Bernadette Thibodaux stood in front of the house she’d just purchased, key folded in her palm. “This is it,” she exhaled. She turned to her best friend, Chris, to read his reaction.
“Well. It’s a nice place.”
“Who said anything about a ‘but’?”
“Come on, after twenty-two years, I can tell.” She didn’t have to mention their years as high school sweethearts and their failed marriage; that always lingered in the back of her mind.
He shrugged. “Birdie, don’t you think four acres might be a bit much for you to maintain?”
Birdie. No one else could get away with calling her that. “I just bought my first place. Don’t ruin it for me.” She grabbed his elbow. “Let me show you the house!”
He nearly knocked her over when she came to an abrupt stop at the wrap-around porch. While she fumbled with the key in the lock, he shook the railing. “Sturdy support,” he mumbled. “A porch swing would be nice over there.” He pointed to the right.
She glanced over her shoulder. “That’s exactly what I thought.” She pushed on the door but it didn’t budge. She thrust her hip against the door twice and it popped loose with a creak. When she entered the foyer a new wave of excitement rippled through her.
Chris opened and closed the door several times and rubbed his fingers along the door jam. “I think a little sanding right here and a re-paint and it’ll be good as new.”
Thunder rumbled overhead, shaking the windows. Intermittent rain drops pelted the glass.
He peered at the track of the large window to the left of the entryway. “Might need some tightening.”
She threw a playful punch at his shoulder. “Critical much? You talk like the house is falling apart.”
“I just think the place on Church Street would’ve been better for you.”
“It was sweet of you to look at it for me, but it was a condo. No privacy at all.”
“But it was in town.”
“This is only twenty minutes away.”
He opened his mouth, but then closed it again. “May we continue the tour?”
She nodded. “Follow me, then.” She led him into the kitchen. She expected him to comment on the worn finish of the cabinet doors or the discolored laminate counter tops, but he said nothing. When he saw the guest bathroom, he let the missing drain stopper go without comment. The smallish guest bedrooms drew not even a murmur of criticism.
“So what do you think?” Bernadette asked when they circled back to the front door.
“It’s perfect for you, Birdie.”
Something in the smile he gave her, or the wistful tone of his voice, made her cheeks color. “You know I want your honest opinion.”
He nodded. Although he looked like he might say something, he remained mute.
A steady cadence of raindrops slapped the shingled roof, complimented by the sharp pinging of rain on the metal fans and roof vents. She opened the door and gazed at the sheets of rain slanting toward the porch. “I guess you’ll have to tour the outside land another time.”
“It’s raining buckets.”
He rushed through the door and jumped off the porch; his stuck landing punctuated by a puddle splash. “Well?” He motioned for her to join him.
She shook her head. “You’re crazy!”
“Come on!” He shook his head like a newly washed dog.
“See the gazebo over there?”
Chris squinted through the rain. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Race you to it!” She leaped over the side railing of the porch, which gave her a three-step advantage. Mud clung to their shoes, making their effort sluggish, but by the time they reached the dilapidated structure, he’d closed the gap. She made one last push – a running leap onto the wooden platform. Her foot broke through the rotted wood and collapsed in a heap.
“Are you okay?” He gingerly balanced on in-tact boards and stretched his arm toward her.
She clasped his hand yanked; throwing his equilibrium. He fell beside her. “You lose!”
“Not really. You’re the one with a foot stuck between some busted planks.”
“I guess.” She wiggled her foot but couldn’t free it from the splintered wood.
He turned her ankle to the side. “Does this hurt?”
She flinched. “Not too bad.”
“I don’t think it’s broken.” With his fist, he knocked away slivers of wood. “Can’t say the same about your gazebo.”
“Shut up.” She found herself distracted by his hands on her ankle.
“Ready for another race?”
She met his gaze, but her thoughts remained on her ankle. Or rather the warmth of his hand still radiating on her skin, which surfaced long-ago memories. A quick glance at her ankle betrayed her conflict.
Instead of moving away, he slid closer. “Give us another chance.”
His breath tickled her ear. “Chris, we just don’t work together. We tried.”
“We were nineteen. Young and stupid- of course we didn’t work.” With a brush of his index finger, he smeared rain off her cheek.
“I-I can’t.” She clenched her jaw and willed herself not to cry. She looked away, knowing she met his gaze, her will would falter.
“If I thought for a second you didn’t love me, I could walk away.
She gasped when she felt his lips brush against hers. Against her will, her lips welcomed his kiss and her body relaxed into his embrace.
Several minutes later, he whispered, “I want you to marry me, Birdie.”
Her eyes widened. “But what about Renee?”
“She’s not you. Say the word and she’s gone.”
She moved away from him and drew her knees up to her chin. “Growing up, everyone always said I was just like my Momma. I don’t recall much about her anymore, except the day she left us to start a new life. Thirty years ago and it feels like yesterday…” She looked at him, tears glistening in her eyes. “You’re my best friend. I can’t lose you. If I marry you, I’ll end up leaving you heartbroken.”
“You already have.” His feet plodded down the three stairs to the ground. He walked away, hands shoved in his front pockets, shoulders slumped.
The rain had subsided into a light drizzle. The thought crossed her mind that the scent of wet pine, once invigorating, might forever be associated with the dreadful feeling that weighed her down in that moment.. “Wait!” He paused and she half jogged, half limped, toward him. He slowed his pace and she walked beside him, aware of each rhythmic step that her shoulder brushed his arm. “I don’t want you to go.”
“But you don’t want me to stay, either. Birdie, what am I supposed to do?”
Silence hung heavy between them, like the engorged droplets that balanced on the needled tips of the Ponderosas. “Hey, what do you think about this tree?” She walked to a nearby tree, pointing at the trunk. “It’s unique, isn’t it?
“Hmph. Maybe, but it’s dying.”
“How do you know?”
“The lumps at the base are from disease. Eventually, the roots won’t be able to support it anymore.”
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, thankful for some normalcy in their conversation. “Since when did you become a horticulturist?”
“Technically, it’s an arborist.” He glanced at her and chuckled. “A horticulturist is experienced in caring for plants, but an arborist specializes in trees.”
She sighed. “This isn’t working.”
“This.” She paced in front of him. “You; me; whatever just happened over there.” She flung her arm toward the gazebo.
“What are you gonna do?”
“I don’t know. Commitment scares me. I mean, I just bought my first house at thirty-nine.” She raked her fingers through her wet hair. “I’ve spent my whole life believing I was meant to leave, but maybe I feel restless because all that time I was supposed to stay.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m terrified to be with you, but I’m even more scared to be without you.” She shook her head. “That doesn’t even make sense! I don’t even know what to-”
He cupped his hand behind her head and gave her a gentle kiss. He stepped back “We’ll figure it out; even if it takes another twenty years.” He held his hand out to her.
She hesitated before placing her hand on his palm.
He smiled. “I knew you would come around.
“So you’re clairvoyant, too?”
“No, Birdie. Twenty minutes ago, I didn’t see this coming at all.”
My inspiration in writing this story came from several things. First, Arizona got a bunch of rain on Tuesday and I got some cool photos of our drainage trenches filled with water. That’s why I wrote rain into the story. But then a funny thing happened: the story shifted and those photos really didn’t fit. Then, I remembered a bit of dialogue I wrote in July that I wanted to incorporate (the arborist vs. horticulturist part.) This was loosely based on something my brother-in-law said. He had made a comment that the tree (in the photo at the beginning of the story) would eventually die and fall into our house and I made a snarky comment to my husband about him being an arborist now.
I didn’t originally intend this to be romance-y. Seriously, I avoid romance like the plague because I’ve read some romances that made me blush and feel icky- like I’d just peeped in someone’s bedroom … no way I’d go there. I ended up with a G-rated romance here, so if you want more spice, I’m afraid it’s up to your imagination!
I think fiction is a lot like smiles: when it’s forced, it’s obvious and uncomfortable. So, if my stories take a turn I didn’t expect, I try to go with it. That being said, I really hope my next story is on the creepy side. Yeah, “twisted” comes natural for me 🙂
Thanks for reading!
Oh, if you’re curious about the drainage trenches, I’ll post a photo below. My prayers go to those who lost everything in the flooding on Tuesday. (New River and Black Canyon City were hit especially hard- 4 inches of rain may not sound like much to people in some parts of the country/world, but in Arizona, it can be devastating.)