He had no idea what to do but pick up rocks. John picked up a handful of gravel from the side of the road with his free hand. He had a bouquet of dark blue and orange flowers in the other. He was surprised at how hard it was to climb the oversized stones up to the bridge that crossed the creek. They’d been hammered from bigger rocks eons ago, sunk, and settled. A goat would dance right over them, not a distinguished gentleman of a certain age with his hands full. If he hadn’t been in decent shape, he’d have fallen, maintaining his balance in the dark on uneven rocks was no mean feat.
They had agreed to meet at midnight when moonlight framed the dusty wooden bridge through the forest canopy like a spotlight on a stage. The creek pooled patiently below, waiting for ripples. He’d seen pictures of this place in daylight. It was green with deep shadows, lacy footed ferns lined the bank while water shimmered from sunlight not darkness like tonight. He was supposed to meet her here.
He’d saved every picture she’d ever sent of the swinging footbridge. He hadn’t thought much about it when he kept the pictures of the bridge, maybe he thought her eye for color, light, and subject was just good, maybe he just liked the look of the place. He must, he framed a picture of it she sent fifteen years ago. He imagined it looked just like where he stood now. The place did exist. The moon speckled light through the canopy that covered him on the bridge over the creek where his heart was racing. Another picture, from ten years ago, waved across his mind. Cynthia’s two boys grinned from its middle in a bright orange fall waving fishing poles.
The bridge really did have rope railings. He laughed that no one punched a ticket or gave him a wristband to climb onto it. The thing just was. A wood swinging bridge with rope handles knotted to hold when you crossed it, maintained for a hundred years by the folks around here. He surprised himself and jumped like a boy, higher than he thought he should, but laughed at how much bounce there was in the bridge. He had to bend his knees on the recoil, twice.
“People could be murdered here,” his city voice told him. Surrounded by singing frogs and the wind in the weeds, the water sounded soft as it ran over the rocks, a private concert. He startled at the muted splash of an animal sliding into water. The bridge quivered beneath him; he danced a cha cha cha to coax the bridge to life beneath him again. One dog barked and sparked a chain of hounds howling up and down the holler. He listened until the last dog had its say. What would he say to her when he saw her face? She’d been the entertaining one in the emails, he’d been supportive and honest over the years. Consistent, never wavering in his principles, plans, or details until six weeks ago.
John told her he ran The Big Apple, Wall Street. He wrestled metaphoric bulls and bears for a living. He’d never had dusty gravel in his hands before; it scuffed his manicure. He was a philanthropist who managed hedge funds, gave money and made money. Born and bred in Manhattan, the elite, he liked elegance in things and women, he was one of the beautiful people. He’d lost track of the Kennedy Center Galas he had under his belt, and he had just retired to Singapore where more beautiful people played. Now, after twenty years of email, he asked to meet her, a nurse, common, ordinary, inelegant, even though he said and thought he never would.
From where he stood, if he listened carefully, he thought he might hear bears and bulls moving in the night, real ones. He didn’t recognize the kind of adrenaline that rushed through him. Wolves on Wall Street smelled different blood and fear than the wolves that roamed this road, if that’s what he heard. All feral creatures knew the stench of fear.
He lobbed a rock that wasn’t small or smooth enough to be a pebble, it was a rock, jagged and rough, into the creek to watch the ripples fan out under the moonlight. Each round ripple a silver wave of hello or goodbye. Was she coming? It wasn’t quite midnight. Did it matter if she made it at midnight? Would he give her some leeway? How much? He would give her till daylight, at least.
He tossed another rock, more ripples, more crickets. He started to pace the bridge planks. He’d had no trouble finding it. She’d written about it several times over the years, usually in the fall, maybe in the summer. She’d said the leaves were spectacular around the creek and that it was the world’s greatest water hole. She’d sent the coordinates on a jaunt she’d taken her boys to catch crawdads, “In case you ever want to find it,” she wrote to him long ago. He’d saved the numbers.
He was supposed to meet her here.
“Let’s meet on the swinging bridge,” he said in his last email. “These are the coordinates, right?” Cynthia didn’t answer for three weeks. She eventually wrote back. She wrote about her kids, the dog, and finally the cat that drove her nuts.
“I’ll see you there at midnight under the next full moon, I look better in moonlight,” was the last line to a lengthy response. John couldn’t help but wonder what the real reaction to his suggestion was. John could tell when he got closer to the bone than Cynthia was prepared to talk about in email. She would begin to answer his questions but transition to another topic, usually her kids or her house. “What if she freaked?” he thought again.
He felt the bridge move beneath him in the moonlight while he waited.
It was midnight.
He heard gravel against gravel and a car door close. He couldn’t breathe. Damn, he should have brought chocolate. Twenty years of email was a lot to live up to. He wanted to make a good impression on his best friend. He picked at the bouquet he’d brought, the brilliant orange and blue damped by the moon. Superfluous.
John grinned at his first sight of her. Cynthia stopped in the middle of the road to look back toward her car, like she might change her mind. Cynthia told him she was short, that she could never pull off elegance and meant it. He had a picture of her from twenty years ago that showed a kind heart and beautiful eyes. She shook her hands through her short white hair and puffed out a breath. The formidable woman from the thousands of emails over twenty years was before him, vulnerable. He wondered if she had the same churning in her stomach.
“This place is better than its pictures. I can’t get over this bridge,” he called out to her before she saw him.
“I didn’t figure it was ‘drop everything and fly a jet from Singapore’ cool.” said Cynthia. She made it to the bridge and started the climb up its stone steps. Her foot snagged on the first one, she tripped and banged her shin on the second. The flowers he carried for her fell into the water when he reached out to break her fall, but didn’t. John watched blood stain her white linen pants below the knee where they ripped on the step. The flowers snagged on the creek bed a few feet away, turned and bobbed.
“It fucking figures,” she said. “Shit.” Blood spread on the leg of her pants.
“Hi Cynthia,” he laughed. She laughed too. Nervous laughter…“You’ve already lived up to your claim of dignity and grace. I thought you’d be taller,” he teased her when he pulled her up onto the bridge deck.
“Shut up,” she laughed when he hugged her. “Why did you cut your hair? You really are as tall as you said you were.” John saw tears pooling in her eyes behind her glasses, heard her clear her throat and sniff, and knew she’d be embarrassed if he acknowledged it. So he did.
“I know. This is intense. Twenty years and I never thought… and now…well, and here we are.” he said. Get it over with.
A sob escaped from Cynthia before she could push her glasses up to hide it. He expected her to be emotional; he gave her a minute.
“Here,” he put a rock in her hand and led her toward the heart of the bridge. What if she threw it at him? He laughed. “I bet you throw like a girl.”
He could feel her walking behind him, her energy added another wave of vibration on the boards under their feet. He flipped one of his rocks into the water as soon as they stopped. He felt stronger in the middle of the bridge, and ran his dusty hand through his hair. Cynthia dropped her stone and watched its circles swell until their arcs crossed his.
“Your hands are shaking,” he said, and he held them and traced the veins on the back of her hands with his thumbs. He needed to touch her.
“I have to tell you, John, this is a top ten life moment for me. After you go back to your world, I’ll tell you all about it in an email, but I’m a bit wigged out right now.”
“What are the other nine moments?” Without thinking, he pulled her close and kissed her. He should have known better, he knew she’d read so much and so little into everything he’d ever written to her over the years.
Cynthia laughed, bowed her head, touched her lips, then looked up at him. She sat down and dangled her legs over the edge, and motioned for him to sit beside her. He tapped the water with his Italian leather-toed shoes. He had told the truth when he said he was six foot four, he’d told the truth about everything. John smiled when she leaned against him, comfortable, they were comfortable. He put his arm around her. He breathed. They sat like teenagers with the world in front of them, not like two old people with life behind them. The moon passed behind a cloud.
“How deep is the water?” he asked.
“About waist deep on you at the deepest part, right below your big toes. Don’t dive,” said Cynthia.
“Not safe for little people like you?” John teased.
“I’m glad you didn’t say old. You might have hurt my feelings, not that you ever would,” Cynthia answered. Something in her tone shifted. John raised an eyebrow and felt a prickle in his confidence.
“Why now?” Cynthia asked him.
“If not now, when? And why not?” he answered.
“Is this a bucket list visit? O Lord, you’re sick.”
“I just saw my physician, I’m good for another million miles around the sun,” said John.
“Why did you want to meet now, after all these years?”
“When would we have met? Between track or tax seasons?” John said.
“You’re right. I had no time and neither did you. I was as focused as you were. I wouldn’t have welcomed you, not really. I wouldn’t have let you near my kids, Overprotective Mama Bear syndrome, not pretty. Forget elegant. You would have been out of my life and who would I have told all that stuff to? You didn’t say anything half the time. Meeting you would have been a good way to end a good friendship,” said Cynthia.
“What about now?” asked John.
“You could have picked a fight with me in an email,” said Cynthia.
“I’m not picking a fight. I’m not ending a friendship either,” said John.
“No?” she asked?
“It’s almost daylight. Come to the house for breakfast?” she asked, without much hope.
John hesitated. “Are you in love with me, Cynthia?”
“I love you with all my heart, and have for a long, long time, John. You know that.” she answered.
“I know. I want to hear it before I go.”
Devonne Brown is a West Virginia author and mother of twin boys. She has taught English from Shakespeare to basic Reading in a career that spans closer to a half than a quarter of a century. A scary “Warhorse English Teacher,” she has divided her professional time between alternative and traditional schools in West Virginia, North Carolina, and in the UK. Kids are the same everywhere. Her first book, Norris Tales, the Adventures of an Awful Housecat, an anthology of anecdotes and short stories revolving around family tyrant Norris, a cat of unusual presence and demeanor. No one needs a cat like Norris, but thankfully, a shelter picked him off of the streets to save other unsuspecting citizens from his unbridled condescension. He knocks stuff off of tables too, valuable stuff, full stuff. He doesn’t care whose stuff. Her son chose him out of a line up of decent cats. Norris shares a special bond with rowdy teenage boys. Her upcoming historical fiction women’s literature, In the Time of the Sonnets: 127 -154, explores the tale of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, and is on track for publication in February 2023.