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Lilacs

The whole park smells wonderful. I love the scent of lilacs. The timing is perfect this year; there are thousands of them in bloom.

I walk along the path to the greenhouse. I always like to see what’s growing in there. Lost in the pleasure of the warm spring air and the beauty of life bursting before me, I almost run into the people coming the other way.

“Oh, excuse me,” I say.

But as I go to pass them, I get a good look at one of the men. He sees me too, and his face morphs into a puzzled expression. “I’m sorry,” he says, hesitation tugging at his voice, “but you look familiar.”

I study him for a moment, and then it registers. “Oh my god. Jay Weingart? It’s me, Shel Harrison.”

He smiles. “How long has it been? More than ten years.”

Thirteen, I want to say. Nearly thirteen years since you left.

“You look really…different,” Jay comments.

I’m sure that I do. My hair is much longer, for one thing, and I wear makeup now. I’ve given up hiding my body under overly large t-shirts with rock band logos. I do a lot of things I never would have done back then, including having uncomfortable run-ins with old boyfriends.

There are three other people with him. The girl with honey brown hair and eyes the color of the ocean in winter can’t be anyone else but his daughter. Her face is sweet and honest. She smiles shyly. The other man looks familiar, but I can’t place him. Actually, he resembles no one so much as Mr. Clean. He is entirely bald, although it looks more like he shaves his head that way to hide his receding hairline. He’s compact and muscular. I can see a tattoo peeking out of his shirt sleeve, but I can’t tell what it is. There’s also a slender black-haired girl who stands to the side as though she would prefer not to be noticed.

“I don’t think you’ve ever met my daughter, Alison,” Jay’s saying. He puts his hand on the brown-haired girl’s shoulder, pressing down slightly in affection. “This is Bill.” He gestures to the other man without giving any further context for This-Is-Bill. He doesn’t tell me the black-haired girl’s name.

I feel the lump pressing on my throat. Forcing a smile, I nod politely. I swallow, hard. “Nice to meet you,” I say.

“Likewise,” he says, extending a hand.  He arches an eyebrow, and I can tell he knows—or thinks he knows—something about me.

“Bill graduated a couple years ahead of us. I don’t know if you remember him.”

Ah, now the familiarity made sense. But he’d had hair back then. I think I make a non-committal sort of noise.

“How’s Julie?” I ask.

Jay shrugs casually. “Fine, I suppose.”

“You suppose?” I glance at Jay’s wedding band.

He notices. “We’ve been divorced for a long time. Julie lives in California. I haven’t seen her in years.”

Ah, remarried, then. I desperately want to get out of this awkward conversation. I make some excuse about needing to be on my way. Jay cheerfully waves over his shoulder as the three of them continue on the path.

I no longer feel much like looking in the greenhouse. My insides feel stretched. I wander through the park, trying not to think, without much success.

He acted as if nothing had ever happened. As if we were never more than old classmates. As if he didn’t remember all those days spent fooling around in his bedroom after school when his parents were still at work. As if it was insignificant making each other feel good and pretending, just for a little while, that we were free.

Thirteen years since he’d told me Julie was pregnant. He said he planned to “do the right thing” and marry her. Back then, I thought he was cheating on me with her. It turned out I was his dirty little secret. And now where is she? He’s married to someone else. Someone who should have been me but never could have been.

I was so sure I was over him before today. But as I walk, my hands deep in my pockets, I think maybe I’m not. Except that I’m not in love with him; I’m only in love with the memory of us. But why, oh why, can’t I get those eyes out of my mind?

I stop along the path to listen to a group of musicians. They’re playing a familiar folk song, one I like. Only one other person is listening—an old man sitting on the bench across the path from them.

There are two women and two men. One of the women is playing the violin. She has the longest hair I’ve ever seen; it’s down past her hips, hanging in dark waves that ripple as she fiddles. The other woman plays hand drums and the two men are playing guitar and some kind of pipes.

I hum the tune softly, closing my eyes. My parents used to bring me to some music festival when I was a kid. There would be all these people, playing and singing, making music together. We would camp there for most of a week. The park musicians are playing one of my mother’s favorites.

The song ends. I open my eyes to find the musicians smiling at me. The guitar player catches my eye and winks. I feel my face heating up.

“You sing?” he asks.

“I used to,” I admit. I wasn’t bad. I don’t know why I gave it up. Real life, I suppose.

He mentions a song. “You know that one?”

“Yeah, my parents used to sing that one all the time,” I say.

“Well, come on then, we could use a voice,” Guitar Guy says.

Feeling self-conscious, I join them. Guitar Guy is still watching me, his face unreadable. I can feel my heart rate increasing.

He tilts his head to the side and gives me a smirk. “What’s your name?”

“Shel. Shel Harrison.”

“Well, Shel Shel Harrison, you ready?”

And suddenly, I think maybe I am.

Betting on It

Author’s Note: This story takes place in roughly the same “world” as several other ones on this blog.  They’re not entirely related (that is, the same characters don’t necessarily appear in every story), but in my head, they all live in the same general location.  Just thought you’d like to know.

This story is included in the Creative Buzz Hop.  The theme for the week is “gender.”  To participate, visit Muses from the Deep or PenPaperPad and add your voice.

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It all started with a bet.

Tyler could never remember later whose idea it really was. It might have been Matty’s because he’d had a ginormous crush on Justine starting in fourth grade. Or it might have been Justine’s; she liked to see Tyler and Matty squirm. It might even have been Tyler’s—a stupid reaction to stupid Matty’s stupid teasing.

It didn’t really matter anyway.

The only important thing was that six days into the school year, Tyler was sitting in the top row of the bleachers in the Old Gym (which hadn’t been “old” since 1962) waiting his turn to try out for the seventh grade cheerleading squad. Matty was on his right and Justine was on his left. Somehow, it didn’t make him feel any better.

If he went through with it, he got eight dollars and Matty’s copy of Super Mario Zombies, and Justine would find out if Carly Dunbar liked him, liked him. If he didn’t, he had to make copies of his social studies notes for a week—for both Matty and Justine, neither of whom appreciated Mr. Connolly’s habit of outlining the whole text book.

Tyler sighed. There was nothing for it. He had no intention of losing this bet; he cared far less about the winnings than his pride. Anyway, it wasn’t as though he couldn’t do it. Tyler was pretty sure he stood a better chance than half the girls. He’d taken several years of gymnastics until his parents decided it was too expensive. At that point, he switched to hip-hop. That was considered respectable, though Tyler always secretly wished he’d been allowed to take some of the other dance classes. That was the fun part about being a preacher’s kid in a not-so-big town; there was pressure on his dad to make sure he grew up right. There was no way he was going to tell his father that he’d tried out for cheerleading—especially if he didn’t make it.

After suffering through several out-of-sync routines, the coach finally called Tyler’s name. There were a lot of poorly-concealed snickers. Even the coach looked like she thought Tyler wasn’t serious. He performed the skills she asked for and watched her make checks on her clipboard, her eyebrows slowly climbing her forehead. She dismissed him with an “I’ll let you know” and moved on to the next person.

“You so owe me,” Tyler said when they were out of the gym.

“Whatever.” Matty was scowling. “I didn’t think you’d actually do it. I was looking forward to sleeping through Connolly’s class.”

“You wish. Just think, now you can play Super Mario Zombies at my house.”

***

Two weeks later, Tyler was standing in Coach Pepper’s office, fiddling with his backpack while she talked.

“…just don’t see how it’s possible,” she was saying. “I mean, we don’t have a uniform for you or anything. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, Tyler, but this isn’t going to work out. I’m sorry.”

Wait just a minute. Was Coach Pepper really saying Tyler couldn’t be on the squad because he was a boy? “Coach, that’s not fair! It’s discrimination.”

She glared at him. “Boys can’t have everything. Some things just naturally belong to the girls.”

He let his mouth hang open for ten seconds before he turned and marched out. No way was he going to stand for this. People staged protests all the time, right? Why not for keeping boys off the cheer squad? Time to take some action.

Without telling his parents.

That turned out to be easier said than done. By the time Tyler had organized a protest at the first soccer home game, put on one of the mini-skirt uniforms, passed out fliers at every lunch period (earning two detentions for cutting class), and called the local paper, his parents were well and truly informed.

Tyler was unprepared for the media circus that ensued. Apparently, the tiny town of Morton Ponds hadn’t seen this much excitement since the high school baseball team won the state championship back in the early eighties. Everyone took sides, including most of the teachers—and Tyler’s own family.

It didn’t help that every single one of them had an opinion. Helen thought he was attention-seeking. Charlotte said she was proud of him for sticking The Patriarchy in the eye, whatever that meant. His parents said they would support him, but it didn’t sound entirely sincere. Only Colby said he was staying out of it.

When all was said and done, Coach Pepper was forced to accept boys on the cheer squad, provided they could demonstrate the skill level she expected. There was a big press conference, and Tyler had to make a speech about how wrong it was to keep kids from doing what they wanted just because they were the “wrong” gender. He didn’t know how to answer the question about whether girls should play football; Morton Ponds didn’t even have a football team.

Afterward, Colby took Tyler out for ice cream. Colby was pretty cool, for a college guy. They sat outside the Dairy Queen eating Dilly Bars and not actually talking. That was okay with Tyler; he didn’t have anything else to say. Eventually, they tossed their sticks and got back in Colby’s car.

“Well, at least you made the team,” Colby finally said.

“Um.”

Colby glanced at Tyler. “What?”

“I didn’t actually want to be a cheerleader. I just wanted Matty’s copy of Super Mario Zombies.”

For six heartbeats, Colby said nothing. Then he roared with laughter, buckled his seat belt, and drove them both home.

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For those of you heading to SS in a couple of weeks (you know who you are), I’m auctioning a collection of stories that includes Betting on It and several others from this blog as well as a few new ones.