Ten years old and time to say good-bye
I didn’t want to leave.
I didn’t want to let go of her.
“It’s time, Erik, sweetie,” I heard my mom say, but I didn’t care.
“I’ll never forget about you,” she said softly against my ear.
I pulled away, not because I wanted to but because I wanted to look in her face, the one girl who held my heart. I saw the tears rolling down Paige’s cheeks, and a part of me wanted to lean in and kiss them away.
I reached into my pocket, grabbed the little red string I had, and started tying it around her wrist. I made a bow to finish it off, the loose strands on either side hanging from her tiny wrist.
“It’s not much, but when you look at it, you’ll know I am wearing mine.” I lifted my arm and showed her the red string tied to my wrist. “When you look at that string, you’ll know we’re connected.”
“Come on, Paige honey,” her mom said and started moving forward.
“I don’t want to go, Erik.” Paige pulled me in for another hug.
“I don’t want you to go either,” I whispered, and my heart clenched hard, painfully.
Her mom gave me this sad look, and I wanted to lash out. I wanted to scream, to hurt someone as much as I was hurting. I wanted to make a big scene because I was being forced to leave my best friend.
I gave Paige a kiss on the cheek, tasting her tears. It was a salty flavor that I knew I’d never forget.
Her mom pulled her away, and our limbs were untangled from each other. I didn’t stop staring at her as she was put in the back of the car. She placed her hand on the window, her face red, her tears falling really hard now.
I didn’t stop crying either.
I felt like a part of me was breaking away, and I’d never get it back.
“You’re so young. You’ll feel better as time goes on.”
I didn’t say anything after my mom spoke. I didn’t bother telling her that at ten years old I’d never forget about Paige.
“You can always write to Paige, maybe even call her from time to time.”
That wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be beside her, to hold her hand and go on walks with her to the creek like we used to.
I wanted her to tell me what made her happy.
I just wanted her near me.
“Come on, honey, we need to load up the last of the boxes and get on the road.”
I didn’t care what anyone said, didn’t even want to hear anything aside from the beating of my heart.
Because it beat for her.
Paige would always be mine.
Welcome back: Twelve years later
It had been so damn long since I’d been back to this town.
One hundred forty-four months.
Six hundred twenty-five weeks.
Four thousand three hundred and eighty days.
It seemed like a lifetime ago.
It was a lifetime ago.
But I never stopped thinking about her.
I stared at the sign that greeted us. Blue Springs. The town I’d moved away from all those years ago. I was a different person now, a man. I was a Marine, had seen violence, horror. I had a bad leg to show for it, scars, a memory of what I’d done in my life. My memories held darkness and pain, but it wasn’t just about getting injured while fighting that stayed with me, that coated me like this thick second skin.
It was about who I’d left behind.
The town held so many memories for me. When I’d first left, as a child, not knowing how to cope, I’d cried myself to sleep so many times.
“Can you believe we’re back here after all this time?”
I turned and looked at my mom. I knew she was tired, scared, and pissed most of all. But she put up a good front. She stayed strong, and I knew it was because of me. Even if I was a grown man now and should be taking care of her, still she tried to shelter me. Even though I’d seen war and death, been on the receiving end of it all, still she was a mother.
I knew it was for me.
I reached out and took her hand in mine. “Everything will be fine. I’m here now, he’s out of our lives, and we can start over.” Well, it was starting over in the place we began, but she knew what I meant, I was sure.
And if I ever saw my father again, I’d kick his ass.
Not only did we uproot our life all those years ago because of his new job, but it was only recently that we found out he’d been banging the office secretary for the last five years.
He threw away his family for a piece of ass, a twenty-something-year-old piece of ass at that.
My mom smiled. I was really proud of her for not putting up with his bullshit and having the strength to leave. I rubbed my leg absently.
“Is it bothering you?” she asked, and I shook my head.
“No. It’s just a habit.” When a bomb had gone off, shrapnel had gone straight into my leg. Now I had a scar that ran the length of my thigh to my knee. I told myself things happen for a reason. Although I was no longer on active duty, I’d earned a Purple Heart, and was now home to be with my mom during this shitty time.
She left, and I left with her.
No way in hell would I let her do this alone. Even at twenty-two I knew I had to be there for her. I could finish school in Blue Springs. I’d already applied for the spring semester at the community college, and I’d find work somewhere.
“I hate that we had to leave all those years ago, only to come back and stay with your cousins and aunt.”
I shrugged. “It’s better than staying there with that asshole.” I had my hands on my thighs, wanting to punch him right in his fucking face.
“He’s still your father. Don’t talk about him like that.”
I clenched my teeth but was respectful enough not to say anything else. I could have said a shitload about him. Him fucking that woman explained a lot; why he’d seemed distant, stayed later, was gone on “business meetings” on the weekends. He’d neglected us to get his dick wet.
Yeah, I had no fucking sympathy for that bastard.
Silence stretched on for long minutes, and my thoughts went back to all those years ago, to happier times, to a person that hadn’t ever let me down.
She’d been my best friend since kindergarten, and for the next four years we’d been inseparable. Leaving her behind when we moved had been the hardest damn thing I’d ever done. I might have only been a child, but even now I still remembered her. I remembered the sweet smell of her and how she made my heart race.