By: Paula Jones
River LeBlanc is a woman of steel walls and secrets.
Even River's fiancee has trouble understanding who she really is.
But is this young woman's strength only a facade? Does she secure her secrets behind walls of steel because she isn't strong enough to face her past?
During this glimpse into River's life, she briefly returns to her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and comes face to face with her past. Find out where River's journey takes her...
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River LeBlanc is a woman of steel walls and secrets.
Even River's fiancee has trouble understanding who she really is.
But is this young woman's strength only a facade? Does she secure her secrets behind walls of steel because she isn't strong enough to face her past?
During this glimpse into River's life, she briefly returns to her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and comes face to face with her past. Find out where River's journey takes her...
Return To Home Page
“Beth, do you think this is the right purple for my hat?”
River glances up from where she stands behind the cash register.
All of the twenty dollar bills sit in her left hand, waiting to be counted.
Unfortunately, the last two customers in River’s Boutique, a short gray-haired woman named Mildred and her best friend, a tall dark-haired woman called Beth, are two southern belles who move with the speed of molasses on an Alabama winter's day and, quite unfortunately for River, neither of these matronly ladies have given even the slightest indication of leaving anytime soon.
“Wait, let me get my glasses Mildred, you know I can’t see a blessed thing without my glasses.” Beth slowly reaches into her ancient leather purse, fishes around for forty-five seconds, pulls out a receipt, mutters something about it being too late to pick up her dry cleaning and again reaches into her purse, finally retrieving her glasses as her friend shakes her head and teases,
“Bless your heart Beth! You’re as blind as a bat without those things, aren’t you?”
The dark haired woman clears her throat with surprising force and slowly waddles her way to Mildred, who patiently holds a pair of purple earrings up to her right cheek.
River stifles a sigh and steals a peek at the clock she’s had placed above the main entrance to her small boutique.
It is exactly five-thirty.
She promised Harvey she’d meet him for dinner in Huntsville at seven forty-five.
River wishes she hadn’t offered to close shop on her own, she now realizes she could use a few extra minutes to prepare for their dinner date.
Somehow, she’d have to manage making herself presentable before six-thirty, as it would take her an entire hour to drive to Huntsville.
“Well now, I think you should try a more eggplant purple. These earrings are practically burgundy.”
As the older woman says “eggplant” River hears her stomach growl.
She hasn’t eaten a thing all day.
Jade and Cathy had noticed.
After offering to manage the front of the shop while they ate lunch, her two assistants had returned at one PM and exchanged meaningful glances with one another when she’d refused their offer to eat her own lunch now that they were finished.
“You two don’t have to look at each other like that.” River gave them what she hoped was a friendly smile, “I’m fine, I’m just not hungry and we’re really busy.”
“Yeah, we’re so busy with our three customers!” Jade exclaimed as she reached into her pocket to pull out a piece of her favorite gum.
River watched Jade pop the bright pink gum into her mouth and she instantly took a step back.
The smell of Jade’s bubble gum was more than River could take…even after four years, there are some High School memories that will never be forgotten.
“Come on River, you haven’t eaten all day, we feel bad, you did this yesterday too.” Cathy said in her soft voice.
River gave the girls another grin as she took, yet another, step back...the smell of the gum was just too much. The last thing River wanted was to recall everything she'd been trying, so diligently, to forget,
“Really, I’m okay. I’ll eat lunch later, I have an interview to conduct in a few minutes so, let me get going. Um, thank you though, for being concerned.”
That wasn’t exactly true.
As of that morning, River’s interview with a potential hire had been cancelled.
The teenager, fresh out of high school, had called River with excitement edging her thick Alabama accent,
“Ms. River I’m so sorry, but I won’t be coming for an interview today, I just got my acceptance letter from the Fashion Institute in California and I’ll be moving up that way as soon as I can!”
River had calmly congratulated the girl and silently wondered at the intensity of her thick accent, which was something River often found herself in awe of as various Alabamians wandered through the doors of her small boutique. Even after living in Alabama for four years, she still found the local accents amusing.
Much less amusing, however, were the suspicious looks that her two assistants gave her as they shook their heads and called after her to “be sure and eat something because you're starting to look anorexic!”
River gave the girls one last smile and waved them away.
Behind her dismissive smile, she knew the truth...she is losing weight and she isn’t eating, but it has nothing to do with anorexia.
The truth is that ever since she’d moved to Athens, Alabama during the months of April and May, River is hardly able to eat a thing.
Though she often feels hungry, the moment a forkful of whatever food she’s been desiring touches her lips, a wave of guilt washes through her and more often than not, she returns the fork to the plate, the plate to the fridge, and herself, to bed.
But now…things should be different by now. River wonders as she sets the money on the counter and lightly rubs her temples.
Now, she had the boutique to keep her busy.
And there was also Harvey.
Absently touching the bracelet on her left wrist, the one Harvey surprised her with several months ago, River tells herself she’s found a catch.
Somehow, life has led her to a man who is as considerate as he is handsome and independent, and above all, he is the kind of man who doesn’t ask too many questions.
“Try the gold ones.”
“I don’t want to try the gold ones! I want purple earrings to match my hat.”
“They’re all the same. They’re colors.”
“Purple and gold are different colors! What are you talking ab-“
Glancing once more at the clock, River realizes that it’s time for her to step in, otherwise her date with Harvey won’t take place until sometime in the next century.
“Excuse me ladies,” River interrupts, “I’ll have to close the store in less than five minutes. How will you be paying?”
“Oh, we are so sorry. My friend here, just can’t leave before she gets her earrings for the game in Baton Rouge this weekend.”
River feels her heart do a flip-flop and she opens her mouth to speak, but no words come. They’re stuck in her throat, along with many other words that she’s kept to herself for far too long.
“Shhshh Beth! This is Alabama, we’re in enemy territory now!” Mildred gives her friend a nudge and throws River a playful wink.
Still too shocked to speak, River stares back and Beth mistakes River’s stunned expression for one of puzzlement.
“Oh, this young lady isn’t the enemy. You probably don’t even watch college football, do you dear?” Mildred asks as she finally approaches the register with the pair of earrings she’s chosen.
Finally regaining her senses and ability to speak, River nods and takes the earrings from the older woman,
“No ma’am I’m afraid I don’t. These are lovely earrings though.”
“Thank you.” Mildred says with a proud smile and a roll of her eyes towards her friend, “I had to pick them out myself since Ms. Colorblind here was no help! I might as well have brought my husband along with me! At least he would’ve paid for them!”
River smiles politely and scans the earrings.
“Oh come off it Mildred! Your husband’s still paying for it, you’re using his money aren’t you? And they’re not that great anyway! I told you, you should have gone with the gold ones!”
“That will be sixteen dollars.” River quietly says as she begins to bag the earrings.
Mildred reaches into her purse for her wallet and calls over her shoulder,
“Well this young lady thought they were lovely! That’s the very word she used: lovely!”
“Of course she’d tell the customer her purchase is lovely! That’s what she’s paid to do!” Beth retorts.
“Beth!! You’re so rough” Mildred shakes her head disdainfully and hands River a credit card as she gives her an apologetic look, “Don’t listen to a word she says dear, I can’t take this woman with me anywhere, she’s such a pain!”
River smiles again as she accepts the card,
“It’s fine, I’ve heard much worse and trust me, the earrings are pretty.”
River begins to run the credit card through and in her peripheral vision notices the woman watching her very closely.
Dread instantly fills River’s stomach.
“You look so much like a friend of mine from Donaldsonville, Louisiana.” Mildred mutters, “The resemblance is uncanny!”
River’s hand is trembling as she quickly hands the card back to the customer,
“Here you go, thank you.”
But she isn’t quick enough-
“What was that? Did you say something about Donaldsonville?” Asks Beth as she approaches the counter.
“Look.” Mildred points at River.
“Remember Betsy, from High School? The one who married Dudley and moved to Donaldsonville?” Replies Mildred.
“Oh!” Beth gasps, “My goodness! Heavens! She looks exactly like Betsy…younger of course. But the spitting image I swear!”
The room is suddenly warm and River glances at the clock.
If only these women would leave! She thinks to herself as she curses the genes in her DNA, the same genes that made everyone, with the exception of her father, in her family so recognizable!
Somehow, nature had blessed her father with slightly different coloring and unique features, he'd never be labeled on sight.
River, on the other hand, was a different story.
Anyone from south Louisiana would take one look at her olive skin, her green eyes, the distinctive shape of her nose... and their question would always be the same-
“Honey, you’ve got to be a LeBlanc... are you?” Asks Beth, placing a hand on her hip.
“Look at that! A LeBlanc all the way in Athens, Alabama! Well sweetheart, how did you get all the way up here? Are you from here or Louisiana?” Beth goes on, leaning against the counter as she stares at River.
Even though she knows this is no big deal, River feels her pulse quicken.
She's perfectly aware of the fact that one little conversation with some ladies who happen to be from her hometown will not send the past crashing back into her life.
One conversation and one little confession couldn’t possibly turn her into the girl she used to be…
“Yes, I’m originally from Baton Rouge. I moved here after High School.” She hands the bag to Mildred, who is looking at her curiously.
“Do you have family here?” Asks Mildred as she wraps her fingers around the small bag, “I can’t imagine wanting to move from Baton Rouge to this little old town in Alabama. We're only here because both of our husband's are from this way. What brought you here?”
“I -I…” River feels her lips twitch and the room is just too warm.
Taking a deep breath and hoping that she doesn’t look as disjointed as she feels, River finally replies, “I just like it here.”
“Oh.” Mildred nods as she backs away from the counter. The older woman takes River in with her eyes, and realizes that something kind needs to be said, “Well, you know what they say... home is where the heart is and if your heart is here in Alabama, then you’re home.”
River manages a smile,
“I guess that’s true.”
“Well, my heart is back in civilization which is where we need to head Mildred, if we don’t get on the road soon we won’t be back in Baton Rouge until –“ Beth loudly exclaims.
“OK, OK, I’m coming, let’s go.” Mildred rolls her eyes humorously.
The two women leave and River hurries to lock the door behind them.
But as she walks back to the cash register, as she counts the money, even as she’s locking the back door of her boutique and reaching for her car keys, the older woman's phrase lingers in her ears:
“You know what they say, home is where the heart is…”
As much as River wishes her heart was with her, there's no denying the truth.
Her heart had long ago been left in Baton Rouge.
Not Thinking Of Andrew
“You look beautiful tonight.”
River glances up at Harvey.
The soft glow of the flickering candle that sits between them sheds a romantic glow about the room.
The two of them are seated in a corner table of a cozy restaurant. Though they share the small dining area with several other couples, River is fairly sure that to Harvey, she is the only woman in the room.
This thought makes her smile,
“Thanks Har, so do you.”
Picking up her fork, she dips it into her salad and steadies herself for a bite.
With grim determination, she resolutely brings the fork to her lips.
But her mouth is closed.
Come on River, She mentally scolds herself, eat. Eat. It was so long ago…starving yourself won’t make it go away.
She slowly opens her mouth and all at once Harvey’s voice is in her ears,
“They don’t make the best salads here do they?”
Sighing, she sets the fork back down on her plate,
“No it’s fine.”
Leaning back in her chair, her stomach rumbling, and her memories haunting her, River tries to focus on watching Harvey as he picks up his fork and begins to dig into his salad,
“You know why I really love this place?”
“Why’s that?” River replies in the most lighthearted tone she can muster.
“The dessert. I know you’re big on cheesecake, so I really want you to try their vanilla bean and honey cheesecake. I think you’ll love it.”
“That sounds great.” River smiles absently and takes a sip of her water.
She’s so hungry she can hardly see straight, let alone think straight.
Just behind Harvey’s left shoulder, a tall waiter with dirty blonde hair walks by.
River’s heart does a somersault in her chest and all at once, the face that is all too often a part of her dreams is beginning to appear in her mind’s eye.
There he is, stuck in her head like a catchy tune.
His skin, tanned so much that it’s nearly as dark as hers.
His eyes, bluer than the sky on a perfect summer’s day, and his sun-kissed hair, always a little messy.
A simple name.
The most complex stories often begin with a simple name.
“Yes!?” Harvey’s voice startles her and she clears her throat before taking another sip of water.
His eyes flicker for a half a second to her untouched salad, but he quickly reminds himself not to worry.
He shrugs it off as some fad diet she’s too embarrassed to tell him about.
And if it isn’t a diet…He briefly thinks, with downcast eyes...well, is there such a thing as an attractive woman without an eating disorder?
If Harvey's past three years of serious dating had taught him anything, he now knew to never “casually” bring up eating habits without expecting a fight.
Fighting about food or anything else was something he never wanted to do with River. Until now they'd never argued, and he wasn't planning on breaking their winning streak.
Especially not tonight…
“Um, I asked how your day was.” He replies.
“Great, it was really nice. We had plenty of customers, so that’s always a plus.” River fakes enthusiasm, knowing that as long as she seems happy, Harvey will be happy.
She reminds herself that this is precisely one of the qualities she loves about him; his easy-going nature.
“Good for you! You know, your little boutique is probably Athen’s most inspiring success story. Someone from the local newspaper should do it justice and write an article about how at only eighteen you managed to start your own business…”
Andrew was the exact opposite of easy-going.
He was rarely satisfied with a simple answer.
In fact, his intensity was one of the qualities that had kept River fascinated by, and eventually endeared to, him.
“…so, do you think you’d like that kind of publicity for your boutique?”
River looks at Harvey.
He is staring at her with an earnest, and somewhat nervous, expression.
She has no idea what he’s talking about.
“Sorry, I didn’t understand, can you explain that again?” River repositions herself in her seat and tries to make herself pay attention as he delves right back into a re-description of his best friend from college, a journalism major.
Her mind drifts and there again is Andrew Green.
Usually, when he pops into her daydreams, she does all she can to remove the image of his profile and the sound of his laughter from her mind.
This is no easy task.
And tonight…River’s resolve is, for some reason, weakened.
Though she looks at Harvey, watches his lips move, and acknowledges his steady monologue with a slight smile, she doesn’t see him at all.
In her mind, River see’s a pair of white tennis shoes that she bought with all the money she’d saved from her summer job at the snowball stand.
Though she’d paid nearly a hundred dollars for the shoes, she’s purposely taken a sharpie to the outside heel of each of the sneakers. On the heel of her shoes is her best friend Hailey’s signature.
She is looking down at her shoes so as not to let Andrew Green see that her face is beat red.
She knows that if Andrew see’s her blushing, he’ll assume she has no game.
And, as any sixteen year old boy will do when he takes a liking to a girl who he thinks has no game, Andrew will give himself the upper hand.
River knows this because she’s watched both of her older brothers act this way with their conquests.
“So, why did you let her do that to your shoes?” Andrew asks.
River hears the smile in his voice and wishes she could stop blushing…at some point, she’s got to look up and let him see her face.
Keeping her head down, she thinks about the one time, two years ago that it snowed. It was so cold outside... fixing her mind on the snow and hoping that thoughts of the cold will reduce the temperature of her skin, she feels the wretched warmth continue to rise to her face as she wonders what Andrew did during his snow day.
Irritated by her seemingly uncontrollable reaction to this boy, River shades her face with her hand, as if to keep the sun out of her eyes and thinks of a new plan.
She points to Hailey’s signature on the back of her left shoe,
“That’s why. Read it.”
“It’s her name, isn’t it?” Andrew leans, ever so slightly, closer to her foot.
“Look again.” River urges.
Obediently, the boy takes a step forward and stoops down to look at her shoe.
Wow, his hair smells so good… River finds herself thinking as in one swift motion, she raises her foot to lightly kick him in the jaw.
“That’s why she signed it. If a cute guy stops to ask what’s up with my kicks, I’ll stop and talk to him, but if a guy I have no interest in stops to ask me the same question, guess what I’ll do?”
Shocked, Andrew rubs his jaw and stumbles backwards.
River watches him curiously.
He’ll either get mad, thus proving that beneath his pretty face he’s nothing but another jerk or he’ll ask her-
“Uh- I'm guessing I won’t like the answer but just cause I'm curious, what would you do?”
Relief fills her heart and sends another crimson tide to her cheeks, which Andrew, unfortunately, does notice.
He smiles, stops rubbing his jaw, and narrows his eyes.
“Would you, maybe kick him in the jaw?” He asks.
“Well, if I didn’t like him I-” Pausing, River holds out her hand and looks at Andrew expectantly, “-wouldn’t ask him for a pen and write my number on the back of his hand.”
Andrew grins and she watches him color as he rummages through his backpack for a pen.
Briefly biting down on her lip, River takes a deep breath and tries not to be too hopeful…
Though, if she really thought about it she’d have to admit that she’d always had something of a secret crush on Andrew Green.
Even so, she’d never approached him. For anything.
Not to ask him to hang out with she and her friends at the movies.
Not even to borrow a piece of paper in the Math class they shared…Andrew was the only boy in school who River couldn’t bring herself to ask out.
Her discomfort stemmed from several reasons.
First of all, Andrew wasn’t in her crowd.
He was one of the “smart kids”.
Beauty was a quality that River was quite capable of handling in a member of the opposite sex, but to have a mind that could see straight through her, left her a tad too vulnerable for comfort.
Secondly, although her best friend Hailey hadn’t confessed such out loud, River was almost sure Hailey had just as much of a crush on Andrew as she did.
Lastly, her feelings for the good-looking smart boy who’d never (until now) made a pass at her, were so strong that they scared her.
Ironically, River's fear of being overcome by paralyzing fear is precisely what moved her to finally conquer her bashfulness and treat Andrew to the banter she’d become adept in utilizing with other boys in school.
“Found one!” He exclaimed, nearly breathless, and much to River’s pleasure, still blushing.
Andrew handed River the pen and she felt her pulse quicken as she took his hand, gently turning it over…
Harvey’s hand startles her.
In her mind, there had been Andrew.
She’d taken his hand, turned it over and begun to write her number.
But in the present, Harvey is reaching across the table, requesting her hand.
Granting her boyfriend’s wish, River’s smile is sheepish as she extends her hand.
Embarrassed for having allowed her mind to drift so far into the past, she glances down at her untouched salad and unsuccessfully tries not to wonder if Andrew Green sometimes…occasionally…maybe just every now and then, still thinks of her.
Stifling a sigh, River gently bites down on her lip and forces her mind to the present.
Harvey not Andrew, Harvey is here, now. She scolds herself, Harvey is the sweet, wonderful man who sent me flowers last week, and he’s the man who tells me I’m beautiful nearly every time he sees me, he-
“I love you so much.” Harvey’s voice pierces through her thoughts.
His hand is clammy in her palm and his words are almost too much to bear.
For some reason, they’re literally overwhelming her and so she closes her eyes.
The first time she’d told Andrew she loved him, she’d been surprised as the words slipped out of her mouth.
Instantly hating herself, she’d turned away, not wanting to see the trapped look in his eyes.
No guy their age wanted to hear his girlfriend utter those three words!
Everyone knew “I love you” was a deal breaker.
That is, everyone except for Andrew.
For some reason, he’d grabbed her hand, held it tightly and quietly replied,
“What took you so long?”
At that point, she’d been released from her shock enough to be able to punch him in the shoulder and say,
“Andrew! You’re supposed to either say I love you back or make up some excuse to break up with me! You can’t just say “what took you so long”!“
“It was an honest question, and by the way I’m pretty sure I’ve been in love with you since that day you kicked me in the jaw-”
“You’re so weird.” River laughed.
“Well, you’re the one who loves me.” He grinned smugly.
In that moment, as Andrew reached for her hand, River felt safer than she ever had in her entire life.
For, this odd boy who’d somehow convinced her, the infamous “Bad Girl” of South Louisiana High School, to stop drinking and flirting with other guys, was different from anyone she’d ever known, and for some unfathomable reason, he wanted nothing more than to belong to her!
River could hardly believe that life was suddenly being so kind to her...
Harvey takes River’s strange reaction, the shock, followed by the closing of her eyes as proof of her sudden realization of what will next happen.
Mistakenly assuming that his girlfriend of ten months is in the know, Harvey motions to the violinist who has been patiently waiting in the corner of the room, and with River’s small hand clutched in his clammy embrace, Harvey inches out of his chair, moves closer to her, and at last settles to his knees.
River, more hungry than she’s ever been in her life, feels as though she’s been shaken out of a lovely dream.
All at once, Harvey’s voice is asking her a question,
“River LeBlanc, will you make me the happiest man on the planet? Marry me?”
Every eye in the restaurant is boring into her face, as the violinist, who seems to have appeared out of thin air, holds a note that will change only after she’s made her reply.
River looks into Harvey’s innocent hazel eyes.
He hardly knows me, River thinks as she stares into his admiring gaze.
But if I say no, he won't understand and, besides, what about the violinist? He'll be so embarrassed, he'll have to stop playing and leave the room filled with, instead of music, empty disappointment. It would all be my fault...and Harvey is a good man....
River takes a deep breath,
The note is released, music unleashed, and the small restaurant fills with applause.
Harvey’s hands are shaking as he gently slides the ring onto River’s slender finger.
River smiles, kisses her fiancee and tells herself that she will not think of Andrew Green again.
As Andrew’s name flashes through her mind, for what she hopes and prays is the final time, her smile falters and a blush creeps into her expression.
The warming blush leaves only as her eyes settle on the relieved man before her.
Tripping Down Memory Lane
Harvey is relieved.
Though he’d told himself River was sure to accept his proposal, there was this slight nagging doubt that had been gnawing away at his confidence from the moment he’d bought the ring.
She was distant, often lost in her own thoughts.
Harvey understood and accepted River’s reticence.
His mother had been the same way, a very quiet but pleasant woman who had never shared more of herself than necessary.
So, River’s personality was one that he had felt comfortable with from day one.
Even so, there are moments when he wonders how much she really cares for him…
To be honest, as a child he’d often wondered the same of his mother.
It's a stupid thing to worry about, he’d told himself on the night of his planned proposal, quiet people just express their affection differently.
Harvey leans back in River’s office chair as he sits in front of her computer.
Logging out of his email, he hears River grunt as she drags something up the stairs.
Why is she going up the stairs with her suitcase? He wonders, shaking his head with a smile.
“Everything alright Riv?” He calls, reaching for the soft drink he’d earlier retrieved from her refrigerator.
“Yeah, I just- I think I packed too many shoes…so I decided to leave one of my suitcases here.” She calls from the stairwell of her large condo.
“That brings us down to what, three suitcases?” He replies after taking a swig of the drink.
“Yeah, sorry. I know it’s still a lot.” She replies.
Amused by her apology, he decides to check his Facebook account, and double clicks on the Facebook icon at the top of the screen,
“That’s okay, my last g…” His voice trails off.
“What?” She calls.
“Um, nothing.” Harvey replies.
He could kick himself for being a half a second away from saying that his last girlfriend, Melinda, used to carry a minimum of seven suitcases with her anytime they traveled.
You didn’t talk about your last girlfriend with the, still mysterious woman who had, only seven days ago, agreed to marry you.
He’d once accidentally let Melinda’s name slip when he was talking to River, and he’d nearly passed out. Surprisingly, River hadn’t even seemed to notice.
Still, ever since, he’d been very careful about not mentioning Melinda, or sniffing the air and remarking that someone in the vicinity must have been wearing “Wanted”, Melinda’s favorite perfume.
...at least, it had been Melinda’s favorite perfume back when they were dating… these days, though he often thinks of her, he has no contact with her and, of course, no idea what scent she wears.
Glancing away from the computer and out of River's window, he allows himself to briefly wonder if there's any possibility of inviting Melinda to their wedding.
He knows it isn’t the proper thing to do, to invite an Ex-Girlfriend to one’s wedding, but she’d been such a big part of his life.
When he’d first landed his job at Kneely Law Firm, Melinda had been there celebrating beside him.
When his mother passed away, Melinda hadn’t left his side.
She hadn’t left until he’d asked her to.
Friends had called her a gold-digger, not to mention that she and her “Wanted” perfume hadn’t made the best impression on his boss.
Even so…Harvey , lost in his own thoughts, watches a bird land on the branch of a tall pine tree, there’s got to be a way I can make amends.
Returning his gaze to the computer screen, Harvey types Melinda’s name into Facebook's “Search” box and only then does he realize that he hasn’t accessed his own Facebook account.
Instead, he’s in River’s account and see’s that, apparently, River has received a message.
Clicking on the message, Harvey frowns into the picture of a handsome guy whose profile says he's from her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Instantly curious, he calls,
“Riv, who’s Andrew Green?”
Harvey waits for a reply and instead, he hears a crashing.
It isn’t all at once.
The loud continuous crashing is preceded by a barely audible shriek and the sound of a stumble.
Bolting out of his seat and running to the stairs, he finds River sprawled out on the bottom step.
Her right hand is covering her left ankle and grimacing, she, with the other hand, reaches for the banister.
Harvey speeds to the bottom of the stairs and helps her to her feet,
“What happened? Are you okay?”
“Uh,” Her breathing is shallow as she tries to get her bearings.
But, toughening up, she quickly pulls herself out of his arms, leans against the banister and nods,
“Yeah, I think I just twisted my ankle. Could’ve been worse.”
Immediately sensing her need for distance, he takes a step back and watches her carefully,
“Yeah, it could’ve.”
He then glances at the large suitcase laying, fallen and opened, at the foot of the stairs, its contents having apparently been haphazardly strewn along her staircase and floor as it tumbled down, “You should have asked me for help.”
River starts to follow Harvey’s gaze to the suitcase and is stopped by an alarming pain in her left ankle.
Trying not to grimace, she covers her pain by glancing down and tucking a strand of her curly brown hair behind her ear.
She's well aware of the fact that if Harvey suspects that she's been injured, he’ll insist on a trip to the hospital, and they'll definitely miss their flight to Baton Rouge.
Despite her constant attempts to dismiss memories of her old life, she can't ignore her longing for her family and she can't help but admit to herself that she's eager to return...eager enough to put up with a throbbing ankle until she's home.
“Yeah, I know. Could you help me get that suitcase back up the stairs?” She quietly asks.
Harvey, once again looking at his soft-spoken mystery of a girlfriend, wonders aloud,
“Maybe you should take a break and put your foot up? How about I get you some ice for that ankle? We’ll watch it for a few minutes and if it swells, maybe we should-“
“It-it won’t,” She stammers as she begins to slowly move up the staircase with a forced ease, “I mean, it won’t swell. We have to leave in thirty minutes, so can you just pick up my stuff, please?”
Harvey doesn’t know what to say.
River is the only woman he knows who absolutely refuses to complain about anything.
When they're together, every moment of every day is taken in with an unnatural effortlessness.
Though he admires the independence of character which sets her apart from the other socialite-types he’s fallen for…there are moments, when he finds himself wondering if River’s self-imposed restriction of expressed opinion in his presence is her way of distancing herself from him as opposed to an innocent desire to keep the mood intact.
Harvey looks at River as she gradually makes her way up the staircase, her back to him, and as his gaze moves to the ankle in question, he notes that it has already begun to swell.
“Riv, babe I hate to say it, but we should probably get your ankle checked out before we go.”
She pauses, stifling an annoyed sigh,
“No, it’s fine.”
With that, she continues the trek to her room, wincing with every step.
“It might get worse.” He calls after her.
“If it does, there are hospitals in Louisiana, its not actually a swamp you know.” Finally reaching the top of her stairs, she heads toward her room and calls over her shoulder, “Besides, no one ever died from a swollen ankle.”
Harvey shakes his head as he turns and stoops down to collect the scattered belongings (mostly shoes) which currently litter her stairs.
Melinda would’ve listened. He can’t help the thought.
One of Melinda’s most irksome, yet endearing, qualities was her need to be coddled.
She was an attention-seeking baby in the body of a beautiful woman who, unfortunately, had profoundly cheap taste in clothing and perfume…
As Harvey grabs a pair of River’s sleek black Jimmy Choos, he stops for a moment, glancing thoughtfully at the stylish shoe,
Melinda would never wear these.
He smiles, recalling how embarrassed he’d been on he and Melinda's first date.
Her sequined red dress, so low cut even he’d been mortified as he’d silently prayed that the wide-eyed maître d wouldn't ask the two of them to leave, had been set high above two shapely legs which were punctuated by a pair of cheap, siren red, eight inch heels.
If she hadn’t been so pretty, he bites his lip thoughtfully, I would’ve ditched her right then. Sometimes I wish I…no. I'm glad I didn't. She was worth it.
Sighing, Harvey tosses the Jimmy Choos into River’s suitcase and glances back towards her room,
“At least ice queens are better dressers.” He mutters.
Harvey is unusually quiet as he drives the two of them to the airport.
River steals a peek at him.
He’s grinding his teeth.
“Everything okay?” She ventures.
He doesn’t look at her as he replies,
“I was wondering the same thing about you.”
River frowns in surprise.
There’s no way he could know about Andrew-
Her thoughts are slapped back into reality by the still-throbbing pain in her left ankle,
“Oh. You mean my ankle?”
“Unless there’s anything else bothering you, yeah.”
Slightly alarmed, River purposely keeps her voice steady as she replies,
“No. The ankle's a lot better, I think it’ll be okay.”
“Oh-kay.” Harvey elongates the word in a way that lets her know something’s not okay.
Turning back to the scenery ahead, she watches the taillights of the car in front of them and wonders if she ought to dig into what’s bothering him.
They’ve never had an argument, but not because of an exceptional fondness for one another.
They’ve never argued because River purposely allows every one of Harvey’s annoying quirks to slide and Harvey, too afraid to lose the near-perfect fiancée he seems to have acquired, rarely allows himself to be irritated by her idiosyncrasies.
The car in front of them brakes and red lights flash into view.
River feels her pulse quicken as the image of the Baton Rouge ambulance’s red lights come to mind.
She pictures Hailey, being pulled out of the car, a battered vehicle that couldn’t possibly contain a survivor…her foot throbs and the croissant she had for breakfast feels as though it will make a second appearance.
River, catching her breath, and closing her eyes, turns to the passenger window and tries to rid her mind of the painful image.
“I’ll ask one last time.” She hears Harvey’s voice, lined with passive-aggressive annoyance, “Hospital or not?”
“Not.” She barks.
An SUV is in the lane beside them, and though she tries not to stare, she can see a blonde girl sitting in the backseat.
Blonde just like Hailey used to be…again closing her eyes, River knows she won’t be able to dismiss memories of her best friend…especially the memory of their last conversation…
It’s prom night.
The music, a song by Pink, fills the dance floor and dozens of happy couples have nearly melted into each other as they rock to the melody that fills their ears and racing hearts.
But River and Andrew are not among the couples.
River is in the bathroom, finally confronting the so-called “best friend” who’s been avoiding her for the past three weeks.
“…What’s wrong with you?!” She shouts, placing her hands on her hips and staring Hailey down.
But, Hailey won’t meet her eyes.
Not because she’s been drinking, which she has, River notices as her eyes dart to the small flask of something or other laying on the sink beside Hailey.
It's sadness that stops her friend from meeting her gaze.
For some reason, Hailey looks and acts like a wounded animal.
The pretty girl, normally perfectly groomed and smelling as sweet as her favorite bubble gum, reeks of alcohol as she leans against the bathroom sink for support, somehow stumbling over her own feet.
The bathroom door opens and one of the cheerleaders, a friendly but soft spoken girl named named Emily, pauses to take in the sight of the two warring former friends. Realizing that two of the most popular girls in school are on the precipice of a cat-fight, Emily quietly ducks out of the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.
“What do you think?!” Hailey spits out the sentence, folding her arms and as her mouth feels to have gone completely dry, licks her lips.
“Hailey! I honestly have no idea why you’re avoiding me! And then…Jenny Richard told me you said we weren’t friends anymore! What's wrong with you?! It’s like I don’t even know you anymore!” Shouts River.
She feels her raging anger become pure frustration.
Why, all of a sudden, is my best friend turning on me?
What did I do to deserve this?
It’s almost as if the second she’d admitted to falling in love with Andrew, she’d lost her one true friend.
With this thought in mind, River gasps.
Is this about Andrew?!
“Hailey, you...” River’s voice trails off and for a moment, the girl who takes pride in being fearless is too scared to utter the words that have made their way into her thoughts, “You still like Andrew?”
Hailey’s blue eyes are filled with tears,
“You didn’t know?” She hoarsely whispers, “You really didn’t know?!”
River shakes her head, dumb-founded.
During their freshman year, Hailey, much like River, had thought nearly every boy in their school was cute and sure she’d mentioned Andrew Green a time or two…but now? All of a sudden, during their Senior year to confess that she’d secretly still been crushing on him? And with an intensity that would move her to become jealous of River’s attachment to him?!
“Why didn’t you tell me?” River demands, cringing at the confused feelings coursing through her veins as the heated question leaves her lips.
Despite River’s frustration, it hurts her to see Hailey cry.
Worse yet, is the hurt she feels upon learning of Hailey’s reaction to the situation.
This moves River to take a step towards the crying girl as she repeats her question,
“If we’re best friends, then why didn’t you just tell me? Why’d you wait until I-I, until –“
Hailey shakes her head, and in the midst of her tears, she finds her voice,
“Until you fell in love with him? River, you can’t even say it! You can’t even admit you’re in love with him! You’re so fake!”
“What?!” River shouts, aghast at the accusation.
“Yeah.” Taking a deep breath, Hailey unfolds her arms and leans against the bathroom sink for support as the thoughts she’s kept at bay finally tumble into the present, “When we first were friends I thought you were so honest. You said whatever you thought, you did what you wanted and now- I know you’re never honest with anyone! Not even yourself! You think you have to be so hard all the time! You didn’t tell me you liked him, I had to figure it out myself, I had to figure it out after I asked Andrew out for the third time and he finally told me he liked you!”
“What?” River whispers, “What do you mean you asked Andrew out three times?”
“Yeah!” Hailey screams, “Do you know how stupid it feels to have a guy tell you, “I’m sorry but I really like your friend”? Do you know why he even talked to you about those dumb shoes that day?”
River can’t help but flinch as Hailey calls the BFF Shoes they’d made such a big deal of bonding over “dumb”.
Composing herself, she refuses to let it bother her and in a voice of steel replies,
“Because, like most guys in this school, he likes me.”
“No River. I told him to talk to you! I’d just been rejected by the jerk and because I’m an even bigger idiot than him, I thought…I don’t know, I thought if I couldn’t get what I want then at least my best friend could.”
River feels a chink develop in her armor and she glances down at the bathroom floor.
“But, ever since you and Andrew started seeing each other it’s like, you never talk to me and I have to see you, my friend who’s not even really my friend anymore, be with the one guy I can’t have! You get him and I get nothing, I don’t even get my friend!”
Hailey’s sobs stop her from speaking.
River glances up, see’s Hailey face and feels every metal piece that completes her armor fall from her chest.
“Hailey…” Her voice cracks and she walks toward her friend.
In the background, just outside of the bathroom is the cheerful sound of applause.
River, for focusing on her best friend’s sadness, barely hears a thing.
Just as she reaches for Hailey the bathroom door opens and an exuberant teacher pokes her head inside,
“River LeBlanc!! There you are!! You and Andrew have just been voted King and Queen, get out here now!”
River turns toward the teacher, unsure of what to do.
“Come on!” The teacher, oblivious to the crying and practically wasted girl huddled near the bathroom sink grins as she urges,
“This is history making, you’ll be our first African American Prom Queen! Everyone’s waiting.”
The teacher, impatient as the roar of the crowd increases, grabs the seemingly slow history-making student’s hand and River is barely able to turn back to Hailey as she hears her friend quietly murmur,
“We’ll talk Hailey.” River shouts.
The bathroom door closes.
She can barely remember what happened once she and Andrew set foot onstage, all she remembers is the blur of a cheering crowd… Andrew’s kiss…congratulations…her tiara slipping off…searching for Hailey…asking people, “Have you seen Hailey?”…going into the parking lot…hearing the screech of tires…running…sirens…an ambulance…two ambulances…other trucks…Hailey’s hurt…covered by a sheet.
She never would have left if it hadn’t been for the argument.
Her cheeks are wet.
“It’s my fault.” She whispers.
“No it’s not.” Says Harvey.
His voice startles her.
Coming out of the darkness of her thoughts, she quickly wipes her eyes.
“It’s not like you’re clumsy or anything, I think one of your steps needs to be fixed. Remember I said something about that a couple of weeks ago?” He glances at his fiancée, see’s that she’s crying, and nearly pulls over, “River?!”
She never cries.
“Allergies.” She clears her throat and sniffs loudly, “Do you have any tissues in here?”
“Uh, yeah, in the glove box.” Throwing her one more suspicious glance he maneuvers the vehicle back onto the main road.
Quietly blowing her nose, she then turns towards the window and as she gazes into the distance, an odd expression makes its way to her pretty face.
“Since when have you had allergies?” He quietly asks.
“For a while,” She mutters.
“I didn’t know that.”
There is a beat of a pause and River doesn’t turn to Harvey as she replies,
“I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about each other.”
In Flight And In Flux
“...We’ll touch down in cajun country in approximately two and a half hours. Please note that the fasten seat belt sign has been turned off by the Captain and you are now free to use multimedia devices, including Words With Friends.” Announces the Flight Attendant.
A few of the passengers laugh.
“I have a feeling Alec Baldwin would like this airline.” Harvey jokes, nudging River with his elbow.
She turns to him with a full smile and this does the trick.
Unable to see the effort behind her upturned lips, he sighs with relief.
“You’re so beautiful.” He whispers leaning close to kiss her.
As his lips leave hers he grins and adds, “Allergies and all.”
She laughs heartily and reaches for his hand.
Gazing into her eyes, Harvey immediately decides to dismiss every last one of the “unfounded reservations” he’s been allowing himself to think of and he silently vows to think no more of Melinda.
What’s done is done, and he knows he’s made the better choice.
As for River LeBlanc, her thought process is quite different.
Even though she reaches for her fiancee’s left hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze and pretending to revel in his adoring gaze her mind is as scattered as the contents of her fallen suitcase had been after tumbling down her stairs that morning.
Why, exactly am I marrying him? She frantically asks herself.
Because he’s safe.
Harvey is good and steady and he has no idea how selfish I am.
I let her die…he has no idea. He thinks I’m good, like him.
Then, why are you bringing him to the one place where everyone knows?
Because it’s home.
The questions clamor their demands, reverberating through the insides of her mind with answers popping up here and there and she feels as though she’ll explode into tears and anger and …everything.
Taking a steadying, deep breath, River turns to Harvey and sees that he’s fallen asleep.
Gently removing her hand from his, she watches his eyelashes flutter as he enters REM sleep and a feeling of sad tenderness fills her heart.
He really is good and he deserves to be loved.
What if I can never learn to love him? The thought panics River and she has to turn away from him.
She has to turn towards the window where puffy white clouds, as close as ever, are set against a perfectly blue sky.
For the first time in a while, her mind is slightly eased.
The sight of the vast sky, so wide, is proof of a world larger than the prison she’s created in her mind.
The prison, crafted by her guilt, keeps her locked away in her mind, distanced from potential friends.
But with her eyes lazily gazing into the clouds, she is finally able to, ever so slightly, relax.
Her stomach growls, reminding her of the fact that her only meal during the past three days has been the croissant she’d finally eaten for breakfast that morning.
She wonders if her once favorite restaurant, Bayou Rouge, is still in business.
Reaching for her cell phone, she pulls up the internet and as she begins to Google Bayou Bistreaux, notes that she has one message on the Facebook account she hardly ever checks.
The one thing she hadn’t wanted was to be tracked down on Facebook, but for the sake of her boutique she’d created an account in its name.
Though her boutique did very well, with only twenty fans so far, it wasn’t incredibly popular on Facebook.
Clicking on the message, River gasps and literally jumps with shock in her seat.
Harvey stirs at the sudden movement and River glances at him fearfully.
His eyes flutter and then he is still.
Her breathing is shallow and her hand is shaking as she reads the message from Andrew Green.
“River, it’s Andrew from High School. Hope all is well. How are you?”
The message, seemingly simple, is alarming enough to shift everything in River’s mind.
She, all at once, finds herself glancing around in a panic...are the walls actually moving towards me?!! What's going on?!
Reaching up with both of her trembling hands, she attempts to quietly grab the oxygen mask.
Even so, Harvey is awakened by the noise.
With one eye open, he watches her shaky movements.
She’s grabbing the mask, placing it over her nose and mouth, closing her eyes, breathing in and out as if she’s just recovered from an asthma attack.
Opening both eyes and bolting up he places his hand on her back.
Surprised at his touch, she jumps and shrieks loud enough for every passenger in the vicinity to hear.
Calm down! She mentally scolds herself, embarrassed as she turns away to face the window, avoiding Harvey’s gaze as well as the wide-eyed stares of other curious travelers.
“What happened?!” Harvey rubs her back.
She closes her eyes, wishing he’d move his hand.
Actually, she wishes that everyone would go away so she could be alone.
“River? What happened?” He helplessly repeats.
A new voice is nearby,
“Is everything alright over here?”
The Flight Attendant.
River removes the mask and still trembling, discreetly stuffs the phone into her pocket as she turns to the Flight Attendant,
“Do you know what I should do for a panic attack?”
Harvey’s eyes widen.
The Flight Attendant nods calmly and River is at once relieved.
The Flight Attendant is, thankfully, very helpful and River's relief continues for the duration of the flight and even flourishes as she introduces Harvey to her parents.
Before she knows it, River and Harvey are sitting on her parent's back porch, enjoying her mother’s homemade lemonade.
Only as River sips the refreshing lemonade does she begin to feel ill at ease with her sudden, newfound peace.
If life's occurrences have taught her anything, she's learned that comfort never lasts.
After much reflection on her brief happiness with Andrew Green, this was River's conclusion about life....
Never had she felt more alive than when she was with him.
He was the start of her knowing what it meant to be utterly understood.
In the past, she’d talked to boys who’d made her feel pretty.
Most of these guys were interested in her only for selfish reasons ...but with Andrew, everything was different.
River knew she was pretty, without being vain, she was able to look in the mirror and recognize the beauty that others appreciated. Still, she firmly believed that even if her features had been different, Andrew would still like her.
When she spoke, he listened. He hadn't gawked like so many of the others, or ignored her, busily thinking about what he could next say to trick her into letting him kiss her.
He wanted to know not only what she thought about every subject imaginable but why she thought the way she did.
This interest took her by surprise, at first, it had even sort of alarmed her.
Growing up in between an older and younger brother, in a home where love was found but where hugs and deep conversation lacked, River wasn’t used to being wanted in this way.
And then finally, after spending months laughing, talking, and even crying with Andrew, she learned how to say what was really on her mind.
But, the moment she'd adapted to this new form of communication, this new way to love another human... it was all ripped away from her.
Her best friend, angry with her, died in anger and the boy who’d led her to the discovery of what it was to be open and to love…she didn’t deserve him.
How could she?
If he knew that she’d been the cause of Hailey’s death, he’d never really accept her.
How could he when she couldn’t even accept herself?
With these thoughts, she’d had no choice but to leave, to move as far away from her past as her parents would let her.
So, at seventeen, before she’d even graduated from High School, her parents had allowed her to move in with relatives in the small town of Athens, Alabama.
There, River had been determined to become a person who was significantly different from the girl who’d caused the death of a beloved friend by abandoning her in favor of a selfish pursuit.
The moment she’d gotten comfortable with Andrew, it had all come crashing down…
So, sitting with a cool glass of lemonade in hand, River suddenly feels unsettled.
Placing her drink on the table she pushes it, and a bowl of untouched gumbo, away from her.
“You didn’t eat much.” Remarks her mother with an arched eyebrow, River’s drastic weight loss hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Though she’d visited her daughter less than a year ago, it had been during the winter, a season that wasn't marked by the tragic death of a best friend.
Harvey, reaching under the table, takes her hand in his own and heroically jumps to her defense,
“She always eats like a bird.”
“Hm, that’s different.” Remarks her father, barely looking at his daughter as he finishes his own gumbo, “When River was a kid she purposely ate more than both of her brothers combined. Everything was a competition with those kids, she was the worse about it too. Always had to outrun them, out wrestle them, outdo them at every little thing. She was a tough girl.”
River allows herself a tight smile.
“She still is... in a good way of course.” Harvey awkwardly remarks.
Though her parents are friendly enough, he feels acutely uncomfortable in their presence. For some inexplicable reason, no matter how politely they ask questions about his career, upbringing, and personal taste on various matters he gets the feeling that everything he says and does somehow disappoints them.
“Really?” River watches her father throw a look her way and then glance back down at his food as he says, “Sometimes being tough means being able to open yourself up to the past, facing it.”
Her mother clears her throat and instantly stands as she announces,
“ I made a peach cobbler. Would you all like to try some? Harvey, I especially hope you will.”
“Yes ma’am, of course.” Harvey quickly replies, confused by the slight upset that everyone else in the room seems to understand except for him.
“Then I’ll be right back with it,” Her mother starts towards the kitchen door and glances over her shoulder at her daughter, “River can you give me a hand?”
Harvey watches River follow her mother into the kitchen and when he turns to the older man sitting in front of him, sees that her father had been watching him closely.
Blushing, he hopes her father hadn’t thought him leering, because in actuality, he wasn’t. He’d been staring at her in confusion, wondering what on earth had happened to his calm and dignified fiancée’s personality since the night he’d proposed.
“How long have you and River been seeing each other?” Her father asks, taking a bite of bread.
Harvey tells himself to relax as he replies,
“Almost a year.”
The older man nods and Harvey quietly rejoices.
A nod, really any sign of acceptance, is welcomed.
“That’s about how long her mother and I courted.” Mr. LeBlanc sits back in his seat and goes on, “But I still didn’t know her. We’d gone to High School with each other for a couple of years, I moved away after that...but it only took a week for me to realize I'd made a mistake. I didn't miss this place so much, I missed her. So, I came back and we courted for almost a year. We were both nineteen when we married. Still, like I said, I had a lot to learn about her.”
“Now, after thirty-seven years I’ll bet you know her a little better, right?.”
“Only a little.” Mr. LeBlanc gives Harvey another close look, “Harvey, can I ask you a question?”
The young man braces himself for an interrogation,
“Yes sir, of course.”
“We want River to be happy.” He begins.
Harvey feels his heart sink….
“…especially while she’s here. So, what do you think we can do to make this return to Baton Rouge a happy one for our daughter?” He asks.
Harvey, realizing that the question hasn’t taken the direction he'd feared it would, clears his throat and thinks quickly.
He’s sure he can come up with an answer and he opens his mouth to reply,
“I think…I think…um.”
Abruptly pausing, he mentally reviews a few of the conversations they’ve recently had, searching for some clue as to what would really make River happy.
Nothing, though, comes to mind.
More often than not, he suggests an activity or topic of conversation, and she readily agrees, encouraging him to delve further into the topic he’s brought up.
“Um…” Not wanting to appear completely clueless, Harvey replies, “I suppose she’d like to check out a few of the local boutiques and you know, compare them to hers.”
He looks at Mr. LeBlanc.
The disappointment is in the air, settling between them, building a wall.
“Interesting,” Murmurs Mr. LeBlanc.
Harvey’s doubts about his relationship with River slowly creep back into focus.
In the kitchen, Mrs. LeBlanc glances affectionately at her daughter,
“I’m sorry about that.” She remarks, her voice quiet, “Your father just worries about you.”
“No need. I’m fine.” River automatically replies, gingerly moving on her ankle, to the oven where the cobbler has finished baking.
“River!” The alarm in her mother’s voice let’s River know that her swollen ankle has finally been re-discovered, “Your ankle! Does it hurt?”
River turns to see her mother, worried, pointing at her foot.
Glancing down at the throbbing ankle, the pain having been dulled by two Advil, sees that it’s even fatter than it was an hour earlier,
“Yeah, I should probably get it checked out.”
“When are you going to learn to stop trying to be so tough!” Moving towards her daughter, Mrs. LeBlanc stoops to touch the tender ankle and River winces, “You should have gone to the hospital right away! What happened?”
River shrugs, “It was nothing-“
Mrs. LeBlanc wordlessly interrupts her daughter by holding up her hand and shaking her head.
She lowers her voice,
“Tell me what happened.”
Even at nearly twenty-two years old, that tone of voice still manages to stop River in her tracks.
“When I was packing this morning, I tripped on my stairs and this,” She points at her ankle, “happened but I didn’t want to go to the hospital and miss my flight.”
Her mother gives her a careful look, one so intense that it makes River uncomfortable.
Time has softened her parents and, though pleasantly surprised by their attention towards her, she’s still not quite sure how to handle it.
Her mother finally speaks,
“In that case, now that you’re here I guess we’d better get it looked at.”
The After Hours Clinic is a new place that River doesn't recognize.
She feels silly as her parents coerce her into sitting in a wheelchair and even sillier when Harvey insists on wheeling her into the back.
“You don’t have to come in the room with me, I am a grown woman you know!!” Is what she wants to say outloud, but that was the kind of thing the untouchable teenage version of River LeBlanc would have said.
So, instead of alarming Harvey with such a rude exclamation, she smiles at him and quietly says,
“Thanks for your help Har.”
He returns her smile and shrugs good-naturedly,
“That’s what fiancées are for.”
Something in Harvey’s expression seems dejected.
River notices the slump of his shoulders and the way he keeps glancing away from her eyes.
She now wonders what Harvey and her Father talked about when she and her mother left the porch….Recalling her father’s pointed statement about running away from the past, she wonders if her Dad might have said anything to him about her past.
With a gulp, River suddenly recalls Harvey’s question earlier that morning.
The question that sent her spiraling down her own stairs, “Who’s Andrew Green?”
What if my Dad mentioned Andrew?! Would he actually have done that?…River is seized with a sudden chill that causes her to literally tremble.
Harvey looks at her with surprise,
She nods, not quite trusting her voice.
He starts to take off his jacket, and River looks away, beginning to regain her senses.
Of course Dad wouldn’t bring up Andrew, he barely knew him! Besides, it’s been four years since High School. Why would my Dad or anyone else even think about Andrew?...I’m the only one who does.
Her shoulders are warmed as Harvey’s jacket falls over them.
“Thanks.” She says quietly.
She half-expects him to linger over her shoulders and stoop down to kiss the top of her head as he so often does, but Harvey simply walks back to his chair and without another glance in her direction, plops into his uncomfortable chair.
He looks down at his hands, quietly sighing.
The small, white room is silent.
She glances at Harvey and wonders, for the first time since she’s known him, if he’s upset with her about something.
Opening her mouth, she starts,
“Har, what’s wro-“
The opening of the door interrupts her question and in walks a young nurse with long, blonde hair,
“Hey ya’ll, thanks for waiting so patiently!”
“Of course.” Says River, taking a closer look at the young woman, wondering if her slight resemblance to Britney Spears is the only reason why she seems so familiar.
But, the young woman pauses and gasps, her eyes widening as she takes in River’s face.
Emily Bergeron… as a blonde?
In High School, she was definitely a brunette! River notes, unable to suppress the grin that is seeping into her expression.
As much as she detests certain memories of High School, there’s no denying that she misses the kids she’d grown up with.
“River LeBlanc!!!” Emily screeches.
She pushes herself out of the wheelchair and Emily nearly topples her with a hug.
Wincing, River eases her way out of Emily’s embrace and the now-blonde former High School cheerleader who River had almost gotten in a fight with once after she'd “accidentally” kissed Emily's boyfriend when he’d walked her to her car one night after a pool party, gives her hand a gentle squeeze.
River’s excuse had been that the chlorine, which she was suddenly allergic to, had gotten into her eyes and ruined them so much so that she’d thought it was some other cute guy from the wrestling team who was walking her to her car and not Emily’s boyfriend.
Emily, realizing it wouldn't do her reputation any good to get in a fight with the most popular girl in school, backed off.
“Oh sorry! Did I hurt you?” Emily finally notices River’s struggle to conceal her pain and backs away.
“No, no it’s fine. Wow, Em, you look fantastic!” River beams, her smile is sincere as she looks into the dark brown eyes that she hasn’t seen for so long.
Emily shakes her head and laughs,
“Me?! You look amazing! Look at you! You’re just as beautiful as ever!”
River blushes, recalling how forgiving of her faults Emily had always been, she’d always chalked Emily’s patience with her up to wanting to keep her own title as one of the popular kids at school, but now as she watches the young woman’s honest reaction, River is filled with shame for her actions and her suspicions of Emily’s true motives.
River quickly lowers herself back into the wheelchair and Emily begins to bombard her with questions,
“So, where’d you go after um…after High School? Where’ve you been all this time?”
River glances at Harvey.
He is watching her curiously and so she smiles.
He grins back.
The same illogical fear she’d felt in the airplane, that of the walls suddenly closing in on her, seems to be lurking somewhere close…clearing her throat, she is determined to pull herself together as she ignores the rapidly increasing beat of her heart and looks Emily square in the eyes,
“I moved in with family in Alabama, that’s where I am now. How about you? You’re a nurse, that’s awesome!”
Emily blushes and tosses her hair over her shoulder as she replies,
“Thanks, I’m not a nurse just yet, this is just my internship. But I will be in four more months!” She pauses, not wanting to waste time talking about herself now that she has the former Prom Queen/Bad Girl/Most Talked About Chick of South Louisiana High cornered, “But what about you, I just knew one day I’d go to the movies and see you up there on the big screen. Did you do anything with your acting?”
River glances down at her hands.
“Acting?” She hears Harvey quietly ask.
The room is becoming smaller.
“No, I didn’t.” She looks up and forces herself to face Emily as she submits to several more innocently asked questions.
Finally, as Emily says,
“So, have you thought about moving back? Everyone misses you, you know. Still, even after all those years, you’re like-River, you’re a celebrity around here-”
River feels Harvey staring at her, sees the white walls moving, coming in closer and closer, she closes her eyes and through clenched teeth says,
“Em, I hate to cut you off but my foot really hurts.”
“Oh!” Emily gasps, “I’m so sorry! I just got to talking and you know…um, let me just get your vitals and then the Doctor will be right in, OK?”
Attempting to quietly calm her nerves, River nods.
With her eyes still closed, she feels her former schoolmate wrap the blood pressure cuff around her upper arm and all at once there is a heavy hand taking hers.
Opening her eyes, she sees Harvey looking at her with concern.
She smiles for his sake, not wanting him to worry, before again closing her eyes.
Emily arches an eyebrow as she notes her former classmate’s elevated blood pressure.
Quietly, she watches her shallow breathing and then jots down her quickened pulse.
As she removes the blood pressure cuff from River’s arm, Emily’s eyes dart to the beautiful engagement ring which sits, dazzling splendidly on the young woman’s left hand.
Harvey, close enough to read Emily’s expression, feels his heart swell with pride at the evident admiration in her eyes.
He waits for her to say something about the ring, perhaps to tell River it’s beautiful or to ask her if they’ve set a date.
But, to his surprise Emily simply bites her bottom lip thoughtfully, frowning for a fraction of a second, before averting her eyes.
Harvey is taken aback.
He wonders if, for some reason, River’s friend is jealous.
Maybe they were the kind of friends who had an unspoken agreement to be jealous competitors .
Melinda had tons of friends like that… As soon as Melinda’s name runs through his mind, he shuts off the thought as if it were a leaky faucet.
“So, your pulse and BP are pretty elevated River, I think it’s just because of the pain in your ankle. But pain is nothing new to you.” Harvey looks at the young woman with surprise as she starts to laugh and winks at River, “Remember that time you and Hailey drove the principals car into that tree? Girl, you were insane! The football team loved you for that because even they didn’t have the guts to do what you and Hailey did!”
Harvey glances at River, her normally olive skin is nearly white and she seems to look, not at Emily, but somewhere in the distance just over her shoulder.
Even so, she manages to nod,
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Didn’t you, like, almost break your neck doing that? You were fearless. I almost hated Andrew Green for getting you to calm down, but mostly I hated you for dating the cutest boy …in, um….in school…” Emily’s voice trails off and she stammers as she realizes that she’s brought up a subject which, perhaps, shouldn’t be discussed in front of River’s new love interest.
High School was a long time ago, but if she was absolutely honest with herself, Emily had to say that never before High School or after had she seen any two people more in love with each other than Andrew Green and River LeBlanc.
It bothered her that River was now sitting, so placidly, with a ken-doll look alike who didn’t have much to say.
It just isn’t right! She’d repeatedly thought to herself as she’d listened to River answer her questions with zombie-like enthusiasm.
But now, Emily stood awkwardly near the door, wondering if she ought to say something to fix the problem she may have just caused by bringing up Andrew’s name.
After all, River, as pale as a ghost, looked capable of passing out cold at any moment in the next five minutes and the ken-doll guy kept frowning and glancing back and forth from her to his girlfriend as if he was trying to piece together what had been said.
“Um, I-“ Emily starts.
Thankfully, at that moment the Doctor walks in and River is seen, her ankle x-rayed, wrapped, declared sprained, and provided with medication all in less than forty-five minutes.
By the end of her, rather unpleasant, visit to the Walk-In Clinic River and Harvey stand in front of the Check-Out window ready to settle payment and leave as quickly as possible.
Harvey’s hand, resting in its usual place against the small of her back, is meant to be comforting but at the moment, it annoys River.
As she hands the cashier her Debit Card and decidedly declines Harvey’s offer to pay, she turns, just a tad away from him and realizes that while she is glad to be home, she wishes she’d made the trip on her own.
It would be much easier to face the many accusing questions, and even the innocent ones such as Emily’s, on her own.
Harvey’s hand leaves her back as he is suddenly hit with an epiphany of his own.
Just as he opens his mouth to relate the unexpected realization and request a bit of clarification, Emily comes running up to the two of them,
“Riv, just a second, wait!”
“Hey! What’s up?” With the pain medication already beginning to kick in, and thankful for the buffer between she and Harvey, River turns to her former classmate.
Emily glances at Harvey and smiles.
He doesn’t return her smile, but she barely notices.
Touching River’s arm, she looks into the face of a friend who she hasn’t seen for a long while but has never quite forgotten,
“Come over this evening, my parents are throwing me an engagement party. I want you and um-“ She turns to Harvey, realizing she had no idea what his name is.
“Harvey,” River murmurs when her fiancée remains mute.
“Yeah, you and um, Henry, should come. Please. It’s going to be really relaxing, nothing too formal just a small group of family and close friends, plus lots of food, of course. Please come. You remember where my parents live, don’t you?”
River finally smiles,
“How could I forget? How many times did I help you sneak out?”
They allow themselves a moment to giggle, recalling how often they’d almost been caught, or at least, thought they’d almost been caught.
“What do you say? Can you stop by, even just for a few minutes? It would mean the world to me.”
Emily’s request is so heartfelt that River can’t help but briefly glance at Harvey, who is oddly quiet, before nodding,
“Sure, and I’ll bet Harvey would like to meet your fiancée. We’re engaged too. I probably should have – I mean, I meant to mention that earlier…Thanks for the invitation.”
Emily nods, wishes them an awkward “Congratulations”, gives River one last very sincere hug and grins as she says she can’t wait to see them later that evening.
With that, she is gone and River sighs, turning to Harvey.
The look on his face gives her a start.
Finally able to share his sudden realization and request clarification, he quietly asks,
“River, who’s Andrew Green, other than being your Facebook friend?”
“It was a long time ago.” River tries to sound and act as nonchalant as possible.
All afternoon, ever since the visit to the After Hours Clinic, she'd managed to avoid answering Harvey's questions, and she definitely isn't planning on answering them now.
As determined as ever, she points to the sunflowers lining the walk to the front door of Emily’s parent’s home, “Those are gorgeous!”
Harvey, though, is undeterred.
“I feel like I don’t even know you. Driving your principal’s car into a tree?! Sneaking some girl out of her house and then this Andrew guy, why didn’t you at least tell me about him?”
It’s weird to hear Harvey say Andrew’s name.
Until now, she’d always thought of the two men as inhabiting completely different dimensions, unable to cross into the world of the other.
It’s also alarming to have Harvey so close to knowing the truth about her feelings for Andrew and so near to finding out that she’d been the cause of her best friend’s premature death…the thought gives her a shudder.
“What’s with you?” He asks, watching her shudder.
He feels unsure of everything he thought he knew about the poised and quiet woman he’d fallen in love with.
Pausing in her stride, she turns to Harvey and looks him in the eyes,
“I left Louisiana for a reason. I wanted to forget the past. So, I don’t bring it up. Especially not with you, because…because you’re my future.”
Her gently delivered words are successful in soothing a percentage of his agitation.
But he knows he’d be foolish to completely believe them…
“If this guy is your past then why is he sending you messages on Facebook? River, if it still bothers you to even just talk about him, that means you’re obviously not being honest with yourself.”
“Harvey-“ She starts and the front door to the neat garden home, just a few feet ahead of them, opens as a large woman hurriedly walks out.
The woman pauses and grins at the two of them,
“I left the bottle of wine I’d brought with me in the car!”
“Oh! That’s important, you don’t want to forget that!” River smiles at the woman who stumbles off, before turning back to Harvey, “Can we discuss this later?”
Irritated, he nods.
They enter the house and River feels her heart fall into her stomach.
She takes a step back, bumping into Harvey who is, simultaneously, moving forward.
Fortunately, no one else in the room notices this clumsy movement between the two of them.
Another thing no one else notices is the fearful look in River’s eyes as she sets her gaze on the one person she’s been aching to see and is, yet, unable to stand the sight of.
Andrew Green, holding a beer, is talking to Emily and her fiancee.
His blonde hair, cut into a more stylishly appropriate fashion than it used to be, is still the same color.
He is also, just as tall as she remembered, and as she hears him laugh, her heart is warmed by the familiar sound.
Even so, the room spins around River and she knows that if she doesn’t immediately find an exit, she will either throw up, pass out, or perhaps…both.
“Let’s go.” She whispers.
But her voice isn’t loud enough, Harvey hasn’t heard a thing.
Besides, he is still upset with her and hearing her voice, but not understanding the words, he ignores her and walks towards Emily.
Emily turns to Harvey, her eyes then dart over his shoulder to River.
Andrew is looking at her.
She meets his eyes and to her surprise…it’s alright.
Other than feeling her pulse quicken and massive amounts of butterflies in her stomach, she’s alright.
Somehow, without throwing up or passing out, she puts one foot in front of the other and gulps as she makes her way across the room.
Andrew, on the other hand, is visibly shaken.
His face is the picture of shock as he drops his beer and stumbles back, momentarily staring at the mess he’s made, before clumsily reaching for a fistful of paper towels, which he uses to clean it up.
“Don’t worry about that, I’ll get it.” Emily tells Andrew and then over her shoulder to River, “So glad you made it! Grab a drink and mingle, I’ll be with you in just a second!”
Harvey, immediately recognizing Andrew from the Facebook pic, quietly watches he and River try to avoid eye contact with each other.
Their obvious discomfort doesn’t make him feel any better. If anything, the tension makes him even more suspicious of their unsettled feelings.
He, out all people, knows the trouble with unsettled feelings…Harvey briefly wonders why he even bothered trying so hard to dismiss memories of Melinda.
River, apparently, hasn’t bothered to forget anything she shared with Andrew!
“Is that River LeBlanc?!!” Shrieks a voice.
“It is!!! Acck!” Cries another shrill voice.
In less than five seconds, River is surrounded; Harvey is pointed out and greeted but basically forgotten.
River, tries not to constantly look out of the corner of her eye for any sign of Andrew.
Despite her attempts to suffer from peripheral vision blindness, she looks and sees no sign of Andrew.
“So, how do you like Alabama?” Asks a girl named Renee.
“I like it, it’s pretty slow but-“ River starts and is cut off as Emily pulls her away from the circle she’s become the center of.
“Riv hasn’t eaten a thing! We’ve got to get her a plate, she’ll be back, I promise!” Says Emily as she pats her friend’s hand.
She drags River towards the food, and Andrew is at once back in sight.
Emily lowers her voice, “Talk to him.”
Emily leaves her side.
River feels her heart beating into her chest.
I’m trapped! she panics.
Picking up a plate, she approaches the buffet style set up and Andrew nods towards her,
She serves herself a small plate of jambalaya and tries to force her hands not to shake so visibly.
Surely he must see.
In truth, though, Andrew doesn’t see.
He can’t bring himself to look at the woman who left without a word, or even a look back. Knowing that she had his heart in the palm of her hand, she just left…
“How’ve you been?” Her words are quiet, tripping and falling from her lips, almost, without her knowledge.
His mouth has gone dry and he licks his lips,
“I don’t know.”
She nods, robotically reaching for a slice of cornbread but then, coming to her senses, she thinks better of it; she’s not sure how much of the food she’ll be able to keep down.
“Well, it’s good to see you.” Without meeting his eyes, she turns away and quickly leaves the buffet, weaving through the small crowd as she smiles into the blur of unrecognizable faces.
Swiftly moving through the kitchen, she quietly places her untouched plate of jambalaya on the counter near the back door, opens the door, walks outside, closes it behind her, and heads to she and Harvey's rental car.
Once inside, she puts her head in her lap and cries like a baby.
Picnics By The River
River opens her eyes, glad that the dream is over.
Hailey's accident often haunts her dreams, but this time the dream was different.
Harvey, had been the one crying in the bathroom, the one in the car, and later, the one under the sheet...in any case, she's glad the dream is over.
Her eyes adjust to the sight of her old room, every detail an untouched replica of the way her room had been when she'd left home at seventeen.
Morning sunlight shines in from the window, painting a lovely golden trail across her bed.
She thinks of the many times she and Hailey sat on this very bed, talking and laughing into the early morning hours.
The sound of a timid knock on her bedroom door removes her from her memories.
She rolls her eyes and sighs, hoping Harvey isn't still sulking.
“Dude, I can’t baby you forever.” She mumbles.
“River?” Her father’s voice comes from the other side of the door.
Surprised, she calls,
“Coming!” and eases out of bed.
Putting on her slippers, she walks to the door.
Leaning against it, she opens the door and smiles as brightly as she can,
“Hey, I want you to come somewhere with me this morning. Can you do that?” He asks.
“Sure Daddy.” She nods, noticing the seriousness in his hazel eyes.
Before she knows it, River is once again a little girl, riding in the passenger seat as her father drives.
The familiar scenery they pass takes her back to a time when anxiety was virtually nonexistent and a simple sentence uttered by her father set the entire world aright.
“You’re quiet these days.”
Her father’s voice has never been the type to shatter silence.
Instead, the sound of his voice is soft and gently familiar.
She turns to him, almost surprised to see that he doesn’t look as he did when she was a little girl.
His caramel colored skin, still remarkably smooth for a man in his seventies, is slightly wrinkled near the corners of his eyes.
“Yeah?” She asks, wanting him to continue his observation.
“When you were a kid, your Momma and I sometimes worried you’d never shut up.” Glancing at her out of the corner of his eyes, he smiles, “You were so bent on fighting with your brothers, proving you could beat them at anything they set out to do. You were a tough little thing.”
River smiles and glances at his hands as they grip the steering wheel, his wedding ring shining like a beacon on his left hand.
“Still am.” She corrects him.
“I know. You're definitely my daughter.” His last sentence is uttered with warmth and River, for the first time in a while, feels an easy happiness settle down on her.
The happiness inches away from her as thoughts of Hailey return, images of their angry conversation in the bathroom on the night of the Prom…the car…the ambulances…River stifles a sigh without even attempting to stifle the thought that forms itself in her mind,
‘How can he accept me when he knows what I’ve done?’
“I’m proud of you, you know.” He suddenly says.
Biting her bottom lip, she sniffs back her negative thoughts and puts on a smile,
“Annnnd, here we are.” He announces.
There is the loud sound of gravel under their tires and River glances out of her window to see that they are near an abandoned part of the levee.
“What are we doing here?” She asks, unbuckling her seatbelt.
“That’s the same thing I used to ask myself when I first started coming here.” He grins at her mysteriously, unbuckles his seatbelt, and steps out, “Come on, we don’t want to stay here too long, Momma will worry.”
Near the water, the wind has picked up and River has to fold her arms to prevent the chill in the breeze from bothering her.
Away from the more frequented area of the levee, the serenity is welcoming, even beautiful in its stillness.
Crete Myrtle trees line the grassy field which eventually spills into sand before becoming brown, muddy water.
“Not the prettiest river, is it?” Her father asks, jamming his hands into his pockets.
She smiles and shakes her head,
“No, but it’ll do.”
“When I was a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with this river.” He says, looking into the water.
River turns her gaze from the water to watch him as he speaks,
“Every Sunday morning, my Mother, your grandmother, used to bring me here. It would be early, about six am. She’d pack a basket with two little breakfasts and make it into a sort of picnic. We’d sit right here in the grass, talk, eat, and play games for a couple of hours. None of my brothers and sisters were there. Just the two of us.”
“That’s nice.” River looks at her father curiously, wondering why he’s never mentioned this before.
“It was. I loved it.” He pauses, seeming to choose his words carefully, “Every day, after school I’d pass this spot, see the river and get this really good feeling about myself, like I was special. Seeing that river reminded me that no matter what, I was going to be alright. And then, I turned thirteen and…everything changed.”
Frowning, River takes a step closer to her father, allowing herself to be drawn in by the hook,
Glancing at her, a soft vulnerability in his eyes, he clears his throat and points towards something just beyond her right shoulder,
“You see that place on the other side of the river?”
Turning around, River nods as her eyes take in the large hill on the opposite of the river. Sitting on top of the hill is a sprawling, white home which looks as if it could easily belong in a scene from Gone With The Wind.
“The Pastor of the "white church" on the other side of the river lived there. Every Sunday morning, he'd have his breakfast on his back porch. At 7 A.M. on the dot, before his wife and …and kids were awake, there he’d sit, going over his sermon and looking up every once in a while to glance at the son he refused to accept.”
She must not understand what her father is saying.
"What do you mean?" Asks River.
"He," Her father pauses to lick his lips, "was looking at me. She'd asked him for that much, my Mother wanted him to at least look at me."
Shocked, River stammers,
“Daddy, are you saying…he was- he-“
He nods and turns to look her in the eyes,
“He was my father. When I turned thirteen, my Mother told me because she thought I ought to know why I looked a little different from my brothers and sisters. I hadn’t thought much of it until she brought it up. Being one of ...you know, one of "us", we were used to never quite fitting in with the whites or the blacks. So, I didn't realize how ...different I looked. Besides, your Grandpa never treated me any differently. But River,”
He shakes his head, glancing again into the brown waters of the Mississippi, “it made me so angry. To not accept me, or my mother. He refused to- it still bothers me, it just wasn't right. Being a hot headed kid, I thought I’d pay him a visit one day. Of course, back in those days, we didn’t just pay friendly visits to our white neighbors. Even though, when you think about it everyone on that side of the river is kin to everyone on this side of the river.”
He laughs dryly, shaking his head at the memory of his anger, pride, and the reaction that it caused,
“I was a fool. I show up at this white guy’s front door, telling him I’m his son, with his wife standing in the background, listening to every word. He turns redder than the lipstick you used to try to sneak out of the house wearing, remember Momma and I would make you wipe it off? Anyway, he calls the Police, I’m beat up, stuffed in a cell…well, I’ll spare us both the details... but the fact is that what I’d done shed light on the whole thing and your grandparents separated for a few months all because of me.”
River, too surprised by her father’s story to be self-conscious, puts her hand on his arm and adamantly exclaims the first thought that comes to mind,
“But Daddy, it wasn’t your fault! You had a right to be angry and confront him, who wouldn’t have?”
“You would say that, like I always say, you’re definitely my daughter, that’s for sure.” He smiles weakly and bites his bottom lip.
“But it wasn’t your fault.” River softly repeats, turning to give him her full attention.
“Yeah, I know that now. The situation wasn’t my fault, the way I handled it was…even so, for the next seven years of my life I passed this spot and I hated the sight of that muddy river. In fact, I hated everything about this place. So, as soon as I graduated, I picked up, moved to New York City and a week after moving there, I found myself sitting on a bench, staring into the Hudson, realizing I’d left something precious behind, something I couldn’t live without. Well, I could live without it, but what good is life when you’ve got no heart?”
River smiles, because though she’d lived for many years, without any knowledge of the story’s beginning and middle, she already knows how it ends,
“That’s when you left New York and came back to marry Mom.”
“You've almost got it right. I came back, first of all, to tell her the truth about why I’d left, about who I was and…everything. I told her every word." He pauses, "Sweetheart, can you guess where I told her all of this?”
River feels like a child as she points at the ground and replies,
“Yep. The thing about a river is that it carries you all over the map, through all sorts of places that give you all sorts of feelings, some of them nice and some of them painful, but if you stick with a river, it’ll always bring you home.”
He takes River’s hand, squeezes it in his own and watches the tears collect in her eyes as he says,
“That’s why your Mom and I named you River. We figured you’d be the sort to travel and live to the fullest, but we hoped you’d come back for your heart.”
River licks her lips, takes a deep breath, and collects herself,
“Are you- are you asking me to stay here with you and Mom? To move back?”
He shakes his head and grasps her hand even tighter,
“No baby, I’m asking you to find your heart.”
The breeze dies down and they hear the call of a crow above their heads.
River, mulls over his words as she carefully watches his face.
A wet tear spills onto her cheek,
“OK Daddy, thank you.”
Smiling, he pulls her into a hug.
Escaping River’s Current
He stands very still in front of his suitcase.
His normally perfectly groomed hair, is a bit of a mess and his shoulders are hunched.
River feels the knots that comprise her stomach, instantly tighten.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Moving away from the doorway, River steps across the threshold and into her mother’s guest room.
She quietly notices that the bed is perfectly made, as if he hasn’t slept in it.
“I think we need to talk.” Harvey says as he turns to her and, surprised, River see’s that his bloodshot eyes highlight the fact that he must not have slept at all last night.
His words register in her mind and an almost panicky excitement wells up in her chest…even though this talk was the entire reason she’d come to his room and it would surely end in what she wanted, it was still going to hurt.
“You’re right.” She agrees, moving to sit on the edge of the neat little bed.
His face is drawn as he slowly lowers himself to sit beside her.
The bed squeaks.
River glances towards the door, wishing she’d closed it.
She can just imagine her mother barging in with a plate of cookies,
“You kids want to try one? They’re freshly baked!”
Telling herself to focus on what needs to be said, River takes a deep breath, and reaches for Harvey’s hand.
He feels her hand gently fall onto his and looks up, meeting her green eyes.
‘She’s so beautiful.’ He muses, watching her lips move and not listening to a word she says, ‘I must be an idiot…’
Suddenly, her lips are no longer moving.
Her mouth makes the shape of an “o” as she stares at him through wide eyes.
Harvey realizes that he’s said it.
He must have involuntarily blurted the words out loud, while she was still speaking.
Blinking rapidly, she licks her lips and moves her hand away from his,
“What did you say?”
Harvey shuts his eyes and then opens them, forcing himself to face her as he consciously repeats what he knows he must have said,
“I’m in love with someone else.”
He watches her closely, bracing himself for tears or shouting…and when no such reaction occurs, Harvey pushes aside a passing pang of disappointment, clears his throat, and gently explains,
“I’m sorry. I hadn’t wanted to admit it, and I-I don’t mean admit it to you, I mean I didn’t want to admit it to myself, to be honest I didn’t even realize how much I...I miss her until we got here. Then, seeing you, with your old friends and this guy Andrew, I don’t know what’s going on with him but seeing you here…I just…River I don’t know who you are and I don’t think I ever will.”
She nods, once again clasping her hands together, settling them neatly in her lap.
Harvey frowns, as if he fears his words may have come across too harshly,
“Not that I don’t want to know you, I care about you, I think you know I even love you but…I also think we both know that my loving you, it’s not enough.”
River watches as the very tip of Harvey’s nose turns pink and his eyes start to water.
Automatically leaning towards him, she wraps him in a gentle hug and feels his tears on her neck.
Relieved, she wordlessly strokes the back of his hair, wonders why it’s taken her so long to complete this part of her journey and wishes that, along the way, she hadn’t hurt a man like Harvey.
As he gradually leaves her embrace, River lets him go.
She watches him closely, as if seeing him for the first time,
“Don’t be sorry, this wasn’t your fault. I’m the one who, um- put up walls because I didn’t want to face …certain things about myself.”
He clears his throat and in a gravelly voice replies,
“I hope you can overcome that.”
River watches his eyes dart to the engagement ring on her finger.
“Thank you Harvey.” She slides the ring off of her finger, surprised at how easily it comes off, “I want you to be happy. You’re a great guy.”
Silent, he holds out his palm and catches the ring that she drops into his hand.
For about thirty seconds, neither of them move or speak.
River, determining that she ought not move first, watches Harvey’s crumpled face slowly evolve into a more resolute expression as he finally stands and reaches for his suitcase,
He looks at her, steel in the set of his jaw, sadness in his eyes, pain in his lips and River fleetingly wonders if she’s made a mistake,
“I’m sorry.” She whispers, standing.
He shakes his head,
“Don’t be. It feels wrong now…but I think this is for the best.”
She nods quickly and leans in to kiss him but he takes a step back, indicating an unsaid, “Please don’t”.
Backing off, River watches him leave the room and listens to her parents front door close with finality.
Leaning against the pale peach walls of her mother’s guest bedroom, River lets out the breath she’s been holding and automatically places her hand over her heart.
The beat is strong, rapid, and above all else…it means that she’s still alive.
“Did I just hear Andrew leave?” Her mother’s voice startles her, but the sound of Andrew’s name leaving her mother’s lips startles her even more.
River whirls around to find her mother, holding a plate of cookies, looking at her daughter with concern.
“Andrew?!” River exclaims.
Her mother, obviously embarrassed, blushes and rolls her eyes,
“Oh, I’m so sorry honey, I meant Harvey! Put me down for another Senior Moment!” Her mother’s face adopts a frown as she glances around the guest bedroom, “Where did he go?”
Still reeling from the shock of hearing Andrew’s name, River shakily replies,
“The airport, we just…” Her voice trails off and she simply holds up her naked left hand.
“Oh, sweetheart…” Her mother, seeing the tan line where the engagement ring had been, sets the tray of cookies on a nearby table and grabs her daughter’s hand, “I’m so sorry, are you- what can I do? Are you alright? You have to tell me what happened, if you want to…do you?”
River smiles at her mother’s multitude of questions and eyes the plate of cookies.
Despite her stomach issues, the cookies smell like home and she has a feeling that they’ll settle into the very spot where they’d been needed,
“Can we talk about it over cookies and milk?” River asks.
The sky, awash with bright pink and golden hues of sunset, is so beautiful that it actually makes River smile.
Sitting on the pale blue blanket that she’s set in the grass, she tells herself not to worry, to just keep smiling and hoping for the best.
“Right.” She mumbles, “Easier said than done.”
With these sentiments, she smooths out the nonexistent wrinkles in her white skirt.
Taking a steadying deep breath, she closes her eyes and focuses on the sounds of the river.
The Mississippi is not an especially loud river, she realizes, as she strains to hear it.
“Did you fall asleep on us?” Her father’s voice sends her, eyes open, to her feet.
A wide smile is instantly on her lips and she almost wishes she could laugh as she takes in the sight of him walking beside a tall older woman with bright blue eyes and snow-white hair.
The resemblance is unmistakable.
“My goodness! River?! You look so much like my daughter! This is unbelievable!” Exclaims her father’s half-sister.
River, surprised and delighted by the woman’s outstretched arms eagerly accepts her “new” Aunt’s welcoming hug.
“Thank you for meeting us!” River cries as her Aunt takes her hands and observes her with a keen eye.
“Thank me?!” Her Aunt shakes her head in disbelief, “No, thank you! If I’d known about this sooner, we could have met ages ago, I’m so glad you contacted me. And my father, what a complete jerk! It’s good to know that his mistake is going to stop here and now.”
River beams and steals a peek at her father, who is almost solemn.
Catching River’s eye, he nods his approval, and she notices that his eyes are watering.
“Right, no more mistakes,” River turns to her Aunt and grins, “At least none like his, these days we need as much family as we can get.”
The older woman’s eyes sparkle as she gives River’s stomach a gentle pat,
“Speaking of family, your father tells me, we’re going to have a new little one to welcome to the brood? Girl or boy?”
River blushes with delight and instantly thinks of Andrew.
Just that morning, before leaving for work, he’d stooped down, kissed her belly and declared he had no doubt their baby would be a little girl.
“We’re going to find out this week, although my husband swears it’s a girl. We’ll see if he’s right.”
River watches her Aunt glance just beyond her shoulder and before she has a chance to turn around and follow her Aunt’s gaze, River hears his voice,
“Oh, I’m right, she’s a girl.”
River turns to Andrew and silently marvels at the fact that even after a year and a half of marriage, the sound of his voice still sends the most delightful shiver to her spine.
“And this is my goofy husband, Andrew.” She nods toward him, stepping back to let him introduces himself to her “new” Aunt.
Her father, silent, for a while, slips his hand around hers and whispers,
“River, this is one of the best days of my life.”
Her Aunt, who’s hearing is apparently still one hundred percent at seventy-eight years of age, grins at River and her father as she points to the hill on the other side of the levee,
“And to think, I was right there the whole time, all I had to do was follow the river and make my way to the other side.”
The crickets strike up their evening song and as the sun sets, River finds Andrew’s hand, holds it tightly and knows that at long last, she’s found her way home.
*Please keep in mind that the "history" about the Mississippi river and it's separation of the races in Baton Rouge is purely fictional. Thank you! -Paula