All is vanity and a chasing after wind. ~ Ecclesiastes 1:14
With one last tug Rae tightened the yellow ribbon into a perfect bow. “This is how we’ll remember each other.” She stepped back to admire her handiwork, tilted her head in satisfaction, then turned and ran from the shaded spot under the willow tree where we spent our afternoons together.
I didn’t bother chasing her; I knew we’d still have our night together. And, I’d get to see her sunshiny smile every time I stroked the soft edges of that ribbon. That would have to be enough.
A cluster of twisted roots dug into my tailbone, but I couldn’t bring myself to move, not just yet. Rae’s silhouette grew smaller until she disappeared altogether. It was the first time she didn’t look back to give me that reassuring smile I’d grown to rely on—the one that kept me from jumping off the third level of Billy’s barn loft. And the one that reassured me the battle wounds from Dad’s last outburst were a part of a passing season, nothing more than a blip on the radar. That smile was my salvation.
“I’m worried about Ronny,” Mom said to Aunt Pauline. “He’s not adjusting.”
It was hard to believe they didn’t know their voices carried through the open screen as they sat at that table spilling out their souls and the secrets of half the town.
“I know. Mrs. Daphne sees him sitting under that tree every morning when she leaves for work and in the same spot when she returns.” She coughed to clear her throat. “It’s not healthy, Pat, it’s just not.”
From where I sat I could hear thirty years of chain smoking wheeze through my aunt’s heavy sigh. Even from here I couldn’t escape their sighs.
The leaves overhead rustled and I was grateful for the distraction. I shifted my weight into the contour of the tangled roots—roots that twisted in bulges as they pushed back up through toughened ground in search of something. Each mangled vein was a reminder of the struggles attached to growth. Settling back against the trunk, I began admiring the way the sun played off the silver, lifeless leaves. Any day now they would begin their descent, where they’d burrow back into hardened earth and infuse new life into the willow just in time for spring. While robins and sparrows filled the air with song, the smell of early autumn mold was undeniable, the scent of rotting earth was unavoidable.
Shards of light danced on my chest and bare legs. Rae always told me I was a diamond locked in a forgotten cellar. I was full of luster, like something brand new. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, Ronny,” she’d say, her face crooked to give her raised eyebrow more emphasis. I rolled Rae’s words around, allowing silver light to shimmer around them. I have my whole life ahead of me. What was that even worth anymore?
Eyes closed, I reached my arms overhead and wrapped them as far as they would reach around the tree’s trunk. The already fraying edges of the ribbon tickled my fingertips. I traced along the familiar trunk and recommitted each rough groove and worn smooth spot to memory, lingering a while before I traced over the engraved R + R, which looked like an R x R and thus gave us more mileage out of our connectedness.
When we were kids we spent hours by the abandoned railroad station reenacting anything from last decade’s circus act to the turn of the century’s hustle and bustle boomtown depot. Sometimes we snuck out in the middle of the night and met each other in one of the three abandoned boxcars that stood out from the landscape as tattooed rebels. As we got older we’d kiss and talk about our future, holding each other until the dawn of another day threatened to expose us. I knew every scar, mole, and beautiful curve of Rae’s entire being, sometimes discovering things she hadn’t even noticed yet. There wasn’t a piece of her I didn’t learn to appreciate.
Rae’s humming as she approached made me smile. Her voice, sweet with a woody afterthought, was often the only sound that could lull me to sleep. I kept my eyes closed and found the rhythm of her steps, which were occasionally muffled by the soft patches of grass that grew in wild clumps and littered random spots of our yard. A clink like that of a wind chime added a nice tempo. Yes, I inhaled her lavender scent as it mixed with autumn air, I knew she’d come right back.
“Here.” She stretched her hand down and pressed a sweating, cool glass against my hand. “If I didn’t check on you, you’d rot of neglect.” The smile in those words still lingered in her curled lips when I opened my eyes.
“I miss you when you’re away.” I reached my empty hand toward her.
She accepted it and knelt beside me, then kissed my half parted lips with urgency— floral pine with a hint of nutmeg. Then, just as she’d done earlier, she stood up and ran away._
“Wait, Rae!” I jumped up. The glass crashed to the ground and busted into pieces. “I’m not ready for you to leave.” I ran after her with more determination than in times past. It was no use though; she was always a stronger runner. As I hesitated, dodging large pebbles and potholes, she skimmed over the road like a gazelle and vanished behind the first hill before I made it to the top.
How could I let her slip away, again?
She’d be back, I remembered. She couldn’t live without me.
The ribbon was missing when I returned to our shaded spot. There, stuck above the space my head had worn smooth, a single yellow thread fluttered in the breeze at half-mast.
Who on earth or in heaven would rob me of this, too?
Award winner in Oakland University’s 2013 Alumni Flash Fiction Contest