This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I just love the fall.” Helen whirled around, arms reaching for the brilliant blue sky. Her cheeks were flushed and her purple scarf fluttered in the breeze. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Wendell smiled and hummed an ambiguous “Mmmm,” hoping that would suffice for a “yes.” He didn’t want to be disagreeable; neither did he intend to lie. To him, the chill in the air was an ominous harbinger of winter. He pulled her close for a kiss that was magical and intoxicating, like falling through a wormhole into a warm spring day, with green leaves rustling in a gentle breeze.
He wanted to hold her like this forever, wished with all his being that time would stop.
And it did. For an infinite instant, they were suspended in space, the only two people in the universe.
Then she pulled away and the wind blew cold. “Come on, the ducks are hungry.”
He followed as she scampered down the hill, this girl who had just flipped a switch in his soul.
The pond was a mirror, reflecting the red and gold and orange trees. The water was smooth as glass, until they tossed in chunks of stale bread, and ducks swarmed in for the feast.
Helen chattered on about Guatemala, where she had spent the summer teaching in a village on a volcano.
“The children loved the chocolate. But I shouldn’t have brought it.”
“Because, now they know what they’re missing?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “That’s not the point at all.”
Wendell sighed, too. He wanted to say the right thing.
“Candy is bad for them” she said. “When the dentist came, he had to pull so many teeth.” She put her hands over her ears. “I can still hear them screaming.”
A gust of wind rippled the pond and she shivered. He wrapped his arms around her, “I’ll keep you warm.“ She had told him he had a nice voice, so he sang, softly, “I’ve seen how you sparkle, when fall nips the air…”
“That’s from Camelot, right?”
“I love that song.”
He slipped a hand under her sweater, wishing that the layers of winter clothing between them would melt away.
“Eeew! Not here!” She pushed him away, giggling.
As they climbed back up the hill, he sprinkled bread behind them, and ducks poured out of the pond to follow the trail of crumbs.
She laughed. “You’re like the Pied Piper.”
He pretended to play an imaginary flute, then took a bow.
For a moment, they stood hand in hand, watching the hoard of brown and green heads foraging among the faded blades of grass.
Then he waved his arms, yelling, “Booga, booga!” The ducks exploded into a cacophony of quacks, scattering like a blizzard in reverse.
“Look what you’ve done!”
“Sorry. I was trying to be funny. We can come back tomorrow and feed them again.”
They walked back to her dormitory and he asked, “Want to go for dinner? I know a nice Italian place.”
“Sorry, I need to study. Big Philosophy exam tomorrow.”
“I really want to see you again.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m totally in love. I’ve never felt this way before.”
Her lips twisted. Then she smiled. “It was fun today.”
The next day sent her a text, “How did the exam go?”
She replied with a little picture of a hand with a thumb up sign.
“Shall we go feed the ducks?”
She didn’t respond.
Days passed. She didn’t answer her phone. Wendell was in agony. She was in his thoughts, every waking and dreaming moment.
He worried. She could be sick, maybe even in the hospital.
Then one day, he heard her laughter. He was in Starbucks, standing at the counter. At first, he thought he had imagined it. But there she was, sitting across the table from a bear of a man, who was staring at her, rapt and adoring. The bear-man touched her cheek with a massive paw that was far too big and clumsy to touch someone like her.
It was too much for Wendell to endure. He should be the one sitting at that table.
The girl behind the counter asked Wendell, “Can I help you?” Her face was blurry through his tears and so were the words in the menu posted on the wall. He walked out, through the softly falling snow, all the way to the park where he thought he had found the love of his life. The ducks were all gone, and the bare branches of the trees looked like the twisted arms of black skeletons reaching for the sky. He thought he smelled smoke from burning leaves, but there was no fire in sight.
He walked to Helen’s dorm and waited by the door, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Long after dark, she finally appeared, hand in hand with the bear-man.
She scowled. “What are you doing here?”
Wendell was caught off guard. He had planned to speak first, saying something like, “I was just passing by,” or perhaps “How wonderful to run into you.” He stammered, “You…you never answer your phone.”
“Because she doesn’t want to see you, dimwad,” said the bear-man. He grabbed Helen’s arm roughly. “Come on.”
Wendell pleaded. “I just want to talk to you for a minute.” That was a lie. He wanted to kiss her, hold her in his arms, make her promise to never leave him again. He didn’t see the round-house punch from the huge paw—just felt a searing pain, saw stars, and found himself lying on the icy sidewalk.
Helen screamed at the bear-man. “See what you’ve done!” Then she summoned an Uber and took Wendel to the hospital.
Wendel was happy. The bear-man had shown himself for the monster that he really was. It was worth being assaulted, just to have Helen hold his hand as the doctor scrunched and molded his nose into some semblance of its former shape. On the return trip, Helen held an ice bag against his face and kept cooing, “Poor dear,” over and over.
But when they reached her dorm, she told him that he couldn’t come in, that she had to study.
“Not even…just for a little while?”
She pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed at a rivulet of blood dripping onto his lip. “You’re a nice guy. It’s not that I don’t like you. It’s just—”
“But…I love you.”
He reached for her, but she recoiled, clutching the bloody tissue, her lips trembling. Her eyes brimmed with tears, but not much else– not even pity. “I like you, but not like that.”
Helen climbed up a couple of steps and then paused. Wendell’s heart raced. For a moment, he thought, maybe she would come back to him.
Instead, she whirled around, clench-fisted. “We just met. You don’t even know me.”
She disappeared beyond a thick curtain of snow.
His nose throbbed, his chest ached, and his brain burned with consternation. What had he done that was so terrible? He just loved her. That was all. He couldn’t stand the thought of life without her. He wished the world would just stop turning, wished it with all his might.
The earth didn’t actually stop spinning. It just seemed that way, because time stopped again. There was no sound. Snow flurries paused. People on the sidewalk froze in mid-step. It was Wendell’s secret gift, something he liked to do when he wanted to prolong a pleasant moment. But this moment was intolerable. With a massive groan, things started moving again, but in reverse. Helen reappeared from the snow curtain, slowly walking backwards down the steps. The snow began to fall upwards. Then everything unhappened at lightning speed. He flew backwards, through the hospital, past Starbucks, and back to the park, with autumn leaves floating up to the trees. Helen was in his arms again and he was spellbound by the magical kiss. When she stepped away,the wind blew cold again.
“Come on, the ducks are hungry.”
It was a do-over. Another chance to get it right. He sang loudly, “I’ve seen how you sparkle, when fall nips the air. I know you in autumn. And I must be there.”
He told her not to feel badly about the Guatemalan children and the candy. “One candy bar doesn’t cause cavities.” When she shivered, he took off his jacket and wrapped it around her. He didn’t scare the ducks away.
They held hands walking back to her dorm.
“Wanna go for Italian food?”
She shook her head. “Gotta study.”
“I really…like you,” he said, cautiously.
“I had fun today.”
Wendell’s heart sank. Nothing had changed. He had fallen in love by himself.
Then she smiled, “How about dinner on Friday night?”
“Sure, great!” He grinned from ear to ear. She wanted to see him again. He could see a nice spring day in their future. She would love him by then. Time was on his side.