I never expected to see him again.
It’s been over five years. So much has changed. And yet, something in my chest starts to beat to life the moment I recognize him stepping into the clinic. Panic seizes me in place, eyes glued to the man making his way toward me. I need to hide! That’s what my mind keeps telling me, but there’s no time for that. I can’t just drop down beneath my desk and pretend to be searching for something until he’s gone. And it’s already too late to get up and run into the safety of the back room.
Nope. I’m stuck. This is going to be the first time I get to see Mike Wilkinson since college. He’d dropped out, needing a change in scenery. We’d tried to make a relationship work but something just wasn’t taking. With nothing holding him back, he joined the military. From then on, it was all just rumors: he’d advanced to Sergeant, he’d been taken captive, he’d been severely wounded, he’d died in war. The list goes on and on. But now, as he saunters toward the counter with nothing but a slight limp, I realize I don’t know what to believe. Because he looks fine. Finer than fine.
He looks breathtaking.
“Hi,” he greets, stopping and wrapping his knuckles on the countertop softly as he glances at the wall clock behind me. “I’ve got a nine-thirty.”
Holy smokes, he doesn’t even remember me. Granted, I’ve died my hair brown and gained about thirty pounds, but I’m still just the same old Lindsey that he should remember. And then it hits me... he’s got amnesia. That’s common when in combat, right? Maybe it’s not even related to physical trauma. Maybe he experienced something so horrific that his brain had no choice but to turn off his memories.
For a moment I’m stunned. I don’t know whether to play it off as if we don’t know each other or if I should remind him that we were once a thing. I lift a smile upward, ready to put on my acting face when I find him watching me. His eyes are careful, analyzing my features with unquestionable recognition. He knows.
I nod sheepishly. “Yeah, it’s me. Hey.”
I stand and round the reception desk, encouraged by the smile on his face. My arms wrap around his torso, shocked by the feel of him in my arms again. He feels like a foreigner. Every muscle and curve I’d memorized during our brief dating period in college has been replaced with steel and stone. Well, that’s what it feels like. Good grief, they seriously work these guys solid in the military.
“Good to see you again, Mike,” I say, pulling away and resting my hip on the desk. Maybe if I pose casually, he’ll believe that I’m as calm as a sedated sloth. In reality, every nerve has been roused to life, alert and aware of all things concerning Mike... even the small scar hidden below his left ear.
“Geez, it’s been ages,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest and encouraging every muscle in his face to act the part of genuinely interested.
I know better, though, and it’s not because I’m some phenomenal body language expert. It’s because I work for a psychiatrist and I’ve learned that anyone who walks through that door is hurting and it’s much deeper than physical pain. It’s in their mind and it’s bad enough that they’ve taken to seeking professional help. It’s strange to imagine Mike ever reaching such a low. He was always goofy and fun, but now, it’s not real. His smile isn’t real. At least, from what I can tell it’s not.
“How’ve you been?” I ask, and then instantly want to smack myself in the face. Way to be a completely insensitive, moron.
“Just getting adjusted,” he answers, avoiding the deeper response he could have given for my thoughtless question. “I got back two days ago and living with the parents again has its challenges.”
“Tell me about it.” I roll my eyes, laughing at the ridiculous fact that I still live with mine. I’d had my fun in college and then when reality hit, I floundered. Thankfully, my parents were all too happy to step in and offer the spare room.
“You’re living at home?” The shock in his words makes me want to cower into a hole. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so surprised. It’s just... I figured you would have been married with kids by now.”
“Yeah, well, so did I,” I admit. “But, things happen, ya know?”
“Yeah.” He nods, his face relaxing into an earnest understanding. “Yeah, I get that.”
“Well,” I say, not wanting to drag out the conversation any longer. It’s already borderline awkward and I’d hate for things to get to that stagnant, stiff moment when two people just stare at each other, fumbling for something else to say. “I’ll get you checked it. It was great to see you.”
“You too, Lindsey.” His eyes are warm as they flicker across my face, but I see the warmth evaporate the very instant he turns to take a seat in the lobby.
Something’s horribly wrong if he has to force himself to even smile.
The realization pings my heart. It’s one thing to meet someone who’s already down in the dumps, but when you’ve only ever known them as carefree and exuberant, it’s a shock to suddenly find them so dark and melancholy.
We exchange a nod of acknowledgment when Mike has to pass by the desk again once his name is called. He slips through the door and disappears down the hallway with Bailey, the head nurse. I busy myself with paperwork and appointment reminder phone calls until his hour is up. I expect to see him exiting any minute, but it’s not until thirty minutes later when I’m grabbing my purse to take my lunch break that he finally returns.
“Doc wants to see me back in a week,” he explains, pulling his wallet from his back pocket and throwing down a few bucks to cover his co-pay.
“Okay.” I quietly tap away on the computer, searching available dates while Mike watches me carefully. “Do you have a preferred day or time?”
“The earlier the better,” he answers, leaning to rest his elbows on the counter.
“Thursday, July twenty-sixth at eight?”
He nods once. “Perfect.”
Grabbing an appointment card, I begin filling in the details before sliding the card across the desk toward Mike. His fingers accidentally graze mine when he goes to reach for it, causing a warmth to sizzle up my arm. Mike, though, appears completely unfazed. Instead, he takes the card, shoves it into the front pocket of his jeans and then taps his pointer finger on the counter a couple times in thought.
“You know,” he starts to say, his words hesitant, like he thinks what he’s about to say is already a bad idea but it’s too late to backtrack now. “I’m having a get-together at my parent’s place this weekend.”
“Oh?” I say, exiting out of my computer screen and reaching for my purse. “I’m sure that’ll be fun.”
“You should come.”
I have no response. My mind is swirling with ways of kindly declining. Just this short interaction has been awkward enough, but now he wants me to spend an entire day with him.
“Your brother will be there,” he adds. “And Gavin, Andy and Chris.”
“Oh.” Seems that’s the only word I’m capable of muttering, but this time, rather than questioning, I’m pleasantly surprised. “I rarely see those guys anymore. That actually sounds really fun. I mean, Andy and I still talk and I saw him last night at his sister’s soccer game—I was working the concession stand,” I add, feeling the need to explain why I was at an eighteen-year-old’s game for no reason. “I haven’t seen Gavin or Chris in like a year though.”
“Well, I’m sure they’d all love to see you then.”
I want to add something playful like, ‘eh, probably. Who wouldn’t?’ But instead, I just smile, feeling like a complete bonehead.
“The cookout starts tomorrow night at six.”
“Great,” I say, nerves strangling my vocal cords. I just can’t manage to say anything but simple responses now that I know this isn’t just a one-time run-in. I’ve just sentenced myself to an entire evening with my old college buddies and the man I used to love.
Usually, I’ll just drive through somewhere on my lunch break, settling for quick and cheap food rather than health, but today I’m anxious for some quiet. Mike showing up in my life again has scrambled my brain and I fear I’ll be useless until I can unwind a little, which is why I end up back home. Everyone’s gone, so I’ve got the entire place to myself. Grabbing some peanut butter and Oreo cookies from the cabinet, I slump down on the couch and stuff my face. I’m an emotional eater, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how I’ve gained so much weight since college.
Flicking on the TV, I allow it to numb my mind for a solid ten minutes before my thoughts begin to blur my vision again. I can’t focus on the show when images of Mike are spiraling around in my head. I remember the fun-loving guy from college. He’d been fit then but still managed to have a little pudge around the middle. His hair had been long and shaggy, a pure delight to trail my fingers through.
Today, I saw an entirely new man. One who’s now Rambo-solid with the traditional military buzz cut. He’s confident, as always, but his confidence no longer resides in his quick wit and humor. Instead, it feels as though time has removed those qualities from his personality and replaced them with stoicism and the horrors of war. Time has done wonders to his outward appearance, but it seems his mind is struggling to stay composed.
It’s not until I find myself constructing an entirely new Mike based off my assumptions that I realize it’s time to get back to work. Just because he’s seeing a psychiatrist after returning from war doesn’t mean he’s a complete head case. Maybe he’s got a few issues to deal with but that doesn’t make him an entirely different person. Truth is, it has been a long time and time has a way of molding and changing people. Maybe that’s all it is.
But somewhere deep in my gut, it feels like more.
Shoving what’s left of my ‘lunch’ back into the cabinet, I snatch up my keys and leave the house. I’ve got to be back at work in ten minutes, so my time for daydreaming about my old fling is gonna have to wait. Unlocking my car, I slide inside, but just as I go to turn on the ignition, my eyes catch sight of a small piece of paper folded beneath the blade of my windshield wiper.
Quirking my lips to the side, I slide my tongue across my teeth in thought. Had my mom left a note for me before heading to therapy? Checking that there are no vehicles coming, I push my door open and slip out of my car. Glancing around, I try to spot who might have left the note under my wiper, but the sidewalks are vacant of any familiar faces.
Lifting the wiper, I have to tug a little bit to unlatch the paper from the blade. Seems the sun has actually cooked the rubber to the note. I open it quickly, thinking it’s probably just a simple message from my technologically challenged mother, but when I catch sight of the slanted, unfamiliar scrawl, I glance up again, eyes searching for the perpetrator. Call me paranoid, but rather than stand in the street reading the note and letting anyone walking past see my reaction, I slide back into my car.
Re-opening the letter, I allow my eyes to skim over the single sentence a couple times.
You’re still beautiful.
Um... random. Why would the person who wrote this feel the need to be so secretive? It’s not even signed, which makes me wonder if they were just assuming I’d know who they are—which I am—or if they wish to remain anonymous.
Chances are it wasn’t intended for me at all.
Shrugging it off, I toss the note into my purse, making sure to fold it back up the exact way I’d found it before heading back to work. And as much daydreaming as I did over lunch, I keep telling myself that I’ve gotten Mike out of my system but that’s a lie. In fact, I feel as though he’s just re-injected himself into my blood. His face is all I see: his lifeless smile, his faint limp, his bold yet hesitant behavior. I’m so obsessed and it’s only been five hours since he left. He’s literally consumed my entire afternoon after a single three-minute conversation.
What’s going to happen to me when I’m forced to spend an entire evening with him?