This story is one of the April Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
Water is supposed to be powerful: cleansing and cathartic. Maybe that didn’t apply to a muddy-barely-there river hidden in the woods. This one has no magic answers. Maybe, like people, there were exceptions to the kind of water that counted.
If I’m this river, only mattering by technicality, Jack is the ocean: vast, endless, worthy of all the adjectives. I could drown in Jack. No one could drown in me.
I leave the soothing trickle behind as I retrace my steps over the broken path that brought me here. I tell myself I’m moving slow for my own safety. After all, my heart is much safer with this physical distance between us.
The stones slip under my feet, but I maintain my balance. Jack does that for me: keeps me upright, steady on my feet. As the cabin comes into view, as familiar as my reflection in the river, I run my fingers over the outline of the rusted key in my pocket. I always want something of him to keep me tethered. But the door won’t be locked.
I know this as well as I know every groove and dip of the ancient key I’ve touched a hundred times. As well as every groove and dip of Jack’s face when he smiles. Him, too, I’ve touched a hundred times, but never the way a piece of me has always wanted to. I know that just as the river can’t reverse its direction, neither can we if we take this step. I keep walking forward.
I’ve only ever touched him as my best friend. As one-half of Jack and Izzy. Forever friends. But everything is different now—or will be when I let myself back into the cabin.
We’ve been coming here every summer since we were too little to reach the door knob, spending our days scouring the forest, our very own version of every adventure story we’d ever read.
Before I step onto the wilting porch where Jack has told me a million stories about the stars, the door opens, and he’s there. He’s always there. The air crackles between us like the fire I know we’ll build later. I’m a big fan of routine and tradition. Of knowing what to expect.
Jack isn’t scared of turning something old into something new. This shift between us, like our hearts are tectonic plates crashing into each other, finding a new way to settle, is sending aftershocks through my body. A semester apart, meeting here at the cabin, the seismic and undeniable shift that came down over us the second we reunited has magnified the intensity of our gazes. Our gazes could light tonight’s campfire.
“You’re back,” he says, unafraid to break the silence.
I nod, my fingers playing with the ends of my gauzy scarf, letting it flit through my hands, caress my skin. Much like Jack’s thumb across my cheek when he reaches out one hand to erase the void between us—the space where uncertainty should never exist.
“Nothing has to change,” he says.
My heart hiccups. “It already has.” The truth is, I want it to. Wanting is scary, especially when so much rests on this foundation.
“I can take it back,” he says, taking both ends of the scarf, using it as an anchor. Or maybe I’m his anchor like he is mine. Either way, my hands reach for him.
“Do you want to?” I ask, my heart tripling its pace with the worry of him saying ‘yes.’ Scared doesn’t mean not wanting.
“No. But for you, I’d pretend.” His fingers tighten in the fabric, pulling me closer. “I can pretend I love you like I always have. Like taking one look at you today didn’t make me realize I’m in love with you.”
“We don’t pretend.”
His cheeks curve with his smile. The scarf is wrapped around his fists the way my heart is around him.
“Good. Because it’s real. And it’s forever.”
His forehead touches mine, infusing me with power. “It always has been.”
I don’t need to tell him I’ve always been a little in love with him and I’m glad he’s finally caught up.
It’s Jack. He already knows.