He could feel her holding onto him loosely, in an easy relaxed way and it occurred to him that this was a woman who knew her way around motorcycles. He didn’t know why that surprised him, but it did. There was a lot he didn’t know about her yet, or she him… but the more time they spent together, the more he wanted to. She was full of contradictions. On one hand, she liked elegant surroundings, beautiful artwork, and painting. On the other hand, she seemed to care little about how she dressed or about getting dirty or messing up her hair on a bike out in the middle of nowhere. She talked comfortably, though she preferred to write and she was pretty easy going, but with a clearly stubborn streak when challenged. He’d gotten the briefest flash of that when he asked her if he could stay on for the weekend. For just a minute, he’d thought she’d say no and send him packing. She’d hidden those feelings away quickly though, and politely nodded agreement. He sort of felt like he owed her one now, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that yet.
He had driven this road a million times and he liked it so much because it was mildly challenging.. unlike a flat straightaway. Full of dips and a few curves here and there, you could give it some speed if you dared, but it demanded your focus and attention. He liked how she moved instinctively in sync with him, leaning as he did at all the right times. She knew this road as well as he did and was confident in his ability to navigate it. She didn’t seem to have an agenda, other than to soak up the moment she was living in and he had a feeling that this was a skill she had been cultivating for some time.
There was a pull off, up ahead where you could see for miles around on a clear day, and today was perfect…lots of big puffy clouds and sunshine. It should be gorgeous in the hills. His favorite time to be out there was in the fall when everything turned brilliant shades of gold and red and yellow. But it was pretty in the spring too, when, after a long white winter, everyone craved the color green and the trees and forsythia bushes were in full bloom, splashing color everywhere, waking up a dull and listless landscape. He decided to stop at the turnoff first and then head for the orchard a few miles up the road. They could find a table outside and eat the things they had picked up at the deli…maybe pick up something in the general store for dessert. Because they had been blessed with some early warmth the past few weeks, the apple trees had gone to bud sooner than usual and should be flowering right about now. If so, it would be a real treat to eat out there. The smell was heavenly and he guessed she probably liked that as much as he did.
There was a picnic table in a quieter area of the orchard and there were bees humming in and around the apple trees. He pulled to a stop beside it and she hopped off and sat down on the bench closest to her. Taking the helmet from her head she hung it on one of the handles and then leaned against the table, turning her face up to the sun.
“Wow, that feels amazing,” she breathed. “And it smells so good. Isn’t it just gorgeous out here?”
She felt grateful that he had gotten her out of the house for awhile. If she had been alone, she would likely have spent the day indoors, at the Lodge and she would have missed this simple pleasure.
He took his helmet off and pocketed his keys. Coming to sit beside her, he leaned back and followed suit. He stayed that way for quite awhile, without a word, thinking about how long it had been since he’d even taken the time to notice or appreciate what the sun on his face felt like or how the air felt soft and smelled sweet. Life just kept on rushing, and he, right along with it. Just for today, he’d like to put a stop to that. He’d been running himself ragged for months, mostly trying to outrun his own feelings. But today, it seemed safe enough to slow down. He put his elbows back on the table and stretched out his legs, soaking in the warmth, letting his mind wander at will. She left him to his thoughts, but she unwrapped her sandwich and commenced eating. When she opened a bag of chips and started crunching, he looked over at her, one eye still closed. She held one mid-air on its way to her mouth and grinned. “Sorry. Need an invitation?” She held it out to him and he took it laughing.
Sitting up and turning sideways on the bench, he asked a question. “Isabel, how is it that you know your way around motorcycles?”
A slow smile passed across her face, but she didn’t immediately answer. She was lost in some memory and he decided not to rush her. Waiting patiently, he leaned forward and picked a blade of grass at his feet, popping it in between his teeth. She’d never actually seen a guy do that, and she picked one herself before facing him on the bench to talk to him. She didn’t put it in her mouth but she fiddled with it, peeling thin strips off while she gathered her thoughts. She mumbled something about preferring potato chips to grass but her joke fell flat. She had a knack for that. She was usually so serious that when she actually attempted to be funny, no one even realized it. She didn’t attempt it often.
He burst out laughing. She would remember that moment for a very long time. When he stopped, he squeezed her hand and she thought, “Careful, Izzy. Hold onto your heart.”
She stood up and stretched and he noticed she put a little distance between them, but it wasn’t unkind. She lifted her foot up and let the toe of her boot rest on the bench beside him. She crossed her arms in front of her and hunched her shoulders a bit, relishing the feel of the sun on her back. He leaned on his fist, watching her.
“When I was six years old we lived on a main street directly across from my elementary school. The things I remember about that year are pretty faded now, mostly disjointed memories that are more about how I felt, then about any particular event. I do remember a few things though, and, as always ... I remember the music. I used to sit on the floor of the garage with my dad, who seemed like such a giant to me back then, so old and wise. Funny, but if I count out the years, I guess he would only have been about 27 at that time… so much younger than we are now.”
“Dad always had something playing in the background and there are some songs I still love as a result. I remember being surrounded by motorcycle parts as he worked to create one chopper out of the pieces of many, scattered around us. He didn’t mind if I picked them up and examined them as long as I put them back where I found them when I was done. I always thought it was somewhat miraculous when he finished one. It was like a puzzle for him, I think. To be able to create something out of nothing, is still a gift I admire a great deal in him. He's a welder, and a good one. I knew him from a distance as a little girl, fascinated by him as only a daughter can be, but yes…distant. I would only really come to know him years later, when I was a teenager, but that’s a story for another day.”
“When I look back now, there are many things about that time in my life that deeply influenced who I am today. I had a teacher at that school across the street in first grade that I still remember. She was gentle and soft spoken and she got the attention of her classroom by whispering what she had to say, until we were under control. I thought it was amazing that it worked, though I tried it at home with my brother and it never worked on him.” She winked. “Most of us responded to that still, small voice. I think maybe I'm wired to hear that way, or maybe it just happens naturally, because I have to work harder to listen. As I grew older, I carried that with me, speaking quietly when I wanted someone to really hear me. Ever notice how people tune you out if you yell at them? Do it enough and they never hear a word you’re saying. But there is something uniquely intimate about a whisper, isn’t there? It reaches in and fully grabs ahold of your heart and your attention.”
She paused, remembering some long ago scene from her past. A sigh escaped her and he wondered again where she’d gone, but didn’t ask.
“I keep a box at home, full of things that have special meaning to me. It’s nothing fancy… just a cardboard box with a lid. There are old photographs and bits and pieces of my life in there, from birth to the present. Mostly words, every word I've ever held dear. Words that are still precious to me. Words that matter. Words that come back to me through the annals of time, to speak truths to my heart, when I need them. I’d rather have words than a present. To me, words are.. the present.”
Leaning forward she finished by saying, “Hold with both hands... each precious and glittering moment of your life.” And she squeezed his hand back.
She put the helmet back on her head then and carried their trash to the orange garbage can to the left of her. She could punctuate a moment with her actions the way she did it with a paragraph and he knew this one was over. Grabbing his own helmet, he tried to keep up with her as she swung onto the back of the bike and pointed toward the eastern sky. Lightning. Great. It was still pretty far off in the distance but when he heard the low rumble, he knew they were on borrowed time. They’d have to head west to outrun it.
He could have sworn as he started up the bike and looked back over his shoulder, that he saw Titus disappearing into the trees in the middle of the orchard. He felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck as he heard the thunder boom right over their heads. As he pulled out onto the road he noticed a small wooden box at the base of an apple tree just behind the bench, a single apple blossom resting on the top. The wood was intricately carved and he hoped its owner would come back for it. It was very unusual. If he wasn't so concerned about those clouds, he'd have gone back for it himself. Instead, he left it alone, and set off for the village.
In front of him, the sky was turning all kinds of glorious colors, but behind him, it was boiling black and ominous. Two birds circled above them gracefully ahead of the storm and he had only one thought on his mind.
Keep her safe, Jack.