finale: crash landing

All she knew about Luke's four years in college were that he and Natalie had broken up for good after their freshman year.

She had tried to date, but with no success. In fact, she had not even gone on a single date because every time she agreed to go on one, she faced the stark, heart shattering reminder that no one would ever be him.

So she would cancel tearfully, feeling absolutely terrible and ridiculous, yet knowing full well to go would be unfair to the potential date.

It wasn't fair to her, either.

But there was nothing else for her to do.

Mariel assumed he had forgotten about her. She was so silly for holding on to him. Silly for being completely unable to leave it in the past.

It was all silly.

Stupid.

He hadn't forgotten.

No friend could match Mariel's loyalty or kindness, and even if they came close, they were inevitably not her, and came up short in the end.

Once Natalie broke up with him - probably wishing for someone less boring, for lack of a better word - it was the end of everything that had kept him from plunging back into every feeling he'd ever had for Mariel.

It was a normal summer day when their worlds collided again, this time at the brick grocery store down the street from Lincoln High School. Mariel rarely shopped there, but it happened to be the most convenient option for her that day, having been on that side of town to visit family.

She was minding her own business in the back of the store, searching for her favorite oat milk coffee creamer. Luke was, for once, the last thing on her mind.

Luke, meanwhile, was doing grocery shopping for his mother, who told him pointedly that his new status as a college graduate did not put him above chores and errands, so long as he lived in her house. So here he was, looking for that disgusting hazelnut coffee creamer his father insisted on having. Luke didn't even like coffee, but he would have rather drunk ten cups of black coffee than one sip of coffee with that horrid creamer.

The blue wrapper flashed in his vision, and he grabbed it.

And just as he turned to haphazardly dump it in his cart, the strangest thing happened.

He swore he saw Mariel, right there, less than ten feet from him, reaching for the oat milk creamer. His heart began to beat wildly. (He knew the oat milk creamer was kept in that specific spot in the refrigerator because Natalie used to drink oat milk. But she was totally irrelevant now and had been for over a year now).

The more important thing was that he hadn't seen Mariel since graduation, that terrible night.

Before he knew it, there was a pain in his toe - he'd dropped the creamer on the edge of the cart and it fell on his foot - and he found that it was Mariel. She was looking at him with wider eyes than he'd ever seen on her. He winced. The pain in his toe began to fade.

What was she doing here? She didn't live in this area, he knew that. Unless she'd moved in the four years between high school graduation and now.

How long it had been!

In what seemed like the slowest of movements, he shut his gaping mouth, picked up the coffee creamer, and said in the quietest of voices, "Hi-"

The very same quiet 'hi' she always loved about him.

"Hey," she whispered back.

And then they both panicked and yanked their carts in the opposite direction.

Mariel found her breath would not come fast enough and she wished she'd stop blushing like an idiot. Her heart began to rise in her chest.

This was not supposed to happen, and somehow it was also the only thing that could have possibly happened.

She could have cried, knowing that she might have missed her opportunity again, resolving suddenly that she would not allow that to happen. Not again. Never again.

But how—

It was not the time to think. She finished her shopping faster than she had ever done before, determined to be outside the store before Luke was finished shopping and fix the stupidities of her high school self.

That was not to be, however.

Because when she exited the automatic doors of the store, he was waiting for her, cart full of bags, cheeks pink as always, wind ruffling his hair gently.

He smiled at her almost stupidly, because she was there, she was here, and the timing could not have been better. Perhaps now, perhaps—

It all depended on if she'd have him, but he knew now that he'd give it all up in a quarter of a heartbeat for her. How could he ever think it hadn't always been her, since that day almost eight years ago in an entry Spanish class?

It would always be her.

"What are you doing here?"

It took her a second to register that he had said something.

"Huh? Oh, shopping. Obviously." She laughed nervously.

A slow smile grew on his face.

"Yeah. Thought so." He laughed. "But you don't live around here?"

As soon as the words left his mouth he regretted them. Was it creepy that he still remembered that? Would she think it was creepy?

Mariel was surprised he remembered that, but she shouldn't have been.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Yeah, yeah, I still live like half an hour from here. But some of my family lives around here so—"

"Yeah. Yeah, I remember that."

She smiled at that.

"So what have you been doing?" he asked, drawing out his last word.

She almost had flashbacks. He always drew out his words. Back in high school.

"Uh. Nothing much. Graduated college. I'm guessing you did too."

"Yeah. Yeah, I did. I'm not as smart as you though, of course. I'm sure you graduated with a bunch of honors or whatever."

She smiled at him. "But you are smart."

"Maybe," he said evenly, biting back a grin.

"Smart enough to graduate!"

"Obviously."

They laughed.

A moment of silence. But not the awkward kind. Brown eyes met green ones.

She blushed, but felt no embarrassment about it, because he was blushing too.

Mariel was about to laugh again, when a cart bumped her from the back.

"Excuse me," broke into a foreign voice.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!"

"My bad, let me just—"

Luke and Mariel spoke over one another, realising suddenly that they'd been standing in front of the exit this whole time.

When they had moved out of the way, Mariel's back faced the parking lot, and she cast a glance behind her, afraid somehow that Natalie would appear and ruin this perfect moment, despite knowing full well she was an engaged woman now, having put her six year relationship with Luke behind her.

Luke saw her look back and wondered if someone was waiting for Mariel.

Maybe he was too late, maybe she had a boyfriend and it was all for nothing, and he'd spend the rest of his life regretting this moment. Among the many others.

That was besides the point.

"I'm going to put my cart away," she said and he almost followed her, stopping himself at the last minute, hoping she wouldn't leave.

She didn't, and returned a few moments later with grocery bags grasped tightly in trembling hands, knuckles whiter than the plastic receptacles.

A sigh of relief fell from his lips. He didn't see a ring, so she certainly was not engaged. That was enough for him, apparently, because he blurted out the following.

"Are you dating anyone?"

His eyes burst to the size of saucers, cliche as the comparison was.

She laughed at his reaction and shook her head. And if her heart beat even faster at that, so what?

"Oh," he said in a quieter voice than he'd spoken in over the course of their conversation. Something that smelled distinctly like hope bloomed and bubbled in him. "That's good."

Good?

Whatever could he mean by that?

The whole air of the conversation had changed. She was aware of herself, of him. Of the blinding pound of each heartbeat, of the cool evening breeze on her skin. Of the setting sun burning at Luke's back.

"Good?" she breathed out. Her smile had waned, only the burning of her cheeks and the blood rushing to her ears from her pounding heart was left.

"Yeah," he said. It came out like a whisper. "I think that's good. Do you?"

"I don't know."

He smiled painfully. Darn it all. It was now or never, and he really didn't want never. So it was definitely now. Or else. Or else he'd spend the rest of his life with the regrets he'd lived with since ninth grade.

"It's good. Yeah."

She frowned. "It is?"

Yes, it was now. Because heartache was terrible, and what ifs were worse than just knowing point blank what the truth was. No more wondering, he resolved with shocking strength.

He took a shuddering breath.

"I've been in love with you—" she gasped at this, "—since like, freshman year."

If her eyes watered, it was none of anyone's business. Except his, maybe. That was embarrassing.

And if his eyes were red and a little (a lot?) watery, she pretended not to notice.

"Freshman year of high school or college?" she asked, laughing nervously and attempting to surreptitiously curb her tears. Could this be real?

Of course it was. Her imagination would never have her so embarrassed and deliriously happy as she was now.

"High school." He laughed. "Are you dumb?"

And suddenly they were back in to freshman Spanish class, back to sophomore chemistry, and it was as it had always been, but different. Better.

"No." Another laugh. "Not anymore, anyway," she finished.

He frowned.

"What do you mean?"

"You had a girlfriend, Luke," she said, shaking her head, an errant tear falling. He sighed.

"I didn't realise I was in love with you—"

Of course he didn't. Boys. "Of course you didn't. But at some point I did, only there was nothing to be done but forget you! Because you had a girlfriend."

He nodded. "Yeah. But—it'll all be okay now, right?" He could have thrown up. He was easily made nervous, but nothing could compare to how he felt now. Hope, real hope, not hope based on a wish of the heart, was such a foreign thing to him, but here it was now, in his very grasp. She was here now.

She nodded weakly. Her head spun.

It would be a lie to say she hadn't dreamed of this before, or hoped with her whole heart that it would have ended differently for them.

Yet here were her wishes come true, and they were better and grander than she had dreamed.

Elissa had been right after all. Who was she kidding? She knew Elissa was on the right track, deep down.

They just stared at one another for a moment, floored that it would come to this. To what had always seemed impossible.

He swallowed a smile, only for it to break across his face in a brilliant grin. Her heart skipped a beat. She smiled back.

They laughed.

"Sooo—"

"Yes?" she answered.

"Are you free tomorrow night?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah, okay. That's great." He grinned.

She smiled widely.

"Okay."

Another tear. She rolled her eyes at herself internally.

"I'm just gonna," he pointed to his cart, "put it..."

Clutching the plastic grocery bags tightly in her hands, she nodded, trying hard not to let her smile split her face in two. It almost hurt to smile that much, yet it was the only natural response.

When he didn't come back for a while, she imagined that maybe he'd left (even though she knew he didn't) and set her bags down, staring in awe at everything around her, at the lit grocery store sign, the softly setting sun, her car that was nearly junk but still well-loved.

It was not the ending she imagined, nor was it the one she had hoped for. It was awkward and fumbled, just like everything else was with Luke, the self-proclaimed most awkward person on earth, yet somehow it (he?) was everything she wanted and needed.

Mariel realized then (she was always realizing things too late, it seemed,) that she hadn't gotten a way to contact him. She still had his phone number, but it had been so long she was not sure if it was still his. Maybe she'd have to enlist her little sister's incredible and slightly terrifying cyberstalking skills. She hoped not.

She waited a little longer, losing hope that he'd come back and came to terms with the fact that she would have to engage, regrettably, in cyberstalking.

But unfortunately Elissa would not get the opportunity to find Luke Rawlings' cellphone number on the internet, because he began to walk back that very moment, appearing from behind a car she was sure she recognized from about five years ago, looking more sure of himself than she had ever seen him. It looked good on him, and she was not ashamed to admit it.

He smiled broadly at her, the way he always smiled at her, but now there was something more in it, something tangible that was real, that she could touch. Something far more than the friendship she once told herself she was completely content with. Mariel hated to be proven wrong, but she was glad that, just this once, she had been wrong.

As his steps brought him closer to her, and their smiles grew wider, even though it seemed impossible, her feet seemed to move of their own accord - she was running, running so fast she thought she would leave the ground, and then he was right there, and she did leave the ground; her heart was soaring, and she was in the air, the sun made his eyes glow warmly, and her heart fluttered. For a very brief instant, terror struck her because she was flying; she looked and the only way now was down, and she didn't know if he would catch her.

He did.

THE (real) END