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I hear him. The gravel pops and crackles as his truck drives up the winding road. Then he stops, cuts the engine. He thrusts the door open, then slams it back shut as he makes his way to the front door. His eyebrows are scrunched together, and his lips move – as if he’s trying to find a way to tell me.
It’s all too familiar. It was only yesterday he was driving to my house to pick me up for the first time. We went to the county fair that day. I wonder if the purple teddy bear is still sitting at the top of my closet. I bet it is. I wouldn’t throw anything away that even slightly has to do with Michael.
The doorbell rings. I can’t force myself to stand from my position on the stairs. He sees me through the glass-paneled door and gives a half-hearted smile. I can’t smile back. I only look away to keep from bursting to tears. They are coming through though, trickling down one by one because I don’t have enough will to keep them all in.
“Jessica,” He says as he slowly opens the door. I still can’t look up at him. My head rests against the wooden post at the bottom of the stairs. One glance would make me beg on my hands and knees for him to stay. “Jess?” He asks again. His voice is softer now and sounds as if he’s talking to a sensitive child. Why must he say my name? It only reminds me of summer nights with his arms wrapped around me.
Suddenly, I can’t take any more. My choked teardrops turn into sobs as I realize this could be the very last time I see him. “Michael, please. Please don’t go,” I whisper, but I can’t move to hug him – to beg him. My soul is glued to the bottom of the stairs, trying to stay as far away from insufferable heartbreak as possible.
“Jess…” He sighs, and his voice trails on as he tries to word what will come next. “You know I have to go. My-”
“No you don’t! Don’t say that! You know it’s not true,” I yell at him this time. How dare he say he must go? He can stay here, with me. He doesn’t have to go across the world to a land where dust whirls in random patterns and the certainty of survival is unknown. I look up into his flecked hazel eyes – the eyes that I’ve looked into so many times before he leans toward me with a soft, lingering kiss. Except now his eyes aren’t full of unconditional love. They’re full of confusion, sorrow, and the need to comfort me. I need him to see the full extent of my pain. He has to understand that a knife has wrenched itself into my gut, and leaving would make the knife slowly drive its way down my weak body.
“Jessica, you don’t understand. People are dying out there, and I feel guilty. I have to help my country, otherwise the guilt will eat me alive. I know you don’t understand, but I… I just have to go.” Michael sits next to me on the narrow stairs and puts his arm around my quivering shoulders. His hand moves back and forth over my pale arm. I give a shaky sigh and lean into his chest. He smells like laundry detergent and mint gum.
“Michael…” I sigh. His name is so familiar on my tongue. It brings memories of happiness and love that will now be tainted with fear each time I say it. “I love you,” I blurt out. It feels so good to say, but so painful at the same time.
“I love you too,” He says with complete certainty.
I gulp down more tears and then open my mouth to say goodbye, but he interrupts me before I even begin. “Jessica, do you remember the first day we met?”
I think back to that beautiful summer day. Everything was green. The leaves had finally blossomed to their fullest and the temperature was a record breaking high. Michael was a transfer student from Ohio and a few of his new soccer friends had brought him to Ashley Martin’s annual end of the year party. She was the captain of the cheerleading team, vice president of the student body, and not to mention the most manipulative human being in the world. What Ashley Martin wanted, Ashley Martin got. That night, her honey-blonde hair managed to shine even in the nighttime, complimenting her flawless heart-shaped face. She flaunted her toned body in a sparkling hot pink mini dress. Of course Ashley was overdressed, but she did it on purpose. She had learned exactly who Michael Dawes was, and she was determined to make him hers.
But when Michael arrived, he barely noticed Ashley. He didn’t respond to her flirtatious attempts, didn’t acknowledge her sparkling dress, or even catch her name. What he did catch was me, sitting in a corner, reading a Sherlock Holmes book, and waiting for my older brother to get hammered so I could drive him home. That was the only reason I got an invite to the infamous party. Not that I really wanted to come, hence the book.
Michael walked right over to me, but I didn’t notice him at first. “You seem really excited to be here, don’t you?” He asked me in the middle of an action scene.
“Yep,” I replied, not bothering to look at the stranger who surely was about to make fun of me. And then it was suddenly pulled from my grip. I looked at the stranger now with a defiant glare. Sherlock was just about to solve another mystery.
“Oh,” I whispered. The stranger was tall and handsome. His dark brown hair was messy and tangled and his smile was so innocent and serene. He wore a button down shirt over khaki pants and his shoulder was rested against the brick siding of the house. The stranger was completely at ease while I gazed up at him nervously.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” He said, reading the title aloud. “Sounds intense. Might have to read it. I always love a good detective story,” He gave me that smile again that nearly melted my insides. I only managed to nod. Why was he giving me any attention?
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“Sherlock,” I said with complete certainty. He gave me a funny look, and then I realized he wanted my name, not the character of the book. Why was I acting so stupid? “No, I-I mean Jessica.”
“Too late Sherlock,” he laughed. I laughed nervously along with him, because I didn’t know what else to do.
“What’s your name?” I asked then, trying to swallow the anxiety welling up in my throat.
“Michael, my name is Michael.” He smiled at me once more, and I knew that I would be crushing on this guy for as many days as I could count.
“Yes, yes I remember that night,” I finally say. But I always wondered why he chose me over Ashley. I never asked, though, because I was afraid he would wonder the same thing and leave me with a broken heart. I guess now it was inevitable. “Why did you choose me? You could have picked anyone at that party and she would have been all over you. But you picked the nerd in the corner reading Sherlock Holmes.” Instantly I regret my question. His brow creases and a look of confusion crosses his face. He looks into my eyes, as if he’s searching for something that’s been lost for a decade. I hold my breath, afraid the answer is going to be “I don’t know” or “Yeah, I guess I should have gone with Ashley.”
But instead, he reaches for my hand and says, “Because you were the only person I ever saw, Jessica. That night I was so sick of the norm. It was driving me crazy. But then you were there. You didn’t care about the party or acting like everyone else. I knew at that second that I had to have you, at least know your name,” He laughs to himself. “Sherlock.”
My heart skips a beat and a smile stretches across my face despite the pain coursing through my veins. A feeling of pure happiness wells up in my stomach, and butterflies crazier than ever before make my insides warm and gooey. I watch him intently for a second, and lean into his lips. He kisses back – just a soft, lingering kiss that will have to last the rest of forever. “I’ll always love you,” I whisper. I lie down in his lap and let him softly stroke my hair.
“Jessica, I loved you from the moment I saw you. Don’t you ever forget that,” He says. I let those be the last words I remember him say.
Because in one year and seventy-four days, Michael will be nothing but a gravestone over a patch of grass. I’ll have nothing to remember him by but our love and this one moment when everything was absolutely perfect.