Janis Thornton

My world crashed the night Bud Morrow skidded off the curve east of town and plowed his dad's new Monte Carlo into the grove. Folks blamed the wreck on excessive speed. No one knew it was my fault. But as surely as if I'd been in the car egging him on, I was the driving force. He was just eighteen, and so was I. During these ensuing eighteen years, thanks to Bud, I have come to realize a key truth: Don't peak early.

Until that June morning when my mother startled me out of a perfectly good sleep with the news, my most taxing concerns had revolved around prom dresses and dyed-to-match pumps.

"Chrissy! Wake up!" she had bleated, shaking the Tribune's early-morning edition in my face. "Bud's been killed!"

I snatched the paper from her hands and read the story. I had no idea how to respond. I was a kid. Death was unreal

Out of respect for Bud, I attended neither the visitation nor the funeral. I couldn't bear the thought of looking at Bud laid out in a casket, dressed in, of all things, a powder blue suit. He'd have hated that. He never wore anything but jeans and T-shirts. He'd also have hated his face waxed in mortician's paint. In those days, no real man - not even a dead one - wore makeup. Bud's mishap occurred within weeks after our breakup, which I had instigated solely out of fear of my raging desires. The notion that he might give a damn about me never entered my mind. I took up with Zach Meyer to quell my heartache, but I clung to the naive hope Bud would swoop in between me and Zach to gather me up in his arms and carry me away on his white horse - that is, I clung to that hope until Bud provoked a fight with Zach and Zach punched him in the mouth and knocked his front teeth out. With that, any possibility of Bud and me getting back together was shattered.

In anyone else's eyes, Zach was the perfect boyfriend. Apart from a quick temper and a hard right punch, he was a nice boy. Considerate. Clean. Reliable. He attended church and never mistook my virtue for a personal quest. My inability to return his affection wasn't his fault. Even now, I have only one criticism of Zach: He wasn't Bud.

Bud was everything Zach wasn't: exciting, edgy, cavalier, ruthless -qualities that only enhanced his appeal. Like most of the girls at Eaton High, I was wildly attracted to Bud and loved the cocky, half-smirk of a smile he flashed to get his way. In truth, I thought I lacked a single quality special enough to attract a boy like him. But one afternoon in the school library he asked for my help in finding a poem by Robert Browning.

"Grow Old Along with Me"? I asked, referring to the title, of course.

He just stood there for a long moment, peering deep into my eyes and not saying anything. Then his lips started to twist into that half-smirk, half-grin, and he said, "I think we might work that out."

I marveled then, and still do, that in the final winter of Bud Morrow's life, he loved me.

Sadly, as often is the case for the very young, matters of the heart are scurrying and slippery. It was that way for Bud and me. Late that spring, shortly after we consummated our feelings for one another on the leather-upholstered back seat of his dad's new luxury car, we called it quits. On the rebound, I accepted Zach's class ring, and within a month, late one rainy night, driving the consecrated Chevrolet at an ungodly rate of speed, Bud attempted to shinny up a tree. And that, as the saying goes, was that.

Guilt over Bud's death quietly consumed me, but I maintained an illusion of indifference until shortly after the reopening of school - my senior year- when I was forced to learn one of nature's cruelest laws: Every action provokes a reaction.

My reaction was an emotionless withdrawal. Several weeks later, the source of my melancholy grew shamefully apparent. That in turn forced my parents' reaction, and they sent me to live with my aunt in California, where I finished school. After that, although I never forgot him, I never again spoke of Bud Morrow. Imagine how surprised I was when one night last week, Wednesday, I think, I arrived home from work and found an invitation in my mailbox to a graveside reunion commemorating what would have been Bud's thirty-sixth birthday. I hadn't a clue as to who actually sent it, but the possibilities intrigued me. I left that morning before dawn and, despite the blustery February wind, drove straight through by myself. And now, in the cold, noon-day sun, here I stand at the grave of my first and only love. Other than my boot prints, the snow was smooth and virginal, and I feel strangely at one with the young man deep in the ground under my feet.

"Hello, Bud," I say to the headstone. "It's me, Christina."

I kneel before the simple granite marker, a quiet testament that a boy named "Bud" briefly journeyed through life. Letter-by-letter, my fingers trace the inscription and I consider pressing my lips against it.

I don't.

When I rise, I spot the distant figure of a man tramping through the deep, snow-covered meadow off to my left. He is heading toward the grave. When he is within maybe a hundred feet of me, he lifts a hand and waves. I have no way of knowing if he is part of the reunion or has mistaken me for someone else. I return the gesture hesitantly.

Up to now, the winter sun has done little to brighten the day. But, all at once, as if Nature herself is suddenly directing the special effects, sunlight washes across the young man's face. That's when I realize whose face it is.

It is Bud's.

Aside from standing alone in the middle of a graveyard watching an apparent ghost approach, I have no reason to feel uneasy.

The closer he gets to me, the more distinctive is the sound of his heavy footsteps plodding through the snow. When the crunching stops, only a few feet of empty space separate us.

"Hello," he says, flashing that cocky, half-smirk of a smile I had all but forgotten.

I feel as if time is hurling me backwards and I am too overwhelmed to move. I will myself to step forward and study his features - the high cheekbones, that small bump on the bridge of his nose, a pair of luminous green eyes, the delicate curve of his jaw leading to a dimple placed squarely in the center of his chin.

It is the face of my past - and my future.

I brush a lock of his tousled blond hair from his brow and say, "Hello."

I am vaguely aware that somewhere a raucous crow is cawing and a distant locomotive is moaning, and deep inside my soul, instincts that have lain dormant half my life are stirring.

I wrap my trembling arms around him and place my head in the bend between his neck and shoulder.

"My darling," I tell him, "How I've longed to hold you again."

Sweetly, he returns my embrace. Our reunion becomes my vindication. Then, at last, he breathes life into the word I've ached to hear since the day I let him go.


© Janis Thornton

Janis Thornton is a staff writer for The Times of Frankfort, Ind., and a contributor to "Chicken Soup for the Mothers Soul 2."

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