A mile up the fire trail, we’d barely spoken at all. She crunched behind me a few steps, in a satin camisole and delicate leather sandals, worn jeans fit to the thigh. Raven black hair in tight curls fell about shoulders. Her cheeks gleamed with sweat. She wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. I didn’t ask why.
Things had changed after ten years. We’d both gained weight, her more than me, but it suited her, softened her curves. When Lauren stepped from her old purple Geo in the parking lot she’d folded her arms across her belly and blushed. It had taken a few moments to find her eyes with mine and a few more to work through the awkward greetings to embrace.
I stopped and waited for her. “It’s just up ahead, I think. It’s been a while, sorry.” I said.
“It’s as you say,” said Lauren. “Just up ahead, left at the fork.”
The trail rose upward. As we climbed, the sunlight flickered and faded. Thick clouds drifted overhead. The wind picked up. Drops of rain spattered on leaves.
The rain fell in a drizzle, then in cascades. I took Lauren’s hand and ran for the tower.
We escaped the worst of it. Under the stairs to the first landing, we caught our breath, out of shape and laughing at the fact. The tension melted for a moment. Something of the girl I used to know – I used to love – crept into her big brown eyes. It vanished as quick as it came. Lauren cleared her throat and I dropped my pack to the ground. From it I pulled a wooden cross, a bouquet of white lilacs and my camera.
“Do you remember the place?” she said.
Lauren took the flowers and cross.”Go on up. I’ll take care of this.”
The stairs were slick, but I managed to climb to the cab without incident. I stepped inside. Rain pounded the tin roof.
The cab was empty. Someone had removed the tower scope, but a dark, circular imprint remained where it was bolted to the floor. To the left, in the wall, I jiggled the loose board free, and sure enough, in the alcove behind, I found what we came for: the cigar box.
I found Lauren waiting below. She nodded to the old stone shaped like a bench where the three of us used to sit together. The cross jut from a crack in the stone and the flowers lay at its feet.
I showed her the box. Lauren stepped close. I slid open the lid.
It was just as we left it: hundreds of Polaroids from each of hundreds of days spent on top of John’s Rock, sectioned by year. We didn’t know why he did it. Neither did Malcolm, at first. But he was meticulous, and eventually, as our senior year approached, he figured it out. “Day by day we change,” he’d said. “I don’t want to lose what I was. What we were.”
Every photo we sat in the same position. Me on the left, Malcolm on the right and Lauren between. I leaned forward, head on my hands, Lauren sat straight up, hands in her lap and Malcolm clasped his knees, feet on the rock, astride the crack in the stone. Our faces changed with each photo, plump cheeks to jutting cheekbones, peach fuzz to goatees and beards, eggwhips and perms and shaved to the scalp. Fads echoed the times: Manic Panic, ear plugs, Smiths tee-shirt, cardigans, Doc Martins, Jncos, wallet chains, thick mascara and toward the end, when apathy truly set in, the fads disappeared. The final phase was “whatever’s on the floor” and “why bother shaving” and “I don’t want a haircut.”
The rain stopped. In each of the last photos, Malcolm looked thinner and more pale, a stark contrast to Lauren’s long brown arms and my ruddy face. I flipped to the last photo. It was of me and Lauren in funeral clothes. Black suit, black dress, not posing, just sitting on the bench rock. I held her hand in my lap. Ten years ago to the day, I had quailed before Malcolm’s casket, so we drove to the park and set up his camera. But it came out wrong. All wrong, but we didn’t care at the time.
I held up the photo, pinched between my index fingers and thumbs. Lauren nodded. I tore it in half and then in half again and tossed the shreds aside. “Alright. Let’s do it,” I said.
“Seat’s a little wet now,” said Lauren.
I set the timer on the camera. Lauren plucked twigs and moss from the stone and adjusted Malcolm’s cross, his flowers. She sat next to him, hands in her lap. I joined her, elbows on my knees, chin forward. The camera clicked and flashed. Rainwater slowly seeped into my pants. I held still and counted in my head.
“Was that ten?” I said.
“I think so,” said Lauren. She touched my shoulder. “Thank you for this.”
“It was a good idea. I’ll send copies of everything once I have them scanned.”
“Just the old pictures, please.”
“Just the old. You keep these if you want.”
Lauren brushed off her rear and walked toward the path down the hill.
I stuttered. “Let me grab my things. I’ll walk you down.”
“No need,” she said. Lauren stopped. “I want to remember who we were, Devon. I don’t need a reminder of who I’ve become.”
Lauren attempted a smile, turned and then disappeared down the path.
“And who exactly is that, Lauren?” I mumbled. “Do you even know?”