Lucy grasped the back of Aaron’s t-shirt, the fabric twisted in her sweaty palm, as she stumbled to keep pace. “Slow down!”
Aaron grinned, even though- or maybe because- she couldn’t see him. “I’ll tell you when you need to watch your step.” He laughed. “Trust me.”
“I want to take the blindfold off.”
He stopped. With his hands on her shoulders, he said, “I know you don’t understand yet, but you will. If I remove it, you’ll know the surprise too soon.”
She sighed. “Okay. But how much longer?”
“Maybe ten minutes.”
She held her hand out and searched for his shirt. She gasped when she felt the warmth of his fingers intertwine with hers. The tingling traveled up her arm; an unexpected shockwave that triggered a flutter in her chest. She had been friends with Aaron since fifth grade, when he stole the ribbon from her ponytail during recess. He’d held it high above her head and with him being a good six inches taller, she was certain he hadn’t expected her to lunge at him, knocking him to the ground. She’d dusted her knees off and plucked the purple ribbon from his fingers and then offered her hand to help him up. He’d refused, and pushed himself up instead.
“Come on, Fridge… we’re almost there,” Aaron said.
She could hear the smile in his voice. For seven years, she’d been known as “Fridge,” the nickname Aaron started calling her after she’d tackled him near the swings. William Perry had always been one of his favorite football players. She’d protested because Perry was a large, imposing figure, while she was on the short side and rail-thin. It didn’t take long for others to join in and she found that undoing a nickname was just as impossible as getting an “A” in Mrs. Foster’s English class.
“Okay, we’re here.” Aaron untied the blindfold and stood beside her, shoulders nearly touching.
“Oh! It’s beautiful. Where are we?”
“Where the stream ends.”
Lucy tilted her head and furrowed her brow. After contemplating for several seconds, confusion melted away into understanding. “From that story you wrote sophomore year?”
Aaron nodded. “Yep. This is it. I go fishing here with my dad. Been that way for as long as I can remember.”
“It’s nice. That was the most romantic story I’d ever heard.”
She smiled when she noticed the tips of his ears redden. “Come on, it was sweet.”
“I didn’t know Mr. Cleary would read it to the class.”
She laughed. It really didn’t help the tough guy persona he’d been trying on at the time. “Girls love that stuff, though.”
“So why did you bring me here?”
“Just thought you’d like to see it before you leave for U of A, is all.”
Lucy tossed a pebble into the water. “Life is a meandering journey,” she said as she watched the ripples widen and then disappear . In her peripheral view, she saw his head turn and sensed him studying her.
“You remember that line?”
Avoiding his gaze, she responded, “Of course. You can recite monologues from The Godfather, why wouldn’t I remember it?”
Only the cawing of birds soaring overhead interrupted the quietness that stretched between them.
“I got in. I go to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in November.”
It took a few seconds to absorb his words. “That’s great! You were really hoping for that.” She was happy for him, so she couldn’t explain the feeling she had deep inside. Was it disappointment?
“I hope I’ll get to see you on leave,” Aaron said as he nudged her shoulder.
Tears moistened her eyes and she turned her head away to hide them. “Sure, of course. We’ll definitely stay friends.”
Lucy felt like he had something else to say. She waited for conversation, but instead, they steeped in silence a while longer before trekking back to the main trail.
*** *** ***
Lucy followed the dirt path, side-stepping brush that had overgrown in some places. The last time she’d been to the lake was when Aaron told her he was going into the Army.
That thought brought a pang of sadness because they had not remained friends. Sure, she saw him a couple times, but that was it. And then she heard from Joanie Graeber that he’d gotten engaged a few years later. A year after that, Lucy married Scott Trimble and moved to Chicago. She’d marveled at her fortune; finding her prince and a Disney fairy tale life.
She frowned. She discovered that beyond the endings in the pages of a book, after the “I-do’s” and happily-ever-after, a tarnished reality lurked. Instead of bringing them together, time spun them in circles and sent them in separate directions. Glancing at her naked ring finger, she admitted that being forty-three and single was not a truth she’d considered.
A smile crossed her lips when she spotted the end of the stream. Twenty-six years evaporated like rain in the desert as she stared at the same muddy banks she’d stood on with Aaron. She noticed something in the cluster of trees on the other side of the bank, so she made her way around the water’s edge, her sneakers sinking and sliding in the mud.
Lucy paused when she made out the shape of a bench. Not a regular wooden bench, but a marble one, placed under the protection of the tall pines. She inched closer, pine needles crunching beneath her feet. She noticed that the seat had not accumulated pine needles, so someone had to care for it, even though she hadn’t seen anyone yet today. Standing in front of it, she ran her fingers over the engraved message on the back:
In loving memory of Aaron McCarthy, 2014. You will always be here.
Numb with shock, and dizzy, she lowered herself onto the bench. Once the tears began, they flowed like they would never stop. She leaned forward, face in her hands, and succumbed to the emotions she thought she’d given away long ago. She wailed for God to save her and to ease her pain.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
The voice startled her and when she looked up toward the voice, she realized her need for a tissue. “I, uh- well…”
He dropped his fishing pole and tackle box kneeled down beside her. “Lucy? Is that really you?”
Her eyes widened. “Aaron?” She shook her head, “But you… I saw.” She pointed to the inscription.
A familiar smile returned to his face. “My dad died last year. I’m junior.”
“How come I never knew that?”
He shrugged. “You never asked, I guess.” He slipped off his nylon fishing shirt worn over a t-shirt and handed it to her. “You might want to dry your face.” He slid onto the bench beside her.
She felt her cheeks color as she accepted the offering and followed his advice. As she wiped her face, she breathed in his scent that lingered in the fabric. She brought the shirt back to her lap.
He leaned forward with his elbows resting on his knees. “I hope your life turned out to be everything you wanted it to be.”
Unsure how to respond, she watched him as he stared at the receding water. “I’m sorry about your dad, Aaron.”
“I come here most Saturdays, so he doesn’t feel so far away.”
Lucy’s fingers played with the silky fabric of the crumpled shirt in her lap. “It is a beautiful place to be,” she whispered, somewhat distracted by the warmth of his thigh barely touching her leg.
Like it had twenty-six years ago, silence surrounded them as they retreated into their own thoughts.
He sighed. “I’ve never forgotten you, Lucy.”
Tears welled again. His words triggered the memory of the words he’d written all those years ago. Life is a meandering journey. It takes us where we least expect it and changes up the future as we planned it. But through it all, I never forgot that where the stream ends, love begins.
She took a deep breath. “Was that story about us?” She rushed the words before fear changed her mind. As soon as the words tumbled out, she wished she could take them back. Listening to his measured breathing for several seconds did nothing to ease her regret.
“It’s always been about you,” he whispered.
I don’t normally write romance-y type stuff, which is why I decided to stretch myself and write this. It’s much easier to write some twisted story where someone dies or something freakish happens! Thanks for stopping by to read. I hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend!