The mall is busiest on Thursdays. People are bustling in and out in all different directions, creating a blur of color and shopping bags as they walk through. The entrances to various stores are blocked off and tourists rub their heads in confusion as to how they are expected to push through the madness.
I bite back a laugh at the frazzled expressions and continue my way through the sea of people. I cut through the food court and into a shrouded alley that connects to the other side of the mall. The tiled floor clicks underneath my boots and I emerge at the entrance of the Dillard’s retailer. There are only a few people scattered in the shop, as it takes most people a good fifteen minutes to circle around to this side of the mall.
The store’s entrance glitters from the overhead lights and afternoon sunshine peeking in through the glass ceiling. It illuminates the store in such a way that it resembles a dream, making my shopaholic heart thud inside my chest. I stroll into the doorway, savoring the quietness while I can before the swarm of shoppers begin their migration.
Autumn clothes adorn the interior, mannequins modeling flannel tops, skinny jeans, and leather ankle boots. Counters are positioned at an angle towards the center of the store, displaying various amounts of sparkling eyeshadows and liquid foundation in an array of shades. The other counter displays a selection of perfumes and colognes.
I turn to the left and begin scanning the autumn coats. I pick up a tan and burgundy jacket with pockets stitched in the front when the smell of mahogany and pine fill my nostrils. I freeze and watch as the tiled floors and fluorescent lights around me shift into muddy soil and a rainy sky. I am twelve years old again.
“Tucker! Come back!” I yelled, racing down the dirt pathway with my legs flailing behind me. The rain pattered down on my bare arms and legs, my feet squishing in mud with every step. Tucker skidded to the right, his tiny legs kicking up dirt. I followed after my small dachshund, growling in frustration.
I’d forgotten to close the back door behind me when Mama asked me to take out the trash. I hauled it over my head, my weak arms struggling to hold up the trash bag bulging at the seams. Tucker raced out from behind me and into the open dirt path as I tossed the bag into the dumpster.
I stopped at a rounded corner of our farmhouse, heart pounding and breathing erratic, whipping my head in both directions. Tucker was too fast, and I lost track of him in the rain. I groaned, throwing my head back. “Tucker!” I yelled again.
A blur of black and tan caught my eye on my right side, and I jerked into action, taking off running once again. I turned another corner and nearly crashed right into a cherry-red bicycle with a young boy riding on top.
I yelped, stumbling forward, and the boy rolled forward, toppling into an inch-deep puddle. I dropped onto the muddy ground, catching myself on my hands and knees. Tucker ran past me, prancing towards the fallen boy.
“Hey!” I stood up on wobbly legs and walked over to the boy. Tucker was nipping at his feet, the boy giggling. I pointed an accusing finger at the dog. “You are in so much trouble, mister!”
“What did I do? You were the one who jumped out in front of my bike,” the boy responded.
“Not you, my dog.” I scooped up Tucker and he wiggled and thrashed in my arms. “Are you alright?”
The boy stood up, clothes sopping wet and hanging off his small frame. He was smiling. “Are you kidding? That fall was epic!”
I screwed my nose up. “Seriously? It’s freezing out here and you think falling into a puddle is epic?”
“Not my fall, yours! You should have seen your face.” His eyes widened in mock horror and he held his hands up by his chest, letting out a high-pitched shriek. I narrowed my eyes at him, and he bent over cackling.
I huffed and swiveled the other way, already stomping back to the house.
“Hey, wait!” He jogged up next to me, wrapping a bony hand around my wrist. He used the other hand to wipe his soaking blonde hair away from his face. A few strands resisted and stayed clinging to his forehead. “Callum,” he said, grinning. He unpeeled the hand from my wrist and held it out for a handshake.
I stared at his hand warily, still angry about the earlier insult. His hand lingered and he held my gaze. I huffed at his resilience and set down the wriggling dog in my arms. Tucker took off running towards the house. “Mary,” I mumbled.
“Nice to meet ya, Mary!” He shook my hand wildly, making my entire body jiggle. He leaned closer to me and a whiff of something sweet and woodsy filled my nose.
I sniffed and arched an eyebrow at him. “Are you wearing cologne?”
He stiffened and shrunk back, ears turning pink. “Maybe. It’s my Papa’s. He says it makes him feel stronger and braver. He puts it on whenever he takes Mama on a date. Says he still needs bravery because he gets nervous.” Callum put a finger at his throat and imitated a gagging motion. “It’s called evergreen something. I can’t remember the name.”
I crossed my arms. “So, why are you wearing it?”
“To give me bravery, of course!” He set two fists on his hips and puffed out his chest. A second passed before he shrunk back down. “Do you want to know a secret?” He inclined his body towards mine again. I inhaled the pungent scent. “I don’t actually know how to ride a bike. That was my fifth time crashing today—a new record. I figured Papa’s cologne would help me, you know, overcome any fear I had of riding a bike.” He grimaced. “So far, it isn't working.”
I peered over at the bicycle where it was now lying on its side from the crash, mud plastered on the wheels.
“Do you know how to ride a bike, Mary?” he asked, bobbing up and down on his heels.
Now it was my turn to shrink back. “Yes.”
Callum grinned, showing off crooked teeth. “You do not!”
“So? Maybe I don’t want to learn how to ride a bike,” I argued, sticking out my chin.
He scoffed, rolling his eyes. “Please, every kid our age wants to ride a bike. Can I teach you?”
“So that I can fall on my face and you can say six times is the new record?”
“Come onnnn,” he said, dragging out the word. His hand was already back on my wrist, pulling me towards the bicycle. “Maybe I’ll learn better if I have a support buddy!”
I glimpsed over my shoulder as he led me away from my house. Mama wouldn’t mind if I was out for just a little while. “Fine, but I won’t enjoy it,” I said, turning back to him.
“We’ll see about that," he responded, gleefully.
Callum and I spent the rest of the cloudy afternoon trading turns on his bicycle. I was unwillingly made to go first and discovered I was a natural. The pedals gave way under my weight, guiding me through the uneven terrain. Callum became instantly envious of my natural skill, swearing that his bike would refuse to ride for him now. I laughed and aided him with his position on the bicycle, telling him it was all in his stance. No slouching, it needed to be a perfect posture. I had no idea if that was true, but it seemed convincing enough.
After three more collisions and one successful five-foot ride, we concluded that it was time for a break. Callum led me back to his house where we collapsed on his porch swing. It creaked under our weight, swaying back and forth languidly. His mom brought us lemonade and we gulped it down promptly.
I wiped sweat off my brow and peered across his lawn. “Hey, you can see my house from here,” I said, pointing to a faded, dark-brown roof.
Callum nodded, cup still hovering over his mouth as he tipped his head back and attempted to retrieve any last droplets of lemonade. He popped an ice cube in his mouth, lowering the cup. “I know, I’ve seen you out there before.”
“Stalker,” I teased.
He rolled his eyes, but pink tinted his cheeks. “I was riding over to your house when you crashed into me this morning.”
I cocked my head to one side. “You crashed into me, thank you very much.” He made a humming sound and tipped the cup to his mouth again. “Why were you coming to my house?”
A beat passed as another ice cube fell into his mouth. He crunched on it before answering. “To see you.” My eyebrows shot up and he shrugged. “I’ve wanted to hang out with you since my family got here, but I never had the courage.” The pink in his cheeks darkened. “I thought today was as good as any, since we’re moving next week and all.”
I felt my heart skip a beat and I gripped my cup a bit harder. “You’re moving?”
“Yeah. We only came down here for the summer. Mama and Papa like to travel a lot and they thought the mountains would be a nice change of scenery.” He kept his gaze down, fiddling with the rim of his glass.
I swallowed, nodding slowly. I lifted my own cup to my mouth and popped an ice cube in, mimicking Callum. I bit down on the coldness. We were silent for a long time. I could still smell his evergreen something cologne, though it was mixed with sweat and humidity now. “Do you know where you’re going?” I whispered, finally.
He shook his head.
I pursed my lips. “I don’t have a phone or an email. Mama won’t let me have one of those until I’m a teenager.”
“Same here,” Callum grumbled. We fell silent again. “I should have run over you with my bike weeks ago, huh?”
“Yeah, that would have been preferable,” I said, a small smile playing at my lips despite the disappointment settling in my stomach.
“We don’t leave for another week, so we can play everyday until then. Maybe I’ll even become a bicycle champion by then!” Callum turned to me and his blue eyes sparkled.
I chuckled. “That’s highly doubtful.”
“Worth a shot,” he said, his smile lopsided. “We’ll leave it up to fate after that. Mama always says that God has a plan for everyone, so if it’s meant to be, we’ll see each other again.”
“What if that’s years from now?”
“Nah, it won’t be. I guarantee it.”
I pursed my lips, tapping a finger to my chin. “Hm, alright then. But I won’t forgive you if it’s longer than that. Pinky promise?”
“The pinkiest,” he assured, holding up a lanky finger. We laced our pinkies together and shook them once—an unbreakable promise.
Callum’s mom came out a second time, refilling our cups with chilled lemonade. We sat there for the rest of the evening talking and sipping out of our glasses. I stayed until the sky began to darken and Mama beckoned me back to the house.
Callum and I did as we planned and rode his cherry-red bicycle for the rest of the week. We took turns resting at one another’s house, sharing lemonade and grilled cheese sandwiches. We read books under trees, played fetch with Tucker, and danced in the rain until it was time for him to leave.
He didn’t become a bicycle riding champion by the time the week was over. But he did come close.
He left the next Sunday. I hugged him and breathed in his evergreen something cologne, wondering if he ever told his dad that he borrowed it. I watched as their family’s van drove away down the dirt-covered road.
I waved, tears burning in my eyes. Callum waved back.
My heart is hammering inside my chest. I place a hand over it, afraid it might jump out if I didn’t stop it. The scent of evergreen something still lingers behind me and I brace myself, hope billowing in my chest. I try to push it down, telling myself not to give in to false hope. After all, it’s been ten years.
I turn on my heel, the world turning with me in slow motion, and find myself staring into familiar blue eyes.
“Callum?” I croak. He smiles. It’s the same as I remember.