Tom started at the old high school, what was left of it.
Crumbling buildings only half of which had roofs; dead weeds choking what had once been a magnificent botanical garden; drinking fountains long-since coated with the dust of renovation and years of changing weather. Everything had a dry, dusty feel, and Rachel was glad she’d brought along a bottle of Mount Franklin.
“See that square of grass over there?” He was pointing off into a distance so distant she had to squint to try and make it out. She failed. But she nodded anyway. She didn’t want to let him down, and pretending to match his enthusiasm was the best way she could think of to keep him happy. You should never have to lie to the one you love, her mother would have said. But her mother wasn’t here, and she didn’t know what it was like. She was old and decrepit and out of touch by now. So Rachel nodded, and hoped her own eyes gleamed with an excitement to match his, or at least to come close.
“We used to sit there at lunch time—and recess. We sat in the dorks’ corner.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.”
This time Rachel’s smile wasn’t forced. She turned it on him and fell to her favourite pastime—studying him, appreciating him for the nerd he was. Tall, skinny, gawky even; his glasses weren’t that thick but he couldn’t really do much without them. He was red-haired and freckled to within an inch of his life. He wore a Temple of the Dog shirt and black jeans. A clean but worn backpack hung precariously from one shoulder, but he stood as if he’d forgotten about it entirely. He gazed off toward that distant patch of grass—Rachel could only assume it was all dead grass by now—unaware of her scrutiny, a fond smile on his face.
“Hard to believe,” Rachel agreed, still smiling at him. Then he came back to himself, looked to her, winked and took her by the hand.
Oh god, she loved it when he did that.
They walked all around the school ruins, and for a while Rachel actually lost herself in the walk down Memory Lane. Even if they weren’t her own memories, she’d always enjoyed Tom’s stories of his high school antics. Childhood too—he was a funny guy. Still, she was impatient to get on with their day, or rather, get closer to their night.
The school was just the beginning, though. They drove around town in Tom’s battered old Mazda 323, visiting old haunts and sharing the stories to go with them. Mostly, they were Tom’s stories—Rachel was from interstate and so her old stomping grounds were out of reach for the time being—but on occasion there was cause for Rachel to conjure some old memory of her own and share it. Tom shamed her with his attentiveness at those times; surely she could never reciprocate the way a good girlfriend should. But he wasn’t bothered—it was all in her head. Like so much of what plagued her every day.
“Okay,” Tom said at one point as they turned a corner onto a main street, “the house is coming up on your left.” The car slowed and Rachel craned her neck, very nearly pressing her face to the window in anticipation.
That was when she saw it.
Tiny, brown-bricked and teetering on stilts. You could see all sorts of crap underneath it, like it was the neighbourhood rubbish tip or something. Easier than gathering up all your stuff and heading to the real tip. Windows were broken, roof tiles were missing and weeds grew through the cracks in the porch. The porch.
Oh, and speaking of the porch, it totally sagged. You wouldn’t want to step up onto it, ‘cause you might fall down.
The way Tom had always talked about this place, Rachel had envisioned it as some kind of magical hideaway, a little fairy house tucked away in some mystic, lush garden. The garden wasn’t precisely lush, more overgrown and out of control. An example of nature rising up to reclaim its territory. In this case, human beings had stepped aside and let it have its unruly way.
She was still trying to comprehend what she was looking at as Tom’s car drew to a halt at the side of the road. “So, what do you think?” he asked, dragging her unceremoniously back to the present. “Pretty amazing, huh?” Um…yeah. “I mean, I grew up there. Trippy, right?”
“That’s really it?” she asked, trying to keep the disappointment from her voice.
“Yep,” he said with a nostalgic grin, “and yet, look how I turned out.”
At that, another genuine smile appeared on her face, and she squeezed his hand. “You turned out just great.”
“Wanna explore the backyard?” he asked.
Her heart sank. “Um…well… Is it safe?”
“Hmm…maybe not. We won’t go in or anything.” No shit, we won’t. “But you know, the grass should be safe.” Except for snakes and rats and stuff, right? There was a brief silence before Tom tugged on her hand and she turned to him. “But if you don’t wanna go in, it’s cool.” Looking at his face, she knew he was telling the truth.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “It’s just…”
“Don’t even say it.” He smiled and leaned over to brush his lips over her cheek, making her shiver. “I get it. And you’ve seen it now, anyway—that’s all I wanted.”
She watched him for a moment, waging an inner battle he was unaware of. Then she smiled and said, “No, let’s go—I want to see the backyard.”
The delight on his face then told Rachel she’d made the perfect decision.
They explored the backyard like intrepid adventurers, and nobody got bitten by any snakes. To Rachel’s surprise, a happy memory of her own childhood snaked its way into her thoughts as she climbed a particularly magnificent tree in one corner of the yard. In the memory, she and her best friend Josie had made a treetop fort—or that was what they’d called it—and had played Star Wars games. Rachel had been an Ewok called Kowee, while Josie had insisted on Princess Leia—Josie had definitely had the long, dark hair for it.
“Careful,” Tom called, laughing delightedly as Rachel climbed even higher. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“That’s nice of you,” she responded breathlessly, flippantly, “but I’ve got it.” Because suddenly she did have it—her confidence, something she’d been lacking for far too long. She was good at pretending, but this was the first time in a long while that she hadn’t had to. The smile that bloomed on her face at that moment was like the sun breaking through clouds.
“You’re so hot,” Tom murmured into her hair as she fell into him again at last, having forsaken the tree for his arms. “And you’re awesome.”
“So are you,” she giggled, and pressed her mouth against his. Gently. She liked to be gentle. But then suddenly things got a little less gentle. So much so that she thought her hair might be standing on end. There was a strange buzzing sound in the air—no, it was in her ears.
“Okay,” Tom gasped, pushing her to arm’s length from him, “we’re going before you get me into trouble here.”
And they picked their careful way back to the car hand-in-hand, the delight of the day shining on both their faces.
On the road again, they left Tom’s childhood climes behind. As they hit the highway once more, Tom said with a shake of his head, “Yep—that’s my neighourhood.”
This time, when he looked at her, she was smiling so much it hurt her face.