She had a choice, it was hers alone to make.
Yet, the consequences were not hers alone to endure.
We laid side-by-side in the center of the school’s soccer field after hours. It was permanently closed for the summer, as indicated by the ‘No Trespassing’ sign affixed to the rusted chain link fence we casually ignored. The property lingered as an abandoned afterthought in the heat of a July evening; clothes stuck to our skin, beads of sweat on our temples were cooled only by the gentle breeze that graced us. It was the two of us, exhilarated by the mutual sense of our temporary freedom and belonging to a place that could ineffectually be ours.
I remember playing in the grass as a child, longing to feel its coolness under my warm body as I toppled and ran through it. Over the years, that inner child remained and I regarded this place as my sanctuary. The color was a verdant, welcoming hue, withstanding the record temperatures of the day. The scent inviting and clean, the fresh air making each blade dance happily. It was rivaled by the sky, and that is why I chose to lie down in it. I longed to both feel the earth beneath me and see the heavens so perfectly portrayed in all its majesty before me.
As we lay, the sky darkened into a mess of deep shades making nameless colors that fought a losing battle with the blackness that threatened to consume it. The moon revealed herself from behind the fading clouds, which died and were reborn as gray, faded versions of themselves, like the strokes of a drying paintbrush.
Were we also dying as time ticked by? How would I be reborn?
The crickets chirped both near and far in hidden spaces across the ground, fireflies glowed past our faces dazzling us with the beauty the night had to offer. Stars entered from their daytime slumbers, small and twinkling gently, trying to maintain relevance and purpose in a sky above the suburbs of a large city.
And next to me lay Austin Duran, hands behind his head, and staring up at it all. It had been ninety-seven days since our last meeting.
“Will you miss me when I’m gone?” I asked, turning on my side to face him, the grass tickling my exposed arm. My elbows were cushioned by the soft earth beneath me. I relished in living, having the chance to experience these small details with him.
Austin cocked his head in my direction, studying me for either seriousness or playfulness. He correctly chose the former.
“Yeah,” he breathed, holding my gaze with a slight smile, “will you miss me?”
I appreciated his kind eyes and wavy hair. A ping of shyness and inadequacy hit me and I broke eye contact.
To this Austin nodded and resumed looking up into the night. All appeared to be at peace with him, but my thoughts warred, battling incessantly with immense bloodshed. Choices, decisions, autonomy clamored against each other for a chance at life. My hesitation amplified the chaos and confusion, the emotions bubbling towards the surface; it was threatening to boil over the pot, teetering on the edge, lifting the lid by none other than pressure alone.
My reverie broke as my phone buzzed in my back pocket and I retrieved it quickly. The name on the screen brought about a feeling of subtle dread, gradually building as if it were tumultuous waves in the ocean, the current bringing me towards the boonies. I might drown.
I ignored the call and set the phone in the grass next to me. There was nothing I wanted more than to remove myself from the outside world, to live a carefree existence for as long as I could.
I looked at Austin as I lay, trying to capture every conceivable second and burn it into my memory. The way he pursed his lips in concentration, the slight dimple on his cheek, and the way his hair tousled slightly. It reached his brows now since he had gone longer than usual without a haircut. No doubt busy with other things that occupied his days. He breathed calmly, his chest lifting and lowering in a slow, gentle rhythm.
How did I look in his eyes?
“Why does everything good have to come to an end?” he asked, without looking my way.
“You always ask this.”
“I always wonder.”
I thought about this a moment, trying to weigh my words with thoughtful consideration.
“It just does. Nothing lasts forever.”
“I don’t buy that, I don’t believe that’s the real reason.”
“Well I don’t know then,” I turned away.
My phone buzzed loudly in the grass, and I forced myself to ignore it.
“Did you need to get that?”
I met his gaze. Something in his expression told me he knew who was calling, but he wouldn’t ask, he would only hope he was wrong.
“No, it’s a spam call,” I lied, looking down at my fingers pressing into the ground.
The buzzing continued.
Digging them deeper until dirt began to catch under my nails.
The buzzing continued.
I grabbed a handful, squeezing it inside my palm.
The buzzing stopped.
I wiped my hand on my shorts.
Austin sat up, arms resting on his knees. He no longer stared up into the sky – which now succumbed totally into the darkness – his eyes looked toward the ground pensively. There was just enough natural illumination that made sense of the shadows it equally cast. From it, I could make out distinct features on one half of his face: the soft knit between his brow, the slight tremble of his lower lip, it portrayed a struggle of duality and self-control.
“You don’t have to tell me, but please don’t lie to me,” he said softly.
“Okay.” My mouth went dry and I lay back down.
Shame replaced the dread. I was beginning to grow tired.
The silence between us so loud the insects lowered their conversations to hear ours.
He finally broke it, “I used to watch a lot of Superman growing up. The movies, animated series, shows, you name it –”
I faced him; how I longed to understand how his mind worked. It occurred to me that I may only know as much as he wished, thus each sentence was like a trail of crumbs that led me closer to his intentions.
There was a gust of wind that cooled my face and neck. It breathed into me a promise of change, the beginning of something new, different. Or perhaps, more likely, it was signaling the impending conclusion, reminding me that I was delaying the inevitable.
Could I live with myself if I never found the answer?
My eyes were growing heavy, it was getting late.
“ – but my favorite was Smallville. You know, the show with a teen version of him? Even as a kid I thought – I really thought that he and Lana Lang were what love was supposed to be,” he paused, assessing me before finishing his thought, “I didn’t have an example of how it should look, or how it all worked. So, I got it from a show. Does that make sense?”
The faint scent of rain reached me, and I nodded carefully, trying my best to listen intently. I wanted to find some subliminal messaging in the contents of his words, but I became distracted by the overwhelming sense of obligation.
He opened his mouth to continue before his eyes widened and his body startled. I could hear the buzzing as he came back into himself, bringing his phone towards his line of sight.
Austin stared at the screen and sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose with his pointer finger and thumb, as he laid it back down next to him. He turned back to me, trying his best to show he was unbothered, that the notification was nothing more than a minor distraction.
Something in my expression told him I knew who messaged him, but I wouldn’t ask, I would only hope I was wrong.
“I have to go, don’t I?” I asked solemnly, sitting up again.
“No, please stay here,” he answered quickly, reaching out to me.
He placed his hand on mine.
I allowed this for longer than I should have, then pulled back slowly. My muscles ached.
We both stared forward then, and the wind began to increase as tiny droplets fell on my skin. It felt surprisingly warm, and I had an urge to do something, anything, besides sit quietly.
My phone began to vibrate again, and I tried to covertly press the ignore button.
I thought Austin might have noticed, but he didn’t comment.
“Superman?” I asked, clinging to the precious, short minutes we had left.
“You were talking about Superman and Lana Lang.”
He kept silent for a bit, putting his head in his hands and rubbing his temples with his palms.
“I just really liked the show,” he clenched his jaw.
He paused, swallowing, “do you remember playing on this field not that long ago?”
“You were great — you are great.”
“You are, too.”
“And do you remember driving in my car for hours, whenever we had nothing better to do?”
I nodded slowly.
“And how we’d cruise on nights like this — two fools making the most of whatever time we had?”
I didn’t respond, he ran his hands through his hair exasperated.
“Well, I do. Always taking the highway, so we wouldn’t have to waste any time. Just like criminals, running away from all the destruction we’d caused. But it was a lose-lose situation, playing cops and robbers while still in shackles. Just you and me…” he stopped, and took a deep, shaky breath, “It was never you and me, though. In a perfect world, it would have been.”
The last words barely audible as tears, or rain, made wet paths over his cheeks.
My own began to blur my vision, and I blinked them away, quickly looking up for some hopeless aid that the air could provide me. Instead, I was met with the intensity of the drops stinging my skin. I tried to look at my surroundings as a distraction, to avoid the unavoidable. Each goal post stood proud on either end of us, weathered and corroding at its corners from braving the elements for so long. The netting was missing, no doubt stored away during the off-season.
“What’s your point?” I managed.
He was beginning to unravel, flustered with evident frustration, “and do you remember just talking? Talking for hours about everything, and nothing, and things, just things that we would talk about. Anything. Anything at all?”
“I know you think about it all when we’re apart. I do, too,” he reached for me again, hand outstretched, waiting for me to grab hold, but I crossed my arms and stared down at my shoes instead. Apprehension took priority over my desires, and I feared that I would come to regret it. His eyes went dark as he lifted my chin and stared into my own.
He continued speaking, “I always think about the night, all those months ago, when we drove further than we ever had before and laid on the hood of my car. I swear we watched more stars than sky, acting like we didn’t have anywhere else to be. For the first time, we –”
“Why can’t you just enjoy the fact that I’m here now. Let’s forget about going down memory lane; be in the moment with me now.”
“What, you mean in this godforsaken field? I can only lay in grass for so long without worrying about whether or not the fucking birds are going to tell on us. This isn’t living, Cassandra, this is hiding —”
“I’m not hiding!”
“Bullshit, all we do is hide, and lie, and cheat.”
“I’m sorry, Austin. I don’t have a choice —”
“That’s not true, Cassandra, you always have a choice. And right now, you are choosing to go down a path I won’t be able to save you from.”
“I have to go, you know what’ll happen if I don’t.”
“Please don’t do this. If not for me, then at least for you.”
I couldn’t face him, my body frozen on the spot under rainfall that refused to thaw me. My silence revealed my reply.
“You know, I never should’ve let you leave that night, but I did. Dammit, I did, and it kills me, because I can’t stop remembering what it did to you. It haunts me, it lingers and peeks over my shoulder when I think I’m alone, but now I’m never really alone because it’s consumed me. All of these memories won't give me peace, because as much as I want to cherish them, I’m left wondering if you will even make it to see the next day. And I should have known better, I should’ve known, because everytime you left you came back blue. You came back broke!”
He stopped suddenly, consuming deep, ragged breaths, as he pondered the risks of crossing some invisible line.
Was there a line to cross anymore?
“Stop it, Austin, stop it!”
“Why? He doesn’t.”
The words sliced into me, backhanded me, abused me, because it was true. I stood up quickly, and began to walk away, tears rushing down my face like scattering ants down a tree. The water from the sky — I was drowning, my body being pulled past the boonies. I’m drowning.
“Wait!” he shouted, grabbing me by my arm and facing me towards him, “please, I can’t do this anymore. We come back here, year after year, repeating the cycle, and every time it’s me left alone at the end of the night.”
My phone startled me as it repeated the horrific, relentless buzzing noise on the ground. Water flooded the brightly lit screen, but the notification prevailed, intending beyond all reason to reach me.
It’s time to face the consequences. It’s time to face the consequences.
My legs buckled, my body gave way, and I became one with the earth, trembling in fear and suffocating in the anxiety over my past deadline. Austin stood over me, the rain pelting him, falling from the ends of his hair like a shower. Soon, his shoulders sagged, defeated, and he knelt beside me, lifting my body onto his lap. He held me close, rocking me against his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Both of our phones buzzed in unison, vibrating with such an intensity that it was difficult to ignore, but we held each other's gaze in spite of it. My breathing labored, my skin paled, the stress of leaving and staying too much to bear.
The crickets no longer chirped, the fireflies no longer glowed; mother nature was angry at us for overstaying our welcome, causing an imbalance to her imperfect harmony. Night was fading, light was fading, it all was fading. And our phones vibrated all the same as we sat in a warped, unforgiving sense of time.
Then I left, and never returned to see another nightfall in that field from a body that was once mine, with lungs full of air I should have took in more greedily, eyes that watered when the sun shone too bright, or fingertips that delicately touched flowers that bloomed in spite of the harsh soil. It was the last sky I laid under, and it was one of such marvelous quality I still carried it with me across the threshold of the aftermath. My decision to leave soon became ashes spread by a lover that knew me better than friends and family alike, in a field that was once our escape. We were never meant to be, he and I, we were only ever meant to wonder. And what a shame as I desperately wanted to see the sunset one more time in the arms of Austin Duran.
Austin hung his frayed hat on a nearby tree branch and shuffled slowly towards me, one hand wrapped around a bundle of wildflowers. He rested on his knees in front of me and laid the flowers down. I got a closer look and took in his slightly different features — his hair grayed in parts, crows feet were stamped on the outer edges of his eyes, and a five o’clock shadow rested on his face. Austin was no longer the young, carefree boy he once was, but a man whose face alone told stories of hopelessness and heartache.
How much time has passed?
He breathed slowly, contemplatively, before he spoke, “this place has changed quite a bit since the last time I came. I’m sorry it’s been so long.”
I stared down at him and placed my hand on his shoulder.
“Was there anything I could have said to change your mind?” he asked aloud, staring into the darkness.
“No,” I replied.
“I want to go with you, wherever you are.”
“You say that every time,” I smiled sadly, and sat crisscrossed in front of him.
“Now I know you’ll say ‘you always say that’, but I want you to know I mean it every time.”
“It’s not fair,” I whispered.
“It’s not fair,” he whispered, “I wish it would have been me instead.”
The fields we once laid on were no longer lush with green grass, but a wide berth of dilapidated headstones and a few empty plots. It was neglected, sad, and very much represented my lonely, regretful soul. Live oaks obscured the moonlight and lessened the impact of drizzle over us. The lampposts, long forgotten, did little to penetrate the dark, hazy purgatory I had been subjected to. The place that at one time boasted our mutual freedom felt more like a prison of vines, entanglements, and witch’s hair choking their neighbors for oxygen.
When would I be reborn?
The sound of his solid breathing and beating heart took up the otherwise hushed scene. My only reprieve, I clung onto him for comfort, yearning in futile desperation to return to the days of driving aimlessly away from everything.
“I wish I would have stayed,” I said, settling into his lap.
“I think about you often, nearly every day of my life,” he said, his glazed eyes fixated on the weeds before him, “in my old heart, I’d like to think you never left.”
So, we talked as if I never did, and it was cathartic to travel down the road of nearly lost memories. Yet, all we could do was relive a day that ended with me and continued with him.
I stayed with Austin until I fell back into a deep sleep, barely making out the last words I would ever hear him say.
“You’re my Lana Lang.”
Rocio Carranza holds a MBA in Strategic Management from the University of North Texas at Dallas. She lives and works in Austin, TX as a Program Security Manager, and writes short stories as a hobby. She enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons.