“We never did catch crawdads,” Pete said as we sat on the bridge, our arms resting on the wooden rails, feet dangling above a flowing creek. “We'll have to do it next year."
The water flowed steadily, shallow enough in the late summer months that I could see the creek bed, stones wet with moss. I was familiar with that water, knew it was cool and smooth. Had it been midday, I’d have been jumping in it, soaking my shirt and shorts. It was evening, though, and the shadows stretched long as darkness pulled them away from the sun and into the cooler notes of nighttime.
“It was a great summer. I’m sure next year will be just as great.” I kicked my legs, enjoying the feeling of the evening breeze under my knees and between my toes. “Although, to be honest, I’m still not sure I want to go looking for creek bugs. And then you like eat them, right?”
My parents had gotten divorced three years ago, and since then I spent every summer with my dad and every school year with my mom. My dad had moved in with my grandpa in rural West Virginia while my mom kept the house in the suburbs of Ohio. The two worlds couldn’t have been any different, but I found that I loved them both. Pete was a next-door neighbor of my grandpa’s, which in WV meant that their houses couldn’t be seen from each other through all the trees, rolling hills, and wild grass. We’d met at the local ice cream shop in town during my first year with Dad. It had turned my sour attitude into a sweet one, much like the peanut butter and Oreo ice creams we shared that day.
He laughed at me and it made me both happy and sad. Happy because I loved the sound. Sad because I wasn’t going to hear it much, if at all, for the next nine months.
“They aren’t creek bugs. They’re like mini-lobsters, like those fancy dinners you’re always telling me about in the city.”
“They’re nothing like lobsters.”
“How do you know? Have you seen one?”
I studied the creek in front of me, hoping I’d get lucky and could assure him that I had, indeed, seen a crawdad, but I had no such luck. “Maybe.”
“You have not,” he said with a teasing smile, so I knew he wasn’t trying to be rude. “There’s nothing like catching your own food with your bare hands. It brings you back to our human primal roots.”
“I’ve worked very hard not to connect to my primal roots.” I fingered my hair, knowing I’d have to get a touch-up before school started.
“I’d very much like to see your primal roots.”
I had no answer for that, but I turned away from him so he wouldn’t see my ridiculous smile and blushing cheeks.
Pete took a deep breath as if he was going to say something but stopped himself before the words came out.
I stole a glance and saw he was chewing on his lip, staring at the sun-sparkled water.
“What?” I said.
It was his turn to glance at me, but his eyes darted away. It was hard to tell in the warm light, but I could have sworn his cheeks were blushing.
I bumped into his shoulder with my own. “Are you having another deep thought? Last time you came up with a big idea I got grounded for a week. I am not breaking into the Miller’s pool again.”
He grinned and I got one last peek of that elusive dimple on his left cheek. It only showed up when his grin was big enough, usually when he was teasing me. I was going to miss it.
“That was awesome. Next time, though, we’ll make sure we don’t get caught.”
“You’re the one who was singing as loud as you could.”
“You’re the one who was laughing instead of stopping me.”
We fell back into silence for a moment. The sound of cicadas singing rose in the silence and seemed almost deafening. For the rest of my life, I knew that the cicada song would be the soundtrack to my summers. I burned inside my memory the summer moments of the babbling brook below us, sitting on the tailgate of his truck, and eating ice cream as summer sweat slid off my back while listening to the radio, so I could return to them again and again in his absence.
“I suppose I’d better get going. Dad will be looking for me soon.” I shifted on my seat, but didn’t stand up right away.
Pete took another deep breath but this time words followed it. “I was thinking maybe that I could come visit this year?”
I watched his fingers drum nervously on the wood, waiting for my answer. He glanced at me and away twice before I turned to look at his soft green eyes, rowdy brown hair, and freckled cheeks. It was a little unnerving to be sitting so close to him and looking him in the eyes. Anything could have happened.
Instead, I messed it all up.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
His eyes searched mine for a moment, and he turned back to look at the creek. “I suppose you don’t want a country boy hanging around you and your friends.”
“It’s not that. It’s just—You’re different from the rest of them. I don’t think you’d enjoy it. You’d feel out of place and stick out like a sore thumb.”
“Right. We wouldn’t want that.” He stood up, keeping his face averted from mine. “Have a good year. Don’t bother to call or text. Wouldn’t want to cramp your style.”
He walked away, his shoulders slumped and hands in his worn jean pockets. His heavy, brown steel-toed boots clunked on the wooden bridge as he walked away. He wore those more as a fashion statement rather than a need, like the other “good ol’ boys” around these parts. I had mixed feelings about those shoes. I felt an odd attraction to their sturdiness but also wanted to throw them in the creek.
I sat for a time, watching the water flow down the rocks. It was too happy, bubbling and bouncing around, rushing off through the hills. Didn’t it know cold weather was coming where it would become slow and muddy until it froze up entirely? It didn’t seem to care and took advantage of the warm summer days it still had left. The wind bobbed the plants around the creek as the cicadas sang.
The school year passed in ebbs and flows. Any time I thought about it, time would slow down, and the days felt slow, moving from one task to another. When I forgot to think about, they’d rush by, filled with class after class, cheer practice, dinners with my mom and her new boyfriend, and nights filled with texting my friends while I tried to do my homework.
Sometimes I’d look around at my friends as we were prepping for a football game, hanging out on someone’s lawn, or chatting at lunch, and imagine what Pete would look like, sitting there with us. I was certain he’d feel uncomfortable and wish he was somewhere else, perhaps searching the hills for morel mushrooms or washing his huge, blue truck. I told that to myself many times, trying to justify away my words to him and the feelings that hen-pecked me from inside.
As early spring came, I committed to myself that I wouldn’t seek him out that summer. It was too painful to spend the hot months together, and then cut it off when I went back to school. I was in a different world and pretending I wasn’t for a few months was cruel to him and to my heart. I knew it would be difficult and that’d I need something else to fill my time and prohibit my idle mind from tricking my body into hanging out with him again.
I’d never been much of a reader, but I collected a few books that my friends had told me were good. I planned to spend the summer out in the backyard, swinging on my grandpa’s hammock and reading away the hours. Or I’d sneak down to the creek on days when I knew he wouldn’t be there, like Sunday mornings when his whole family went to church.
I spent the days leading up to summer thinking about all the ways I could avoid him. I knew most of his habits so it didn’t seem like it would be too difficult.
The first few days back with my dad, I stayed at the house. I sat on the cracked leather couch with my grandpa as he watched westerns and courtroom daytime TV. I tried to read some of the books I’d brought but they couldn’t keep my attention. Any time there was any small kind of romance, I’d think of Pete. Any time there was a tough guy sauntering down the boardwalk with heavy boots in an old western town, I’d think of Pete. Any time I looked out the window at the vast greenery, I’d think of Pete.
Usually, I’d celebrate the beginning of summer by going straight to the ice cream shop. Pete would meet me there and we’d hang out for the evening, telling each other about our school year, or anything we hadn’t texted to each other over the months.
I waited as long as I could before venturing out, but only made it four days before I found myself walking down the curvy road towards the ice cream store. It wasn’t a long walk into town, just enough time to question my choice several times and almost turn around. I told myself I wasn’t going there hoping he’d be sitting on the tailgate of his truck, a long, red spoon sticking out of his Styrofoam ice cream cup waiting for me. I prepared my heart for him to not be there. He had no reason to be. I also chided myself any time a car came down the road and I looked up, hoping it was Pete barreling down the one-lane gravel road in his big blue truck.
As I got closer to the ice cream shop, my eyes scanned the cars in the parking lot. I could see more of them as my tennis shoes carried me towards the building, the view shifting with my angle change. In the last parking spot, behind all the other cars, it sat gleaming in the neon lights of the store.
My heart sent a thrilling pulse throughout my body that I tried to force away with a furrowing of angry eyebrows. I could have turned around then and scurried back home away from the crowded parking lot, but I was close enough that people would have noticed. Plus, I didn’t want to.
I went to the window to order and noticed they had a few new flavors. I kept my eyes away from the parking lot, furiously studying the menu, and ended up ordering something completely different than my usual peanut butter—chocolate black cherry.
I allowed my eyes to look over at the blue truck, but Pete wasn’t sitting in his usual place. I hesitated and turned to walk back home, figuring that eating the ice cream alone on the way back was better than sitting alone on the curb with no friends to talk to.
Then I saw him. He’d pulled away from a group of nearby kids, which included an irritating number of pretty girls, and walked over to his truck. He unlatched the tailgate, set it down, and hopped up, scooting himself into a comfortable position off to one side.
Knowing he’d already seen me, knowing it was already too late to push back the inevitable, I walked towards him. I took my spot, had a bite of my own ice cream and enjoyed the tart but sweet chocolate taste.
Wordlessly, he extended his own cup towards me and we switched like we always had. We both tasted each other’s and started laughing. At first, it was a tentative sound, but the ridiculousness of the situation and our silliness overcame us, and we were laughing so hard, tears came to my eyes and people gave us odd looks.
“Wanted to try the cherry, too?"
“Honestly, I’ve gotten Oreo three nights in a row, hoping you’d show up and switch the peanut butter with me, but as much as I love the stuff, a fourth night seemed a little much.”
“I’m sorry I took so long getting here. I was going to stay away from you.”
“I thought you’d gotten lost or something. I was about to send a search party to the woods.” He stirred his ice cream a few times. “Were you really going to stay away?”
“I tried. Obviously, I failed. I just couldn’t handle any more westerns. Did you know Grandpa likes soap operas?”
“All the good men do, secretly, inside.” He shifted on the tailgate so his legs were just touching mine.
I saw the dimple in the light of the neon bulbs and knew that I was exactly where I should have been.