Seven Years Ago…
SHE met him at the nature reserve on a volunteer trip with her high school.
“Remind me why we’re doing this,” she asked Shayna.
“Because,” Shayna replied, panting and trying not to touch her clothes with her dirty hands, “things like this look good on college applications.”
“But why did it have to be nature?” Annabelle moaned. There were few things she hated more than dirt, and all of those things could also be found outdoors. The only reason she sometimes tolerated nature was because her boyfriend Kyle was a camping fanatic.
“It was either cleaning up the nature reserve or feeding homeless people,” said Shayna as she attempted to pull another weed. It looked more like a game of tug-of-war, and the weed was winning. “I only picked this one because the homeless people are way farther away.”
In an explosion of dirt, the weed came free, spraying the two girls with soil and causing Shayna to fall on her butt.
“You’re right,” she sighed in defeat. “This sucks.” Despite her misery, Annabelle couldn’t help laughing.
“Are you girls sure you’re not city slickers?” Kyle marched up to them in his heavy boots, hauling a garbage bag already full of trash and invasive plant life. By comparison, the bag that Annabelle and Shayna were sharing was pitifully empty. Okay, even if she wasn’t comparing herself to Mr. Outdoorsman, Annabelle’s garbage bag was still pitiful.
Shayna cast a look of exasperation at her friend. “Anna, tell your meathead boyfriend to shut his pie hole.” Annabelle smirked and turned to Kyle.
“Kyle, Shayna says she loves you.”
“Aw,” Kyle turned his puppy dog eyes on full force and clutched his heart. “I love you too, Shay! Now all we have to do is break the news to my girlfriend.”
Shayna rolled her eyes. “You had to date the biggest ham in school,” she said to Annabelle. Kyle chuckled and walked over to give Annabelle a peck on the lips. She eyed his less than pristine hands suspiciously.
“If you leave a muddy handprint on my butt, you will be in so much trouble,” she warned him. He rolled his eyes.
“Does that really sound like something I would do? Don’t answer that,” he quickly cut her off as she was opening her mouth to reply. “I just came up here to say hi and tell you that Kennedy wants you to help them pick up trash by the river.”
Annabelle grimaced. “Does it smell like fish down there?”
“Well it’s a river, so probably.” Kyle laughed when she groaned, wrapping his arm around her waist. “You’ll be fine. Just breathe through your mouth.”
“Yeah, sure,” Shayna grumbled. “I’ll just work up here all by myself. Thanks.”
Kyle sighed dramatically. “I guess I can stay here and show you how to pull a weed without bruising your tailbone.” Shayna glared at him, making Annabelle giggle as she walked away. “Be careful!” he shouted after her. “John and Bridget found a used tampon on the shore, and I think they’re planning to drop it down the back of your shirt!”
“Gross, but good to know!” Annabelle said over her shoulder. “I love you!”
“Love you, too!”
She followed the path which led her to a narrow set of stairs carefully placed so visitors didn’t go tumbling down the steep bank. The river emitted a pleasant white noise. A few yards away she saw Kennedy, Bridget, and Bridget’s boyfriend John. They all carried garbage bags and long plastic claws to pick up the trash.
And then she saw someone that she had never seen before. He was dressed in a striped sweater and kakis, like he left home that morning to go to a coffee shop and then got monumentally lost somewhere along the way. Not that he appeared to be uncomfortable in his surroundings, lounging on a boulder and dangling his bare feet in the water. He left his shoes and socks farther up the bank. The wind rustled his light brown hair, obscuring part of his face, but not before she saw a glimpse of intense blue eyes.
He seemed broody and mysterious—exactly Shayna’s type. Maybe if she set them up and they hit it off, then she and Kyle and Shayna and Mystery Boy could double date. She had always wanted to try that, but she and Shayna had never been in relationships at the same time.
She walked up behind him and cleared her throat. “Um… hey. Do you go to Round Lake High School?”
He didn’t jump or appear startled in any way, which was weird considering she sort of crept up on him. The boy casually looked over his shoulder and appraised her.
“No,” he said, and an easy smile graced his features. “But now I wish I did.”
Annabelle blinked. The fact that a total stranger was hitting on her didn’t immediately register. When her brain caught up to reality again, she shook her head vehemently.
“No, no, no,” she said, not wanting to mislead him in any way. “No, I have a boyfriend. His name is Kyle. But I think my friend Shayna would love to meet you.” The wattage of his smile dimmed with understanding.
“Ah, I see. I’m being pawned off. I’m not quite good enough for you, but your friend will take me.”
“No, that’s not it at all!” Oh boy, this was going downhill. Not five minutes into their introduction and she was already putting her foot in her mouth. “I really do have a boyfriend,” Annabelle insisted. “And you really are exactly the kind of guy Shay would drool over.”
The boy suddenly broke out in quiet laughter. “Okay, okay,” he said and stood. “I believe you. And of course I would be happy to meet your friend Shayna.”
It should have been weird leaving the riverside and walking through the woods with a boy she had never met, but Annabelle felt oddly at ease with him.
“What’s your name?” she asked as soon as she realized that he hadn’t told her yet. It would be difficult to introduce him to Shayna if she didn’t know his name.
“Leon,” he answered. “And what is the name of my lovely matchmaker?” The blush that stained her cheeks was an automatic response to his compliment, although it felt like a minor betrayal to Kyle.
“I’m Annabelle,” she told him succinctly. She was determined not to let her gaze linger on him, and that would be easier if she kept her questions and answers brief.
“Do you do this often? Set up your friends with strangers who hang out at the nature reserve.”
Annabelle hunched her shoulders, somewhat embarrassed. “Uh, no. This is a first for me.”
She heard Kyle and Shayna nearby and picked up the pace. Beckoning Leon to follow her, she then motioned for him to be quiet. Kyle would think it was hilarious if she jumped out and surprised them. Shayna wouldn’t like it, but her bad mood would be quelled as soon as she laid eyes on Leon.
A twig snapped under her foot, and the voices of her friends fell silent.
“Did you hear that?” she heard Shayna ask nervously.
“It was probably a bird or a squirrel,” Kyle replied. “There tend to be a lot of those critters out here.”
“I’m serious, Kyle! Knock it off. What if that was Anna?”
Annabelle frowned at this and slowly edged closer. She sidled up to a rotund tree trunk and peeked around the side. The sight that greeted her stole the air from her lungs.
Kyle was leaning toward Shayna with his arms around her. “Relax, babe,” he murmured. “Annabelle’s all the way down by the river with Kennedy. She’s not going to see us.” And then he leaned the rest of the way in and kissed her.
Annabelle couldn’t watch anymore. She stumbled away from her hiding place and barely made it back to the path when her stomach rebelled. Cool fingers gently pulled her hair away from her face while she coughed and spat in the grass.
“I take it that was the friend and the boyfriend?”
Annabelle shuddered. This was humiliating. She couldn’t decide which was more embarrassing: having a boy she just met witness her discovery of Kyle—her Kyle—cheating on her with her best friend (just as she was planning to set Shayna up with said boy) or vomiting in front of him. It was a tossup.
“I think I want to go home,” she gasped as she stood up and attempted to extract herself from Leon’s grasp. He released her hair and took a step back. Once she was free, she hurried away from him and down the path, relieved when she didn’t hear footsteps in pursuit.
Then Annabelle felt a sudden tug on the hem of her shirt. She stopped and whirled around, nearly colliding with Leon who was panting. He must have been crazy light on his feet to run so silently.
“Hey,” he said breathing heavily and clutching his side. “If you ever want to get back at that jerk, you know where to find me.” Annabelle bit the inside of her cheek, unsure whether she was on the verge of crying or laughing.
“I hope you’re not saying that just to be nice,” she managed past the lump in her throat, “because I might take up on it.”
And take his offer, she did.
Annabelle hated conflict, but the blowout fight with Kyle was unavoidable. She invited them both to get ice cream from the only frozen dairy vender in their small town. The three of them sat at the counter facing the window in the storefront that provided a scenic view of Main Street.
The moment was so perfect Annabelle was hesitant to disrupt it. As usual, Kyle made bad puns, and Shayna rolled her eyes at him. Then she would look pointedly at Annabelle and say something along the lines of, “You should have made him take an IQ test before you agreed to date him.”
If I say something now, she thought, this will ruin everything. If she confronted them, then she was going to lose her two best friends. She had to keep reminding herself that they had already ruined their relationships with her the minute they decided to go behind her back. This perfect moment at the counter eating ice cream was a lie.
So she told them what she saw at the nature reserve. To put it mildly, the ensuing fight was awful. Kyle actually had the gall to deny everything. He tried to reason with Annabelle, argue with her, but nothing he said could convince her that she had misinterpreted the situation.
It wasn’t until Kyle stormed out of the shop, tossing his remaining ice cream in the garbage, that Annabelle noticed Shayna had been mute throughout the entire exchange. The girl seemed to fold in on herself as if she was praying that a void would swallow her up.
“Well,” Annabelle said and willed her tears to remain buried, “do you have anything to say, or are you just going to sit there?” Shayna licked her lips and stared fixedly at her hands in her lap.
“Will anything I have to say be enough to fix this?” she asked softly. Annabelle’s initial reaction was to say yes. She wanted Shayna to apologize and to admit that she was wrong. She wanted her best friend to beg for forgiveness just so Annabelle could deny her. This urge took her by surprise. She didn’t think that she was a vindictive person, but she had no desire to forgive Shayna. In fact, she wanted to hurt her.
Annabelle shook her head. She didn’t want to be that childish, revenge-driven girl. Shayna took this as her answer. “That’s what I thought,” she said. Then she stood up and left with her eyes downcast.
That was when Annabelle remembered Leon, the boy from the nature reserve. He could help her get back at Kyle and Shayna in a classier way. She could date Leon and look happy with him in front of her former friends. She would show them that she could move on perfectly without either one of them.
On a whim, she drove to the nature reserve the next day and found Leon by the river just as before. When she told him her plan, he agreed to be her accomplice without any hesitation. He almost seemed gleeful at the prospect of rubbing their fake relationship in Kyle’s face.
Annabelle soared from the thrill of it all. She had never done anything like this; she wasn’t one of those girls. Or, so she had believed.
Since this was her first fake relationship, she wasn’t sure how it was supposed to progress. After a week, she and Leon were still getting along, and it was having the desired effect on Kyle—who had never looked so jealous and angry in his life—and on Shayna. She looked perpetually downtrodden now, and Annabelle rarely saw her hanging out with their other friends anymore. Kennedy and Bridget at least were on Annabelle’s side and refused to speak to Kyle and Shayna.
One day Leon suggested Annabelle visit his house to meet his family, that way they would appear to be more serious. Annabelle, still riding the wave of attention her breakup and subsequent rebound had garnered, loved the idea.
Leon’s family lived in a neighboring town about an hour away. Around 5:00 on a Saturday evening, he arrived in his car to pick her up for dinner at his family’s home.
“What are you going to tell your parents about us?” she asked him. Obviously, he wouldn’t want to introduce her as his fake girlfriend.
“I thought I would tell them the truth, that we’re friends,” he said, his smile fading with insecurity. “We are friends, aren’t we?”
“Of course,” she assured him. “With all the help you’ve given me, we are definitely friends.” Her heart sank slightly as the words left her mouth. Annabelle knew that she was attracted to Leon at least a little, and up to this point it hadn’t been an issue. But Leon was so sweet, kind, and supportive that she found herself more and more often wondering what it would be like if their relationship was a little more real.
They finally reached their destination, and Leon drove them up the long driveway to a secluded old farmhouse. Annabelle’s jaw dropped.
“Your house is so beautiful, like in an old-timey way,” she breathed. “It must have been in your family for generations.”
For a split second, Leon appeared confused by her assumption. He recovered quickly though, smiling and nodding in agreement.
He led her inside where his family was seated in a simply decorated living room. Her first thought as she made her way around the room shaking hands was that Leon looked just like his father. He bore hardly any resemblance to his younger brother Rush, who clearly took after their mom. She was a rather odd looking woman, in Annabelle’s opinion. She had bleach blonde hair, sharp cheekbones, and dark brown eyes that appeared black in dim lighting.
She only saw the three youngest kids once before dinner, and then Leon’s mom put food on their plates and shooed them upstairs. Annabelle would have felt bad admitting that she was relieved his youngest siblings wouldn’t be joining her with the rest of his family. She’d never been good with little kids; she didn’t know what to say to them.
Throughout dinner, Annabelle often caught his mother’s gaze focused on her. It was disconcerting, but for the most part she was able to ignore the woman in favor of other members of the family. Leon’s dad was a quiet but pleasant man. His younger sister Tilda was charming, and in no way reminded her of Shayna. Rush was a bit unnerving, but she chalked that up to his resemblance to the lady of the house.
After dinner, the rest of Leon’s family left them alone in the living room with hot tea and the radio humming softly in the background.
Then, out of the blue, Leon asked her, “Do you like it here, Annabelle?” She sipped her tea and casually leaned back until their shoulders brushed.
“Absolutely,” she said hoping that this conversation was going where she thought it was going. “It’s so peaceful and beautiful. You’re lucky you got to grow in a place like this.”
“Good, that’s good to hear.” Leon’s voice was soft and soothing. She felt his breath ghost over her cheek, and he placed his hand lightly on her knee.
She noticed then that the room was becoming hazy. Annabelle’s eyelids drooped. They felt much heavier than they should. The crooning emitted from the radio warbled as if she was hearing it from underwater.
“I’m glad you like it here.” She heard Leon’s voice and felt his lips skim over the shell of her ear. Distantly, Annabelle was aware of her teacup falling from her grasp onto the wood floor. “Now you can stay with me,” he murmured.
And then everything faded to black.