A man walked down the path, looking tired and burdened, dressed in a black suit and beige overcoat. Catching his breath, he ran fingers through his graying hair, looking around him. It had been a long time since he had been here last.
“Do you remember, Mary?” he said softly, even though he was alone. “Do you remember the first time you brought me here?”
He looked around, and remembered. It was a day in early spring, and still cool, and the apples were in full bloom, white arms lifted against a hazy blue sky. The trees were blooming in a little hollow, with a natural berm on one side and a post and rail fence on the other, but no gate. Mary, her blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, tugged his hand as she led him into the orchard. Her cheeks and nose were red from walking in the cool. His breath caught a little when she turned to check on his progress and he saw her looking at him with a sparkle in her eyes.
“Hurry up! Come on!” she urged. “I know the perfect place!”
“I’m coming!” he replied. “So where is it?”
He let go of her hand and watched her clime a path halfway up the rise behind the grove. There, a large shelf of rock jutted out. Last year’s weeds framed it, brown and crispy, with just a little bit of new green peeking through. Jumping on the rock, she turned around in circles, her scarf and golden hair dancing around her as she leaned her head back and raised her arms to the sky.
“Here!” she said. “Come join me!”
He scrambled up the trail while she sat down and pulled her jean-covered knees close to her body, wrapping her arms around them.
“Do you come up here often?” he said, dropping down beside and a little behind her.
She nodded. “It’s nice and peaceful. You can’t see the street from here. It’s easy to think you’re somewhere far away from town, out in the country, just you and the sky and the trees. On a good day, when the wind is right, I’ve even seen deer coming through the orchard.”
“Better not let my brother know. He’d try to be out here next deer season,” he said.
Mary tilted her head and looked thoughtful for a moment, then smiled.“Oh, I don’t think so. It’s still in town here.”
“Lucky deer,” he said. He moved in a little closer and wrapped his arm around her. She looked up at him, surprised, but smiled, and leaned against him. The wind picked up a little, and blew a strand of her hair across his face. It tickled, but he didn’t want to move and spoil the moment.
“I really like it here when the trees are blooming,” she said. “Everything’s so beautiful/”
“Yeah,” he replied, but it wasn’t the trees he was looking at.
She turned and looked at him. Her eyes were blue with hazel rings, and he thought he could fall into her eyes forever. She reached up, and touched his cheek. His hand slid up to her neck, and surprising even himself, he kissed her, gently, softly.
Suddenly, they both pulled back, as if surprised.
“Do it again,” she whispered.
Breaking out of his memory, his body suddenly ached at the recollection of that second kiss and the emptiness he felt now. “Mary,” he whispered. Shaking his head, he walked down the road.
So much had changed since he was here last. The town had grown, and houses had popped up everywhere. He found the old rise, and even the rock slab. Pulling his coat closed against the cool autumn wind, he walked out on it and looked down. Instead of an apple grove, there was a park here, with a slide and swings and things for kids to climb up on.
“I guess the apple trees had to go, like you did,” he said. “But I think you’d like the park. It looks like it’s still a happy place.”
He watched two children at play for several minutes, their mothers talking together on a park bench, then thought of deer and lost youth and the hole in his heart, and went back to his car. He headed back to his daughter’s house where they waited for him with food and soft looks and visits from well-wishers who offered sympathy after his loss, but what he really wanted was to go home.
He just didn’t know if he’d ever really find it again.