This story is by Rebecca Lea and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The students called it “Ghoul’s Gorge” ever since hikers found a student dead on the moss-covered rocks below. There was a fence now, its silvery crisscross hatches bearing remnants of tattered ribbons. Crouching close to the fence line, Nina edged along, sliding on the thick mats of pine needles. The glint of the setting sun distorted her vision as she bent to pull back a piece of fencing detached from the post. Beyond the fence was a triangular flat rock that jutted out over Cascadilla Gorge.
Glancing around and seeing no one, Nina slipped through the snug opening and crawled out onto the rock. A lacy pattern of lichen covered its edges, like on the hem of a nightgown.
It’s a lot farther down than I thought.
Standing, Nina planted her feet and spread her arms for balance. She felt free, like the Cooper’s hawks she often saw circling the hills from her dorm room window.
“Good evening,” said a voice. “Do you need help?”
Without lowering her arms, Nina pirouetted to see a dark-haired young man holding a leash.
“No, I do not,” she said. “Good evening yourself. I was just looking out over the river.”
“Ranger and I are on our way to the café. If you come down off that rock, maybe you’ll join us? I’m Matt. Matt Doyle. And you are?”
Reeling in the leash, Nina saw an undersized brown Lab. The dog was missing a front leg. She softened. Her plan blown, she climbed gingerly back through the fence in the dwindling light.
Extending a hand to help her up to the trail, their eyes met. Then Nina looked away.
“I’m Nina. Nina Miskenis. Hey, Ranger, what happened to your leg?”
“He’s a rescue-I dunno.”
“Do you think we could just walk, Matt Doyle-with-the-rescue-dog?”
“Absolutely. So, what were you doing out there besides enjoying the view? You could have slipped.”
Nina had a sense about people, especially people who adopted tripod dogs. In the waning sunlight, she loosened her burden to this self-appointed savior.
“I am under so much pressure. My parents insist I finish a double major in four years. Mama really. No one does that.”
“Sounds hard,” said Matt. “It’s school pressure that got you out on the ledge?”
They walked with an ease out of sync with the brief time they had known each other, matching their pace to Ranger’s slow lope.
“It’s not just school. It’s Mama. And Ben.”
“Ben is my second cousin. Every time I go home on holiday, Mama has some outing planned. For Easter Break there will be no end to visits with Ben and his family. She never asks me.”
Matt stopped walking. Ranger sat by his side, offering his remaining front paw to Nina.
“I think he likes you. Look, why don’t you tell your mother you can’t spend all weekend with this Ben? Tell her you have to study. It’s the truth.”
“I’ve tried. Mama decreed I will marry a ‘nice Lithuanian Catholic boy,’ like Ben. His father is a doctor. That means everything to Mama, coming from a good family.”
“Do you want to get a coffee, Nina? There’s an outdoor café near here.”
“Another time. Thanks for listening to me. And talking to me on the ledge.” Giving Ranger a quick pat, she climbed the steep hill to the dorms. At the top, she looked back. In the twilight, she could see Matt waving.
On the four-hour drive from upstate New York to her home in Connecticut, Nina thought about Matt. In her journal she had written April 15: Ghoul’s Gorge. I almost killed me. Knight-in-shining- armor M.D. rescued me. Deep green eyes.
Would I have jumped?
On her way through the door, Nina brushed fake kisses on her mother’s cheeks. “Where’s Papa?”
“He’s gone ahead to church with Ben and his parents. You’re late. You’re not wearing that. I laid out a dress on your bed.”
Walking to church, Nina listened to her Mama recite the weekend’s activities.
“Mama, I know you care about our Lithuanian heritage and how important it is to have your grandkids raised Catholic. But there’s something you should know about Ben.” She hesitated. “When I was 12, he tried to rape me. The time I had the black eye.”
The words foundered like a silent shipwreck between them.
Not missing a step, Mama said, “Even if that is true, it was a long time ago. It’s time to grow up out of girlish fantasies, Nina, and accept your responsibilities as a Lithuanian woman. A Catholic woman. Ben comes from the best family. None of this will matter when he is your husband. We have given you everything. You can at least do this for us.”
A whole-body queasiness came over Nina. Her legs felt untrustworthy. So that was it. I am doomed to marry a man I loathe to repay a debt to my parents.
“Hurry, Nina, we’ll be late for services.”
On Saturday, Ben showed up after breakfast. He was unusually cheerful.
“Get dressed, Nina. We’re going for a sail. I packed us a picnic lunch-some of my mother’s kibinai lamb pies. And a lovely Riesling.”
What Ben lacked in formal education, he made up for in seamanship. After sailing for two hours, Ben tied the boat up to a rickety dock on a scrubby island. With a blanket and cooler in hand, the two hiked the short distance to the beach.
“The kibinai are delicious. Your mother makes them better than mine.” Nina felt relaxed after the sail, the native foods she missed while at school, and the crisp white wine.
“Not as delicious as you, Nina. Nina?”
Ben looked uncomfortable. Shifty. Nina sat up from her reclined position to meet his eyes. Ben was on his knees. Then he was on one knee and a tiny box appeared from a pocket.
“Nina, I have loved you since we were children. I love you still. Would you be my wife?”
Everything came rushing back. The 12-year-old with her tightly closed lips and her crossed legs. The shame of hiding her blackened eye. Her mother’s words about duty and repayment. She thought about Matt and his rescue dog, who had rescued her. But her family would disown her if she said “no.” And Ben would probably leave her stranded on this island.
Biting her lip to suppress the quiver in her voice, Nina said, “Yes. Yes, Ben, I will marry you.”
Back at school, she received a text from Matt inviting her on a hike.
Nina smiled as she saw Matt and his hop-along pup approaching the trailhead, surprised at how happy she was to see them both.
The beginning of the trail was narrow and steep, so they climbed single file until they reached an overlook. They made small talk on the way up. At the top was an area of exposed rocks near a pool, a popular spot for picnicking.
“I got engaged, Matt. To Ben.” She waved her left hand in Matt’s direction.
“I see that. Congratulations. This is what you want?”
“It’s what is best.”
“When’s the big day?”
“April 15th. Next year.”
“A very special day,” said Matt. “The one-year anniversary of our first date.”
“Our first date? Oh, you mean the Gorge. It didn’t even occur to me.” Nina loved Matt’s calm manner and kindness. When she was with him, she felt happy and secure, a lightness she did not feel with Ben. She hated that Ben loved her.
Nina’s graduation was a family celebration. She was the first to graduate from college, let alone an Ivy. Ben came. Matt came. She saw him as she filed in. Then not again. He sent her a text congratulating her, asking if they could meet. She did not reply.
At last, the wedding week arrived. Nina’s mother was busy with seating arrangements, music arrangements, and flower arrangements. A bouquet of white gardenias arrived, lovely in its simplicity. Placing the vase beside last week’s faded blooms from Ben, Nina read the card:
These gardenias convey my vow,
I loved you from the first, more so now.
Don’t walk down the aisle into Ben’s arms,
He’s not the one to safekeep your charms.
Instead, meet me one year to the day
Where the Cascadilla beckoned, and I asked you to stay.
If you can’t find the heart to do this for me,
I’m resigned to marry the first woman I see.
Where the Cascadilla beckoned? The lowest point of my life.
The cathedral was aglow in candlelight with soft harp music filtering over the smartly attired guests.
On a lovely evening in mid-April, a woman stood looking out over Cascadilla Gorge, safely behind the 10-foot fence.
“Good evening. Do you need help?” Then Ranger’s unmistakable bark.