By Christian C. Chiakulas
A blister in time.
What should have been that never was.
Don't forget the old future.
One of many, but not the one.
* * * *
It was June 26th, so Philip had to go down to the creek by Thatcher's river. He dreaded the task, but he had been waiting all year for it. No point in backing out now.
Philip got out of bed and yawned. It was early, not quite time yet. He got dressed (casual today, it had to be casual; nice short-sleeved shirt and shorts) and went downstairs where he poured himself a bowl of cereal and ate while listening to the drone of the news on television set. On other days he might have paid attention; today was different, however, because it was June 26th and Philip had other things on his mind.
Philip yawned again, then felt butterflies in his stomach as he caught the hands of his mother's wall-mounted clock in his peripheral vision. It was nearly time.
He went back upstairs to his room and pulled on a pair of socks. He still hadn't unpacked completely, even though he'd returned home from college three weeks prior. He would keep putting it off, he thought, until somebody (read: his mother) made him do it.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, Philip breathed deep and clasped his hands together. He then got to his feet and walked over to his desk, where there lived a downturned photograph in a frame, its stand sticking up at an awkward diagonal angle. He couldn't bear to look at it most days, but today was not most days.
Philip turned the picture up and looked into Margaret's face, stringy red hair falling all about her eyes, smiling at him even after everything he'd put her through. He smiled back, ashamed of himself (and too ashamed to admit it.) Then he turned it over again, hiding her judgment, and opened his desk drawer. Inside was the turtle necklace she had given him for his birthday. He took this in his hands, feeling its cold smoothness for a moment, then pocketed it and marched around towards the door and left first his room, then his house.
It was muggy and humid on this June 26th. Last year it had been clear, temperate, and blue, Philip remembered. In the low seventies, a nice gentle breeze, not a cloud in sight. Perfect day. It was a perfect day.
Philip was eighteen, not nineteen, and hadn't even been to college yet. He was walking to the river to meet Margaret, his friend from high school (which had only ended a month before, not even!) and they were going to go for a long walk together. Philip guessed it was a date, even though the two of them had never dated each other before, or even shared anything more than a hug and a pen, both on the last day of school (the pen was Philip's; he used it to sign Margaret's yearbook and then let her use it to sign his) when they had first agreed to hang out at least once more during the summer. And now it was happening.
“We're both going to school in Chicago,” Margaret had said. “We should hang out during the year too.”
Philip nodded. They were feet away from the riverbank, her closer than him. Thatcher's river was especially lazy today, drifting along beside them, their third companion. A fish flopped out of the water somewhere in the center of the river for a just moment before falling back in with a thick splash. Philip looked at the ripples spreading across the water for an equally brief moment, then sideways to Margaret.
“How come we never hung out before this?” she asked him.
“I don't know,” he said. “We sort of did. There were the dances, and parties-”
“I mean us,” she cut. “Just us.”
Philip shrugged, his hands in his pockets. “I guess I was too afraid to ask you,” he said.
“Why would you be afraid to ask me?” she asked, hurt.
“Because I like you,” he replied. There, it was done. He'd told himself that he was going to do it, and now, by God, he had done it. Now, no matter what happened, he could go to bed tonight feeling proud of himself.
“So?” she asked so regularly that it jolted Philip's stomach. “Then you should've asked me sooner!”
“Margaret, what do you mean?”
She looked down at the ground and put her hands in her own pockets. Her small freckled nose was scrunched up; she was thinking. Philip had noticed that she did this whenever she thought especially hard about something in 7th grade, when they'd taken math together. From then it would still be two years before they became friends.
“Well,” she said, “I like you too. And we should've hung out sooner. I guess it's my fault, too. I could've asked you.”
Philip shrugged again. “It's nobody's fault,” he said.
Margaret stopped walking and seized Philip's arm, pulling his hand out of his pocket as she did so. He turned to face her, an eyebrow raised.
“Can I kiss you?” she asked.
“I never asked you to hang out even though I liked you. I wanna make up for it. Can I please kiss you?”
Philip could not find the words in him; all of the sounds and syllables were there, but they would not go into any order recognizable to the human ear. Margaret smiled at his silence, leaned forward on her tiptoes, and kissed him on the mouth.
Now Philip was standing in that same place, looking past where Margaret had been standing, on a murky river. It had seemed so much clearer then; so transparent and simple. Bugs stood out on the water, and every few seconds, a fish would flop out to eat one, then flop back in, making a medium-sized ripple across the already rushing water of the river. It was working full-time today, apparently.
Philip removed the small ivory turtle necklace from his pocket and gripped it tightly by the chain. It was no good to him anymore; the Turtle would not help him.
Mr. Turtle, Margaret had liked to call it. Him.
“Goodbye, Mr. Turtle,” Philip said under his breath. He held his hand out over the river, yet his grip tightened and his hand shook. He'd been planning this for months, dreading and yet praying for it, only to choke now? Those months should have been plenty of time to 'get over it' (or so he'd told himself) and now it was time to let go. Let...go...
Philip shot his arm back, his heart racing. A few months might not be enough time to get over a relationship as serious as his and Margaret's, after all. But he did want it to be special, that was true. Next year, then, and if he got over her before then, well, he'd just keep Mr. Turtle safe in his drawer until then. Wouldn't even take the thing back to school with him, come fall. It was just a necklace.
No, Philip needed just a bit more time. Breathing a sigh of relief, he pocketed the turtle again, turned around, and began walking back home.
* * * *
Jack awoke on June 26th with a spring in his step. He was going to meet Ally down by Thatcher's River, just like they'd agreed at the end of the school year. It was their first time hanging out outside of a school function. They talked on the internet sometimes, yes, and once or twice on the phone. They were “friends” he supposed, but now they were to be something more; even if they didn't start “going out” they would be more than just “friends.” He would be her friend, and she would be his friend.
He ate a bowl of cereal and ignored the morning news on the TV until the digital clock on the microwave told him it was time to go meet her.
It was a gorgeous day, low seventies, blue skies, and not a bug in sight. The river was a few blocks away from his house, and Jack savored every step of the walk through the suburban street that took him to this new chapter in his life.
“Are you psyched for college?” Ally asked him when they were finally together and walking down the riverbed together, just feet away from the calm water. The river had been polluted horribly when Jack and Ally were children, but in the last year the village had undertaken the project of cleaning it out. It was for the first time in nearly sixty years crystal-clear, and fish were starting to return. Jack privately thought that this was a good thing, but never said it out loud as he didn't want people to know he spent time thinking about Thatcher's river.
“Yeah,” Jack replied. “I guess. It's just more school.”
“Yeah, you're right,” Ally said. “Still, it'll be nice to get away from here for a while.”
“I thought you were staying here?”
“Well, I'll be downtown. I mean away from my parents, mostly.”
Jack laughed. “True that,” he said.
The two of them walked together in silence for a long moment. Jack snuck a sideways glance at her every time he thought he could get away with it, which was quite often. She was wearing a pretty white skirt and matching blouse, which contrasted nicely with her dark black hair. He noticed that he had been walking with his hands in his pockets, which could be construed as rude, so he took them out. Ally's skirt had no pockets, and she swung her arms back and forth gently as she walked, looking lovely.
“Hey, Jack...” she finally said, stopping. He stopped and turned to her; she followed suit so that they were facing each other.
In that moment there seemed to pass a lifetime's worth of conversation between them. Jack would never describe it, but he felt as if the two of them had already lived together forever. She'd been everything he wanted for longer than he cared to remember, and now it felt like he'd gotten his wish.
But that wasn't right...the more he thought about it, the more he recognized that the feeling which passed between him and Ally at that moment was a feeling that they had almost lived an entire lifetime together, had almost been soulmates before even now. Did that make sense? Not in words, but words are what the mind understands. Jack's heart understood the feeling very well in time. And he did end up spending a lifetime with Ally.
Jack was cut off by a sound from somewhere back the way they'd come. The two of them snapped their necks to the side, Jack left and Ally right, and saw a very old man standing by the riverbed some fifty feet away from them. He looked to be at least eighty years old, and yet stood on the uneven ground with no sign of weakness or fear. The two of them watched as he raised a hand over the river and dropped something into it. They could hear the faint plop! as whatever the item was hit the water, and then the man turned to them and waved. Not knowing what else to do, the two of them waved back. The old man stood and looked out over Thatcher's river for a moment longer, then turned around and began walking back towards the sidewalk. Within a short minute or two, he was gone.
“Wonder what that was,” Jack said.
“Were you about to say something to me?” Ally asked.
Jack opened his mouth to tell her that it was nothing, then something behind her caught his eye. “Hold on,” he said, then ducked past her.
It was a necklace. An ivory-carved turtle was looped around a rusted silver chain that had caught on a branch as it drifted past them in the water. Jack reached a hand out and seized it. It came off of the branch easily, and he wiped it dry on his shirt.
“Wonder why that guy threw this out,” Jack said, showing it to Ally.
“Oh my God, it's so pretty!” she exclaimed. Jack smiled at her.
“Jack, no, you found it-”
Without waiting for a reply, Jack kissed her on the mouth. She overcame the surprise rather fast, taking his head in her hands and pulling him closer. She had been waiting for him to do this for longer than she cared to remember.
When they finished, Jack put the necklace on her and she admired herself in the reflection made by the water for a few moments. Then the two of them had walked away from the river, hand in hand, towards their future, a future which had come late, but had come nonetheless.
As they walked away, the first fish to swim in Thatcher's river in decades flopped out of the water for just a short moment before plopping back under, creating a circle of ripples that expanded across the otherwise-calm surface of the river with a careless ease, spreading outwards forever and ever and ever.
- - -
Christian Charles Chiakulas has been writing since the age of thirteen, drawing influence as much from popular fiction as from literary greats. He grew up outside of Chicago, IL in the suburbs of Oak Park and River Forest.