The years had breezed by but it wasn’t long enough. Ava came because Aunt Lou had called, her voice husky with cigarette smoke. She agreed they had seen one another in Chicago three years ago but she wanted her niece to visit “before I head out to the store and never return”. It was their private joke that Aunt Lou would likely drop dead when walking home with two bags of groceries, nothing dignified. Milk and prune juice spilled everywhere. She was down-to-earth, her only close aunt. Before the joke had made Ava laugh. This time the bronzed skin on her forearms prickled. Aunt Lou was aging faster than Ava.
“Your ten-year high school reunion will be going on. You have to come!”
Ava, in fact, had taken her name off the Middleton High School Alumni notification list six months ago. She didn’t care to be reminded she was from Garver with its clusters of uniform trees and rows of square houses. Her life there had begun to fade the day she left town. Once Ava’s mother, trying to keep her abreast of news, had sent her a news clipping of Ava’s oldest, best friend. He was the same man, yet so different in a Navy uniform. Ava had left it on the dining room table several days, trying hard to discern the person she had once known, then she had thrown it away. But the image remained, a mark on her memory that refused to be erased.
The day Ava arrived a passing thunderstorm had spread a sheen on Garver. The worn-out town sparkled like a wallflower dressed up for a summer party. Its familiar simplicity gave rise to a rush of nostalgia as she drove down Mallard Street. It frightened her a bit. She saw ancient Mrs. Jesson at a window of Jesson’s Hardware. The woman stopped polishing the glass and eyed the yellow Miata that Ava drove. She crept along; this week-end the cops would be prowling. The pavement steamed in the heat. Ava put her window up and cranked the air conditioner.
Aunt Lou’s house was painted teal now instead of tan. It looked good enough to eat with flower baskets hanging from the porch and two rockers set out, the same ones they all had enjoyed before but brick red. Her throat felt as if it was closing up. She gulped chill air, then parked and got out.
“Ava, Ava Lillian Huntley!” Aunt Lou called as she rushed to her niece. They collided in an embrace. “I can’t believe you’ve come home, at long last!”
Their skin stuck to each other’s as they linked arms, the sweat releasing Lou’s natural sweetness, something Ava hadn’t noticed from anyone else. On the porch Uncle Travis waved from his wheelchair. She bent down to embrace him.
“Ava,” he said, “you’re ever punctual. Still, this day is overdue. But you’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“Uncle, you were always gracious. You thankfully haven’t changed.”
“You must be exhausted! Wash up, Ava, and then come sit. I’ll fetch drinks and start dinner as we gab.”
The next day, the air held a promise of cooler temperatures. Even the birds were energized as they trilled and flitted here to there. Aunt Lou gave Ava a short list and sent her off.
“Don’t hurry! I’m sure you’ll want to look around. Call some friends, dear, get a coffee.”
It was one thing to have a family tree whose branches are sturdy and bear pretty good fruit, but another to wander among the others. She felt a need to sneak about. Ava had little desire to attend the reunion though it seemed a foregone conclusion.
She posted some bills for Aunt Lou at the post office when a woman with pimply cheeks and ash blond hair rushed up.
“Ava? That you? My gosh, you look even better than you did at eighteen! I’m Fran Cullin, now Ritter–oh, you remember? You’re coming tonight, of course, dinner and dance at Embers Lodge?”
With a wave, Ava shifted into first and headed to the grocery. Without being further waylaid, she made it to a parking spot, then sat looking about.
Someone let loose a flirtatious whistle. Ava clenched the steering wheel.
“Fancy car! A little small for my taste but cute.”
A voluminous man held out a broad paw and helped her out, then re-settled his baseball cap. “You remember me, right? Tom Duluth? I was a friend of–”
Ava kept moving as she glanced at him. “Yes, I do know you! ” She smiled as though pleased. “Nice to see you. I’m doing some errands…”
“Sorry your mother passed.”
He took off his cap and folded it in his hands. His courtesy stopped her.
“I read about it. We all knew she moved to Farwell after you left. Tough, the cancer.”
“Yes, thank you.” Ava felt perspiration pause halfway down her back and wished she had worn the linen top, not a dress. The sun was unforgiving despite the cool start of day. She wiped her brow. “That was five years ago, yes, she’s long gone.” She smiled wider, teeth bared just enough. “I’m so sorry, Tom, I have stuff to do for my aunt but perhaps later.”
“Lou and Travis, good people. Okay. See you tonight then. I hope.” His gaze burrowed into her chest, then he shifted his bulky frame and lumbered off.
On the way back she idled at a stop sign. Her eye was drawn to shadowy patterns on the park grass, a glint of river beyond. She loved water, lived on the lakeshore in Chicago. She wanted to sit at a picnic table and breathe small town air, really more rural than town. She hesitated, wondering about nearby Bathwell House, but felt it must have been torn down by now. After seeing new wooden benches she parked and sat close to Keep’s River. Listened to it tripping and twirling over rocks.
For some, the soundtrack of their youth was made of a certain band or hit song they’d saved up to purchase. For Ava it was the river. They had lived on a quarter acre by Keep’s River in a bungalow her mother inherited from her grandparents. It made their lives easier since Cass Huntley was a single mom. But it was the river that made the difference to Ava. She had spent much of her childhood and youth at its banks, exploring the woods, making friends of birds and rabbits, turtles and frogs.
It struck her as it often did what a peculiar twist of fate had made her a junior executive in the fragrance business. Knee-deep in muck and rocky waters she had been happy. Now she was financially secure and, if not happy, at least felt good about her future, pleased with her independence.
Ava scrutinized a muddy pathway, then got up and walked at its edges toward Bathwell House. Despite her anxiety, she’d wanted to see it ever since she’d arrived. Find out if it was even there or if they had built a concrete block apartment complex in its place or a new house. If so, what a relief. She’d take a peek, then go.
The muddy spots slowed her but she came upon it so fast she thought it couldn’t be the same place. It had been a long walk as a kid. It had stood on a quiet corner with pride even as it began to corrode from neglect. The town mayor’s home in the early twentieth century, it had been abandoned by the family when he was ousted and sent off to jail for bribery. No one wanted it then.
Now it looked as though someone had tried to destroy it but was just short of failing. As if years of hard weather had worked its terrible magic on it, only to miserably hang on, crumbling amid weeds. Ava walked around the corner to see the rest. Her chest tightened; breathing quickened. Maybe it wouldn’t be intact, just obscured by time and rot. She would leave Garver without any more thought of it.
A rock rolled down the side gravel road and she startled. There was no one afoot, only a car pulling out of the road. She could see two stories better here. The pitch of roof was irrevocably damaged as the roof itself threatened a descent. Moss clung to shingles. Windows were bleak holes. Doors had no doorways. Ava looked up at a second story window. There was something, a flash of movement as it fell into darkness. A bird, she decided.
And then she saw the barest path to the sign.
Steven and she had been there ten years earlier, after the graduation party. The empty house had long hosted keggers and make out sessions. There had been three other couples but one by one they left. Steven and Ava sat in a glassless window and scanned the sky. There was a slice of moon bright as a smile, and the Big Dipper spilled more star-studded darkness. They imagined Orion’s strength and decided a shooting star was really an S.O.S. They talked of nothing and anything. Steven and she had been friends since they were eight.
“I wondered if you’ll still call me.” He sounded odd. Uncertain.
Ava laughed and pushed her shoulder into his. “Of course. How else will I deal with all the grueling work and snooty clicks?”
Steven nudged her back. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m the one with dyslexia. Ill need to lay off weed. Want a hit?”
Ava shook her head. She wanted to etch the night onto her mind. One more week and they would be gone, in pursuit of something else. They’d write, talk, meet up on holidays–how could they not after all these years?
She laid her head on his shoulder. He smelled of tangy sweat and a hint of Zest soap (“Really, why Zest? No one buys Zest!” she’d told him but he’d shrugged) and green things. Dirt. Nothing mattered but that moment, the peace they shared, immersed in rudimentary astronomy. Ava felt as if she was passing into a timeless zone where she and Steven moved among stars. She knew she had to hold it close. Nothing would be the same when they left. It hurt her to know it.
And then Steven turned her face to his, grasped her shoulders and kissed her so hard her teeth started to ache.
Ava fell backwards and hit her shoulder first, then her chin as she rolled. His hand was pressing her back, then her hip as he leaned over her.
“Ava, are you okay? Man, I didn’t think a kiss would do that! But I felt it, too….”
She sat up. “What? No, of course I’m not okay! What do you think you’re doing? Since when do you try that on me? Aren’t we best friends?”
He bent down and helped her up, then enfolded her in his arms.
“Ava, please–it’s me here, Steven!”
He held her too tightly, her round breasts flattened against his damp, broad chest, her legs half-tangled in his. His lips grazed her neck, nose, forehead.
Ava planted her hands on his chest and pushed with all her might. He resisted, then loosened his grip. She tore away, stood several feet from him, hands clenched at her sides.
“What, Ava? Huh?” he asked. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you know?”
She shook her head over and over. He then saw her become very still then, a statue that could have been a ghost. It unnerved him. Her face disappeared in the dark but he knew it was crimson.
“Really? You, of all people! Haven’t I had to fight too many off? You, the person I trust more than anyone! That’s why we’re best friends, Steven. We know each other, care about each other.”
“Exactly! Ava, please.”
She emitted a low growl of anger and frustration. “Then why did you have to screw everything up? You’re scaring me, Steven…”
And before she completely lost it and yelled and cried, she ran down the sagging, creaking stairs, out the door, and into the road.
It was a bitter night with no sleep. And in the morning she did not answer his calls. Not the next day or week. She packed for college. But before she left she listened to his last message on her phone.
“Go to the spot where there’s that piece of wood that was a sign, nailed to the tree. Please do that much. Miss you. Forever.”
But there was no time. She never saw the sign. They hadn’t spoken since.
Now she parted weeds, walked around poison oak and laden blackberry bushes until she came to the place where she thought the sign must have been, might be now. And it was there. Ava’s hands crossed her chest, then she folded her arms about her and despite her intentions, despite time passing and success and losses huge and insignificant and things learned the hardest ways, her heart pulsed hard, then folded into a deep ache she didn’t know was still there.
“I’m sry” the sign read in his truncated sentence.
“I am stupidly, completely sorry, too,” she cried out, then ran back to the park, got in her car and drove fast down the streets, vision blurred, not caring in the least that a siren wailed behind her, the police car flashing its lights as if she was some fugitive, a woman running for her life. Ava hated being late, especially ten long years late. She was going to make this right.