CAROLINA

Carolina sat at her kitchen table watching her mother cook breakfast. Although it was still early, it was already turning into a hot day. Carefully she leaned back in her chair, fanning herself with her open hand. The air conditioning was on a high as it could possibly go and yet it still felt like a sauna in the kitchen. As Carolina watched her mother, Jane, cook she noticed how elegant she was. Even though Jane was standing over the hot stove, wearing her silk robe, she didn't seem to break a sweat. In Carolina's eyes, her mother was a queen.

"So birthday girl," Jane said gracefully crossing the kitchen and setting Carolina's plate on the table. "How about I give you one of your birthday presents right now?" Carolina sat up a little straighter, half-heartedly nodding. This heat was terrible. Jane turned gliding quickly out of the room. Again Carolina slumped in her chair, smiling at her mother's excitement. As she looked down to her plate she laughed. Her eggs and bacon were arranged like a smile, and there was an unlit candle sticking crookedly out of the chocolate chip muffin that her mom made every year for her birthday.

A few minutes later, after she had begun picking at her food, Jane floated back in, humming "Happy Birthday."

"Ta Da!" she exclaimed, tossing the box she held into Carolina's lap.

"Mom, you're like a child." Carolina laughed examining the package.

"Yeah, a forty year old child. I act my age all the time, why should I at my daughter's seventeenth birthday breakfast? Alright Caro, open it."

Carefully Carolina placed the box on the table in front of her. It was no bigger than a child's school lunch box, like the one she used in elementary school. Slowly she pulled of the wrapping paper, smashing it into a ball. She used her butter knife to rip through the tape across the top and lifted open the flaps. Inside was a dress.

Jane reached into the box, pulling it out so Carolina could see the whole thing. It was dark blue, with tiny silver threads that ran from the straps down to the waist creating a beautiful design.

"Mom, it's beautiful."

"I knew you'd say that. That is why you are wearing it on your date tonight." Jane smiled, carefully folding the dress again and laid it back in the box. She then walked across the kitchen and turned around, resting her back against the cold refrigerator door.

"You mean you are still going to make me go out with this guy? I don't even know him. Come on Mom."

"Caro, you need this. Now, as your mother I should be the one discouraging you from dating, but…" She crossed the kitchen and sat down, placing her hand on her daughter's wrist. "After your father died when you were fifteen, you put up this shell. It's time to break through. You are going out with Russ."

"Russ?"

"You remember the little boy you used to play with when you were little?"

"No."

"He is home for the summer from college and you two are going out tonight. Now don't try to fight either. He'll be picking you up at 8."

That day, Carolina and her mother stayed at home, sitting on the couch and watching television. It was a tradition that they had had since Carolina was a little girl. Jane claimed it was because she was doing the same thing the day she went into labor.

For dinner they ate takeout from a small Chinese restaurant that closed a six o'clock every night, even during the summer. After they ate the two went into Carolina's bedroom to prepare her for her date.

"So, tell me about Russ. If you are going to make me go with him, I should at least know something about him."

"Well, he's nineteen, he just finished his first year at UNC, and his dad used to work with your father. You two used to play together when you were about three or four. I can't believe you can't remember him. You two were practically inseparable."

"Come here and help me with this." Carolina stepped out of her closet, holding a necklace out to her mother. She was wearing the dress; it looked very casual, but just as beautiful now that she was wearing it.

"Why don't you wear a little make up?" Jane asked, clasping the necklace on her daughter's neck.

"You know how much I hate make up." Carolina looked at herself and her mother in the mirror that hung over her dressing table. They looked very much alike. Same high cheekbones, same almond shaped green eyes. Carolina, however, had long red hair, while her mother had short brown hair in what she called "The Mom Cut."

"So what are you gona do while I'm gone?"

"Jackson is coming over."

"Oh, Mom, Jackson? He is so cheesy."

"Only when you are around. Now listen miss." She said in reaction the her daughter pained expression, "Jackson is a wonderful man. You just don't like him because he isn't your father."

"Mom…" her mother cut her off by holding up her hand.

"Carolina listen. When you were born, your father and I made a promise to each other that if anything happened to us, we wouldn't dwell on the past. We would live your lives, even if it means getting married again. So… are you ready?"

"Yes." Carolina looked at herself in the mirror one last time and turned to walk out of her room. Just as she reached the door, there was a faint knock from below. Stopping dead in her tracks she looked over at her mother. Taking her cue, Jane brushed past her, floating down the stairs to the front door. Carolina listened closely as her mother answered the door. A moment later the sound of her voice floated up the stairs, calling Carolina down.

Slowly she descended. Halfway down, when she was able to see Russ' face, she paused, almost tripping. She remembered him now, only vaguely but just enough. He was just like her memories, just older. His eyes were dark brown, almost black, and he had dark curly hair. Suddenly Carolina felt that she was over dressed, then she noticed the dress pants he wore and she calmed down a bit. When she finally reached the bottom of the stairs, she looked up at him and then over at her mother, smiling weakly. Quickly Jane pecked her daughter on the cheek and ushered them out of the door, slamming it behind them.

It was too late to turn back now. Carolina looked around nervously, then quickly up at Russ. He was looking down at her.

"Shall we go?" he motioned towards his car. They crossed the porch and the yard. On arriving at the car he stepped out in front of her, opening the passenger door. Sliding in, she watched as he closed the door, then walked around the front of the car, getting in on the drivers side. "So you didn't know about this until last night, huh?" He asked pulling away from the curb and driving down the street, pausing at the stop sign at the end. As they crossed the intersection, Carolina could vaguely make out the face of Jackson in a passing car.

"Nope. She totally sprung it on my. An extra little birthday present."

"Speaking of which, happy birthday. So first on the list, the short one part list, desert and a movie."

"Where are we going to do this?" Oddly Carolina felt herself relaxing as they drove. Memories of the past were flooding over her like rain.

"A special place. Lets call this my birthday present to you Caro."

"Caro… only my mom calls me that."

"Actually, I was the only person who called you that. But you were only three then. It's normal that you don't remember."

"I do though, only a few things. Did we ever go swimming in a lake?"

"Hmm." He smiled, remembering the past. "Yep, our moms were taking a vacation together. They took us to the lake house my parents used to own."

"Yeah." She turned in her seat, looking at him. "There was that big thunder storm, and instead of going to my moms room, I went to yours. How old was I then?"

"You were about four. I think you had just had your birthday. That's when I started

calling you Caro. A few months later we moved, and by the time we moved back, I was ten. I didn't want to hang out with any girls." Russ turned his head towards Carolina and smiled.

"How do you remember all this?" She turned back in her seat, relaxing even more into the soft leather of the upholstery. They were outside of town now, driving past a few farmhouses and barns.

"You are a hard person to forget, Carolina." He slowed down a bit and turned onto a dirt road. The sun was just beginning to set, turning the sky a deep orange. The dust that flew around as the tires kicked it up was flecked with gold. He looked at her again and smiled, then pulled the car over to the side of the road. Getting out, he walked around to her door and opened it. He held out his hand, took hers, and pulled her out of the car.

Still holding it he led her across the road to an old barn. As they went in through the half open door she saw it was quite small. There were empty stalls along one side, and a loft over them. The opposite wall was bare. Ross led her up a ladder into the loft and they sat down against a bale of hat, facing the blank wall.

"So… movie…" he reached behind them and picked up a remote control, pointing at something behind their heads. Carolina was amazed as a movie began playing on the blank wall. "And desert." He turned again, reaching behind the bale and pulled out a plate with a cover over it. Carefully setting the plate on the ground in front of her, he pulled of the cover. Sitting there was a little cupcake with the word "CARO" on the top.

"To think I couldn't remember you." Carolina said after the movie had finished, and they had sat talking for a while. They were sitting very close together. Russ shifted around in front of her. Before this night, Carolina would have been completely uncomfortable with being this close to someone. Russ reached out to her and took her hand in both of his and pulled her closer to him.

"I could never forget about you." Gently her kissed her cheek, and pulled away to look into her eyes. He lifted his hands up to her cheeks and slid them behind her neck letting them rest on her shoulders. She lifted her hands to his chest and ran them to his shoulders.

"I have one more thing. It wasn't exactly planned." He stood, taking her hand and pulling her up to him. He pulled her hand to his shoulder, letting his fall to her waist. With the other hand he held hers out and began to sway to music that neither could hear.

Minutes passed by and they continued to dance. She rested her head on his shoulder, letting herself sink into his arms. He stopped moving and wrapped his arms around her; holding on like he never wanted to let go. After a minute he let go, pulling her over to the bale of hay, and sat down pulling her close to him again. Slowly time ticked by, and they sat, listening to the sound of the night. When he finally checked the time he groaned.

"Eleven forty-five."

"No." she said, pressing her face into his chest.

"Time to get up. I promised your mom I would have you home by midnight."

"Why do you have to act so reliable?"

"So that your mom will let me take you out again tomorrow."

As they drove home, she leaned her head on his shoulder and listened to him tell a story about their past. "How could I have forgotten this boy?" she wondered. Finally arriving at her house, she looked out the window. Jackson's car was already gone and she could see the light on in the kitchen window. Russ got out of the car and went around and opened hers. He took her hand and walked with her up to the porch.

"So, I'll see you tomorrow?" she asked looking up at him.

"Well," he looked at his watch. "It is tomorrow." The hands on the face read 12:01.

"So, I'll see you today?" From inside her mother flicked the porch light, letting Carolina know it was time to come inside. Just as she reached for the doorknob, he placed his hand on her elbow. As she turned around he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and pulling her close he kissed her, the world disappearing around them. Again the porch light flickered, and she broke away. With out another word she turned around and went inside.

As Russ walked to his car he smiled. He had finally won back the girl he had loved since he was five years old.