Her youthful voice rang in my ears like the sound of a familiar song playing in the distance. I squeezed my eyes hoping to shut out the pleading way in which she called my name, but it only drew closer.
The thick air smelled of oncoming rain. Some rocks poked my feet as I tiptoed into the water. Some had the texture of wet slugs of which, if I wasn’t careful, would send me plummeting into the shallow creek.
I hurried along, ignoring the pull her faint cry had on my heart. The minnows zipped away as if each step I took was a bomb in their tiny cities. I glanced up long enough to notice a bird escaping into the evening sun before I made it under the arch bridge. The shade cooled my skin, raising the hairs on my arms. I heard her feet stepping over the wild weeds nearby, but I pretended I was a camouflage lizard blending in with the aged stone of the bridge.
Hide and seek wasn’t supposed to take that long nor was it supposed to send her on a desperate hunt.
She called again, this time as if my name were a question. I pressed my head against the inner arch. Tears streamed down my face, though I didn’t make a sound. I bit my lip until it hurt. My heart nearly beat out of my chest and the thumping reached my ears, muffling her voice. She would understand, I lied to myself.
Every dinner it was as if I was somewhere else, staring blankly at the other side of the table while she tugged at my skirt or poked my hand.
His image skipped through my mind like a flip book animation. All I ever thought about was being able to touch his day-dreaming face again. Sometimes I would have conversations with him while I laid on the couch watching his favorite movies. I would mention the interesting facts he would tell me as certain scenes approached. I could hear him responding in that tenor voice, almost as if he were right behind me, cuddling tightly against me.
We used to go there together, the bridge I mean. It was one of our usual spots when we couldn’t go far. Sometimes we would sit on the top and let our feet dangle like two regular teenagers trying to piece together the world around us. He would talk as if he were delivering a motivational speech before a room full of people; dramatic hand gestures, serious eye contact, frequent questions. We would talk for hours, or at least until curfew. He had an unforgettable laugh, too. He didn’t laugh as often as he smiled, but when he did, I could swear there was a ruthless ghost tickling him all over his body. I couldn’t help but follow until my stomach twisted into a tight knot and happy tears flooded my face. His contagious laughter traveled in the wind and I swear it still lingered. I could hear it ever so often like a flash and then all of a sudden it was gone.
I heard her again, but at that point, it could have been him. I couldn’t tell the difference anymore. I closed my eyes as I had many times before, wishing for one more chance. One more touch. One more memory.
My body rocked as my sobs vibrated my chest. Would she really understand? Part of me hoped she never would. It wasn’t her fault, though I knew she told herself the exact opposite. Children, despite a parent’s greatest efforts, always found a way of blaming themselves. If only she knew those tears weren’t her responsibility. They were simply old memories melting the makeup off my face before disappearing into cloudy splashes. The water flowed past my ankles as fast as the heavy wind forced it downstream. As my life passed like the snap of a finger, so did the memories.
I raised my head and blinked away the mascara burning my vision. My eyes crawled over each lightning shaped crack in the stone before me. It was only supposed to be a routine game of hide and seek before bedtime. She used to love searching for me until I jumped out of my hiding spot. Her sudden shrieks melted into giggles as I tickled her to the floor.
“I can do this,” I prepped myself, swallowing hard. When I tried to move, my legs wouldn’t budge. “Damn it, you coward. Do it.”
My eyes shot open and I cupped my hand over my mouth. Five more minutes. I prayed she would give me just five more minutes, then I would never again leave her for that long. I was serious, too, but my intention meant nothing to her. She needed me. I was her mother for goodness sake.
The sand under my feet shifted and the texture hardened into a sturdy ground. I gasped. Colorful lights swirled behind my eyelids. I opened my eyes wider and my vision lit up one dazzling shade at a time. Soon the colors found their homes in my new surroundings. The bright blue painted the sky, wild green filled the trees and grass around me. Flowers grew from the earth, radiating a tranquil scent. My muscles strengthened and my veins filled with the blood of a seventeen-year-old girl; youthful, spirited, and in love.
I once knew this place, only this time it was alive like the earth after a rainfall.
His laughter whipped past me. I turned around and spotted his purple minivan parked a short walk away.
“Where are you?” I whispered.
I glanced around. A strong wave of déjà vu rushed to my head. Endless trees surrounded the small abandoned house next to me. We drove there every day after school. We called it The Lost Farm and always imagined we were the only ones who knew it existed.
There was shuffling around the house. I ran toward it and peeked around the corner, but he wasn’t there.
Birds sang in the trees. I glanced up. The sun broke through the branches like golden streaks of heaven. I walked around, admiring the spirit of nature. I strolled passed the trees and watched the butterflies glide from one patch of flowers to another. My body grew light and I felt like I was hovering over the grass.
“Ellie.” His voice echoed in the air.
My eyes creased. I knew that playful tone when I heard it. I reached the front of the house and walked onto the porch where the wind chimes jingled.
The front door was open, so I walked inside. The house was bare and bland, except for his scent. It was like a familiar blanket that never grew old. My feet led me up the stairs and as I turned the corner, there he was leaning against the wall just as casual as he’d always been. I looked over him, shaking my head.
“Bryce,” I said. I couldn’t hide my surprised expression. “It’s really you.”
He straightened his posture and tilted his head as if I was a silly girl for saying such a thing. I stepped forward, my eyes growing bigger the closer I approached him. I reached out my hand until my fingers touched his. The warmth shocked me like lightning, awakening every nerve in my body. The hairs on my arms rose and my mouth parted.
“What are you doing here?”
He lifted his hand to my face and stroked my cheek. His green eyes gazed into mine as if reliving every memory we shared.
“Waiting for you,” he said.
I ran my hand through his light brown hair and grazed his cheek.
“But you left me,” I said, pulling away. “Bryce, I’ve been suffocating without you. Where have you been?”
He lowered his mischievous eyes and paused. He always did have a love for the dramatics.
“Follow me and I’ll show you.”
He grabbed my hand and we ran down the stairs. Excitement exploded in my chest and I couldn’t hold back my amusement. He led me outside and stopped me in front of the house.
“Do you remember our first drama club rehearsal in the beginning of junior year?” He asked, facing me.
“Of course,” I looked at him, puzzled. “It was the first day we met.”
“Do you remember that old hat I was wearing? The one my grandfather gave to me before he died?”
“Yeah, I told you how much I liked it and you tried being funny by putting it on my head.”
“Right, and you promised me you would take care of it over the weekend and give it back to me on Monday.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
His smile grew. The grass and leaves fluttered and the ground vibrated below my feet. Before I could speak, the setting around us was suddenly replaced by chatting students and a room full of theatre seats. I looked around, recognizing it as my high school’s auditorium.
“This is where I gave you the hat. Right here on this stage.”
I looked down and couldn’t believe I was standing on my old stage. “Bryce, I…”
“Just trust me. Trust me like I trusted you that weekend.” He pointed to my head. “You gave the hat back to me in this exact spot.”
I took the hat off my head. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. I looked at Bryce who was ruthlessly grinning my way.
“I put it in your hands and asked you when we could finally run lines together. That’s when you invited me to the football game that Friday.”
“I tried to play it cool, but I didn’t really care about running lines. I just wanted to spend more time with you. You were so quiet and there was something about you I couldn’t stop thinking about.”
The scene flipped into a football stadium. The sounds of cheering and shoes beating on the bleachers boomed nearby. We stood inside a small concession stand.
I gasped. The shock plastered on my face.
“This has to be a dream,” I said, touching the counter. “Bryce, this was ten years ago.”
He opened the fridge and pulled out a soda.
“You and your sodas.” I nodded. “And I never saw anybody inhale a hotdog as fast as you did.”
He picked up a hotdog wrapped in tin foil. I took it from his hand. It was warm and smelled as fresh as I remembered.
He turned my shoulders to him.
“Think of a place… any place at all.”
I glanced away and thought about my old bedroom. A second later we were standing in front of my closet. My bed was exactly where it used to be, covered in girly blankets and fluffy pillows. The walls were lined with purple rope lights and my shelves were filled with books and movies. There was movement behind my bed skirt until my cat came crawling out.
“Mitz!” I immediately picked her up and caressed her soft calico hair. A few tears trickled down my cheeks. “She died two years ago.”
“Remember when she went missing for a month? You had no idea what happened to her.”
“It was the only time she ever went outside. She was always too afraid. When she disappeared, I thought someone had taken her or maybe an animal got to her. You drove me home after practice one day and there she was walking toward us as we got out of the van. It was a miracle.”
I kissed her head, thankful for the years we shared.
“Maybe she turned into a beast at night and terrorized the neighborhood animals.”
I smirked. “I highly doubt that.”
“Or maybe she just wanted to see what was beyond your bedroom window.”
“I wish I knew what happened to her that month.”
“Some things are better left to the imagination.”
I closed my eyes to the sight of falling leaves. When I opened them, we were lying under a tree, but not just any tree. It was the tree.
“This is where we fell in love,” I said.
Bryce leaned over me and brushed a few leaves off my hair.
“I was already in love with you by then.” He leaned down and kissed me, soft and gentle, just like the first time.
“It was our first kiss.”
He laid next to me and held onto my hand.
“You told me that dorky story about a boy and a girl who liked each other,” I said.
“I was trying to hint that the story was about us, but you didn’t catch on.”
“Hey, I was nervous. How could I concentrate when I thought you were about to kiss me?”
His chest rose and fell as he let out a quick laugh.
“If you had to choose one place to go, any place in the world, where would it be?”
I didn’t have to think twice. I looked into the sky that quickly filled with the tops of more trees. I sat up, realizing we were back at The Lost Farm.
Bryce stood and pulled me up with him.
He held onto my hand and whispered into my ear. “Me too.”
He led me on a quiet walk passed the trees. The moments seemed to last a lifetime, though I knew it would soon come to an end. He picked a flower along the way and put it behind my ear. I took in all his features so I would never forget them. I watched him breathe in the fresh air as if he would never have to go without.
“Bryce,” I finally said.
He turned to me as if he expected what was to come.
“Is this where you’ve been all these years?”
“You say it like it’s a bad thing.”
I went to speak, but closed my mouth. I glanced around us as the air thickened.
“You left me,” I said, lowering my head.
He remained quiet.
“I wake up every morning from a nightmare that clings to me throughout the day. I pass people at the store and on the streets wondering if they can see beyond my red eyes. Some days I don’t even smile at all. Smile,” I laughed. “For what? You’re gone.”
“I’m right here.”
I looked at him, feeling the love in the way he pulled me into his embrace.
“I want to be here with you forever.”
“You and I both know it’s not the right time.”
“Please. I can’t breathe anymore, Bryce. I die a little more every day.”
“You love me, right?”
“Of course I love you.”
“Would you do something for me then?”
“I would do anything for you.”
He pulled me away, keeping his hands on my shoulders.
“Live for me,” he said with loving eyes. “And don’t just survive. Really live.”
“What if it’s too hard?”
He smiled. “Hear my laughter in the wind.”
He ran off faster than I could blink. I ran after him, searching behind every other tree I passed. When I neared the house, I saw him facing the back of it.
“I caught you this time,” I giggled, running up to him. I stopped beside him, watching his face. A cold raindrop hit my shoulder. When I looked back to him, he appeared frightened. I followed his eyes to the house, only there was no house. There was a hole in the ground where it used to be. Its ashy remains scattered before us like dead memories.
“Bryce, what’s going on?”
When I turned back to him, he was gone.
My eyes frantically searched for him. Just then, something nipped at my skin. It felt like an ant bite. Not one, not two, but hundreds of little ants biting my legs. I jumped back, slapping my skin, but there was nothing there. Soon the sensation traveled to my torso and along my arms. It burned, tormenting me. The heat rose, sucking the breath out of my chest.
I tried to rub the sensation off my body with a force to save my life, but it grew stronger with each passing second. I began to scream and kick at anything. I screamed for Bryce, but he was gone. I stood and began a wobbly dash for his minivan, but it wasn’t there. The rain picked up speed, hitting my body like tiny stones. I ran with every bit of energy I had left, but one foot tripped over the other and I stumbled face first into a patch of water. I tried to push myself up, but my arms didn’t move. I couldn’t feel anything. The water traveled down my nose, filling my lungs. I coughed under the water, taking in more.
With a burst of adrenaline, I pushed myself up. My clothes were soaked with water. The rain showered over me. I coughed repeatedly, water spilling out of my mouth. My chest rose and fell like the speed of a jackhammer.
I looked up to a darkening sky. The stars had barely broken through.
“There you are.” I recognized my daughter’s voice. I glanced around. My jaw clamped from the cold and I kneeled in the water, covering my shivering arms.
I looked up. My daughter called out to me again, this time, her voice wept.
I took in a deep breath, then another. I pushed the wet hair out of my face.
Bryce,” I whispered. Tears warmed my face. “Where are you?”
When I heard his laugh, I felt the corners of my mouth slowly rise.
“Mommy!” My daughter came running down the small hill. “Where have you been?”
I glanced around, feeling him and taking in the fresh wind one pull at a time. I looked at my little girl who walked through the creek and stopped right in front of me. I rose from the water and smiled.
“Waiting for you.”