Fiction Writing Awards

"For You"

          

   It was the same young man, standing there on the pebble strewn beach. I recognized his face from the many glimpsed over my many years. It couldn’t have been too long ago for his dimpled chin was still sharp in the mists of memories. His face still held the youthful energy that only ever echoes in my own. It was the same young man.

   He held a small dark stone, little larger than the pebbles at his feet. The sea washed frothy, iron-hued waves across the shingled shore but ceased their climb some inches from the young man’s leather shoes. His eyes followed the water as he grasped the dark stone between thumb and forefinger. His posture told of the war waging within – to throw the stone with all his strength into the somber sea or to turn away, seemingly for forever.

   I was not far off when his gaze found me. There was no recognition in those rich, moss colored eyes. But why should he know me? An old man, who walks the pebbled beach in the soft hours of the day when the sky matches the gray sea, with a face long drawn away from the onslaught of life. What reason would any vibrant youth have to recall my face?

   As I drew nearer his cautious stare grew easier. A shallow smile emerged that had once flooded with hope.

   I knew him for certain then. My mind pushed back the layers of memory, stacked like so many quilts, until the image grew clear and bright. A summer day, not so long ago, or was it an age and my eyes lied of the man’s youth? Was that gray at his temples or a slant of the weak light on pale brown hair? I cursed my sight as I was unable to tell if the telltale lines of age’s unforgiving nature had done their inevitable work.

   There had been a dark haired girl before.

   She had ruffled his pale brown locks and playfully kissed those hope-filled lips. Her absence resonated as does the silence after a hard rain. It spoke too much of the change I now saw in the young man. His diminishment was measureable by who – not what – he was missing.

   “Hello there,” he called as I moved nearer.

   It was all I could do to keep my feet among the loose gravel and watch him turn away from the stony sea. “Hello, young man!”

   The light of recollection swept away the clouds that had been holding him like a mirror before the uncaring ocean. The dark stone was tucked into a breast pocket and he was stepping to greet me before I could move another foot.

   His excitement radiated empty force behind it but I took no offence. It isn’t an expectation of mine for strangers, little more than acquaintances, really, to remember each other equally. I’m sure there are many with more demands on their thoughts and dreams than the minimal strain I’ve allowed to remain in my own.

   “I know you, don’t I?” his question, innocent and with obvious practice, was laced with the familiar fatigue of loss.

   Suddenly, I found fear for the dark haired girl, such a source of powerful love and joy now missing. Could she be gone? It could not have been a slow thing, perhaps it was a story of matchless sorrow and self-sacrifice on the part of this young man before me. His face spoke to a character of hidden but stoic strength. The many options laid out before me in pathways too scattered to decide on just one. So as I stood there, smiling up at the young man with sadness in his green-sea-eyes, I set out along the path my mind had conjured.

♠  ♣  ♥  ♦

   Her name was Ann.

   You met her while walking back to your dorm from the sociology class you took together, along with a hundred other students. You had smiled at her shyly during class. You, being from so far away, and her attending college in the same city she’d been born in.

   Her returned smile captured you. It wasn’t something you could figure out despite the effort your mind put in. There was just something that had gripped your every minute and refused to relinquish the memory of her blue eyes shining across the small lawn that separated the girls’ dorms from the boys’. She had smiled at you. More, she had smiled through every wall you’d ever constructed around your heart. The cold pain of your mother leaving you and your father so she could – live her own life – didn’t put a dent in the warm joy of Ann’s smile.

   You had nearly run up the three flights of stairs to your room. Paying no attention to the roommate who never woke up in time for classes, you pulled open the drawer on your side of the desk and pulled out the only contents.  A book your father had given you when the letter of acceptance to college had been opened. Within the cover of Through the Looking-Glass your father had written a short note speaking to the love he had for his son and his wish that his young man succeed in all you did in life.

   There was something you’d found calming within the pages. Walking beside Alice as she played out her story slowed the frenzied waves that crashed against your mind whenever life threatened to gobble you up. The pages were yellowed and bent at the corners and you weren’t sure you even needed to look at the print, so quickly the words moved behind your eyes.

   You’d stepped out of the room to find your chosen reading spot; at the top of the fourth and final flight of stairs which gave you a view of the campus should you choose to look away from the book. It had been only a few pages worth of time when a soft noise pecked at the edges of your concentration. A soft, “hello” echoed off the concrete banisters and you found your gaze rising to meet the pale blues of Ann.

   “Hi,” she’d said again, a little louder this time, from across the short canyon separating the dorm stairs.

   Your face must have flushed red for her beautiful smile faded to a concern frown and her lips began to form an apology.

   “Hi!” you managed to choke out and only half sound like you’d passed the embarrassing stages of adolescence.

   “Hi,” Ann’s smile returned and she moved to the edge of the banister, “what are you reading?”

   Sudden shame was on you. Would she laugh as other girls back in your home town had? Would she chuckle behind your back like the boys who had decided you were “strange”? You weren’t sure why they had found you an object for scorn. Perhaps the Cheshire grin your father had given you? Maybe because you’d eaten the cakes that made you grow tall and lean. Your only clue was that those you’d known back home had been cruel, cruel before they’d learned of the book and little had change with that discovery. You weren’t sure your heart could take the reality of Ann revealing that same malice.

   As though your body had rebelled, you found your hand holding up Carroll’s masterpiece for her inspection. It could not have been more than twenty feet between you and recognition bloomed in her blue eyes. The walls Ann’s smile had shattered began to hurriedly reconstruct themselves, protecting the most important bits of your eighteen year old heart.

   “I love that book!” Her smile decimated your defenses mid-build. Scaffolding and the slate gray paint your heart had been using crashed down into a jumble at the pit of your stomach.

   If her smile had never appeared and a sneer replaced that perfect face perhaps you’d never have learned her name was Ann. Perhaps you never would have had those moments of quiet talking while you sat across from one another and ate the poorly crafted lunches provided by the cafeteria. Perhaps you’d never have asked her to go to the movies one afternoon rather than sociology class. She would never have kissed your cheek after you’d taken notes for her when she was sick with the flu. You’d never have been so happy to catch it too.

   You spent the winter apart, but not before a heartfelt hug you’d hoped would never end, and you wrote to each other nearly every day. Your father had been working two jobs and was often gone through the holidays. But you hadn’t minded your father’s dedication to your education; it would mean that you’d see Ann again as soon as sessions began again.

   It was over the New Year that you formulated your plan. You would be like Alice and slay the frumious Bandersnatch that dwelt within your timid heart.

   It was a good plan. You would walk Ann back to the dorms on the first day. You would have to figure out when she was in class to position yourself just so, to appear to be there to walk with her as though the universe had willed it. Once you were to reach your parting place, you would tell her you had a question. When she smiled at you and leaned in to hear your whisper you would kiss her. Kiss her like you’d seen your father kiss your mother before she’d begun to – you pushed away those thoughts and just remember the look on your parent’s faces when they’d loved each other. That was the plan. A good plan. It would work.

   The day came and went and you didn’t see Ann at all. Her last letter had said she was looking forward to seeing you in the spring. That she had something important to tell you. That letter was folded inside your Through the Looking-Glass, just over your father’s inscription. It had been the inspiration for the daring plan. A good plan. It would’ve worked.

   As the young spring sun sank deeper into the peach blossom sky your hopes fade along with the light. You feared you’ve missed your chance but you wait stubbornly through the encroaching twilight for Ann to appear. She’d so loved sociology you were sure she would take the next level class offered. You hadn’t really enjoyed the course but you wouldn’t have traded the time with her for anything in the world.

   The sun sets quickly and quietly leaving you in the dark that matches your mood. She had wanted to talk to you! That’s what her letter had said! That was why you were unable to concentrate in philosophy and missed taking notes the first day of the semester. That was why you concocted a hair-brained scheme to steal a kiss. A good plan. It should’ve worked.

   Defeated, you stumble through the lamp lit campus to the dorms, the very route you’d hoped to walk with Ann. As you reach the stairs to begin the long, empty journey to your room a soft, “hello” echoes through the night and you find your gaze rising to meet the pale blues of Ann.

   She is waiting for you at the base of the stairs, a suddenly hopeful light in her smile accented by the golden lamp light surrounding the two of you. Reaching for words not there, you stand captured by her presence. Ann takes two steps forward, her smile wavering between hope and fear, and she holds up a small, square brown paper wrapped package.

   “I got this for you,” she speaks into you silence.

   Once again you feel your body reject inaction and your hands reach for the package. Numb fingers make quick work of the wrapping and equally numb eyes stare down at the simple cover of a book with its title scrawled in flowing calligraphy, Alice in Wonderland.

   When you don’t say anything, don’t look up from the gift, perhaps she becomes nervous and so she turns away, takes a step toward the girl’s dorms.

   “Ann,” your voice no more than a whisper, but it halts her retreat, “thank you. I wanted to give you something too.”

   “Oh that’s alright,” she takes a deep breath and you can tell by her shoulders that she is fighting back tears. She turns to look you in the eyes and there is determination in her blank stare, “you don’t have to get me anything.”

   “No,” your feet move on their own, your hands too, as you close the distance between you and place your hands gently but firmly on her shoulders.

   That she was surprised by your boldness is obvious but her shock quickly fades to hope once again. It is all you need. Her blue eyes gazing into yours. Her lips turning up into a hint of the smile that had captured you at the beginning, banishing that Jubjub bird to the back of your mind.

   You lower your lips to hers. And the world vanishes.

   The moment lingers on the fine edge of eternity.

   It was enough to last you forever but when you part there is no other wish in your being than to kiss her again.

   “You dropped the book,” Ann whispers, that conquering smile fully alight in the night.

   You don’t care. You kiss that smile again. This time slower, softer, as though afraid you’d never feel the richness of her lips again.

   You would kiss again though. Your moment of panic at losing out on the sweetness of Ann’s kiss was lost among the many you share the rest of that semester and the following years.

   Upon graduating, you re-gifted her Alice in Wonderland with your own inscription asking her to marry you. Ann cried through her acceptance and a tear had reached the page only just smudging the edge of your scrawled, I love you.

   You’d stare at that tear stain long and hard  as Ann lay on a cool, white, soulless hospital bed. She had retreated and returned in ever slowing cycles as the disease ate away at her mind. You stayed through the worst of it, when the pain stole her away for hours. In those precious moments when she was Ann again, you’d remember to her the times you’d taken notes in class for her while she was sick. You told her about your crazy plan to kiss her that had almost failed. A good plan. She’d liked it.

   The sun bled the sky red the anniversary of your first kiss. It had been quiet. So quiet you nearly missed a soft, “hello” echoed in the sterile hospital room and you found your gaze rising to meet the pale blues of Ann. A good plan.

♦  ♥  ♣  ♠

   The dark haired girl had left the young man behind to contemplate the dark stone. I imagined throwing the stone far out into the cold sea. To pitch such darkness as far away from me as could be. To be released from the pain by that one physical action. To vent the injustice of the universe back into the uncontrollable abyss.

   “Grandpa?” the young man asked again and I came back to the moment, to his face creased with concern for me.

   “I believe so, young man,” I managed a small smile of my own as the hot wet of tears touch my cheeks. “You were here not long ago.”

   “I was,” he nodded leaning down to look me in the eye. “We were here last month for…”

   The gray sea rolled toward us, the water rumbling with the tumbling pebble beach. The young man reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the dark stone. He held it up to me and with a confident air he spoke into my silence.

   “You gave me this,” he offered me the stone and my hand worked all by itself, accepting it, letting its cold weight rest in my palm. “You told us you and grandma’s story and you gave it to me to remind me.”

   “Grandpa?” an excited cry came from behind us and as I turned I found the dark haired girl skipping down the beach toward us, a small striped beach purse slung over a narrow shoulder.

   “Found him!” The young man grinned at me and his bride alternately.

   “Hi Grandpa!” she had tears in her eyes before I could speak. “I’m so glad we got to see you before we left!”

   They stood there smiling and crying at me, the young man and his dark haired girl. And me, standing there like a fool, unsure of what was going on. They let the moment linger before the she made a little joyful squeak and began digging in her striped beach purse.

   “I know I’ve got it,” she said between happy gurgles that I took for her attempts to choke back tears.

   The young man hesitated, “did you leave it in the car?”

   He looked back up the beach and my gaze followed his to the parking lot I had forgotten was put in for better access to the beach. A familiar figure stood there. So much like Ann, but younger. With my nose.

   “No,” she said only slightly frustrated before she made another happy gurgle and produced a small square package from the striped beach purse. “I told you,” she beamed at the young man and then at me before handing the package over.

   I handed the young man back the dark stone that I’d nearly forgot was still in my hand, it had become a familiar and comforting weight in the short time I’d held it. I took the package from the her, tore away the brown paper to reveal a book covered in crazy images and, in big letters, the word Jabberwocky blaring across the top.

   “After you told us about gram’s kissing you,” the young man started.

   “And gave Lewis that stone,” the dark haired girl added.

   “Right,” Lewis smiled at her before continuing, “and gave me this stone so that I’d never forget we only have so much time together, Maddie here wanted to do something for you. We picked that up back home for when we came to visit.”

   My tears sprang a new leak as I felt them hot on my face again.

   “Are finished with your walk?” Lewis looked at me with concern and his dark haired Alice was close to squeezing my arm off.

   “Yes,” I allowed and watched them relax. “I just want to say goodbye.”

   They both nodded and gave me some space. I looked down at the book they’d given me and let the memories flood over me one more time. There were no tears the second time. I was filled too much by the love the young couple had shown me. I gave the steely sea a final glance, said goodbye to the empty air before my gaze came to rest on the book in my hands.

   I flipped open the cover to read, in loving memory of Ann.

   “Thank you,” I said, feeling Ann’s smile filling my own. “It was a good plan.”

- Tim Hayes