A blanket of delicious warmth fell from above, releasing the achy chill that had seeped into my cold bones and swollen joints. The healing power of sunlight.
I lifted my face towards the sky and let it sink in. A splash of pleasure spiraled between my shoulder blades, rolling in rhythm with the frothy foam curling at the water's edge.
The winter rays gave off a soft heat; the kind snowbirds found enticing and the locals, refreshing.
My eyelids drooped as the squawking and screeching of the terns receded into the background. The stress melted from my weary limbs, and I drifted off.
When I awoke, the ocean of my childhood, bright and blue, opened its arms in welcome. A red-tailed hawk soared overhead. Banking on the updrafts, it glided towards the hills stretching along the coastline. I muttered a quick prayer for my soul's renewal, hoping the words would catch on the hawk's wings and be taken to wherever such prayers should go.
A twinge of premonition tickled the back of my mind. He was near. I turned my head, watching his familiar form jog along the waterline. I rose from the sand, my heart thumping in time with the footsteps drawing ever closer. Fear and longing twisted together as I rubbed my damp palms against my thighs.
His steps slowed to a halt. "Terra," he acknowledged stiffly, "been waiting long?"
I swiveled to face him. "No, no more than twenty minutes or so. It's nice to see you, Colt."
"Is it?" the hard edge in his voice sounded more like a challenge than a greeting.
I let my attention wander to a small sand crab scuttling over a patch of seaweed. "Your timing was very good."
I glanced up, reacquainting myself with his face. His eyes narrowed with suspicion as he glared back. His wariness was justified. I was, he knew, a woman on a mission. He was, as always, the man pretending I was foolish to bother .
We stood in awkward silence, kicking at the sand, each waiting for the other to break the tension growing between us.
"So why did you want to see me?" he asked, his expression carefully blank.
"Maybe it's time, for both my sake and yours, to finally deal with our unfinished business."
I checked his features. Still blank, "I tried to contact you, but you didn't respond, so I wasn't really sure if you were going to show up or not."
"I wasn't able to respond at the time, but I got your message. As you can see, I'm here," dark eyes swept over me, and he frowned. "So now that we both find ourselves free, were you hoping to reconnect? If you like, we could tell all the old stories again and make-believe that there's still something left between us."
He scratched his chin and continued. "I don't understand why you keep putting us through this exercise in futility," he lied, "but who knows. Maybe the tenth time will be the charm."
"Being a little dramatic, don't you think?"
I looked at the back of my hand, the knuckles bruised and bloodied. I wanted to use that hand to slap the smarmy smirk right off his face. "Let's walk a bit before we draw attention to ourselves."
He raised an eyebrow but reluctantly strode beside me.
We walked past a large rounded boulder hedged by a tuft of reeds. The rock sparked a memory, and I smiled.
"That's where we found the baby bunny, remember? Abandoned by its mother, poor thing, and scared to death."
I could still picture its fuzzy little head peeking out at us, "We took care of it until it was old enough to survive on its own."
"Really?" he gave me an incredulous stare, "You want to talk about that?"
Realizing my mistake, I swiped at the gnats circling in front of us and changed the topic.
"In case you were wondering, I was living a pretty decent life before I came here," I blurted, "A life blessed with purpose and meaning,"
Yes, many accomplishments and very few men. Tales of my romantic adventures could almost fill an index card. It was my fault, not theirs, but he didn't need to know that.
"If your life was so great, then why are you here with me?"
"Well," I tried to explain, "over the years, I've come to the conclusion that emotional obstacles from the past are getting in the way of where I want to go."
He huffed, "And where might that be?"
It was difficult to find the right words to describe the heavy weights that hung from my heart.
"The guilt and regret I carry is a heavy load, Colt. It keeps me from being everything I could be," my lower lip trembled with the honesty of the confession.
He said nothing. Reaching the end of the public stretch of beach, we stepped onto the wooden boardwalk leading away from the water. Finally, he spoke.
"I suppose we all have sins that we still carry. I don't know why you think you're the only one who does."
It seemed like an eternity before the walking man symbol turned green, each second punctuating Colt's brooding silence. Just ahead lay a stream-crossed valley hidden behind a low ridge.
Our feet stopped abruptly at the top of the rise. Sadness clouded my vision as I sought out something, anything, recognizable. The grassy meadow of our youth had become just another victim of urban sprawl; chewed up by the gnawing teeth of the excavator and cleared down to the dirt. In its place stood neat little houses, baking under the southwestern sun and locked tight within a precise grid of asphalt streets.
It had been quite a while since my last visit. My thoughts drifted back to a time when patches of purple, humming with bees and lavender, filled the landscape. I could almost see us there- me weaving stems into matching crowns while Colt stood guard against any dangerous wildlife that dared to threaten our valuable free time. We were young then, barely past adolescence.
"Men don't wear flowers in their hair," his teenage self declared, "only girls do."
I swung my head around, "Don't see any men around here," I teased, "and since you refuse to wear my handiwork, I'll just weave the two crowns together and turn them into a bridal headpiece."
He scowled at my ridiculousness.
"It's never too early to start thinking about such things," I provoked, "especially since I keep picturing a certain someone standing by my side."
He jerked his head towards me, worry lines creasing the corner of one eye. "Otter likes you, you know. He told me he thinks you're pretty. Do you like him back?"
I stared off into the distance, appearing to contemplate the juicy tidbit while testing the powers that came with simply being female. Apparently, I could make him sweat.
"Hmmm, not really."
He wiped the moisture from the peach-fuzz dotting his upper lip.
Placing the wreath on my head, I paraded on long legs in front of him. Then, for good measure, I tossed a little sway into my hips, a trick the older girls seemed quite fond of, just to see if it had any effect.
Colt tilted his head, confused. Intrigued.
"Yes," I said decidedly, "I will wear it on our wedding day."
From under my lashes, I had peeked up to catch his features soften. Within seconds, he closed the distance between us and pressed his lips against mine. The kiss was awkward, and we giggled like the children we were. Our pulses raced as we recognized that a shift had occurred in our relationship. We were stumbling onto a new path, one that hinted at things elusive and beyond our knowledge. A path that made our hearts pound with a strange intensity.
I returned from the sweetness of a moment long past.
"I suppose it was only a matter of time," His shoulders sagged, "It's not ours anymore, is it?"
A tiny dust whirl swirled around my feet. "No, it belongs to the people who live here now. Let's hope they can find their own happiness like we once did."
"What's gone is gone."
I wanted to lift the sadness from his expression, "we can dwell on what was or move on. Which way we go is up to us."
His tone was gruff. "I wish I shared your optimism because I don't know how to do that."
Without thinking, I reached up to brush a stray lock of hair from his forehead, and he let me. Progress.
A sudden thought brought a blush to my cheeks. "Have you forgotten the cave? Unless a hole's been blasted through to make way for a new highway, it should still be where it's always been.
He snapped out of his momentary reverie, "Now why the hell would I want to go there?"
"You may not feel a need to go there, but I do," the pale limestone cliffs tugged at something deep inside, pulling me towards the hills. "If you don't want to go, then don't. I'll go by myself."
His mouth hardened into a straight line, but he followed.
The path rising from the edge of the valley was steeper and more precarious than I had remembered. With age came a more mature perspective on what I now considered to be hazardous. Nevertheless, Colt loped up the narrow route like a sure-footed goat, uttering curses as he climbed and occasionally looking back to see if I was keeping up.
"It's not a race, you know," I should be winded, but surprisingly, wasn't.
"This is a ridiculous waste of time," he shouted, "what if it's gone?"
"Where would it go?" I stopped climbing and took a deep breath, "We're talking about a cave, for Christ's sake."
Colt pulled me up by the arm. "Let's rest for a minute."
We stood barefoot on the hard-packed platform that served as the landing to an irregularly shaped opening in the rock. The entrance had been sealed off. A weathered sign from the Department of Natural Resources hung precariously over the opening, warning any local explorers and/or mischief-makers that the area was strictly off-limits.
"I'm guessing they would prefer we don't go in there," Colt grabbed the rusty metal blocking the opening. After a few attempts, it detached with a groan, sending corroded bolts flying through the air like shrapnel. He tossed the metal sheets off to the side as easily as if they were pieces of old cardboard.
"Ladies first," he offered, bending in a mock bow before glancing over his shoulder and beyond the path we had just climbed. A narrow side valley extended to larger, craggier hill in the distance. A worried frown pulled at the corners of his mouth.
Turning, I followed his gaze. A thick opaque mist was beginning to form, rolling downward from the peak. Scattered water droplets sparkled like tiny crystals, animating the flowing cloud with sporadic rainbow-tinted flashes of life. My attention returned to Colt, his body tightening with apprehension.
An overwhelming sensation of déjà vu washed over my skin, setting off internal alarms. The odd moment left me weak, and my knees buckled beneath me. Strong arms reached out to support my limp frame, holding me until I could regain some sense of equilibrium.
His head bent towards mine, and a fleeting glimpse of desire burned in his eyes before an inner turmoil scrubbed it away. I closed my eyes. He would fight, deny, and swear that the bond we had once shared no longer existed. Yet, our history and the sense that we had been here many times before screamed otherwise.
The wind now carried a bitter bite. "Come, it's getting colder," he glanced once more to confirm that the fog was moving quickly, filling in the far end of the valley. "Let's get inside."
The tunnel was tight near the opening but grew wider as we snaked our way through the darkness. Navigating by touch, we relied upon muscle memory to traverse corridors we had traveled many times when we were younger. Reaching a fork, we veered to the left, stooping low through the final length of the journey. Slipping through an egg-shaped hole in the stone, we dropped the last few feet onto the silty surface of a small circular cavern.
Colt felt around the floor searching for something flammable and found a crooked branch with an old moldy cloth wrapped around its tip. Flames sputtered to life as he lit the end, illuminating the musty space. He pushed the other end into the soft ground.
"Do you remember why we chose this chamber to be our hideaway spot?"
"Of course, it was one of the few chambers that had a soft floor," I said, brushing off some of the dust that had accumulated on my arms and legs. I knew exactly what he was thinking. This space was ours, a sanctuary where two best friends grew into lovers and then so much more.
A myriad of emotions danced across his features. Lust. Love. Anguish.
Remembering himself, he scowled. "We were different people then, and you," he smirked, "thought you could save the world."
"You," I grinned, "were a great hunter. My warrior, coming home all proud with a dead garden snake hanging off a stick."
His scowl softened.
"You mean the same snake you put on my sister's bed so you could later save her from it? What a hero!"
"Yes," I chuckled, "I saved the world one good deed at a time."
We laughed, and for a brief second, he had let me in.
"Not that I'm really interested, but what do-gooder profession did you end up finding yourself in?"
A flush crept up my neck and colored my cheeks. "A doctor, an OBGYN." I sensed an unexplainable hazy curtain thickening between me and that life.
He whistled, "So people trusted you with their babies, did they? A bit ironic, don't you think?"
In an instant, he was back to the dark place and taking me with him.
I fought back the urge to scurry away like a wounded animal and curl up in a ball. So much for a breakthrough. A bitter anger scratched inside my chest, itching to explode out my mouth and strike him down. So flippant. So hurtful.
Colt closed his eyes, his chin lifting towards the low ceiling. Long fingers clenched and unclenched as he weighed the impact of his words. Then, finally, he spoke, and there was no mistaking the despair in his voice; his grief an unwanted parasite that clung to his soul, forever haunting him, as it haunted me.
"I am sorry," his brows slammed together. He pinched the bridge of his nose, "you don't deserve that." Colt's lips drooped as his tall frame deflated in defeat. For the first time that day, he met my gaze and held it.
"I used to tease you when you were too busy for me, watching you rush off to care for old people too sick to get out their beds. You didn't play games like the other girls. Instead, you preferred chasing butterflies over chasing boys, a handful of little ones happily trailing behind you. ."
His head tilted as if he were really seeing me for the first time in a very long while.
"I know you, Terra. You are fierce, loyal, and one of the few truly selfless people I have ever known," his forearms crossed across his chest in a self hug, "We were so young then, and I hadn't yet learned how to express my feelings, but I did feel them. Maybe that's why, even though it hurts, I'm still willing to come back to this place."
Never in a million lifetimes would I have believed that those sentiments would flow from his mouth. The kind-hearted boy had grown into a gentle, loving man, short on words but big on action. Colt was the anchor that once kept me grounded, and when I was with him, I was home.
I grabbed onto the olive branch before he could snatch it away. "Could things be different this time? Do you believe we have the power to change the future?"
"I don't know," he tensed and paused, "Can you feel that?"
We shivered as a cold heavy clamminess settled into the cavern. "The mist must be getting closer," Colt rubbed his arms and sighed, "What haven't we tried yet?"
He stared at the smooth wall before him, searching for an answer. Thinking out loud, an idea occurred to him, "perhaps for one door to open, another must close. I know it's cliché, but damn, what if it really is that simple?"
Rubbing the back of his neck, Colt paced back and forth, a captive panther locked by the past inside a cage of his own making. Armed with a desperate determination to break free, his eyes darted around the cavern, seeking the courage to express what needed to be said.
"We have never actually said the words."
He stopped directly in front of me; palms turned upwards in submission. Then the words rushed out, tripping over each other as they fell upon me.
"Will you forgive me," his voice cracked, "for making such a stupid, reckless," his fingers rose to comb anxiously along his scalp, "and deadly mistake?"
Pain oozed from the admission, catching me off guard. In a heartbeat, I understood where he was leading.
"This is the first time you have asked for forgiveness."
I gently clasped his wrists and pulled them to his sides. He allowed my fingers to caress his cheek, seeking comfort from the warmth of my skin.
His toes dug into the dirt, unintentionally dislodging a few objects resting just under the surface. Colt reached down to carefully extract the one item that sparkled in the weak torchlight, grimaced, and moved his hand away from the rest. He blew the dust from the chipped iridescent shell, my wedding gift, before gently placing it in my hand.
My lips trembled as I pressed the lone shell to my chest, the string it had hung on long gone. "I never took this off."
An urgent unearthly whisper kept us in the moment as wispy tendrils slithered within the oval entrance of the cavern. Our window of opportunity was closing.
With hands clasped in front of his hips, Colt widened his stance, braced himself, and waited.
Waited for me to say the words.
"I remember everything as if it were yesterday."
A loud cry tore from my chest. "I can still see Tonda yelling at me from across the stream. Making me promise not to search for you. Saying it was already too late. Begging me to stay away from you."
The minute my brother was out of sight, I broke that promise.
I could still see my hands shaking as they quickly stuffed dried fruit and nuts into a basket. Feel the bump of my water gourd slapping against my thigh as I climbed the path up to where he would be. Remember the fear that ate at me as I wound my way through the tunnels, mindful of the pack strapped to my back and the supplies tied around my waist.
"Right there," I pointed to the entrance, "I found a stone and banged it against the wall." Tap-tap. Tap. Tap. I stopped and listened for your response, a moan, a whimper, anything to let me know you were still alive, but you didn't answer."
"I heard you. I was too weak to answer," he shook his head in dismay, "I tried to tell you to go away-before you came any closer, but you could not hear me."
In a distant voice, he recalled what followed. "I watched you crawl through the opening, and my heart sank. You had enough supplies to save a village, you and your wishful thinking. My Terra determined to perform a miracle."
He gazed at the ceiling. "I knew you were doomed the moment your feet hit the dirt. Then you turned, and I saw what you carried on your back." His face contorted with pain.
I inhaled deeply through my nostrils before grasping Colt's hand and facing the stone wall in front of us. With my free hand, my fingers traced the roughly carved stick figures of a man, a woman, and a small child.
As I tried to explain, my voice was hoarse, avoiding Colt's face and the anguished tears wetting his cheeks. "You carved these to mark this place as ours. You were right. We had no choice but to isolate ourselves from the others. We could not infect them with the sickness brought by the outsiders."
He sniffed loudly, "You told me not to trade with them, but I was stubborn. I paid a heavy price for my mistake," he gulped back a sob," but you," anger laced his words; "you and the baby did not have to pay the price with me. So why did you follow when my father-the whole tribe-forbade it?"
"Because I was foolish and thought I could nurse you back to health. Because I was naïve and believed we were too young and healthy to actually lose this fight! I was wrong."
The words flew from my mouth, the horror of my choices finally out in the open. "I killed our son, not you! I am the one," I cried, "who has spent lifetimes seeking relief from this burden!"
My chest heaved, grieving for the child who had barely lived. I crumpled to the ground brushing away the long desiccated shard of bone poking up from the dust. A human bone. My bone.
He stroked my hair and crouched beside me. "If it was just you, I might have accepted what was to come. But it wasn't just you, was it? I am not angry because you tried to save me, but because you risked the life of the one most precious to us. I left this world knowing there would be no one to carry us on, our short lives all but meaningless."
His shoulders shook, his tears mirroring my own. "Sometimes," he cried, "I think there must be a logical reason behind why the fates keep bringing us back to this spot, over and over again. What more can they want from us?"
Colt enfolded my hands within his. "We have to let it go," his lips brushed a kiss across my forehead, "I forgive you, Terra."
Once again, and with heartbreaking vulnerability, his eyes pleaded with mine.
"I forgive you, Colt." It was all he needed to hear.
Those few powerful words somehow changed everything- mending the hearts and repairing the souls that in another life, we had broken.
A ferocious wind whipped around the cave churning up the silt. Ancient relics became airborne as the evidence of our existence was sucked into the maelstrom.
"Say the prayer my grandfather taught us."
His mouth was beside my ear, yelling above the noise. His body covered mine, a useless shield against what would come. "Say it with me!"
I repeated the same prayer I had sent up to the hawk as it crossed over the water, "Do not fear the mists…"
We chanted the words, our spirits clinging to the dream of a second chance. The howling mists swirled around and through us, claiming us yet again.
"One more push should do it," Dr. Ryland encouraged his patient. Her feet strained against the stirrups as a string of expletives tore from her mouth.
The father-to-be stood protectively over the woman. He winced as she crushed his hand, reminding her for the hundredth time to breathe.
"You just ate a bag of potato chips, didn't you!" Her child's head plopped into the waiting hands of the doctor. "I can smell it on your breath!"
He grinned sheepishly as her accusations scattered into the air, a deep guttural groan bellowing from her throat. A pair of shoulders, followed by a tiny torso and set of legs, emerged from her body.
"It's a girl," the doctor smiled beneath his mask. The man leaned over to take a quick peek at what he and his love had created before folding the woman into a tear-filled embrace.
"Good job, mama," Dr. Ryland grinned, "Your daughter is perfect."
Melinda wheeled the acrylic bassinet down the short corridor to the nursery. Nurse Jen kindly held the door so she could enter.
"Here you go, the latest delivery," Melinda removed her gloves after handing the infant to the nurse on duty.
"Done for the day?"
Mel chuckled, "Yep, it was a long one," she untied her paper gown, tossed it into the trash, and extricated a heart-shaped locket from under her bracelet where it had slipped.
"That looks familiar," Jen nodded, as she cleaned the dazed infant from head to toe, her hands working quickly but gently, "Dr. Kinney wore a bracelet like that. She used to come in here and rock the babies after her shift. I miss her."
"Yeah, me too. The bracelet was a gift from her," Melinda lifted her wrist so her coworker could get a better look, "she gave it to me on my tenth anniversary, back when I used to work for her at the clinic. There's even a little poem inside the heart."
Jen reached for a soft white blanket and wrapped the infant like a burrito. "What's it say?"
A wistful smile crossed Melinda's lips.
"It begins…Do not fear the mists…" her own voice grew misty every time she recited it, "For they give and take ebb and flow, and like the waves, are called back by the sea to be remade and reborn into something new."
Melinda paused, "Pretty, isn't it? When I asked why she had chosen that poem, she said she wasn't sure. Couldn't remember where it came from, but sometimes things just stick with you, you know? I was with her in the end."
She thought back to that night. "It was New Year's Eve and snowing like crazy. Dr. Kinney didn't have any family of her own. Such a shame. She loved babies more than anyone I've ever met. If you had a question about infants, she was the one to ask."
She missed her old friend. The woman was strong and feisty right up until the end, banging on the wall behind her hospital bed until her hand was bruised and bloodied. Fortunately, the sweet elderly gentleman in the next room wasn't especially bothered by the stranger causing the racket behind his head. In fact, his nurse said, he died with a smile on his face just twenty minutes after the doctor.
Following Jen into the viewing room, Melinda took a peek at the two little ones born earlier in the day. She waved to the two exhausted young men cooing through the window, a twenty-four-hour shadow darkening their chins. The proud papas returned her wave, their lopsided grins framed by the glittery autumn leaves taped along the edges of the glass.
Jen looked up from her charges and gestured towards the window. "The dads are best friends, told me they're in a band together," she laughed. "Guess music isn't the only thing they're in sync with!"
Their offspring, a boy and a girl snuggled contentedly in their acrylic cribs. Melinda noticed the tiny mittens they wore on their hands.
"Scratching themselves already?" most babies did.
"Not scratching," Jen gave her a perplexed look, "They kept banging their hands on the side of their bassinets- Tap-tap. Tap. Tap. One would start, and then the other would answer. Then they just stopped and fell asleep like newborns are supposed to. It was the weirdest thing."
"Hmmm," Melinda's gaze roamed over the newborns, "I bet Dr. Kinney would have had an answer for that. If only she were still here to tell us."
Her stomach growled with hunger. It was time to go home.