Time in Willow Creek: 12 months, 5 days
Art club let out early one night, but Juliana wasn’t ready to go home yet. She asked Kevin if they could go to the Modern District again and look around. The last time she was there, she wasn’t able to enjoy it. Similarly to last time, Kevin parked near Hare Square Park where they began their journey around the loop. It was a beautiful night: a little cool with a light breeze. The air in that area smelled of salt being so close to the ocean opposed to the earthy smell at the museum. Windenburg’s geography was so varied unlike that of Willow Creek, Oasis Springs, and Newcrest. One day soon, she hoped to be able to see it all. Kevin was an excellent tour guide and pointed out all the facts and interesting tidbits about the area along the way. She enjoyed his commentary, but even more than that, she enjoyed stopping and gazing upon all the water features. They were lit so perfectly, every light serving a unique purpose.
She thought they were all so majestic and wanted to look at them all at once, so she chose to sit on a nearby bench.
Kevin joined her. “You ok?”
“I just want to watch.” Her eyes bounced between all of the fountains like an intense tennis match.
He smiled. All of Windenburg’s beauty was old news to him, but he was glad she was getting an opportunity to experience what he had so many years ago.
A young couple strolled by and caught Juliana’s attention. They each had an arm wrapped around the other’s waist. She wondered if they were married. Sitting next to Kevin, she thought about his wife. “What was your wife’s name?”
He didn’t mind the question, but it surprised him. “Caroline.”
“What happened?” She hoped it wasn’t an inappropriate question.
He hesitated, weighing his words carefully. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “She was sick,” he said to the air and bowed his head.
Juliana’s older sibling next to her age had died from illness, but she was too young too remember what that felt like. However, she remembered how her parents were. It was a very painful time, and she almost regretted asking Kevin to relive that pain. To her surprise, though, he lifted his head and continued the story.
“She had a lower respiratory infection that had gone untreated for too long.” He paused as the memories flooded his mind. A heavy sigh escaped his lips, and he began to shake his head. “I wanted her to see a doctor… She didn’t like medicine and doctors. She said she was fine and insisted on drinking herbal teas and whatever.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “She got worse.” His leg was shaking. He sat up and crossed his arms across his waist. “One night,” he cleared his throat, “she was having trouble breathing. I begged her to go to the hospital. She said she would be fine. She just needed to burn some incense.” He snorted. “I couldn’t stand seeing her suffer like that, but she was so stubborn. I let her do what she thought was best for a little while, but of course it didn’t work. I actually had to pick her up and carry her to the car to make her go.” He chuckled. The laughter was brief though. His expression went blank. “They ran a bunch of tests, and… She was more sick than we knew. Sh-she was dying.” A lone tear fell down his cheek. Juliana placed her hand on top of his and held it. He hadn’t made eye contact with her since he began the story. He smiled at her before he went back to talking to the air.
“They said there were treatments she could do that would prolong her life substantially. She wouldn’t do it. ‘I don’t want all those chemicals burning my insides,’ she said.”
It amused Juliana that he tried to speak in his wife’s voice, but she didn’t think it was appropriate to laugh.
“She said, if she was going to die, she wanted do it comfortably at home with me. So…” He shrugged. “We went back home.” He stared out into the horizon trying to steady his emotions. “We enjoyed the next two weeks as much as we could, and then she was gone.” He attempted to keep the other tears at bay.
“I’m sorry,” Juliana said. There were certain elements of the story she didn’t understand, but the message he sent through his eyes and body language was very clear.
He couldn’t speak and only smiled. They sat in silence, looking out at the ocean with their own thoughts. She didn’t realize she still had his hand and carefully let it go. That snapped him out his lament. He dried his eyes and cleared his throat. “So… What about you? Did you have someone special back home?”
She blushed and shrugged her shoulders. “I went to school dance one time with the neighbor, but he was not my boyfriend.”
He snorted. Yet another reminder of how young and inexperienced she is. “So…when we went out…that was your first date?”
Technically the answer was no, but she nodded. She didn’t want to tell him about the disaster with Axel. Perhaps another time. Kevin felt strange though. He felt special that he was the first person she had ever gone out with. But at the same time, it made him feel weird about her age again.
“So you’ve never kissed anyone either.”
She shook her head and felt strange too. With the passing of time it became clear to her that she did not meet the expectations people had of women her age. The more she failed said expectations, the more self-conscious she felt. She knew it was just cultural differences, but this was her home now and she wanted to feel less like an outsider all the time. To add insult to injury, the pressure she received at home about her friendship with Kevin was making it hard to be ok with remaining as friends. On the other hand, what if she and he became something more, and he was the first person she ever kissed? That thought was very appealing to her.
He didn’t know what life was like for her socially at home, but he could imagine she may have had an admirer or two. She was smart, not bad looking, funny, and he could tell she probably wasn’t that shy at home. Surely someone wanted to kiss her. For just a moment, he let his mind wander farther than usual. What would kissing her be like? Would she even be good at it? I bet she has really soft lips. I wonder how she would react to a little tongue. How cool would it be to be the first guy she ever kissed! Briefly, just briefly, he considered offering her a beautiful experience she would never forget just so she could have a story to tell the next time someone asked her that question. And, in case they parted ways in the future, she had something to remember him by for the rest of her life. However, he chided himself for even considering such a thing. They weren’t together. They weren’t trying to be together. Additionally, Juliana wasn’t a prize to claim or a notch on his belt. How dare he try to swindle his way into her life’s story in that manner, he thought. And, to kiss her knowing how she felt…knowing he would enjoy it… “Are you ready to go home?”