This story is by Ingrine Lyle and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Eddie’s ringtone went silent, and his focus returned to Cascades Park. He had reached the fountain where the rules said to toss in his token. Still undecided about how to use it, he sat on the concrete rim to think. Droplets of water splashed on the back of his polo and the seat of his khakis. He ignored it and frowned at his surroundings. The scenery contrasted with his mood. Ringed by tranquil sabal palms and cheery snapdragons, the fountain had several statues of children at play. Eddie did not feel cheery, nor tranquil, nor playful. Pulling out the token, a brass circle the size of a quarter, he began to study it when a panhandler approached.
Eddie turned towards the fountain, feigning interest in the sculptures, and closed the arcade-like coin in his fist. Empty pockets lined his pants. His savings had funded this opportunity to change one significant regret; to exchange the benefits of his life with the burdens of someone he had wronged. The decision of who to spend it on plagued him.
He stole a glance at the encroacher. With her brittle hair and worn clothes, she looked like she could make good use of a chance token. He averted his eyes again, exclaiming an emphatic “Ahh,” at the dim lights on the fountain floor.
“Excuse me, sir?” she said.
The familiarity of her voice made Eddie stiffen. It brought back a time in his youth filled with chilled champagne, nights by the fire pit, and days spent cuddled up on his love seat. He turned to face the woman whose voice sounded the same as his first love’s.
He took her in. Her style was clearly different from Linda’s. This woman could not afford, by necessity nor wealth, the Boho-style Linda had preferred. Her physique was less toned, her skin weather-weary instead of smooth and even. Yet, her soft brown eyes held that gaze unique to Linda. One of vigor and intelligence, though they no longer smiled.
Recognition loomed in her widened eyes before she turned to hustle away.
Her gait confirmed it. “Wait! Please? It’s me, Eddie.”
Haste caused her to trip on a stone. Her backpack tumbled, spilling its contents. Eddie hurried to pick up her brush and a tube of toothpaste. She turned her face away from him and crammed each item back inside, selecting carefully, as if each fit in a specific order. She spoke in a subdued voice. “You probably can’t imagine it, but no one calls me Pretty Linda anymore.”
He handed her the few items he held. Perhaps, Eddie thought. There were still traces of fading beauty. But he couldn’t say that. “That’s how long it’s been. I don’t even know what name you go by. Sit with me. Let’s catch up.”
After repacking, Linda took a seat on the edge of the fountain next to Eddie. She placed her pack between them and looked away, her arms crossed over her chest as if guarding herself against him.
Now that she had joined him, Eddie wondered where to start the conversation. Clearly, a lot had happened since they parted ways. He dipped his fingers into the water and watched the droplets fall. The first few questions that came to mind were all duds; What have you been up to? How’s business going? Got any kids?
After a minute of silence, she started to rise. “Great catching up!”
In a plea, Eddie held up a hand. “Wait.” He needed a topic that might spark conversation. “I saw the Chattahoochee Wind Ensemble perform at Florida State about a month ago. It reminded me of you. Do you still play the flute?”
To his surprise, she smiled shyly and patted her pack. “I do. I mean, not in a park like this. But when I’m at my place, on a rainy day or before I go to bed. You know? It’s the one thing that makes me feel like me.”
And her smile, ever so slight, made her look like the Linda he remembered.
“You always loved music,” he said. “I remember you went through that dance phase. We went to every night club that had dance lessons. Latin. Country line dance. Clogging. Who knew there was a market for late night clogging?”
His heart skipped a beat. Bright and airy, that gust of sound could sweep away worries. In the past, it rejuvenated him during many hardships.
She covered her smile as if collecting herself. “You would have made a fine clogger.”
“Right. I’m pretty sure I ended up stomping to the beat.”
Linda laughed again, and then settled into silence. She started to speak, hesitated, then spoke again. “Do you remember my chocolate cake phase?”
“Mmm. I wish I could still eat cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Snack, too.”
“I baked at least a cake a day and never perfected my recipe.”
“They were all perfect. Death-by-chocolate, dark chocolate. Irresistible. Chocolate.”
Linda visibly relaxed, knees shifting toward Eddie. She brought up another memory and the two talked of old times until the blue sky faded into deep oranges and purples. Eddie wondered what might have become of them if they hadn’t parted ways.
A cool wind blew. Linda rubbed her arms through the layers of fabric. “You know, it’s good we met like this. I’ve wanted to tell you what happened back then. I rehearsed it countless times. I–” Her last two sentences came out rushed. “I didn’t cheat on you. I didn’t have a fling with our boss.”
Eddie remembered then. Linda had been up for a promotion, but at the last minute, they had offered it to him. She had threatened to file for sexual harassment against their boss, Marvin. Marvin claimed she was lying because he had refused her the new position. Eddie knew the truth. He had planned to stand witness for her–until his brother got arrested for assault. He needed the raise to afford bail, the connections from the advancement to retain a good lawyer. He took the promotion and left Linda to defend herself.
Her tone turned angry. “Marvin wanted me to date him to get the promotion I earned.”
“But you filed sexual harassment?”
A magnolia leaf from a nearby tree landed on her pack. Shoulders slumped, she sighed and stroked it. “My case went to court, but his lawyers decimated me. At first I fought it, but then I gave up and decided to move on. Marvin wouldn’t let it be. He stalked me. Put word out in the industry not to hire me. Everything I did, he shot down. I got a job at a gas station; he sent complaints to my employer. And–” She sighed again and paused. “Maybe I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. There had to be a better way, but we can’t turn back the clock.”
Maybe she couldn’t, but he could. “I’m sorry about what happened to you. That I didn’t support you.”
“Don’t do that. I’m not fishing for apologies. I’ve yapped for too long. I wanted you to know I didn’t cheat on you. That’s all.” She looked around her, and then back at Eddie. “I should go.”
“Sure,” Eddie said. The sweet tang of smoked chicken from the parkside restaurant floated on the breeze. Whether the scent had stoked her need to find dinner or whether he had said something wrong, Eddie didn’t know. He stood. “It was great talking to you.”
“Yeah.” She ran her fingers through her hair and fiddled with the pack straps like she had more to say. After a few seconds, she spoke. “You know, I hate to ask this, but do you think you can spare a few bucks?”
“Actually, I didn’t bring any money with me today.” Eddie patted his pockets as if it proved his honesty. “My bank account is cleared, too.”
Linda snorted. Her tone changed from mildly happy to cynical. “Sure. Well, you take care.”
As the fountain lights grew brighter and the darkness muted the colorful blossoms, Eddie’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He watched Linda leave with a clarity and a certainty he had never felt before. She was the right one to spend it on, though she’d never know how much he was willing to give. He pulled out his chance token, smiled, and flipped it into the fountain.