Disclaimer: Harvest Moon is not mine.
Author's note: Whew! I feel like I've left it to the last minute, but here, finally, is my entry for the Village Square forum's Writing Festival. The theme this time around was 'Opposites' and this is my own personal take on that...
If You Love Me
It was the photograph that did it. Elli had been leafing through the old family album, making a few additions to the latest pages. Naturally, or so she seemed to think, a cosy trip down memory lane was required. Neither her brother Stu nor her husband were inclined to agree, but then neither could exactly refuse. Tim because this was the woman who had, mere months ago, given him the gift of a baby son and Stu because he'd long since learned to fear his older sister's wrath.
She loved to look over those pictures of past times, even the silly embarrassing ones. In fact, she actually seemed to relish those. Even when Stu protested that he should be studying, an excuse that once would have got him out of anything, nobody listened.
"You study too much, Stu," Elli said with a soft smile. She pointed at one of the photos. "Hey look, there's one of you and May when you were little."
A cheeky-faced boy with thick, black hair and a long fringe was shown beside a shy, young girl. She was pretty in a demure, dainty sense, her pale face framed by a curtain of dark, braided hair. They were sat quite comfortably together on the green, sun drenched banks of Mother's Hill, yet their clearly contrasting personalities seemed to leap from the page, begging the question: why were they even friends?
Convenience, Stu supposed - cynical though it was to think that way. It was definitely partly true, though; they were the only children of their age in Mineral Town. While Elli bustled off to deal with the crying baby in the next room, Stu remained behind still staring, transfixed, at the photo.
The photographic version of May was sat up perfectly straight, her hair and dress ridiculously tidy for someone of her age. She had fixed his younger self with what could only be described as a rather withering stare. All in all, May appeared to be a very typical girly-girl, wary of loud, messy boys and their loud, messy games.
Seven year-old Stu fell sharply into this particular bracket. He was the loudest, messiest boy - and plenty of other unflattering superlatives - she could ever have be-friended. It was easy to admit it now, years later, when he had real ambitions and plans set out before him: he was an idiot back then. All forgiven and forgotten because he was young at the time, but true nonetheless. He was going to be a doctor now, following in the long medical tradition of his family and the footsteps of his brother-in-law.
Seeing the photo of a time he barely recalled - a pleasant Summer or one of those odd, scorching Springs of his childhood, probably - had left Stu deflated. He knew he shouldn't be. If anything, it highlighted the strength of the bond between him and May. They were the strangest pair you could envisage, really. Yet were, and always had been, the firmest of friends. Surely that meant something, right?
Or maybe he was just being fanciful, conjuring up a silver lining that wasn't really there. Or maybe he was simply looking too much into it, thinking too hard. Yes, that sounded about right. When he was younger, he didn't think enough, and now, apparently, he thought too much.
He couldn't win.
Stu let the photo album fall shut in his lap. His desire to drink it in had evaporated like mist on a summer's morning. It had only confirmed what he already knew: he and May were as different as ever. Total opposites.
When they were younger it hadn't mattered, that much was obvious. But now?
Stu stood and drifted across the lounge to peer out of the window. Tim and Elli's flat was situated above the Clinic, allowing for a perfect view over Mineral Town and its quaint, winding streets. Summer was slowly melting into autumn; the evening beyond the pane looked warm and hazy.
Stu watched the road below him intently, waiting for the inevitable. It took a little longer than he expected, but, finally, a short, bright figure rounded the corner near the Church. In spite of everything, a tiny grin curled onto his face. May...
May was running late - she knew that, and not much else. These days, being on time for anything was nothing but a distant memory. She didn't have the organisation for it. Full stop.
The Clinic was just about to close when May eventually bounced through the front door. It didn't matter. She wasn't a patient, she was a guest. A close family friend, in fact.
Doctor Tim barely glanced up from the towering mountain of paperwork he was hunched behind. "Stu's waiting for you upstairs," he said automatically.
Though she nodded and thanked him, May was already aware of this fact. While wandering along the road to the Clinic, she had spotted him lingering anxiously at the second floor window. And in any case, where else could he be? The boy was a total workaholic - in spite of what he might pretend. Laid back... Yeah, right. Not anymore.
May aimed for the stairs, but before she could reach them, Tim looked up from his work. "May, it's still - " He paused abruptly, properly noticing her for the first time. She was forced to bite back a giggle.
It was the same old clash; dark, studious eyes trailed down her outfit as his eyebrows climbed as high as humanly possible. They were in danger of permanently vanishing beneath a mop of messy black hair.
Sure, her all-yellow attire - dress, sandals, beads, even nail polish - was perhaps a little dazzling for a calm, early autumn night in Mineral Town, but maybe the place needed brightening up. That's certainly what May liked to believe.
After a slightly bemused shake of the head, Tim spluttered back into life. "Er, May," he coughed. "It's still okay for you and Stu to babysit tonight, isn't it?"
"Course. Why else would I be here?"
"Are you sure you're still going out?" May indicated to the pile of papers still stacked before him.
"Well - "
"Yes, we're sure." With impeccable timing May could only dream of, Elli emerged at the foot of the stairs. She shot her husband a sweet, but exasperated look, and May a teasing grin. "Don't even think about saying you're staying in tonight," she ordered. "No way." They were going nowhere more exciting than a low-key anniversary do of Jack and Ann's... but it was supposed to be their first night out since the baby was born.
And evidently, Elli was not prepared to let it go without a fight - or, at the very least, a heated argument she was more than likely to win.
May just couldn't help admiring Stu's big sister. When they were growing up, her eyes and ears were clouded by childish, rebellious youth. Back then, she viewed Elli as a kind woman, but at the same time a bit of a nag. She was the figure of their annoyance; she imposed bedtimes, stopped them from pilfering that last cookie, tutted when they tore their clothes. It seemed easy and funny and so so clever to make up silly nicknames behind her back. Elli the Ogre Nurse was one of the exceedingly ironic few, given her petite features, curvy figure and bob of shiny, chocolate brown hair.
But now that bedtimes and scolding didn't trouble her, May could see Elli for what she really was. A friend - and ally. They both had experience when it came to men who would easily over-work themselves given half a chance.
There were clear differences, of course. Elli and Tim had far more in common; their careers linked them together. Plus, Stu was not May's 'man'. Not yet, possibly not ever.
"You look lovely," she told Elli truthfully. The dress was a pale, icy blue and looked almost like a more formal, stylish version of her nurse's uniform.
"Thank you! You look... " She struggled for a moment. "...bright."
May could hardly disagree; she laughed and reminded Elli that if they didn't leave soon, Tim was liable to become permanently fused to his chair. Well, that was what she said, but she was also aware of the fact that he wasn't really the problem. That was Elli. It didn't seem as though she'd really grasped being separated from her son for the first time ever. Not yet. But she would, and soon. Then there'd be the inevitable fretting, and the worrying, and the clinging. And, Goddess forbid, the crying.
"Come on," May urged, forcing the pair towards the exit. "Wouldn't want to be late, right? Oh, say hi to Adam for me!" she added, carelessly, as though it was an after thought.
If Elli had replied, May didn't catch it over the sharp click of the door slamming shut.
She found Stu sat in the lounge, surrounded by great, fat textbooks on all sides. "Hey," he murmured, acknowledging her presence, but, like Tim, scarcely glancing up from his work. May eyes darted from book to book. Baffling, complex diagrams snaked ominously across the pages; there were even some graphic colour photographs. May snatched up a book Stu didn't seem to be using and peered closer, only to regret it almost immediately. Eurgh... Who wanted to see the inside of someone's colon?
Shuddering, she flicked through the pages, drowning in the medical terminology. It seemed like another language altogether. Coronary system, cardiac muscles, arteries... boringboringboring.
"I don't know how you can stomach this stuff, Stu," she sighed.
"Easily." He shrugged and looked up at her fully for the first time. "I'm not going to get into medicine school otherwise."
"That's true, I guess." Sometimes May envied Stu's drive and ambition. She had her passions of course, but no real, concrete plans for the future. Her gaze was drawn past Stu, past the tidy lounge, past the flower pattern curtains and out of the window. The sun had sunk low over Mineral Town, setting the sky alight. A scarlet glow stood stark against coal black, rooftop silhouettes, and her fingers itched for her sketchpad and paints. That colour... it reminded her, almost...
"What are you thinking about?" Stu interrupted suddenly, making May jump. When she turned around, a small, selfish thrill tingled up her spine at the sight of him stacking the books away.
"I was just thinking that... that's a lovely sunset," she answered, honestly as she could. It was more than lovely.
Stu followed her glance and relaxed into a smile. Just watching him sent May falling further and further back into the past. If one thing had remained constant throughout the years, it was that grin. Whenever he smiled like that - especially in her direction - she could feel the warmth of reassurance washing over her. Some things would never change.
She sank onto the sofa beside Stu, whose arm slipped unconsciously around her shoulders. "D'you know what that sky reminds me of?" he asked. "Well, do you remember that summer when we were about ten... "
Do you remember... She loved those words. The past was generally the safest option these days. The future loomed scarily, the present was tinged with awkwardness. With change. May hated it, feared it.
There were a few things she was certain of: Stu was her best friend, she loved him and it would kill her to break his heart -
Baby Nicky's wails filled the room, jogging them both back to the present.
- The question was, how could she avoid it?
Wednesdays were library days. Yeah, Stu knew how to live. The Clinic was only ever closed on a Wednesday and with the Doctor now preoccupied with a new baby, research was solely Stu's duty.
Autumn had arrived in Mineral Town in typical dramatic fashion. His short walk to the library was severely hampered by howling winds and rain as sharp and lethal as tiny bullets. He may only have walked a couple of yards, but Stu was thoroughly drenched by the time he staggered across the threshold.
"Sorry, Mary!" he gasped, as water dripped from his hair and clothes and pooled on the floor.
Mary, owner of said library, didn't seem too bothered about her floor; in fact, the towel she fetched was meant for him, not for mopping up. "Thank you," Stu said gratefully, as he dried himself off. By the time he was done, his usually sleek hair was sticking up in all directions. "I look an idiot, right?"
Mary took the damp towel back silently, but admitted with a brief, coy nod that yes, he did look like a fool. "I've not been out there this morning," she said musingly, grey eyes twinkling beneath thick glasses. "But I'd guess it's a little... unsettled."
"Yeah, just a tad," Stu agreed. He shook his head, rolled his eyes and headed straight for the stairs. The non-fiction floor.
"I see I still can't tempt you to the realms of fiction?" Mary called questioningly up the stairs after him. She'd been trying to convince Stu of the joys of proper novels for weeks now. So far it had been to no avail.
"No chance," he laughed back. He could distantly hear Mary tutting, but knew she was wasting her time. With his own love life - if it could even be termed that - in such disarray, the last thing he wanted to do was struggle through some soppy romantic treacle.
Only... there was one slight thing bothering him. Something that had not stopped bothering him since he first heard it.
Tim's words rang out very clearly in his mind. "You know," he had said quite conversationally, "I was a bit surprised when May turned up to help you babysit the other night."
Now, Stu distinctly recalled not really caring why Tim had thought this, but he asked to know anyway.
The reply was just about the last thing he expected to hear. "Well, it's just that I heard she'd been been invited to Jack and Ann's anniversary party. That's all."
That's all? Stu remembered feeling completely bemused by that revelation and it wasn't until he noticed Elli hurriedly shushing her husband, that everything clicked horribly into place. He wish, wish, wished it hadn't, for there was only one possible explanation.
Adam Taylor. Jack and Ann's teenage son. He was fifteen, only about two years younger than May and Stu. Stu hardly knew him, but was aware that May did. And why not? They were neighbours, both lived on farms. They must have had a lot in common. Did he love art as she did? Did they share a taste in music? Why had he invited her?
Stu stared around at the dusty shelves and decided it was pointless; he couldn't even begin to feign an interest in wild grasses and their use in medicine today. He supposed he should feel pleased that May had chosen him over Adam, but it seemed like such an empty victory.
He loved her, Goddess he did. Always had, and didn't doubt for a second that she felt the same.
But - and this was the problem - their relationship didn't seem to be progressing as it was meant to. When they were kids they played Weddings and House for endless hours. It never crossed anyone's mind that this might not actually happen. They had the weight of expectation on their shoulders. They were destined, surely.
Only so much had changed. Too much. They were too different. They loved each other, but were they lovers?
Hit by a sudden idea, Stu spun around and crept back downstairs. Perhaps the fiction section could be of some use after all...
Mary looked up in obvious surprise when he wandered past her desk to reach the towering rows of books beyond. It was only when he came to a stop before them, that he realised he hadn't a clue where to begin. Mary, evidently tuned in to his strange mood, was staying silent, and when he glanced back her face was covered by a sheet of long, black hair.
Stu's fingers hovered nervously over the spines of thick paperbacks. These were the books Elli liked to escape with; she often left them dotted all around the house. His arm reached out of its own accord and grabbed the nearest one. It turned out to be some sort of supernatural ghost mystery, which had no real relevance to his predicament. The gulf between the living and the dead wasn't quite subtle enough to relate to the growing gulf between him and May. So the book was shoved back where it came from.
"Is there anything I can help you with?" Mary finally asked in a cool, practised 'work voice'.
After a moment's hesitation, Stu turned to her and nodded. He could trust Mary with anything. She walked over to join him, glancing quietly up at the hundreds of books piled all around them. He noticed that while she must have been at least a head shorter than him, she held a very controlled, commanding posture within the confines of her tiny library. Her sanctuary, no doubt.
"So," she began slowly, " what is it you're looking for?"
"It's just - I - " Pause. How could he possibly articulate this feeling? It was, admittedly, pretty crazy. "In stories it just seems, sometimes, that even the strangest, most unsuited pairs can get together and it's perfect. Opposites attract and all that."
Mary remained pensive throughout his babbling. If she happened to think he was talking absolute nonsense, she made no effort to say so. "Ah. You mean shy, lonely girl is drawn out of her shell by charismatic charmer and they all live happily ever after?" She nodded. "Yes, I've read my fair share."
"And is it - I mean do you think that it's realistic?"
There was a long, thoughtful silence. Mary's eyes had glazed over, dragging her away from the library into another world. Eventually, she sighed and said, "Sometimes. Not always. Not for everyone, anyway."
Stu didn't know what to say next. Not for me and May, he kept thinking, not for us.
"Is it May?" Mary's question shocked him. So much, in fact, that he nodded almost automatically. And he thought no one else had witnessed the town's dream couple falling apart before they even began...
"I don't know what's happened to us," he admitted, unable to even meet Mary's eyes. He could quite easily imagine the sympathetic look on her face without actually having to see it.
But somehow, she managed to surprise him yet again. "You know, I'm beginning to think you're looking at this in entirely the wrong way - " The wrong- ? Stu whirled around with as much indignation as he could muster, but it was Mary who refused to look at him now. "It isn't as though you've lost anything," she continued softly. "And there's a lot to be said for your friendship with May. Some people would give anything for a bond like that and, d'you know, there are just as many books about friendship here as there are about romance. I think, Stu, you have a lot to be thankful for."
Wow... A couple of well-chosen words and Stu was actually starting to feel a little ungrateful. And it was comforting, in a way, to remember what he had and not, for once, remember what he didn't. He couldn't help wondering if Mary was referring to herself when she mentioned people 'who would give anything'; it couldn't be much fun cooped up alone in this old library day after day.
"Thanks," he said, with a smile and private vow to rectify that. Perhaps not today, but soon. He was finally beginning to realise that it wouldn't kill him to take a few days off studying here and there.
Stu left, any thoughts of research long forgotten, to find the rain still pouring down, but the fierce wind calming slightly. Fat droplets bounced rhythmically off the worn cobbles, and he found he could actually appreciate the rain now it wasn't being driven straight into his eyes.
Through a haze of precipitation it was difficult to make out the two figures struggling hand in hand along the street towards the supermarket. Difficult, not impossible. The shorter of the pair was swathed in vivid orange clothing while the taller had spiky hair of the same fiery shade.
Hand in hand. May and Adam.
Stu froze, fascinated. It was a morbid fascination, but one he couldn't seem to deny himself. Like... it was going to hurt, that he was sure of, but still he had to look, had to know.
He watched as Adam pulled May into the tiny doorway to shelter. They were laughing happily, and they had, he noticed rather absently, the same laugh. Wild. Carefree. He could be carefree too, he thought, given half the chance. Adam leant forward abruptly as though he was - was - going to... but then May pulled away with a quick shake of her head.
May was staring right at him over Adam's shoulder. Before Stu could move an inch, she was whispering furiously in her 'friend's' ear. Telling him to go on inside? Yes. Adam turned to the door, giving Stu just enough time to relish the look of resentment in his blue eyes, and then she was walking towards him.
"Hey," she said.
"H - Hey." What was wrong with his voice?
They stood silently before each other, like total strangers as opposed to the oldest of friends. The smile that had danced across May's face mere minutes ago appeared to have died. She was studying Stu's face with an agonised expression.
"Look, Adam and I - "
"It's okay," he found himself saying. But was it? Maybe it would be, one day.
May shook her head emphatically, her beautiful braids swinging about. "Honestly, Stu, me and Adam... " She floundered helplessly for the right words, "We're not - we're not - "
Not yet, he finished mentally, and smiled at her.
May's mouth fell open, leaving her looking more bewildered than ever. Stu, on the other hand, allowed his grin to widen. "You look an idiot," he teased. "Shut your mouth and quit catching flies."
That did it all right. In an instant - a fraction of a second, if that - she was the little girl in the photo album again, all flushed and indignant. And he was once again the cocky little brat who annoyed her so much... but only for a moment.
They couldn't live in the past for ever, they both knew that. It was tempting sometimes, but ultimately unwise. Most of all they knew, and always would, that they had each other. Maybe it wouldn't be quite as they'd imagined as children, but it would be theirs.
Better even, Stu convinced himself. Without waiting to consider it, he brushed his lips gently against May's. There was none of the passion he'd envisioned and hoped for as a young boy, but somehow that didn't matter. He only had to see the smile return to May's face to know that.
It was enough.
If you love me
Let me go.
A/N - Okay, I know I messed around with the ages a bit there. When Jack arrives, May and Stu are already about five or six, so it's not really possible for Jack and Ann's son to be two years younger than them, but... for the purposes of this story let's just say it makes sense. :)
Thanks for reading!