I wrote this for Rachel‘s September Chatterbox challenge. On the topic of pears. I might have cheated a teensy whip, but I worked it in. With summer drawing to a close, this came about from a bucketful of themes swirling in my mind – autumn, nostalgia, the idea of home, standing on the brink of something…
Something From Home
The skies deepened into a marble maroon shade as dying specks of sunlight glinted off the fences. Summer was fast vanishing, swallowed up in the reddish-brown haze of autumn. Annie skated lightly along the damp grass, pulling her light windbreaker tight around her petite frame. The mild but sweet smell of peaches rode the tailwinds of the evening breeze and she sucked in a lungful of cool air.
A quiet shriek reached her ears as a small boy scampered by, almost bowling her over. Half a dozen children followed on his heels, yelling, as they made a beeline for the ice cream stand.
Stony Grounds Park recently became a hub of activity in the quiet suburb. Annie remembered when the wide stretch of grassy fields was only used for soccer and flag football, the park grounds becoming deserted after dusk set in. But the advent of the summer night markets swelled to success a year ago, boasting everything from fresh farmer’s produce to children-run lemonade stands. Local bands used it as a platform to play their hits and the music would run into the wee hours of the morning if people camped out at the park.
An elderly woman accosted Annie as she slipped past the woven baskets of fruit. “Freshly picked pears. Best of the Northwest, sweetheart.” She beamed, giving her a long, earnest look.
Red and green Anjou pears, golden Bosc, Bartletts—Annie skimmed the collection.
“Thank you, but I’m leaving town tomorrow.” She offered the woman an apologetic tilt of her head.
“And where are you rushing off to?” The dimly familiar male voice came from behind her.
Annie turned, pausing for a quick second as she placed him from her recollections. “Liam!” Surprise colored her hazel eyes.
A half-smile crept up the side of his face, blasting her with a sudden array of well-worn memories. Speech class, long talks in the library, the faint sparks of—something.
“Hi, Annie.” It felt strange to hear her name roll off his tongue so comfortably. But he had always exuded confidence.
She took in the sight of him fully. He wore a checkered flannel top and beige khakis with converse shoes. His raven hair was cropped short now, revealing a high forehead and sharp cheekbones. Not much had changed in his appearance. Liam had always been lean and bony, and his sharp angles coupled with his outfits and glasses lent him a bookish aura. He was no jock in high school, but he knew his way around jokes and roguish smirks well enough to be a heartbreaker.
“It’s been so long,” she exclaimed, feeling a trace of self-consciousness. “I heard you went off to med school.”
Liam nodded, but he didn’t seem interested in catching up on their lives. His gaze wandered past her, settling on the band. They were playing an old Backstreet Boys song. “Are you here with anyone?”
Annie shook her head. She used to take walks around Stony Ground after dinner with her father, just around the time of day when the last sparks of sunlight pressed against the horizon. But business called him away that night, and Annie appreciated the anonymity of meandering around the night market.
“Neither am I. Let’s go check out the band. One of my old buddies is playing bass.”
“Okay,” she acquiesced.
That was how Liam was. He could go with years of little to no contact, and then pick up old threads of friendship effortlessly. Annie always felt some obligation to rehash major milestones in life when she encountered an old friend, but not Liam. He was more than content to leave the gap years of their friendship unknown.
As they reached the band’s makeshift stage, the sun dipped out of sight, slowly plunging them into darkness. The wind grew brisker and Annie shivered, rubbing her arms vigorously.
Liam glanced at her. “I know what’ll warm you up.” He gestured at the small group, mostly teenagers, in front of the stage.
“I don’t dance,” Annie laughed.
“Everyone dances,” he said simply, and without waiting for a response, slipped his hand into hers and pulled her into the mix.
A protest died on Annie’s lips as Liam spun her abruptly. His face became a blur, blending in and out with the other bodies nearby. Adrenaline welled up deep within her and pumped through her blood. She threw her head back and the yawning, black scroll of the night sky met her unsteady gaze. Annie felt her feet slip a little as she lost her balance, but strong hands caught her arms and stabilized her.
Loosened up, she grinned at Liam. The band blasted the beginning notes of another Kelly Clarkson song, and without missing a beat, they stepped into a quick, swinging rhythm. He was a decent dancer, and Annie was able to follow his lead without much struggle. As they settled into a slower routine, they began humming along with the familiar lyrics. The words and the tune thrust Annie back into her high school days, with glitzy locker decorations and rowdy bus rides. Nostalgia struck her hard in the gut.
Her cheeks were ruddy from the workout as they stepped out of the dance by silent consent. Liam looked flushed as well, some of his dark hair spiking up straighter. Annie thought it made him look more boyish again.
“I’m suddenly glad I never went to a school dance with you,” she commented wryly, as they retraced their steps through the market.
“Smart of you. You would’ve been the envy of the town.” A crooked smile lit his silhouetted features.
“Right,” she said, dragging out the syllable half-mockingly. Once, that smile would have thrown Annie into a happy daze for hours, but now it was simply a sweet but distant reminder of years past. “And you know how I hated attention.”
He shook his head. “As if. I know it’s because you had too many offers to choose from.”
“I’m not sure you remember me correctly,” Annie snorted.
Liam paused in his step and turned to face her. “Oh, I remember you very well, Annie.” His dark brown eyes held her hazel ones unwaveringly, and she felt a slight tremor in her chest. “You know how they say some people always stay with you? I think that’s you, for me.”
That was Liam too. He could swing from flippant to sincere in a matter of moments. Annie had always preferred his jesting side, because she could come up with a sound retort most the time. And if he flirted, she knew a line a two herself. But his sincerity made her feel awkward and inadequate—he could be so unaffected and genuine she felt pressured to respond in kind. But deep down, she doubted her capacity for such naked authenticity, and that had always been the imperceptible wall between them.
“Well, don’t tell your girlfriend that,” she teased, trying to lift the mood again.
He never pressed when she sidestepped. “No girlfriend right now. Much to mom’s chagrin.” He cocked his head and stared at her. “But I heard through the grapevine you found someone. I thought you were getting married.”
Annie blew out her breath. “I thought so too,” she murmured, and left it at that.
“Well, he dodged one.”
He grinned, but she read the sympathy in his eyes. She laughed softly, appreciative. Liam would not offer her pity or meaningless, cheerful babble, and that was perfectly fine by her.
“Remember we nearly went to the same university?” he mused, out of the blue.
“Yeah. I wonder how that would have played out.”
“I’m thinking a nice colonial style house in Stony Grounds. I wouldn’t have gone to med school, and we could settle here and relive the glory days all over. Oh, and I’d like to have twins.”
“What?” Annie gaped at him, incredulous.
His gaze strayed across the grassy field before it landed on her. “You mean I’m the only one of us that’s ever fantasized about our being married? What a shame.”
“I—well—“ she sputtered. His tone was light and half-joking, but their conversation began bringing back the hours they spent in the school library in full and vivid color—the lingering but frivolous talks, the silences they shared. And though years stood between that time and now, along with the experience of profound highs and bitter lows in relationships that overshadowed a girlhood crush, Annie felt a quiet, tremulous thrill spiral through her veins.
“You don’t have to admit it.”
“Always a gentleman,” she shot back, somewhat recovering.
He mock bowed. “At your service.” After a pause, he changed the subject. “You never answered my question. Where are you leaving town for tomorrow?”
“Oh! London, actually. I put in a transfer request at work.”
His dark eyes clouded slightly. “London. That’s an entire ocean away.”
A touch of melancholy undergirded his words, and Annie started a little. Surely, he could not have thought—after all this time, and a mere accidental run-in—
“Well, aren’t you in Maryland for med school?”
“Yeah. I’m flying back soon. Just came home for the end of summer.”
They were back along the fresh fruit row of the market, and some of the stands were closing for the night. The woman who tried to sell Annie pears was still there, though she was packing the unsold fruit into large, cardboard boxes. Liam tarried near her, eyeing the produce.
“Wait,” he called out. “I’d like to purchase one.”
The woman looked at him merrily. “Yes, sir. What can I get you?”
Liam chose a well-shaped, dark red Anjou pear. He turned it absently in the palm of his hand before holding it out to Annie.
“Something from home, since you’ll be in a foreign place.”
She took the pear, her fingers brushing against his. Since her approval officially came through, Annie had looked forward to London for months—the rich history, the culture, the sights. So it was only for a fleeting, ridiculous fraction of a second that she wanted to stay. Or at least, spend one more day at home—and who knew what could happen in a day. But the moment, and the feeling, passed by like a brief but piercing gust of wind.
“Thanks, Liam.” She smiled, but then rolled her eyes upward. “But you know I can’t take this through customs.”
“Damn.” He chuckled. “I was hoping you’d stuff it in your suitcase, forget, and they’d ship you home for endangering the continent.”
“Of course they would. Because five foot two American girl is the very profile of a terrorist.”
“You think they’d be able to put a Maryland return address on you?”
They both laughed, and then fell into a quiet camaraderie. The number of people in the park had dwindled, but the band was still playing. Overhead, the stars sprawled across the heavens, bright and clear, and the occasional bird joined its voice to the music.
The trail through the grass ended, and they were at the parking lot. Annie recognized Liam’s old Honda Civic in the corner spot.
“You’ll be okay walking home?” He glanced at her.
Annie nodded. “I’m just around the corner.”
There was a silence before Liam took her hand and squeezed it lightly. The streetlight brought his face into sharp focus for a moment, but he shifted his weight, and his features fell into the shadows again. “Send me a postcard from London.”
She squeezed his hand back before dropping it. “Sure.”
But her voice sounded a little hollow in her ears as she watched the back of his car recede into the darkness. What would she write to him about? Liam, who’s last few years of life remained a mystery to her still. Liam, who she talked to about everything and nothing—poor subject matters for a five by six postcard framed with Buckingham Palace.
She ran her thumb over the thick, smooth skin of the red Anjou pear and felt unexpected tears sting the back of her eyes.