Quietly, we got into the canoe and pushed off the shore in the shallow waters and headed on our way. It’d been exactly where the note said it would. And we knew we’d find what we were looking for when we saw it.
The problem was that we had committed ourselves to this quest of near silence and could talk no more above a whisper. The atmosphere was charged heavily around us. Heightened senses alerted us to the smallest sound and we kept our bodies as low to the canoe as we could while still rowing when needed while following the flow of the stream.
We passed by grand houses, most likely summer homes, docks and small signs of life. Mallards silently passed us, veering towards the shallow edge of the river and making their way offshore. As we moved along, signs of life trickled to nothing and the water became marshy with the thickness of cattails and reeds. After about an hour into the trip, I heard, “Joce! Joce!” so quietly I first thought I’d imagined it. “Slow up just a bit!”
I relaxed the oar and sat a little more upright so that I could turn to see him. Excitement tinged the air and I didn’t know what to expect when I faced him. Between the humidity and the workout of steering a canoe in unknown waters, his hair was soaked and sweat dripped from his earlobes and chin. I wondered what I looked like. Both of us were short of breath and in need of water, but knew we must keep going.
“Hey,” I whispered as I turned. “What’s up?” I think the casualness of my statement threw him off guard and he chuckled. “What’s up is life or death. But I just wanted to tell you something.” “Yeah?” I replied. It was then that I noticed the finer details of his face. Ruddy, from the exercise, lined with laughter from a previous life and now worry in this one. Blue eyes peeked from a long lashes and a smirk of a smile hid his teeth. He wiped his arm across his face and pushed the sweat back from his brow. “If we get out of this alive, I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
I was so shocked I nearly rocked the canoe. I sat upright, stomach muscles protesting from the quick movement in my crouched position. “You wanna what?”
You see, we’ve known each other all of our lives. ALL. OF. OUR. LIVES. I mean, from daycare, to now. We were best friends and neighbors growing up. Experienced gains and losses. Friendships. Spats. Puberty. Eeeww. That was a rough time. A lot of firsts. First crushes. First dates. First kisses. First one to leave for college. First one to grow apart.
Now, thrown back together by a force not of our making, we were having to rely on the muscle memory of our old friendship and work in a harmony we didn’t necessarily feel. A lot of time had passed since I’d last seen him. Since I’d last thought of him. Since I’d last hoped for those words. Maybe too much time had passed. Before last night.
Last night was sketchy, like a fuzzy memory of a dream that kept me so deep in my sleep that when I finally awoke, its hold on me was still strong. I’d gone to bed like normal only to be jerked awake by a pounding on my door that shocked me to my core. Disoriented, I fumbled for the light switch and staggered towards the door, tying my robe around me as I went. The outside light switched on and out the peephole I could see a shadowed figure, hand up to the light to cover his eyes. I knew who it was in an instant.
“Joce! Joce! Let me in!” I unbolted each lock, slowly, intent on making him wait. Intent on making him want to come in worse than he’d felt when he left. When he left me. Without so much as a good-bye. Nothing. Just left. Broke my heart and then took it with him on his way out.
“What do you want, Tad?” I asked in exasperation as I opened the door. He ran inside and shut the door, barring it completely and locking each lock with a familiarity that was a little unsettling for me. Once inside my apartment, he moved through the place, carefully avoiding furniture as he turned off the porch light. His breathlessness caused the goosebumps on my arms to grow and the tiny hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end.
Here he stood, clothed in darkness, only the nightlight interrupted. Tad. My best friend and neighbor. My secret crush. The one guy I thought I’d spend forever with and had nearly gotten over. Gone for almost ten years. All of my emotions came running back to me and sacked me hard, effectively knocking me off my feet.
I stumbled slightly, needing to sit, my breath stolen from me and bringing me down. I grabbed the ottoman and sank onto it. My head between my knees, I breathed deeply. Breathe in. Breathe out. Inhale. Exhale. I was so not ready for this.