The scarf tethered to my neck was orange like the sunset. I tugged at the worn fabric, loosening it enough to gulp down air. Despite the frigid weather, sweat bloomed on my skin, making my parka feel like a fiery prison.
“Is that it?” I asked.
He only nodded and patted my shoulder. His eyes were gray like the sky before it burst apart with rain during a storm. He watched me with a stillness that matched the forest all around us.
“Is that it?” I repeated, unsure how to process the detour from our future that had seemed so sure just hours before.
“Sam, I think this is for the best,” Ben shrugged. “I just realized that we can’t ignore the age difference. We can’t. It’s gonna cause too much trouble in the future. Trust me.”
His palms were raised like he was going to say “I mean you no harm” at any moment, as if he was afraid I’d dart into the underbrush and burrow away into hiding. Could I? Should I? I felt a panic seize me and marveled distantly at the calmness in his tone.
For the first time it seemed, I saw him. He had lines etched around his eyes and a beard that matched the hair on his head. I saw that the necklace I had given him last month for his birthday was missing. Most of all, I saw the absence of me in his gaze when all I could see was him; all I ever saw was him.
He nodded again and with a sheepish smile said, “I wanted to show you that spot we talked about earlier. It’s over here.”
Ben’s boots crunched over snow as he stepped between two trees before turning to look back at me. “You coming?”
Ice had settled into my limbs as abruptly as his words had entered the air. I breathed deeply, slowly. I felt my body shudder as my brain urged it to restart. I imagined leftover food in the microwave, the hum as it defrosted.
I managed a dizzying nod and moved to follow him. Ben led us away from the well traveled hiking trails and over snow covered paths, easy to miss if you were not looking for them. He tried to start a conversation; something about how I was going to love college or maybe it was about how much he had loved college. I couldn’t remember.
A quietness that matched the forest had settled in my throat, but I could feel something stirring just beneath, lurking in the cave of my chest readying to be poked.
“Ah, here we are,” Ben said as we exited a cell block of trees onto the edge of the forest. We stood on a small cliff, overlooking the lake far below. It looked black from up here, emphasized by the contrast of white snow outlining it, like an eye watching us.
“Isn’t it breathtaking,” Ben asked. His back stared at me as he gazed at the lake. There was reverence in his tone. It pierced my heart like a rifle shot.
“Not really,” I whispered. My breath puffed white.
He glanced back, “What?”
“I said ‘not really’. I think it’s just a lake in winter and I can’t believe you care more about a stupid body of water than me.”
He turned to face me, “Well, technically it’s a pond.”
I wanted to laugh and scream at the same time. How could the day have changed so much? We were supposed to be sharing kisses as the sun set, not casually admiring nature while a part of me was reeling.
“I love you.” The words were small as I stepped towards him. “I love you.” My hands shook as I reached for his face, but he caught them between his own and lowered them.
“Say you love me. I know you do.”
He shook his head, those gray eyes clearer than they’d ever been.
“Say it,” I begged. “Please.”
“You’re so young. In another year you won’t even remember me, I promise. You’ll meet some boy at school and...”
“You promise me?” I laughed humorlessly, “I don’t want your promises. I want you.” I backed away clutching my hand to my chest and gasping through the tears that had begun to line my cheeks.
“We were supposed to go to the city for Christmas, and what about meeting your parents?” My voice broke over the last part.
He shook his head again and he opened his arms, moving to embrace me.
“No!” I growled and my hands shoved against his chest with startling ferocity. He stumbled back, his outstretched arms windmilling as his wide eyed gaze met my own and then he was gone, disappearing over the edge.
There was a crash and a groan. Then silence.
My heart pounded like thunder as the sky above grew darker; the sun finally committing to its rest beneath the horizon.
“Ben?” I called. No response came. I tried again, “Ben!”
A groan drifted up to me. I closed my eyes briefly and took a steadying breath before peering over the edge. On a rocky ledge about fifteen feet below lay Ben, sprawled like a deer on the side of the road.
I gasped and reached for the phone in my pocket, but something inside me hesitated.
An idea chittered through my head. I could call the cops and emergency services would come, assuming that they could find us. Or I could walk away. It was a thought that would have struck me with horror that morning, but as I stared down at Ben now all I felt was sudden calm.
Ben groaned louder. It sounded guttural like an animal.
“Ben, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I understand what you meant now.”
He gave no response to this so I continued.
“The lake really is beautiful from up here.”
This was the grave where I could leave our future; the one he had promised me, but never actually saw himself in. My heart was numb and cold and raw, but it was also still his.
I sighed. Then I counted to ten and reached for my phone and as it rang for 911 I stared at the lake below, positive that I could feel it staring back.