"I'm so sorry, Mary." I remembered hearing those words and thinking of what they meant. It couldn't be possible. No… there was no way it was possible. I hated that my thoughts immediately went to this idea. It was all a joke, right? Just a cruel, sadistic joke. He loved jokes. I remember how much he loved to joke around all the time. That's it, Mary, I tried to comfort myself. It's all just a joke. Nothing more. Because what those words imply can't be real. They can't.
I looked up at the nurse and laughed. I laughed. I laughed so hard tears came to my eyes. Joyful tears, I was sure. Why did Chris have to play such a mean joke on me? Was it because it was my fault? The nurse had given me a look that said, what a miserable child. But I didn't care. Nothing mattered at all. I ran to his hospital room, literally tearing through two white-dressed nurses on my way.
I remember stumbling into the plain, white-walled room and falling to my knees beside the bed. His face was covered. I felt cold. Like I would never be happy again. I rubbed my arms, attempting to heat my body up, but it was all in vain; nothing could stop the ice from spreading throughout my body, freezing me from the inside.
"Chris…." I had whispered. "Why play such a mean joke on me? Huh? Come on! Answer me, Chris… take that sheet off your face; you're not fooling me." I ignored the fact that his chest failed to rise and fall with the signs of life. I ignored that fact that he was completely prone, unmoving.
I watched his body. Waiting—willing—him to suddenly jump up and start laughing at my distraught expression. The cold… it wouldn't go away. "Ha-ha! Mary, you are so naïve! Did you really think I'd leave so easily? Wow. Put more faith in me, Mary."
But he didn't.
He didn't move again.
I remembered that it was then that it hit me. The cold surrounding me was unbearable, inconceivable. I jumped to my feet, forcing my way past the nurse who had come to me. She gave me a sympathetic face, but I ignored it. I didn't deserve sympathy when I had caused his de-…. his de-…. This. I couldn't say it. I just couldn't. There was now way, just no way that this was really happening.
His death. I had caused my best friends death.
I was a murderer.
After that incident, I didn't go to his funeral. I left town. I was only nineteen, but I needed to leave. My home had too many memories… to much hurt.
What hurt the most was that I hadn't told him how I felt. Never. Not once had I told Chris that I loved him. I loved him since the day I met him. Since the first time I set my eyes on him. Since that single moment… that fateful encounter. There was no way that anyone could replace the love I lost that way… and no one ever did.
I never went home, not for twenty long years. It's kind of funny, really. How I still consider it "home". There had been nothing there left for me, nothing at all. When I was thirteen, my mom, my dad, and my little sister had died in a car crash. The only thing that had kept me going was Chris. Chris had taught me that no matter what, I had to continue living. "What would they say, huh, Mary?" he had asked me countless times. "They'd be disgusted, you know, if you just gave up. I know I would be." I recalled his expression when he said that, all serious, deadly serious. The way he held my face in his hands, slightly roughly handled, his face so close to mine, his breath tickling my lips, I will never forget it. It was the moment I realized I loved him.
It was the moment I realized it, but I had been madly in love with him all along. It had just taken a while for me to admit it, to notice it.
But now Chris was gone. He had left me just like my family. He knew all along, I suppose, that he would leave me. He was dying. I knew it and he knew it. I knew it, but never truly knew it. Not until he died. Not until he left me. It was only the words he spoke to me so long ago that kept me going. I didn't want him to be disgusted with me.
Now, twenty long years late, I came back. I was happily married to man I had met when I was twenty-one. His name was Richard. I had two kids, a daughter named Lisa, after my dead little sister, and my son named Daniel, after my father. I couldn't name either of them Chris. No, Chris was just Chris. I couldn't use his name like that. I didn't want my memories of Chris to have my son making it incredibly awkward.
I loved Richard. I really did. But he wasn't Chris. I had never even told Richard about Chris or why I needed to go back to town I was born in after twenty years. He didn't ask why I had to go alone, either. He respected me enough to know and trust that I would never cheat on him, or do anything that would harm him or our children in any way.
I reached the old camp. It looked the same to me. Same old breaking benches. Same tall, dwarfing trees. Same old playground. Same old creek. Same old… everything. But, of course, nothing was the same. I just liked to think that life had stopped here after I had left. This was our spot. So, life should have stopped moving here when we both left. But it didn't. There was less trees, some obviously had fallen down, for reasons I could only guess at, and some had been cut. The swings on the sing set had just about all fallen apart and the slide was unkempt and rusting. The benches were vandalized and in disrepair. The trees looked withered, like they had declined because their favorite entertainment had fled: us and our innumerable games.
The gravel crunched as I drove up and I could see the tree to my left. The one Chris had scratched out names into. Like we were the owners of this land. This park. "See?" we used to ask the other children when they questioned our authority. "It's our park. Our turf. So you all gotta follow our rules." And after they saw the proof—our names etched into the surface of the biggest, most impressive tree—they believed us and treated our word like law.
I took a deep, meditational breath, closing my eyes, and then I steeled myself and opened my car door. I wobbled slightly, feeling oddly unsteady on my feet, but quickly righted myself and began walking confidently down the path, my chin held high. With a simple click of a button, my car beeped in response and I knew I had locked it.
I walked slowly at first, and then gained pace. I stopped by the swing set and sat down on one of the few good swings left. Luckily, it didn't break on me. I sighed and began to swing. Not high. Just a little, relaxing swing. I gazed at my surroundings, taking it all in. How many times had I sat in this exact place with Chris? How many times did I cry in this exact place with him?
I remembered how this was the place Chris had taken me right after I had found out about my sister and my parents. "Remember, Mary? This is where we first met." He had pointed to the slide with his thin finger. He had always been thin. It was because of his illness. "There." He had said. "There is where we first met."
And I had nodded. I remembered. How could I forget? Little Chris, little delicate, thin Chris had saved me from some older bullies who were tugging on the braids my mom had done. They were making fun of the clothes I wore, the shoes I had on, the way I talked and walked and everything else. And then my savior had come. Chris. I watched as he stood up to those big bullies, his thin frame nothing compared to the huge intimidating figures before him.
And they had backed off. At that time, I had acted like he had saved my life. And, really, he had. If he hadn't had the courage to fend them off, we would have never met. If he hadn't been there for me at that time, he would have never been there for me when my parents died. And I knew I would have died as well. I would have committed suicide. If not that, I would have died on the streets without his family taking me in.
I got off the swing and headed over to the slide. It was a shame, really, that it was so old now. I knew that it would break if I tried to use it, and I did not want that, so I left it alone and continued on my way to the benches. I sat down on the only one that actually still resembled a bench-like shape.
I sat there deep in thought for what seemed like eternity, but was only just an hour or two. I stared at the creek. That was where we used to sit and talk about everything and anything. That was where he had shown me a frog's egg sack. That was where we had always splashed around in the water, laughing and not caring about the world.
It was also where I had last seen Chris alive.
He had taken me there bright and early, all cheerful and happy. We had sat at the banks and talked about school, life, anything at all. He told me after a while that he wasn't feeling well and I let him walk home. I should've gone with him, I had told myself over and over again. If I had walked him back, Chris might've not died.
But I hadn't. And because of that, he died. I had stayed where I was, half asleep after he had gone. When his mom had came for me, white with shock, and told me that they had found Chris lying on the sidewalk on his way home, not breathing, I had flew to the hospital. My fault, my fault my fault! It kept running through my head the entire way there. He had said he felt sick, so why hadn't I walked him back? I was a horrible friend. The worst.
And after I realized he died, I knew it was my fault. I had killed him. I had run away without even saying good bye to his mom and dad, the two people who had taken care of me since I was thirteen. I thought about visiting them again, hundreds of times, but I either never had time, or I couldn't face them with the knowledge that I had killed their son.
Logically, I hadn't killed Chris. He was bound to die early eventually, but my brain wouldn't accept that logic. It kept insisting that his death was my fault. My own fault.
Suddenly, I was aware of someone sitting next to me. I looked over at an old woman, probably in her seventies, sitting beside me on the bench. She smiled, her mouth crinkling up. "Hello. I'm sorry to suddenly pop in next to you, but this is the only bench left standing. I hope you don't mind."
I recognized her. Oh god no, Was all I could think. I gulped and attempted a weak smile in return. "N-no. of course not." It was Kristen, Mrs. Felix, Chris's mom.
She held out her hand. I shook it with trembling fingers. "This place holds so many great memories for me. I come here every day. Since my husband passed away a few years ago, it has been lonely. There are no children running around like they used to. I miss their laughs." Her tone was wistful. "That's why it's nice to see someone else here."
"Yeah," I replied, feeling uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry, dear, but you remind me of someone. Can I please see your face?" It surprised me to realize that I was unconsciously shifting my head away from her, so I wouldn't risk being recognized.
I hesitated, and then turned.
"Mary!" she said, shocked. "Is it you?"
I ducked my head in acknowledgement and shame. "Yes, Mrs. Felix." I mumbled.
And she hugged me. Kristen Felix wrapped her surprisingly tight arms around her son's killer and shook. When she pulled away, I saw tears on her face. I didn't want to be the object of her sorrow.
"I'm sorry, don't cry." I said uncomfortably.
"Sorry! Why are you sorry? I'm happy." She reached hurriedly into her pocket, struggling because of her excitement. She pulled out a wrinkled, old piece of paper. I stared at it, my eyes wide.
"I've been carrying it around for two decades. Just in case I ran into you. I never stopped hoping that I would see you again." She looked up at my face, her eyes full of sadness. "I couldn't stand the thought of leaving this world without first finding you and giving you this. I'm glad I have the chance."
"What—what is it?"
"It's C-Chris's last words to you." She held it out with wobbling hands. I noticed how she stumbled on her dead son's name. What affected me most was the knowledge of what her words implied. She had considered suicide over her son's death, but couldn't because of a single letter. A letter Chris wrote, to be exact. So had he saved his mother's life as well as mine? Had the letter been the only thing anchoring Kristen Felix to this world?
I looked away. "I—I can't, Mrs. Felix."
"Why not?" she huffed. She was always like that. A no-nonsense lady.
"I—I killed him. It's my fault he died." It was my first time speaking these words out loud. They sent a shock through my core and I jumped slightly. "If I hadn't stayed that day, Chris would still be here." A second later, I felt my shoulders shake and wetness travel from my eyes to my chin and drip down from there.
Mrs. Felix paused and then wrapped her arms around my convulsing shoulders. "Dear girl, you've been holding this all these years?" I nodded and wiped my eyes with my sleeve. "No, it most definitely was not your fault. And even if it was, I would not let you leave until my son's last wish was granted—until you read his last words."
"How can you say that it was not my fault?" I choked out, forcing my shudders to stop.
She sighed, looking very sad. "Chris knew he was going to die soon. The doctors told him he had very little time left. He was born with failing organs, it's a miracle he survived as long as he did." She stuffed the paper into my hand. "Now read, Mary."
I took the paper and slid it open. The first words were "I'm sorry"
I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I couldn't tell you to your face. I'm dying. No, if you are
reading this, then I'm already dead. I'm sorry that I couldn't protect you forever.
I'm sorry that I failed as your friend. You know, you were the only thing that kept
me going. When I was old enough to realize I was going to die soon, I felt like just
ending it. Then I met you. And I realized a lot of things that I ignored before.
There are people who would miss me. So I prolonged it. The doctors said it was a
miracle that I survived for as long as I did. But it wasn't. You were the miracle,
Mary. Not me. you were the one who kept a dying boy alive for as long as he did.
I just regret that I couldn't be there to watch you grow up. But, if there is an after-
life, then know this: I will always be by your side.
Mary, I knew that you were in love with me. But I was not in love with you.
And you were not in love with me. I was the only one you saw, so you thought that
you loved me. Believe me, Mary. Don't hurt yourself by thinking about what
could have been. I know you. You will kill yourself by torturing yourself with
thoughts of "What could have been", but nothing could have been, Mary, it was
a one-sided love. So don't torture yourself. Please, for me?
I choked and held my hand over my mouth to keep from sobbing again. That was so harsh. My life seemed to crumble around my shoulders, and at that moment, I truly hated Chris. I hated him for just telling me so easily that he didn't love me.
"Honey, don't cry." Mrs. Felix grabbed my face and forced me to look at her. "He was lying."
"What?" I squeaked.
"Chris was lying. He was dreadfully in love with you, Mary, and he saw that you were in love with him. But he was dying, dear. He knew he could never be with you, so he wanted you to think that you were never going to be together, so that you could go on with your life without living in the fantasy of what could have been. He loved you, love. You were the only one for him."
I just watched her, shuddering. "He was in love with me." I said flatly. I couldn't wrap my mind around it. All that time…. He was in love with me?
"He sure was, Mary." She sighed. "Mary, why don't you come back with me? We'll have a nice long chat." She looked at me hopefully.
I nodded and smiled weakly. "Sure, Mrs. Felix. Anything for you." I knew how much this meant to her. She used to walk to and from the park either with Chris and me or with Mr. Felix. Now she was alone. But I could change that. At least this once.
We stood and began walking in silence. It wasn't an awkward silence. It was more of a comfortable, contemplating silence. And I was content with just that.
I looked back after a bit and my eyes widened. Chris was sitting behind the bench—behind the spot I had been at. He watched me with his blue eyes. They were full of sadness. He looked just as he had the day he died—tall, lanky, pale, and beautiful. He gave me a small wave and turned away, disappearing into the sunlight.
I knew why I had never seen him with me before now. He had been behind me, always watching, always making sure I was okay. Chris had probably followed me for two decades, watching as I fell in love with Richard, had two kids, and left my life with him behind. But he had smiled. He had waved. He had been there for me.
I looked ahead and saw Mrs. Felix waiting for me. I had stood staring for long enough. I smiled and hurried over to Mrs. Felix. I had thought she would blame me for Chris's death, little did I know that i actually had a place to return to.