This story is by Tyler C. Dollberg and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Leaves of gold, red, brown and black blew in a turbulent eddy across the lawn. The cool chill of a midwestern morning hung on the air along side the last call of a nighttime owl. Rays of light began to turn the inky sky, while stars faded into to the grey horizon. The Halloween decorations in the front yard whistled in the wind, which played a symphony with the barren branches of the trees.
The white doors on the front of the house silently drifted open across the wood planking. A grey haired woman wrapped in a blanket came through the threshold and onto the porch. Her slippers scrapped along the wood and the steam from her mug fogged her glasses in the cool air. She sat in the dark whicker chair that looked over the west lawn, a book tucked in her hand. She set her mug on the side table and wrapped her blanket tighter as gusts of breeze blew across the porch. The pages crinkled and bits of the spine fell from the back as she turned the cover. This book had sat forgotten on Madeline’s shelves for years and hadn’t been opened in about as long. The pages smelled earthy and rich with the old book smell you normally only find in the deepest corners of a bookstore.
She turned the brittle paper pages to where the bold title read “Chapter One”. She smiled at the familiar words that began the story and nestled further in to her chair. She had read past the first few pages when a cool gust blew the blanket from her feet, which immediately began to feel the sting of the cold. She quickly dropped the book to her lap and covered her feet again. When she picked the book up again Madeline noticed a few pages hanging from the bottom. She flipped to the damaged pages and stopped, her gaze frozen in the book. Madeline pulled from the pages a handful of notes she had written as a young girl. At the bottom of the stack she found a set of photographs of the young woman she used to be. She was in line at an amusement park, holding hands with a young boy.
Though decades had passed and the photos had faded, the memory was still crisp in her mind. The sun was shinning and the weather was warm. She was a quiet sixteen year old who had a crush on Thomas, a boy in one of her classes. Madeline smiled as she looked at the photo of the two of them. She had a crush on him for months and against all odds he seemed to feel the same about her. They had spent time together in and out of class for most of that year. It was truly a dream come true when he asked her to go with him and his friends to the amusement park that day. She was always afraid of roller coasters and heights but she went anyway.
When they first arrived they ran to the biggest ride in the park and wasted no time getting in line. That’s when the photo was taken. Madeline remembered being terrified as the ride attendant locked the restraints around her in the ride car. She remembered gripping the handles with all her might until the color faded from her fingers. She remembered his calm voice and his smile as he took her hand in his and asked her to trust him; he promised her that she would be fine.
Madeline pushed the photo away and attempted to hide her tears, which made her feel silly since no one was there to see them. Underneath that photo she found a few more heartfelt notes and then a photo of her wearing a white and black gown and Thomas dressed in a black tuxedo and a white tie. She remembered him putting on her corsage and opening doors for her. She felt truly beautiful. She remembered how he swung her around as they awkwardly danced full of smiles as they laughed the night away. She remembered him walking her back to her door and how he looked into her eyes.
Half a world and a lifetime away, bright hot flames burned down to low dull amber coals in the early morning. The sun had not yet shown its face yet and the cold began to creep its way into the cabin through any possible entrance. An older man whose bright hair had dimmed and his beard now dark with streaks of grey laced up his boots and buttoned on his jacket. He stepped out onto the porch and looked over the vast mountains that consumed the horizon. He pulled on his cap and gloves and stepped down off the porch. The fresh fall frost that painted the ground crunched under each step of his boot. His breath still tasted of the dark morning coffee and clouded in front of his face. He walked over to the stack of wood that dominated the side of his workshop and picked up the axe that sat next to it. The smell of the fresh wood and sap hung on the air.
Thomas set a slab of wood on the chopping block reared back and with explosive force brought the axe down hard splitting the slab down the center. He stood one of the halves back up and realigned it. With another thunderous blow Thomas sent chips of wood into the air as he turned the block into more manageable pieces.
As Thomas continued splitting the sun began to rise over his back. He soon set his axe aside and collected his split pile. Thomas made his way back across the frost-covered field and into the cabin. He threw two logs on the low amber coals that flickered in the fireplace and set the rest on a rack on the hearth. He hung up his dusty jacket and cap and labored into his chair as the fire began to roar pushing out the cold autumn mountain air. Thomas looked out the window as the sun rose above the immense peaks. The light shone through the window and lit up the room and illuminated the picture frame that sat aside his chair. It was of a much younger man and a brown haired girl holding hands at an amusement park.
Thomas remembered everything about that year; it was best of his life. At the amusement park, she was strapped into the seat next to him and could see the terror in her eyes. She hated heights but she was willing to go with him anyway. Then when he took her hand, he could see the fear in her eyes was replaced with trust in him.
Even now he thought about Madeline all the time. He remembered all the late night movies. He remembered every detail of her smile as they danced to the cliché song that’s played at every prom and how they looked like fools trying to slow dance. He didn’t care; he could only focus on her. He remembered walking her to her door and how she looked into his eyes kissed her hand and pressed it to his lips. He dreaded he hadn’t grabbed her by the arm, kissed her and never let go.
Thomas thought about sitting on her porch the night before he went off to college. He thought about what they talked about and how he got up and walked away alone, misguidedly optimistic about the future. He thought of the people he met since, how none of them filled the gap and how that optimism faded to regret.
Madeline sat on her porch as she stared at the photos. She remembered the night before her family moved across the country. She wanted to kiss him as they talked. She remembered watching him leave and the broken pain that followed.
His heart ached more as the years past and the pain never subsided. A piece was missing and nothing seemed to fit in its place. She tried to move on but her love never quite found the heart where it fit, and the tethers he left on her heart remained.
They sat alone as the sun rose on a beautiful autumn day stuck in the past with dreams of what if and what might have been, wishing they could some how turn back the clock.