This story is by Bob Ranck and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“What do you want, and what are you willing to give up to get it?” my dad said. “Life is a buy and sell business.”
He went on, “The only magic in life is what you make for yourself. Still, things’ll get better by the year.”
He was right, things got better but not the way I expected. I got a new suit but my comfortable shoes wore out. I got a car, then somebody stole my bike. I made new friends but my dog died. Always give a little, take a little. I gave up a lot of familiar things but what I gained was usually strange and often uncomfortable.
Winter snows melted, spring flowers arrived, and so it went as I grew older and eventually enlisted in military service. I traded the insincerity and insecurity of drifting youth for belonging, growth and a wider world, though it was always unfamiliar and still frequently uncomfortable.
My world then became Texas. There, from spring through a long, hot summer, the winds came down from the hill country with a stale dryness in them that spoke of heat and loneliness stretching from the mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. My life was as arid and forlorn as the wind and, truthfully, I made no friends that year. It seemed that nobody knew that I existed and would not have cared even if they did. That’s why I spent most of my free time sheltered in the airbase library, reading – newspapers, novels, histories – anything!
The approaching fall became an extraordinary time for me and while I was unaware, life got better with the season as Dad promised a decade before. Summer’s stagnant, simmering torment yielded to a magical renewal. The winds of fall brought another hurricane that moved with a solemn and ponderous grace, in from the Atlantic and across the Gulf of Mexico. It covered Texas for many miles inland. In that humid stew, I found the air-conditioned library a refuge and my gateway to unsuspected enchantment.
The spell accelerated as the storm reached out to comfort the parched land with its moisture. Inside the library, I flung myself into reading an exciting new novel.
I hardly heard her gentle question, “How soon will you finish that?” Looking over my book, I noticed round glasses sheltering clear hazel eyes looking, not at me, but at the book’s cover as if hungry to devour my own private literary feast. Leaning over, hands on her knees, her face was at a level with mine.
“Oh? Soon enough, I guess. I read kinda fast.” I ventured a glance at the rest of this impertinence. Blondish-brown hair framed her face in a popular cut. I quickly brought my focus back to the book, not daring to stare. Attention from strangers was uncomfortable. Maybe if I ignored her she would go away.
“Be finished tomorrow?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Probably.” I was flustered. I never had to defend my reading before. I raised the book slightly and looked under to see penny loafers done in a brilliant, military spit-shine and a full skirt in current fashion.
“How far along are you?”
Glancing back, “Page thirty-one.”
She straightened and I noticed her narrow waist and simple white blouse. Not altogether unpleasant, I thought to myself.
“How about I just sit down here and read it with you?” She spun around and abruptly dropped beside me on the settee.
I turned to better see this impudence, thinking that her soft voice was gracious and her manner of speaking was so easy that I didn’t feel threatened. Secretly, I suppose, I was charmed by someone who could be not only so audacious but so intensely interested in the book which I held.
She had a pleasant face, not full-fleshed, just generally nice. Her forehead was hidden by long bangs and her nose was finely formed, though turned up slightly and a bit sideways. With a quick shimmy, she shifted her hip against mine and stuck her left hand under my right wrist, touching the book, “ Let’s go back a page so I can pick the story up.”
Astounded, I did just that.
“This author makes the first thirty pages pretty much the same with each book, so I won’t miss much. You like his work?”
“Well,” I ventured, “this is only his second book I’ve read. I guess it’s OK.”
“OK is all? Creator of worlds, inventor of faster-than-light drives, master of integalactic navies and singer of passionate songs? Just OK?”
“You like his books.” Flatly, stating a fact.
“No, more like love. You have to read his first series about this empire that goes . . .”
Interrupting, “Waitaminnit. I just got here. I read other stuff too.”
She sat up straight and stared full-face at me. “You DO?”
“Yeah!” I said firmly. “Heinlein, Asimov, Van Vought, Leiber, Popular Science, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
Unfazed, she leaned back against me, turning the page, “Well! Let’s read. The library closes at nine.”
We read, but we talked too, right up until they turned out the lights and turned us out into the night. I discovered her name was Judy and, like I did, she enlisted to escape a boring dead-end life at home – only hers would have been in rural Oregon, three thousand miles from mine.
We shared a lot of ourselves that evening, finding comfort and security in each others company. I offered to walk her to her barracks and she accepted without hesitation.
The approaching hurricane had sent ahead of its rain an immense swell of moisture that became thick fog as the evening cooled. We walked out into it and her glasses misted over. She simply removed and pocketed them, then slipped her hand into the crook of my left arm as if that were the most natural thing in the world. She leaned herself against my shoulder and we walked on together as though we had spent all of our lives this way. Her trusting manner left me astounded, gratified, and strangely proud.
In the dense fog, each streetlamp projected its own sphere of light and safety so we could see only the one we were under and the next one – no more. The fog muffled all the sounds around us so it became as though we were walking together from one golden bubble of enchantment into the next.
That magical evening united us as a pair. We spent that fall growing closer, sharing our deepest fears, our sweetest joys, and our books. Winter kept us close for warmth of soul and body. Spring enchanted the Texas landscape with wildflowers and our hearts with radiant new love blossoming to match.
On a glorious twilit evening on a hilltop far from the city, we danced shoeless in the dust, her arm over my shoulder as we swayed to the music from the radio in my old Pontiac. She sang along softly, “…and I was born . . . to be with you.” Looking up into my eyes, “It really does seem that way, doesn’t it?”
I leaned down and placed a lingering kiss on her forehead. “I can’t imagine it otherwise.”
“I’ve never felt so close, so right.”
“Me neither. Can this last forever?”
“If we make it, it will.”
“Would we live in Oregon,” I paused, “. . . or Pennsylvania?”
“Won’t matter. Just so I can see you and touch you and be with you, every day.”
Military orders supersede magic and love. Transfers have no mercy and we were suddenly separated by more than miles. The overwhelming impossibility of maintaining our love crushed us both, and what had once flourished became as fragile and faded as those Texas wildflowers when summer winds blast down the prairie. When fall arrived, it chilled the correspondence that remained and winter killed it off entirely.
The summer flowers here are fading now, six decades and two thousand miles removed from that enchanted fall. My memory remains bright and my regret deep because we did not find a way to keep our new-found love alive and constant. What I gave up was not what I thought I had bargained for, the understanding I gained was not what I wished.
The lost barefoot dance was eventually replaced by a sensibly-shod, tireless tread beside me, the foggy, mystic twilights became relentless, grim dawns, and the arm gone from the shoulder is finally supplanted by a fearless new hand-in-hand. Magic yields to devoted determination, passion to perseverance, and in the final buy-and-sell transaction I realize the woman who now occupies my entire life has her own invisible, self-made magic that enfolds me just as thoroughly.
Still, I remember fondly that sweet soul of so many falls ago and I pray that she too may have somehow negotiated a magic in her life in restitution for the one which we shared but lost.