Last Year's Mistake
The first day of senior year, he came back. I should have known it wasn’t over. Nothing ever is.
I smoothed my white sundress beneath me as I took my seat beside Ryan, my boyfriend of almost a year, in his Camaro. The air was tinged with last night’s September chill, a reminder that I’d soon be watching summer melt into fall for the second time as a resident of Rhode Island. Sometimes I still wondered if the whole thing was a dream.
The Camaro’s engine idled loudly as I pulled down the visor to check my makeup. Satisfied that lip gloss and
mascara hadn’t budged on the way from the house to the car, I snapped the mirror back into place.
Then my insides went cold.
Something was clipped to the visor that I’d never seen in this car before but would have recognized anywhere.
“Where did you get that?”
“This?” Ryan unclipped the half-dollar-size medal, laughing as he held it out to me. “Keep it. You need it more than I do.”
I made no effort to take it from him. “Where did you get it?”
The dimple in Ryan’s left cheek disappeared as his smile faltered. “I found it. What’s your deal?”
My eyes darted from him to the medallion and back again. When I still didn’t touch it, he added, “Oh, come on, babe. It’s a Saint Christopher medal. It’s to protect you while you’re driving. Or, in your case, running squirrels off the road. Lighten up.”
My sister and I were bumming a ride with Ryan on the first day of school because my car was in the shop—the result of an unfortunate incident involving one too many tequila shots and a squirrel. At least, that was the story I’d told him.
I tentatively touched the medal, engraved with an image of Saint Christopher and his staff.
Ryan thought he was teasing by giving me this, laughing it up over an inside joke. But nothing about it was funny.
The car suddenly felt too warm, too small, and memories I’d locked away for more than a year poured into my head like water through a broken dam. Images of smiles and touches and kisses that weren’t his.
I stared at the medal in my palm, running my thumb over the uneven surface. “I—I knew someone who had a medal like this.” Not like it. This one was identical to the one in that long-buried past of mine. And now I held it in my hand like sunken treasure churned up from the ocean floor. I rolled the window down a little more, wondering why air couldn’t seem to find its way to my lungs, and stared absently at the wicker rockers on our front porch before adding, “Someone I haven’t seen in a long time.”
“I miss him.” Miranda sighed from the backseat. “He was the best.”
I whipped around. “Be quiet. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Him?” Ryan adjusted the red Clayton High baseball cap sitting sideways over his blond curls.
Wistfulness clouded Miranda’s blue eyes. “Our friend from back home in Connecticut. He’s—”
“Not important.” I twisted around in my seat again. “Do you want to die on your first day of freshman year?”
“Him who?” Ryan pressed.
I didn’t look at him when I answered. “Not that kind of him. A friend. One I don’t speak to anymore.”
Ryan shifted in his seat. “It’s not like it’s the same medal.
Those things are mass produced. You look like you saw a ghost.”
If only I’d known how prophetic those words would be.
I’d tossed the medal into my purse, and had almost forgotten about it by the time Ryan and I were kissing at my locker half an hour later.
“I swear, you two should get tracheotomies so you’ll never have to come up for air.” My best friend, Candy, wrinkled her nose as she slammed her locker shut.
“Jealous, Candle Wax?” Ryan retorted. I hated when he called her that. Candy’s last name was Waxman, hence the rather dim-witted nickname.
“In your dreams, Smurf.” Equally dim-witted: Ryan Murphy. Smurf. Ugh.
Candy fiddled with her cell phone, simultaneously running a brush through her pin-straight dark hair. “You guys wanna grab some breakfast? I’ve been dying for one of Ruthie’s egg ’n’ cheeses all summer.”
“ ‘Egg ’n’ cheeses’?” I laughed. “Is that even a word?”
Candy threw her phone in her bag and tugged on my hair. “Who gives a flying fig? They’re fried, greasy goodness, and that’s all I care about.”
Ryan snorted. “Easy, Wax. Too many of those and that bodacious booty won’t fit into your rah-rah uniform.”
He gave mine a squeeze and I smacked his arm. Kissing and hand-holding and other tame forms of PDA were
fine, but I had no interest in being groped in front of our entire high school. Nor did I appreciate him teasing Candy about her butt. As someone who’d spent the better part of puberty hiding its traitorous effects behind shapeless T-shirts, I didn’t take kindly to body comments.
Nothing fazed Candy, though. She and Ryan sparred all the time, and as usual, Candy didn’t miss a beat. Not that I knew what she came back with, because I didn’t hear a word of it.
I happened to glance over her shoulder at that moment, right as one of the glass double doors at the end of the hall opened. Bright sunlight shone through, and for a second I could only make out the outline of the person who stepped inside.
But it was all I needed to see.
My heart froze as I took in his broad shoulders, his dark hair sticking out in all directions. He was taller than I remembered, more built, the angles of his face sharper. Evidence of the time that had passed since I last saw him.
It can’t be.
I might have said it out loud as I pulled myself from Ryan’s arms, my legs turning to mush beneath me.
“Who is that?” Candy said, just as Ryan asked, “Are you all right?” But they sounded a million miles away.
My pulse quickened as the person at the end of the hall took a step forward, and even as the words It can’t be repeated over and over in my head, there was no room for
doubt. This morning in the car, I’d felt my past shift in its grave. Now the piece I’d wanted to bury deepest stood right there in front of me, breathing the same air.
I took a step forward, and he stopped. He’d seen me, too.
The beginning of a smile curved his lips. Lips I knew all too well. Lips I hated.
But that didn’t stop me from taking another step forward. And another, until I stood right in front of him, still not convinced he wasn’t some sort of hallucination. It wasn’t until he reached out and slid hesitant arms around my rigid body that I knew he was real.
I had no intention of hugging him back, but my body had other ideas. The second my face pressed against his shoulder, every lie I’d told myself for the past year dissolved into the scent I’d know anywhere. I closed my eyes and wound myself around him, burying my nose in his shirt. The stiffness in his embrace melted away, and he crushed me against him.
“Hey,” he whispered against my hair. “It’s been a long time.”