© 2020 Melissa Padgett (M. J. Padgett)
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. This work may not be translated except by permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. The names, occupations, events, incidents, and businesses are products of the author’s imagination.
I pulled my cardigan tighter around my shoulders as I wandered like a vagabond down the shore, headed nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The waves teased me, tickling my feet every few seconds, washing the sand away with each swipe. Oh, if they could only wipe away the memories as easily… but then, if my memory disappeared, so would he.
The sun settled, taking another piece of my heart with it as one more day without him ended. It was suffocating, really, to think of the last time I’d walked the shore at sunset. Life had been a game back then, our hearts fresh and clean without all the bruising and scars brought by time and experience.
I closed my eyes and let my mind drift back… one year… two years… three… all the way back to graduation.
The party, that was where it all began. I carried a case of water toward the refreshment table, but between the sand and my inability to coordinate my feet with the rest of my body, I was a ticking time bomb just waiting to faceplant, possibly humiliating myself in the process. And trip I did…
“Whoa, it’s okay. I’ve got you,” he said. Casey Reardon, also known as that mysterious guy no one could quite pin down but was nice to stare at in class when the teacher droned on like an automaton.
I righted myself while he gripped my elbow with one hand and his own bags of who knew what in the other. “Thanks. That would have been the total devastation of what remains of my popularity.”
Casey chuckled and released my elbow before hoisting the case of water onto his shoulder. “Eh, high school is over, and college is a new beginning, so I think you’d have survived.”
“Maybe, but thanks to you, I won’t spend my summer tending to wounded pride and a lacerated face.” My face flushed as his blue eyes bored into mine. Were they always that pretty?
He smiled and dropped the case on the table, then dumped the bags he’d brought—an array of snack foods to satisfy any craving, including an entire box of chocolate that I eyed like a starved monkey tossed into a pit of bananas.
“Want one?” he asked, scooting the box closer. “If memory serves, they are your favorite, right?”
“How did you—never mind. Yes, they are my favorite,” I said and ripped into the box.
Casey leaned against the table, his devil-may-care attitude on display as usual. The salt air toyed with his hair, cementing a few strands to his forehead as his eyes absorbed his surroundings. The party had only just begun, a little before sunset as usual. I opened the candy, stuck it in my mouth, and then pulled a hair tie from my pocket to tie back my unruly waves. Too much beach time and not enough time with a good conditioner made it a little sticky and difficult to manage.
“So,” he said as he pushed off the table, “where are you headed after the summer break?”
“Me?” I asked, still a tad confused as to why we were even speaking. It was, after all, the first time he’d said more to me than please pass the papers. The guy sat behind me in three classes all senior year, but those four words were all he’d ever said, and usually to the back of my head.
“No, the other girl standing here conversing with me,” he said. A grin spread across his face, dipped into a set of dimples I did not know he had, and forced a sparkle into those ridiculously pretty eyes.
Once more, blush took my face and crept through my cheeks. Thankful it was getting dark, I stuttered a bit then said, “I’m not going to college or anything.”
“What? Rylee Baker is not going to college? How is that possible?”
“Because Rylee Baker would rather leap off a cliff than subject herself to four more years of stuffing her face in textbooks.”
Casey’s eyes widened, and his back straightened. I settled in for the lecture, the one everyone seemed to think was necessary, and prepared my customary explanation. He studied me for a moment, his gaze flittering over my face as if he were committing each freckle, each curve, each detail to memory. He pushed off the table and glanced around. More people arrived by the carload, dropping food and drinks off before joining the crowd near the DJ.
“Wanna get out of here?”
“What?” I asked. “We just got here.”
“Yeah, but… I mean, do you really want to hang out with all the same people, or do you want to do something fun and spontaneous?” Casey’s smile spread wider.
A chill crept over me, forcing goosebumps to cover my legs and arms. Casey shirked his jacket and handed it to me, but the chill was not from the cooling ocean air. The scent of barbecue permeated my senses, and the party jumped into action. The DJ pumped up the music, eliminating any chance Casey and I had of carrying on our conversation, which I discovered I was far too deep in to back out. Only a few innocuous sentences, but there was a certain charge between us, something I thought he felt too.
“Uh… sure. What did you have in mind?”
He offered his hand and said, “Walk with me? Tell me about the mystery that is Rylee Baker.”
“Are you teasing me?” I asked and took his hand.
He raised his eyebrows and dropped his mouth open. “Me? Tease someone? I’d never.”
I ignored his feigned offense and walked alongside him with no destination in mind. His jacket clung to my shoulders, a warm embrace as we neared the water, but the smell… I couldn’t quite catalog the mix of scents that pleased my senses with each breath. First, it smelled of woodsmoke and pine, cinnamon and apples, and then a hint of mint-like toothpaste. Still more hit me with each inhale—all the scents of Casey Reardon.
“So, what are you doing if college is off the table?” he asked, his hand still firmly grasping mine.
“I’m hopping a plane to Alaska first. My sister is a marine biologist, and she works for this amazing nonprofit that documents the migrations of…” There I went again, rambling on about my sister’s work. It drove my parents bonkers, mostly because they couldn’t understand how I could be so excited about something yet have no desire to follow in her footsteps and become a biologist.
“What? Migrations of what?”
“It’s not important,” I said. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
I nudged his shoulder. He lost his balance and toppled, but I did not escape the consequences of my playful actions. Casey gasped my arm as he fell, dragging me along. The water was warmer than I’d expected, but still a shock when it rumbled over me in angry waves. Casey laughed and slung sand at me when I managed to wiggle free, initiating a sand fight. One thing led to another, and before long, we were both covered with scratchy, wet sand. I was sure there was sand in places it most certainly should not be but hanging out with Casey was too fun to care.
He shook his hair out like a wet dog. “That was fun. I did not expect to have at this party,” he said.
“I wasn’t expecting to get messy at this party.” I wrung my hair out, but it was a futile action given the state of my attire.
“Life is messy, Rylee. I prefer to make it messier, to play by my own rules like you.” The strands of hair that had been cemented to his hair now dripped with saltwater. He licked his lips and made a disgusted face. “Salty.”
I chuckled. “You think?”
He tossed another handful of wet sand at me, but it was a halfhearted throw at best and landed at my feet. I started wandering again with no destination in mind, only that I escape the sounds of the party before my best friend found me and dragged me away from Casey.
“I don’t really play by my own rules either,” I added. “I just… bend the rules. I do what I have to do, then I tease things a little until they bend in my favor.”
“So devious. Tell me more about your plans.”
“What about yours?”
“Nah uh, no distracting me. I really want to know.”
I felt his fingers brush against the sensitive skin on the back of my arm, reminding me I’d lost his jacket in our fight. It was slung over his shoulder, dripping water as we walked. The feel of his rough fingers against the smooth skin was enough to make me wonder why I’d never paid more attention to him, talked more to him, maybe even—
“Hey, you still here?” he asked, dipping his head to look into my eyes.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Sometimes I let my thoughts wander a little too far, and they get away from me.
Uh, anyway, I guess I’ll just join my sister for a while, then maybe do some backpacking.”
“Backpacking? Like in the forest?”
I paused my walking to observe him. I can’t say why I thought that was the best way to figure him out, but it did give me his attention—all of it, smack in the center of my face. His stare was determined, insistent, and nearly made me change my mind about everything I’d wanted to do so I could stay in our little town just to watch him watching me. I shook my head because those were ridiculous thoughts.
“No, Casey. Backpacking like through Europe or something, maybe… I don’t know, I kind of like the idea of visiting Iceland and that area, maybe more.”
“You mean, you’ll just hop on a plane and go explore? Alone?”
I shrugged and kicked at the sand, accustomed to his reaction since it was the same one everyone gave me. “Yeah. Why not?”
“That’s… interesting.” He said nothing more but encouraged me to keep walking. We were well away from the party now, just the two of us. I’d left my phone in my car, so there were no calls or texts to interrupt, no social media posts to be made, nothing at all to interrupt our conversation.
“Why interesting?” I asked.
“It’s just really brave, I think. My family isn’t all that happy about what I decided to do either.”
“Oh? Are you finally going to tell me?” I teased.
He shuffled along, building up little piles of sand before kicking them away with each step. “I joined the Army. My mother was plenty mad about it, and my father said it was a waste of time.” The way his tone changed, how his entire body tensed beside me when he spoke, it was familiar. I’d done it a million times a day as I fervently defended my decision to explore the world before committing myself to a life of work.
“I’d hardly say it’s a waste of time. It’s honorable,” I said. “When do you leave for training?”
“Tomorrow morning. So, thanks for making this a nice evening, Rylee. Really, I had a rough day today, and this time with you had been… It’s just been nice, that’s all.”
I smiled and glanced out over the horizon.
“I mean, it has been nice, hasn’t it?”
“Mmm,” I hummed, entranced by the last rays of orange and peach tones that filtered through the clouds where the sun had gone to bed.
I turned back to him, but I shouldn’t have. Suddenly, the joy that had filled his entire aura had shifted to something else, something darker, something… lost.
“Casey? What’s wrong?”
“I um… I lied to you just now, but I don’t want to do that. It really has been a great time, and I don’t want to ruin it with a lie,” he admitted.
“You lied about joining the Army?”
He shook his head and lowered his gaze to stare at his feet. “No, that part is true. I lied about my parents. I’m… I guess I’m just so used to making up lies to get through life that it sort of slipped out without thinking about it. But I don’t want to lie to you.”
“Okay, then what is the truth?” I asked, a pit growing tighter and tighter in my chest as I waited with bated breath.
“I’ve been in foster care since I was seven. I’m aging out at eighteen, so that’s why I joined. I needed somewhere to go, a job and all that, and it was the easiest option.”
For once in my life, I was speechless. I’d had no idea, known nothing about his home life for all the years I’d spent in school with him, and my own insecurities about my future crashed around me. They seemed… simple compared to his reality.
“Casey, I had no idea. I’m so sorry. If I had—”
“No, no,” he said, grasping my arm that flailed around as I spoke. “There’s nothing for you to be sorry about, Rylee. I just wanted to tell you the truth, to tell someone the truth for once. And I wanted to ask you…”
He released my arm and ran his fingers through his messy hair. I stepped forward, closing the distance between us so whatever he wanted to say really was just between the two of us. There was no one else around, not that I could see, but his truth seemed like a fragile trinket meant to be handled with the tenderest care.
“What is it, Casey?” I asked, my voice a whisper on the breeze.
“I wondered… I mean, I know we don’t really know each other that well, but maybe… Could we write? Email? Whatever they let us do, I’m not really sure. Maybe I can call you sometime? I mean, I don’t know where they will send me after training, but I think I really want to get to know you better.”
His words tugged at a place in my heart I didn’t know existed, someplace filled with empathy and care and… maybe something more. “Yeah, I’d like that. I wish you weren’t leaving tomorrow,” I said, then blushed at the way my honesty exposed me.
“Can I kiss you, Rylee?”
“What?” I asked as my head snapped up to meet his gaze.
“S-sorry, that was stupid. You wouldn’t want to kiss a guy you just—”
I grasped his shirt and pulled him toward me, only then realizing he was easily a foot taller than me. I kissed him—not one of those cheesy movie beach kisses and not one of those frantic kisses in romantic comedies, but something sweet and tender and filled with emotions neither of us could comprehend or define. I felt his arms wrap around me, protecting me from the harsh wind that cut across my skin like knives. I should have dressed more warmly.
I felt him smile against my lips and pulled away.
I sat in the sand, reclined on my elbows, and thought about that kiss. If I had known then how much pain and sadness would come from that kiss… I would have done it anyway. Casey left for training the next morning, somehow taking a piece of my heart with him. I went to Alaska to spend the summer with my sister, and all that time, we wrote and talked as we promised we would. Then he deployed, and the time between letters and calls grew longer and longer until, eventually, they stopped.
It was my fault. I stopped responding first. It was just too hard, too much, and each letter he sent me was like stepping into his world. He saw things no one should see, especially not someone who’d hardly left high school. I couldn’t find the words to comfort him, to tell him that I was there for him though we’d never really been together. Finally, he gave me an out. He let me walk away without hard feelings, and so I did.
I did because it was what my parents said I should do, what my sister encouraged, what my friends wanted. I did it because I was afraid. I was afraid I’d lose all of my heart to him, and if he didn’t come home, then I, too, would die.
But as I sat in the wet sand thinking of what love might have been, thinking of what I’d lost and might never find in another human being for as long as I lived, a shiver shot down my spine. I grasped my cardigan, but no amount of clothing would stave the chill.
Four years had passed since that last letter, six years since that party… six years since I fell in love and didn’t know it until it was gone. And now, that part of me I was sure would die if something happened to Casey was dead anyway. Sure, I loved my work and lived a full life, but something was always missing. Something gnawed at me every day, begging me to glance over my shoulder and go back in time.
I sighed and tucked my feet closer to me, hugging my legs against my chest. My chin settled on my knees as I watched the last of the colors fade into the darkness. I was the fool who let him get away, and for that—”
My spine stiffened as I whirled around at the sound of my name. Not just the sound of my name, but my name spoken by… him.
“I… came home for you, Rylee. I’m… I’m home. Permanently.” He offered his hand to me, then asked, “Will you walk with me?”