I Wish I Had Stayed
These two have just been igniting some creativity in me lately! I hope you enjoy another one-shot.
The cool breeze chilled Sean's face as he pressed lock on the car. Holden came to his side, fastening his scarf more firmly around his neck. "This weather will never feel natural to me."
Sean took a few steps forward, feet crunching the leaves beneath. He took in the scene before him, pushing open the rusty gate that rose to his hip. He heard Holden behind him, hurrying to catch up. He looked to his left, studying the way the trio of swings wavered in the breeze, chains clinking against bolts. A merry-go-round rested like a sphinx of Egypt, graffiti painting a crude masterpiece of the town.
Sean turned toward his right, the majestic jungle gym of his childhood now only up to servicing a family of squirrels. Another smaller set stood beside it, painted chipped away from monkey bars that he could stick his head through. He moved through the park, to a bench doused in whitewash, black marker revealing countless teenage love affairs scrawled across its surface.
"I kissed the only girl I've ever kissed on this bench." He said, studying several signatures.
"You never told me you were with a girl." Holden replied.
"Katie Smith. It was one date, and when she kissed me, that was when I knew I was gay. I was fourteen."
Sean walked past the bench and further into the park until it became a pond, mostly dried up, though there were still a few brave fish traversing the waters.
"You wanna go for a swim?" Sean asked, turning to Holden with a big grin, bursting out in laughter at the way Holden's face contorted into disgust only to attempt to change it at the last minute.
Sean followed the pond until they reached a bridge, recently repainted. He stopped halfway across and looked out at the pond. Childhood memories of sticks that became swords under the laws of a bright imagination, of games of capture the flag along the walking trail that circled the pond, of the vastness that the stream provided as it left sight, headed into town; it all seemed so simple now, so…easy.
Sean sighed, leaning against the railing. Holden leaned against it beside him. They stayed there for a while, Sean catching the other man burrowing deeper into his jacket and scarf as the winds picked up, rattling naked trees. His nostalgia was running away from him, no slave to time. His heart started to ache a little, as he took the entire scene into observation.
"Let's head over to school." Sean said.
"Shit." He muttered, yanking at the fence in frustration. He looked over the chain links to the debilitated building, bricks strewn across the ground. The old high school had long since been abandoned, roof caved in at several points, the fountain no longer running in the miniscule courtyard.
He turned around, walking past Holden and back to the car.
"Seriously, Sean; that's it?"
He turned back to Holden, who had walked to the fence, fingers hooked through the chain.
"What do you mean?"
"We…" Holden hooked his foot into the opening, hoisting himself up as his other foot lodged in the chain higher up. "are getting into that school, one way or another."
"Holden, what the…"
Holden had made short work of the fence, at the top. He swung his leg over and began to scale back down the other side. "Come on!" He urged, smiling.
"Holden Wilson, when did you get so athletic?" Sean questioned, coming at the fence with a running leap.
"It's crazy what twenty-five years and a minor tornado can do to a place." Sean said, walking down what was once a hallway. The lockers that lined the walls were in various forms of destruction. The light of the sun lit up all the classrooms they passed, free to illuminate the rooms with all the windows shattered.
Holes in the roof ranged from softball-sized to engine-sized, bricks littering the floor around them. Sean stopped near the end of the hall, right before the cafeteria. "This is where my locker used to be. I remember I had a good view of Elliot Tucker from here." He pointed over to locker right by the cafeteria. "Every day of sophomore year he'd get run over by some senior jock rushing to be first in line for lunch. I'd barrel through the crowd and help him pick up his books. I kissed him that summer. He didn't take it too well."
"Thank God." Holden replied, bumping his shoulder. "No offense."
Sean stepped toward the cafeteria, but there was too much rubble. Instead, he took the opening of the principal's office and went through the back door. They walked along the trail toward the stadium, once so prestigious but now seeming like a diorama compared to the NFL stadiums that he had become so used to. He felt a wave of sadness as he remembered the way he could recognize every teenager painted in school colors, cheering from the student section.
"Come on." Sean said as he stepped up on the rickety bleacher step, turning and outstretching his hand. Holden took it, and Sean held it tight, guiding him along the bleachers until they reached the middle, situated right between the two end-goals. One was broken in half, the other gone. Sean took a seat, and Holden did so as well.
Sean looked down the field, toward where the concession stand once was, nestled below the visitor's side of the bleachers.. He remembered heading over there after the game for a snickers, and earning hollers from students and parents alike. His heart swelled at the thought.
Holden's thumb ran along the back of his hand, settled on his knee.
"What are you thinking?"
Sean shrugged, and Holden leaned into his side, head resting on his shoulder.
"Just…thinking about everything. Good and bad."
"Do you miss it?"
He couldn't respond to that, not at first. He scanned the stadium, filling it with his memories. More wins than losses, and what felt like endless applause after that final touchdown, when he pulled his helmet off and raised it into the air for mere effect.
"I miss how easy things used to be. But I don't miss how difficult other things were."
Holden didn't reply, so he went on.
"I miss the air here. It's so crisp. If someone put a filter through the air back home, it wouldn't taste this good. I miss how I used to know everyone. How a trip to the donut shop meant seeing at least three friends and multiple kind acquaintances. But mostly, I miss the simplicity of it all; nothing to worry about except winning the game that Friday night. Coming back, I don't feel that overwhelming suffocation that I always woke up with, that I could never get rid of. I don't remember praying for graduation so I could leave here and be around people who would get me, get who I was. I was always looking toward the future. I wish I'd cherished this more."
His heart felt less heavy in his chest, Holden's arm soothing around his back. He looked at the grass, dried up and sparse amongst the dirt field.
"Is it alright if we stop by one last place?"
"It's better than the school, at least." Sean said, bringing weather-numbed fingers up to the vents of the car, blowing heat through the car.
Parked on a hill, the vehicle overlooked a small house. He watched as two children dressed in pants and jackets bounced on a large trampoline in the back yard. The house was blue, a lighter shade than he remembered. A man was on the back porch grilling, smoke twisting and rolling in the wind. A woman sat with a mug at the small table on the porch, observing her children.
The yard was more manicured than those twenty-five years ago, and there hadn't been a back porch. But at least it wasn't a shack. At least someone was there, taking care of it. The oak tree still stood majestic in the back corner of the yard, a single swing fastened to the strongest limb. He hoped his two favorite dogs were still there, buried beneath roots that were sure to have spread over their bones.
It was so easy to conjure up himself as a child, running around that backyard with a football, dogs bounding playfully around him. His dad would be standing at the back door with a beer, watching him with a smile, while his mom cooked a big dinner. He could remember lying beneath the stars with his parents the night before his graduation, talking about college and moving out and how life would change, how things would be different.
He held Holden's hand tight in his, sniffing hard. "Yeah, m'alright."
"You're not." Holden replied, but it was gentle.
"You ever wonder if you ended up in the right place? If your life went in the best direction it possibly could?"
"Something like that, yeah. I wonder sometimes."
Sean kept his eyes on the family. "I have been lately. I mean, I know that I have a great life. I'm doing what I love, I have a great family, and that's before I even get to you…"
"But you wonder what your life would be like if you had never gotten out of here."
"Yeah. And sometimes, I don't know, I…I wonder what it would be like to move back here. I mean, I'd never ask you to do that, but…"
"Sean, I'd go with you anywhere you wanted. If you wanted to move back here, I'd do it."
Sean turned to him then, just studying the other man as he held his gaze. His heart throbbed for an entirely different reason, and he gave Holden a small smile before turning back to the family. "I just think sometimes, if maybe this would be a better place to raise a family than where we are. I'd like to start a family, you know?"
"I know. I want to too. And you're right; a smaller town like this would be better for kids. It'd be easier for them to make friends, and easier for them to make sense of the world."
"But I know I couldn't be happy here. I'd get restless, I'd never really settle down. I couldn't do it, not knowing what the city feels like. And I know that if it's too small for me, it's sure as hell too small for you."
Holden laughed. "Yeah. Yeah, it definitely is."
The kids got off the trampoline as the man plated the meat from the grill. The woman stood, and they all headed inside.
"Do you ever wish you had stayed?"
"Sometimes. When you're away on business and I'm at home alone, lying on the couch and just thinking. When I'm lying there, I think about what it would be like to have met you in a small town like that. I think about what we would have done, or if we would've left. And I don't think we would have. I would have had you, and we would have stayed there. I would have worked some job that paid the bills, you may have become an accountant or something, we would have had a few kids, and we would have just let life go by."
"Must you paint me into every scenario?"
"Of course. You're my game-changer."
"You know," Sean said, turning to look at Holden's bewildered face, "the game-changer. The thing in everyone's life that explains why the past happened like it did, how the present is, and what the future will be. The thing that affects the rest of your life."
Holden smiled. "Sometimes I think you get lost in your own head for fun."
"No more than you do." Sean said, grinning.
Holden leaned forward, hand resting against the side of Sean's face before he kissed him. Sean returned it, grabbing the back of Holden's neck and deepening it for a moment before Holden pulled back. Sean pushed their foreheads together, their breaths mixing.
"I wouldn't change anything." Sean said.
"Good. Because I wouldn't either." Holden replied. "Now come on; we should get home."
Sean nodded, pulling back and putting the car in reverse. He stopped for a minute, putting his foot on the break. Holden turned to him, eyebrow raised. "What?"
"I think we should have a kid."
His smile this time was more gradual. Sean cherished the way the creases on his brow formed as his lips rose over his teeth. "I think we should, too."
And then Sean turned the car around, and they headed back home.