The bench stood empty, a rare occurrence for a spot that had the best view of Cape Fear. So they took it, grinning around dripping red popsicles at their good fortune.
She wound her sticky fingers around his, and for a second he didn’t feel the surge of the sun or the dusting breeze off the river. He just felt happiness, and her.
“Wait,” Jay said, spotting something on the shore. He jumped up and grabbed it before the gentle waves could pull it back.
“What is it?”
“It’s for you,” he said, handing her the shell. It was pearly pink, her favorite color, and as delicate as her tiny hands. She inspected it for a moment, then declared: “I love it.” Jay knew this pure joy was special.
“Let’s play a game,” Jo suggested, her tiny feet kicking the weathered wood and her Popsicle-stained lips turned up to the cloudless sky.
It was an innocent suggestion that would turn into a tradition, though they didn’t realize it that day. It was the first day of summer after third grade, at an age where three short months seemed infinite. There was endless hope in that first day; the day that would set the tone for the summer to come. So much pressure, so much promise.
“Let’s go on a treasure hunt.”
“Without a map?” Jay teased, but he was already jumping up from the bench. He’d jump into Cape Fear in winter if she asked.
“Come on!” Jo was like a bird taking flight when she was excited. They took off toward the water, directionless kids on an imaginary mission, the bench anchored behind them until they returned.
“What about newspaper?”
“We could play a sport.”
“It’s not going to be that bad.”
It was twilight in August. They were laying on the bench, feet to head, a comfortable and rehearsed position. They started high school in three short days, and Jay wanted to reach out and smooth the wrinkle of anxiety that appeared between Jo’s eyebrows.
She was worried about making friends. Jay was too–worried that she would make friends, that she would leave him behind. He had watched her light grow throughout junior high, so much that it would blind him on occasion, when he let his guard down. They had been inseparable, through the painful betrayals of pre-teens, the fleeting moments that seemed like the end of the world but were forgotten in the manic rush of a new day.
But Jay felt something building, for the last two weeks, and it was growing in its darkness. Junior high was one thing; their little bubble couldn’t be penetrated by the pettiness of their peers. This bench, this spot, was always here for them to re-calibrate. He comforted Jo when a girl in English started a hateful rumor, her eyes streaming but still proud, having waited all day to cry so those girls wouldn’t win. She held his hand when he failed Calculus, not speaking but with silent understanding the hell that awaited him when he went home. They were safe in their bubble, at least outside the school walls, and the mere knowledge of that waiting safety was enough to propel them through the mire.
High school was a different animal, and one that Jay feared their bubble couldn’t survive. Three junior high classes would be fighting for space and status in Woodley High, and all those kids would see her, and her light. He could lose her.
Jo had gotten uncharacteristically quiet. They spent so much time together that he interpreted her silence correctly as worry.
“Jo.” He tugged on her hand, forcing her to turn away from the glaring sun and see his uncharacteristically sober expression. She immediately grew serious–or, for Jo, as serious as she could be.
“Jay,” she mocked his tone, eyebrows drawn together like a reflection.
“People would have to be blind to not like you. Deaf, probably, and at least a little psychotic.” She smiled at his exaggeration, squeezing his hand in gratitude. But he wasn’t exaggerating, not even a little.
“Promise me…” she turned back toward the sun, closing her eyes to the glare.
“Always,” he promised.
The awkwardness in the air was palpable to Jay, even as he ambled the last 50 feet toward the bench. He kept telling himself to act normal, hold it together. After all, not much had changed…except everything.
It started slowly. Jo, for all her worrying, had turned into the darling of Woodley High, currying favor with not just the ruling set, but all the sets. She fell quickly into her niche with soccer, drama club, and student government. At first, it was timing. “I have practice today,” she said, and he knew he saw the regret and pain in her face. The next time, something else emerged. “I have plans with Brynn and Shay,” she apologized, hesitating for half a second before crying: “Come with us!” It was pity, but there was something else too. It wasn’t until Jay got home that night, shutting his door to the sound of his parents arguing, that he realized what it was.
First: apprehension. And at the sound of his rejection, there was something else.
Jay knew, very early on, that he didn’t fit into her new world. But he didn’t know that she knew, too.
He sat on the bench, their bench, the first to arrive. He stared at the stars around the cold cloud of breath and tried to steady his nerves by counting to ten, a ritual that always quieted the voiced overlapping in his mind. Before he got to six, he felt her presence and turned.
Her smile was radiant, but there was a tremor of nerves underneath her gleaming teeth. “Happy first day of summer!” Jo’s usual words, squealed in joy, were betrayed by a shaky timbre.
He tried to keep it light. “It’s summer? Are you sure? It’s only 45 degrees.”
Jo laughed, a genuine giggle that instantly shot him back to warm afternoons in the woods, digging up soft soil with their small hands, looking for treasure. She was convinced they’d find gold; he always knew he already found it.
“I’m glad you came,” she said sincerely, taking her seat on the bench.
“It is tradition,” he allowed, his face still turned toward the river, afraid her laser eyes would see through his blitheness. But even without seeing his face, she knew.
“Jo,” he mocked her serious tone.
“You know I’m sorry.”
“For everything. For this year. For not…being there.”
“It’s cool.” Tears were gathering in the corner of his eyes, but he’d be damned if she saw them.
“It’s not. I should have made more time with you. After what happened with your mom, and the divorce…” She trailed off, feeling the sudden change in atmosphere from awkward to angry.
“What could you have done, Jo? Skipped a soccer practice to mediate the battle royale? Convinced my mom to fight for custody so I wouldn’t be left with the monster of a father I have now? That might have cut into your social life.”
“That’s not fair,” Jo said quietly.
Jay knew it wasn’t fair. But he couldn’t stop now. The resentment and the hurt that had simmered under the surface for the last nine months was erupting into a volcano of fury and insults.
“I guess I wasn’t important enough to make time for. Even after all the promises I made, you didn’t need me. I needed you, but you weren’t there.”
“Jay, you know I needed you. I still need you.” She pleaded, but in a quiet voice that only made Jay want to shout louder.
“It’s not the same.” He was pacing now, closer and closer to the river.
“Why?” She was standing, but intuitively knew she shouldn’t walk any closer to Jay’s jerky movements.
“You know why.” It was almost a whisper, and she barely heard it over the rushing river.
He heard the pleading in her voice. The silent appeal for him to take it back, to not speak further. That only made him more angry.
“I love you, Jo. I always have.” A thousand year silence hung between them. He saw the tears shining in her eyes as the moon hit them.
“Jay, I can’t…I don’t…”
He walked past her, out of the park. He didn’t feel the cold anymore.
The phone rang a week before graduation. Jay snatched it up mid-ring, staving off his father’s ire, which was ignited like a match to a tub of gasoline when he was a pint of whiskey deep.
He froze, and for a moment he weighed his father’s drunken anger against this uncomfortable conversation.
“Jay, I know you’re there. Please, just talk to me.”
It had been 3 years since the night at the bench. 3 long years of quiet nights, empty weekends with the door locked to his trigger-finger dad. 3 years of watching Jo in the hall, laughing with her friends, flirting with student president Mark, staring past his lone figure like he never existed.
He knew why Jo was calling. They had mutually, silently, eschewed their summertime traditions for the last 2 summers. But graduation was looming, with their longtime plan hovering like an awkward but unforgettable plan.
“Listen, you don’t have to say anything. But we talked about this for years, and I don’t want to let one silly fight come between our big plan. I’ll be at the bench after graduation. And…there’s something I want to tell you.”
Jay held his breath for a beat, then hung up. He laid on his dark sheets in his dark room, trying to force sleep. Trying to slow his breathing. Trying to stifle the blossom of hope that stirred in his heart.
One Week Later
Jo tapped her nails against the worn wood of the bench. She had them done for prom, and they still looked pretty good, but they were going to chip away with worry. Is he even going to show up? Over and over, a buzzing refrain that she had to contend with since she called him last week. Half of her didn’t want him to, so she could label him selfish and unworthy, so she wouldn’t feel guilty anymore. Half of her was desperate to see him, to invoke the tradition laid out on this bench years ago, to quiet the anxiety she felt with the approach of graduation, college. Of the end.
Her eyes were closed tight to the wind, but she felt him before she heard him. She waited a beat to turn around, afraid to spook him. When she did turn, her heart somersaulted into an abyss.
Jay was so much thinner than she remembered, so much darker. Haunted. The word popped into her head as she saw his eyes, always alive with mirth, now deadened by years and months and days. Jo straightened her shock into a smile, suddenly dreading the news she had to tell him. It seemed like a simple breeze would tip him over. But she owed him this–this night, this promise, this news.
“I’m glad you came,” she whispered, and a shadow of the old Jay crossed his face, if only briefly.
“Promises are promises.” A ghost of his old humor hung in the air, as thick as the summer heat.
“I brought the flashlights.”
“Let’s get started.”
They started into the blackness of the trail by their bench, a trail so familiar that even ten years of neglect couldn’t pause their feet from following the magnetizing path from memory.
Jo let five, ten, fifteen minutes go by before she forced the words.
He wasn’t going to make this easy on her. She couldn’t blame him. There were so many words left unspoken between them, but the bridge was so long she couldn’t see the end from where she stood. All at once, she knew the words she had to tell him were the last brick in the mausoleum, the last plank on that bridge that would be impossible to cross. She couldn’t find the words at that moment.
“Jay, I love you.”
Those weren’t it.
He turned to her, his eyes alive for the first time that night. Despite the deep darkness of the woods, he stood completely still, almost like an animal in the presence of a predator. Fight or flight.
“Let me finish,” she pleaded, and the big “but” slashed the hope out of his face like a sword.
“I don’t love you like you love me, but I do love you.” He had to understand. “You’ll always be my best friend, even if we haven’t…I mean, even if I didn’t…I’m trying to say I’m sorry.”
“I don’t need your sorry,” he replied mechanically. Like he rehearsed the words, knowing what she was going to say. But she hadn’t even gotten to the worst of it.
“We wasted the last few years not speaking, and I don’t want that to happen. I want things to be like they were, before high school. The kids who buried this time capsule, who dove into Cape Fear in January, who told each other everything.” Jo felt the tears coming, and took a few steadying breaths.
Jay didn’t respond, but he stopped walking, staring at the ground. She thought he was going to speak, but suddenly realized: they were here. Where they found the treasure and came back a year later to bury their own. It was like they stood on the graves of those two kids, the inseparable children who had the world ahead of them and an anchor firmly at their sides.
She couldn’t take it anymore; the truth was brimming over the surface like a cauldron about to erupt. “Jay…Mark and I are getting married. We decided to go to Duke together, and he proposed last night. I’m telling you because…because I want you to be happy for me. As my best friend.”
Years passed; continents were spanned before he moved, even infinitesimally. When he did, she couldn’t see his face, that shrouded in the darkness as it was. For a second, she didn’t recognize this person in front of her.
Jay turned slowly, walking back down the path the way they came. Just before he was out of earshot, he said something that she almost didn’t catch over the roaring in her ears.
“Things won’t ever be like they were.”
Jay was back in that spot, the 10×10 square of land he had taken to calling the cemetery, because that’s where he knew his life ended. He was digging, his fingernails bleeding, the cut from the broken bottle that was smashed above his left eye still trickling blood, ignoring the rocks digging into his knees and the tears streaming hotly down his face. His mind no longer ran wild with voices, arguments, or lashings. For the first time in years, it was white noise. He had a singular goal.
After twenty minutes, or eight years, or a lifetime, his hands hit the cold edge of metal that he was searching for. With the caution of a bomb squad captain, he lifted the box out of the soil, almost smiling at its tiny size. Back then, it had seemed so huge.
He opened the lid, ignoring the faded items that had weathered the years underground. He added one thing, closed the lid, reburied the box, and walked away. He didn’t look back.
Jo was sitting on the bench for what seemed like hours. She had arrived before sunrise; the sun had set an hour ago. She hadn’t moved, save for running her fingers along the wood every few minutes. The sharp pain reminded her to keep breathing.
The last pass of her frozen hands caught the edge of something new. She reached under the bench and felt a square of paper, firmly attached under her side of the seat. With a dark premonition, she unfolded it.
It was a treasure map.
Jo bolted to the trail so fast her head spun. She had to take a few deep breaths at the foot of the path, repeating the calming procedures her therapist prescribed 8 years ago.
It had been 8 years since she got that call.
Jo didn’t need the map, even after all this time, but she followed it carefully, recognizing the painstaking lines and angles, her tears blurring the sharply drawn compass in the corner, remembering.
Mark had answered the phone. Her hands were full with Maisie, who was still breastfeeding six times a day. He was laughing at something Mark Jr. said, some stupid knock-knock joke that he was suddenly obsessed with. His laugh froze, and even Jo could hear the slurred shouting from the other end.
The fork in the path was up ahead. It was like no time had passed since the last night they were here, and the force of that memory was like a prizefighter’s punch to her gut. She kept going. Soon enough, the tree emerged, and even from twenty feet away, she saw the remains of the ‘X’ scratched into the base of the tall oak.
Jo grabbed the phone from Mark, handing him Maisie in the process, a dark, foreboding feeling already growing inside her. She couldn’t understand the words on the other end, not strung together. But she knew.
Grass, leaves, twigs, and various wood creatures stirred the ground beneath her feet over the years. But her eight year old self dropped to her knees and began to dig, at the exact spot where the treasure lay dormant. Unchanged, undisturbed, she assumed.
But when she unearthed the box and opened the lid, one thing was different. A little newer, a little more special than the childish things that lay beneath it.
It was a seashell, perfectly pink.
Back at the bench, Jo gripped the shell in her hand. She remembered that day so well. They had the summer before them–full of promise, full of opportunity. Like their lives.
Without thinking, Jo tossed the shell into Cape Fear, where Jay had tossed himself eight years before, and watched it sink, out of sight.