Serendipitous moments are events that only ever happen in the movies. I, myself, had never had one. At least, not to my knowledge anyway. I mean, sure, there had been defining moments where life-changing decisions had been made, but never once had I been doing something completely unrelated to the fortune that life passed my way and thought to myself, "Wow, I was accidentally in the right place at the right time, and this really amazing thing happened!"
As I looked down at the unknown caller that flashed across my screen, I briefly wondered, "Is this one of those moments?" Probably not. Things like that just don't happen.
As my thumb hovered over the button that would send the caller straight to my, slightly embarrassing, voicemail recording, I registered the area code.
Savannah opened her mouth, probably to tell me that she wasn't going to wait while I answered the call, but she didn't have a chance to actually say anything.
A strange feeling washed over me as the voice spoke into my ear. It's strange, isn't it? How the simplest vibration of vocal cords can bring back a mountain of memories that you never even knew you'd kept stored?
"Hey." My voice wasn't nearly as cool and collected as I'd tried to make it sound. "What's up?" I tried again, though I had no more success the second time around.
The next pause was longer, and Savannah took advantage of my silence. "Jack, hang up the phone. This is important."
I held up a finger. "You there?"
"Yeah." Her response was quiet. Something wasn't right.
"Jack," Savannah interrupted.
I wasn't sure who to give my attention to. Savannah was looking at me like she wanted to stab me in the neck with the fork sitting to her left, but I hadn't talked to Haley in...well, far too long, and she wouldn't have been calling if it weren't important.
"Hales," I started without a second thought, "can I give you a call back? I'm kind of in the middle of something."
Haley's voice sounded just as Savannah said, "Thank you," and I had to ask her to repeated herself.
"No," she said more forcefully. "It can't wait."
"Oh, uhm, all right."
I heard her sigh and then she whispered, "I'm so sorry." But before I could ask her to elaborate further, she did just that. "It's Lucy..." I held my breath.
Her words were merciless, and they needed no explaining. Those next few words turned my entire world black. The air around me was suddenly thick, and heavy, and I couldn't breathe it in. I couldn't even remember how to.
"How long will you be gone?"
I stopped stuffing clothes into my suitcase just long enough to look up at her and say, "A couple of days."
"Okay," she replied quietly. And then, "Jack, I'm so sorry."
I tried to tell her that it was okay, that I was okay, but my throat was thick, and I found that I was unable to. I just nodded instead.
"Hey," she whispered, and I felt her hands on my shoulders just before she pulled me against her. I loved how comforting, how familiar, the gesture felt. I squeezed her back as though maybe I could absorb some of her strength if only I held her tightly enough. I felt like I didn't have any left.
"Are you sure you don't want me to come with?"
I shook my head, but I didn't have the words to explain why. Thankfully, she didn't seem to need them.
My phone had gone off a dozen or so times since I'd hit the highway, but I'd ignored it. I didn't know if it was work, or Savannah, or maybe even Haley. I didn't much care either way. All I knew was that I needed to get there.
Getting there was one matter, but staying was going to be an entirely different one. I hadn't been back in nearly five years, and I wasn't looking forward to it in the least.
If things still stood as I'd left them, I could list off at least two people who definitely hated my guts. Unfortunately for me, those two people would end up being the first ones I saw. I was sure of it.
You're not supposed to look back, you're supposed to keep going, aren't you? That town wasn't my home anymore. Home is the place where you're always welcome and where the people you love, and the people who love you, reside. It no longer fit that description.
When I finally pulled into the drive of the beach-side house, countless hours later, I spotted the all-too-familiar little yellow Volkswagen Beetle parked off to the side by the crooked tree. For a split second, my heart jumped at the thought of seeing Lucy, but that piece of my heart chipped and shriveled as soon as the realization hit me.
It's funny how when you read about people in the paper, or when you watch tragic stories on the news, it makes you sad for a split second, and then you move on with your day. But when someone close to you, someone you love, dies, you expect the entire world to stop and grieve with you. Or at least notice. But they never do.
I pulled in right behind Lucy's bug, but not before letting my mind wander away from me yet again as I hoped that she wouldn't need to leave before me because then I would have to come and move my bike to let her out.
A tapping on my helmet jerked me out of my daze.
"You just gonna sit out here?"
I hopped off the bike into the darkness, which seemed to have been following me around all day, and removed my helmet. I'd been wrong about who I'd see first, and I was thankful for that. "Ben."
Before I could say anything more, the lanky, six-foot-four monster of a man who stood before me pulled me in tightly and slapped his hand against my back. "Good to see you," he told me before loosening his grip. "Shitty circumstances, but it's good to see you."
I gave him a single nod. "Good to see you, too, man."
"Been too long," he told me as we headed up the walk.
"Yeah. Yeah, it has been."
"We should do brunch," he suggested with a wink.
My first instinct was to call him out and then make a counter-offer, a real one, to get together. But my second was to keep quiet because I knew that we wouldn't.
Why is it that tragedy always does that to people? You promise you'll be better, that you'll live every day to the fullest because you never know when it's going to be your last, and all of that. But do we ever really mean it?
No. It's like a New Year's resolution; our intentions are always good, but we rarely follow through. So instead of getting into that conversation, I simply said, "Absolutely. Or tea."
The first thing I heard when we reached the door was the sound of Mrs. Hamilton announcing that the apple tarts were almost ready. Ben and I exchanged an amused look just before she spotted us standing outside the door.
"What are you boys doing outside?" She demanded.
We both looked at each other and waited for a response to come, but one never really did. After a couple of seconds, she took initiative and yanked open the screen door before ushering us in. "Don't even think about taking off your shoes."
"Yes, ma'am," Ben confirmed.
"Jack," she interrupted before I could give her the opening line I'd prepared during the drive. "I've known you since you were six years old, and I think it's about damn time you call me Gretchen."
I smiled and met her halfway. "Hello, Mrs. H."
She rolled her eyes and then pulled me in with one arm and pulled Ben in with the other. "It's so good to see you boys." Her voice was weary, her words forced.
"It's good to see you, too," I said.
"So good," Ben agreed. "How are you holding up?"
She pulled away and took a deep breath. Her eyes were glossy and tired. "I'm staying busy," she answered quietly. Then she forced a smile and said, "Everyone's in the living room. Go on in."
The very first thing I saw was Lee, sitting in the same chair he'd had since we were in high school.
Back then, Lucy's dad had been like a father to us all, but I'd always felt like he had meant the most to me. My own dad was a piece of shit who'd ditched out on me and my mom when I was about two. He hadn't even bothered to show up for her funeral. Apart from Haley's father, Lucy's had played the male-lead for most of my life. My old life, that is.
"Benny," Lee muttered in a gruff voice as he stood from his recliner and slapped Ben on the back. "Always a pleasure."
Emotionally, he was probably ready to give up. Mentally, he was drained, and spiritually, he was broken. But physically, he still smiled. He smiled that soft, welcoming, familiar smile of his and pulled me in tight.
"Jack. How are you, Son?"
That was another thing about him; he had always called me 'son'. I never knew whether or not he understood the importance that that simple gesture had always held for me, but I vowed to tell him someday soon.
"I've had better days," I answered honestly. I was about to add, "And I've had worse" but I really didn't think that I'd ever had a worse day. I doubted that he had either.
Lee's eyes were the same as Gretchen's, tired and permanently glossed over. I didn't think I'd ever seen a sadder pair of eyes. My whole world felt so unbalanced, and it killed me to think that my pain was only a fraction of his.
"You're late, assholes."
I knew that voice. The last time I'd seen Conner, we'd ended on pretty bad terms, so at first I wasn't sure how to acknowledge him, but he stood and wrapped an arm loosely around my shoulders.
"Nice beard," I told him.
"You're just jealous you can't grow one."
Even your very worst enemy wouldn't kick you when you were down as far as we all were. I shouldn't have expected anything of the sort to happen with Conner. He was down, too. And besides, we weren't there for each other, after all. We were there for Lucy. Everything else could wait.
I did a quick scan of the room, but I didn't see Haley anywhere. There were a couple of Lucy's relatives whom I didn't recognize wandering around, looking at pictures and talking amongst themselves in hushed tones, but it didn't appear that Haley was there.
"She's on a beer run."
I spun around and opened my arms without hesitation. "Kat."
She stepped toward me and collapsed against my chest. I heard her sniffle a few times, and I held her even tighter. I didn't have any brothers or sisters of my own, but my friend's siblings had always felt like family to me, too. Especially Kat.
It was crazy to think of how close we had all been. It was even crazier to think of how loose we'd all become.
"Wait, who's on a beer run?" I asked when Kat patted my back twice, the universal signal for "this hug is now over."
She rolled her eyes at me and whispered, "Don't think for a second that I've forgotten your history, Jack." Before I could mock her for being so cryptic, the door flew open.
"Got your beer, Mr. H. and I picked up something a little stronger for the rest of us."
I watched her as she set the bags down on the dining room table, tossing her dark hair casually over her shoulder as she leaned over them. She hadn't changed a bit since I'd last seen her, and that was a very good thing.
"Haley, sweetheart, would you mind pulling my apple tarts from the oven?" Mrs. Hamilton called to her from the other room.
She chuckled a bit to herself and then headed for the kitchen. "You got it, Gretchen!" I couldn't help myself from watching as she walked from the room. So confident, so graceful. So Haley. I'd have known her walk anywhere. And I knew it best when she was walking away from me.
"Hey, stalker boy, why don't you go tell her to cut me some of that," Kat suggested with a nudge at my rib cage.
I headed for the kitchen. I waited for her to notice me, but when I realized that she didn't, I murmured, "Hey, there."
Haley's muscles tensed at the sound of my greeting, and she cast a look at me over her shoulder as she set the pan down onto the stove top. "After five years, you're gonna go with 'hey, there', huh?" She exhaled slowly. "Okay. Hey, there, Jack."
I briefly wondered if the sound of my voice had brought back memories the way her's had for me. As I looked at her, I marveled at how a simple alignment of the eyes could be so powerful. There was a strong pull, an almost magnetic force, behind Haley's dark gaze. It was nice to see that that hadn't changed.
She'd turned back around, but I could almost hear her rolling her eyes at me as she said, "I bet you are." I let out a long breath as I leaned against the counter and tilted my head back to look up at the ceiling. As I did, I remembered Lucy telling us about how when her dad had repainted it, the paint had gone on pink and then dried white. It had blown my mind back then. Hell, it still kind of did.
"What are you laughing at, McClellan?"
I snapped my mind back to the present. "Just thinking."
Haley nodded slowly. "I've been doing a lot of that recently."
"I think we all have," I agreed. She just shrugged. "Oh, uhm, Kat wants you to cut her one of those," I informed her, knowing that if we stood there much longer, I'd forget all about Kat's request.
Haley opened up the drawer that sat to the left of the stove. "I'll take it to her."
"...Okay." I hesitated.
"Need something else?"
"Why did you call me?" The words slipped past my lips before I could think them through.
She turned back around and looked at me like I was the most incompetent individual she'd ever encountered. "You can't be serious?"
"You know what I mean."
"Obviously I don't?"
"Why didn't you let one of the guys get a hold of me, or..." It sounded even more stupid when I said it out loud. I had just been surprised that she'd wanted to talk to me at all.
"Sorry," she said as she glanced around to make sure no one but me was within hearing distance. "Next time one of us..." She trailed off, and I was thankful she didn't use the word. It only would have made things even more real. "Next time I won't call you with problems that no longer seem to concern you."
"Don't be so dramatic," I shot at her before I could stop myself. I'd forgotten just how infuriating she could be.
"I'm being dramatic?" She challenged in a hushed tone. "Get over yourself already, Jack. I called you because I thought that you should hear it from one of us. It wasn't some lame attempt to win you over, or to get a reaction out of you. In fact it had very little to do with you. Believe it or not."
I was being stupid. Or perhaps I was just being hopeful? Maybe both at the same time. Somehow, Haley always found a way, whether it was intentional or not, to bring out the most irrational side of me. I'd always hated that about her, but I guess that's what you get when you're best friends first. They already know everything about you, and vice versa. They don't hesitate to tell you when you're being obnoxious or self-centered. They don't try to spare your feelings because they already know your limits, and they know that you can take whatever they throw at you. And worst of all, they know what you're feeling before you feel it yourself.
Haley had always been able to read me in a way that no one else ever could. That's what had scared me the most, I think. I'd always felt as though we'd merged into a single person, and I'd never been able to handle that about us. Partly because I was afraid that the person I was would ruin the person she was, and partly because I knew that if and when she figured out how much better off she'd be without me, I'd be left as only half a person. "You're right, I'm being stupid."
"As per usual," she said, but her tone was lighter. "Come on. They're probably missing us."
Hours later, after we'd all swapped our favorite Lucy stories, we'd called it a night, or, technically an early morning, and gone our separate ways. I checked into the motel room I'd booked and had been ready to throw my towel into the pile as well when my phone buzzed.
It saddened me to see that yet another unknown caller was flashing across my screen. Had I really let them all slip that far away from me?
"What room are you in?"
"Uhm, 213. Why?" The call ended and a second later there was a knock on the door. I opened it only to find that all three of them were standing in front of me. "Hey."
"Sure, we'd love to come in," Ben insisted as he pushed past me.
"We brought booze," Conner added as he slipped inside.
"Their idea," was all I got from Haley.
All three of them jumped up onto the bed, so I figured I'd might as well join them. Conner popped open the first of a twelve pack, and Haley twisted open a bottle of whiskey. I took the beer that Con handed me and watched as Haley took a swig from the bottle before sending it Ben's way. He did the same, and we all passed it around a couple of times before any of us said anything.
"This sucks." Conner had always been the one to say it like it was, to break the awkward silences, and apparently that much hadn't changed about him.
"Seriously, you guys. What the fuck are we even doing here? I feel like I'm stuck in a nightmare. I'm not asleep, but I'm not awake either. It's like I've realized it's a dream, but I can't snap out of it. I can't get control."
"I wish it was a dream," Haley muttered.
"Maybe it is. Maybe that's the only way this," Ben said as he gestured around the circle at the four of us, "happens. Maybe we're all just sharing a nightmare."
"It's a good theory," Conner admitted. Then he leaned over and pinched Haley's arm.
"Hey!" She snapped as she smacked his shoulder. "Asshole."
He smiled sadly. "Guess it's not a dream." After a few beats of silence, he hopped up off of the bed and grabbed the rest of the beer. "This situation is shitty enough as it is. If we're gonna do this whole reunion thing, we're sure as hell not going to do it in here."
"Where are you going?" I asked as he headed for the door.
"To the beach."
We all followed him down to the water, and Ben started a small fire in the middle of the circle/square that we'd formed. We sat there drinking and watching the flames dance around the logs for quite some time before Conner pulled through for us yet again.
"Remember that time that we all decided to go skinny-dipping at like, two in the morning?"
Haley spit out some of her beer as she laughed. "Oh my gosh, I'd forgotten about that."
"How could you forget?" Ben insisted with a shake of his head. "Lee was so pissed when he found out that we'd gone down to the water that he came and took all of our clothes!"
"Then he locked us out," I added as I recalled the horrified feeling I'd experienced that night when I'd realized that both Lucy and Haley were about to watch my naked self walk all the way back up the hill to the house. Because, of course, they'd made us walk ahead of them. They'd claimed that they were less likely to 'sneak a peak'. And, to be honest, they'd been right.
"Holy shit! Yeah, he did!"
"Yeah, and Mrs. H. had to come and let us in." Ben recalled.
Haley covered her mouth with her hand and threw her head back as she laughed even harder. "I couldn't look either of them in the eye for months!"
"You?" I challenged. "She saw my...everything!"
"She saw me, too!" Haley shot back.
"You're both girls! You have all the same parts."
She tried to catch her breath as she tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear. "That's true."
"Lucy wasn't phased by it at all," Ben added after the laughter had died down a little. "She never let shit get her down. Ever."
We all stared at the fire some more and then suddenly Conner jumped up and tugged his shirt over his head. Then he looked down at all of us as though he were waiting for something.
"I'm not throwing any dollars at you unless you dance," I told him simply.
He rolled his eyes. "Don't be an asshole. Come on, guys."
"Come on what?" Haley's voice was skeptical.
"Strip down. Take it off. We're going swimming!" We all exchanged hesitant glances and then Conner sighed loudly and added, "Lucy would do it."
There was a second's pause and then Haley jumped up, pulled her shirt off, and tossed it aside. I tried not to look. "What the hell, I'm game," she said when she was standing in nothing but her underwear.
The glow of the fire illuminated her body, which I also noticed hadn't changed much since the last time I'd seen her. With the exception of the jewel that now sparkled above her naval, I knew that I could remember every inch of her, and I was half-tempted to participate just to prove myself right.
Ben joined them next.
"Jack, get your ass up and take off your clothes," Haley demanded.
"Whoa, flashback," I told her sarcastically. She kinked an eyebrow at me, which I knew meant that she was slightly amused but also getting impatient. While a ticked off Haley typically turned me on, I knew that was the last thing I should have been thinking about, so I let out a loud sigh, set down my beer, and then stood up and removed my shirt. "Happy?"
"Not quite satisfied."
"You get a flashback with that one, too?" Ben asked as he nudged me with his elbow.
"Fuck off," I told him, but I couldn't help but laugh as I unbuttoned my jeans and kicked off my shoes.
"That's my boy!" Ben said as he patted me on the back.
"All right, now on three, we're all gonna strip down and make a run for it. Deal?" Conner instructed as he gestured out toward the water.
"Deal," we all said in unison. But then Ben added, "Wait just a goddamn minute! This isn't going to be like that time when we all decided to snort those sugar sticks and you all just watched me do it, is it?"
Had we really been that stupid?
"I wouldn't be standing here with my bra unclasped if that were the case," Haley reassured him as Conner began to count.
"Run next to me, would ya' Hales?" Ben winked at her.
"Hey! I'm trying to count here!" Conner shouted. Then, "Three!"
We all took off. Clothes were flying in every direction, and someone's boxer shorts hit me in the face just before I reached the edge of the sand. The water was cool, but not terrible. I dove down and then kicked up off the bottom.
"This is so immature," Haley was muttering as she ran a hand down her face to clear the water from it.
"Get over it, Hales," Ben insisted as he splashed her. "We're destined to stay immature forever."
"Not all of us," Conner said, and his eyes flashed over to me briefly.
I didn't respond. I wasn't in the mood to pick a fight with him. Especially not while we were both naked.
"Lucy should be here," Haley whispered through the darkness. "She was always the spontaneous one, the reckless one." No one said anything, so Haley just went on. "You know, the last time I talked to her, she asked if I'd heard from any of you." Her voice was thoughtful, and sad. "What happened to us?"
"Nothing new in my life," Conner answered her. "Nothing I thought was worth mentioning. Now I wish..."
"I should have tried harder," Ben said. "I guess I just always figured I'd call tomorrow, or the next day, or the next... I never thought I'd run out of tomorrows."
"And Jack outgrew all of us." I snapped my eyes over to where Conner's head was bobbing up and down in the water. "Mr. Big Time didn't need us little people any more."
"Shut up," I warned him.
"Why? Too high and mighty to face the truth, Jacky boy? Huh?" He challenged. Haley muttered a warning to him under her breath, but he ignored her.
I looked around at all of their waiting faces until I couldn't take it any more. I headed back toward shore without a word.
"Yeah, keep running from it, Jack!" Conner called after me. "Maybe it'll all just go away!"
I called Savannah as soon as I got back to my room. I knew that it was late, but I needed to talk to her. Rekindling relationships with my old classmates, and former best friends, had started better than it had ended, and I needed to touch base with a more current reality.
She answered on the third ring. "Hey, baby. How are things?" She sounded tired, but I ignored it. I needed her too much to care.
I plopped down on the edge of my bed and ran my hand through my hair. "Not so good," I admitted. "It's weird seeing everyone again."
"Well, do you know how long you'll be gone yet?" She asked, and it struck a strange chord in me. She quickly added, "I'm sorry, that sounded so inconsiderate. I didn't mean... I wasn't trying to... I just don't know what to say," she finally admitted.
I couldn't blame her for being at a loss for words. I myself had experienced writer's block at the most inconvenient of times, and my speaking ability had also been pretty spotty in the past.
"It's okay. The funeral is four days from now."
"Okay..." She still sounded so uncertain. "I miss you."
I smiled at how confident that part, at least, sounded. "I miss you, too."
A very large part of me wanted to ask her to drive down, to stay with me, but I knew that that would be out of line. No matter how much I thought I needed Savannah, for the first time in a long time, I was the least of my own concerns. Now was not the time to be selfish.
A knock on my door made me jump, and I must have vocalized my surprise because Savannah's voice was suddenly in my ear again. "Jack? What happened?"
"Nothing, sorry, just... Hang on." Haley was standing in front of me when I pulled back the door. I pressed the phone firmly against my shoulder. "Hales. What are you doing here?"
"You got a minute?" I debated my answer. "Don't be stupid, Jack. We'd need more than a minute to do anything remotely close to whatever's going on inside that head of yours right now," she added. And then, "Assuming, of course, that you're time has improved?" Wink.
I couldn't help but smile. "One second," I insisted as I removed the phone from my shoulder. "Hey, let me give you a call tomorrow?"
"Sure. Is everything okay?"
"Okay. I love you."
"You, too. Night." As soon as I'd ended the call, I stepped back to let Haley inside. She brushed against my shoulder as she slid past me, and my insides lurched at her touch. Not a good thing.
"Who was that?" She wondered as I closed the door.
"My editor," I lied smoothy without even thinking about it. Why had I lied to her? She nodded slowly and ran a hand through her still-wet hair. I let out a slow breath, and as I watched her my heart began to race. Oh yeah. That was why. "So, what's up?" I insisted awkwardly from across the room.
Haley sat down on the edge of my bed and shrugged her shoulders dramatically. "You tell me, Jack. You're the one who ran away."
I'd been wondering when that particular conversation would come up. Although, in my defense, I hadn't run away. I'd simply moved on...without her. Not that she hadn't been invited.
"Hales," I began slowly, "we were just kids. I wasn't running from-"
"No, Jack, that's not what I'm talking about."
"...Oh." Right. I knew that.
"I mean just now. Like two minutes ago? On the beach?"
"Conner was being an ass."
"Conner's always an ass," she shot back as she rolled her eyes in a way that told me she thought I was being childish.
Maybe I was being childish, maybe I was overreacting, and maybe I did deserve everything he'd said to me because maybe it was the truth. I still didn't like hearing it.
"I don't know," I admitted, unsure about what the original question had even been.
"You know, I'm usually the first one to defend you around here," Haley told me softly. "I'm the first one to say, 'Whoa, hey, stop it. He's made a name for himself." I shifted my weight uncomfortably. "But having you back here," she breathed as she ducked her head down, "seeing you again, it kinda makes me want to join in with them." I didn't know what to say to that. "Why don't you call, Jack?" She asked as she raised her head back up. "Hell, why don't you write? Why don't you send us a smoke signal every now and again? What, we're good enough to be characters in your book, but we're not good enough for you to actually talk to?"
I felt my eyebrows pull together in a deep frown. Suddenly, I was nervous. Had she really picked up on that? I started to deny it, "You're not-"
"Cut the shit, Jack," she insisted, hopping to her feet. "Everyone noticed the similarities. You didn't think they would?"
Actually, no. I hadn't.
"You know, sometimes people throw away something good to go in search of something better. Only later they find out that the good was actually good enough, and better...well, the better never even came close."
"It's not that, I just... They're not, they're just..." I didn't know how to defend it, how to explain it to her without actually explaining it to her.
"Watch your thoughts," Haley warned. "They tend to become your words. You know," she sighed, "I actually came up here to see if you were okay, but I can see that you're just the same as you always are."
I wanted to ask her what that meant, but she was already pushing her way past me. Just before the door closed, I wedged my hand between it and the wall and flung it back open. "Haley!"
She hesitated but then slowly turned back around. She didn't say anything, she just waited.
"What did you think?" I mentally slapped myself for asking it the second the question slipped past my lips, but I couldn't help it. I was dying to know what she had thought. Her review had been the only one I'd ever wanted to hear.
"Of what? Your book?"
"Wouldn't know," she told me with a shrug. "I never read it."
Story has been given an Mrating due mostly to language. The rating is simply to protect myself as the author, and it may change over time.
Text copyright 2014 © P.S. Warner.