by Christopher Hines

White picnic basket on a red blanket.

It was a crisp October evening. The sun had just begun to set on the horizon and the sky was a mix of vibrant red and boorish gray. What leaves remained on the trees and lined the park had turned shades of oranges and yellows with some browns. The creek, which usually sat dry, had swollen with water and now looked like a raging river to Alan. Rain in October wasn’t unusual for Oklahoma, but the county had received such a deluge the past few days that the dam threatened to break and so they’d opened the floodgates. It was the first time since he’d moved to the neighborhood ten years ago with his parents that he’d actually seen water in that old creek, now that he thought about it.

Humidity still clung to the air, and even though it hadn’t rained for a day now, the grass in the old park was still damp and cold. The flood conditions were on account of the temperature being just a mite higher than was average. Some freak weather event he didn’t pay enough attention to had swept in, bumping up the temperature above average and dropping historic levels of rain on the entire state. On the upside, the news said the drought that had plagued the region had finally come to an end. The conditions were less than ideal, but that didn’t matter too much. 

“She’s late.” Alan grimaced. It wasn’t like her to be late. He looked down at the red blanket that he’d laid out carefully on the grass, at the basket of stuff and the bucket that had a bottle of champagne in it. It’d taken him saving for weeks at the plant to afford this night. Alan didn’t look out of place, but he sure felt it. He stood in the middle of that big empty green field beside the creek, a patchy tree line, and the horizon growing redder still as his only company. He was a man of average height and average build, the black hair upon his head shaved down in such a way that he might as well have been bald. Clad in a polo shirt and denim jeans, Alan didn’t look any different from any of the soldiers that frequented and lived in the town.

The distant sound of retreat blaring over the speakers on Post and the thundering boom of the cannons caused Alan to clench up. Once the bugle call died out, and he took several seconds to count to himself and breathe, he exhaled and unclenched. The hairs on the back of his neck stood down and his hand fished into his pants, pulling out an older cell phone. He checked his message, and double checked it. Once he was certain everything had read correctly he exhaled again and slipped the phone into his pocket.

She hadn’t sent him any message and worry was now setting in. There had been an awful lot of rain in the past few days, and some of the roads were still dangerous. Thirty minutes passed. The sun faded. The clouds peeled back and carried on into the distance until Alan was left alone upon the red blanket, staring up at the night sky with the cold air biting at his skin. Thirty more minutes passed by. Checking his phone had evolved into sending worried messages, had evolved into panicked pacing. He rose up and sat down, going over every awful scenario in his head until finally a voice from behind him broke the solitude.

“Hey you.” The voice was a timid, quiet one. Gabrielle was normally loud, so the quietness in the way she spoke caught him off guard. 

“Christ, I was worried, Gabby.”         

Gabrielle had been his on-again, off-again love interest. They’d given it an honest go before, but it didn’t work out between them. They had both been working through some shit, and anyway he enlisted not long after. The two had been neighbors when they were kids until she moved away, and then they were again when she had moved back. Her long hair cascaded around her shoulders like a cloak woven of shadows, her eyes shifting from looking at him upon the blanket to the spread of things. She swallowed visibly.

“My phone died and there was an accident on Gore, it was a nightmare.” She stepped toward him and gently knelt onto the blanket. Something was different, but Alan couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “It’s cold.” She laughed and he turned his attention from her to the bucket of melted ice, the bottle of champagne bobbing along. 

His eyes fell to her face now, his hazel eyes staring now into her black eyes. There had been a sadness in her eyes for years now. Most people didn’t notice it, didn’t see it the way he saw it. Her lips often distracted, painted red and curling into a smile before she burst into laughter.

 “I thought we could celebrate.” He said as his hand gripped the neck of the bottle. The champagne dripped wet onto the red blanket and he turned toward her with the bottle and a goofy grin plastered on his face. This night was different. There was something in the air that he couldn’t put his finger on. He thought maybe it was just his nerves and everything that was wrong with him, all the frayed wiring and the tension from the cannon blasts. Maybe it had just been the cold that settled upon his bare arms, or the worry that had swelled in his chest for the better part of an hour.  

“God, you’re such a nerd, Alan.” She laughed and scooted herself closer to him on the blanket. She reached one hand to a cup, the other hand grabbing his arm and guiding it around her shoulders as she huddled into his body for warmth. With one hand he managed to pop the cork, pouring the champagne into one cup and handing it to her before pouring some more into a cup for himself.

“It was expensive, so enjoy it.” He insisted, hoisting his own red cup up. Alan was the kind of guy that bought a bottle of champagne to impress the girl, but served it in a red solo cup. It was redneck fancy, the kind of fancy that one learned when they grew up dirt poor like they did. Taking what they could, discarding the rest. For a while they sat, watching the water rush by in the creek, sipping their champagne beneath the starlight.

“I never thought I’d see any water in that damn creek.” She was the first to break the silence. He laughed, nodding his head.

“Remember the time I pushed that boy off the bridge?”

“He was chasing me and calling me names and you stopped your bike and pushed him right over the edge…” She laughed, “…And then we both got on your bike and ran away. We hid for hours together until your Mama came looking for you after the sun went down.”

“She was surely pissed,” Alan laughed, taking a deep swig from the cup of champagne and then refilling his cup, “We were thick as thieves ever since.”

“‘Til you went away, anyways.” Her voice cut like a knife and he inhaled deep, exhaling slowly. He deserved it, knew he did, really. He downed the second cup of champagne.

“He treating you alright?” Alan asked finally as he fished around inside of his pockets. He pulled a cigarette free and lit it, watching her face twist in disgust at the sight of it. She withdrew from him and wrinkled her nose at the offending odor. He let the smoke fill his lungs, let the nicotine burn inside of his chest.

“He’s actually here, Alan.” Gabby groaned, tipping the last of the champagne from her cup onto the wet grass. Her eyes turned to the water rushing by in front of them. He deserved that, too. He knew he did. 

The smoke billowed from his lips and into the night sky. She was beginning to stand when his hand reached out and grabbed her by the wrist, “Stay, stay…I’ll put it out, See?” He held the cigarette up before flicking it into the passing water. With a gentle tug he pulled her back down onto the blanket. “I’m happy for you, Gabby. I am.” 

“I swear, sometimes it’s like you never left, Alan…” She started, he could hear her voice catch inside of her throat. Fighting back the feelings, swallowing them hard. He didn’t look at her, and stared at the river instead. “Other times it’s like you never came back.” She sighed from her position beside him on the blanket, this time taking a heavy drink from the bottle itself.

“Maybe I didn’t.” Alan laughed now as he looked toward the stars. By his side, his left hand trembled but he kept it out of sight. Wasn’t any sense in worrying her any. It took a few deep breaths for the shake to subside and then he turned to look at her again. “Maybe it would have been better if I hadn’t.”

“Don’t say that.” Her expression soured and the sadness that lingered in her eyes deepened. They sat in silence again, staring into each other’s eyes. Between them, a vast ocean of possibilities and of missed opportunities. It was a dead end town. The economy had dried up and there were only a handful of ways out. He’d found his, and she’d found hers. Work at the plant just didn’t cut it anymore.

“At least out there I was somebody, Gabby. I made a difference.” He finally spoke again. He watched her rising from the corner of his eye. He thought to stop her again, but his fingers fished for another cigarette instead.            

“You made a difference here, Alan, it just wasn’t enough for you.” Her voice was like venom, fighting back a choked sob as she shuffled away. He stood up and stared at the river that rushed by where once a dry creek bed had sat. He inhaled the cigarette smoke deep into the caverns of his chest, pushing down the words he dared not say again. Once everything was packed into his truck, he went home. The next day he went to the recruiting office and re-enlisted. 

Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student