The Cruise (Fiction – With Photo By Emilio Pasquale)

Well, I did it again… Emilio Pasquale (at Photos by Emilio) gave me this photo to write for December, but I’m a tad bit later than I hoped I’d be.  If you aren’t familiar with this collaboration, Emilio sends me a photo for inspiration and I write a story… my story follows immediately after the photo.  Oh, and if you aren’t familiar with Emilio’s work, you really should click the link above to check it out :)

Photo by Emilio Pasquale... story, by me
Photo by Emilio Pasquale… story, by me

“You can’t do it?” Nikki laughed.  “Oh, it’s too late to back out now, Laura.  A deal is a deal.”

I cleared my throat.  “Look, I had too much to drink and I over-committed myself.”

Nikki’s eyes narrowed as she handed me an envelope.  “The cruise leaves at five o’clock on Friday.  You’ll have about 24 hours to accomplish what you promised.”

“I just told you, I can’t do it.”

“You’ll get the $500 when you bring me proof that you took care of business.”

“Do you want me to bring his heart back in a box or what?”

Ignoring my sarcasm, Nikki smirked.  “No proof, no cash.”

“So when do I find out who he is?”

“You’ll know when you see him.”

I grunted.  “So that’s it?  Nothing else to go on?”

“Nope.”

“And why a cruise?  You know how I feel about boats.  And water.”

“Good thing it’s a ship then.”

I stared at the cruise ticket and itinerary in my hand.  “Fine.  I’ll do it.”  I stood and stomped from the restaurant, fuming that Nikki’s laughter taunted me all the way to the front door.

***        ***        ***

I’d learned a valuable lesson on New Year’s Eve that business and friendship didn’t mix, and deals should never be made over cocktails, behind the cloak of new years and fresh starts.  I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s how the corporate world had gotten so messed up.  My new policy is that alcohol should be consumed alone (if ever), and if others are present, complete silence is preferred.  I’d only had a few days to prepare, but somehow, I crossed the gangway fifteen minutes before departure; make-up and hair professionally done, wearing a knee-length party dress with enough sequins to make a dance mom envious.

I scanned the room and immediately realized I was over-dressed- as in wearing too much fabric.  I’d long suspected it, but this just proved that imagination had become endangered through evolution.  I remained determined to not let it go extinct.  I lifted my chin in protest, proud that I was not one reach away from a wardrobe malfunction.

The conflicting scents in the room made me dizzy.  Musk, floral, citrus- they all smelled like desperation to me.  But the dusting of glitter on too-exposed bodies made it pretty, I guess.  I winced.  Nikki might’ve been right:  I’m too sarcastic to socialize.  I reminded myself that this wasn’t a social event, per se.  I had a task to accomplish.  I shook my head to clear the perfumed thoughts and searched for anyone who appeared like they were looking for someone else.  Isn’t that everyone here? I wondered in frustration.

“Hey, sweetie.  Looking for someone?”

My nose involuntarily wrinkled as I turned toward the male voice right next to me.  I forced my gaze away from the silky sheen of his gelled hair; the lights literally glared off it.  I shook my head and stepped away.  “No.  Actually, I’m not.”  I almost laughed at the stunned effect of my honesty, so I walked away before he mistook the reaction as a come-on.  I happened upon a staircase leading to the upper deck.  As I climbed, I smiled; thankful I had sense enough to wear ballet flats rather than pinchy, strappy high heels.  They have rhinestones, I reminded myself, as if to justify my shunning of fashion.

I leaned against the railing that had been strung with white lights.  The golden lights from nearby vessels seemed magical against the backdrop of the darkening sky.  They almost made me believe in fairy dust, unicorns and love, but when I closed my eyes, I could still discern between fantasy and reality.  My shoulders slumped when the thought occurred to me that gazing at lights did nothing to complete what needed to be done.  I turned toward the stairwell and tried to make myself move, but my feet remained firmly planted.

Then I saw him and gasped.  It couldn’t be.  But his profile looked just like Chas Spencer, my ex-fiancé.  From a distance, one might view him as cunning, even clever.  But I knew better.  I knew there was no substance behind his too-white smile- or beneath the knock-off designer clothing and Calvin Klein boxer briefs- I could see the waistband peeking between the top of his slacks and the bottom of his untucked shirt when he leaned over to tie his shoelace.  I knew he tried to project the air of casual wealth, but the message I got was:  I’m broke and make bad decisions.  I spent all my money on underwear so I couldn’t afford a belt.

Certain he was the real deal and not a doppelganger; I became furious at Nikki and grew more determined than ever to succeed at what I came here to do.  More than the $500, I needed to prove Nikki wrong.  I could do this.

I would rather have been at home wearing fleece pajamas and eating Häagen-Dazs while watching movies on Netflix, but I pasted on my best smile in hopes of hiding my true feelings.

“Chas, is that you?”

His eyes widened.  “Laura!”  His gaze darted from one side to the other, and then back to me.

“Are you here with someone?”

“Well, uh, sort of.  Oh, man, this is awkward….”

My smile became more genuine.  I truly enjoyed watching him squirm.  “Oh, I’d love to meet her.  Where is she?”  I raised my eyebrows.  “It is ‘she’, right?”

“It’s a blind date.  I haven’t found her yet.”

“I think maybe you have.  Nikki sent me here.”

The color drained from his fake-tanned face.

I shrugged.  “Sorry dear, but it looks like it’s you and me tonight.”  I wasn’t really sorry.

“I-I was supposed to start the New Year with a fresh start.”

“Isn’t that kind of hard to do when you’re the same old you?”

He glared at me.

“Look, we’re stuck here, so we might as well make the best of it.”

“What’s your game?”

I tilted my head to the side.  “Game?”

“Yeah, when you found out I cheated, you told me to drop dead… and some other things.”

“You never did listen very well.  Hey, how about we get a drink?”

After several seconds of skeptical scrutiny, he headed to the stairway.  I followed and exhaled a relieved sigh.  Once upstairs, I told him I’d get the drinks.  He started to protest, but I pretended not to notice and walked away.

I handed him his usual: vodka gimlet.

“What did you get?”

“Rum and Coke,” I raised my voice so he could hear over the band that just started playing.  Minus the rum.

Fifteen minutes later, I plucked the empty glass from his hand.  “I’ll get you another.”  He didn’t argue.  His attention was focused on the band’s lead singer; a busty blonde sporting strategically placed swatches of black leather.  This is almost too easy.

After the fifth drink, I noticed it was almost midnight.  I asked, “Do you mind if I take our picture?  You know, for old time’s sake?”

He looped his arm around my waist and pulled me toward him.  I snapped the picture just as his lips landed on my cheek.  I extracted myself from his grip and offered to get him another drink.

I lost count of the drinks, but I was down about fifty dollars when I noticed Chas struggling to balance on the backless stool.  “I think you’ve had enough.  I’ll walk you to your room.”

He smiled; a sloppy grin.  “You just want to get me alone.”

“You got me figured out.”

Using me for balance, Chas managed to get to his room, falling only once.

“I need your room key.”

He leaned against the wall by the door.  “It’s in my pocket.”

I sighed.  “Which one.”

He winked.  “I don’t remember.”

Five hundred dollars, I reminded myself.  I guessed right and found the key in his left front pocket.

Chas fell onto the bed and pulled me on top of him.  I scrambled away.  “I need to use your restroom.”

“I’ll be right here, baby.”

His slurred words made my stomach lurch.  I stayed in the locked bathroom until I heard his rumbling snores.  I slipped out of the bathroom and searched the duffel bag by the bed.  I found what I needed and stuffed it into my purse. I ran from the room, relieved when the door latched behind me.

I did it.

***        ***        ***

“I don’t believe it,” Nikki said, mouth agape.

“I think you owe me $500.”

“I-I didn’t think you’d do it.”  Nikki handed me the envelope.

I lifted the flap and counted the bills, then shoved the envelope in my purse.

“You don’t trust me?”

I smiled.  “I used to.  Before you and Chas.”

Nikki stared at the table.  “I regret that.  I wanted to make things right again; to get you back together.”

“Not in this lifetime.”

She lifted her gaze, puzzled.

“Nothing happened.  After he passed out, I took a pair of underwear from his duffel bag.”

“You cheated!  The bet was that you had to spend the night with someone I set you up with.”

“No, you cheated. I just played your game and won.”  I smiled.  “And I did spend the night with him- a very long evening of observing who he really is.  You know, I hated you for what you did, Nikki, but you actually saved me.  I don’t know if I can trust you again, but I do forgive you.”

This time, I strode out of the restaurant in peace; leaving Nikki in stunned silence.

~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-

The obvious inspiration for the story was Emilio’s photo.  But I’ve had other stuff on my mind that may have affected the story that developed.  Mainly, I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness, and how hard it can be to reach that point where you can truly release a hurt and heal.  I also think when we’ve hurt someone, sometimes our attempts at “fixing” things are misguided (like Nikki), and might be more for the benefit of easing our own guilt, rather than for the person we’ve hurt.  Now, I’m thinking I just might think too much… so I’ll stop now :)

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful week!

The Companion Broker (Fiction with photo by Emilio Pasquale)

Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a collaboration with Emilio, where I write a story inspired by a photo he provides.  It’s completely my fault!  See, Emilio gave me this photo to write for September.  I have no excuse for my delay, other than 2015 isn’t landing at the top of my “best year ever” list :)   If you haven’t checked out Emilio’s blog before, you really should – click his name to link to his site…. I gave you three chances here!  I’ll stop rambling now – the story begins right after the photo.

Photo by Emilio Pasquale... story by me!
Photo by Emilio Pasquale… story by me!

I had a knack for finding the broken ones.  I would take them in.  I would love them.  I would lose myself in them.  Each time, I thought my heart was full enough to make them whole.  Each time, the shine tarnished and I escaped with a little less of me.

My present is made up of their pasts, the cracks in my broken heart filled with pieces of their pain.  Desperado, Cat’s in The Cradle, Father of Mine, Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough… their burdens set to music. As I sped down the remote highway, I played each and every one of these songs, over and over. It’s funny how the years of heartaches wrapped in catchy melodies slid along the hardened spaces of my soul with such ease. At least the tears reminded me that I was still alive.

This time, I didn’t care if I lived to give again. Phillip had been my latest broken bird, on the verge of falling into the dark abyss. I scooped him up and nurtured him. For three years, he greedily fed on my love and affection until he was strong enough to fly. And he flew all right… straight to my ex best friend, Sarah. I took his bad and gave him my good. It all cancelled out in the end and left me… empty.

Off to the right, a row of rusted old cars and a seen-better-days ranch caught my eye. On impulse, I pulled onto the shoulder, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel behind me. When the dust settled, I stepped out of my car and eyed the street sign perched atop a leaning metal pole. I didn’t know which was more ironic; the fact there was a street sign marking a span of dirt that could barely be considered a road, or that the sign read “Opportunity Way.” I doubted opportunity traveled back-roads.

I walked for a little ways until I came to a waist-high wooden fence that encircled the yard. For a time, I perched on the fence, staring at the row of cars. I couldn’t help but relate to them; we had all been shiny and something to look at back in the day. But now… well, I cried.

I didn’t want to think about it, but I suspected I would always see the lost ones, broken, looking for validation and something that felt like love to make them okay for a while.  I could see my future so clearly… like beggars pleading for loose change, their eyes would search mine for a bit of my soul they could have.  On my strong days, I would turn my head and quicken my pace. “I don’t have any,” I would mutter.  It would be true.  If God was merciful, they won’t pursue me. They would see I was as broke… broken… as they were. They would sense I had nothing to offer, no hand to grasp in desperation.

“Howdy, ma’am!”

I startled, losing my balance and fell back into someone’s arms. I twisted my neck and glimpsed a not-completely-unattractive man, possibly in his early fifties. Exactly what I don’t need. I jerked my weight forward and steadied myself on the fence.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

“I didn’t thank you.”

The wood bounced as he hoisted himself to sit next to me. He shrugged. “I was overlooking your lack of manners.”

I clenched my jaw, but kept my gaze focused on the cactus that took root next to the blue car. “Speaking of manners, it’s not polite to interrupt someone’s thoughts.”

He smiled. “Maybe not, but when the thoughts are thunk on my property, those rules don’t really apply.”

“You’re right. I’ll go.” Before I could slide off the fence, he touched my arm.

“You’re welcome to stay.” He shifted his gaze toward the cars. “Lots of people come here to think. It keeps me in business.”

“Business? What kind of work?” I thought maybe mechanic, but his khaki pants and pastel blue polo shirt didn’t fit.

“I’m a companion broker, you could say.”

“Companion broker?” The words tumbled around in my head as I tried to figure out what that meant.

He laughed. “Lemme explain. I help fix people.  This highway is traveled by lots of lonely people; people with heavy stuff on their mind. Sometimes all they need is human connection.”

My eyes widened. “So you’re a pimp? That’s horrible!”

He lifted a rhinestone and gold-plated Zippo from his pocket and lit the cigarette hanging from his pressed lips. “No, not a pimp. I mean, sometimes people are looking for that, but usually, they just want to talk so they don’t feel alone.”

“Not a pimp, huh? That blinged-out lighter says otherwise.”

“Hmph. One of those.” He shook his head and exhaled a trail of smoke.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shrugged. “Bitter, disillusioned and bearing scars of past loves. I’m guessing you’ve convinced yourself you’re on a journey to find you, but really, you’re running from who you are.” He paused to exhale another puff of smoke. “You judge me because it makes you feel better about yourself.”

“Listen, Mr…. Mr. whatever-your-name-is, you may think you know my story, but you don’t!” I clenched my eyes shut, hoping it was enough to keep the tears back.

“They call me Big Guns.”

I stifled a laugh. “Big Guns?”

He pushed up his shirt sleeve and flexed, I think. “See what I mean?”

I saw a barely perceptible bulge in his bicep. I shook my head, “I’m sorry, but those aren’t even purse pistols.” I laughed, almost forgetting that moments ago, I wanted to cry.

“Come on,” he said as he hopped off the fence.

I didn’t move. Following him seemed like insanity.

“Trust me. You need to see this.” He held his hand out, waiting for me to grasp it.

Impulsively, I took the invitation and his fingers curled around my hand. “Is it more impressive than what I’ve seen so far, Mr. Guns?” I shocked myself with the flirtatious tone in my voice.

This time he laughed. “I think you’ll be amazed. You can call me Thomas.”

I followed Thomas to the row of rusted cars. With his back to me, I slipped my tinted gloss from my pocket and swiped a quick coat on my lips.

“These cars were my dad’s hobby, but he passed away three years ago. I can’t bring myself to get rid of them, yet I don’t have the expertise needed to restore them either.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“I found another way to use them to honor his memory, though.” He opened the door to the first car and gestured for me to look inside.

Paper filled the inside of the car clear up to the windows. “What is all this?”

Thomas smiled. “These are letters from the lonely. We’re all broken in some way and these letters allow those passing through to let go of some of their burdens.”

“What do you do with the letters? Do you read them?”

“I don’t read them. I leave them here so the intended recipient will find them. There’s no such thing as coincidence; our paths cross for a reason. Some people write letters, but others read them and take one with them when they go. All I ask is that writers include their name and phone number, and when you take a letter, you contact that person.”

Companion broker… it made more sense. “Do these people ever meet?”

He shrugged. “Some do. I’ve gotten a few letters thanking me, but really, I’m just doing God’s service.”

“God’s service?”

Thomas smiled. “I used to be a pastor but disagreed with the human way of organized religion. So, I decided to minister to people on my own, according to God’s word and Jesus’ principles.”

My cheeks flushed. “I-I’m so sorry, I called you a pimp.”

“And you laughed at my biceps.” He closed the car door and led me to the blue car. “I think this one might have what you’re looking for.” He pointed to a notepad and pen on the dashboard. “Write a letter, or take a letter, it’s up to you. Take your time.”

I watched as Thomas shuffled away, dust trailing behind him. A pastor. Unbelievable. I turned my attention to the mounds of paper filling the car. I shoved them aside so I could sit. I wondered why he thought I’d find what I was looking for here. I didn’t even know what I sought.

I grabbed the paper and pen and wrote my first tentative words. The rest of the words followed swiftly and before I knew it, both sides of the page were filled. I hesitated. Then with a deep breath and long exhale, I scrawled my name and phone number. After I dropped the paper onto the pile, it felt like a weight had been lifted from inside me.

The dense pile swallowed my hand, and my arm up to my elbow, before I grasped a page. I held it up so I could focus on the scrawled words. I can’t believe I’m writing a letter to leave in an old car for some stranger to read. I smiled. My letter started similarly. By the time I got to the end, my eyes blurred. I swiped the wetness from my cheeks with the back of my hand.

Seth Mitchell.

My breath caught as I stared at the familiar name. A buried past, exhumed and resurrected by one hand-written letter. I folded the page into fourths and shoved it into my back pocket. Twenty years felt like a span of a few breaths. That letter transported me from middle age to mid-twenties. I stepped out of the car and slammed the creaky-hinged door behind me. The thought crossed my mind that the old car was a time machine of sorts.

Maybe Seth had been right back then… that love wasn’t enough. Maybe I was right in my proclamation that time doesn’t heal all wounds. Maybe right or wrong no longer mattered.

All I knew in that moment was that I needed to find out.

~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-

Thanks so much for reading! If life cooperates, the plan is to have another Emilio photo/story collaboration posted in December.  Stay tuned :)

Living (Fiction)

8-31 Leap

Two months ago, I had an epiphany of sorts… a life-changing moment that happened in the midst of the ordinary.  In the timeline of our lives, it isn’t often we can identify those moments at the exact time we breathe them, but here’s the story of my moment.

I sat on the sun-baked rock clothed in Capri pants and a t-shirt.  I didn’t hike to the waterfall to jump in; I came to clear my mind and watch the crazy people leap into the murky unknown.  And the pool of water had turned an icky shade of brown after the last monsoon storm.  My mind never slowed as it ran through all the things that could go wrong.  You could slip off Lloyd’s Log and bust your head open.  I mean, the log was probably named for Lloyd after he did just that.  Lloyd’s body could have still been there for all I knew.  The old log could break and impale you as you plummet into the water.  You could over or under-shoot the leap and break your legs on rocks jutting out that are obscured by the muddy brown pool.  You could belly flop and drown after the wind is knocked from your lungs.  The list went on.

I held my breath every time a child leaped from the carved log and exhaled each time their head bobbed back to the surface.  In between, I’d shake my head and wonder why the parents didn’t protect their children.  If I had a child, I would never let them do something so dangerous.  I scanned the dozens of people around me and tried to match the offspring.  I grew bored with the game when the string of unmatched jumpers grew too long for me to manage.

My attention turned to the children and the way they would just jump, arms spread wide, legs tucked, into the unknown.  They had no fear.  I wondered what it was like to not be restrained by the shackles of consequences.  How did it feel to experience flight, even for just a few seconds before plunging into the water?  I puzzled over how an anyone could jump without knowing for certain it was safe.  But they did.  Some hesitated, but eventually they leaped.  I imagined their eyes squinted closed, but still, they jumped.

I looked down at my faded brown pants and the realization came to me:  at least they came prepared to let go.  In that moment, I saw my street clothes as an outward representation of my abundant supply of fears.  A more alarming thought surfaced:  I breathed, but I didn’t live.  

On impulse, I unlaced my shoes and set them beside me.  I peeled the damp socks from my pale, hardly-seen-sunshine feet.  I stood and took a deep breath before walking toward the water.  I gasped as the shock of cool water met my hot skin.  Thigh-deep in the unknown, I considered turning back.  But I’d gone this far.  I continued until my feet no longer touched the bottom, then I swam toward Lloyd’s log.  I shimmied up the submerged log and crawled up the crudely-carved stairs.  With shaky legs, I stood on the last step.  Things that could go wrong began to cloud my mind, but I jumped before they could paralyze me.

I didn’t hit my head on the log.  The log didn’t crack and I didn’t break any bones.  Lloyd’s corpse didn’t reach up and pull me under.  I wasn’t afflicted with flesh-eating bacteria.  The silt washed off my skin in a warm shower.

The thing is, my outward appearance is no different than it was before, but the moment I leaped from Lloyd’s Log with my arms stretched like a bird in flight, I lived.

~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~

This story is fiction but was inspired by some real thoughts and introspection that I’ve had.  At church on Sunday, they talked of faith.  Faith is often believing in something we cannot see or prove, and trusting that the outcome will be for our good.  Fear is the exact opposite of faith. When there is fear, faith is a risk.  Like the character in this story, I tend to see all the harmful/dangerous things that could come from any given situation.  I recognize that I need to lean on my faith more.

Still, I did not leap into the nasty murky water from a carved log. There are certain things I couldn’t work past… like, where do all these beer-drinking people go to the bathroom?  Oh, I knew….

Baby steps :)

Already Gone (Fiction) & Photo by Emilio Pasquale

Each month, I team up with Emilio Pasquale – he gives me a photo and I write a story inspired by it.  I barely made it for April, but what follows is the photo he chose, and then my story.  His photography is impressive, so if you haven’t checked out his site, you really should (but I hope you will read the following story too – it’s less than 500 words :) )

Photo by Emilio Pasquale (story by me)

Photo by Emilio Pasquale (story by me)

ALREADY GONE

I shift my weight to relieve the pressure throbbing in my heels. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing here because I lost all concept of time… well, I don’t know how long ago. Minutes, hours, days and weeks carry no meaning for me anymore. I hear muted voices and whispers at my back, a brush fire threatening to consume me. I lean toward the porthole window so I can’t see any metal in my peripheral vision. Had it not been for the scraping of forks on plates behind me, I could imagine being alone on a raft drifting into the ocean. As it is, I feel the shoreline pulling away.

“Has she eaten today?”

“Probably not. She’s been standing there for hours.”

I have a name. My thought doesn’t translate into words because I deem it unworthy of the effort.

I squint and focus on the clusters of palm trees. I start counting, just to prove to myself I’m not completely gone. My vision always blurs around eleven; that’s when I cease to differentiate tree trunks from sailboat masts. I begin counting again, my unblinking gaze moving across the horizon.

“I don’t think she’s right.”

A laugh. “None of ‘em are. It’s called job security.”

I’m not crazy, I’m lost. Again, my thought doesn’t earn the privilege of spoken words.

I can’t discern if I am running away from or toward something. I decide it really doesn’t matter as I lean forward until my forehead rests on the glass. The drumbeat in my chest grows to such intensity that little room remains for my breath. I take what I can get. The glass warms beneath my skin until it feels like an extension of me. I’m mesmerized by the fogging and un-fogging caused by the interplay of my breathing and evaporation.

I hear shuffling feet behind me and voices fade. Isolation envelops me, clutching my insides in a twisting grip.

“Dinner’s over.”

My muscles twitch beneath the hand resting on my shoulder. I close my eyes and inhale, although I can’t claim much air. I want so much to take in the dampness and taste salt from the ocean. Instead, I realize that hopelessness smells like meatloaf and Pine Sol. Desperation has a taste: the sour bile that creeps up my esophagus and stings the back of my throat.

I don’t resist the tug on my arm and we both stumble. My right hand knocks the picture off the wall and the glass shatters. Shards dig into my bare skin when I land on the ground. I don’t feel anything. My muscles spasm, as if separate from me. I watch, intrigued. I hear a panicked call for help. I don’t care. My eyelids grow heavy as I search for white light or shadows. I see nothing. I half-expect to feel fear or anticipation. Instead, I’m indifferent toward death and life. Commotion surrounds me and I almost pity them.

Why can’t they see the futility of saving what is already gone?

~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-~~~-

This time Emilio almost stumped me.  I was drawn to the obvious with this photo, and if you have read my fiction before, you know I do try to avoid obvious!   It’s not exactly an uplifting story, but I thought finding out the character was lost in a picture and not out to sea may have been unexpected, although clues to the setting are there.  Thanks so much for reading :)

Where The Stream Ends (Fiction)

03-30 Woods Canyon Lake1

July, 1989

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.”

“Shut up.”

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.”

He shrugged.

“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.

***        ***        ***

March 2015

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.

“You okay?”

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!