Courtney E. Taylor: The Return

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The Return 

Courtney E. Taylor

She looked up into unmistakable green eyes.

It couldn’t possibly be him.

But it was.

“Hey, Liz.” His voice was as smooth as ever.

She opened and closed her mouth twice before finally releasing a pathetic, “Hey.”

He smiled. When she didn’t say more, he asked, “Is the soda fountain open?”

She couldn’t keep staring. “Sure. What can I get you?” She retreated behind the counter as he selected a stool and a beverage.

As soon as she served his drink, she fled to the kitchen. She hoped no one would notice the shift in her demeanor — she was high strung on the average day — but she could feel her heart racing and imagined everyone in the café could see it.

Four years had passed since this man had exited her life. She had anticipated their final farewell, yet she had grieved the culmination of their relationship for weeks. Eventually, she had come to terms with that broken piece of her heart, the part that would always be his. From time to time, it would pulse as a memory forced itself to the surface to remind her of the love she had felt for him. But she had truly believed she would never see him again in person.

Now he was sipping a soda just a few feet away.

She had to keep moving. Her small staff could handle this midafternoon crowd, but she couldn’t simply dash out the back door. She washed her hands, patted her cheeks with the damp paper towel, and grabbed a pitcher of iced tea to refill glasses and check on the customers.

She gave Chris a glance with a quick smile as she passed but kept her eyes to the floor as she moved across the room.

Three glasses and five nervous minutes of small talk later, she had to return to the counter. There was no way around it.

She finally faced Chris. “Can I get you anything else?” She probably only gave him a second to answer, but even that felt too long. “What are you doing here?”

His smile had faded, but that only increased his handsomeness. “Can we talk for a minute outside?”

She nodded. “Ok.” She paused to ensure that her staff would indeed be fine without her for a few minutes, then led the way through the front door.

Sunlight broke through the trees, creating a spotted pattern on the wooden porch. The air was unusually comfortable for that early in the year.

The hinges creaked as they lowered themselves onto the swing.

Seriousness filled Chris’ face. The intensity made her pulse quicken. She wanted to end the silence that had followed them outside, but words escaped her.

He stared at her for a long moment. Then he leaned forward with his elbows balanced against his knees, his eyes on his folded hands. “I’m getting married in three months.”

Good. He wasn’t there to woo her again. “Congratulations!” What else could she say?

He dipped his head in a nod. “We’ll buy a house, we’ll have children.” He paused. “But it should be you.”

She jerked her head in his direction.

He didn’t meet her gaze. “For days, weeks, you have filled my mind. Every time I close my eyes, there you are. When I kiss my fiancée, I think of you. Every waking moment, I crave you.”

She studied his profile. “Is this what cold feet look like?” She didn’t expect him to laugh. “I’m not sure what advice you want me to give you.”

“I’m not looking for advice. I just had to see you again.”

She knew better than to ask if his wife-to-be knew where he was. “Is she all the things you wanted, all the things I’m not?”

“She’s flawless. She fits every checkbox.” He closed his eyes. “I love her, but her perfection falls short. She’s not you.”

“What do you want me to say?” Liz whispered.

He turned his head to look at her without offering an answer.

“All those years, we had each other. But that’s so far behind us.”

“Fifteen years.” The swing rocked gently beneath them as he leaned back. “Fifteen years of weaving in and out of each other’s lives. I was certain that you were only part of my journey, not my future. I had to let go of you to pursue my dreams. Now I’ve achieved nearly all of those dreams. The only one left to fulfill is creating a family.” He paused, his eyes burning into hers. “I’ve finally realized that those times together created a chain binding me to you. You are wrapped around my every choice, my every move. I can cut you out of my life again and again, but you are locked in my heart. Nothing I can do will break that bond.”

She wanted to reach for his hand. She wanted to kiss him. Yet she held back. She couldn’t crumble.

“I love you. I’ve always loved you.”

Tears betrayed her. “You told me to move on. You said you released me.”

His shoulders sank slightly. “I know. I’m so sorry I hurt you. It seemed like the right decision back then. But now…”

“Now doesn’t matter. You’re committed to someone else. Remember? You wouldn’t say it, but it was written all over your face. I’m not the girl for you.”

He opened his hands with defeat. “I was wrong. You are undoubtedly the woman for me, and we still have a chance to make it work.”

She stared at him blankly. This suggestion was ludicrous. Was he serious? Could she even consider it? What would she have to sacrifice to accept his offer? Would they finally have the life together that had always seemed just out of reach?

The waitress stuck her head out the front door. “That guy from the Southern Supplies finally called back. I know you didn’t want to miss him.”

That interruption pulled Liz back to reality. By sunset, he could easily cut her out of his memory again, but she would still have bills to pay and a business to run.

Her eyes darted from Chris to the waitress to her hands and back again. “I have to go.”

He stood when she did, but she didn’t have the nerve to stand eye to eye with him. She stepped toward the door, frantically trying to pull together a respectable farewell. “I’m sorry. Congratulations again. I hope everything goes well.”

She felt her throat closing as she crossed the threshold. That was not how she’d wanted him to remember her, sounding like a Hallmark card, but she couldn’t run back outside for another try. She couldn’t face him again.

She picked up the phone and greeted her vendor with all the enthusiasm she could muster. She leaned her forehead against the heel of her hand, her eyes closed, her mind only half processing the information coming through the wire.

She was afraid to look out of the window. She knew he’d be gone. That was his MO. But she couldn’t believe he’d been there in the first place.

Still, her insides sank when she ended the call and had to face the dining room and the empty porch beyond it. She stared, trying to wrap her mind around the reality that he had come calling again, professing his undying love for her.

The waitress paused with a tray of dirty dishes balanced on the edge of the counter. “Here, that guy left this for you.”

Liz turned the business card over in her hands. It was nothing special, not even instructions to call him scribbled on the back. Yet it held the weight of a diamond ring, waiting for her to say yes or no.

The closed sign clanked against the front door as she pulled it shut behind her. She dropped onto the swing and pushed her feet against the deck to set it in motion.

Her mind was spinning in a million directions. The dry goods order was going to come a day late. She needed to visit the grocer to restock the garnishes. She owed her friend Megan a return call. The front door needed a new coat of paint. A few branches of greenery were encroaching onto the porch.

The tears caught her completely by surprise.

I love you. I’ve always loved you.

The very words that could have changed her life, offered an eternity too late.

Why had he resurfaced after all this time, and what was she supposed to do about it?

Megan showed up four days later as Liz was locking the cash register for the night. “Wine, please!” Megan knew that the café didn’t have a liquor license, but Liz always had a personal bottle stashed away for nights like these. They grabbed the wine and headed for the porch.

Megan settled on the swing with her glass. “So what happened while I was gone?”

Liz closed her sweater against the cool evening air and let the swing move back and forth a few times before answering. “I’ll give you one guess who showed up last week.”

Megan gaped at her. “Did you immediately tell him to go to hell?”

Liz’s eyes shifted to the ground.

“You listened to him??”

“I couldn’t actually slam the door in his face! I hadn’t heard from him in four years. Four years. But here he was, telling me that he still loves me.”

“What an asshole!”

Liz wouldn’t argue with that. “It’s a fairytale and nightmare combined. The love of my life came crawling back — on the eve of his wedding.”

As she attempted to recount the full conversation, she could feel herself getting worked up again. The emotions were as real as they had been when Chris had sat next to her in this same spot. “What did he expect me to say? ‘Sure, let me leave everything I’ve worked so hard to build behind to satisfy your desire?’”

“How did you leave things?” Megan asked.

Liz swirled the wine in her glass and watched it with contemplation. “We were interrupted. It was for the best. I don’t know how I would have escaped otherwise.”

“And you haven’t heard from him since?”

She shook her head again. “Not a word. And I have no right to feel anything about that. On one hand, vanishing like this is normal for him, the one thing I couldn’t let go of the last time we got together. On the other, good riddance. Hearing from him again would only make the situation worse.”

Megan looked at Liz skeptically. “But deep down?”

Liz sighed. “Deep down, I want to know everything about how his life has turned out. We were never just friends, but I wish we were now.”

Megan laughed. “You couldn’t be further from it. Evidently, you have become both the love of his life and the other woman.”

“Hey!” Liz smacked her friend’s arm with the back of her hand. “I’m not the other woman. I didn’t do anything.”

“Not a single melt-your-knees kiss?”

Liz shook her head. “Not even a handshake or hug hello.”

“Wow.”

They fell into companionable silence for a while, watching cars pass on the street and listening to birds settling down for the night.

“Is he still as hot as he was back then?”

Blood raced through Liz’s veins at the recollection. “Every bit.”

“Damn.”

They lingered on the porch until well after midnight. At last, they ran out of wine.

Megan stretched as she stood up. “I hope I’m here if he shows up again.”

Liz grinned. “You picked one hell of a week to leave town.” She gave her friend a big hug. “Thank you for letting me process all of this with you. Now I can shove it into the box of memories, out of mind at last.”

Megan stopped Liz at arm’s length and held her eyes for a moment. “I’m proud of you for saying that, but… You can still change your destiny. I’ll give him grief ’til my dying day because of the heartache he’s caused you, but I know you cling to those intermittent memories. He has given you countless moments so perfect they might’ve been stolen from Hollywood. But whatever happens next, it’s up to you. If you want that future, go after it. If you don’t want it, you’ll be fine that way too. I’ll stand with you either way.”

Liz rocked slowly as the warm evening air wrapped around her like a hug. The sun was down, but the neighborhood wouldn’t fall silent for a few more hours.

Her heart stopped as the murmurs of an old song vibrated down the road. He’s getting married.

Those words shouldn’t have had any effect on her. She had long since let go and moved on. Yet he had returned, his presence reverberating in her soul. Three months had passed; in one week, he would be promising his life to someone else.

She groaned. How was she going to make it through the week without imagining each step of his celebration? She desperately needed to shake him from her mind.

Instead, she tumbled down a trail of memories.

At last, her thoughts drifted to the business card stowed in her desk drawer. Would he answer if she called, or had he once again blocked her number — blocked her existence — from his life?

She stared into the night, knowing there was only one thing left to do.

~~~

He hurried past the receptionist, his hellos automatic and mindless. He barely glanced at the figure who rose from the loveseat nearest his office door.

He nearly tripped when his subconscious caught up with him.

He swiveled to face her with shock.

Her exquisite blue eyes returned his gaze. “Hey, Chris.”

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