"If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.
If it comes back to you, it's yours forever.
If it doesn't, it was never yours to begin with." – Unknown
There was something about sleeping in your own bed that I never really appreciated until today. The way the mattress holds a perfect mold of your body, how the pillows are positioned just the way you like them, how the morning rain splatters against your window with an easy tap tap tap. It's warm, it's familiar, it's home.
Shifting on my side, I opened my eyes slowly and blinked at my flower-patterned pillowcase. It was like I knew the pattern by heart. I also knew the white un-wallpapered walls of my room by heart, the creaky wooden floors tarnished with scuff marks, the dark blue curtains covering the window, the photographs taped to the walls, the sprawling maps of varying colors and designs and locations. I knew every book on my bookshelf, every CD stacked next to my stereo, every red X marking down the days on my calendar.
The plane ticket on my desk and the packed suitcases by my door were the only things that were out of place, and for a moment, I didn't want to leave. I loved living in this rickety old house with my brother Phillip and his best friend. I realized how much I liked the feeling of being surrounded by things I knew, even the simplest things.
But then I thought about the new things I could see with that plane ticket and I knew I was doing the right thing. That didn't make the goodbye any less bittersweet, though.
There was a sudden knock on my door and it swung open.
"Time to get your ass out of bed, lazybones," a familiar voice said.
"Get out of my room, Sam," I replied, my voice hoarse with sleep.
It was our routine. It had been since I moved in three years ago after I graduated high school. The exchange didn't sound as lighthearted as it usually did, though. There was an odd heaviness in the air between us, and I knew it was because I was leaving.
Crossing his arms and leaning against the doorframe, Sam watched me with those brown eyes that I had always classified as pretty with their green undertones and long eyelashes. I had known him since he moved to our sleepy little town of Wells, Vermont when he was twelve. As an eight-year-old, I had just seen him as Phillip's scrawny, mildly annoying friend and couldn't have cared less. Playing running back for the Wells High School football team had gotten rid of the scrawniness, and letting my brother and me hang out at his house when ours was in shambles had made him grow on me. Fourteen years later, he was still mildly annoying but I couldn't imagine life without him.
"You gonna miss me calling you 'lazybones' every morning?" he asked, rubbing the dark stubble on his jaw.
I hiked my blanket up to my chin. "No," I said bluntly. "I prefer not be verbally abused before 10am."
He gave me a slow, crooked smile. "Liar."
I pursed my lips, shaking my head, but I couldn't help but smile.
He came into the room, glanced at my suitcases, and plopped himself down in my desk chair. "You all ready to go?" he asked.
I sat up in my bed, pressing my back against the wall. "I think so," I said. "Thailand, here I come."
Twisting in the chair, he looked up at the large map above my desk. "It's crazy to think you'll be on the other side of the world."
"It's great, Sahara," he told me, meeting my eyes. "Really. This is going to be great for you."
"I know," I answered softly.
A few months back, I had applied to a photography apprenticeship in Thailand. I was so fed up with my waitressing job at Bobby's Diner, and I couldn't wait to get out of Vermont. It had been a long shot, but the acceptance email came through and I had never been so excited about anything my whole life. Phillip and Sam had been incredibly supportive, even helping me out with buying plane tickets and getting a new Nikon camera. They had been acting slightly off around me, though, like they thought I'd never come back.
"Listen," Sam said, "Phillip had to take an extra shift at the garage, so I'll drive you to the airport tonight."
"Oh." I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. "You don't have to do that. I can just take the bus."
"I'm driving you," he stated in a don't-argue-with-me tone. "What time's your flight again?"
"It takes off at 2am," I said.
He nodded. "Let's plan to leave here at 9pm, then. That'll give you enough time at the airport."
We fell quiet for a moment, listening to the rain patter outside. Belatedly noticing he wasn't wearing the uniform of the construction company he worked for, I frowned at him.
"Why aren't you dressed for work?" I asked.
"I'm not going today," he replied simply.
"We have other plans."
He gestured to both of us.
I gave him a look. "I wasn't aware of any plans, Sam," I told him. "I have a really important day planned already."
He gave me a look, too. "Harry Potter movie marathon?"
I hated that he knew me so well. "Which qualifies as a plan," I said, slightly indignant.
"Maybe on a normal Saturday," he replied. "But this is your last Saturday in Wells and I think that deserves something a little more memorable than a movie marathon."
"A Harry Potter movie marathon," I emphasized. "Who knows the next time I'll be able to watch those movies again—"
He smiled and shook his head. "Shut up," he said, getting up. "Get dressed and meet me downstairs."
He walked out of the door, closing it behind him. I hugged my knees and rested my chin on top of them, realizing just how much I was going to miss Sam and his wakeups and those little half-smiles he saved just for me.
Shutting her door, Sam stood outside for a couple of moments, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. He had accepted that she was leaving months ago, but now that the day had come, he couldn't ignore the sinking feeling in his chest. He had known this would happen ever since she started counting down the days on her calendar with an excited grin on her face.
What he hadn't known was that he would feel such a strong urge to tell her not to go. It was a purely selfish notion, one he wasn't proud of. He wanted her to stay because he loved having her around. He loved her easy smiles, her constant optimism, the way she was completely different than anyone else he had ever met, how she had somehow become the highlight of his day. She was the only one who really understood him and the only one who had ever really tried.
But God, he understood her, too. And she didn't belong in Wells. Wells held all of the salient memories of her tough childhood, and it was so fucking small and boring and quiet. She didn't want quiet; she wanted loud, she wanted vibrant, she wanted raw and reeling. She used to tell him how she loved the idea that there was a big wide world out there, with deserts and mountains and oceans and rainforests and rolling hills and seven billion people she had never met before. Her name was Sahara, for God's sake, like she was meant to span across countries and continents and live some great big adventure.
As a teenager, he had seen her as his best friend's little sister, and his affection had been purely platonic. When she had moved in with Phillip and him, living just above his bedroom and walking around the house in his tee-shirts that were three times too big for her, that affection had morphed into something else entirely. Out of respect for Phillip and out of doubt of any reciprocation on her part, he tried to suppress those feelings every day. Of course, less than twenty-four hours before she left, they were coming back up to the surface. It was just great timing.
But when you loved someone, you were supposed to let them go. You were supposed to do what was best for them.
As he made his way down the stairs, he told himself to stop being selfish and do just that.
I traipsed across our lawn in my bright yellow rain boots, leaving footprints in the mud as I made my way to Sam's old red pickup truck. The rain was a light drizzle now, the late July humidity making my tank top stick to my lower back. The ends of my ponytail dripped down my neck, but I liked the feel of the rain on my skin.
Sam climbed into the driver's seat, shaking his head to get the water droplets out of his hair as he inserted the keys into the ignition. I got in on the passenger's side, slamming the door hard because it had a rusty latch.
"You ever going to get that fixed?" I asked.
He smiled, starting the engine. "Nope. I think it adds character."
"I don't think rust counts as 'character,'" I replied.
"And I'm not sure if you know this, but Phillip works in a car garage. I'm sure he could help you out."
He laughed. "Stop being a pain in the ass and buckle up," he told me.
Grinning, I buckled my seatbelt. He did the same, clicked on his favorite radio station, and pulled out of the driveway.
"So, what's on the agenda?" I asked.
"A few things," he answered vaguely. "First up is breakfast, though, the most—"
"—important meal of the day," I finished for him, because he said that every time Phillip or I ever tried to skip it, even though I suspected it was just an excuse for him to eat four Pop-Tarts every morning.
Sounding like a teacher whose student finally got something right, he said, "Exactly."
He drove down the only road into town, one hand on the steering wheel and his foot heavy on the gas petal. He was always at ease when driving, humming to whatever song was playing, his body relaxed and his eyes calmly watching the road. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, and it hit me for the second time today how much I was going to miss him.
Biting my lip, I realized I wasn't going to miss him the same way I was going to miss Phillip or anyone else in this town. I was going to miss seeing him every day, having him tease me about silly little things and teasing him right back, how his hair was always slightly unkempt, the way I'd catch him looking at me with those eyes. He had always been there for me, whether I needed a ride at 3am, a stupid joke to cheer me up, or someone to wake me up every morning because I hated the blaring sound of alarm clocks.
It was only a five minute drive to Main Street, a long, straight road that held everything of importance in Wells. The buildings were simple, lined up one next to the other. Sam pulled into Marie's Bakery, the town's best breakfast spot. The parking lot was full, though, and there were several people milling about outside the door.
As Sam jerked the gearstick into Park, I said, "It's 11:00 on a Saturday. We're not going to be able to get a table. We can just go to Bobby's Diner –"
"Have a little faith, Sahara," he said, and then flashed me a confident grin.
I raised my eyebrows, but climbed out of the truck and followed him. We squeezed our way through the narrow hallway where at least ten people were waiting. When Marie, a short grey-haired woman in a flowery apron, spotted us, she pointed to an empty table against the wall.
We sat down, and I leaned forward to say quietly, "What did you have to do to get a table reservation from Marie?"
He shook his head with mock seriousness. "You don't want to know."
Marie appeared, smiling down at us. "I've already got the order in, Samuel," she said.
"Great," he said. "Thanks, Marie."
I gave him a look across the table, confused.
"And breakfast is on the house, okay?" Marie added. "I want to give Sahara a proper sendoff. It's not every day a Wells resident leaves the state, or the country for that matter." She touched my shoulder lightly, and then hurried off to help another customer.
"Thank you," I called after her.
She didn't hear me, though. She was already jotting an order down on her notepad.
With an elbow on the table, I rested my chin in my palm, furrowing my brow slightly. "Sam…"
He blinked at me, folding his arms over his white tee-shirt. "Yeah?"
"When you said we had plans today," I said slowly, "you really meant we had plans."
The corner of his mouth lifted. "What, you thought I was lying to you?"
"No," I replied. "But I didn't expect this…level of effort, you know?"
With that little half-smile, he said, "Calling me lazy?"
I shook my head, giving him an exasperated look. "No, I just meant—I just thought we'd go to Bobby's and hang around town, maybe get some ice cream, stuff like that. I didn't expect bribing Marie for a table or any special orders—"
"Yeah, well," he interrupted with a one-shouldered shrug. "I want you to remember your last day here as something more than a Harry Potter movie marathon."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because who knows when you'll be back?" he answered, and then shifted forward to put his elbows on the table. "Look, I know this place doesn't hold the best memories for you, and I can't change that, but I can try to make sure you leave on a good note."
I didn't get to reply because a man in a smudged white apron came over and set down a plate in front of me. I looked down at a giant pancake shaped like an elephant, with chocolate chips for eyes, licorice for a tail, and strips of green melon for the grass it was standing on. I stared at it as the man put down a stack of regular pancakes for Sam, a bottle of maple syrup, and a large side of bacon.
"I figured Thailand…elephants…you know?" Sam explained when the man had walked away. He sounded slightly self-conscious.
I glanced up, swallowing the emotion that burned in my throat. "This might be the sweetest thing anyone's ever done for me," I said quietly.
He pulled his plate closer and picked up his fork. "Sweeter than that time I made you a mud pie?" he joked, but I knew it was just a deflection from the compliment.
I laughed. "When I was nine?" I asked incredulously.
"Um, yes, sweeter than that," I replied. "At least this time it's edible."
He smiled, reaching for the maple syrup.
Touching the elephant's carefully constructed pancake ear, I said, "Thanks, Sam."
"Don't mention it."
I chewed on my bottom lip, watching him as he dug his fork into his pancakes. I had wanted to get out of this town ever since I could remember, and I never thought I would have a hard time leaving. I knew I had to go, and I guess Sam knew that, too, but I wondered if he knew just how difficult he was making it to say goodbye to him.
He could tell she didn't want to ruin the pancake, eating all the garnishes and several pieces of bacon before delicately cutting off the elephant's back foot. He tried to hide his smile as he finished his own pancakes.
They ate and talked like things were normal until their plates were clean, and then Sahara fiddled with the strap of her tank top and blinked big brown eyes at him. They held a certain kind of innocence and naïvety despite her age and the things she had seen. He could see right through them, as if they were transparent, and she had never been capable of stopping him.
"What?" he said over the loud chattering of Marie's.
She swallowed visibly and tried to put on a casual smile. "I was just wondering if, you know… we'll stay in touch."
He was slightly taken aback. "When you're gone?"
"Well, it's 2014," he replied. "I'm sure we'll find a way."
"Okay." Her smile was a little more genuine when she added, "So, can I expect a handwritten letter every day?"
He made a face. "How about a short email every other month?" he offered.
She laughed, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "A long email every week?" she countered.
Neither of them spoke for a few seconds. Sahara played with a frayed hole in the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, casting her eyes down. "This sounds so stupid," she said, nearly inaudible over the din, "but I don't want us to forget each other."
Sam leaned forward, and asked, "You really think that's gonna happen?"
She looked up. "No."
He raised his eyebrows and gave her a "there-you-have-it" look. Nodding, she seemed reassured.
On the outside, he was acting nonchalant. On the inside, he was resisting the urge to tell her to stop asking ridiculous questions. He wasn't going to forget her even if he tried, and he knew he was going to compulsively check his email every day for a reply. But the fact that she was worried about losing contact gave him some hope that she wouldn't disappear when she stepped off that plane in Bangkok.
"So," she said, "what are your plans for the rest of the summer, then, if you're not going to be writing me letters on a daily basis?"
Shrugging, he reached for his water. "The usual, I guess," he answered. "Working, drinking beer, going out on the canoe, maybe some fishing? Oh, and I was thinking of doing some repairs to the house. I want to fix the back porch up so we can actually use it. It'd be nice at night, I think."
She nodded, and Sam caught himself watching her lips as they curved into an earnest smile. "Sounds like a good plan."
He jerked his eyes back up to hers. "It's not too exciting," he said, and then laughed wryly. "I'm not too exciting. I'm…a pretty simple guy."
"So?" She nudged his arm lightly with her hand. "I think simplicity is a sort of freedom, you know? You can live life the way you want, without all the stress and disappointment of having big, unrealistic dreams that are probably unattainable."
"Hmm," he said.
She could justify anything to become something positive. He appreciated her effort, but couldn't help but think his simplicity made him incompatible with her, with her hopes and dreams and wanderlust.
"Plus, you have great goals for the future, Sam. Solid, realistic ones," she reasoned. "A house built by your own two hands, a 'big ass' Toyota, a red one, if I remember correctly, and a dog named Leopold, right?"
"Leo for short," he added.
She grinned. "Leo."
Marie came over then to clear their plates. Balancing everything on her arm, she said, "Really, best of luck to you, Sahara. I'm gonna miss seeing you two around, like two peas in a pod." She rubbed Sam's back. "This one's going to miss you, huh?"
Sahara cocked her head, and said, "Oh, I think he'll be just fine without me."
Sam met her eyes briefly, and then looked up at Marie. "Thanks for breakfast, Marie."
"Yes," Sahara agreed. "It was delicious. Thanks, Marie."
Marie waved off their thanks, giving them a smile before heading for the kitchen. Standing up, Sam and Sahara squeezed through the line and went back out into the rain, which was now coming down in sheets. They ran for the truck, slamming the doors as soon as they got in.
"So, what's next?" Sahara asked, slightly out of breath.
Sam started the engine. "You'll see in a minute."
Merging back onto Main Street, he pulled the truck over a couple hundred meters from Marie's Bakery. Set back from the road was a cart with an improvised shelter above it and a sign that said, "Wells Arts & Crafts". The owner of the cart, Manny, was hunched under the shelter.
"Get out there," Sam said.
Sahara turned to him. "What?"
"Manny has something for you," he told her. "You go. I'll stay with the truck, where it's nice and dry." He smiled wide.
She gave him a look, but stepped out of the truck. Jogging to the cart, she ducked underneath the tarp. Sam watched through the rain-splattered windshield as she emerged, pulling a white tee-shirt over her head. The shirt read, "I Heart Wells". She pulled it down, looked at it, and looked back up to grin at Sam.
When she climbed back into the truck, rain-soaked but not caring, she said, "I love it."
Sam was glad it had its intended effect. "Just something to remember us by," he said casually.
She shifted, pressing a tentative kiss to his cheek. He didn't expect that; she had only done that once before, when she had been drunk on piña coladas on her 20th birthday.
"I'll wear it every day," she told him.
He swallowed, pushing the clutch in and shifting into first gear. "Please don't," he commented lightly, "it might start to smell."
"You want to get me arrested on my last day here, don't you?" I asked, squinting through the windshield at an old house situated at the base of a steep hill.
A fence surrounded the house with multiple menacing signs that said, "Keep Out. Private Property." I knew exactly whose property this was, too. Mr. Corby was the town's infamous recluse.
"Come on," Sam coaxed from the driver's seat. "It's a rite of passage."
"For teenagers," I argued.
"Yeah," he said, "so you're quite a few years overdue. You have to do this before you leave."
I exhaled, debating. He was right; it was a rite of passage to jump Mr. Corby's fence, make it across his yard to the secret path up the hill to reach the top. People said the best views of Lake Saint Catherine were up there, if you made it. It was commonly known that Mr. Corby did not look kindly on trespassers, to say the least.
With a burst of courage, I said, "Okay, okay. Let's do this."
Sam grinned, pocketing his keys and putting a hand on the door handle. "Follow me," he instructed. "And whatever you do, don't stop running."
I grabbed the door handle, too. "Sam?"
"You're posting my bail if I get caught," I informed him.
He laughed. "Ready?"
He took off. I followed him down the road, and then we ran for the white wooden fence, sliding around in the slick grass. He jumped over the fence first, helping me clamber over. The rain was relentless, dripping into our eyes and soaking through our clothes. Sam's light brown hair was now a dark brown, curling a bit as it did when it got wet.
We darted across the yard, and I nervously eyed the house, checking for any signs Mr. Corby had seen us. It looked dark and quiet inside. Sam headed for some brush at the base of the hill, climbing through it even though it looked thick and scratchy. He grabbed my hand and pulled me through, too. I soon discovered that a narrow dirt path lay behind it, leading upwards in a winding fashion.
I was happy to be wearing rubber rain boots. The path was more mud than anything else, water steadily flowing down it like a makeshift stream. I fared better than Sam in his boat shoes, even passing him on the way up. I delighted in watching him struggle up an especially slippery part and nearly lose a shoe, laughing at him before taking his arm and helping him up.
It didn't take long to reach the top. The hill flattened a bit, and we took a moment to catch our breath before Sam trudged through knee-high bushes to the other side of the hill, which looked over the lake.
Extending out in front of us further than I could see, the lake was shrouded in rain clouds, but that didn't take away from the enormity of it all. The water was a blue-grey, and the vegetation around it was so green. It was quiet, too, except for the pattering of rain and faint whistling of the wind. I had always taken the lake for granted, because it was just a part of Wells, but I realized that maybe that had been a mistake.
Sam led us to a big tree a few feet downhill that was situated in a sort of clearing. Its branches, full of thick leaves, provided some cover from the rain. There was a small campfire area and old broken beer bottles nearby.
Crouching down near the trunk, Sam beckoned me closer, taking out his car keys. He held them out to me. "Come on," he said. "To be a fully-fledged badass, you have to carve your name."
I squatted next to him, taking the keys. The base of the tree was decorated in names, dates, and hearts with initials in them. I saw Sam's initials next Phillip's, faded over the years. I picked a spot below an etching of Juliet + Romeo = 4EVER, and started to scratch my name into the bark. Sam sat down, leaning his back against the tree and gazing out over the lake.
"I feel like such a delinquent," I joked.
"You get, like, 100 cool points for this," Sam replied.
I stopped etching for a moment to run my fingers over his initials. "When'd you and Phillip come up here?"
He drew his knees up, hunching his shoulders in thought before saying, "First time was when we were fifteen, I think."
"The first time? How many times have you been up here?"
He glanced backwards to toss a half-smile at me. "A few."
I resumed carving. "Why didn't you ever bring me?" I asked.
"And corrupt your youth?"
"Oh, please," I said, rolling my eyes. "This coming from the boy who taught me how to smoke…and gave me my first beer…and took me for a joyride in our neighbor's car when I was ten—"
He covered his eyes with a hand, laughing. "Okay, okay," he stopped me. "But you're forgetting that I helped you with your math homework in middle school and…" He made a face as he struggled for something else. "…gave that Tommy kid a black eye when he stole your bike."
"I'm not forgetting," I said gently. And it was true.
I could feel his eyes on me. "When you finish up with that, I can fill you in on the last part of this rite of passage," he said.
I finished, adding the date next to my name, and leaned back to admire my handiwork. Sitting down next to Sam and handing back his keys, I said, "So?"
He leaned close as if to tell me a secret. "Well…" He lowered his voice for dramatic effect. "Everyone who comes up here is told one piece of very valuable information."
"What?" I asked, curious.
"That piece of very valuable information is…"
"Is…?" I prompted.
"…that Mr. Corby died in 2002," he said.
I turned to him. "What?"
His eyes crinkled at the edges. "Yeah," he said. "The house is empty, has been for over a decade."
"But everyone always says –"
"Don't believe everything you hear," he said good-humoredly. "People keep that rumor going to keep this place private."
I crossed my legs, narrowing my eyes at him. "So, you made me run up that hill for no reason?"
"Everyone does their first time," he said. "Don't worry, Phillip was shitting himself when he came up his first time, thought he saw Mr. Corby with a shotgun."
I laughed softly. "But not you," I said. "You were obviously cool as a cucumber."
"Oh, no, I was shitting myself, too," he said.
He smiled at me, and I grinned back. A gust of wind blew across us, and I looked out over the lake. The water down there was choppy as the rain continued to pour.
"Well, thanks for initiating me," I told him. "It's a great spot."
He shrugged. "Yeah, no problem."
We were quiet as we took in the view and enjoyed the tranquility. It felt strange to think that I would be leaving this place tonight.
After a while, I said, "You'll look after Phillip when I'm gone, right?"
He turned his head slowly. "I know he might not act like it, but you realize he's a grown man, right?" he answered, amused.
I lifted a shoulder and dropped it. "I know," I said, "but I'm worried about him. He drinks too much and he dates the wrong women and I don't want him to end up like my father…or my mother."
He bumped me with his elbow. "Hey, don't worry about it," he reassured me. "I've got his back."
"Speaking of your father," he said, trying to keep his voice light. "Are you going to tell him you're leaving?"
My father was in a state penitentiary, serving ten to fifteen years for a variety of things, but most importantly, for beating my mother half to death when he found her with another man. Phillip and I had been there, we had seen it all, and we had seen my mother down a bottle of pills afterward and not wake up the next morning.
"I'll send him a postcard," I said indifferently.
"That's generous of you," Sam stated.
I reached down, fiddling with a blade of grass. "Hmm."
Sam understood when I wanted to talk about things, and when I didn't, and I loved that about him. He was just there.
"There's something else you can do for me," I told him, wanting to switch the subject.
"Anything," he answered without a thought.
I bit back a smile as I said, "Can you finally ask out Chloë?"
He groaned. "Anything but that," he retorted, shaking his head.
Chloë was a friend of mine. She was blonde and bubbly, and she had liked Sam since high school. She always asked me to talk her up in front of him. I never gave it a wholehearted effort, and figured this was my last chance.
"Oh, come on," I reasoned. "She's cute."
"She's not my type."
"Sammy, you can't afford to be picky as you're approaching old age," I teased, pinching his cheek gently.
"Says you," he responded, swatting my hand away. "You get bored with every guy you date."
"Yeah, I know," I said sheepishly.
"I look forward to intimidating these guys, asking what their intentions are –" He scowled threateningly, and somehow it was the cutest thing I'd ever seen. "—making sure they're worthy, but you ditch them before I ever get a chance to meet them."
I put up a hand. "Hey, I'm not saying I'm a good example. I'm picky, too."
He smiled, but didn't say anything. I stretched my legs out in front of me and absently knocked my yellow rain boots together.
"I don't know…I'll hang out with a guy, and I'll have fun and I'll laugh and stuff. Like, I enjoy the flirting and the lead-up," I mused out loud. "But then when it comes down to it, to the relationship part, I just…there's a point where I'm like, 'I don't actually want to be here.'"
Sam made a sound. "Yeah, I get that."
I breathed in deeply. "So, then I just break it off," I said. "I break it off, and I don't ever regret it. And then I come home and I watch TV with you or whatever…and I'm happy. Like 100% happy."
He went oddly still beside me.
"So, I guess I'm picky because I like hanging out with you more than I like spending time with anyone else," I finished. "Maybe that's a little messed up, but that's okay with me."
I glanced at him. He leaned his head back against the tree, closing his eyes, his Adam's apple bobbing. His eyelashes were dark against his skin.
"That's okay with me, too," he said, his voice a bit hoarse.
My chest ached with a sudden rush of tenderness. I let my head drop to rest on his shoulder, feeling the cold dampness of his tee-shirt against my cheek. After a second, he shifted to put an arm around me and pressed a kiss to my temple.
They fell asleep like that. Sam woke up, his neck slightly sore. She was still asleep, nestled against his side, and he hardly dared to move her. He didn't know how long they had dozed off for, but the rain had stopped and the clouds had already started to disappear. Birds were chirping somewhere in the trees.
Her words were still echoing in his mind. I like hanging out with you more than I like spending time with anyone else. Why would she tell him that now, giving him false hope when he needed to think about moving on? She was going to make saying goodbye so goddamn hard.
The thing was, he felt the same way. He had dated girls here and there, never sticking to one longer than a couple months. There was nothing wrong with them, but they just weren't right. And he couldn't have cared less, because he already had someone in his life.
He shook his head, rolling his eyes. He felt like such a fucking sap. He wasn't usually like this, but there was something about the hours ticking down that made him be honest with himself. Wells was going to be a different place without her. Sure, he'd adapt and get used to life without her, but he didn't want to. He didn't want to.
She woke up when the sun began to peek through the cloud cover. Straightening, she blinked bleary eyes and smoothed damp hair from her forehead. "Sorry," she said, her voice a bit husky with sleep, which he secretly loved. "I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"It's okay, I fell asleep, too," he replied, taking his arm from around her to run a hand through his hair.
"That doesn't mess up your plans for today, does it?" she asked.
"No," he said. "I was going to take you in the canoe and get ice cream across the lake—"
"Oh, and 'accidentally' toss me into the water?" she questioned, knowing him too well.
He grinned, not ashamed. "Yeah." He gestured at their wet clothes. "But I guess that's not necessary."
She smiled. "Probably not."
"Still want ice cream?"
Cocking her head, she gave him a look. "I always want ice cream."
"Do you mind if…" She hesitated. "Do you mind if you drive there, though? The long way?"
He scanned her face. "No," he replied. "We can drive."
"The long way" was their term for just driving until they didn't want to any more. He'd done it ever since he got his driver's license. They had gone on a lot of drives during her teenaged years, when her home was falling apart and she just wanted to get away for a few hours. Nowadays, she asked for "the long way" when she had a long day at work or was stressed about something. Somehow, it relaxed her.
"Good," she said, sighing. "I kind of want to go the long way one last time."
She didn't realize how sad that statement made him. He nodded, and said, "Sure."
Leaving the tree behind with a pat to its trunk, they made their way back down to the truck. This time, though, they walked across the late Mr. Corby's property with no sense of urgency. Sahara bent to run her fingers along the long, waving grass as she walked. Sam walked behind her, watching the way her tee-shirt blew in the wind.
When they reached the truck, they got in, put on the radio, and rolled down the windows. Sam drove fast on the empty roads, the sound of wind almost muting the classic rock station. The air held the fresh, earthy scent of rain. He looked over at Sahara. She had taken her hair out of its ponytail. She let the strands fly free, putting an elbow against the window and occasionally holding her hand out to ride the air. She looked so content that the tension in his shoulders faded and he started to hum along to the song that was playing.
He purposely missed the turn that led to the ice cream shack, driving in a big loop on the smaller roads that led through the thick, green woods. Sahara smiled at him. On a long, straight stretch, she surprised him by reaching over and covering his hand with hers. He turned his hand palm-up, grasping her hand tightly. They had never done that before, but it felt natural.
They didn't speak in the 28 minutes it took to reach Wolly's Ice Cream Shack. Sahara took her hand back when Sam needed to use the gearstick to turn into the small, gravelly parking lot behind the shack. They both stepped out of the truck, Sam heading to get the ice cream as he usually did, while Sahara lowered the tailgate and wiped off the rain water with her forearm. With both hands behind her, she lifted herself up.
Sam returned with two ice cream cones, hopping onto the tailgate and extending the mint chocolate chip to her.
She took it, picking a chocolate chip off the top and eating it. "Yum."
Looking down at his own cone – just two scoops of vanilla because he was a purist – Sam licked around the melting sides. "Do they have ice cream in Thailand?"
"Yes," she replied, "but I doubt there's anything as good as Wolly's."
They ate their ice cream, looking out onto the lake and the sandy beach that stretched out behind the shack's parking lot. The sun beat down on their backs, and Sam could feel his damp tee-shirt begin to dry.
"I was thinking that after this, we'd pick up pizza and stop by the garage," Sam said, crunching into his cone. "Phillip wanted to hang out for a bit, even though he's got to work tonight."
"That sounds good," she replied.
She finished her ice cream before him, gathering her hair up in a haphazard ponytail. Sam tried to concentrate on his cone instead of the long, smooth expanse of her neck that was now exposed. It didn't work, because he missed it when she said his name.
"Sam?" she repeated.
"Thanks for today," she said. "Really."
"Was it better than a Harry Potter movie marathon?" he replied with a small smile.
She laughed softly, looking down at her dangling feet and shaking her head. "I don't know if I'd say that," she teased.
He polished off his cone, his words slightly muffled by chewing when he said, "You're a pain in the ass."
Laughing again, she sounded more serious when she said, "I was ready to leave, you know, ever since I got the job offer." She exhaled sharply. "I was really ready to leave, because there are so many things that I want to see and do."
Sam stared straight ahead. "I know."
"But I don't know…" She shrugged a shoulder. "Today, you kind of made me realize that I'll miss Wells."
"No, you won't," he reassured her.
"Well, I'll miss this," she said, gesturing between them. She bumped his leg with hers. "And I'll miss you."
She was doing it again, telling him things that weren't helping him ignore all the feelings he had been suppressing. "Good," he said jokingly to cover up any emotion that might have showed on his face.
"I'm not kidding," she said.
He looked at her then, seeing that she was completely serious. "I—"
"I know we usually kid around," she said, "but I'm not kidding when I…I just want you to know that you…well, you mean a lot to me, and I'm going to miss you."
"Sahara," he said slowly and almost warningly.
But she continued, "Like to the point where I don't want to miss you at all; I just want you to come with me." She shook her head. "But I know you can't. And I can't stay. So…I guess I'm just stuck with missing you."
He was quiet for a moment. "Don't worry," he eventually replied. "You won't miss me for long."
She scoffed. "Oh, come on, Sam," she said. "Don't feed me any of your self-depreciating crap."
"No," he argued. "That's how life works. People come and go out of our lives, and you miss them for a while, but then you move on, you meet new people, you build this new whole life, and you change and you stop missing your old life."
"No," she said, "I don't believe that."
He could tell there was a little heat in her voice when she said, "And where did you get that profound piece of wisdom?"
Letting out a humorless laugh, he said, "With age comes wisdom."
Her fingers clutched the edge of the tailgate. "Are you saying that after I leave, you're just going to miss me for a while and then just…move on and change and not give a shit anymore?"
She didn't swear often, so he knew she was actually getting upset. "I'll always give a shit," he told her forcefully.
"But you'll move on and change?"
He slid off the tailgate, exhaling sharply. With his back to her, he said, "Maybe." He turned around to face her. "But you definitely will."
Stiffening, she asked, "And why's that?"
With Sam standing, they were the same height. Her eyes were boring into his, expecting a good answer. He glanced down when he answered, "Because I'm me and you're you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she questioned.
He shrugged. "I'm going to stay here and do what I've been doing my whole life," he explained. "But you're going to do big things, great things. You're—"
"Sam," she interrupted, her tone clearly telling him to cut the shit.
"Because it'll be easy for you to move on," he said quickly. "Once you leave, you're not going to come back. You're going to have an exciting life with exciting people and—"
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he realized she had tears in her eyes and a heartbreaking expression on her face. "Is that really what you think?" she asked quietly.
Not finding the words to speak, he just nodded.
"You're so stupid," she whispered, exasperated.
She brought her other hand up to brush his too-long hair out of his face. The hand on his shoulder moved to his neck, and then cupped his jaw. His heart beat faster and he was suddenly incredibly aware of their proximity. Her thumb smoothed over his cheek. The way she was touching him felt like tenderness and urgency at the same time, and he didn't know what to think except that he didn't want her to stop.
"You're so stupid," she said again, gently this time.
He made a sound in the back of his throat. Somehow, her face was getting closer, and the air in between them was charged, electric.
First, she kissed his cheek, lingering there as if mustering up courage. Then after a few seconds, she moved and pressed her lips to his. She was tentative, uncertain, her lips soft and light against his.
He was unprepared, but instinct and years of buildup took over almost immediately. Sinking his fingers into her hair, he kissed her hard. He loved the sound she made and how she responded by kissing him back even harder and sending her hands to grip his shoulders tightly. She tasted like mint chocolate chip ice cream. Opening her legs, she pulled him closer, as close as they could get. He could feel the heat of her body and the dampness of her rain-soaked clothes. He broke apart to press open-mouthed kisses along her neck, something he had wanted to do for so long. She tilted her head back, giving him access with a lot of breathy sighs that only fueled him.
He took her face in his hands, kissing her again. They were so feverish and fervent that they forgot where they were. When a car started loudly next to them, they froze, both realizing where they were and what they were doing. Sahara pulled back and released him, and he stepped backwards.
Eyes wide, he took in her flushed cheeks, mussed ponytail, and the shock on her face. What had they just done? What had they just done?
They stared at each other, and then Sam walked to the driver's side door and yanked it open. He sat down, closed the door, and put both hands on the steering wheel, trying to breathe normally again.
After a minute, Sahara climbed into the passenger's side. They said nothing as Sam started the car and drove out of the parking lot with the lingering taste of mint chocolate chip on his tongue.
Although Sam didn't drive the long way this time, it was still a twenty-minute car ride back to town. It was the longest twenty minutes of my life. We were completely silent, the radio off. The tension was nearly palpable. Sam's knuckles were white on the steering wheel, his shoulders stiff as he drove. He wasn't calm or relaxed as he usually was when he was driving; he seemed to radiate nerves and unease.
I wasn't faring much better. I had this nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I still felt hot even though the windows were down and the early evening's temperature was mild. Only an hour ago I had been holding Sam's hand without much thought, but now my hands were clasped together tightly in my lap and I was acutely aware of every move he made.
I still couldn't believe I had just made out with Sam. With Sam. The boy who had been right in front of me all these years, the boy who had always kept things carefully platonic between us, the boy who was my best friend. And now the boy who had kissed me in a way I would never forget. I couldn't tell if that kiss had just been the heat of the moment for him, or if it was more than that.
For me, it was more than that. It had unlocked all the very non-platonic feelings that I had been storing up. Sure, as a girl, I had entertained the possibility of falling in love with Sam, the older brother's friend cliché appealing to me for a couple months in my early teenaged years. That had gone out of the window because he became a close friend, and the four-year age difference had prevented me from ever truly considering romantic feelings for him. Plus, I knew early on that I was no competition for the girls he dated; they knew how to flirt, how to wear eyeliner, how to get his attention. He had always had a soft spot for me, a soft spot that was more brotherly than anything else.
But now, grown up and in our twenties, I guess things were different. And now, four hours before he drove me to the airport, before I left indefinitely, things had been completely turned upside-down. Wasn't that just how life worked?
When we reached Main Street, Sam was the first to say something. He grunted, "Pizza?"
"Sure," I replied, my voice small.
Turning into Mamma's House of Pizza – the only pizza place in town – he parked the truck and cut off the engine. He left the keys in the ignition, opened the door, and said, "I'll get it."
I watched him go into the small wooden building. Left in the silence of the truck, I propped my elbow in the window and rested my head in my palm. I didn't want my last few hours with Sam to be filled with awkwardness and tension, not after the thoughtful day he had planned and how great it had been. I wanted them to be simple and easy, like it had always been between us.
I bit down on my lip. Kissing like we had…well, it got rid of any illusions of simple and easy.
It took a while for Sam to return. Holding two large pizza boxes, he placed them between us in the cab of the truck before sliding in and starting the engine. The smell of bread and cheese and pepperoni flooded my senses. He buckled his seatbelt.
I looked at him, swallowing hard before touching his arm as he went for the gearstick. He froze.
"Hey," I said softly. "Should we talk about this?"
He glanced sideways at me, the green in his eyes startlingly apparent as the sinking sun's light caught them. "No."
I took my hand back, blinking. "Why not?"
Shifting the gearstick, he looked away and pulled out of the parking space as he replied matter-of-factly, "Because it's futile."
"Futile?" I repeated.
He merged onto the road. "You're leaving in a few hours. There's no point."
"There's no point," he said again. "It would just…hurt more."
I couldn't say he was wrong, because any sort of confession of feelings would undoubtedly make it painful to leave. But I didn't want to leave with the sense that things between us had permanently changed into a huge question mark with an answer that was up in the air. "But Sam—"
"Sahara," he said, his tone low but pointed.
I put up a hand. "Okay, fine."
Nodding once, he drove to the car garage Phillip worked at. It was on the outskirts of Wells, situated in a large concrete building in need of a good paint job. He parked the truck, hopping out with the pizzas. I climbed out, too, following him to the picnic benches outside of the garage where the mechanics took their breaks. Phillip – in his blue jumpsuit with countless oil stains – came out to join us with a big smile, immediately grabbing a slice of pizza and biting into it.
We ate and talked for the entirety of my brother's dinner break. Sam and I tried our best to act normal, and I thought we succeeded. We laughed and joked and talked candidly. As usual, he and Phillip ganged up on me, trying to tip my side of the picnic table so I would fall off and gleefully reminding me of the time I nearly set the house on fire.
Conversation was light; I think we kept it that way to avoid dwelling on the fact that this was our last dinner together. Sam's eyes snagged mine more than once, and there was nothing light about the way he looked at me. There was a heaviness there, even when he was cracking a joke. I could tell something was different about him, and I suppose there was probably something different about me, too. I didn't think Phillip had noticed, until he hugged me goodbye.
"Hey, what's going on with you two?" he asked me, jerking his head at Sam, who was walking back to the truck.
"Nothing," I replied casually. I didn't think now was the time to tell Phillip about my realized feelings for his best friend.
He narrowed his eyes slightly. "Did something happen between you?"
"No," I lied.
Glancing at the red pickup truck, he placed his hands on my arms, like he was going to give me some important brotherly advice. "Okay, look," he said, sighing. "I need to tell you something."
"Yeah?" I prompted.
"Well, I need you to be…I need you to be careful with Sam."
I frowned. "What?"
He pursed his lips, pausing in thought before saying, "I know he's a grown man who doesn't really take life that seriously, and seems like he doesn't, you know…care too much about things. But Sahara, when it comes to you…he's not that guy."
My stomach dropped. "What are you—"
Letting me go, he replied somewhat wryly, "I'm not blind. I live with you guys."
"I know," I said. "But what are you saying?"
He crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm saying that Sam's gonna take you moving away pretty hard," he responded. "And I have a feeling you will, too."
"Of course I will," I said.
"So, don't leave things on a bad note, or a weird note, or any kind of note except a good one," he told me, sounding uncomfortable giving me advice, even though he was my older brother.
I nodded. "You're right," I said. Looking down, I scuffed my boots on the matted grass. "But Sam doesn't want to talk, and you know how he is when he's put up a wall."
Shrugging, he said, "You don't have to talk. I mean, who likes a whole fucking touchy-feely conversation when a few simple words will do the trick?"
I had to smile. "My brother, the philosopher," I said.
He gave me a look, one I would miss dearly. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah," I said, nodding, "I do."
We said our final goodbyes, and I teared up a bit as I hugged him one last time and headed for Sam's truck. As we drove away, I waved at Phillip, and he waved back until we were out of sight.
Sam stayed quiet on the short ride home. I thought about what Phillip had said, and I tried to think about what to say to Sam to make things right between us again. Sneaking glances at him, I imagined how he would respond to various statements. In my imagination, he didn't take any of them well.
When we pulled into the driveway, Sam unlocked the front door for us. He made his way for the kitchen as I closed the door behind me.
"You should probably finish packing," he said, looking over his shoulder at me.
"Yeah, I will," I responded.
I kicked off my rain boots, leaving them by the door, following him into the kitchen. My heart was thumping with anxiety, still not sure what to say to him. I stopped in the doorway to the kitchen, watching him open the fridge and get a Budweiser. He set the bottle down on the counter, using a bottle opener to lift the cap with an airy hiss. He took a drink, closing his eyes as if he had been waiting for one all day. The stubble on his jaw was dark, his hair unruly, his white tee-shirt slightly mud-stained, and he was just the best thing I had ever seen.
I tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. "Sam?"
His eyes opened and he lowered the beer. "Hmm?"
I didn't even think about my next words. Sometimes the truth, straightforward and unadorned, was the right thing to say. "I love you," I said.
The beer clinked on the counter as he set it down in surprise. He stared at me with wide eyes, his lips parting.
I licked my lips, and told him earnestly, "You're my best friend, and you're more than that, too. I know you don't want to talk about it…us…and that's okay. I don't even know what we would talk about, except that the timing of realizing all this just sucks." I took a deep breath and let it out. "But I need you to know that I love you and I'm not going to forget about you or ever stop missing you or thinking about you."
His Adam's apple bobbed and he rubbed his jaw. "I…"
"Can we just make the most of the two hours we have left?" I pleaded. "Instead of being on edge with each other?"
He was just looking at me, and I wished I could read his mind. I saw him swallow again, but he didn't answer me.
"Sam?" I said, hearing the uncertainty in my voice.
Running a hand through his hair, he nodded. "Yeah," he finally replied, sounding a bit hoarse. "Of course."
I smiled at him, relieved. "Okay, good," I said. "I'll go finish packing. I'll be quick."
I thought he was going to say something, so I stood in the doorway for a few seconds longer, waiting. But all he did was stare at me, frozen like a statue with one hand on his beer, so I turned on my heel and made my way upstairs to my room.
Sam was still until he heard Sahara's footsteps in her bedroom, the old floorboards creaking slightly as she moved around. His ears were ringing with her words. She had said them so easily, so calmly, and he envied her ability to put her feelings out there like that. He felt the same – of course he felt the same – and he had wanted to tell her that, but he didn't have the same courage as she did.
The corners of his mouth twitched upwards, and he was suddenly overcome with happiness he didn't think he'd feel today. She loved him, not as a friend she had known since childhood, but in the same way he loved her.
She was right, though, the timing was all off. Glancing at the microwave's clock, he realized they had an hour and fifty-eight minutes left before he took her to the airport.
"Fuck," he cursed under his breath, his smile disappearing.
He didn't know exactly what she had meant by "making the most" of their time left. Did that mean staying behind their usual line, or did that mean they were free to cross all boundaries like in some apocalyptic countdown? The end result was the same; she was going to get on that plane either way.
He tried to think about it rationally, but all he wanted to do was kiss her again. It struck him that maybe now wasn't the time to think at all; maybe it was the time to follow his instincts. What was that saying? Carpe diem?
Leaving his beer bottle on the counter, he went to the stairs, taking them two at a time. He crossed the landing, stepping into her room. It looked sparser than usual, but it still smelled familiar, like her, like vanilla body wash and cherry perfume. She had a suitcase open on the floor, and she was on her knees, trying to push the clothes down to make room for a pair of shoes. Hair fell in front of her eyes, escaped from her ponytail, and she had a determined expression on her face.
He went to crouch down on the other side of the suitcase.
She didn't look up when she asked, "Do you think I have too much stuff—?"
"I love you, too," he cut her off.
Her hands stopped moving, and she raised her head slowly, her eyes meeting his. She inhaled deeply, and then asked, "As more than a friend?"
He nodded, his chest constricting with emotion when a slow, perfect smile spread across her face. It gave him the encouragement he needed. "I have for a while," he told her.
"You have?" she asked. "Why didn't you say something?"
Raising a shoulder and dropping it, he answered, "I don't know. We had a good thing going, the three of us, and Phillip…well, you're his sister—his little sister, and I didn't want to piss him off. I still don't want to, but –"
"I think Phillip's actually okay with it," she said.
He scanned her face. "Yeah?"
She bit her lip. "Yeah," she confirmed.
Exhaling, he said, "I still don't want to talk about it." He shook his head. "I don't want to waste time dwelling on what could've been, and I don't think I'd say any of the right things anyway."
She stood up, clutching the pair of shoes she had been trying to pack in her hand. "We don't have to talk about it," she said softly.
He stood up, too. He could feel the air between them change.
"I think it's enough just to know," she said, her voice a bit hoarse. "Don't you?"
"It's enough," he agreed.
Tentatively, he reached out and took the shoes from her, dropping them on the wooden floor with a thump. He stepped around the suitcase, coming to stand directly in front of her. She raised her chin to look up at him. Raising a hand, he touched her cheek, and then smoothed it over her hair to rest at the back of her head. She closed her eyes, parting her lips expectantly. But Sam was trying to commit this moment to memory; the shape of her face, the pale pinkness of her lips, the freckle above her eyebrow.
Without opening her eyes, she smiled, and whispered, "What are you, Sammy, scared?"
He let out a low, surprised laugh. "No."
She opened her mouth to say something, but he shut her up by lowering his head and kissing her. She made a muffled sound, and then reached up to wrap her arms around his neck. Putting both hands on her hips, he pulled her close so that the lines of their bodies were touching. They both made an effort to be slow and deliberate, but that lasted all of a few seconds.
Sam walked Sahara backward until she hit the wall. Their kissing became feverish, hard, wild, and their hands gripped each other as if they would never let go. Heartbeats were fast and breathing came in pants and small gasps. Sahara tugged Sam's shirt off, running her hands over his broad chest. He pulled off her damp "I Heart Wells" tee-shirt, too, tossing it on the ground. Her tank top came off after that, revealing a plain white bra.
He kissed down her jaw as she struggled to unbutton his shorts. Kicking off his shoes, he helped her and then worked her own denim shorts down her legs. She pushed him back so that he fell onto the unmade bed, and she fell on top of him.
The remaining garments came off one at a time. First, her bra was unhooked and flung to the floor. He could finally kiss down her neck and over the tops of her breasts and run his tongue over her dusky pink nipples. Then her underwear was pulled off, and he relished finding the places that made her back arch and elicit whimpers from her mouth. Then his boxers were the last to go, and they pressed together, naked and flushed with heat.
They moved together fervently. It was sex in its rawest, purest form; quick, with sweat-slicked skin and fingernails digging into flesh and gasps and groans. When they broke apart, lying on their backs and breathing heavily, they grinned at each other.
Sam didn't need much time to recover, flipping onto his stomach to take in every inch of her skin, every freckle, every mole. The delicate tracing of his fingers made her laugh, and then close her eyes and make little sounds of pleasure. Their next time was slower, more deliberate, a little softer.
When she curled against his side, they watched the sky outside her window grow dark and listened to the sounds of summer. He didn't look at the time on her alarm clock, because he wanted to stay in this moment forever.
I took a picture of Sam. In the photo, he's laying against my flowered sheets with an arm lazily tucked underneath his head and a crooked smile on his face as he's telling me about the time he accidentally saw me changing into my swimsuit one summer but didn't turn away. The photo is a bit blurry because I was laughing when I took it.
We did a good job of pretending like our time wasn't running out. Lounging in my bed, we talked and joked, and things surprisingly hadn't changed much between us, aside from the fact that we were naked, our bare legs intertwined underneath my sheets. When I went to take a shower, he followed me into the bathroom, enclosing himself in the small shower with me. Even after we were both squeaky-clean, we stood under the hot water until steam filled the bathroom, his arms around me and my head tilted back against his chest.
We collapsed on the bed next to each other, clad only in towels. Eventually Sam sighed, nudging my arm with his elbow. "All right, lazybones," he said. "Time to get packed up."
I laughed at the term, but fell silent when I realized I wouldn't be hearing it again for a long time. I reached down and squeezed his hand tightly, and he squeezed back. I sat up and took a deep breath.
I got dressed, putting the Wells tee-shirt back on despite its slight dampness. Sam went downstairs to get dressed, too, while I packed up last-minute things into my suitcases. Sam helped me carry them down the stairs and put them in the truck bed. I looked around the house one last time to make sure I didn't forget anything. I came out, closing the door. Sam was leaning against the bumper of his truck, arms crossed.
"You ready?" he asked.
Descending the steps, I walked over to the passenger's side. I opened the door and looked up at the house – our big, creaky house that I loved so much. "Yeah," I replied after a moment, swallowing the lump in my throat.
Nodding, he got in the driver's side, and I climbed into the passenger's seat, slamming the door hard. I secretly hoped he never had the rusty latch fixed; it did give the truck character. He reversed out of the driveway, and I watched the house disappear in the side mirror.
Sam clicked on the radio and lowered the windows, letting in cool night air. Driving out of Wells for the last time felt surreal, and leaving it all behind felt bittersweet and freeing at the same time. When we reached the highway, a Paul Simon song came on the radio and I reached over to turn the volume up. Sam glanced over at me and smiled.
It was a two-hour drive to the Burlington airport. We sang along to songs and played silly games like I Spy and held hands between the seats. Sam even pulled over at a gas station to pick up some snacks for my trip, making sure I was well-prepared with protein bars and large quantities of candy. I made sure to kiss him thoroughly in the chip aisle, just because I could.
He parked in the short-term parking at the airport. Getting out of the truck, he took my bags down from the truck bed. He took one, extending the handle of the other one to me. His eyebrows rose when I hesitated by the truck, biting my lip.
"Sam," I said.
Tears flooded my eyes. "I, um…I don't want you to come in with me," I told him.
The look on his face was heartbreaking, and I had to look at the grey concrete of the garage floor. "Why not?" I heard him ask.
I tried to smile, trying not to make it a big deal. "Because I don't know if I'll be able to leave if you do," I replied. "I don't know if I—if I could go through the security checkpoint if you're standing there and I have to leave you behind—"
"Sahara," he interrupted me.
I looked up. My cheeks were wet, and I noticed that his were, too.
"It's okay," he said. "I won't go in with you, then."
He always understood. I nodded, sniffing. My heart was heavy as I pulled him to me and kissed him. It felt desperate, like we were pouring every last feeling into it. I broke apart to bury my face into his shirt, breathing in the clean smell of laundry detergent. He hugged me tightly, and I didn't care that it was hard to breathe.
"Love you," I murmured, the words muffled by his shirt.
I felt him take a deep breath. "Love you, too," he said.
We stayed like that for a long time, neither of us wanting to let go. But eventually, we did. Sam stepped forward, though, and kissed me fiercely once more, and then pressed a kiss to my forehead. I took the suitcases' handles in both hands, looking at Sam one last time.
"Bye," I managed to say, my voice cracking.
He leaned against the tailgate, and gave me a salute and a sad half-smile. "See you later."
When I started walking away, I didn't look back. I entered the main terminal, checked in, and found my way to security. After I passed through, I couldn't help but glance over my shoulder. Sam was on the other side of the barrier, watching me. When our eyes met, he smiled and waved. I choked out a laugh. He had always been stubborn. I smiled and waved back, and it took all the power I had to turn my head and walk to Gate B11.
It was a fucking agonizing drive back to Wells. He didn't even turn the radio on. When he pulled into the driveway of the house, he sat in the truck for a long time, not wanting to go into an empty house full of reminders of her.
When he finally got the courage, he took a beer from the fridge and went up to her room. Standing in the doorway, he wondered how long it would still smell like her. He went to sit on her bed, taking a sip of beer as he looked around the room. She had left everything on the walls, all the maps and photographs and cutouts from travel magazines of places she wanted to visit. He was kind of glad, in a masochistic way, because he could almost pretend she was coming back someday.
He watched the clock until it turned to 2:00am, the time her plane took off. He sighed, bending his head and covering his eyes with a hand, and then stood up, walked out, and closed the door to her room.
There was something about traveling that I never really appreciated until it became a reality for me. There was always another culture to explore, another language to learn, another food to try, another friend to make. It was a whirlwind, and I loved it. I loved the ups and downs, the challenges, the hidden places I would discover by getting lost. My work with the freelance photographer who hired me took me places I never thought I would see. I loved being a nomad of sorts, not knowing what the next day would hold, living simply but living nonetheless.
I slept in a lot of places – hotel beds, uncomfortable cots, sleeping bags in tents, hammocks by the ocean, tiny berths on boats, couches in apartments, against the glass of buses and trains and planes – but none compared to my simple, flower-patterned bed at home. Every night, no matter where I was, I'd look at that picture I took of Sam. I'd close my eyes and wish I was in Wells, just for a moment.
I realized how fast a year goes by. You can change so much and not feel like you changed at all. I always tried to keep in touch with Phillip and Sam, even if I was in a remote area or working 16-hour days. I wrote letters and postcards, sent emails from internet cafés, mailed small packages with trinket souvenirs. I sent Sam pictures of me wearing my "I Heart Wells" tee-shirt in each new place I visited, with a cheesy grin and a thumbs up. He told me they made his day, so I kept on sending them.
I only called on holidays and birthdays, partly because access to a phone with international calling was rare and partly because it hurt too much to hear Sam's voice. But Sam and I kept a never-ending email conversation going. He would tell me news from Wells, updates on my brother, what was happening in the TV shows we used to watch together. I'd tell him about the photos I took that day, the places I had seen and the people I had met, how he should come see it all for himself. I always signed off with I miss you, because I did.
As happy as I was, I really did.
He felt her absence every day like a gaping hole in his heart. It became more bearable as the months passed by, and after a year came and went, it subsided to just a faint feeling. But at 5:41pm on weekdays, when he came home from work, the feeling rose up again when he checked the mailbox for something, anything from her. It wouldn't go away until he went inside and opened his laptop to check his email.
If there was a message from her, he'd write one back. If there wasn't – which became more common as time passed – he would grab a beer from the fridge, pop the cap, and look at all the pictures of Sahara in her Wells tee-shirt hanging there on the metal door, wondering where in the world she was that day. She had asked him to visit on several occasions, and he had entertained the idea but it had just never happened.
He tried dating to attempt to fill the empty space in his life. He even asked out Sahara's friend Chloë, but Chloë soon became more interested in Phillip. Four months later, Phillip announced that he was moving in with Chloë. Sam couldn't have been happier for them, and decided to get a dog instead of a girlfriend. He called him Leo.
After saving up some money, he finally started to renovate the house after work and on the weekends. It was gradual, difficult work, and there were days when he doubted his ability to do it. Phillip and some other friends would occasionally come by to help out. He redid the entire bottom floor, and then knocked down the existing back porch and installed a completely new one. He had plans to renovate the upstairs, as well, but when he stepped into Sahara's room, in the exact condition she had left it in and still smelling faintly of vanilla and cherry, he put those plans on hold.
He spent a lot of evenings on the porch with a beer in hand and Leo at his feet, resting his head on the back of his wicker chair and looking up at the stars until he dozed off with hazy images of Sahara behind his eyelids.
At the beginning of my third year away, I thought I fell in love again. He was kind and gentle and had the prettiest blue eyes I had ever seen. We were good with each other; we both liked taking pictures, playing volleyball on the beach, trying out new recipes in his kitchen, drinking wine with our circle of friends. But sometimes I would lay awake in bed with him, listening to the soft sounds of his breathing, and I knew something was missing. I knew what it was, too. I would squeeze my eyes shut, blocking out those brown-green eyes and messy hair. God, I knew what it was.
I had made a name for myself in the travel photography industry, thanks to my boss' encouragement to publish some of my photos. It was everything I wanted, but the constant moving around began to wear on me. I wanted to own more things than what could fit into two suitcases. I wanted my own bed. I wanted a place to call home. My boss understood, having been in my shoes before. She talked to me about being an independent freelance photographer, giving me advice on how to start out and make a career out of it.
I didn't consider it seriously until I received a wedding invitation from Phillip and Chloë. On the bottom of the email, Phillip had written, "Be our photographer (for free), don't be lame." The wedding date was May 31st. It was going to be an outdoor ceremony on one of Lake Saint Catherine's beaches, casual and friends-and-family only.
I booked my ticket immediately; I couldn't miss my brother finally finding someone to settle down with. Of course, there was an entire other reason; a reason that made me break things off with the blue-eyed boy before catching my flight.
After 35 hours of traveling, I landed at the Burlington airport in the early evening two weeks before the wedding. Rolling my suitcases through the airport, I called Phillip from a payphone and asked him to pick me up at the closest bus stop, which a few miles away from Wells. I tried to sleep on the bus ride, but when I started seeing signs for Wells, I couldn't.
Phillip was waiting for me at the bus stop with a big goofy grin and his arms spread wide. It struck me how much he still looked the same, except that he was wearing a polo shirt instead of his usual raggedy tee-shirt. Maybe that was a sign he had grown up.
I hugged him hard. He put my bags in the trunk of his car, and then slung an arm heavily over my shoulders, ruffled my hair, and said, "I missed you, sis."
I grinned at him, so happy to see him. "I missed you, too."
He drove to Wells, filling me in on everything, from wedding planning disasters to being the new co-owner of his car garage to how he and Chloë were seriously considering having a baby. I was glad he was in such a good place. He asked about my flights and how it felt being back in Vermont.
Looking out of the window, I told him it felt good to be back. As we drove passed familiar places, I realized a lot of the old, unhappy memories of my childhood had faded. They seemed so distant now, like they had happened centuries ago. What I really remembered were the good times – the better times – with Phillip and Sam.
When we reached Phillip and Chloë's house, Chloe greeted me warmly. She had dinner waiting, a good American meal of spaghetti and meatballs. We ate and caught up, and then she showed me to the guest room. Before closing my door, she told me they had planned a pre-wedding barbeque tomorrow afternoon.
"Everyone will be there," she told me.
I nodded. I didn't care who was going to be there. There was only one person I wanted to show up.
He was having a bitch of a day – he was nursing a hangover from a friend's birthday party, Leo had pissed on his bedroom floor, the battery in his truck was dead so he had to get a jump from the neighbor who always talked too much. The last thing he wanted to do was go to Phillip and Chloë's barbeque and socialize with a bunch of people.
Parking on the side of the road because the driveway was full, he could hear the chatter of a crowd behind Phillip's house. He walked through the house, saying hi to people he passed on his way to the backyard. He slid the screen door open, stepping onto the small patio. The barbeque made the whole place smell of hamburgers, and his stomach growled. Phillip was standing in front of the grill, flipping burgers.
Sam walked toward him. When Phillip saw him, he raised the tongs he was holding and pointed them at one of the picnic benches in the yard with a smile. Sam frowned slightly, confused, and looked in that direction.
He froze, not believing his eyes. His chest tightened to the point where it almost hurt. There she was. There she was, holding a giant bowl of fruit salad, talking to a woman at the table, wearing a little white sundress with her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, barefooted on the green grass. Her hair had grown longer and her skin was tanned a golden brown. But it was Sahara. When she smiled at something the woman said, it was that exact same smile.
She glanced around, her eyes passing over him and then quickly snapping back to meet his gaze. His mouth went dry. Too far away to hear her, he saw her lips form the word, "Sam."
She put down the bowl, came out from around the table, and gave the woman an apologetic pat on the shoulder. And then she was heading toward him, walking at first but quickly breaking into a run. She hit him with enough impact for him to lose his breath. Her arms wrapped around him, squeezing tightly, her cheek pressed against his chest. He enveloped her in a hug that threatened to crush her.
They held onto each other until they needed oxygen. Sahara stepped back, laughing softly and wiping moisture from underneath her eyes.
"So, you didn't forget me?" she asked him.
Not caring who was looking on, he reached out and ran a thumb across her cheek, just to make sure she was real. He smiled down at her. "Yeah…what's your name again? Sarah…Susie…Samantha?"
She smiled back, hitting him lightly on the arm. "Shut up," she replied.
"I didn't know you were back," he said, taking in every inch of her face. She had freckles on her nose and a small scar on her temple. He touched it lightly. "What's this?"
"I got in last night," she answered, and then touched the scar, looking a bit sheepish. "Oh, this? I fell off a scooter and knocked my head."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
She blinked up at him. "About coming back or the scar?"
"I didn't tell you about coming back because I kind of wanted it to be a surprise," she said, "and I didn't tell you about the scooter thing because…well, I didn't want to bother you, I guess."
"Bother me?" he questioned. "Really?"
Biting her lower lip and shrugging, she said, "Bother you, worry you, annoy you with too many details…"
"But I wanted to know everything," he said, and he could hear the emotion in his own voice.
She peered up at him, breathing in deeply and looking ashamed. "I know," she said. She dropped her head, curling her toes into the grass. "I know. I'm sorry. I…I should have kept in touch more. Life just got so busy."
He nodded. "I knew it would."
Raising her head, she met his eyes with earnest resolve. "Yeah, but you're not right about everything, Sam," she told him.
"No." She crossed her arms over her chest. "You told me I would stop missing you eventually."
The way her jaw was set was so fucking endearing, and he hated how powerless it made him. "And—"
"I moved," she interrupted, "and sure, I've changed, but there wasn't a day that went by when I didn't think about you."
She said it so plainly, and with that look at her face, he believed her. Somehow, he felt lighter. "Yeah?"
"Well, I missed you, too." He could have laughed at much of an understatement that was.
Swallowing, she said, "I'm sorry if I ever made you feel like I didn't —"
"Don't," he stopped her. "It doesn't matter. You're here now, for however long, and that's more than enough for the time being."
She looked like she was about to protest, but Phillip announced loudly that the burgers were ready.
Sam nudged Sahara to the line that was forming near the barbeque. "Come on," he said. "Let's eat and you can tell me exactly how you got that scar."
She laughed, and they went to get food. She started to tell him about how the scooter incident came about. Piling their plates high, they made sure to sit next to each other on white plastic lawn chairs.
That afternoon, Sahara had to make conversation with a lot of different people who hadn't seen her since she had arrived, but Sam was content to sit back and listen to the sound of her voice. Sometimes, when she was talking to someone, she would catch his eyes and give him a secret little smile. He couldn't comprehend how good it felt to see that smile in person rather than in one of the photographs on his fridge. He had forgotten all about the bad day he was having.
When everyone began to filter out, he stayed until he was the last one. She walked him to his truck, still barefoot. He got in, and said, "So, I'm going to see you tomorrow, right?"
She laid her arms across the open passenger side window, resting her chin on her forearms. "Well, what are you doing for the rest of the day?"
He raised a shoulder and dropped it. "Nothing important," he replied.
She tilted her head to the side. "Hmm."
Jiggling his keys in his hand, he said, "You wanna go for a drive?"
She grinned. "Yes," she said, "I do."
Climbing in and slamming the door so the rusty latch caught, she buckled her seatbelt. Sam started the engine, automatically turning on the radio. He pulled away from the curb.
"The long way?" she asked from beside him.
He glanced sideways at her. It was like she had never left at all. "What else?" he said, smiling.
We drove for over two hours, sometimes talking, sometimes just listening to music and the sound of the wind in the windows. It didn't matter; driving around with him just felt good, peaceful. I put my feet up on the dashboard, listening to Sam hum along to a song. He seemed older to me, his face less boyish and his hair cut shorter, but he was still so familiar. He was still the Sam I remembered.
"You know," I said, "I've seen a lot of places now, beautiful places, but do you know where my favorite place is?"
He leaned his head back against the headrest. "No."
"Here," I replied simply. "In this truck, in the summertime, with you."
His hands tightened on the steering wheel, but his voice was light when he replied, "Yeah, I think it's one of mine, too."
I smiled. "Hmm."
"Sahara?" He said my name hesitantly.
"How long are you staying in Wells?" he asked, and the question sounded reluctant, like he didn't really want to know the answer.
"I'm not sure," I said, pushing loose strands of hair out of my eyes. "I love traveling, so much, but I'm not going to lie; it's tiring not having a place you can always come back to, or keep your things at. And it's tiring not having a reliable address."
He waited for me to continue, his eyes glued to the road.
"My boss in Thailand, she's going to help me set myself up as a freelance photographer," I told him. "I've thought about it a lot, and I think that's going to be my next move. I'll at least give it a try for a while."
"What does that mean?" he said.
"That means…that means I can live where I want and take jobs as they come up," I explained. "It's still going to require a lot of traveling – which I love, so that's great – but I can be based out of anywhere."
He paused before saying, "Like Wells?"
He looked over at me. "Would you want to live here?"
"Yes," I said, nodding.
"But you left for a reason," he said.
"I did," I replied, "and I came back for a reason."
He slowed the truck to a stop, pulling over on the side of the road. He yanked the gearstick into Park. Shifting, he turned to face me.
"Really?" he said. "You'd stay in Wells between jobs?"
Dropping my feet down and straightening in my seat, I answered, "Yes."
"You're not fucking with me?"
"Not at all."
He was stunned for a moment, and then a smile spread across his face. It turned into a huge grin, and he looked like a kid again.
"Is that okay with you?" I inquired, raising my eyebrows.
He put the truck into first gear and pulled back onto the street. "Yeah," he said, still grinning. "I think I'll be able to manage."
I laughed, feeling lighthearted. "Good."
His smile didn't fade for the rest of the drive. When he dropped me off at Phillip's, he told me to come by the house tomorrow after he got off work.
So, the next day, I walked to what was now Sam's house. He had repainted the entire exterior a deep forest green, and landscaping had been done around the house. When I walked up the driveway, the front door opened and a chocolate lab came bounding toward me. He barked excitedly and licked my hands as I crouched down to pet his head. Sam was leaning against the doorway, arms crossed and smiling.
I laughed as the dog tried to lick my face. "Leo?" I asked Sam.
Looking at Leo's happy, panting face, I said, "I think he likes me."
I heard Sam laugh and say, "Don't take it personally, he likes everyone."
Sam showed me all the renovations he had done on the house, pointing things out to me as we walked through. Floors had been redone, walls had been torn down and built again, the cracks in the ceiling had been repaired. Leo trailed behind us, his nails clicking on the new hardwood floors. The house was beautiful; it still had all its old charm but there was more space and more light. I couldn't believe the amount of work Sam had put into it, but he was humble about it, like he was with everything.
We walked out on the back porch. The last time I had seen it, there had been a giant hole on the right side, broken railings, and rotting wood. Now, it was unrecognizable. Sam had built a new one from scratch. It was open, with grey wood beams holding up a dark red tarp. The floors were made of old but solid wood, and he had hung light bulbs from strings around the porch. On the left side, there were four wicker chairs and a handmade table, overlooking the small yard with blooming spring flowers in the garden beds.
I ran a hand along the smooth railing, looking at Sam over my shoulder. "This is wonderful," I breathed.
He shrugged, nonchalant. "It works for me."
I turned and leaned against the railing, watching him. "This house…Leo…" I said. "All that's missing is the brand-new Toyota in the driveway."
He let out a laugh. "All in due time."
I grinned. "So, what did you do with the upstairs?" I asked. "You've showed me everything except that. I'm guessing…a home gym?"
He shook his head, running a hand over his jaw.
"No?" I pursed my lips in thought. "An office? A guest bedroom?"
"I didn't do anything with it," he said.
"That means it's storage space, doesn't it?" I teased.
Laughing softly, he answered, "Yeah, that's where I keep my walk-in shoe closet."
I glanced down at his worn-in work boots. "Lots of boots, right?" I joked.
Smiling, I pushed myself off the railing, heading back into the house. "I don't believe you," I sang, touching the freshly-painted walls as I walked.
The stairs were new, but the upstairs landing still creaked under my weight. I opened the door to my bedroom, taking a breath before stepping inside. I expected Sam to have renovated it along with the rest of the house, but it hadn't been touched.
"What?" I whispered, spinning slowly in a circle.
It looked exactly the same as when I had left it three years ago. Those blue curtains above the window, all my books and CDs, my photographs, my maps and magazine rip-outs, the calendar where I had counted down the days until I left, even the flowery sheets on my bed. I felt a jolt of nostalgia and confusion.
I turned around and went to the landing. "Sam," I called.
He came in from the porch, the screen door shutting loudly behind him. When he came into view, I started down the stairs.
Stopping at the base of the staircase, he asked, "What?"
"What?" I repeated, pausing on the last stair so I was the same height as him. "You didn't do anything with my room."
He gave me a look. "That's what I told you—"
"You didn't touch my room," I said. "Why?"
He exhaled, running a hand through his short hair. "Never got around to it," he responded. "It was gonna cost too much, and I didn't really feel like ripping out anymore floorboards—"
"Sam," I cut him off sharply.
He dropped his hand, meeting my eyes.
"I don't believe you," I said.
"What do you want me to say, Sahara?" he questioned, exasperated. "I was going to make it a loft, but whenever I thought about taking out your stuff –" He cleared his throat self-consciously. "I couldn't do it."
I grasped the bannister, waiting for him to say more.
"I guess that meant letting go of the idea of you ever coming back," he continued. He sighed, adding, "And I couldn't bring myself to do that, not yet."
I didn't know what to say, so I slid my arms around his neck and gently rested my forehead against his. He was warm and smelled faintly of sawdust. I could hear Leo barking on the porch. Sam's hands ran down my sides, stopping at my hips.
"Do you need a place to stay?" Sam asked, his voice low.
I pulled back slightly. "What?"
"You heard me."
"Like permanently?" I questioned.
"Yeah," he said. "I have a room I think you'd like."
I smiled. "Oh, yeah?"
"And you wouldn't mind me cramping your style?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"Who am I kidding?" I teased lightly. "What style?"
He nudged me in the side. "So…what do you say?"
Giving into the impulse of the moment, I grabbed his face and kissed him. I drew back enough to see the spark in his eyes, and then he yanked me close and crashed his lips to mine. Our tongues met roughly, our hands grasping at each other. Nearly losing my balance on the stairs, I clasped my arms around his neck and he lifted me onto him.
He sat me down on the nearby dining room table, knocking over some things but not caring. He ran his hands up my thighs and underneath my sundress, while I smoothed my hands over his shoulders, savoring the feel of him. He kissed down the length of my neck, his light stubble tickling me and making me laugh. Moving one of the straps of my dress, he kissed across my shoulder and over the top of my breast. My breath caught in my throat.
I managed to take his tee-shirt off, and then he found the dress' zipper and pulled down the top half, exposing my bra. Our lips met again, and we fumbled with the rest of our clothes. When we were only in our underwear, he pulled me off the table. Holding my head and kissing me while stumbling down the hallway, he brought me into his room.
I was the one to straddle him on top of his green duvet, my hair falling like a curtain between us as we moved together. This time was different from the previous one; maybe we were making up for the time we had lost. Us together, it felt good, it felt right. And three years hadn't changed that.
When I collapsed onto his chest, I listened to the fast thumping of his heartbeat. He brushed a hand over my hair.
"Sahara?" he rumbled.
"Maybe I was distracted by my mission to get you naked," he said, "but I didn't hear an answer."
I laughed softly. "What was the question again?"
"Do you want to live here…with me?"
"Umm," I debated, pressing a kiss to his chest. I kissed up to his neck, his jaw, his cheek, and then grinned down at him before saying, "Yes," and kissing him on the lips.
When he pulled into the driveway after work, he would usually find her on the porch with Leo, legs up on the railing and a book in her hand. Sometimes he would sit with her until the sun went below the horizon, just talking and watching the way her hair moved in the early summertime breeze. Sometimes they went out for dinner or ice cream, sometimes they went to the lookout behind Mr. Corby's empty house to watch the sun set on the lake, sometimes they watched TV on the couch until they fell asleep, and sometimes they went straight to the bedroom, peeling clothes off as they went.
Occasionally, he would worry about her leaving, as if all this was just temporary for her. But then he would look at her, wearing some tee-shirt of his that was too big for her and giving him a smile that put all his fears to rest, and he knew it was okay.
Phillip and Chloë's wedding went smoothly. Sam was the best man and Sahara was the photographer. The reception was the best part; Phillip made sure the bar was fully-stocked and hired a DJ who played cheesy 80s songs all night. It was the first time Phillip saw his best friend and sister kiss. All he did was yell, "Get a room!" and give Sam a quick, awkward speech afterward about intentions and not breaking her heart. Then he grabbed him in a bear hug and muttered, "Finally, Jesus."
Sahara got her first freelance job 10 days after the wedding. It was a week-long shoot in Morocco. After some pleading on her part, Sam used some of his vacation days and went with her. Nothing had ever opened his eyes up more. In a tent in the middle of the desert, huddled underneath layers of blankets, surrounded by her photography equipment, he told her that he loved her for the first time in three years. She had laughed, and said, "I know," before rubbing cold feet on his shins and adding, "If you really love me, you'll warm me up." But then she dropped a kiss on his shoulder, and told him she loved him, too.
That gaping hole in his heart was long gone.
My job took me across countries and continents, an endless stream of deserts and mountains and oceans and rainforests and rolling hills. Sam traveled with me when he could. He went to a lot of different places, but for some reason, the desert was always his favorite.
When he couldn't come with me, he would make me wear my Wells tee-shirt, take me to Marie's Bakery, the lookout on the lake, ice cream at Wolly's, and then he would drive the long way home. When he took me to the airport, I let him come in with me, and when we waved goodbye through the security barrier, we weren't sad, because we both knew I was going to come back.
I think it took me leaving to figure out what I really wanted. And what I really wanted was to view the world through the lens of my Nikon camera, to see new places and experience new things, to have a place to call home, to hear Sam murmur, "Wake up, lazybones," in my ear every morning, and to kiss him whenever I felt like it.
And for now, I had everything I wanted. I was happy, 100% happy.
A/N: This was written for A Drop of Romeo's Star-Crossed Round IX, for the picture prompt Sleeping. I'll put the link to the picture in my profile, in case you're interested!
I decided to try a few new things that I'm usually wary of - like the POV switches, the 3rd person male POV, and the lapse of time over three years. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what worked and what didn't!
Thanks for making it to the end and reading this whopper of a one-shot :)