Light is dancing through tree branches, casting shadows across my skin.
I set the empty plastic cup down beside me, swallowing the last bit of iced tea as I do.
The back of my hand gathers drops of sweat as I nervously wipe my forehead.
He’ll be here. Calm down.
The anxiety of what is about to happen is heating my already overheated body.
When Dylan agreed to meet me at our boulder—the one that we carved our names into—so that we can share our first kiss, I was thrilled. No, I was elated. I tried to seem casual when I asked him if he had ever kissed a girl before and again when I suggested that he kiss me to get it over with. Of course, he took his sweet time in responding, staring intently at the bald eagle that was soaring in the distance, acting as though he didn’t hear me. The sun was illuminating his face in an angelic aura as the fear of rejection darkened mine with dread.
I let out a much-needed breath when he finally agreed to the kiss with a simple nod, and a “sure” that was so subtle I almost missed it.
Now I sit waiting—electric anticipation, causing my skin to prickle.
This boulder is our favorite spot on the ranch because it sits high underneath the pine and aspen trees; the sunflower field is in perfect view and the white tops of the blue mountains dot the skyline in the distance.
This view is the background not only to this monumental moment, but to my entire life, sprinkling my memories with their beauty. I do not believe it is possible that there could be a more magical place in the world than this single boulder.
I chew on my fingernail as my nerves get the best of me. Dylan and I have been the best of friends since we were six years old, our relationship never being more than childhood innocence until a single moment that changed everything.
One month ago—May sixteenth to be exact—was the day my family and I arrived at the mountain for the summer. Dylan was waiting for me on the front porch like he always does. He had on a loose gray t-shirt and his raven hair was pushed back off his forehead.
I had never consciously paid attention to his face before, even though I knew it better than my own. But on this particular day, I suddenly became very aware of its details. Maybe it was because I was older, maybe it was because of the way his shirt fluttered in the warm breeze as I ran to embrace him, or maybe it was the fact that I had started thinking about boys in a way I never had before, but for the first time I saw—I mean really saw him. The deep dimple in his cheek when he smiled wide, the gap in his two front teeth, the faint dusting of freckles running across the bridge of his nose.
I noticed when I wrapped my arms around him, that for the first time in our lives, he was taller than me. I was forced to stand on the tips of my toes for our embrace. His cheek brushed mine softly when I released him from my death grip causing my heart to inexplicably jump, bouncing off my ribcage as it did.
It has been one month since that fateful day, and I have spent the time since becoming more and more infatuated with everything about him. I find the way he calls sandwiches ‘sammies’ nauseatingly adorable, the sprinkling of hair on his skinny arms beautiful, and I even find the shaking in his changing voice to be magical.
My favorite thing about him, though, is his big, brown eyes. The best way I can think to describe them is that they are the exact same shade as the maple leaves that fall back home in Vermont. You know when autumn first hits and the leaves drift to the ground and after a couple of days their orange and red colors begin to darken? I asked my mom once what that color was called and she said, “burnt sienna.” As an interior decorator, she is great with colors, so I trust her.
While those eyes are my favorite thing, his sense of humor is a close second. My sides always ache, and my mouth goes wide with silent laughter whenever he does his impression of Henry, his mom’s cigar-smoking ranch hand that swears in every sentence.
Now the moment has come where our relationship will change forever, a shift will occur in the universe and our future will forge a new path as a result.
Kissing your best friend is a big deal and while I am excited to the point of giddy, my heart senses a feeling of dread. Truthfully, I’m afraid—afraid to lose my oldest and dearest friend. As I sit on this boulder, emersed in these thoughts, it takes me a moment to notice the blurry figure dipping over the hill. The familiarity of the body running towards me lets me know that it’s him.
Suddenly the fear building in my chest evaporates and all I can think is Yes.
I shake as I wipe my mouth to prepare it for my mom’s strawberry-flavored Chapstick. I have no idea what boys like when kissing, but she is always putting this stuff on, so I thought I should too. I rub my lips together, noticing the slight taste of muted strawberry.
I cannot believe I am about to have my first kiss.
Finally, I am growing up.
Dylan is gleaming with sweat as he takes a labored breath beside me. Even his sweat smells good. God, boys are the best.
“Sorry I’m late. Had to feed the horses.” He says this while wiping his palms against the fabric of his jeans. Maybe he is just as nervous for this as I am.
“Ready?” Dylan looks at everything but me as he chews on his bottom lip and I have to resist the urge to hug him and tell him it will all be okay.
I shrug, desperate to seem cool. “Sure.”
I beg my heart to calm down when I angle my body to face him, worried that he can see its rhythmic pounding through the skin on my chest. As I turn my body, the strap of my yellow tank top falls down, revealing my collarbone. Dylan’s eyes glance nervously towards the skin between my neck and shoulder, and he takes in what he sees with intensity. It is as though he is trying to take a mental picture of something he’s not sure he will ever see again. My skin blushes in response.
“Should I just do it?” He asks this as his eyes finally meet mine, making me grateful that I’m sitting down for fear I would topple over.
“I guess so.”
Dylan leans in slowly, he licks his lips and bats his eyelashes as he does, clearly unsure of what to do. I can no longer wait—the anxiety is killing me, so I quickly plant my mouth on his.
After a beat, we break to breathe. I run my fingertips over my mouth, relieved at how lovely his lips felt on mine.
“How was it?” The crease between his brows causes me to wonder if it was not as nice for him as it was for me.
“Okay, I guess.” I lie, it was marvelous.
“Should I try it with tongue?”
Oh. Maybe he didn’t hate it. “‘Kay.”
Dylan leans in and tentatively places his tongue in my mouth. He tastes of minty toothpaste and its deliciousness is unparalleled.
A nervous minute later, we stop so I can check the time on his watch, “I have to go, my parents told me to come back right away. I’ll call you after dinner.” My heart is beating so hard I am certain he can hear it.
“Yeah—no prob. Hey, May, can we do that again sometime?”
“We can do that forever, Dylan.”
And I meant it.
Six Years and Ten Months Later
When the door creaks open, dust tumbles down from above, shimmering against the morning sun.
I take a deep breath, the familiar smell striking a nerve.
I cannot believe I am back here.
I walk in, dropping my suitcase on the faded red rug, causing plumes of dust to fly up. I cough as I make a mental note to add rug cleaning to my list of chores. The task before me is not going to be an easy one, I have just two weeks to get this dump livable before my mother shows up with the summer tenants. I might be in over my head with this project, but thanks to the mistakes I have made, I do not have much of a choice.
The sad thing is that when I was a child, it would have been unfathomable that I would ever call this place a dump. This realization causes a lump to form in my throat, the ache for the past lodges itself against my spine.
When I was growing up, I spent many summers here, weaving through the trees with the breeze at my back, but it was different then—I was different then. My parents were still together, and I was naïve, believing that this home and this mountain was something magical. Now, through the eyes of a bitter twenty-year-old, it barely passes as livable.
I step behind the couch, careful not to touch the cream-colored vase on the oak side table, to open the curtains framing the large living room window. I turn my face to the side as I do, to avoid inhaling dust again.
Despite my bitterness at being here, the view still manages to take my breath away.
It is early in the day, so the sun is low. Low enough for its rays to beam in though the tree branches, creating halos around their pine needles. The mountains peak through the breaks in the trees, with their white tops and bluish tint creating a heavy contrast to the thick coffee-colored tree trunks and sparse forest floor. Up high in the Rocky Mountains, the forest floor is mostly just some shrubbery and lots of fallen and browning needles.
The image displayed before me is branded into my mind’s eye and etched across the ridges of my brain. It plays like a soft record to all my childhood memories.
I probably know this view better than I know my own face and it is because of this view—and this view alone—that makes renting this dilapidated home worth the extravagant price.
I exhale a weighty breath and wipe off the dust that has collected on my shoulders. No time to reminisce, I have a lot of work to do and better get to it.
This place is spotless.
Well, as spotless as an outdated falling apart home can be. This is the type of place that looks nice as long as you do not look at it too closely. Its beauty is a façade and will fade once it reveals its true, ugly self, just as it did in my childhood.
I have outdone myself and shined up this rusty trash can and, as a bonus, seven days of nonstop cleaning has proven cathartic.
I only thought about my ex twice and only cried once.
For years, it was just me and my parents who used this home during the summers. It was a lovely getaway from the busy work-obsessed lives of my parents and a place I came to love from the age of six to fourteen. In the years since my parents divorced and I stopped coming here, it has mostly been shuttered up and unused. There have only been a couple times over the years that my mother has found someone who wants to spend a lot of money to stay here during the summer. It does not happen often, though, because my mom likes to stay in the house with the renters so that she can be here to provide them with whatever they need and keep an eye on them. It is sort of like a long-term bed and breakfast situation except without the breakfast. She claims it is hard for her to get away from work like that now, but I know it is because it’s not the same for her to come here without my dad. When she and my dad did it, they made it seem easy.
Now, since I am very available, my parents think this is a great opportunity for me to be the one to babysit the family wanting to spend eight weeks here.
I shove the vacuum into the already stuffed closet underneath the staircase. To get the door to shut over the overpouring of cleaning supplies, I have to use all my strength, only to then crumble to the floor overcome with exhaustion. The buckling wood planks scrape my knee as I do.
The freshly wiped down glass inlay on the gray cabinet across from me is kind enough to show me my reflection.
Wow, I look like a garbage troll.
My unwashed hair and dirt-smudged face frame tired, red eyes that seem to be glowing like I am some kind of villain in a horror film. I run my hand into the tangled mess on my head in a failed attempt to fix it.
An exhausted sigh escapes my mouth. I should probably get cleaned up. Heck, when was the last time I took a shower? Have I even taken one since I got here?
Yikes, I must be more depressed than I thought.
Oh well, I don’t really care what I look like. These tenants will have just to deal with the fact they will be sharing a summer home in the mountains with a child of Deliverance, maybe it will add to the rustic charm they are seeking.
The old red Subaru is great for this type of terrain because getting down to the small town at the foot of this steep mountain can be quite the ordeal, thanks to the unpaved and winding roads. Even after two hundred thousand miles, rusted paint, and a door handle on the passenger side that doesn’t work, this car still handles the terrain like a champ. My parents left this car with the house so I was not sure it would even start thanks to the couple of years of no one driving it, but after a few attempts, it did. I was relieved because it is the only reliable mode of transportation I have. When I drove here, I had parked my little Volkswagen Beetle in the garage the day I arrived, knowing I wouldn’t drive it again until I left at the end of the summer. It’s not exactly designed for these roads.
The car is bumping along, forcing me to grip the steering wheel—my knuckles turning white. I look up to the rearview mirror and my hair still looks like a matted rat’s nest. I had opted for sleep instead of a shower last night and it shows. I tried to sweep my tawny-colored locks up into a bun but that only seemed to have made it worse.
The sad thing is that I used to take great pride in my appearance, spending an hour each morning doing my makeup and fixing my hair. Now, I am not even sure where my makeup is or if I even brought it with me. What’s the point? I am not here to impress anyone. A sudden thought bubbles into my mind before I can stop it—I just hope Dylan doesn’t see me like this—but I quickly brush it away.
I stop and park at the small grocery store, keeping the engine running, so that the air conditioning can blow for a few moments more. It is surprisingly hot today, usually May in the mountains is still fairly cool.
As the chilled air blasts across my face, I get lost in my head and my nerves start to build as I ponder who the tenants are that will be living with me. I do not know anything about them—they could be murderers or thieves or something. How could my parents do this to me? I know I messed up and taking care of this place for the summer might have been the wrong choice, but I reassure myself that spending six weeks in a rehab facility without any freedom would be way worse.
The engine shuts off, sputtering a bit as it does, reminding me that mom said I need to take it in at some point for an oil change. The groan that the door makes as I finally open it makes me jump unexpectedly causing the middle-aged woman jogging by to give me a strange expression. Embarrassed, I quickly make my way into the little corner store that literally sits on a corner and is called The Corner Mart.
This town is too small to care about being creative and tends to stick to the obvious. The Gas Station, The Clothing Store, and The Horse Feed Store are just a few of the original gems this place showcases.
The front door to The Corner Mart dings a bell when I push it open, but other than that, there is an eerie silence that fills the space. There are just five rows of food so you can see the entire store as you walk in. I immediately spot two other people shopping, silently pushing their shopping carts as they do. The store owner—a man whose name I cannot recall—is not even playing background music like most grocery stores do. Grabbing the nearest cart, I pull out the list my mom emailed this morning, forcing the scary movie vibe of this place out of my head.
Just as the word milk enters my field of vision, a voice startles me, “May?” I turn abruptly—who the heck said that? “Hey, it’s you.”
I do not say anything, but I know instantly who is standing in front of me. My heart freezes, the blood in its chambers stops flowing. For the first time in my life, I’m completely speechless.
“It’s Dylan. Dylan Ryder. Your next-door neighbor? We grew up together? I haven’t seen you in at least six years—almost seven. How the hell are ya?” I can tell by his tone that he is being ornery, he knows he does not need to explain to me who he is, but I guess this is the game we are playing right now.
My eyes drift up and down the length of the body in front of me. He looks so . . . so . . . different. The once gawky kid with scraped knees and a gap in his front teeth is long gone and in his place was a tall, clearly fit, bronzed, and dare I say, God of a man. The only thing that is exactly as it was, is his eyes. He still has those same eyes, the same ones that once made my heart soar. Dylan has brown eyes and I’m not even a huge fan of brown eyes. Neither of my past boyfriends had them and I have never gone out of my way to admire a pair, but Dylan’s are different. There is nothing ordinary or common about them. My mother once described the color to me as burnt sienna. They remind me of fallen leaves in autumn and I can’t help but think of him whenever I’m home in Vermont and the seasons change causing the ground to become coated in a layer of darkened maple leaves.
He boars into me waiting for a response, forcing me to quickly regain my composure from the initial shock of him. I straighten my shoulders and square my jaw as annoyance rips through me. He is the last person on planet earth I want to see right now. Just great.
My anxiety is off the charts but I must force myself to seem indifferent. “Um, yeah. I remember you. Kinda. I guess it’s been a while.” I am very aware of my appearance right now which makes me wish I could crawl into a hole and die.
“Why’re you here? My mom said you were at college, I just figured I’d never see you again.” I catch a hint of something in his voice as he says this. Something similar to how I am feeling right now—annoyed.
“I am in college; I’m just here helping my mother out with the tenants for the summer. I go back to Alfred University in August.” The lie comes out without a second thought. What is wrong with me? My pathetic quota has surpassed its limit for today.
“Oh cool, I’m just here for the summer, too. I come every summer, though. I love it here.”
“You in college?” I ask this with a snarky tone, knowing he was never the college type with his muddy boots and passion for being outside. I used to think he was allergic to the insides of buildings.
“Um, no. I work on the ranch here in the summers and in the winters, I’m back home in Boulder helping my grandpa with his store.”
Dylan tucks his fist into the pocket of his well-fitting jeans, and I can’t help but notice the muscle of his arm flex as he does. Could this moment get any worse?
“Okay, well cool. See you later then,” I say as I turn away abruptly, desperate for this hellfire to end.
“Okay, later, May.” No one has called me May since I dropped the nickname when I was fourteen and decided I was too cool for the dorky moniker Dylan came up with all those years ago.
“It’s Miranda now.” The snarky way I spit this out startles even me.
“Oh okay, sorry.” Dylan offers a lopsided grin, and I can tell he is mocking me.