This story is one of the September Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
A young girl knelt on the hardwood floor. The smiling, goofy faces of two teenagers looked up at her. The sun was shining down on them, giving parts of the photo a blurry look while the colors were distorted with a yellowish hue.
Their clothing was spotted with different colors, and a barn stood behind them. A paintbrush was held in one of the hands of the girl while her other arm was around the boy’s shoulder. He had his arm tucked around her waist as if pulling her as close as possible. There was no space between them, and they were both grinning as if on the edge of bursting into laughter.
At that moment the door to the den opened, and the girl’s mother walked into the room.
“Marissa,” she sang, “What d’ya got there?”
Upon seeing the picture, the mother stopped short, staring at the picture of the two teens. Her face took on an unreadable expression, and her daughter looked up at her in interest.
“Do you know him, Mommy?” Marissa asked. Her mother smiled a tight smile.
“Yes, I did. A long time ago.”
Marissa cocked her head. “Who was he?”
At that simple question, a thousand answers flooded through the mother’s head, but she settled on the simplest one. “A friend.” She forced herself to smile at her daughter. “Now, why don’t you go and play. I heard your brother’s making a treasure map.”
Squealing with delight, the little girl bounded from the room. As soon as she was gone, the woman picked up the photo book and made to put it away but stopped as the light from the window shone on the picture, catching the faces of the teens.
She remembered the day perfectly. They’d been painting a mural on the barn behind the school when a senior had wandered by and wanted to take a photo for the yearbook. They had obliged, and at the last second he had whispered some joke into her ear so that they were both holding in laughter while the photo was taken and ended up bending over as soon as the flash went off. The senior had scampered off, leaving them rolling in the grass. The photo never had made it into the yearbook, but she had gone and asked for the print from the yearbook committee.
They were the best of friends, and when talk of colleges started, they never talked about what would happen to them. The last time they had seen each other was when she boarded a plane to New York. Ironically, it had been him who convinced her to go and follow her dream of becoming a dancer. She remembered him clutching her to him in the tightest, most powerful hug she had ever gotten. She remembered her barely contained tears as they finally broke apart and she pushed her new phone number written on a scrap of paper into his hand. The stewardess had made the final call for her flight, and she squeezed his hand once with the best smile she could muster. The tears came as soon as the plane was in the air, and they stopped around six months into her time at NYC.
She had loved him with a burning passion. In a way she never had and never would love anyone else. They hadn’t seen each other or talked since, but it fit in a way she could never describe.
Her fingers danced over the photo for a single second, and she recalled the question her daughter had asked her earlier. The answers flowed through her like whispers.
Friend, lover, boyfriend, brother, soulmate, partner in crime, study buddy, peer.
She had a thousand other words to describe what they had been. Yet nothing quite fit. They had never officially dated, nor had they ever actually ended their friendship. She had just gone off to the university he had made her apply to, pursued her dream, and never allowed herself to ponder over it.
Carefully, she shelved the album and went to make lunch, her last thoughts swirling behind her.
He wasn’t an ex-boyfriend, or an ex-lover.
But he was an ex-something.