Romance Coming of Age Contemporary

Julia glared at the frozen map on her phone; the words ‘No Service’ stubbornly clung to the corner of the screen.

“Dammit,” she shouted. “Where the hell is this place?” 

Moments later, she pulled into an old, rundown gas station. Reluctantly eyeing the peeling paint and cracked windows framing the flickering ‘open’ sign—she could almost hear her mother’s voice lecturing her about judging books by their covers—Julia took a deep breath, grabbed her purse, and made her way inside.

“Mornin’,” said the grizzled old man standing behind the counter—William, according to the embroidered patch on his grease-stained overalls. “Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” said Julia. “I think I’m lost.”

William laughed. “Well, you ain’t the first, my dear. Apparently, I’m in the middle of somethin’ called a dead zone; does wonders for my business. Anyway, if you tell me where ya headin’, I’ll try to point you in the right direction.”

“I’m looking for St. Anthony’s church?”

“I see,” said William, scratching his chin. “Well, I’m not sure anyone’s gonna be there on a Saturday mornin’, ‘specially not in the middle of June.”

Suddenly remembering her faded yoga pants and paint-stained hoodie, Julia blushed. 

“Oh, I’m getting married today,” she explained, quickly adding, “but not like this. My dress is in the car.”

“Well, congratulations.” 

“Thanks,” said Julia, flashing a wry smile. 

A hint of concern in his eyes, William promptly turned his attention to the leaning pile of faded newspapers stacked beside the register. “Anyhow, I think I got an ol’ roadmap around here somewhere. Just bear with me.”

Exploring a nearby magazine rack, Julia hummed along to the faint melody of a vaguely familiar song while absent-mindedly thumbing through the outdated titles. “Wow,” she whispered. “These have been here a while.”

“Yeah, I’m afraid this place has seen better days,” William admitted with a laugh. “Anyway, I finally found it.”

As he carefully spread the tattered, coffee-stained map across the counter-top, a single sun-bleached photograph suddenly appeared from between the folds. 

“Well, I’ll be,” said William. “I wondered where this had gone.”

At first, Julia took little notice of the sepia-tinged image, but as tears began to pool in the corners of the old man’s eyes, a closer look revealed a beaming young couple standing side-by-side, hand in hand, beneath a large oak tree.

“Wow,” she said. “What a beautiful dress.”

“The most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on,” said William, gently pinching the corner of the Polaroid and handing it to Julia. 

“She was your wife?” 

“Still is,” said William, following a long pause. “And always will be, I suppose. Anne was the love of my life, and ours was better than anything you’ll read about in a book.”

Julia gave the picture a final look before gently setting it down on the counter. “What happened?” she asked, her interest irrevocably piqued. 

William leaned back and folded his arms. “I appreciate you humoring an old man, but don’t you have a wedding to get to?”

He’s right, she thought to herself. I was supposed to be there an hour ago.

Despite a looming sense of obligation, the promise of a timeless love story quickly quelled the nagging voice in her head. “Oh, I’m pretty sure they’ll wait for me,” she said. “Please, if you don’t mind?”

“Oh, alright,” said William with a laugh. “This here,” he said, tapping the picture, “was taken the day we got married. Twelve hours later, I was on a plane headin’ off to fight. If I’d known how long I was gonna be gone, I never would’ve left.”

“My grandfather fought in the war,” said Julia. “Though he never really talked about it.”

“Well, I certainly can understand why. Coming home from war is like waking up from a nightmare; it’s something most men don’t ever wanna revisit. Unfortunately, my nightmare continued long after the fighting stopped.” William winced.

“I’m so sorry,” Julia said. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t—”

“No, it’s fine. I don’t mind,” said William. “You see, two days before the cease-fire, I was shot down behind enemy lines. Damn near ten years they held me. I was what you call a political pawn, and well, I suppose neither side wanted to take me off the board.”

Wrapping her hands over her mouth, Julia whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. Most men in that prison had nothin’, but I had Anne,” William explained. “And it was the thought of coming home to her that kept me alive. By the time they released me, my house belonged to someone else, my parents had long passed, hell, even my dog was in the ground. Nothing was the way I left it, ‘cept for my Anne. I’ll never forget the way it felt when I got off that plane and saw her standing there, beautiful as the day I left. I seriously wondered if I’d died and gone to heaven. Of course, I was a wreck, but Anne was patient with me, and we soon settled into the life we’d promised each other.”

“Wow,” said Julia. “That is an amazing story.”

William hung his head and rubbed his eyes. “Unfortunately, Anne got sick.”

Julia gasped.

“Come to find out she’d fought off the cancer while I was gone,” William continued. “But shortly after I came home, it returned with a vengeance. Three years later, I said goodbye to my wife for the last time. The doctor said she’d been living on borrowed time for a while. I’m pretty sure that borrowed time was the Lord’s doin’, and in my eyes, that more or less makes Him and I square. Anyway, to make a long story short, I bounced around and eventually moved out to the middle of nowhere, bought this here gas station, and now I suppose I’m the one waiting.”

“Oh,” Julia said, trying in vain to save her mascara. “That’s so...sad.” 

William reached across the counter and took her by the hand. “Please, save your tears. Don’t you see? I’ve been blessed to know true love. Few men can say that, and even fewer actually believe it when they do.”

They momentarily locked eyes; where she’d expected to find bitterness, Julia saw only gratitude. “Thank you for telling me your story.” 

“Thank you for listening,” said William, returning his attention to the map. “Now, St. Anthony’s shouldn’t be too far from—”

“I don’t think I need directions anymore,” said Julia.

“What d’ya mean?” 

“I just realized that I’m about to get married for all the wrong reasons,” Julia explained. “I want your story, and that’s never going to happen if I walk down that aisle today.” 

“I see,” said William, on the heels of a long sigh. “Well, far be it from me to give a young lady advice on her wedding day, but I’d urge you to double-check with your heart before doing anything rash. A pair o’ cold feet ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of.”

“I know,” said Julia. “But I don’t think mine were ever that warm to begin with. I mean, despite some mild narcissistic tendencies, Paul’s a good guy, but he’s never once looked at me the way you just looked at that picture of your wife, and I think I’d rather wait for someone who will.”

William took a deep breath. “Well, why don’t you take this here map, anyway.”

“But I—”

“I insist. I don’t need it anymore. Besides, at the very least, you gotta know where you’ve already been if ya don’t wanna end up drivin’ round in circles.”

Map in hand, Julia returned to her car and rolled down the windows—for the first time in her life, the road less traveled felt like the right direction.

December 10, 2021 17:12

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James Brook
10:49 Dec 22, 2021

I like this. You're never quite sure which way it's heading until the end. Good stuff.


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Kendall Defoe
17:15 Dec 18, 2021

A very sweet story. Well done!


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