I had known Alex Newberry my entire life. He was the boy down the street during my childhood, the boy behind me throughout school, and the boy who I always wished would see me as more than just “one of the boys.” Especially since I was a girl.
But I’d never pressed for anything more. I didn’t want to ruin our friendship.
We’d stayed in touch even after I left town to pursue a new career. Throughout the year, we would exchange Emails and sometimes the occasional text. Only at my birthday and on Christmas did I receive snail mail from him. They were always hilarious and always perfect.
The day I received the small envelope in early Fall threw me for a loop. It was written in Alex’s neat print and had a pre-printed return label with his address, so I knew it was from him. I just didn’t know why. I was even more stunned when I slid my finger under the flap and pulled out the single sheet of paper folded in half.
I had been standing by the sofa in the living room when I opened the envelope. My eyes scanned the brief note inside, and my knees gave out. I collapsed to the sofa, tears rimming my eyes.
Alex’s grandmother, Nana Newberry, had passed away.
Visions played in my head like an old home movie. Mostly, they were of the summers swimming in the pond behind her house and the day-trips she’d invite me to go on with Alex. Both of my own grandmothers had passed away when I was still too young to remember them much. My loss was almost as deep as Alex’s was.
Once I’d caught my breath, I reached for my cell phone and pulled up his number. I tried to swallow my tears as I heard the line ring. I wasn’t surprised to receive his voicemail. He was probably busy making arrangements and handling family.
“Hey, Alex. It’s Jaynie. I got your letter. I’m so sorry. I’m booking a flight out tonight, and I’ll be there as soon as I can. If there’s anything you need, let me know. See you soon.”
I was already halfway to my bedroom when I clicked off the phone and shoved it into my pocket. My brain was on autopilot as I dragged my suitcase from the closet and gathered the necessary toiletries from the bathroom cabinets and drawers. I was folding socks and panties when I realized I should call the airport.
Less than an hour later, I was in the backseat of a cab and leaving a message on my boss’s phone telling him I would be out of town for a couple of days due to a family emergency. I arranged for a rental car and for nightly accommodations nearest to my hometown. I knew there was no place in town to stay, the population being barely just under five hundred. If anything had changed over the years, that definitely wasn’t one of them.
It wasn’t until I was seated on the plane, the city’s lights fading into dots below me that I let myself think about Nana again. I missed her hugs the most. Her squishy arms always surrounded me with such love. I felt protected. Wanted. My parents were always busy working. Nana was so much more than just an adoptive grandparent.
My mind wandered, and I remembered Alex’s hugs. I smiled, laughing softly at the memory of him hugging me tight with a toothy grin while Nana took our picture. Then he pushed me into the pond…with my clothes on. We were only six. But I was old enough to know that I liked Alex more than I liked other boys.
I was the only girl in the neighborhood, so I either had to adapt to being a tomboy or be left out. I chose the former, much to my mother’s dismay. I allowed her to enroll me in dance classes when she insisted I act more like a girl, but I secretly enjoyed playing with the boys more. I didn’t mind being the Indian the cowboys always captured and tied up. Or the robber they arrested with the plastic set of handcuffs. Or even Princess Leia, when they wanted to re-enact Star Wars, especially when Alex got to be Han Solo and rescue me.
I must have drifted off because the next thing I heard was the announcement to fasten our seatbelts and put seats and tray-tables in the upright position for landing. The plane was only half-full, so I was soon strolling through the nearly empty terminal and heading downstairs to collect my baggage and rental car. I grabbed a cup of coffee from the only open vendor and asked the information desk for directions to the hotel where I’d made reservations. There was nothing more I could do for Alex tonight.
But once I’d reached my destination, the last thing on my mind was sleep. My accommodations were comfortable, but not even a hot shower seemed to help. I crawled beneath the covers and turned on the TV, hoping I’d just fall asleep from boredom and get some rest before the hour drive to my hometown in the morning.
A ringing phone and the incessant chatter of a woman and man pulled me out of the strangest dream. I’d been fully dressed and standing by Nana’s pond, but I was thirty-four years old, not six. Alex walked towards me, his hands in the front pockets of his jeans, and he flashed his toothy grin at me. I reached for his hand, and I swear I stepped forward, but the next balgat escort thing I knew, I was falling backwards into the pond. I struggled to swim, the weight of my clothes pulling me underwater. Someone grabbed my hand, and then I woke up.
An automated wake-up call answered my sleepy greeting, and I clumsily set the receiver back on the handset and rolled over, groaning. That’s when I realized the morning news was playing on the TV. My body felt like it had been through a 5K run…or maybe it had struggled to stay above water. In either case, I dragged myself to the bathroom for another shower.
I decided on a simple navy pantsuit and pale-gray camisole blouse. It was cool but dark enough for the funeral, yet I didn’t feel completely dreary in it. Plus it emphasized my curves and long legs. Today, I felt like I wanted to be a girl in front of Alex. Not that it would matter.
After securing another cup of coffee, I took a deep breath and pointed the rental car towards my hometown. I remembered where the only funeral home was, and I had plenty of time before the services started. Yet, I was suddenly nervous. I hadn’t actually seen Alex in several years, despite our constant contact. I hated the fact that it took something like this to bring us together again. I promised myself that I would visit more often.
The parking lot was overflowing when I finally pulled up to the funeral home. I ended up parking half a block away on a side street and walking back to the large Victorian-style house that had been converted into the place where we said goodbye to our loved ones. Trees adorned with vibrantly colored leaves decorated the front yard. It looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, set right in the heart of my hometown.
I joined the throng of people who had come to pay their respects, and managed to find a seat in the back of the largest room that was always used for services. The belief in the community was that our two churches were for worship and weddings. Funerals were held at Thompkins & Sons, no matter if you were Catholic or Baptist.
I didn’t recognize a single person near me, but I was sure that Nana had known most of the town and then some, and I’d been a teenager when I’d left for college. I settled myself in and made sure I had my tissues accessible.
The service itself was lovely, and there were lots of tears from everyone. Alex even got up and made a speech at one point. While I knew I was there because of Nana, I couldn’t help staring at her grown grandson. His stature had reached at least six feet. He towered over me by at least five inches.
I don’t remember a word he said, but I could describe him with my eyes closed. His short brown hair, his tailored black suit and tie, the dimple in his right cheek when he smiled. He had green eyes, and I could imagine them sparkling while he talked about his grandmother, the corner of his eyes crinkling with his laughter.
People were standing up around me and talking, and I blinked, realizing that the service was over. I wiped at my eyes and stood, not sure what to do now. I slipped out of the row and away from the crowd. It was then that I noticed no one was by the open casket. I quietly made my way to the front of the room and stopped before Nana’s permanent expression of peace.
Tears tugged at the back of my throat, and I had to stop myself from reaching out to grasp her folded hands. The purple dress she was wearing went well with her silvery hair, and she looked as if she were asleep. I silently thanked her for all the good times we’d had together, for accepting me as one of her grandchildren, for making me feel wanted.
I don’t know how long I stood there, but I had the feeling that someone was watching me. I needed to move on. I kissed my fingertips and gently pressed them to her rubbery cheek. When I turned to leave, blazing green eyes met mine, and I gasped.
“Jaynie, you came.”
And then Alex’s arms pulled me against his hard body.
I wrapped him in my arms and held him tight, resting my cheek on his shoulder. I couldn’t believe how good he felt. Something deep inside of me stirred, and I had to force it back down. He was my best friend. It would never be anything more than that.
“Of course I came. I left you a message. I took the red-eye last night.”
“I’m sorry, I haven’t checked my phone. I hoped you’d come, but I wasn’t counting on it. “
I pulled away to look at his face. Our eyes met again, and I groaned inwardly. “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. She was like my own grandmother. Thank you for letting me know.”
“What about work?”
“They’ll survive without me for a couple of days.” I laughed and before I could wipe away my tears, his thumb brushed my cheek. I sucked back my breath and hid my surprise with a smile. “What can I do to help now that I’m here?”
Alex stared at me for a moment, a lopsided grin on his face. He blinked, and then his toothy grin came out full force, dimple included. “There’s a dinner at batıkent escort Nana’s house after we go to the cemetery. Do you have a car?”
“I have a rental. I’m staying in Rosewood at the Holiday Inn.”
“Let me tell Mom and Dad I’ll meet them. Do you mind driving?”
“No, lead the way.” I smiled and even felt a little giddy when he grabbed my hand and pulled me through the crowd that was slowly filtering out the front doors. I barely had a chance to say hello to his parents before he was heading in the direction where I said I’d parked my car. And then we were pulling out to line up behind the black sedan his parents were riding in and the hearse idling before them.
It suddenly occurred me to that everyone else was going to be following me. I must have looked nervous because Alex grasped my hand on the gearshift between us and squeezed it.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
I swallowed heavily and turned to smile at him. He was watching me, something unreadable in those green eyes. I opened my mouth to ask him what he was thinking, but nothing came out. And then he let go of my hand and motioned that we should move.
I was in a daze as I drove to the cemetery, sat through the rest of the ceremony, and climbed back into my car and drove us to Nana’s house. It wasn’t until we were sitting in her driveway that I felt the tears return. I hadn’t been here in so many years I couldn’t count them. I had been a horrible granddaughter, adopted or not.
“I know. I miss her, too.” Alex squeezed my hand again and then got out.
I swiped the back of my hand across my eyes and climbed out, automatically locking the car.
“No one’s going to steal it,” Alex laughed. It was a deep, comforting sound.
I shrugged. “It’s just a habit.”
He laughed again and wrapped an arm around my shoulders, guiding me up the drive. People were mingling on the wrap-around front porch, and the smell of fried chicken wafted out the screen on the front door.
It felt and smelled like home.
I had eaten my share of food and then some. At some point, Alex and I became separated amongst all the guests. I took the opportunity to sneak upstairs to use the larger bathroom. On my way back, I passed the room Nana used to sit in and work on projects. I remember her teaching me how to sew as I sat on a little cushioned stool.
I smiled, knowing I could sew a button back onto a blouse or a pair of pants, but that was all now. The sound from downstairs grew fainter as I moved closer to the window on the far side of the room. The pond in the backyard glittered back under the noon sun. Weeping Willows outlined the oasis of my youth, and for a moment, I longed for those days.
I longed to have Nana hug me one more time. The last time she had, I was leaving for college. She told me to be a good girl and make my parents proud. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d hugged my parents. Or seen them face-to-face. We talked about once a month, but they were always traveling now that they were retired. I bit back a laugh at the irony.
I wandered back downstairs, smiling and nodding at people who recognized me, although I couldn’t say who they were. That was the problem with small towns, and with moving away. All of the elderly people remembered when you were born and whom your parents were, but you rarely remembered anything about them, much less their names.
The crowd was smaller now, and I heard several women in the dining room and kitchen cleaning up the dishes. I hugged my arms to my chest and slowly walked down the long hallway to the back of the house. Framed photos hung on both sides of the wall, and I suddenly wished I’d had a grandmother growing up who’d had pictures of me on display. As much as Nana had tried to make me feel accepted in her home, I really wasn’t a part of her family.
I pushed pending tears away and stepped out the back door and down the steps to the yard. The sun was warm, and the pond beckoned me to it. I found myself standing on the small wooden dock Alex’s dad had built. One of the boards was broken, and the weather had done a good job fading the stain, but otherwise it was still sturdy.
A warm breeze blew up off the water, rustling through the switches on the Willow. I stretched out my arms to feel it, and took a big sigh. I hadn’t felt so relaxed in a long time. While I didn’t mind my job, I didn’t love it. While I loved traveling, I didn’t like having to do it for work.
What I wouldn’t give to be able to come home at the end of the day and sit out on a porch like the one at Nana’s and watch the sun go down instead of watching it from the sixth-floor balcony of my high-rise in the city. To hear the sound of crickets in the evening instead of the rush of traffic.
A board creaked behind me, and I spun around. Someone grabbed my hand as I stepped back, and I was suddenly back in my dream. I gasped and struggled to regain my balance. Instead of falling backwards into the water, I was jerked forward and into Alex’s strong beşevler escort embrace.
“Whoa! You okay, Jaynie?”
I caught my breath and swallowed, blinking away the remnants of my dream. “Yeah. Thanks. I must have slipped.”
“Everyone’s gone home.” He dropped his arms but didn’t move away.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. I’ll be on my way.” I started to walk past him, but he grabbed my wrist.
“Stay.” He released my hand and cleared his throat. “Please stay.”
I lifted my eyes to his and held his gaze. I wanted to reach out to touch him, to caress his cheek, to run my fingers through his hair. But I refrained and kept my hands at my sides. “Okay.”
His smile lit up his whole face, but there was a shadow in his eyes. He stared at me a moment longer and then said, “Let’s go back to my place so we can talk.”
I blinked, realizing what he’d said, and then I brushed away any ulterior motives. Of course, we’d go back to his place. We couldn’t stay at Nana’s. He’d be most comfortable in his home. And I wanted to see it. I really did.
We said goodbye to his parents inside, and then I followed his car across town to his small house. I parked behind him in a gravel driveway overgrown with weeds and stared at the weather-beaten boards of the house, the crooked front steps, the boards over one of the windows.
“It’s just a rental,” Alex laughed. He climbed out and ran his hand back through his hair as he headed back to my car. “I’ve actually been living with Nana, taking care of her. When she had to go to the hospital, I got this place. We weren’t sure what to do with her house.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“It’s okay, Jaynie. This place was a steal. Besides, Nana left me her house in her will, so once we clean the place out, I’ll be moving back there.”
“What? That’s wonderful! Congrats, Alex. I know you love it there.” I couldn’t stop myself from hugging him. Or feeling the slightest bit jealous. When our eyes met again, I stepped back and shut the driver’s side door. I cleared my throat and my thoughts. “So, let’s see what we’ve got.”
“Be careful of the first step.” He held out his hand and helped me up to the front porch. He wrestled with the lock on the door and then it swung open into a clean living room. The carpet was definitely dated, and the walls needed a good coat of paint, but his modern leather and oak furniture minimized the noticeable eyesores. “Want something to drink?”
“Sure, whatever you’re having.” I glanced around, setting my purse on an end table. Typical masculine knickknacks decorated the few shelves on the walls: various sports paraphernalia, photos of Alex and his buddies, a couple of dusty mugs from a tavern in Florida.
My eyes stopped on a photo of two young kids. A boy and a girl. The glass was cleaner than the rest of the photos, and the metal frame was brushed nickel rather than the standard black plastic frames on the others.
“That’s us at Nana’s pond.” Alex handed me a glass of cola and picked up the frame. He took a sip of his own soda and put the frame back after a moment, snorting softly. “I shoved you into the water after she snapped the picture.”
I gulped. I had forgotten that part. That when Nana had lifted her camera, she’d told Alex to put his arm around me and smile. He hadn’t wanted to hug me. Maybe I’d pretended all along that he liked hanging out with me.
But he’d kept the picture. He’d kept it clean and prominently displayed.
I took a sip of my drink and moved to sit on the sofa. The leather squeaked as I sank into the corner with a soft sigh. It was comfortable. So much so that I toed off my heels and curled my legs up underneath me. The heat of the afternoon sun streaming in the bare window behind me warmed the material, and I laid my head back for a moment and breathed deep.
“It’s quiet here.” I kept my eyes closed and smiled sadly. “I miss this.”
The sofa squeaked again, and the weight on the cushion next to me shifted.
For the longest time, neither of us talked. The only sound was the clinking of ice in our glasses and the occasional car driving by outside. I didn’t want to move. I wished I could just curl up and take a nap right where I was. And when I woke, I wouldn’t have to go back to the city. Back to my hectic life. I wanted the tranquil days of my youth again.
I frowned. Were they ever really that great? Alex always made them better, but maybe that’s because I could escape from reality when I was around him.
“What’s got you thinking so hard, Jaynie?”
My eyes fluttered open to stare into his only a foot away. His head lay against the back of the sofa, just like mine, and a soft smile turned up the corners of his mouth. I shrugged and finished off my soda, setting my glass on the coffee table. “Trying to remember why I thought my childhood was so happy.”
“It wasn’t all that bad. You had me.”
I made an unladylike snort and smirked. “My point exactly.”
He raised his hand. “If I didn’t know you better…”
I flinched, expecting him to smack my arm. Instead, his fingers brushed my temple, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. I held my breath and my heartbeat picked up when his fingers lingered. They grazed over my cheek when he finally lowered his hand, and I wished he’d put his hand back.