the dance floor, where she was watching him with an amused smile. He soon broke away from the small mob and went to her, and before she could protest he had taken her hand and spun her into his arms. They moved into an easy two-step, and he pressed his chin against the side of her face. His mouth was in close proximity to her ear, perfect for conversation despite the loud music.

“Sorry, I just wanted to be close to you,” he said.

“I’m not sorry,” she replied.

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Whatever you want to do.”

“I really don’t care, as long as I’m with you.” He smiled as he got an idea. “You want to get out of here?”

“Yes.”

They finished out the song, then Maggie located Eva near the bar.

“I’m just going to tell her I’m heading out,” Maggie told Cameron. He nodded and she crossed the room to Eva, who watched her friend approach unblinkingly.

“You’re leaving with him,” Eva said before Maggie could speak.

“Yes. Is that okay?”

Eva didn’t answer, but instead wrapped her arms around Maggie and said, “Don’t let him get away this time, Mags.”

Maggie smiled.

“I won’t.”

When she returned to Cameron, he took her hand and led her backstage and out the rear exit.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Let’s just take a drive.”

“Okay.”

“You still have the old Mini?”

“Yep.”

Without thinking about it she reached into her pocket and handed him the keys. Still holding his hand, she led him to her car and he opened the passenger door for her. She had hoped he would drive, hoped she could watch him in the dim light from the dashboard.

He slipped into the driver’s seat and they headed east towards the interstate. For a few moments they said nothing, their individual thoughts filling the silence. They didn’t bother with the stereo.

Once they reached I-10, Cameron sneaked a glance at Maggie before returning his eyes to the road.

“Is this okay?” he asked.

“This is perfect,” she said.

“I’ve missed you, Mags.”

“I’ve missed you too. I’m so sorry, Cam.”

“Nothing to apologize for.”

“Yes there is. There’s so much.”

“You’ve always seen the best in people, Maggie. Sometimes to a fault. But I never held that against you.”

“I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”

“You don’t have to.”

She sniffled, and he realized she was crying. He picked up speed, wanting to reach the next exit as soon as possible. He wanted to stop. To put his arms around her.

“He was like this foreign thing,” she said through her tears. “He wasn’t like the rest of us, growing up here the way we did. I was dazzled. I convinced myself he was what I wanted. That he was my ticket out of here. I know you and Eva saw right through him, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t. Or maybe I just didn’t want to try hard enough.”

“You can’t keep beating yourself up about it, Maggie.”

“But I do. Because I lost you, and you were everything to me. You were my best friend and I haven’t spoken to you in two years. I missed everything. I should have been there when you headlined your first tour, when you crossed over from Texas country and became who you are now. I’m so proud of you, Cameron. You deserve it. You deserve all of it.”

He didn’t respond. Instead he pulled off the interstate and onto a frontage road, one he hadn’t driven since he was a kid. He knew where it led.

They came to a cattle gate, where Cameron parked the Mini and went around the side of the car to get the door for Maggie. He took her hand and helped her over the gate, and side by side they crossed a field towards a line of cypress trees. Beyond the trees, a small lake shimmered with the light of a crescent moon and a million stars.

When they came to the edge of the water, he didn’t let go of her hand but instead drew her against him.

“Come here,” he said. “Hit me with your heart.”

She could hear but not see the smile on his lips.

Her heart pounded against his chest, and she realized she had stopped crying. Her breathing was beginning to even out, and she found herself relaxing into his touch.

“Girls must throw themselves at you,” she said.

“They do try,” he admitted.

“Is that weird?”

“You get used to it after a while.”

She scoffed.

“I’m sure you do.”

“You want to know something?” he asked.

“Hm?”

“I never could quite get over wishing they were you.”

“Bull shit.”

“Serious.” He pulled back just far enough to see the stars dancing in her eyes. “Every single show. I look out at their faces hoping to see yours.”

She didn’t know what to say.

“I was afraid to hope you’d be there tonight,” he told her. “I wanted it more than anything.”

“Just one night,” she murmured.

“Enough to get me through the next two years,” he commented wryly.

“Cameron,” she chastised.

“I know. Bad joke.”

“I won’t let that happen again.”

“You better not. We have some serious making up to do.”

The way he said it made her heart beat a little faster. Her mouth went dry.

“Yes, we do,” she agreed.

She felt breathless.

“Maggie,” he whispered.

“Yes?”

His arms tightened around her.

“You never lost me,” he said.

She remained quiet, so he continued.

“I’ve loved you since the day I met you; since we were thirteen and I had those glasses that were too big for my face and you still had braces and frizzy hair. You were beautiful to me then and you are beautiful to me now. I didn’t fully realize how essential you were to my life until you stopped being a part of it, and now that I’ve got you back I don’t want to let you go.”

“You could do so much better than me, Cameron.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. I’ve been around the world, Mags. I’ve yet to meet anyone who gets me like you do.”

She thought about the other celebrities she had seen Cameron photographed with. Pop stars, actresses, models. She imagined her Food Mart smock, her imaginary social life, the house she could no longer afford. She had lost so much weight since Cody left she barely fit into her clothes.

“What could you possibly see in me?” she asked.

He gently tugged her hair back and tipped her chin.

“Everything,” he replied. “I’ve always seen everything.”

He kissed her then, long and deep. The way he had wanted to since the moment Cody Taylor stole her attention four years ago. The Australian with hair longer than Maggie’s, who’d had an affinity for surfing and weed and exotic countries, who had never believed in monogamy but who swore he couldn’t live without Maggie Hall. You’re like the girl in a country song, Cody had told her, and she had laughed and looked at Cameron. I am the girl in a country song.

And she was. She was the girl in all of his songs. Always had been.

Cameron pulled away from her just far enough to speak. He leaned close to her ear.

“This is it,” he whispered.

She smiled.

“It is.”

“Come to San Antonio tomorrow,” he told her.

She made a long hmmm noise.

“I can’t,” she said gradually. “I have to work.”

“Call in sick.”

She didn’t take long to think about it.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah.”

He kissed her again, and before she could stop herself she started to giggle.

“This is so weird,” she said. “I’m making out with my best friend.”

He smiled.

“It’s a little weird, yeah,” he agreed. “But it’s good though, right?”

She touched his face.

“You have no idea,” she murmured.

He cocked his head a little to the side and replied, “Oh, I think I do.”

He kissed her in the dark till the moon had crossed to the other side of the lake. After so long without her, he could not quite get her close enough. His heart broke for her, for the fragile thing she had become in the wake of her husband’s betrayal, but he was certain of one thing as he held her beneath the stars, the distant sounds of the interstate creating a muted echo all around them: he wouldn’t let her get away again. He would spend the rest of his life coming home to her.

 

 

 

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Roller Coaster

Roller Coaster

The beach was quiet; smothered in a blanket of calm, a burden of memories still fresh, ever haunting.

He fought the heavy emotions that stirred within him as he considered the damage. Splintered board, shards of glass, sodden wads of material and scraps of garbage. Jagged beams rose from the sea like broken wooden teeth, remnants of the pier where he’d held her hand that first time.

The water was the same color as her eyes; light brown with flecks of gold, shimmering in the late sunlight of early dusk. She had taken him by storm; the girl who never stopped smiling. What was the source of her happiness, he had wondered? Most of his customers didn’t smile like that until they’d had a strong drink or two, but she wasn’t drinking at all. He had found himself teasing her when she ordered a tall glass of water: diet, on the rocks. He had served it to her with a lime and a little umbrella and said, Now you can feel like you’re drinking for fun.

“I don’t have to drink to have fun,” she told him, her voice dropping in a flirtatious sort of way. She took out a dollar bill and dropped it into his tip jar. “If you’re worried I won’t tip, don’t be. Unless you stop being nice to me.”

He smiled.

“No chance of that,” he said.

She was petit and slender, with straight maple-colored hair pulled back into a pony tail. She had freckles across her nose, though one seemed to have dislodged itself and drifted onto her top lip, settling like a speck of dust.

She was there with three of her girlfriends, all of whom were already drunk when they stumbled into the bar. He noticed them right away, gauging the state of their inebriation.

It was karaoke night, and the three girls were all over the microphone almost as soon as they were through the door. He winced as they wailed their way through a country song that was well beyond their vocal range, while their sober friend laughed at them from the bar and sipped her water.

“I hope you sing better than your friends,” he told her.

“You’re in luck,” she said, “because I don’t sing at all.”

“How did you get stuck being DD? You draw the short straw?”

“No, no straws. I’m not much of a drinker.”

“Religious?”

“My dad’s a recovering alcoholic, so… you know. It just doesn’t appeal to me.” She took a sip of water and winked at him. “Good thing I’ve got such a sparkling personality. I’m Dinah, by the way.” She held out her hand and he had to wipe his on a towel before shaking it.

“Robbie.”

“Nice to meet you. Is this your bar?”

“No. I’m just home for the summer. Trying to make a little money before going back to school.”

“What are you studying?”

“Marine Biology. You?”

“Nursing. But I’m taking a little break.”

“Work load too much?”

“Taking care of a family friend, actually.”

“I’m sorry. I hope everything’s okay.”

She shrugged, but before she could respond the country song ended and the DJ called Dinah’s name. Her friends began to scream.

Diiieeeee-nuuuuuhhh!!

“Oh god, it’s my turn,” she rolled her eyes and began to move away from the bar.

“I thought you said you don’t sing?” Robbie said.

“I don’t!”

The opening chords to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” began to play.

“Oh my god,” Robbie laughed.

The bar seemed to explode as Dinah rapped, never missing a syllable. Everyone joined her for the chorus, throwing their hands in the air and bobbing their heads along to the beat. When she finished there was deafening applause. Robbie hated karaoke night- he was more of a country boy himself- but Dinah had done an impressive job. He hoped she would return for a refill, but instead she lingered with her friends until their glasses were empty.

The four of them converged upon the bar, budging their way through the crowd and flinging their glasses and elbows onto the counter. Dinah was easy enough to talk to when she was alone, but Robbie didn’t know how to flirt with four girls at once.

This did not deter them. The most inebriated of the group, Megan, locked eyes on Robbie and shoved Dinah so hard that Dinah almost tipped off her stool. This was meant to be a subtle tap, but Megan lost all sense of subtlety when she drank.

“Do you see him?” Megan shouted above the din. “Tell me you see him, Dinah. That one. The bartender.”

Robbie was mixing a couple of cosmopolitans directly in front of them and was well within earshot. Megan had stretched out her arm to point at him and was nearly poking him in the ribs.

“We’re old friends,” Dinah winked at Robbie, who smiled. “We’ve known each other for like, half an hour.”

“And you’ve already managed to lie to me,” Robbie said, pouring the cosmopolitans into martini glasses and sliding them across the bar to the other two girls, Aubrey and Des.

Dinah gasped. “What? Me, lie? I would never.”

“What was that up there?” He gestured towards the stage.

She laughed. “Were you shocked?”

“Amazed, actually.”

Megan grabbed Dinah’s ponytail and pulled a little too hard.

“You think she’s this sweet little white girl,” she said, “but she’s a hood rat when it comes to music.”

Dinah slipped off her stool and away from her friend’s grasp.

“Thank you, Meg,” she said with mock sincerity, “for making me sound like white trash.”

“You’re lucky,” Megan told Robbie. She was pointing at him again. “You got to see it. Not everyone gets to see it. She has to be bribed, so I bribed her.”

“What was the bribe?” Robbie asked.

Dinah held out her wrist, where a bracelet glittered in the neon lights from behind the bar.

“Swarovski,” she grinned.

Robbie shook his head. “You know it’s not nice to take advantage of your friends when they’re drunk,” he told her.

Megan held up a finger. “I was not drinking when this transaction took place.”

Dinah shrugged. “I love Swarovski. I’d take it from a baby.”

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Megan whispered loudly to Robbie as she leaned over the bar. “Tomorrow’s her birthday. That was her present.”

“I had a sneaking suspicion,” Dinah rolled her eyes.

“Don’t worry,” Megan told her. “That’s not all. The girls and I have something else planned.”

“Oh dear.”

Des put up a hand to stop the conversation. “Can I say something?” she asked.

Everyone looked at her.

“This is the best cosmo I’ve ever had.” She slurred the middle of the sentence, but Robbie got it.

“Glad you like it,” he said.

“Fun fact about martini glasses,” Aubrey chimed in. “They were modeled after Marie Antoinette’s boobs.”

Des snorted into her drink.

“I think they look more like Madonna’s boobs,” she said.

“Bitch, Madonna wasn’t around in 18th Century France,” Aubrey retorted.

Des giggled some more.

“Aubrey’s a wine rep,” Dinah explained to Robbie. “She’s always educating us on the history of alcohol.”

“You should tell your manager to call me,” Aubrey told him. She tried to wink but the eyelid just remained closed. “We could work together, you and me.”

“I’ll do that,” Robbie said, then shielded his face from Aubrey and mouthed Not really to Dinah. Dinah laughed.

“You girls from around here?” Robbie asked, his eyes still on Dinah. He spoke with drunk girls all the time. It was the sober one who interested him.

“No,” Dinah replied. “Waveland. We just came to New Orleans for the weekend.”

“We had to get her out of the house,” Megan said. “She needed to have some fun.”

Dinah’s eyes dropped and she stirred her water with a straw.

Robbie noticed and chose not to pursue the why behind that statement.

“What are you doing when you get off tonight?” Megan asked him.

Robbie laughed at her forwardness.

“Megan!” Dinah cried. If the bar had been brighter, they would have seen her blush.

“We’re staying in the French Quarter,” Megan continued. “You should come party with us.”

“We will not be partying,” Dinah insisted. “You three are going to pass out drunk and I am going to pass out from exhaustion.”

“I don’t get off till four, but I appreciate the invitation,” Robbie said, noting Dinah’s discomfort. “I’ll let you girls have your fun.”

Dinah was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.

“I’m free tomorrow night though,” Robbie said, the corners of his mouth turning up.

Megan immediately grabbed a napkin and pen and slammed them down in front of him.

“Your number,” she demanded. “Now.”

“I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Dinah warned, her lips twitching into a grin.

Robbie scribbled down his phone number.

“Oh, I think I do,” he said, and slid the napkin back to Megan.

 

“Ugh,” Des muttered, pushing her large black sunglasses further up her nose. “Sunlight.”

The girls had returned to their hotel at three that morning and slept until one in the afternoon. After nursing their hangovers for a couple of hours, Megan announced it was time to celebrate Dinah’s birthday.

“Is it weird that I’m scared?” Dinah asked.

Aubrey rubbed her temples. “Just be grateful you didn’t drink last night,” she said, “because you’re probably the only one who’s going to enjoy this.”

They piled into Megan’s car and drove to Six Flags, where the sight of roller coasters nearly made Des throw up. After they parked, she climbed out of the car only to squat for a moment with her face between her knees.

Dinah, however, was thrilled.

“Are you serious?” she exclaimed. “You guys knew we were coming here tonight and you still wanted to start off the weekend at Bourbon Street?”

Aubrey gave her an unenthusiastic thumbs up.

“Bourbon Street was for us,” she said. “This is for you. Happy freakin’ birthday.”

“I’m making you all ride the roller coasters with me,” Dinah told them.

Her friends forced smiles.

“Fat chance,” Des grumbled.

As they walked to the entrance gate, Dinah noticed a familiar face loitering near the ticket booths. She gripped Megan’s hand.

“Is that who you’ve been texting all day?”

Megan grinned wolfishly before throwing her arm in the air and waving.

“Hey Robbie!” she called.

Robbie slowly made his way over to the girls. Last night, the bar had stood as a comfortable barrier between himself and the four females, but now in the open brightness of midday, Robbie suddenly felt the acute desire to run in the opposite direction. It was August in New Orleans. Heat was rising off the pavement and the humidity wrapped itself around him like a hot wet blanket. What the hell had he been thinking, coming here?

Her. He’d been thinking about her.

“Sooo,” Megan began, loud enough for both converging parties to hear, “turns out Robbie is also a huge fan of roller coasters.”

They actually made him a little nervous, but he wasn’t about to correct her.

“Yep,” he said, his eyes on Dinah. In the daylight he could see her blush. “Love ‘em.”

She peered sideways at him, unconvinced.

“See?” Megan smiled at Dinah. “Now you won’t have to ride alone.”

“I was never going to ride alone,” Dinah said.

“Which is exactly why I called in a sub,” Megan replied.

 

The group hadn’t made it far into the park when Aubrey pointed out a small tavern that served burgers and beer.

“Pit stop!” she announced. “Beer and greasy food, best cures for a hangover.”

“Oh god,” Dinah groaned. “You guys are going to be barfing all night. Go, get some food. We are going to ride some rides.” She looked up at Robbie, who was considerably taller. “You okay with that?”

He smiled and said, “Lead the way.”

“We’ll find you,” Megan called out as they parted ways.

“My friends are crazy,” Dinah said as soon as the girls had disappeared into the tavern. “I’m so sorry they dragged you into this.”

“I’m pretty sure I volunteered,” Robbie replied.

“I can see right through you, you know. You’re not really into roller coasters.”

Robbie ran a hand through his short dark hair. “It’s just… all those screws… one of ‘em’s bound to come loose at some point.”

Dinah laughed. “You’re not a risk taker, are you?”

“Not much, no. But despite my aversion to thrills, I have a couple of older brothers who’ve never let me say no to one. We used to spend our summers at this amusement park called Miracle Strip in Panama City-”

“No way!” Dinah interrupted. “You’ve been there? Megan’s family used to go there for the 4th of July and Aubrey, Des and I always tagged along. That’s where I fell in love with roller coasters. Did you ever ride the Starliner?”

“Of course,” Robbie smiled, suddenly grateful his brothers had bullied him into it. “I had no choice.”

“God, I loved that. I get so nostalgic thinking of all those rides. There was nothing like being upside down beside the ocean. I miss that place. I was so sad when they shut it down. Do you think we were ever there at the same time?”

“I think there’s a good chance.”

“Maybe we rode the Starliner together.”

“Maybe you were that fearless girl in the front seat with her arms in the air.”

“I was definitely that girl. And I still am. Sorry, but I’m going to make you ride in the front with me this time.”

“No apology necessary. Your friend warned me.”

“I can’t believe she did this,” Dinah shook her head. “I can’t believe she got you here.”

Robbie glanced sideways at her, her freckles deepening in the sunlight, and she was smiling up at him.

“I’m glad she did,” he said.

Her hair became a faint shade of red in the sun, and she wore a bright blue Wonder Woman tee shirt with matching Chuck Taylors. She had come to him in a place where people drank to be bold, to be funny, to be honest and happy and free. But she was already all of these things, and here she was. With him.

He was having trouble believing it, too.

 

He put his face in his hands. He wondered if he should call her, then he remembered he couldn’t.

A week ago they had sat in this spot, and he had removed his shoes and curled his toes in the warm sand, and she had leaned against him and sighed.

I don’t want you to leave, she’d told him.

I don’t want you to stay, he’d answered.

Now the sand was riddled with broken pieces of glass and metal and wood, and the only sigh came from the breeze as it hissed through stripped palms, and she was gone.

Her memory was embellished with an array of sights and sounds and colors and tastes. That night at the amusement park still came to him in dreams, in flashes of light and bits of music. At some point during the evening her friends had joined them, but he could barely remember anyone or anything but her. The sound of her voice, the humor in her eyes, the softness of her skin, that freckle on her lip. They had wandered around for hours, and she had coaxed him onto every ride, and she had been that fearless girl with her arms in the air beside him. Her screams were outbursts of laughter, her joy too much to contain and too contagious to ignore.

She was a quick addiction. When he said goodbye to her in the parking lot that night, he was already searching for ways to see her again.

“How long are you in town?” he’d asked.

“Just till tomorrow night.”

“Some of us have to work on Monday morning,” Megan chimed in.

They ignored her.

“I don’t,” Dinah grinned.

“Me neither,” Robbie replied. He was smiling, too.

“Come to Waveland,” Dinah told him. “It’s only an hour away. We’ll go to the beach.”

“Okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Okay!”

He drove away but he did not leave her there. She replayed like a song in his mind, over and over. He was hooked, and once he’d cycled through each new memory all he wanted was to play it again.

He suffered through the end of the weekend and worked through what felt like the longest shift of his life. Dinah had suggested an early start on Monday morning, so the temperature would still be somewhat pleasant when they arrived at the beach.

He wanted to pick her up, so she gave him the address of the house where she was staying. When he pulled up he noticed a small pocket of white flowers growing alongside the drive, and realizing he had come empty handed, he picked one for her. She opened the door before he reached it- she hadn’t wanted to wait for him to knock- and when he offered her the flower she smiled and tucked it behind her ear. She had prepared a cooler full of food and drinks, and he helped her carry it to the car.

“There’s iced coffee and fruit and scones for breakfast,” she told him, “and I packed something special for later.”

The something special was a 6-pack of Bacardi Ice, which brought a smile to Robbie’s face. Bitch beer. That’s what the guys called it. Dinah knew nothing about alcohol, but she had tried. For him.

“I didn’t know what you liked,” she explained, “but the girls always buy those.”

Robbie laughed.

“They’re great,” he said.

“What? You hate them!”

“No, they’re perfect.”

“I’ll have one with you.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I’m not afraid to have a small drink every now and then.”

“You shouldn’t do anything just because you’re not afraid to do it. You don’t have to drink just to make me happy. I’m happy already.”

When they got to the beach, they staked an umbrella and laid out a patchwork blanket, and as Dinah moved the sun glinted off a little gold cross that hung around her neck.

“That’s pretty,” Robbie said.

She looked lost for a moment, then her hand went to her throat and she took the cross between her fingers.

“Oh, thank you,” she said. “It was my mother’s.”

Was. He didn’t know how to ask, but she didn’t wait for him to. She wanted to tell him.

“She passed away when I was fifteen,” she explained. “Up until that point, my family had been pretty involved in church and stuff. Mom was kind of our anchor, but then, you know, she got cancer, Dad got angry at God, and then everything just kind of fell apart. I don’t think any of us have stepped inside a church since the memorial. But I wear the cross because it reminds me of her strength. She believed up until the very end. It makes me think that maybe I can be strong like that.”

They were silent a moment. He wondered what to say. I’m sorry didn’t seem like enough, but it was how he felt. He had never lost anyone close to him before.

“Do you have brothers and sisters?” he asked.

“A little brother. He lives with my dad and his new family in Houston. Dad left Mississippi after Mom died.”

She opened the cooler. She held out a bottled Frappuccino and smiled at Robbie.

“Starbucks?” she offered.

He thanked her and took it.

“So you’re studying to be a nurse?” he asked, remembering she had mentioned something about it the night they met.

“Yeah. I got the idea when Mom got sick. Up until that point I thought I’d be a pop star.” She giggled at her own expense.

“Naturally,” Robbie smiled.

“But I think I told you I’m taking a break,” she continued. “My mom’s best friend, Ruby, has always been more like an aunt to my brother and me. She’s much older than my mom was- by twenty years, I think- but they were absolutely inseparable. Growing up, Ruby was there for every single birthday and holiday. She didn’t have a family of her own so we just adopted her into ours. She’s had MS for a few years now and it’s getting pretty bad. So bad she can’t do much on her own. So I made the decision to leave school for the time being and move in with her. She was still asleep when you picked me up, otherwise I would have introduced you.”

“Maybe when I take you home,” Robbie said.

“I’d like that,” she replied.

 

After they had swum in the sea and made drawings in the sand, they had lunch and cracked open a couple of the Bacardis. Dinah drank hers slowly, and it had gone warm by the time she was halfway through. Moved with something like pity, Robbie gently coaxed the bottle from her fingertips and poured the rest into the sand.

“I like that you don’t drink,” he told her. “It’s what gave me a reason to talk to you in the first place.”

Dinah just smiled, somewhat embarrassed but also relieved.

“You wanna take a walk?” she asked.

They wandered down the beach until they came across an old wooden chair, white paint flaking from the sun and salty breeze. Robbie told Dinah to hold on, then made a show of sitting down, grunting loudly as he lowered himself into the seat. He gripped the armrests and gazed up at Dinah expectantly.

“All right,” he said. “I’m ready.”

She cocked her head. “Ready for what?”

He lifted his hands, palms up. “To watch.”

She was still clueless. “Watch what?”

“You.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

She looked down.

“There’s not much to see,” she murmured.

Her hair was glowing a subtle hue of orange as it dried into waves from the seawater. She had thrown a small white cotton dress over her bathing suit and wore only the cross for embellishment. No shoes, no hat, no makeup. So few distractions from her natural beauty.

“There’s everything,” he said.

She looked at him then, and for a moment she merely stood there, watching him watching her, not knowing what else to say or do. He waited, and she wondered, and their eyes remained fixed upon one another with only sunlight between them.

She took a few steps towards him and leaned in, bringing her face near enough for him to smell the Hawaiian Tropic on her skin, the Bacardi on her lips.

“And up close?” she whispered.

His breathing quickened. Suddenly there was not enough oxygen in the world.

He said nothing. Her proximity was an invitation for more than speech. He put his hand behind her head and drew her mouth to his, and she fell against him, tipping the chair backwards into the sand. She giggled and broke away long enough to apologize, but he had her close now and was quick to bring her closer.

Afterwards she was afraid she had moved too far too fast, and he felt her pulling away. When they came to a pier he told her of his family and his love of life and the sea, and he took her hand and felt her relax beneath his touch. He gently rubbed the soft place between her thumb and forefinger, and she traced her fingertips along his palm.

 

There are rumors of an evacuation, she had told him as she drew invisible swirls on the countertop with her fingernail. She had come to see him at the bar later that week. He couldn’t get the night off, and she had surprised him. I’ll sit with you, she said. You can do your job and I’ll busy myself checking you out and feeding you witty banter.

The night before he had driven her out to Biloxi Beach, where they had dinner and walked the boardwalk and danced in the parking lot beside his car. She had turned on the headlights and put on her favorite song, and she grabbed fistfuls of her dress and danced in the light. He joined her, unable to stay away, and she chastised him. I wanted to give you something to watch, she said. He told her he wanted something to hold.

When she sat at the bar he followed her gaze to the television behind him and watched the weatherman creating broad arcs with his arms.

“We have family in New York,” Robbie told her. “My parents are talking about going up there if the storm turns out to be as big as they think it’s gonna be. You know they shut down our park today. Six Flags.”

Our park.

Dinah nodded, her eyes distant and her finger moving round and round.

“What about you and Ruby?” Robbie asked.

He had met Ruby when he took Dinah home that first night. He was greeted at the door by a Yorkshire terrier named Tiger Lilly, who demanded to sniff his ankles before he made it any further into the house. When he saw Ruby she was sitting in front of the television with a blanket over her knees and her hands folded in her lap to prevent them from shaking. She smiled and told Robbie it was nice to meet him, then she grabbed Dinah’s hand firmly. Dinah leaned in close and Ruby whispered, I love you with all my heart.

She doesn’t say much anymore, Dinah explained to Robbie before he left. But she always tells me she loves me.

“We haven’t discussed it,” Dinah told him as the weatherman continued his animated forecast. “She’s been in that house since I was a child. She’s weathered hurricanes there before. I know because she loves to tell the stories. I have the feeling she won’t want to leave, and if she does…” She sighed. “It will be difficult to move her. And I don’t know where we’d go.”

“What about your dad’s place in Houston?”

“I don’t know. That’s almost a six-hour drive.”

“I can help you, Dinah.”

Her eyes softened and she reached across the bar to take his hand.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” she said.

 

He had thought if he went to Ruby’s house in person that Dinah would change her mind. He arrived on Sunday morning, two flowers in his hand: one for Ruby, one for Dinah. When Dinah answered the door she knew why he had come, and she knew she could not let him do what he had come to do.

Instead of inviting him inside she stepped out onto the porch and took his hand.

“Walk with me,” she told him.

They walked the two blocks to the beach in silence, and he could sense a darkness brewing between them. She was slipping away again, and he did not know why.

“Ruby has a brain tumor,” she said when they reached the sand. They walked all the way to the water, letting it lap over their toes. “That’s when I moved here. When they found it. I knew she wouldn’t last much longer, and I didn’t want the people she spent her last days with to be strangers from hospice. She has nurses, yes, but I thought it would be important for her to have someone to share memories with, too. Not just someone to help her eat and take her medications.” Dinah paused for a moment to squint out at the sea and tuck some loose tendrils of hair behind her ears. Robbie waited. “She doesn’t want to leave her home, Robbie. And I don’t want to leave her.”

Robbie touched her waist and gently tugged her closer to him.

“Let’s sit,” he said.

She sat beside him but did not touch him.

“They were originally thinking the worst of it would hit Florida,” Robbie said, “but now they’re saying it’s coming straight for us. My family is leaving today. The city is being evacuated. They say the levees should hold but there could still be some flooding, and the winds are gonna be rough. Up to a hundred and forty miles per hour.”

He scooted as close to Dinah as he could, and he opened his arms just wide enough to show her he was waiting. She finally gave in and let her body relax against his.

He sighed as he felt her breathing.

“I understand that Ruby is really sick,” he continued, “and that her home is where she feels safest. But Katrina’s going to pass right through here, Dinah, and I don’t think it’s gonna be like anything Waveland has ever seen. Despite her condition I think it’s safer to move Ruby out than to let her stay.” He gave Dinah’s shoulders a little squeeze. “And you have to think of yourself too, you know? If anything were to happen to you…”

Dinah touched the cross at the base of her throat.

“I need to stay with Ruby, Robbie. And Ruby needs to stay here.”

“Do you honestly think that’s what’s best for her, Dinah?”

“It’s what she wants. She’s dying, Robbie.”

His jaw tightened.

“Then I wish she would at least consider you,” he said. “I wish she would let you go.”

“You don’t think she’s tried?”

He kissed her cheek and breathed in the smell of her. In. Out.

She sighed.

“I don’t want you to leave,” she told him, and he could feel his heart begin to crack.

“And I don’t want you to stay,” he answered.

She leaned forward, then turned just enough to look him in the eye.

“Your family needs you,” she said.

She was dismissing him, he could feel it. Everything within him begged her to stop pushing, to stop fighting.

“I can stay with you,” he told her. “I can help.”

She dropped her eyes and he waited for her to respond, but if she had possessed any words she lost them. Instead she stood and brushed the sand off the seat of her shorts.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go back.”

He realized he had forgotten about the flowers he had picked. He was still hanging onto them, but as he stood to follow Dinah he let them fall to the sand. They had begun to wilt.

 

I’ll come see you in the city when this blows over, she had told him. We’ll pick up right where we left off.

Even then he hadn’t believed her, even if she had believed herself. Still he left her, walking away from everything they had shared in the week they had spent together. The bar, the park, the beach, the boardwalk, the sun and the music and every moment they had spent wide open, so unaware of the risk they were taking in light of what was coming to tear them apart.

She had closed the front door behind him and leaned against it, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths to steady the trembling of her hands, the racing of her heart. She had the fleeting notion to call out to him, to ask him to wait while she packed her bags to follow him. I’m coming with you. Perhaps she could call one of the nurses to stay with Ruby, or perhaps a neighbor. Surely there were others who were planning to wait out the storm.

She touched her mother’s cross. Make me strong.

She remembered a time when she was young, when she and her brother had stayed with Ruby while their parents went away for the weekend. Dinah had gotten a terrible sunburn, and a thunderstorm rolled in during the night. Frightened and in pain, she perched on Ruby’s lap while Ruby held her hand and read to her from Black Beauty until the storm subsided and Dinah fell asleep.

Now Ruby was the child. Ruby was in pain, and if Ruby was scared, Dinah would be there to hold her hand. They would get through this together. They would be okay.

She repeated that to herself as the wind and rain began to pummel the house later that night. Early the next morning, it was still dark even though the sun was rising, and Ruby’s yard was a thrashing blur of green and gray.

Dinah was glued to the window. The rate at which the world was changing was remarkable. The rain came in torrents, and the wind bent the trees in half, snapping them like sprigs of asparagus. She was afraid one of them might pierce through the ceiling or through one of the windows. Lawn chairs and umbrellas and a child’s Fischer Price playground streaked across the yard. A few things struck the house, the collisions booming like thunder throughout the walls.

Water began to rise in the street beyond the drive, and within moments it had covered the lawn. Somewhere it sounded as if there were an explosion.

Dinah knew it was only a matter of time before the water made its way into the house. If the storm didn’t let up soon, the first floor would flood and Ruby would drown unless Dinah got her to higher ground. Their only option was the second level. Then the roof.

While Dinah assisted Ruby up the stairs, there was another loud boom. Dinah turned to look out the front window and was startled to see a large black shape bobbing against the side of the house. It was the neighbor’s car.

Ruby’s full weight was on Dinah, and Dinah could feel her mother’s friend trembling.

“It’s okay, Rubes,” Dinah assured her. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

 

They had lost electricity and the house was nearly black. They could hear the rush of water and the scraping of glass downstairs as the surge continued to rise. The walls groaned.

Somewhere outside a dog was barking.

The three of them- Dinah, Ruby, and Tiger Lilly- were crowded on Dinah’s bed. Ruby removed her hand from Dinah’s and placed her palm against Dinah’s cheek. Dinah looked at her, that dear old face that had changed so much in the past few months. What had once been soft and creased with age was now taut and swollen with disease. Ruby’s eyes, however, had not changed, and now they searched Dinah’s with a peace Dinah could not feel.

“I love you with all my heart,” Ruby told her, and Dinah cried.

As the storm raged it was evident the house would soon be underwater. Dinah forced open a window and considered what might be done to save both herself and Ruby. They would have to get onto the roof, and if the waters continued to rise, they would have to swim. Where and how far, Dinah did not know. If they could find something upon which to float they might have a chance until the surge receded.

The wind blew out the remaining windows while the water climbed to waist level on the second floor. Tiger Lilly was treading water beside Dinah, her claws tearing Dinah’s skin as she tried to climb onto Dinah for safety. Dinah pushed her away- perhaps a little too rough- and Tiger Lilly yelped. Dinah’s main concern was Ruby, and the dog was only making matters more complicated.

Dinah clasped Ruby’s arm and told her to hang on to the edge of the window while Dinah maneuvered her way out. Once she was outside the house she reached back through the window to take hold of Ruby and pull her through, but Ruby’s foot had caught on something and no matter how hard Dinah pulled she could not get Ruby loose. She swam back into the house, feeling along Ruby’s leg for the snare. The room was filling with water, and there was precious little space left between the surface and the ceiling. She had to move quickly.

Ruby’s foot had gotten lodged between Dinah’s desk and the wall. When Dinah was finally able to pry it free, she swam up to the surface only to find the surface was no longer there. Feeling her lungs beginning to tighten, she tried not to panic. She had lost hold of Ruby, but now her chief concern was oxygen. She felt her way back through the window and immediately floated to the top of the surge, which was only just beginning to swallow the roof of Ruby’s house. Once Dinah had filled her lungs, she looked around for any sign of Ruby but saw only the tiny sopping face of Tiger Lilly, ears low and whiskers dripping.

Dinah spotted what looked like the wall of a small shed floating nearby, and she swam towards it. Once she had grabbed hold of it she called to Tiger Lilly, and the dog paddled over to her. Weighing no more than seven pounds, Tiger Lilly climbed onto the makeshift raft and immediately collapsed in exhaustion while Dinah clung to the side, frightened the wall would sink if she put her full weight on it.

The wind screamed around her as she searched and cried out for Ruby. Beneath her, the water was the color of chocolate milk. There was no telling what things were suspended in the muddy hell beneath her. The memories, the homes, the lives, the world. Waveland, her hometown, swallowed in one fateful morning. She thought of Megan, of Aubrey, of Des.

She kept hoping that perhaps Ruby had found herself a similar raft, that perhaps she had drifted towards a taller roof, a safer place. But Dinah also knew that Ruby was barely strong enough to stand, to string together a full sentence. How could Dinah have believed Ruby could survive something like this?

I didn’t know, Dinah thought. I didn’t know it would be like this.

The raft drifted towards a copse of tall pines and with one hand Dinah reached out and gripped a branch. The raft grew still, and just then the wind began to die. An eerie silence settled over the expanse of water, and Dinah looked around one more time, waiting for a familiar voice, a cry, a breath.

There was nothing, and Dinah choked back a sob.

“I’m sorry,” she cried. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Behind him was a house, gutted with a steel frame and a cupola for a roof. It stood alone, the only structure remaining on that stretch of beach. The other houses, antebellum beauties that had withstood the onslaught of Hurricane Camille in the 1960’s, had been obliterated, their boards and windows and rooftops now reduced to a wall of rubbish that had been deposited miles inland. Their foundations were the only indication of a century-old life now gone.

Somewhere nearby she had kissed him on that wooden chair. He had returned to find her, but the destruction was unbelievable, the town unrecognizable. He had not been able to locate Ruby’s house. Her street was littered with bits of houses and washed out cars. There was timber everywhere. A yacht was on its’ side, sandwiched between two trees.

He didn’t know what he expected. In short blips of news aired between extensive coverage of New Orleans, he had seen Waveland leveled. He had trouble imagining Dinah and Ruby there, safely holed in Ruby’s house, but he had nothing else to go on. They had to be there somewhere.

On his way into Mississippi he had passed hundreds of abandoned vehicles, and the front of his white truck was painted black with a plague of insects. When he stepped outside his vehicle they were in his hair, his eyes, his clothes. Street signs were upside down, bent in half, or missing altogether.

Then there was the smell. The rotting, stinking, bloating, swelling, steaming piles of garbage, animal carcasses, burst sewage and stale water and old food.

He traveled through what little remained of the town, unable to make sense of what he saw. He passed dazed families combing through the wreckage of their homes, the newly homeless as they stumbled aimlessly on the side of the road. They watched him, peering into his truck and wondering if he had something to offer them. Anything.

Eventually he came across the parking lot of what had once been a shopping center. People and vehicles had gathered, tents and tables had been erected, and a sign was spray painted with the words, “New Waveland Café and Clinic”. This was the largest concentration of people he had seen in the area, and suddenly he felt a flare of hope.

He left his truck parked nearby, locked and in plain sight. His eyes combed the area, registering a hundred faces that were not hers. Here there were two kinds of people: those who had lost everything, and those who had come to help. There were those sitting with blank expressions, and those beside them waiting to listen. Have you found your friends? Your family? Are you hurt in any way? How can we help you? Where was your home? What’s your story?

There were animals, too. Cats darted in and out from beneath benches and trailers while dogs lay panting on the asphalt in the shade at people’s feet. Robbie noticed one that was smaller than the rest, searching for scraps near a garbage can. Its ears were pinned back, and its silvery coat was beginning to gather into tufts.

“Tiger Lilly?” he said.

The dog didn’t look up, but when Robbie said her name again, her ears pricked up. She ran over to him, wagging her little tail and sniffing his ankles, his hands. He picked her up and she licked his face.

“Robbie?” a small voice came from behind him.

He knew it was her before he turned. When he saw her face, it took everything within him not to weep. She wore an off-white tank top and cargo shorts, and her hair was pulled off her face with a blue bandana. She had dark circles beneath her eyes and a bright sunburn on her cheeks and shoulders.

He set Tiger Lilly down and went to Dinah, wrapping his arms around her and holding her as tight as he could without crushing her.

She’s alive she’s alive she’s alive.

He could feel her tears wetting his tee shirt, and when he asked “Ruby?” she just shook her head and cried some more.

They stood there in the hot sun for a long time, his arms locked around her, her face hidden in the crook of his shoulder. People milled around them but did not disturb them. This kind of scene was not uncommon here.

When she had recovered she pulled away from him, and he wiped the tears from her cheeks. She seemed to grow uncomfortable and moved away.

“I’m fine,” she said.

He searched her face and knew she was not fine.

“Why are you here?” she asked. “Where’s your family?”

“Still in New York. I came to get you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can take you to your dad’s in Houston. Or you can come with me. You don’t have to stay here, Dinah.”

Dinah looked over her shoulder, where there was a trailer hooked up to a generator. A tent was erected just beyond it for shade, and a small crowd of people sat beneath it.

“That’s our clinic,” she told him. “I’m volunteering there. They need as much help as they can get.”

He looked at the clinic, then at her. She wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“Where are you staying?” he asked.

“Here, with the hippies. They were some of the first people to come. They run the Café.” She smiled a little and pointed at a large tent with blue tarpaulins for walls. “And the Wall-Less Mart. They give out free supplies.”

Tiger Lilly was seated at Dinah’s feet. Dinah reached down to pick her up, taking another step away from Robbie as she did so. Robbie quickly closed the distance and took her hand.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” he told her.

She buried her face in Tiger Lilly’s fur and murmured, “It was horrible.”

“I can’t imagine. There are videos all over the news.”

“It’s different when it’s happening to you.”

“I know.”

She looked at him then, and he could see what she was saying without her even speaking a word.

You don’t know. You have no idea.

She squinted against the stark sunlight and gazed off into the distance, towards the copse of trees where she had waited out the last of the storm. The branch she had gripped now stood twenty-five feet above the ground.

“I feel like a refugee,” she muttered, more to herself than to him. “My home is gone. I can never get it back. But the people here… the ones who are left… they’re the only ones who will ever understand.”

Robbie thought of New Orleans and tried not to feel affronted.

I understand, Dinah. My entire city is still underwater.”

“I want to help them, Robbie.”

Robbie shook his head. He was getting angry.

“You’ve been through enough, Dinah. It’s time to let someone else take care of you.”

She removed her hand from his.

“I’m staying,” she said. “You should go.”

Robbie covered his face with his hands.

“Why are you doing this, Dinah?”

She shook her head, unable to tell him why.

Because Ruby died on my watch. Because I was not strong. Because I failed.

Her bottom lip trembled.

Robbie studied her face for a moment. Every curve, every freckle, every lash, every speck of gold in her brown eyes.

“Don’t make me lose you all over again,” he begged.

Her chest heaved. A tear fell.

“I have to go,” she said. “They need me.”

“Dinah.”

“I’m sorry.”

 

He stood and took one last look around him. If he closed his eyes, he could still see this beach as it had been the day she’d brought him here. The glint of her cross in the sun. The warmth of her lips on his. The way she giggled when the water splashed over her toes.

He had come for one last look after leaving her in that parking lot. He wanted to understand. But he could not.

The brokenness within her. The devastation around her. The obliteration of what could have been, of what was no longer. Everything they had touched that had been erased.

He walked back to his truck, but before he stepped inside he paused to shake the sand from his shoes. He looked down and noticed a small white flower on the cracked asphalt, crushed but intact, and despite himself, he smiled.

One day this beach would be restored, and the homes would be rebuilt, and the trees and plants and flowers would grow again, and perhaps she would come here and think of him. Perhaps she would throw her arms in the air and close her eyes, and as the breeze feathered through her hair and the sun kissed her skin she would imagine herself as that fearless girl in the front seat of the roller coaster. He hoped she would imagine him beside her, and that she would know all the things he should have told her: that she was strong, that she was beautiful, and that despite the short time he had known her, she was the girl he would remember for a lifetime.

 

 

 

In loving memory of my mother,
one of the many hands who helped rebuild Waveland.
Your strength will never be forgotten.

 

 

Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

That Summer

thatsummerpic

He was early.

From where she stood on the front porch, she could see the dust rising from his truck a mile away. He had reached the line of cypress trees that grew along the creek where she liked to take Pegasus, her painted palomino, for one last drink before heading out for a long ride.

“Son of a bitch,” she cursed under her breath.

She had things to do. The last thing she wanted was to show some goddamn kid around the farm. He wasn’t supposed to be there till after noon, and here it was barely ten o’clock.

She wasn’t particularly fond of people, especially now after the accident. She didn’t understand how she could live thirty miles from the nearest town and still have social obligations. Hadn’t that been why she and her husband had bought this place to begin with? To be left alone?

Her brother, Jon, was the only human being she could stand, but he was also part of the problem.

“Come out with me, Jeanie,” he would beg. “Just for a couple of drinks.”

“No. Why would I pay seven dollars for a beer when I’ve got plenty in the fridge?” she’d argue. “You know that once you find yourself a piece of ass you’ll forget all about me anyway. Until tomorrow morning after you’ve brought her home and you ask me to make you both breakfast.”

“I’ll make my own breakfast if you come out tonight.”

“Bullshit. You’ll be too hung over.”

“You need to get out, Jean.”

“Don’t tell me what I need.”

He had moved in after the incident with the baler, insisting she could use his help. He took the room downstairs, so she still had the second floor to herself. He was older by eighteen months; never married, father to a son in Amarillo, and a good ol’ country boy. He didn’t call himself a cowboy, but that’s exactly what he was. He was great with horses, and he was a hell of a carpenter. And a mechanic. And a plumber. His sister hated to admit it, but mostly it was a relief to have him around.

Now, however, she watched that green truck approaching and thought, I hate you, Jon.

“You know Billy Eaton?” he had asked her last week over dinner.

“Your old friend?” she said. “The expat?”

“He’s not technically an expat, but yes. My old friend.”

“He ranches in Nicaragua. He’s an expat. Nothin’ technical about it, Jon.”

Jon grinned. “You can take the boy out of Texas…”

He didn’t think he needed to finish.

“What about him?” Jean asked, a piece of steak rolling around in her mouth. “Spit it out.”

She was afraid he was going to tell her that Billy was coming into town and was looking for company. She was already preparing a colorful refusal.

“His boy’s comin’ home for the summer,” Jon said. “Just finished his first year at A&M and is lookin’ for a job.”

“Why doesn’t he go work for his daddy?”

Jon shrugged.

“Billy asked if we had anything for him.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said ‘Of course’.”

“Damn it, Jon.” She pushed away from the table.

“What?”

“I don’t want to pay some hoity-toity rancher’s kid to bring pot and booze and girls onto my farm. We’ll just end up babysitting him.”

“He’s a good kid. He’s studying business and agriculture. Billy says he gets real good grades.”

“I don’t give a shit about his grades. I’ll bet his hands are soft and he probably doesn’t know squat about mendin’ fences or balin’ hay.”

“You know I won’t let him near the baler, Jean.” Jon’s eyes were earnest. “I take care of that myself.”

“Then what the hell do we need him for?”

“You know damn well you and I are falling behind. Even with Daniele and Carlos, it’s a stretch. When’s the last time you gave yourself a day off?”

“I don’t take days off. This is my life.”

“Sundays. That’s all I’m askin’. We’ll have an extra set of hands and you can take yourself a whole day to ride, or go to town, or draw. You haven’t drawn in a long time.”

“I don’t do that anymore.”

“I ain’t askin’ you to think about it. The kid’ll be here next week. I’ll keep him out of your hair, I promise. But you’ll be thanking me for hiring him. I won’t say I told you so when that time comes, but you’ll know I’m thinkin’ it.”

“I never asked you to take care of me, Jon.”

“I’m doin’ this for a friend. Not you.”

“Well, that makes me feel better.”

He touched his forehead in a gesture that was meant for the tip of a hat, but Jon never wore his hat at the table. It was the only time.

“I promised him, you know,” he murmured, almost inaudibly. He looked up at the wall and nodded to a framed photograph. “At the end of the day, there’s always that.”

She sighed.

“You don’t owe him anything, Jon.”

“He was my best friend. Just ‘cuz he ain’t around-“

“Stop. I’m done for the night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She cleared her place, leaving him to sit in the silence that had plagued that house for nearly a year.

Now she was home alone. Daniele and Carlos were working at the edge of the wheat fields near the silo, and Jon had gone to see a man about some chickens. A coyote had gotten into the coop a few nights ago and the damage had been gruesome in daylight. Feathers and blood everywhere. Jean had gone out to feed them and was the first to see the mess. She hadn’t spoken the rest of the day.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Jon had told her.

Red blood against yellow hay…

She watched the green truck pull up to the house while she sipped a cold Bud Light, and she was grateful Jon wasn’t there to tease her about drinking before noon. She’d been up working since five, anyway. She deserved a break.

The truck came to a stop as dust swirled around it. The kid saw her standing there, watching him, so he glanced at himself quickly in the rearview mirror. He removed his hat, then decided against it when he saw his hair plastered in sweat. The truck wasn’t air conditioned, and it was June in South Texas. Also, he was nervous.

He stepped out of the vehicle and made his way around the front, careful not to trip over himself. He thought she might say something by way of greeting, but she just watched him in silence.

“Ma’am?” he said, as though inquiring if it was she.

“You Billy Eaton’s boy?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am.” As he came closer he felt her falling back, though she did not move. He wiped his hand on his jeans before offering it. “I’m Taylor. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She took his hand and shook it firmly. No calluses, she noted. She had to keep herself from rolling her eyes.

“Jean,” she said. “My brother Jon’s the one who hired you, but he’s not here. You’re early.”

Her eyes narrowed. She meant this as an accusation.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wanted to beat the heat.”

She looked past him at nothing in particular. “How’d that work out for you?”

He didn’t know what to say. It was hot as hell.

“You can’t keep your truck there,” she said. “Pull it around back. I’ll show you your room and you can just hang around till Jon gets back.”

He did as he was told. He pulled his truck up to the barn, where she was waiting at the foot of a staircase that climbed along the side. He followed her up, and he kept his eyes on the step in front of him so she wouldn’t feel him glancing at her backside. She seemed like the kind of woman who could see everything, even when she wasn’t looking.

The stairs led to a loft, which had been remodeled into a studio apartment. Jon had lived there with his girlfriend Deb several years ago, before she got pregnant and decided she no longer wanted to live in a barn.

Jean stood in the doorway while the boy dropped his bags on the bed and looked around. He was young- nineteen, she guessed. Short dark hair, clean shaven, tall and broad-shouldered. He had deep blue eyes, and when he passed her he smelled faintly of the cologne section at the department store. She didn’t see many men these days- young or old- yet she always studied them, looking for similarities to her husband. He has his build or He has his chin. In the boy she saw no similarities at all, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Looks like I got everything I need here,” he said. He had all the basic amenities. Shower, toilet, mini fridge, sink. No table. No television. He did not mention these things. “You have a password for the wifi?”

She narrowed her eyes again.

“We don’t have wifi,” she replied. “There’s a hard line in the house. For business only.”

He swallowed. He didn’t like the way she looked at him, as though he’d done something wrong.

“Okay,” he mumbled. He had an itch on his side but was afraid to scratch it. She was just standing there, her beer sweating droplets onto the floor. She wore no makeup, no frills, no jewelry except a simple wedding band. Somehow her simplicity made her more impressive. She had on an army green tank top that revealed the lean muscles of her arms, and everything about her- chest, tummy, hips, ass- was flat except for her hair, which was untamed and dark and wavy and fell almost all the way down her back. There was a spark in her gray-green eyes, and the way her lips pouted and her nose turned up made him think there was something wild caged within her.

“Is there anything I can do to help you until your brother gets back?” he asked.

She turned and stepped outside.

“No.”

And with that, she was gone.

 

When Jon arrived hours later, she met him outside.

“The Eaton boy is here,” she told him.

He checked his watch.

“He’s early.”

“I know.”

“Damn overachiever. I told you he was a good kid.”

“You should have him help you with the chickens.”

“Can you fetch him for me?”

She just looked at her brother.

“Seriously, Jean?” Jon was exasperated. “He’s a damn kid. Stop being such an ass and go get ‘im while I start unloading.”

She returned to the loft, but when she knocked at the door there was no answer. She tried the knob- unlocked- and peered inside. The kid was laying on the bed, eyes closed, ear buds in. He had a fan blowing on him, and there was a sheen of sweat on his forehead where his hat had been.

“Damn it,” Jean muttered.

She approached him slowly in case he opened his eyes, but his chest rose and fell with the breath of sleep.

When she got near enough, she kicked the bed.

Nothing.

She balled her fists and put them on her hips while she studied him. He had good genes. She remembered his father was good-looking, but he was also kind of a prick. One of those entitled rich men who knew what he could offer a woman. But the boy didn’t seem to inherit that- or perhaps he just hadn’t come into it yet. He was still soft. Innocent. She thought his mother must have been lovely.

She leaned down and tapped his shoulder, but instead of startling awake he merely opened his eyes while the rest of him remained completely still. He looked directly at her, and for a second she was struck by the depth and kindness of his eyes.

She started to say something but realized he couldn’t hear her. He removed one of the ear buds as she moved away from the bed. Far away.

“Yes, ma’am?” he said. “I’m sorry, I fell asleep.”

“Jon’s here,” she told him. “He needs your help. Come ‘round front.”

The boy became Jon’s shadow, trailing after him or working alongside him at all times. For the first few days, they would come into the house at meal times and Jean would have the food set out for them, but she would not be there. Sometimes she packed a lunch and ate down at the creek beneath the cypress trees, and when Taylor looked out the kitchen window he could just make out her silhouette in the distance. He wondered where her husband was, and how a woman who seemed so strong could seem so alone.

“She don’t like people much,” Jon told him one day when he caught the kid looking. “She has to warm up to the idea of you being around.”

“She just shy?”

“No. She ain’t scared of people. Just don’t like ‘em.”

“She seems sad.”

“She is.”

“What happened to her?”

Jon sighed. “You see that photograph on the wall?”

Jon nodded towards a framed picture of Jean with a man. Jean looked different, as though settled into a quiet sort of happiness. Her hair was pulled back, and though she wasn’t looking at the camera she was smiling faintly. The man had shortly cropped red hair, a thick beard, and light brown eyes. His arms were around her waist, his chin resting on her shoulder.

“Yessir,” Taylor said.

“That’s Tom, her husband. He died ‘bout eleven months ago.”

“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”

“He got his arm stuck in the baler. Lost the whole thing, right up to his shoulder. After a few weeks it got infected, but before he would let us take him back to the hospital it had already spread to his heart.”

Jon’s mouth was working, and Taylor could see he was trying not to cry.

“I’m sorry,” Taylor said. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“Nah, man, it’s all right.” Jon swiped a tear and sniffed, blinking the sadness away. “He was the closest thing to a brother I ever had. It’s a damn shame, what happened to him. And Jean… that’s why I moved in here, you know. To take care of her.”

“Do they have kids?”

“Nah. Not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. But she’s alone now, anyhow. She’s got me but that don’t count for much.”

“I’m sure she’s glad to have you, whatever she says.”

“She don’t think she needs anyone, but I do what I can.” Jon stood up and clapped Taylor on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get back to work.”

 

She was in the barn one morning before sunrise when Taylor startled her. She bumped the pail of milk she was filling and it spilled all over the ground, soiling the straw. She put her hand up on the heifer’s stomach to calm the animal as it stirred.

“Shhh, shhh, it’s all right. I’m sorry, Luna. Shhh.”

Taylor took a step back, both his hands up in the air.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I thought-“

“What the hell are you doing?” Jean whispered fiercely.

“Jon asked me to milk Luna this morning. He said you were going to take the day off.”

“What?” Jean wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. The air was warm and muggy.

Then she remembered.

“What day is it?” she asked.

“Sunday.”

She shook her head and muttered, “Bastard.” She was irritated, but there was also a small part of her that was amused.

“Is something wrong?” Taylor asked.

“No.” She waved him off. “You can go. I can finish this up.”

“Really, Mrs. Moses, I’ve got it.”

She stopped and stared at him with wide eyes.

“What did you just call me?”

“Mrs. Moses?”

She felt as though he had punched her in the gut.

“Don’t call me that,” she breathed. “Ever.”

She looked fragile and wounded and beautiful, and it was then that his heart broke for her for the first time.

“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”

Neither one of them knew what else to say.

Luna mooed.

It was obvious to Jean that the boy wasn’t going anywhere, and the way he looked at her made her uncomfortable. She stood and patted Luna on the rear.

“Do you even know how to milk a cow?” she asked. “Did Jon show you?”

“No ma’am. I thought I’d just figure it out.”

Damn you, Jon.

“He knew I’d be here to teach you,” Jean said. “He planned this.”

The side of Taylor’s mouth twitched. “Sounds like something Jon would do,” he said.

“Well, come on over here and sit your ass down. It’s time I learned you to be a milk maid.”

She accentuated her southern accent when she said this, and he realized that buried somewhere beneath her armor was a sense of humor.

Once Taylor caught on, she saddled up Pegasus and went for a ride, leaving the boy alone. She was gone for hours, riding out past the wheat fields and over the distant hills. She took a nap in the shade of an oak tree and drank from a creek, and for the first time in a long time she had a fleeting encounter with happiness.

“Did you take a book with you?” Jon asked when she came home. It was nearly dusk and he was grilling steaks on the back porch. Jean grabbed a beer from the fridge and hopped up on the rail beside her brother.

“No,” she said. “I haven’t read anything for a while.”

“Why not?”

She just shook her head.

Because I can’t concentrate. Because he’s all I think about. Because he is every character on every page and I miss him and he’s gone.

“Where’s Taylor?” she asked instead.

Jon didn’t say anything about her referring to the boy by his first name. He just nodded towards the barn.

“Washing up. He put in a good day’s work.”

“You ever gonna give him time off?”

“I’ll think about it,” Jon grinned.

They were silent a moment. The steaks sizzled, and a cricket began to chirp nearby.

“So where’d you go?” Jon asked.

“Everywhere,” Jean replied. Then she shimmied off the rail and started inside. “I’m gonna shower. Save me a place at dinner.”

Jon smiled.

“Yes ma’am.”

 

Taylor’s breath caught in his throat when he saw Jean open the glass door onto the porch. Her hair was still wet from her shower, and she wore a light summer dress.

“What?!” Jon gasped, feigning a bewildered expression. “You’re a… a girl?

Jean punched his arm.

“Don’t start,” she said. “I can still take you. Anytime. Anywhere.”

“There she is. My beloved sister.”

He kissed her cheek, and she playfully slapped his.

They sat down for their first meal together since Taylor Eaton had arrived. They ate and drank, and even though he was young they encouraged the boy to enjoy a couple of beers. “You’ve earned ‘em,” Jon told him. “Besides, you ain’t no kid. You’re a workin’ man.” They clinked bottles as Taylor said, “Thank you, sir.”

“But you gotta stop with that ‘sir’ bullshit,” Jon winced.

They all laughed.

Three beers in, Jean found herself studying Taylor’s face. It really was a nice face.

He caught her and smiled. “What?” he asked.

“You got a girlfriend?” she wondered.

“No, ma’am.”

It still didn’t feel right to call her Jean.

“Why not?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“Haven’t met one I liked yet, I guess,” he said.

“What’s wrong with all the girls at school?”

“There’s nothing wrong with them. They just seem to be looking for something different. Something that isn’t me.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“I don’t know. I did the whole party thing in high school, and it’s not really what I’m about anymore. I just want to focus on my studies and get out of there as soon as possible.”

“And do what?”

He looked around, his eyes grazing over the wheat fields.

“This would be nice,” he said.

“This is nice,” Jon agreed.

“You want to be a farmer?” Jean asked.

“I’d like to have my own land, yes ma’am,” Taylor replied. “Might get into cattle.”

“Like your father?”

“No,” he grew serious. “Nothing like my father.”

“You have issues with your daddy?” Jon asked.

“I don’t exactly agree with how he does business,” Taylor said. “Or life. He uses people, and I don’t respect him.”

“Is that why you’re here,” Jean asked, “and not there? With him?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“No more ‘ma’am’ nonsense, either,” Jon insisted. “She’s Jean. Just Jean. We’re your friends now, you hear?”

Taylor caught Jean’s eye.

“Is that all right?” he asked her. Are we friends?

“Yes,” she said, her voice betraying her sense of discomfort. “When you call me ma’am it makes me feel old, anyway.”

She could feel her ears burning, and she looked away.

“Aw, twenty-eight ain’t old, sweetheart,” Jon assured her.

“Jon!” she reproached him.

Taylor laughed.

“The way I see it,” the boy said, “we might as well make the most of every year as it comes. We can’t stop time, but we can find ways to enjoy it.”

“See? Taylor Eaton is a philosopher,” Jon smiled. He looked at his watch. “Speaking of an enjoyable time, I was thinking of going into town tonight. A friend of mine wants to meet up for drinks at Jimmy’s. Either of you wanna ride?”

Jean shook her head.

“You know my answer,” she said.

Jon looked at Taylor. Taylor looked at Jean.

“I’m pretty tired,” the boy said. “I think I’ll just take it easy tonight.”

“Suit yourselves,” Jon told them. He put his hat back on and began clearing the dishes. “I’ll clean up before I head out,” he told Jean. “My last service to you on your day off.”

She touched his arm and smiled.

 

After her brother had gone, Jean sat on the edge of her bed chewing her lip and pulling at her wedding ring, sliding it on and off. Her thoughts were on her husband, but those thoughts brought with them the familiar ache that seemed to evaporate when she was working and riding and… yes, thinking of the boy. She allowed herself to think of Taylor Eaton now, of the way he’d looked at her when he asked permission to call her by her name, or when he was deciding whether or not he wanted to go out that night. She was staying, so he was staying. Had that been intentional? Was he trying to tell her something? Or was he really just tired?

He had been there a week. Had she really been apart from men long enough to be affected by a college boy? Or was the alcohol to blame? No, he had impressed her before tonight, on the day he arrived. Maybe not at first sight- she’d been too angry to really see him- but later, when she had gone to wake him to help Jon. When she had touched him and he had looked at her, unafraid, unsympathetic, just one human being gazing at another.

She slipped on her boots and put on a denim jacket over her dress. She didn’t know exactly what she was doing, just that it felt good not to think about it.

She moved quietly in the dark towards the barn and up the stairs. When she got to the door of the loft, she knocked twice and listened. She could hear his voice muffled inside.

“Just a minute,” he was saying.

When he opened the door he wore nothing but a pair of pajama pants and he was holding a phone to his ear.

“Oh,” Jean said, and looked away.

“Hold on,” he whispered, then he spoke into the phone. “Hey Mom? Can you hang on a minute?”

“I’m sorry.” Jean was already turning to head back down the stairs.

“What’s up?” Taylor asked her before she could retreat. He held his hand over the receiver. “Everything okay?”

She couldn’t look him in the eye.

“Yes, sorry. I just…” She glanced inside. “I just realized I hadn’t ever checked to see if you have everything you need. Blankets and towels and everything.”

She felt like such an idiot. Please just say yes and let me go.

He looked at her sideways.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a great set up.”

“Great. Goodnight.”

“Jean?”

She didn’t say anything. She just looked at him.

“You sure you’re okay?” He nodded towards the house. “Being alone in there and everything?”

No no no.

“Yes. I’m fine.”

“You want me to watch TV downstairs or something until Jon gets home?”

“No. It’s fine.”

She fled down the stairs. The wind had picked up, and it caught her dress and lifted it just enough for him to see the curve of her ass before the light fabric fluttered back down.

He inhaled sharply.

“Oh my god,” he breathed, and closed the door.

 

She grew distant once again, and over the course of the following weeks, her temper simmered, ready to boil over at the slightest provocation. When the tractor broke down she jumped out of it and threw an empty beer bottle at the front left tire, sending a spray of glass everywhere. “Piece of shit!” she shouted before walking away, leaving it stranded in the middle of the field. Later she accompanied Jon to town for supplies, and she insisted on driving. When they got stuck in traffic, someone cut her off. She gripped the steering wheel, grit her teeth, and screamed while thrusting her middle finger out the window. On another night, Jon finally succeeded in luring her into a game of poker with himself and Taylor, but she later got into such a heated argument with her brother that she knocked her chair over and left. Jon cursed and threw his hat before wandering out into the wheat fields to blow off steam, and Taylor was left wondering what in the world had just happened. He wanted to go to Jean, to calm her, but he had no idea what to say. She was like a wounded animal backed into a corner, baring her teeth at anyone who got too close.

Instead Taylor wandered through the house alone, and he found himself sitting at an antique piano he had admired from the first time he’d seen it. It looked forgotten, all alone in its dark corner, pushed up against the wall in a living area where no one ever went. He opened up the keys and softly began to play a simple Brahms melody that he had learned when he was young.

When he reached the end of the piece, he heard her voice from behind him.

“No one has touched that piano in years,” she said.

He turned.

“Do you play?” he asked.

“No. It was my mother’s. I inherited it.”

“Is it okay that I’m-?“

“Yes. You don’t have to stop. I just wanted to listen.”

“I’m a little rusty. I haven’t played in a long time.”

“You sounded good to me.”

“Thank you.”

He placed his fingers back on the keys and began to play Beethoven’s Fur Elise. He could feel her as she moved closer, the heat of her body just barely reaching the back of his arm. A thrill went through him, and it was all he could do to concentrate on the music. He was aware of the space beside him on the piano bench, and he wondered- hoped- she would fill it.

She bent low, her face next to his, to watch his fingers more closely as they moved. He could smell her breath, could almost taste her mouthwash, and his mouth watered.

He rushed the end of the piece, but she couldn’t tell. When he finished he turned just enough to look upon the softness of her cheek which was so close to his. She felt his eyes on her, but instead of meeting them she looked down.

“I’m so scared,” she whispered, her breathing shallow.

“Of what?” he whispered back.

“Tomorrow it’ll be a year,” she said. “I keep wanting to go back to before. Before I lost him. But time keeps moving on, keeps carrying me further away. And every day I lose him a little more.”

He touched her face before giving himself the chance to reconsider.

“You’re so strong,” he told her.

“I’m so alone.”

He gently pulled her onto the bench. He expected her to resist, to pull away, but she didn’t. Instead she dropped her head onto his shoulder and he wrapped his arm around her.

“Right now you’re not,” he said.

He could have held her like that all night, but after a while she sat back and looked him full in the face.

“Have you ever fallen in love, Taylor?” she asked him.

He hesitated, wondering what it was she wanted him to say.

“I don’t think so,” he answered truthfully.

She smiled sadly and stood.

“Don’t start now,” she said, and walked away.

 

The following morning she was gone before anyone else was awake. She took Pegasus and rode him hard into the hills, pushing him as fast as he would go. The sun rose before her, breaking through a series of thunderheads in flashes of red and pink and orange. The air was thick, and by eight o’clock the clouds had woven together in a dark wet blanket, ready to burst at any moment. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back and waited.

When the rain finally began to fall, she brought Pegasus to a standstill and let the rain wash over her. How long she did this she did not know. She knew only that to go anywhere, to do anything else was impossible.

She remembered the first time she and her husband had gotten stuck in the rain. They had been picnicking down by the creek, and the sky had exploded all around them. Thunder followed by bursts of lightning and sheets of rain. She had tried to run for the house but he had grabbed her and held her still, and when she stopped fighting him she surrendered to loving him.

Now she wrapped her arms around herself and touched her mouth to her shoulder, and she whispered, “I miss you,” and wept.

 

Sometime after noon, the storm had not let up and she still had not come home. Jon was asleep with a girl named Cindy and a hangover, and Taylor was growing uneasy. He hadn’t seen Jean all day, and Pegasus was gone, and today was the day her husband had died a year ago.

There was an old hunting cabin a few miles from the house. Taylor remembered Jon telling him about it, about how Jon and Tom and Jean used to go out there and hunt deer from time to time. It was possible Jean was there, waiting out the storm.

He jumped in his truck, hoping the dirt road to the cabin wouldn’t be too washed out. He took it slow, nearly getting stuck a handful of times, but eventually he found the place.

When he tried the door it was unlocked, and he found her curled up on a cot, dripping wet.

“Jean?” he spoke, with barely more than a whisper.

She stirred, but she made no attempt to sit up.

“Hey,” he said, once he knew she was aware of his presence. He approached her slowly. “You okay?”

She sniffled, and he saw she’d been crying.

“I just needed to get away,” she told him.

“I get that,” he said. “Is it all right that I’m here?”

She said nothing.

“I’m just checking on you,” he reassured her. “I don’t need to stay unless you want me to.”

“I’d like to be alone.”

He tried not to be disappointed, though he had anticipated that answer.

“That’s fine,” he said. “Can I get you anything before I go? A dry blanket?” He looked around and saw a little cooking area with a stove and canned goods. “Some food?”

She couldn’t help but smile.

“I didn’t come out here to die, Taylor,” she said. “I’ve got what I need. You don’t need to worry about me. I’ll come home when I’m ready.”

“Oh.” He scratched his head, not really knowing what else to do. “Okay.” He looked around once more, searching for something else he could offer, but he was beginning to feel like an idiot. She was a big girl, and he was just a kid. Of course she didn’t need him.

He started moving towards the door when she said his name.

“Taylor.”

He turned and looked at her. The room was dark and blue and she was beautiful.

“Yes ma’am?”

“Thank you.”

 

The following morning the rain subsided, but the clouds remained thick overhead. She rode home as the rooster was crowing. The boys were already working, so she slipped into the house unnoticed. She showered and put on fresh clothes, and she was hungry after eating nothing the day before. She got to work in the kitchen, cooking up a large breakfast of pancakes and bacon and biscuits and gravy. She brewed a large pot of coffee, then ventured out onto the back porch to see if she could spot Jon and Taylor. She could just make out their silhouettes on the horizon.

Instead of calling to them she rang the dinner bell.

Come and get it.

In ten minutes’ time they were removing their boots and stepping inside.

“Good God Almighty, sis,” Jon said. “What’s all this?”

“I was hungry.”

“This looks like an apology meal.”

“It is an apology meal. I’m sorry for being so awful.”

He kissed her forehead. “So am I.”

The three of them ate in comfortable silence. The boys did not linger as they were eager to return to their project outside, but Jon was the first out the door. Taylor stopped at the threshold and looked at Jean.

“You doing all right today?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Better,” she said.

“I’m glad.”

She surprised him then. She went to him and slipped her arms around his middle, where she held him for a brief moment.

“I just had to get passed it,” she breathed, “that day I’d feared for so long.”

“I can’t even begin to understand, Jean. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she told him. “I don’t even want you to try.”

 

That night Jon left the house to be with Cindy, and Jean stood upstairs in her bedroom staring at her reflection. She had dug into the far reaches of her closet to produce a dress she hadn’t worn since before losing Tom. It was a thin white satin, almost transparent. It flattered her womanliness while leaving her vulnerable, and tonight that was how she wanted to be seen.

The sun had not come out that day, and now the wind was blowing and the sky was heavy with a coming storm. She let her hair fall down her back and she did not bother putting on any shoes. She applied some mascara and brushed her teeth, and her heart beat wildly within her chest.

She left the house and climbed the stairs to his loft, the dampness of the wood seeping into the soles of her feet.

She knocked and he knew it was her, and he knew why she had come, though he did not know what he had done to deserve this. To deserve her. He did not know what he could possibly say to her, or what she could possibly say to him. Everything about this- about them– was not necessarily wrong. It was just so… extraordinary. She was broken, and he was inexperienced, and she didn’t seem to care that he was falling in love with her. She could only break his heart, and he wanted nothing more than to fix hers.

He opened the door and saw her standing there in white, her hair wild and everywhere, and when she stepped into his arms she was trembling, so he folded her in as though she belonged.

He led her inside, closing the door behind her. He put his hands in her hair and buried his face in her neck, and he felt the softness of her back as he tasted the sweetness of her tongue. Her leathery hands felt like velvet as they brushed against his skin, gliding along his torso and down his arms. He wanted her, all of her, and she was offering herself to him.

The thunder rolled outside and he hesitated.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’ve never-“ he began, but he didn’t know how to say it without sounding like a boy. “I’ve never been with anyone.”

She smiled and wove her fingers through his hair.

“It’s all right,” she whispered, and then she kissed him.

 

In the days that followed she found herself smiling more. She felt less inclined to hide and more inclined to linger, to play, to laugh. When his eyes were on her she feel strong. She no longer possessed the need to run, to fight. She wanted only to rest, and breathe, and feel. Sometimes he would pass by her, and subtly press his fingertips against the small of her back. Other times he would give her a boost into the tractor, or onto Pegasus, and he would squeeze her foot or let his hand rest upon her calf or her thigh a second too long. In the night she would go to him, and he would love her, and the following days were long and hot and full of sunlight and hunger.

They did not try to hide their growing intimacy from Jon, but neither did they speak of it. He noticed the differences in his sister right away- the easy and quiet way she smiled, her readiness to join them for meals or games or an impromptu dance in the barn, her slowness to anger. She sat on the porch in the mornings and slowly sipped her coffee, staring off into the sky, but Jean had never been one to let her coffee grow cold. He would hear the backdoor as she slipped out into the darkness, and he would wrestle with his love for her and his love for the kid. For Jean, the boy was a diversion from pain, but for the boy… Jean was a dream, and when summer ended she would hurt him and he would awaken.

In August, Jon could sense a growing struggle within the boy, and one day after returning from a ride with Jean, Taylor sought him out alone.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot,” Jon said. He was afraid he knew what was coming.

“What would you think of me staying on through the fall?”

Jon tensed.

“What about your studies?” he asked.

“I’m tossing around the idea of taking a year off.”

“And why would you do that?”

“I like it here.”

Jon took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry, kid, but we don’t need you.”

“There’s gotta be enough work-“

“You knew this was just seasonal. We can’t keep you on through the fall.”

He almost added Your daddy would kill me, but he didn’t.

Taylor looked off into the wheat fields.

“Then I’ll work for free,” he said.

Jon took a step towards him and looked him square in the eye.

“Look,” he said, “I know you got a thing for my sister, and I ain’t got a problem with it. In fact I think you’ve been good for her. But you can’t fool yourself into thinking it’s gonna last. Part of the reason she likes you so much is because she knows you ain’t stickin’ around.”

Taylor’s jaw clenched.

“With all due respect sir, I think you’re wrong.”

“You can think all you want, boy. But Jean’s still grieving and she can’t give you what you’re lookin’ for.”

“I’m not looking for anything. I’ve got everything I want right here, and I won’t just walk away.”

Jon shook his head.

“I’m sorry son, but soon you’re gonna realize you don’t have any other choice.”

 

That night as she lay in his arms, he stroked her hair and told her what he’d told Jon.

“I don’t want to leave you,” he said.

She stiffened, and he could feel his resolve begin to falter.

“You have to, Taylor,” she told him.

He didn’t know what to say.

She took a deep breath, not wanting to hurt him but knowing there was no other way.

“You can’t put your life on hold for me,” she said. “There’s nothing for you here.”

“There’s you,” he said. There’s everything.

She began to pull away, but he held her tight.

“Hey,” he said, “don’t do this.”

“You have to finish school. You have to go back to your life.”

“What if that’s not what I want?”

“It’s what I want.”

“Why?”

She didn’t answer.

“I’m in love with you, Jean,” he told her.

She closed her eyes and whispered, “Then I’m sorry.”

 

He was late.

He had remained in that loft too long, standing over his bed and looking down on the place where he had held her so many nights. Now the sheets were stripped for washing, and his bags were packed by the door, and he was unable to say goodbye.

She was waiting down by his truck, but when he didn’t come down she went up to him, climbing the stairs as she had so many times before. The door was open, and the image of him standing there with his sad blue eyes was burned forever in her memory.

Without a word she went to him, and because he was kind and young and loving he still had a place for her, no matter how badly she had wounded him. He wrapped his arms around her, burying his nose in her hair and drawing her against him. He could hear her breathing, could feel her heart beating, and within his agony he had this one last happiness.

“I wanted to fix you,” he told her.

“You couldn’t,” she said.

“I know. But still.”

She pressed her face against his chest.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.

“Don’t be.” He dropped his face to hers and kissed her. “I’ll think of you,” he said, “every time I pass a wheat field. You’ll be there in my mind.”

“Don’t do that.”

He shrugged.

“Will you be okay?” he asked.

She nodded and said, “I will be.”

 

Jon stood beside his sister in the drive as they watched the kid pull away, a cloud of dust trailing behind his old green truck. The sun beat down on them, and they squinted against the brightness.

Jean sniffled and wiped her nose on the back of her hand.

“Son of a bitch,” she muttered.

Jon glanced sideways at her. She knew what he was thinking, and she knew he wasn’t going to say it.

“He was a good kid,” she agreed. “Thank you.”

 

 

Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

Red Ragtop

redragtoppic

He had avoided those back country roads for the last ten years.

The surrounding area had grown more commercialized since then, and there was now a highway that bypassed all the traffic lights. The back roads were now used only by local farmers and the kids who attended the high school where he’d graduated twelve years prior. Go Warriors. He could still smell the lingering perfume of almonds and cherries and lemons from the ubiquitous orchards of that region, the scents of summer in Central California.

Why he’d returned tonight he couldn’t exactly say. He and Amy were fighting again. After two years of trying unsuccessfully for a child, it was hard to remember the other reasons why they stayed together. Raising a family had been their common goal after he’d established his firm as a civil litigation attorney, and she was able to quit her job managing the restaurant and focus on her true passion, which was painting. The problem, the doctor deduced, was the incompatibility of their blood types. They tried using a donor, but her body had rejected the first two attempts. Now she was afraid to try again, and he was afraid of what would happen if she didn’t. Resentments materialized as dreams withered. He would look at their photographs on the wall- the wedding in her father’s church, the anniversary trip to Hong Kong, the look on her face when he surprised her with their dog Jackson on Christmas- and he knew he loved her. He simply wondered when that had ceased to be enough.

There were days when he thought he might be cursed because of what he’d done back then. He had been twenty- just a kid. How could he have known that the price of his sins would become a lingering debt? It wasn’t her he couldn’t forgive. It was himself.

When the arguments became more common than the teasing, the laughing, the sharing, his thoughts would drift from his wife to the girl he had loved before. Melody. The only other girl, as far as love was concerned. And she’d been the first. Hers was the memory that haunted him long after she’d stopped loving him.

Yesterday his heart had nearly stopped when he was on his ride home from work, and he was paused at a stoplight downtown in a double-lane. The five o’clock sun had reflected off the hood of a red Cabriolet as it pulled up beside him, catching his eye. He instantly stopped breathing. The ragtop was down, and behind the wheel was a girl with shortly cropped yellow hair, blown wild from the wind. She threw a cursory glance towards him, her eyes green as summer, and for a second he swore it was her.

The lights changed and she pulled ahead, leaving him staring after her. But of course it wasn’t her. That girl looked like Melody when Melody was eighteen. Surely ten years would have made a difference. Perhaps her hair would have grown, or perhaps she would have stopped bleaching it. Perhaps her skin would be paler, or she would have put on weight, or her face would have grown thinner and more defined.

When he got home his wife called to him from her studio.

“Adam?”

“Yeah, Amy. It’s me.”

She didn’t come out, and he didn’t go in. They ate dinner separately, and when he crawled into bed beside her that night, she was tense. It had taken her weeks to find the courage to bring up the subject of having children again, but she was done putting it off. She told him she’d been thinking about it. More than that, actually. She’d been researching alternatives for hours a day. She couldn’t put her body through one more failed pregnancy. Something within her was broken.

“There are other options,” she told him.

Options. Options. He’d said those words before. Long ago, in the driver’s seat of Melody’s red Cabriolet.

Amy could see that her husband’s mind was elsewhere. He had trouble keeping up with what she was saying, and she kept calling him back. “Adam? Adam, are you listening? Did you hear what I said?”

Did you hear what I said?

“We could adopt,” she told him. Implored him.

There are options. We could put it up for adoption. There are couples out there who want babies and can’t have them.

If he had known then what he knew now… that he would eventually be a part of one of those couples…

“Adam?”

Adam?

He placed his hands over his face.

“I can’t talk about this right now, Amy.”

She rolled over onto her side, back to him, but she did not stay there. Instead she slid off the bed, pulling the top coverlet with her. She drifted quietly from the bedroom and made her way to what would have been the baby’s room, had there ever been a baby. It was not uncommon for her to spend the night in there. The first time she’d done this, he had stormed after her, insisting she not torture herself, insisting she come back to him. He had been so afraid… so afraid of losing her to the ghost of a possibility, when he was real.

He didn’t follow her tonight. Instead he lay awake, not thinking of Amy, but thinking of the girl in the red Cabriolet. At two in the morning he dressed and left the house, not bothering to wake his wife. He drove past town, towards the orchards and groves and roads he had spent the last decade trying to forget. Though the city had grown, the agricultural outskirts had remained unchanged. When he rolled the windows down he could smell the manure in the pastures and the dew that had settled on the dirt and fruit and trees. He picked up speed and turned off the radio, and the rush of wind through the windows echoed the rush of adrenaline through his veins as he sped through every stoplight. Melody was with him then, and he was ten years younger, and she was screaming, “Don’t stop, Adam! Don’t stop!” They were flying through the night, just the two of them, and it was May, and she was eighteen, and he had never felt more alive.

He had never noticed her before. They had gone to school together, but he was two years her senior and their schedules had nothing in common. He was an AP student and a violinist in the orchestra. She was in drama and was barely making C’s in everything but English, her best subject. She caught his attention one day as they were driving, when he was behind her red ragtop in his father’s GMC. He was amused by the way her short blonde hair whipped about her face in the open air, and when they came to a stop sign he saw her profile as she changed the radio station. He barely recognized her, but he knew he’d seen her somewhere.

A few miles down the road, she pulled off at a fruit stand, and it was then that he remembered. She had been in the school play his senior year. Her hair had been longer, and a much darker blonde, almost brunette. But she had done an impressive job in the role, and now he wondered why he’d never told her.

He pulled in beside her, but she had already gotten out of her car and was walking away.

“Hey!” he called after her.

She turned, her hair sticking up in all directions, a pair of gold aviators shielding her eyes. She was wearing a little sundress and flip flops, and she had on the largest earrings he had ever seen.

She furrowed her brow.

“Yeah?” She was on the defensive, and he knew she didn’t recognize him at all.

He approached her, but couldn’t think of what to say. She pushed her sunglasses on top of her head, and the brightness of her green eyes was startling. He fumbled for words.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Um.” Damn, she was beautiful. That short hair really worked for her. “I was just wondering… are you selling your car?”

“My car?”

He nodded.

“No,” she said. “Do you see a For Sale sign? I’m not selling my car.”

“Oh,” he breathed. He looked at the car, then back at her. “It’s a great car.”

She stared at him. “I know.”

“I know you. I mean, kinda. I think we went to school together.”

She scrunched up her eyes. “You’re at Oak Valley?”

“I was. I graduated two years ago.”

“Then you’re older than me. I graduate next month.” She appraised him. “I don’t recognize you. You weren’t in drama class, were you?”

“No, but I saw you in Les Mis. You played Fantine, right?”

She looked pleased. “Yeah, I did. Good memory.”

“You did a great job. Your voice… I remember your voice. Are you doing anything with that?”

“You mean, singing?”

“Yeah.”

She looked away. “Nah.”

“You’re not gonna go to college?”

She shook her head. “I can’t go to college. Besides, I’m not cut out for it. School’s just not my thing. But what about you? What are you doing? Are you working somewhere? I don’t even know your name.”

He laughed. “So many questions. Okay, um, what about me? I play violin, and I just got my associates at the community college. No job, but I’m looking, and I’m trying to get into law school. And my name is Adam.”

He stuck out his hand, and she shook it. Her fingernails were chipped and painted bright blue.

“Nice to meet you,” she smiled.

“And you’re… Fantine?” he said. He shook his head and laughed embarrassedly. “Sorry, I can’t remember your name. In fact I’m not sure I ever knew it.”

She waved her hand dramatically through the air. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Fantine is dead. I’m Melody.”

He looked at her sideways. “Melody? Really?”

“Yeah, why?”

“That’s kind of perfect, you know. Considering.”

“What, that I sing?”

“Yeah. I just think that’s cool. Your parents must have had some sort of premonition or something.”

“Ah.” He could tell she was uncomfortable by the way she looked down at her feet.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to-“

But she waved him off. “No, it’s okay. Dad’s been in prison since I was little and my mom… she’s not really all there. She’s kind of a crack whore.  So the whole name thing is probably just a coincidence.” She glanced up at him and saw the concern on his face. “I don’t know why I just told you all that. I’m sorry. Mom and I live with Grandma, who pretty much raised me, and I think I turned out all right. So it’s fine.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I think you turned out all right, too.”

She loved this. “Oh my god! I’m talking about my grandma and you’re flirting with me!”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“No.” She smiled, and her eyes caught and held his.

“So,” he ran a hand through his hair, then gestured towards the fruit stand, “you in the market for something in particular?”

They fell into step with each other as they began perusing the heaping bins of produce.

“Not really,” she said. “Maybe a little bit of everything.”

When she was finished shopping he helped carry her bags to her car.

“Do you like honey?” he asked her.

Honey?

“I bought you these.” He produced an array of little brightly colored tubes. “They’re filled with honey. I used to love them as a kid.”

Her eyes seemed to dance.

“That’s so…” She made a show of searching for the right word. “Sweet.”

Her lips were already curling upwards over her little joke.

“Very punny,” Adam said.

“I thought so,” she shrugged, amused with herself. “Hey, do you wanna go for a drive?”

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. Anywhere. Everywhere. Just wherever the road takes us.”

They took her car. She wanted to drive, to show him all her favorite places.

“I do this sometimes,” she told him. “When I’m freaking out, or overwhelmed, or even just crazy happy, I put the top down and I just go. Just by myself. I love it. I love the freedom. Sometimes it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

They passed through orchards and pastures until they came to a road that followed along a river. Long, white eucalyptus trees towered over them, and the air smelled sweet. The surrounding hills rippled in the late spring breeze. She flipped on the radio and sang along to the Beach Boys, and though he was not a fan, he thought they had never sounded so good.

Eventually, she pulled off on a gravel road that led along an orange grove. She dug into one of the bags from the fruit stand and pulled out two enormous peaches. Together they ate and walked beneath the trees, wiping away the juice that dripped over their chins. The sounds of civilization were nonexistent in that place. There was only the breeze as it rustled the leaves, and the soft give of earth beneath their feet, and the chatter of birds overhead, and the flutter of insects here and there. They walked companionably but in silence, and eventually she began to sing softly.

He recognized the song from the play. I dreamed a dream in time gone by… Her voice was sweet and high and clear, and when he heard it he thought of crystal and fresh snow, of mountains and tall trees and meadows. Everything about her, all that could and could not be seen, was beautiful.

This,” she said eventually, looking around, “is my very favorite place.”

He didn’t take his eyes off of her when he said, “I think it’s becoming mine, too.”

In the following weeks they drove everywhere in that red ragtop. To the mountains, to the beach, to lakes and rivers, to dates in town and dates in the country. But mostly they returned to their first drive together, recreating it in sunlight, or at dawn, or at sunset, or beneath the stars. One night she called him crying, and she said that she was on her way to him. She picked him up, but at the sight of her tears he insisted on driving. “Drive fast,” she told him. “I want to feel like I’m flying away.”

The ragtop was down, and she stood on the passenger side and threw her head back with her arms in the air. “Don’t stop!” she shouted as the wind dried her tears.

When they reached the grove they did not leave the vehicle. Instead he pulled her into the backseat and held her. He stroked her hair and asked her what was the matter.

“He touched me,” she said.

He felt a jolt go through him.

“Who?” he asked.

“My mom’s boyfriend. He thought I was sleeping, and he touched me, and I punched him.”

“You punched him?”

She sniffled as she nodded. “I punched him in the throat, and I told him if he comes near me again I will shoot him. I have my daddy’s gun and I swear to God, I’ll do it.”

Her tears began to flow again.

“I keep thinking, how dare he?” she went on. “I don’t fucking belong to him. I belong to you, Adam.” She said it over and over again as he kissed her tears. “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours.”

She took his hand and put it on the soft place on her chest where she had been touched. She wanted to burn away the memory with the warmth of Adam’s palm, to replace what had been unwanted with what was most desired. He continued to kiss her, to touch her, to love her, and when she felt him hesitate she clung to him and whispered, “Please, don’t stop.”

Now his memories of her all returned to that road, to that grove, to that red ragtop. To her kitten eyes and her crazy hair and her candy apple red lips. He remembered the intense way she would look into his eyes, the feel of her hands as they cupped his face when she begged him to love her forever. He remembered the way she drove with her left hand while holding his with her right, the way her arm was covered in Sharpie from knuckle to bicep. “I’m designing tattoos,” she told him. “I use my arm for practice.” He remembered the way she cried when he bought her flowers for the first time. “I’ve always thought buying flowers was so pointless because, you know, they just die,” she’d said. “But that’s the point, I guess, isn’t it? The fact that they’re so temporary is what makes them so precious.” He remembered holding her in the backseat, the way her skin felt on his, the way she kicked her flip flops over the side of the car and into the dirt. He could still taste the oranges they picked, the sweat on her shoulder, the beer on her tongue.

As he drove, a decade later, he passed the fruit stand where they had first spoken. It had long been boarded up, a dilapidated canvas for graffiti. He accelerated, his grip tightening on the steering wheel.

They had been sitting barefoot by the river on the back of her Cabriolet the day he remembered as the day summer began to fade. A cool breeze had begun to blow, and the chill of the morning took a few extra hours to burn off. She had grown quiet, and he had wondered why.

“Is it your mom’s boyfriend?” he asked.

She shook her head. “He doesn’t come around anymore.”

He studied her, noting the way she avoided his gaze. When she looked up at the sky he could see the clouds reflecting in her eyes.

She was quiet so long he prompted her again.

“What’s wrong, Melody?”

She chewed her lip as she kicked her heel against the bumper. It made a soft thumping noise.

“I think I’m pregnant,” she said.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

“You think?” he asked, his head going fuzzy.

She shook her head. “No. I know. I went to the clinic.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“I had to be sure.”

“I would have gone with you.”

“I didn’t want you to.”

He ran his hands through his hair.

A baby.

“It’s not that big a deal,” she murmured. There was no conviction in her voice and he knew she was terrified.

We are going to have a baby.

“I’m not going to have it,” she said. She glanced sideways at him, gauging his reaction.

What?

“It’s not that big a deal,” she said again. She was trying to convince herself. “I’ve already made up my mind.”

He was speechless.

“Adam?”

I am going to be a father.

“Did you hear what I said?” she asked.

“We have to talk about this, Melody.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. It was a mistake, and I’ll take care of it. I’m not even asking you for money. I’m just telling you because I thought you should know.”

“Jesus, Melody, it’s a baby. There are other options.”

“Options? What other options? It’s my body, Adam. It’s my life. I’m not ready to share it with anyone but you.” Her eyes softened, and her voice broke. “I don’t even know if I want kids. Who would, in a shitty world like this?”

“We could put it up for adoption. There are couples out there who want babies and can’t have them.”

She stared straight ahead.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

“I told you,” she spoke low, “there’s nothing to talk about. I’ve made up my mind.”

For a moment, neither of them spoke. Adam slipped off the back of the car and walked to the edge of the water. His face had gone hot, and he rubbed it with his hands.

“I would never ask you to do something like this,” he told her. “We can figure this out together.”

She didn’t like the distance between them, so she followed him to the riverbank but did not touch him.

“I am sorry,” she whispered. “I just know myself, and I know I can’t do this. Maybe there are options for other people, but there aren’t other options for me.”

He turned to face her and took her in his arms.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

To her. To the baby.

She buried her face in his chest.

“Please don’t stop loving me,” she begged him.

And he cried.

He picked her up from her house the morning of her appointment. When he pulled in the drive he saw the curtains move in the window beside the front porch and knew it was her mother. She did not come out, did not want to meet him, did not ask where he was taking her daughter.

Do you know? he wondered. Would you care?

He couldn’t sit in the waiting area while Melody had the procedure done. Instead he went outside and vomited, then walked behind the building and paced. He didn’t want anyone to see his face. He was sure they would know.

Afterwards, she emerged pale as winter. She had left any remnant of summer in that room and walked away, and when he tried to talk to her she’d gone cold. She didn’t want to talk about it, she said. She wanted to go home and go to bed, she said. He said he loved her. She said nothing.

Why didn’t you try to stop me? he could hear her asking. And he hated himself for having no answer.

It was three a.m. when he pulled onto the lane beside the orange grove. The place had hardly changed in the last ten years, though one of the trees along the edge had been cut down the year after the last day he saw her. She had asked him to meet her there, and when he pulled up in his father’s truck he saw her sitting in the backseat of the red ragtop. He climbed in beside her, but when she did not look at him he knew why she had asked him to come. The leaves were falling, and she had stopped loving him.

Now there was a little wooden cross in the place where her Cabriolet had been parked that day, the place where she had crashed into the tree twelve months later. A million times he had wondered if she’d done it on purpose. But now that he was there he knew it had been a mistake. Melody had been drunk, and Melody had always driven too fast, and Melody had tried to make that turn like she had done so many times before; but between the alcohol and the gravel and the speed she had lost control and become the ghost of a girl he had loved and lost forever.

He stepped out into the night and walked through the grove. The moon broke through the branches of the trees, illuminating his path. He could imagine her here, imagine her face glowing white as he chased her through the wooded lanes and she looked over her shoulder, laughing. He could imagine her freedom, and her innocence, and her beauty, and her vivacity. All that she had been, all that he had loved, all he had never stopped loving. He sank against an orange tree and he cried for her, and he cried for his wife, and he cried for all the children he had not been strong enough to save. Could he not give life? Could he only take it away?

In the morning when dawn brushed the sky with a burst of orange, he stirred from his bed of earth and fallen leaves. The birds were singing, and the insects where buzzing, and a breeze was rustling the branches overhead. He could feel the stirrings of early summer, and in that moment he knew what he wanted, and he knew what he must do.

He kissed his fingertips and touched the earth in a gesture of goodbye. “I never stopped,” he whispered. Then he pulled the phone from his pocket and dialed his wife’s number.

“Adam?” she murmured into the phone. She was hesitant; frightened of what he had called to say. I’m leaving you or I can’t do this anymore or I’m seeing someone else. “Are you okay?”

He imagined her standing at the kitchen island, one hand wrapped around a mug of coffee, her hair still unkempt from sleep. This was his favorite Amy: Amy with no makeup, Amy with bed hair, Amy untouched and unspoiled. His wife, the dreamer, the artist. Amy the resilient. Amy the unbroken. This was how he saw her, how he had always seen her, and his eyes welled at the sound of her voice.

“Yeah, baby,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m coming home, and I’m ready to talk about those other options.”

 

 

 

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Dancing Away with my Heart

dancingpic

She remembered the first time she saw him.

He’d had the look of a boy who spent his summers moving bales on his daddy’s farm. Faded red mesh-cap, clothes that hung just a little too loose, skin that still bore a post-season glow. It was the beginning of autumn, but the air had not yet turned crisp. In the evenings, the temperature was still too warm for bonfires, the stars still bright enough to reflect in a lover’s eyes.

She was new in town. She’d grown up in Austin and spent her adolescence leaning from the window of her family’s food truck, clothes and skin permeated with the lingering smells of tziki and shaved turkey. She was Greek by birth, hair so dark it was nearly black, a smattering of freckles across the nose, eyes blue “as the Santorini coast”, or so her father told her. She had never seen Santorini. Her parents had met and married in Austin and had never made quite enough money to return to Greece, much less take their daughter and three older sons.

She loved Austin- the music, the culture, and yes, the food. Meandering through the Botanical Gardens at Zilker Park, watching the capitol light up at dusk, swimming in Barton Springs. Keep Austin Weird. She got that. She embraced it. The city represented authenticity, expression, life, color. It was vivid, wild. It was a cacophony of genre and song. Since she was little, she had imagined her relationship with the city as a romance. She had adored it, and it had set her free.

She had turned eighteen that summer. As she approached her high school graduation, she had felt that freedom closing in on her. Suddenly it was pregnant with expectation. Your parents want you to choose the family business. Your teachers want you to choose med school. Your friends want you to choose the band. You are so talented. You are so smart. You are so reliable. Stay here. Go there. Choose, choose, choose.

For the first time in her life, she had chosen escape.

It wasn’t forever, she promised. It was just for the summer. She needed to clear her head, to rid herself of the city sounds, the city hopes. She wanted silence. She wanted peace.

She had promised her parents she would make a decision by the end of the summer, but that time had come and gone. She had worked at a summer camp on the Guadalupe River, had struck up friendships with a few fellow musicians: a guitarist, a fiddler, and a sixteen-year-old who could play the hell out of a harmonica. She herself was exceptional with a banjo, a skill of which she was quite proud. Together they played gigs on the weekends, sticking to small towns and equally small bars and dance halls. They’d become a fast favorite among the locals. In Austin, everyone assumed you were a musician. In Kerrville, Comfort, Bandera, Fredericksburg, you were a pleasant surprise. You play? Well shoot, we’ll give you a bottle of wine and a tip can if you do a gig on Saturday night.

She blamed both for introducing her to him.

The band had just completed their first set and were taking a break. The boys- that was how she always referred to them- had gone to the bar to order a round. Fireball shots for the guitarist and the fiddler, a Roy Rodgers for the kid, and she had asked the bartender to open the bottle of wine for her. He was young- maybe a couple years shy of thirty- and though he knew she was not old enough to drink, he was in the habit of obliging her. He justified this by the fact that this was his bar. The girl carried herself like a woman, which made men want to treat her like one.

She had been taking wine with her family since she was young, but she did not often indulge in more than one glass. Maybe it was the quality of the wine that night, or maybe it was the packed house, but she felt good. Like celebrating. And when she saw him- his faded cap standing half an inch taller than the rest- she caught his eye, he smiled, and she abruptly looked away and poured herself a second. Suddenly her trembling hands needed something to hold, and she did not want to cling to an empty glass.

He didn’t approach her, but her curiosity grew. She felt her cheeks growing hot, her heart picking up speed. She could feel his eyes on her again, but when she looked up, he had moved away from the bar and out of sight.

Their first break ended, and she felt as though she floated through the second set. The room took on a sort of glow, and she felt warm inside. Her blood pumped loudly- happily- through her ears, and everything else was loud, too; the clinking of glass, the laughter and chatter of the crowd, the music. It all blended in a beautiful sort of conglomeration, a symphony of country night life. Well into the third song- as well as her third glass of wine- she realized she was smiling, and no matter how hard she tried, she could not stop. It was as if someone was pulling strings from the corners of her lips to the moon.

The mesh cap reappeared, and from her place on the stage she studied the face beneath it. Strong jaw-line, accentuated by the growth of a short dark beard, sharp nose, and stark green eyes which caught the lone backlight as he approached the tip jar beside her old moccasins.  She watched as he dropped a twenty-dollar-bill into the jar, then he looked directly at her. Without the influence of the wine she would have grown uncomfortable, but it had made her bold, and she held his stare. He returned her lingering smile, and though she did not quite know what, she knew something had passed between them then, some sort of understanding. She knew this smile would not be the mere passing of two souls, but was instead a sort of awakening.

It was after midnight when the band completed their set. The bartender announced last call, but the place was still teeming with customers, and music was blearing through the loud speakers. Some girls had collected in the center of the floor and were drunkenly stumbling through the Cupid Shuffle.

She was assisting the boys with packing up their gear when he approached her, the brim of his cap sitting low, a beer sweating in each hand. Her back was to him as she crouched on the floor rolling cords.

“Blue Moon?” he offered, holding out a bottle.

“We’re not taking any more requests,” she replied.

He chuckled.

“I can see that,” he said, “but I wasn’t talking about the song.”

She turned around then, her long dark hair concealing all but one twinkling blue eye.

“I got you a drink,” he told her.

When she saw it was him, the muscles in her stomach tightened. She eyed the beer.

“Never tried it,” she said. She accepted it and gave it a swig. “Nice. Smooth. Thank you. I don’t usually drink, but I’m making exceptions tonight.”

“Then it looks like I picked the right night to come out.”

“I guess so.” She tipped back the bottle to examine the label. “This is good.”

She looked at her boys, who were still cleaning up.

“I should probably help them,” she said.

But the fiddler heard this, and he waved her off.

“We got it, Jo,” he told her.

“Jo?” the guy in the mesh cap asked. “For Josephine?”

She nodded. “After my mother. And you?”

“Paul. For Paul. After my father.”

“Ah,” she grinned. “We have something in common.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He appraised her outfit. Wide brim hat, Bohemian lace top, leather vest with fringe. She wore those little high-waisted shorts that elongated her legs, and he made a conscious effort to keep his eyes from lingering on them. “You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked.

“I can’t tell you how often I hear that,” she replied with a smile. “No, I’m not. But I’m a little nervous to tell you where I am from.”

“Now I’m dying to know.”

“You country boys lose all respect for people once you do.”

“I’m not like all the rest.”

“So you won’t run for the hills when I tell you I’m from Austin?”

His face seemed to brighten in the low light. “No way,” he said. “I love Austin. I went to school there.”

“Really?” She was amused. “What did you study?”

“Anthropology and linguistics. I was there three years, then I spent a year abroad studying aboriginal language and culture in Australia.”

“I’m impressed. I never meet anyone who’s left the hill country, much less Texas. I would do anything to travel.”

“Where would you go? Top three.”

She held up her fingers to count them off.

“Machu Picchu, Rome, and Santorini, where my family is from.”

“All great choices.” His eyes sparkled as he said this. “All amazing in their own right.”

“You’ve been?” she asked.

“I’ve been fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling. One of the perks of having a rich divorcee for a father, I guess.”

Just then the music changed to something older, softer, more familiar. She closed her eyes and smiled.

“You like this song?” he asked, enjoying the expression on her face.

She opened her eyes again and held out her free hand.

“Dance with me,” she said. It was not a request, and he did not hesitate to hook his fingers around hers.

“Yes ma’am.”

He pulled her close, and with his lead they fell into an easy two-step.

“George Strait is my father’s favorite,” she told him. “I grew up listening to this song. Over and over and over.”

He dipped his head close to hers and sang the words to Amarillo by Morning into her ear.

He could carry a tune, which came as a pleasant surprise. She sang the harmony, though the music was so loud it nearly drown them both out. They were the only two on the dance floor, but they didn’t mind.

“You’re not so bad on your feet,” he told her.

“I was going to say the same thing about you.”

“I can two-step easily enough. It’s the fancy spins I’m not so good at.”

“Show me.”

So he did.

Breathless, she laughed.

“You are such a liar,” she accosted him. “You’re good at this. Real good.”

He shrugged and dipped her so low her hair swept the floor.

The house lights came on as the song ended, but even so he was reluctant to let her go. He wrapped his arms around her, drawing her as close as he could.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“How are you getting out of here?” he asked.

“I’m riding with the boys,” she jabbed a thumb in the direction of the stage.

He frowned. “I assume the kid is driving?”

She shook her head no. “He doesn’t have his license.”

She could see he was uneasy. He removed his cap and raked his fingers through his hair. It was thick, dark and wavy, and she was relieved. He wasn’t trying to hide anything.

“I would like to drive you home,” he told her. “I’ve seen your boys taking shots throughout the night and I want to make sure you get there safe.”

She swayed a little on her feet, and she was sure this was on account of the alcohol.

“You don’t think I can fend for myself?” she asked.

He laughed as he steadied her.

“I just think you like me,” she told him.

“Maybe a little bit of both,” he said. “Now come on. Let’s get you out of here.”

She gathered her things, and he grabbed her banjo. Together they sneaked out to his truck, her hips so close to his they occasionally bumped. She texted the band that she was tired and had found a ride home, not wanting them to know with whom in case they tried to intervene. They were protective in that way, which she appreciated. But she did not want them to come between her and this boy. This had potential, and she wanted to see it through.

“Where to?” he asked as he turned the keys in the ignition.

“You’re going to hate me,” she replied.

“Why?”

“My place is twenty minutes out of town. I live in the boondocks.”

“And the fact that we get to enjoy a nice long ride together is bad… how?”

He smiled crookedly, and she laughed.

The air was warm despite the lateness of the hour. They rolled the windows down and she let her hand drift outside on the waves of wind.

“So,” she said, “where in the world haven’t you been?”

He mused on this for a second, wondering whether or not he wanted to give her an answer that would lead to more questions.

“California,” he finally replied. “I’ve always wanted to see San Francisco.”

“Oh my god!” she cried. “I’ve been there! That’s one place I’ve actually been! We took a family vacation there a few years ago. My brothers and I had to pay our own way with tips, but we did it. It’s a fantastic city. You will love it. What makes you want to go there?”

“Lots of reasons. Culture, opportunity, art.” He glanced at her. “I actually am going there,” he swallowed, “tomorrow.”

“What? Are you serious?” She felt a lot of things then. Excitement. Jealousy. Disappointment that right now he was so close, and tomorrow he would be so far. “For how long?”

Again, he removed his cap and ran a hand through his hair. This time he left the hat on the seat between them.

“I’m going back to school for my masters. Classes begin on Monday.”

Her heart sank.

“Ah,” she murmured. “I see. You’re one of those perpetual students, aren’t you?”

“Maybe. I love to learn, and I love to travel. I don’t know exactly what I want from my life, but it’ll come to me. Right now I’m just pursuing my interests.”

She gazed out the window at the passing landscape washed in inky blackness. They had left town.

“I shouldn’t have come out tonight,” he said. “I have an early flight. My friends begged me, and I knew I was going to hate life in the morning… but right now I can tell you I don’t regret it. I’m right where I want to be.”

He glanced sideways, loving the way her face glowed in the soft blue light of the stereo.

She looked back at him.

“I’m right where I want to be too,” she said.

“This timing just sucks,” he groaned. “Where were you a few years ago?”

She smirked. “In California.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“You have to promise me one thing,” she said eventually.

The edge of his mouth twitched up.

“Oh yeah? What?”

“You have to go to the Fisherman’s Wharf and find some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. It is the essential San Francisco experience.”

“Not riding on a trolley?”

“Well, that too. But I’m telling you. As a foodie, I am requiring you to try the chowder. And it has to be in a bread bowl.”

He nodded. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

When they turned off on the road that led to her home, she had to punch in numbers at a gate. He raised his eyebrows. They passed through the gate and made their way down the lane towards the house, which was an old mansion illuminated by outdoor spotlights and surrounded by gnarled oak trees.

“You live here?” he asked, unable to veil his surprise.

She snorted.

“No. Technically, I live in the servant’s quarters in an apartment above the garage. No one lives in the house. It’s historical. They use it for events and weddings and stuff.”

“Have you ever been inside?”

“No. But I’ve peeked through every window.”

The house was two stories high.

“Even the ones on the second floor?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“How did you manage that?”

“Shutters, lattice, stonework.” She shrugged. “I’m a pretty good climber.”

“You know what they say about curiosity.”

“That it’s essential for an exciting and fulfilling life?”

He shook his head good-naturedly. “I love your sense of adventure.”

“Do you want me to show you around the place?”

“Absolutely.”

He parked his truck beside her old green Wagoneer. Together they walked along the front of the old mansion, cupping their hands around the glass on the windows and peering inside. She pointed out some of her favorite features: the winding staircase, the elegant foyer, the library, the elaborate antique mirror and vintage chaise lounge. When they rounded the back of the house, there was a stone patio with wrought iron benches overlooking a vista of the surrounding hills awash in moonlight. There were black splotches in the distance, longhorns on a midnight graze. An owl hooted from a nearby tree, and a perfectly manicured lawn stretched out towards a garden gazebo and fountain.

“This place is amazing,” Paul said.

“I love it most days,” Jo replied. “The only downside is the weekends when there are events. I try to stay in town with the guys, which works out because sometimes we’ll play at the bar until two in the morning and it’s nice not to have to drive all the way back out here. Fortunately there’s nothing planned this weekend. Tonight we have the whole place to ourselves.”

He didn’t tell her how much he liked that idea. Instead he took her hand and led her to one of the benches, where they sat quietly for some moments enjoying the contrasting warmth of his palm within the cool grasp of her fingertips.

“You should probably be getting home, huh?” she said, hating the words as they came out.

“Do you want me to go?” he asked.

“No, of course not. I was just thinking of your early day tomorrow.”

“I don’t care about that.”

She told him about her family. Her brothers, the food truck, her parents’ aspirations to return to Greece. She told him about music and med school and her struggle to choose.

An hour had passed when their conversation was interrupted by a shooting star. Instead of stretching across the sky, it seemed to burst high overhead before falling vertically to the earth. The vision stole their attention and robbed them of speech. Jo gasped.

“I have an idea,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, but you’re only here a little longer, so why not? I’m not risking anything if you think I’m crazy, so I think we should pretend.” She stood and gestured to the house. “Let’s pretend that all of this is ours. This is our home, and we’re disgustingly rich, and those are our cows, and that’s our bedroom.” She pointed towards the room directly above them on the second floor, the one with the French doors leading onto an ironwork balcony. “You’re crazy about me, and I’m crazy about you, and this is where we dance every night under the stars like the two crazy people we are.”

She pulled her phone out of her pocket and put on a playlist. The first song was by Ella Fitzgerald. She set the phone on the bench and grabbed Paul by the hand.

“Come on,” she said. “Dance with me.”

He took her in his arms, and they moved slowly in an improvised way. It was not quite a two-step, and not quite nothing at all. If he was honest, he did not want to commit to the dance at all. He just wanted to be near her, to be encased in the clean smell of her shampoo and the soft floral scent of her perfume. He breathed her in. Wildflowers. He imagined her laying in them, wearing nothing but bluebonnets and zinnias and goldenrods woven in her hair. She was quite possibly the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. She was like the stars over Enchanted Rock, or the sunrise on the Tanzanian coast, or the Eiffel Tower as it glittered over the Seine. But she was better, because in that moment, she was his.

His feet stopped moving as he dipped his forehead to hers. Her breathing quickened, but though she was nervous she lifted her mouth to his. She was overcome with a chill, but he drew her closer as she trembled.

The swiftness of the passing hours was like the slow and steady loss of oxygen. Every moment gone was more than they could spare. As he prepared to leave her, they leaned against his truck and he brushed the hair back from her face before telling her goodbye.

“You’re somethin’ special,” he told her.

“And you’re dancing away with my heart,” she replied.

He laughed. She said the craziest things. He knew what would happen if he left, but for the tiniest fraction of time, he considered the repercussions of staying. Could one night be enough to justify changing one’s mind… one’s life? He was a rambler. He had never believed Texas could hold him, but in those hours, Texas had ceased to be a place and had become a girl. Yesterday he had been going somewhere, looking forward. Now he was leaving a place, looking back and wishing he could carry some of it with him. All of it. All of her.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

He kissed her one last time and whispered, “Couldn’t if I tried.”

She gave him nothing to take but a memory. A month later he sent her a picture of himself eating clam chowder in a bread bowl. He was sitting outside, and she could faintly make out the trace of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, looming behind a sheer veil of fog. She cried and sent him a copy of her favorite book, Cold Mountain, with an inscription on the back cover. I remember the first time I saw you, she wrote. It was only a moment, but it is forever in my mind.

Years later he would read it, and he would wonder if there was ever a rambling man who had stopped rambling once he’d made his way to her. He’d hoped so, and yet there were still days when he’d wished it had been him.

 

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