The sleek December snow started to pile thicker and thicker on the branches of Elmwood trees. It blanketed the ground as far as the horizon could stretch- an undisturbed, breathtaking marvel in the still winter air. It was perfect, unmarked save for a few tracks made by a scurrying rabbit or the shy deer in the early hours of the morning.
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Still, the familiar path was visible. The smooth snow inclined downward on either side for a few yards, leaving the trail open like a familiar gate to heaven. It was paradise not because the woods were beautiful, and all the solemn and wondrous life mesmerizing, but because I had heaven’s angel at my side.
Her name was Bess. She was in my History class. Sometimes angels don’t always have wings.
That’s where I was now- my boots trudging along the fresh fallen snow with Bess at my side, a familiar snapshot of time that had been taken many times before. It was our ritual- coming home together after school, taking in the majesty of the woods like it was our first time, every time. We did it every day, had since kindergarten, and we did it in every season. But nothing compared with winter.
Because in winter, everything is different. The peace and quiet is unmatched except for the soft crunch of snow and the quirky chatter we would sometimes exchange. Sometimes it was silly, sometimes profound. None of it was wasted.
I looked at her now, as we were walking. This could hardly be the first time I noticed how gracefully her chestnut hair tumbled out from underneath her hat, or the way the color in her cheeks rose when she gave that coy smile. But it’s not what you’re thinking- maybe it should be, but it’s not. I really don’t know how she feels about it, whether she’s fine with it or whether I’ve been torturing her since elementary. There are reasons, a few of which have valid points, but most are just inventions fuelled by my own cowardice.
So I was content to play mind games with myself, and I was content to make empty resolutions in the early hours of the morning. Resolutions I would make as I watched the minutes slip by on the alarm clock that lay next to a framed picture of Bess.
I thought my case was very unique, that it was original and somehow special. It wasn’t until much later that the quiet voice would say, “It doesn’t mean anything. You are a statistic. You are a cliché.” I tried not to listen, but it was true. Can you rightly say that my case is original?
I’m not going to lie. My stupidity and my cowardice cost me some severe embarrassment over the last few years, and more than one or two awkward moments. The very worst incident happened last year at the sophomore dance, where my nagging mother pushed my patience to the absolute limit before finally snapping it completely.
“She’s such a nice girl,” she would say in varying tones of pity. “Why don’t you ask her to the Winter Ball?” She posed this question almost every day for a month at breakfast- the only time we ever got to see each other thanks to her hectic work schedule.
Invariably, I would mumble some incoherent nonsense through a mouthful of Shreddies, and at first this tactic worked and I could slip from under radar, unseen. Eventually, though, she started to become more and more aggressive, and I found myself trying out my rehearsed lies to make her go away. I was not surprised to learn that they didn’t seem so stable when I had to say them out loud, in an actual conversation. In fact, they sounded ridiculous.
“You’re toying with that girl,” she started to say as the approaching date was only a week away. “Ellen Miller says she’s turned down three different boys this month and can you stop to think why?”
My chosen method of defense was to become indignant in return. “We are friends,” I said as forced anger started to bubble to the surface, resting on my weary lips. “We are friends, and that’s the way both of us want it to be.”
“You’re just being stupid!” she snapped, leaning up against me. “You’re just some stupid little boy who can’t think about anyone’s feelings except his own!”
It was true, and now I really was mad- almost. Really, I was just tired of the whole damn dilemma, like watching the same episode of a soap opera over and over again. I certainly wasn’t angry enough to smash my bowl of cereal on the finished hardwood that covered our floor, but I did it anyway. My mother has not opened the subject again, nor has she mentioned that incident. It’s probably more than I deserve.
Later Bess told me that she was sick that weekend, and she didn’t come to school Thursday. I never did see her, but on Friday night, the day of the dance, I wandered aimlessly to that familiar path. When I saw those same footprints, the same old size-seven boot with the raised heel, I felt my heart drop into my stomach as the full impact of what I had done hit me. When I saw that the tracks were fresh, that they couldn’t have been made more than an hour ago, I sat down on a nearby log and cried- wasting away in the lonely night.
All of this seems to flash through my mind in an instant, but then I realize the puzzlement in Bess’s face, and I suddenly remember that I’ve been looking at her the whole time.
“Do I have something on my face?” she said.
My consciousness collided with reality like a train wreck. “Uh…n-no, it’s nothing,” I stammered, feeling my cheeks flush with a lot more than the cold air. “I was just at looking at that new…hat.”
“This isn’t a new hat.”
“Oh, really?” I said, trying to sound surprised. “It, y’know, looks…new.”
She nodded as if I had said something incredibly intelligent and interesting, and I appreciated the effort. To some girls this might set their head spinning, but not Bess. She wasn’t naïve, she had just seen a thousand variations of that little farce over and over again. If I may boast for a moment, I’m proud to say that she wasn’t always the audience.
Sometimes she would be forced to repress that coy smile that could send me reeling to the other side of the earth, other times her soul would give a huge sigh inside of her and melancholy would wrap itself over her emotions. Today, it was a bizarre mixture of both, her feelings of affection conflicted with her emotional weariness. Like me, she was tired of the whole situation, and I did not pretend to be the only sophomore in all of Aspen Creek. The sand in the hourglass was starting to run thin.
I knew all this, but how cunning the mind is in desperate situations! How cunning it can be to summon up a thousand original lies and excuses, and how reasonable and wise they all sound to the desperate mind.
In a fit of will I snapped back to the present once more, perhaps with the notion of feeling the warmth between her soft, wool mittens. But she wasn’t there- she had disappeared.
A snowball collided with the back of my head. Even if I wasn’t in the mood, I took to the task with enthusiasm and tried to be as sporting about it as I could. When Bess and I started to get in the heat of it, though, I forgot all about wistful dreams under a starlit sky or having her cheek cradle against mine. All I could think about was the wild laughter that started to ring through the crisp December air, and I found myself overcome with boyish amusement. Some things never change from the time we’re little kids to when we’re idly rocking in chairs, in some bland retirement home.
As the trail ended, we found ourselves making that reluctant return back to suburbia. We had brushed ourselves as best we could, but the remnants of snowball still clung to those impossible places in the center of my back. I felt a rush as her lips started to stretch and form that sly smile she reserved for such occasions. She gently brushed away the remnants from my back, then pretended to brush away some snow on my right arm, sliding gently down and flicking away imaginary pieces of snow.
For all the heartwrench my problem had ever caused me, I never really had been that clear about my feelings until then. When her hand slipped into mine, however, I felt an explosion of contentment and warmth throughout my whole body, like someone had lit a fire in the pit of my stomach. I had never felt anything like that in my whole life, and I knew then, with absolute certainty, that it would have to change. Something had to change, something had to give. And only I could make it happen.
I sort of resembled myself to an addict. The thing about an addict is, almost every one of them goes through an endless wave of empty promises to either themselves or to others. Almost every person that has successfully broken an addiction has gone through at least one broken promise, but something eventually changes, makes us mature or lets us see the world in a different life.
I was contemplating all of this now, as I gazed into my eyes in a bedroom mirror, thinking about my life and the life I had had with Bess. Ten minutes before, I had finally made that decision. Grow up, I had told myself. Grow up and do something about it. I smiled at my dresser, and I told my alarm clock that I would tell her tomorrow. I’m not sure whether or not he believed me, but I didn’t care. I believed me.
“Trying to find the right moment” was right up there in the top ten of my list of excuses, so I decided right away that I would simply have to ignore it. Those afternoons I spent with Bess were some of the most special times in my life- later that afternoon was as good as any.
I didn’t have History class that day, and that made it all the more unbearable. By the end of the day, I was sure about it: Someone had definitely screwed around with the clocks to make them run slower.
Still, I got through the day, and I felt a strange rush when I saw her waiting for me just outside the door, like always. I shouldered my backpack and we set off down the familiar path.
I was relieved to find that she had something to tell me about, because I had never been so speechless in my entire life. Four years worth of ramblings and speeches had disappeared out my head in an instant. I couldn’t do this. There was no way I could do this.
She kept jabbering away until we were a little ways down our usual trail, now littered with footprints. I wasn’t exactly sure what she was talking about, only that it had something to do with a science test. I randomly interjected with useless filler like “Hmm” and “Yeah”.
She stopped abruptly when I accidentally nodded and said “Yeah”- when she was right in the middle of a sentence. She turned her head up and looked at me, but she didn’t get angry with me for interrupting her, or go off into a bad mood and pout. She was only thinking of me.
“Is something the matter today?” she said, stopping and laying a hand on my shoulder. I thought my knees were going to collapse right there.
“Like what?” I finally managed to say after a few babbles and stutters.
“You’re so distant today,” she said, cocking her head slightly in curiosity. “Is there…something you want to tell me?”
Oh my God, I thought. She knows. She knows, and she’s trying to get me to tell her. Now was the perfect time, the perfect opportunity to say what I was dying to say, and what did I come up with?
“Oh, it’s just…thinking about school…and…stuff.”
“Oh.” She looked really disappointed, almost like she was going to cry or something. She kept walking along, her books clamped to her chest now and her eyes glued to her feet. I stood there for a few seconds, as if my soul had temporarily vacated my body. Then it came crashing back down and started screaming a thousand different things at me all at once.
“No!” I called as I ran up to her. “Bess, wait!” I ran up and stood in front of her, but she was still fascinated by her boots.
“Bess,” I whispered, taking both of her hands in mine, “Bess, please look at me.” She raised her head, startled by the feel of my hands against hers. Her eyes had turned red, and now they seemed to be boring into mine, maybe searching for something, for some answer.
There was a speech, wasn’t there? I kept telling myself this, that this was the moment I was supposed to sweep her off her feet and tell her how much she meant to me. All that happened, though, was that I started to find myself falling forward, until her face filled my whole vision. I didn’t even realize what was happening until her soft lips started to slide over mine, her eyes closed.
It was sort of like the fire that had started in my stomach yesterday, but now it was ten times better. I felt weak, as if all the energy had drained out of my muscles, and I couldn’t feel anything anymore. It felt like my legs were wobbling back and forth. I had no idea what was making me still be able to stand up, why I wasn’t collapsing into a heap on the snow beneath us.
Whatever was holding me up, though, must not have been strong enough to support Bess. When our kiss finally broke, she fell into my arms and I could feel her cheek against mine, her face in my shoulder and her arms wrapped around me. And whatever force was draining all the energy out of every muscle in my body, it made sure to forget my tongue, because no words ever came easier to me than the next ones that came out of my mouth.
“Bess…” I whispered into her ear, her brown hair still covering most of the side of her head, and a few strands falling into my own face. “I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you, I’m just an idiot. I’ve waited way too long to tell you that…I love you, Bess.”
As if those words gave her strength, as if they were food, she managed to stand up again and look right back at me. “I love you too, Roger,” she said, and the smile that had long been absent from her face reappeared in full force. It was over- she could relax. I smiled too, and the happiness that it gave me made me wonder why people chase after useless possessions, or spend their whole existence trying to get a cheerleader’s outfit in their laundry hamper. Some people, he thought, never do grow up.
I took her hand again as we walked down the winter path we both held so dear to our hearts, and I thought how beautiful it was just to be here and to walk with her. With Bess.
Someday, I'll write a story about dodgeball and they'll make it into a movie.