Scout had been nursing a coffee for the past fifteen minutes as he stood in a corner of the used bookshop. The one Will had introduced him to. Of course, this time around Will wasn't at his side and for good reason. What he was about to do, he needed to do alone.
The weekend that had just come to an end had allowed him to discover a few things. Notably that he wished to re-establish a few old friendships, what kind of underwear Jake wore and what deer jerky tasted like, but the most imporant discovery of all was that his heart was no longer after Bella's; that his life was waiting for him to realize the fact. And after the previous evening's long drive back home, he had woken up this morning to feel more clear-eyed than he had ever been. Despite this he had decided to take a personal day from work in order to recoup and if nothing else, clear his head.
It didn't take him long to sort out the various thoughts and come to the conclusion that he was now prepared, determined, to explore all that life had to offer. His first step to getting himself in order would have to be confronting the one he had left behind, his ex, Beth, who was currently positioned behind a counter, sitting on a stool with her nose in a book several yards away from him. She hadn't even spotted him, although that was mostly because he was behind the large display of new arrivals near the entrance.
He had actually been hoping that the floor would be packed and he'd be forced to wait another day to have the conversation. But seeing as how it was a weekday morning and most people were at school or work the shop was quite empty. He had no reason, no excuse to walk away and yet he contemplated leaving, dismissing the idea of even trying to talk to her again, after all he had put her through by walking away who was to say she'd even be open to letting him walk back into her life long enough to hear him out.
He was half certain she'd want nothing to do with him, but he owed it to himself to at least try so he summoned up as much bravery as he could, grabbed a nearby book and made his way over. He rang the bell on the counter and she immediately looked up and did a double take. She gave him a very cautious, uncertain ''hi''. Obviously she was thrown as to why he was there. He was just as unsure, but strangely he found his voice regardless.
''Uh, I was wondering if you could help me,'' he started, holding up the small novel in his hands. ''See, I've just finished reading The Babysitter's Club series which I thoroughly enjoyed and I was hoping you could tell me what you knew about this other book series here.''
She blinked as if still trying to process. Eventually, after a quick shake of the head, she glanced down at the title. ''The Sweet Valley High series?'' she asked.
''I'm a huge fan of the TV adaptation,'' he gushed playfully, ''and I've heard brilliant things about the books.''
And then he saw it, that small, mousy smile of hers that always made him melt.
Suddenly he realized that his heart was an empty room. No baggage, no ghosts, nothing left to hinder or haunt him. Standing there and grinning back at her he didn't know if she was the one, if this was it for him, if this was that perfect happily ever after he had been in search of for as long as he could remember. This time, though, he was certain he was strong enough to stay the path long enough to find out one way or another and that's what made it freeing. There was no certainty. All he had, all anyone had, was possibility and he couldn't wait to see what became of it.
Bella, meanwhile, sat at the small picnic table outside of her station having lunch with Sean and young Matthew seated at her side. The tyke was in his own little world as he snacked on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which she had prepared for him (he had promptly spit out the lobster rolls Sean had picked up for the three of them to share) and she and Sean were nonchalantly having a conversation above his head.
Sean was on about wanting to paint the inside of the station soon before the school year started, before the long-line of Rawley's new arrivals came. His distaste for the privileged had waned through the years as had, Bella figured, his silent hostility to Scout, which had barely been an issue throughout the last few days. It seemed to her that time and age had calmed him. In a way she was surprised. In a way she wasn't.
He had told her his goal for the weekend had been to prove to himself that he was more than he was ten years ago. Judging by the lightness of his attitude, the ease of his laughter, he apparently had done just that; shown himself to be less of a brute and more of a man. He was even calm enough to ask her if she had found the time to have a conversation with Scout in order to settle the dust between them.
''Sort of. In our own way, yeah,'' she said with a sense of elation. ''We said what we needed to say, heard what we needed to hear.''
''I'm glad,'' he said, and for the first time she actually believed he meant it, completely.
''Me too, but to be honest I'm glad the weekend's over. Between Will's meltdown and Jake and Hamilton's duel tantrum, it's nice to get some peace.''
''I'm just bummed we didn't get to play a game of football. You, me, Will against Jake, Hamilton and Scout. Townies versus The City Folk.''
''Oh, we so would've taken them down,'' she said smugly, her eyes lighting up by the possibility.
They grinned at each other happily from across the table. This life, she knew, wasn't big or complex, adventurous or wild. It was quiet, and it was theirs and that was all that she really required for herself. She still had occasional thoughts of the world outside of her small town, but she had great confidence that she and her young family would get to explore it when they so chose to. One day, when they outgrew New Rawley, she was certain they would, but as for the present there was no itch to escape. She was more than happy to just enjoy her quiet life.
''Hey,'' Matthew interrupted the moment when he tapped Bella's forearm, getting her attention, ''Guess what?''
Bella turned to him with a smile. ''What?''
''Elephant,'' the child whispered confidently, as if it made any kind of sense.
''This kid is brilliant, I'm telling you,'' said Sean. ''High-five?'' he then reached out and offered his hand to the boy, who slapped it.
The two then chuckled heartily at the ''joke'' which she wasn't about to try to decipher.
''Right,'' she humored them. ''Tell you what, while you two comic geniuses work on your routine I'm going in to get a refill. Anybody need anything else?''
''Ketchup,'' said Matthew brightly, eagerly, raising his hand as if he were in a classroom.
''You're eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,'' Bella gently reminded him.
''Yeah, and I need ketchup for it,'' the boy added.
''The boy needs ketchup,'' Sean added slyly, backing up the request.
They outnumbered her on this one and she wasn't going to fight them on it. She eyed them both and without a word stepped away from them and their table. As her two boys continued on talking excitedly about nonsensical things she gathered her cup and made for the station door. Once inside the building she was greeted by one of her attendants.
''Just coming in for a drink...and ketchup,'' she explained. ''How's everything in here?''
''Fine,'' the attendant answered. ''Your dad's in the back office. Got a couple of calls; we'll have some drop offs tomorrow, a tune up and an oil change. Plus, mail came early today, by the way.''
The young man then made for a drawer and pulled out a few envelopes which he handed off to her. ''You were busy so I waited,'' he said. ''Hope that's okay.''
She nodded and set aside the cup to sift through that day's delivery. A few bills, a few checks, all in all she thought nothing out of the ordinary until she saw her sister's name at the top left side of one of the letters. She turned her back to her employee and quickly tore into it.
She swallowed; it'd been so long since she'd seen that handwriting, those specific flourishes and formations belonging to Grace. There was no greeting at the beginning of it, no pretense, no easing in. All there was, was an an awkwardly worded apology. An apology for leaving, for not being able to deal. Her sibling went on to explain how she hadn't known who she was then, and to a degree she still hadn't a clue but that she wanted them to know that she was well. More importantly, Grace had written, she hoped that they were well, happy, strong. One day she hoped to be those things, too. She promised that if that happened, when that happened, when she found those things in and of herself, she'd come back to deal with everything she had left behind. She said she wasn't sure when that would be, a year, or five, or ten; she wasn't sure and she couldn't promise, because all she was capable of was trying. That she promised Bella, and their father, and her son, to try.
The small note was brief and to the point and Bella read through it several more times, letting her sister's words sink in. When they did, and when that tiny ache in the back of her throat eased she folded the note until it fit into her palm. Searching herself, she didn't find anger or resentment or anything of the sort. All she found was a tiny piece of possibility that one day, someday, Grace would find what she needed and come back long enough to sort what needed sorting out, that soon she herself would be strong enough to take the address in hand actually reply to the letter. Unlike the one she had received from her mother all those years earlier, Bella didn't tear and toss it aside. Instead she decided to slip it into one of the small back pockets on her jeans.
There was after all nothing too special about getting hurt, she remembered. But getting over it, finding a way to heal and resolve? That was work. That was strength. That was, she liked to believe more than anything, brave.
Through the front window she caught a glimpse of her young family and smiled. Smiled because she knew that until that day came not only would they manage, not only would they cope, not only would they survive, they would flourish.
Elsewhere, back at his quaint apartment Will had just breezed through writing a fluff piece he was due to submit to a magazine the next day. He was content with what he had, enough to take a break and look for a distraction as he sat at his writing desk.
He had rang up Scout to see if he had gone into work and when he learned he hadn't Will instantly suggested they meet for coffee, but the other man had asked for a rain-check. Obviously Scout wanted to sort out his own findings from their weekend and Will didn't blame him. After their call ended he then went on to ring Hamilton's cell phone. Of course it went straight to voicemail.
''Hey, it's Will just checking in,'' he said after the automated voice told him to leave his message. ''Hope you and Jake got home safe. When you get a chance email me the pictures you took during the trip. Scout said he wants them too. I talked to him this morning, said to tell you guys he was serious about 'that sleeping bag'. I don't know what that means, but give me a holler later anyway, both of you. Bye.''
He drummed one set of fingers on the arm of his chair while he ran the other set along the keypad of his cell phone, so tempted to dial up Bella, Sean, or any of the others in his contacts list, hoping to find distraction in their world, with their stories, their lives. Anything to take his mind off of the silly magazine articles and vacation brochures he made a living writing, anything to make him forget his failures as a serious writer, anything to take his mind off of the stack of rejection letters sitting nearby on his desk.
He had been obsessively saving the letters for the past several months. Why? He wasn't sure. He supposed that he, more than anyone, took some pleasure in torturing himself. It was really all he knew and a part of him didn't want to give it up. Old habits die hard, he mused. But with a sigh he set his phone aside, powered down his notebook and started out of the room only to return with a trash can, which he promptly dropped the pile of papers into, the papers he had been endlessly taunting himself with. As tempting as it was to sit back down behind his desk in front of his computer with his thesaurus in hand, he knew that all of his hard work, getting through Rawley, then college and into the real world, would count for absolutely nothing if he didn't make the most of his life now. He had so much desire to write about his life, but in order to do that he had to learn how to have one because a boring protagonist was simply no kind of protagonist at all.
It was time to give up the ground beneath his feet, he decided. He wasn't sure how, when or where to begin but he grabbed his keys, determined to create, to embrace an adventure, a story independent of any other, one he could call his own. Success would come to him when he stopped being desperate for it. With that thought he walked out of his front door and for the first time in his life had not a single expectation.
''Engaged sex,'' Hamilton declared to Jake with equal parts amazement and wistfulness, ''is so hot.''
''Your ears are moving,'' she noted.
They had arrived home the previous night more than a little high over what had occured just before they left New Rawley behind. Since entering their apartment they had been, in their own way, making up for their three days of abstinence. They eventually spent themselves so that they decided to take a break from certain activities and venture out to their kitchen for a couple of bowls of cereal. For the past half hour they had been sitting, he in his boxers, she in a wifebeater and panties, at their small kitchen table where Hamilton felt the need to wax on about this brand new discovery.
''I'm certainly not complaining about anything,'' she started.
''-but how is it any different from all the other times we've been together?'' she asked, briefly halting her crunching.
''It just is,'' he said after sipping the last of his milk. ''You couldn't tell? I could tell. Engaged sex is different than Just Living Together sex like Just Living Together sex is different than our Just Dating sex.''
''Boys are weird,'' she concluded. ''I might've pretended to be one for a few months, but I will never understand the way your kind think. You've actually sat down and figured out classifications?''
''Dude, what do you think Married sex will be like?'' he asked, and then answered his own question, ''Probably awesome.''
She took another spoonful of Fruit Loops and with a straight face cracked, ''It better be or I'm backing out of this thing, that's all I know.''
''Hey,'' he said, mocking hurt and stuffing his right hand into the cereal box nearby, ''Just for that remark there...I'm keeping the free toy.''
She shrugged and in a smug tone began, ''Once we get married half of that...what is that?''
''Spinning top -slash- flashing pen with Dora the Explorer on the front if it.''
''Yeah, well, half of that will be mine soon enough,'' she winked.
''Do you really mean it though?''
''If the spinning top is that important to you, you know it's all yours,'' she teased.
''You know what I mean...what you asked me yesterday, do you really mean it?'' he asked quietly, seriously, testing the waters. ''Do you really want what I want?''
She paused to give it thought but before she could provide an answer he started again with, ''Because you, you asking me, that's the craziest thing you've ever done, Jake.'' He looked both amazed and confused.
''You do know that's what you're getting into, right? A lifetime supply of crazy.''
''This is worth it,'' he said whole heartedly, happily. ''As far as I'm concerned the entire weekend, the stuffy tent, the bruised ankle,things going not how I imagined, all of that was worth it if this is where we end up. Even if you changed your mind right now...just the fact that we're sitting here together... worth it.''
''I haven't, you know.''
''Changed my mind.''
They smiled at each other from across the table, silently communicating something as their brows raised. They had much to do. Things to talk over and sort. Jobs to get back to, parents to call, people to inform about the development, Felicity DVDs to buy, sleeping bags to replace. But all those things could wait for the time being.
''So...bed?'' he asked.
''Bed,'' she answered.
And in the next second he was out of his seat, walking backwards out of the kitchen and through their apartment, heading off yet again to their bedroom, quite prepared to resume their...activities. She simply rolled her eyes at his puppy dog like excitement. Amused and thrilled by it she caught up with him and together they plopped back onto their mattress, where they playfully moved about for awhile. This time, though, she was quite happy to lie back and let him lay atop her. He gently placed his arms on either side of her head and let one of his hands wander into her hair which sent a slight shiver up her spine, as it always did.
When she thought about it she wasn't sure she had a reason for changing her mind, for coming around to the idea. And anyway when the hand that had previously been in her hair slowly moved down to warm her hip, lack of reason was the last thing on her mind. As far as she was concerned she didn't need reason. Neither did she need to know what was to come next. Because boldness, she realized, was more than wild feats or elaborate charades. Boldness was being open to anything and everything, in or out of the box. Boldness was, as he had often noted to her, about throwing caution to the wind. And she decided to do just that once again in order to say something she had no doubt about but was always a little bashful about voicing.
''I love you,'' she said beneath him and reached up to run a hand over his shaggy hair.
His ears moved yet again as he smiled wide, elated to hear those words, pleased that she said them without being prompted to.
''I know,'' he said, and then yelped when she jabbed him lightly in the side. ''I mean, I love you too.''
This time her heart really did flutter at his words. Especially when she noticed that his eyes still looked just as impossibly blue and playful as the day she had met him. That never failed to blow her away; how he managed to still look at her as he had at fifteen with that same optimism, that same wonder. Maybe it was because deep down he was still very much the same boy he was then, bursting with enthusiasm, eager for adventure. There was nobody she would rather spend the rest of her days making up with, adversely there was nobody she'd rather spend the rest of her days fighting with, either.
Obviously spurred on by her bashful admission of affection he leaned down to kiss her and she gladly kissed back just as ardently. Staying still with him had provided it's own comforts, which was why she was reluctant to give that stillness up, but he had laid out and given up his own expectations for her like no other person had before. His willingness to do such a thing made her realize if there was anyone she'd ever promise herself to, it was him. Maybe that was reason enough to leap.
Still engaged in a kiss they slowly crawled backwards, further onto the bed and beneath the covers as their hands travelled over each other and wiggled themselves free of clothing. When she slowly withdrew her mouth from his she made the point of keeping eye contact with him and as he started moving above her in slow degrees she was certain there was nothing here to run from.
If any of you imaginary readers have made it this far, thanks. Hopefully it made you laugh at least once. Whether you liked it or hated it, drop me a line. I'd appreciate it. Especially if you hated it. I'd like to know what worked and what didn't. There are parts I really enjoyed and parts that I know could've been better.
A few people have suggested a sequel, though I'm not sure. It would have to take place outside of New Rawley and I almost feel like the characters won't be themselves outside of that town. Still, I already have the idea/scenes/theme, it's just a matter of piecing it all together. I'm more likely to get it done, though, if I know people want it. So if you do, poke at me. ;)