Wind wheezed through the sad tented structures on the carnival grounds. Rebecca kicked a rock and cursed when it didn't roll away like she wanted. Frozen to the cracked dirt. The sign on the fence behind her banged in a wind gust: "Closed for the season."
As long as Rebecca could remember, she'd sought out places like this to think. Cemeteries; abandoned houses; the infamous campus library "stacks," site of an unsolved murder. She loved traversing spaces other people avoided.
Passing the game booths, she spied a lone teddy bear, dangling from the peg board by a torn arm. Damaged during tear-down, he'd been left for lost. Miming a baseball pitch, Rebecca wound up and flung air at an invisible target, then forded the counter to claim her prize. The bear came down easily, a puff of dust escaping its fur. She hugged it anyway.
"Let's see what else is here," she told the bear. It had a sad yarn mouth, turned down in a cranky frown, which made her love it infinitely more.
She cradled the bear in one arm as she explored the familiar site. Despite encountering the occasional pile of empty beer cans and cigarette butts, indicating teen hang-out spots, she knew few people ventured here so late in the year. When she'd been a teen herself, she might have worried about running into such a group, for fear of being teased or beaten up. These days, she was tickled at the thought of accidentally interrupting an impromptu teen party. They would run away from her, a middle-aged specter of responsibility and censure.
If only they knew how little she wanted to judge them. While she had never quite been a rebel, she'd gone through her own stage of irresponsibility, spilling deep secrets to half strangers during slightly scandalous adventures.
"Am I old enough to be wise yet?" she asked the bear, who only frowned.
The scuff of gravel underfoot, the whipping wind, her heartbeat meticulously carrying on. A step. Then another step. Then another step. She could walk forever, she knew, and these thoughts would not stop. Around and around the empty grounds, she paced, wanting to outrun them but knowing it was time to face them.
She sighed in resignation, and sat down heavily on a large flat rock beneath a wizened tree. Surprisingly, the rock was warm, holding what remained of the day's sun. "Why?" she asked the cranky bear. "Why didn't she tell me she needed help?"
A clearing of the throat, and then an adolescent male voice. "Hey, are you OK?"
She lifted her head and saw a gangly kid in faded denim and a puffy coat, backlit by the sun. A scruffy angel, maybe? The thought made her chuckle.
Sheepishly, he extinguished his cigarette, an act which amused her at the same time it made her grateful. She hated the smell of cigarette smoke. "I'm all right," she said. "Or I will be."
"Like, nobody hurt you or anything, did they?" he asked.
Again, she chuckled. "Not on purpose," she said. "Just by dying." Then, chiding herself for being so evasive, she repeated the truth she'd grown tired of telling. "My mother died suddenly, just before Thanksgiving."
"Damn, that sucks!" he said, shifting back and forth on his feet. He lapsed into the sort of silence she'd become accustomed to when she informed strangers of this news. After a respectful period of time, after asking her for her story, she knew he would wish her well and walk away, his pace quickening as he disappeared into the distance. She had danced this dance before.
Tempo change. Instead of waltzing away, he sputtered out, "My girlfriend just dumped me. It's nothing, I know. It's not like losing your mom..." His voice got sucked into the wind, and she could see his shoulders shaking.
Without hesitation, she jumped to her feet and wrapped him in a comforting hug. The second she did, she thought better of it. Who was this kid? What if this was just his way of drawing in suckers, to lift their wallet or stab them? What a pathetic page-one story she would be tomorrow. Probably not even above the fold, falling for such an obvious ploy.
He collapsed into her, blubbering, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't have any right to be so sad about something so stupid when you -- you can never see your..." He cut himself off, as if worried he was inflicting more harm.
"It's OK," she told him. "Tell me about your girlfriend." Sitting down again, she patted the space next to her on the rock.
Perching like a nervous bird, he spilled his story. Oh, but she was glorious and honeyed, a brilliant, soft-voiced wonder. And he had been lucky to have her, so lucky he could barely believe it. A gawky guy like him, to find a love like her! And then it had all gone wrong for the stupidest reason. He didn't think he could make it up to her. She would never, ever forgive him. She'd been right to call it off.
"What did you do?" she asked evenly, hoping her voice did not betray the trepidation creeping in. Was this agitated loner really a sociopath in disguise? Had he done something monstrous? Was he a demon lover wailing for his Annabelle Lee? Where could she run for shelter, should he unveil such darkness?
"I ignored her in front of my friends, and when she grabbed my hand, I pushed her away."
Is that all? she thought, stifling a giggle. "Why?" she said aloud.
He shrugged. "D'know. I guess I thought they'd tease me about her. But I didn't think she'd get so mad about it. I didn't think she'd break up with me before Christmas." Sniffing loudly, he pulled a little box out of his jacket, wrapped in red Santa paper. "I didn't even get a chance to give her this," he wailed.
Frowning slightly, she pondered the present. Surely, he was too young to be asking someone to marry him, wasn't he?
At her silence, he added, "It's pair of sapphire earrings, her birthstone. At least, I think they're sapphire. They're blue, anyway."
Softly, Rebecca told him, "She'll love them. Take them to her."
"Really?" he blubbered.
"Really, really," she countered. "If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that sweet gestures can make up for just about anything, if you really mean them."
Between sobs, he said, "But... she told me to eat it!"
Rebecca couldn't help herself: she laughed. His pale, freckled face registered a brief flicker of confusion, so she pulled herself together. "Don't run away from the people you love. It's far better to take a chance than to miss out because you failed to act."
He wiped his face with his sleeve and sat up a little straighter. "And if she tells me to piss off...?"
"Then you walk away knowing that you tried."
As if steeled with bravery, he pushed himself to his feet. "I think she should be home by now, so I'm gonna go over there and talk to her," he said.
"Good for you," she said. "I'm rooting for you." As his little body bent into the wind, away from her, she called out one last question: "Hey, buddy, what's your name?"
He flashed her a crooked smile. "Tony."
"Rebecca," she told him. He was nearly gone already.
She should have told him more, but she didn't want to confuse him. She would have told him that life is too short to blame yourself for things you could have said or could have done. If he lost his nerve, tossed the ring into a drawer and never talked to his honey again, he shouldn't spend the rest of his days hating himself for it. Life was too uncertain. You could never predict what would lead to what. But regardless of the outcome, as often as possible, you had to take fate into your hands and try.
Tucking her chilled hands into her pocket, she spied a slip of paper on the rock beside her. It must have fallen out of his pants pocket when he'd sat down. The slip of white paper, from inside a fortune cookie, said, "You cannot win if you do not play."
Only then did she search fruitlessly for his backlit shape. Her mother's name was Antonia, and everyone had called her Toni.
If you're interested, here are the lyrics that partially inspired this piece: "You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play."