It was Sunday evening and the Coach’s Corner talk show was on in Dad’s truck. I was beat, my shirt soaked to my skin, streaked orange from digging all day in the red clay. I wasn’t sure I could take much more of Dad’s high school pep talk.
I could only think about Lia.
This morning I’d found her basement apartment empty, only flattened boxes and bags of trash lined the weed riddled brick patio. I couldn’t believe she would just leave like this.
Dad pulled into the driveway, gearing up again about my “big day” tomorrow. The start of high school and all the new adventures. I was still missing my old adventures, ready to chase them down. So I leaped from the truck and took off down the street.
The woods were buzzing and chirring by the time I made it to Preacher Higgins’ driveway. Nature knew it was still August. This was Virginia. Summer’s quilt would continue to smother us through September.
I plunged down the path, hoping for just one last breeze of summer magic but everything was haunted now. The sounds, the sun, everywhere I’d been with Lia. The path leading to the pond where we’d capsized the canoe under the moonlight. The tall grass where we’d spied on Preacher Higgins. The dock, where we’d kicked off our shoes and let our legs hang and our toes skim the water. The sky where the clouds drifted past and the world hurtled onward without us.
Tomorrow was fast approaching and up until now—this morning—I’d thought Lia would be with me, that she’d teach me each and every one of those secrets that lived in her eyes. What I’d give to stay tucked into that cocoon of summer, with the bugs and stings and bites and the tall grass. To relive that first kiss on the dock when we were soaking wet.
I wanted to drag summer kicking and screaming into school. Even as I could never picture Lia in a classroom, legs tanned and scratched and her filthy bare feet slapping the floor as she argued politics and religion. She didn’t fit in our town–a place known for pregame prayers and Baptists bake sales. Sometimes I went to bed at night, a smile too big for my face, thinking I must have dreamed her up completely.
Now as my steps slowed and I saw that empty dock, I realized Lia had been trying to tell me all along. When she told me to never change my smile, or my attitude, or my hopeless dreaming. She knew she was leaving.
I walked out to the dock, looking out to the reflection of my summer memories but seeing only a murky puddle in the dirt. The canoe on the bank was ordinary fiberglass. Lia’s wild laughter a distant echo in my head. A slight breeze hit my hair and I heard steps on the path. I nearly tore my head off my neck looking up. Preacher Higgins stepped out of the grass.
“How you holding up, Mathew?”
His hair a bit grayer and his wrinkles etched a little deeper in his skin. Otherwise he looked good for having been run out of his church. I shrugged. It seemed like a good time for honesty.
“Oh, she was something, huh?” Preacher Higgins chuckled. “When Jolene died I told myself she was in a better place.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and shuffled around. “But that didn’t help me much, did it?”
This was the kind of talk that got a preacher knocked off the pulpit. I looked in his eyes and saw a spark I hadn’t seen before. I followed his gaze out to the water, no longer a puddle but shimmering in the evening sun.
“I thought she would have said goodbye.”
“What, you don’t think it was hard for her?” He gave me a nudge. “She came down here this morning. Said her Mom had gotten a job in Florida, I believe it was. She wanted me to give you this.”
The sun found the locket in his hand. It was bronze and worn, etched with fancy swirls and looked out of place not being against Lia’s chest.
“She said she was afraid her mom would hock it. She thought you’d keep it safe for her.”
He held it out to me. And I knew Lia would be back. Someday. I gripped the locket in my fist. I had no address and no phone number. All I had was that locket, this pond, and this outcast preacher who missed his wife.
And that was enough.