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26 – Even

It used to be my fortress of solitude.  Now we met   nearly every night in my silly little tree house, constructed for the small kids of the property’s previous owners, with a Fire Marshall’s maximum capacity rating of three children.  It had become my favorite place in the world because it was where I got to visit face to face and hand in hand with my favorite person on Earth.  Tonight would be the last time, for a while, since we would be traveling out of the country the next day—but not together, exactly.

Ash was very strict about every aspect of these encounters.  We could only visit for a half hour.  It was obvious why a late night visit was more convenient, but he was concerned that I needed my rest, especially in the beginning, when we had met on school nights, thus the abbreviated time frame.  After school was out and we were secretly spending his days on duty together, we would meet here in the tree house at night, sometimes for longer periods now on the evenings of days we couldn’t be together, sort of like dating on third shift.  

One of his unbendable rules (shameless, relentless testing on my part certified the ‘unbendable’ descriptor) was that we could hold hands but nothing beyond that.  When I experimented with caressing and kissing his hands, he took those away from me too.

 He had made it clear from the beginning (and was occasionally forced by me to reiterate) that his intentions toward me were nothing but honorable, and that moving beyond handholding would only escalate into dishonorable behavior on his part.

He had explained it this way, “Though going beyond is what I want with all my soul, I’m willing to be patient for it, for you, for when we’re married, if you were to eventually accept me, that is.” 

Like my presence in the tree house night after night didn’t constitute acceptance!  But his words were so incredibly romantic to me that I nearly attacked him on the spot.  Maybe that was the intended effect.  No.  As I thought it through, I was sure it was not.  I believed him.  There was no way to doubt his perfect sincerity.   Anyway, though it was disappointing at times, it was also a relief.  My better judgment screamed at me about the acrasia (lack of self-control) of being in a private dark place with this man, who although angelically beautiful and impeccably polite, was, never-the-less, a stranger to me—initially.  His rules soothed my conscience and my insecurities, and kept me honorable too, despite myself.

Thirty minutes felt like thirty seconds—it flew by so quickly every night.  We used the time to piece our various puzzles about each other together, though obviously, he had far more to reveal about himself that I did.  Still, he managed to control the conversation most nights, digging into topics about me:  my daily happenings, my history, and my hopes.   I let it slide because I could see how happy it made him, and I wasn’t very good at controlling conversations in any case.

One evening, after several nights in a row of being manipulated into doing all the talking, I proposed a new arrangement. 

“Ash, you’re not being fair to me,” I began. 

My mood was mischievous, not indignant.  But in the dark he misread me.  And apparently I’d inadvertently touched a nerve. 

Before I could explain myself he responded back with, “You’re right.  I’m so sorry.  I should leave you alone.  I should never have entangled you this way.  I’m trying to snap you up, like a rose before it’s bloomed.  It’s wrong and very unfair to you,” he said, releasing my hand.

It felt exactly like I had shot myself in the foot, or the heart.  I scrambled to undo the damage.

“Oh no Ash!  That’s not what I meant at all!”

My tone was pitifully desperate.  I grabbed his hand back, like something that had been unjustly snatched away.

“I’m glad you picked me.  There’s no point in blooming if it’s not for you.  You’re the sun that makes me grow.  If you unwrapped your love from around me now I would wilt, or worse.”  

Uncertain if I was healing the breach with my metaphoric assurances, I added heavy incentive.

“You’ve seen me like that…you…you wouldn’t let that happen to me…again.”

The fear and pain in my plea were more real than I had intended.

He inhaled sharply and broke his own rule, gathering me into his arms, tucking his chin over my head, and rocked me slowly.  It silently communicated what I needed to hear.  No.  He would not let that happen again. 

I rested my face against his chest, listening to his heart, one of my favorite sounds, second only to the sound of his voice, soaking in the pleasure of unruly behavior.  Eventually he pushed me away, but very gently.

“What did you mean?” he asked timidly.

“Just that it would be fairer if we took turns asking and answering questions.  I want to hear more about you.  I’d like to know more about the past of the person with whom I hope to spend my future,” I said with a smile. 

I was going to have to replace complete sincerity for my usual flippant banter until after he was accustomed to my sense of humor.  Otherwise, I might accidentally scare him off, and get exactly what I deserved.

I had learned my lesson on that occasion, and this night I was determined to be extra careful and unplugged from my perversity.  He’d been gone for most of the week on his survival training exercises with Ray, and given the emotional climate in which he would be immersed over the next several weeks he deserved a break from anything but calm adoration coming from me this evening. 

I didn’t want to miss a single sensation this time, so I had loaded new batteries in my little flashlight lantern. 

When I had settled in the tiny space across from him, I clicked it on and soaked in his beautiful face, my first real breath of air for the day, as he had been off duty and completely out of my sight.   He took my hands and smiled, as pleased as I was at the extra view we’d be sharing tonight.

“I’m curious about something.  If you’re not comfortable answering, I’ll understand,” he assured me. 

I did not feel assured.  I was bracing for something uncomfortable, but I nodded, letting him know it was all right to proceed.

“When did you get a cell phone?” 

He was gravely serious.

I laughed out loud in relief.  I thought he was going to ask me to detail my ‘romantic history’ with Gray, something I’d lived in fear of since that fateful evening when my summer had been rearranged.  This I could handle.

“It was for when I was away from my grandpa during the day when we were in Iceland.  So, roughly two summers ago.” 

That was easy…and true. 

Please let that be the end of the matter.

“It’s a strange area code.  I was just wondering about that…” he trailed off.  

He was trying to lead me around to a conversation about Gray, and I wasn’t about to be led down that path.

“Is it?  I never called it.” 

Could I get out of this topic without lying to him?  If he stopped asking questions it might be possible.  I didn’t want to discuss Gray.  The only thing to discuss would be my feelings and how I thought they had been unreturned, and then having to admit that maybe now they were…in a belated, totally irrelevant way. 

“Oh.  Well, here’s your instruction card.  I have your number now.  You might need this back,” he said as he presented me with the card I had once given him. 

Actually, it was very thoughtful of him.  I was going to need that if I ever wanted to check messages or do anything else beyond making a call. 

“Thanks.  You’re right, I might.  And I have something for you,” I said, childishly enthusiastic as I handed him a wrapped present that I had concealed behind me before turning on the lantern.

He looked surprised. 

“What’s the occasion?” he asked.

“Oh, don’t start with that.  I don’t need an occasion to be generous with you.  If I see something I think you’ll enjoy, I’m not going to wait around for the proper ‘occasion’ to give it to you.  Where’s the fun or spontaneity in that?” 

He appeared to accept my explanation and looked down at me, thinking deeply, it seemed, while he held his present in his hands, motionless.

“I was hoping you’d open it while we were together so I could explain some things about it,” I said after what seemed like a long time with no move on his part to investigate his gift.

He snapped out of his abstraction then and smiled big; carefully pulling at the silver ribbon I had tied around the middle.  Then he gently lifted the edges of the paper, pulling up the tape to unfold the glossy black wrapping paper, releasing his gift without a single tear.

“A Walk in the Woods, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson,” he said, reading the cover out loud. 

“Has our destination changed?” he joked, and then looked up expectantly at me. 

I shook my head, smiling.

“It’s considered travel literature, but to me it’s more like comedy.  I love this book and this author.  I used to think he was my soul mate.  I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned him before.   Do you know him?”  I asked. 

He shook his head.

“Your soul mate?” he replied, a little guarded, but still playful, acting jealous.

“Just sense of humor wise.  He’s old enough to be my dad, or maybe even my granddad,” I shrugged and continued, “It probably wouldn’t work out anyway.  I’m not really into older men.” 

Here I was, teasing him…again.

I let that hang there for a minute, and sure enough, a pained expression was forming on his face.  I quickly amended with, “Well, I mean, unless they’re into me, that is.”

I searched his face, hoping he’d interpret my comment as a joke and not a jab.  The pain rapidly gave way to a smirk.

“What drew you to this book?” he asked.

“Mom brought it home from the library for me.   After that I read everything of his that I could get my hands on.  I love all of his work.  It’s not all travel related, though.  There’s some on science, some memoirs.  Then there are a few books on the history of the English language, even one on often misused words, which I looove,” I said, drawing out the word ‘love’,  “because I’m strange like that,” and I chuckled at myself.

“I’ll need to see that one right away, because I’m strange like that, too,” he said enthusiastically.

“Here’s the thing.  He’s got this great low-key sarcasm, from which no one is spared, especially himself.  I love that the most, I think.  And the way he uses language makes scenes that were already amusing take on a higher level of…of…hilarity.” 

He smiled at me during my word search.

  “The other thing I like is that he makes me laugh out loud, about every other sentence, but I come away smarter after I’ve read him.  You don’t often find that kind of intellectual value added feature when you’re being so well entertained.  It’s like a literary version of carrots in carrot cake.” 

I chuckled thinking about some of my favorite passages in the book Ash was holding, including some totally new perspectives on camping, and Hostess Cupcakes and bears.  I continued.

“There’s something else.  This man has the most unique voice.  I listened to his memoirs on a digital audio book, which he reads himself.  And now when I read any of his books I can hear his voice in my mind.  I just love that; it feels so…personal.”

He seemed lost in thought as I said these things to him.

“And this one is your favorite?” he finally asked, turning the book up.

“I can’t commit to a favorite.  I got you this one because camping is on our agenda and I know you’ll appreciate what he says about deprivation on the trail and about how simple things in civilized life take on new wonder and delight, once you’ve had to do without them for a while. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed this.  I hope you will too.”

“I like anything you like,” he said, with a touch of wistfulness, while he looked at me, and not his present.

“I have something else for you, but you might think it’s weird,” I began.

His eyebrows raised in surprise.

“I’m starting to feel very unprepared and ungenerous here, Ellery,” he said with an uneasy smile.

“Don’t be.  Okay, so, this is kind of different.  I won’t be offended if you don’t like it.  I debated with myself about whether I should even give it to you…” I qualified, trying to set up an easy way out for him, just in case.

He looked very curious, but a little uncertain, too.  He knew me well enough now to be expecting something truly bizarre.

“Now I’m serious, Ash.  If this isn’t your thing, just say so,” I offered.

Then I pushed up the sleeve of my sweater (it was a slightly chilly night, even for June) to reveal my wrist.  Using my thumb and index finger I twisted the magnetic latch pieces apart to release a rather loose fitting bracelet from around my arm and tentatively handed it over.  His expression was hard to read.  It looked like uncertainty as opposed to enthusiasm.  I tried to explain.

“So, I’m not into crafts or anything, but Serena made this really unusual bracelet from a tiny braid of Kailee’s hair.  I thought it was a neat idea, so I made one from mine.  It seemed like a sentimental, personal way to be reminded of someone you love—if you’re not grossed out about it being made of hair, that is,” and I laughed a nervous laugh in punctuation. 

He didn’t join me in the levity, however.  His gaze was fixed on the band in his open palm, fingers from his other hand slowly tracing the twist.

“Serena intertwined a tiny gold chain with Kailee’s hair, but mine is lower budget than that…sorry,” I added, with growing nervousness at his silent response.

He still hadn’t spoken.  I was starting to feel disappointed and foolish.  I should have listened to the logical side of myself who assured me that guys don’t wear bracelets, especially ones made of hair.  I had put him in an awkward position, and now he was searching for a way to tactfully decline my strange gesture, or possibly disengage himself from me completely…

“It’s too weird,” I pronounced when I couldn’t take the silence any longer. “I’m sorry.  I knew better.  How about I just give it to my mom, instead?  It’ll be like a kindergarten craft project to her; she’ll love it—” I suggested with a smile, trying to put on an air of nonchalance, while I reached out to retrieve my rejected and sad little offering of love.

 In a lightning fast move his hand and the bracelet were gone, out of my reach, cutting me off in mid-apology.  Turning his body slightly away from me, he used one hand to fasten the band around the wrist of his other hand.  Then he turned toward me again with a glorious, radiant, heat wave of a smile lighting his face and the space.

“This is the most perfect, priceless gift I’ve ever received, besides your friendship, of course.  I’ll treasure it always.  Thank you, Ellery,” he said with deep conviction as he raised it to his lips and kissed it, smiling happily.  His eyes were just slightly wet looking, though in the dim light it was hard to be sure.

As his comment really settled in my mind and began to wrap itself around my heart I could feel the beginnings of moisture in my own eyes, especially as I considered what his friendship meant to me.

“Well, if that’s the case, then maybe we’re even now,” I suggested.

“Even?” he asked.

I pulled the perfect sentimental keepsake resting on a chain around my neck out from under the cover of my shirt.  It was warm from my body heat at all times except when I would take it off to shower.

“Remember this?  I thought I’d be working the rest of my life to top this,” I explained with a sigh of happiness at the end as I got sucked into staring at my most treasured material possession of all time.

“I’d really love that, you know,” he said, completely serious without even a hint teasing.

I picked up his left hand and fiddled with the bracelet so it hung with the clasp on the bottom of his wrist as opposed to the top.  Letting go with another well pleased and happy sigh I replied, simply, “Me too.”