Tammy was seated atop a boulder on the shore of Wharton’s Lake — where she always — when Tony spotted her from the bridge. It was a particularly foggy morning and his first homecoming trip in more than a decade, but that didn’t stop fate from pulling on his heartstrings before he even made it to the city limits.
He always found Tammy by accident. It wasn’t her fault, and it certainly wasn’t his. They just . . . ended up together, one way or another. It had been a major point of contention between high school sweethearts and had ruined more than a handful of college relationships. Someone always saw them together when Tony went home. A few days later it was on social media. Someone tagged him. Someone told a girlfriend (if she didn’t see it herself) and suddenly he was fighting to save the relationship.
It was always the same story, playing on repeat. And both of them were powerless to stop it.
“Just keep driving,” Tony muttered to himself even as he pulled the signal lever and touched the brakes. It was early, and the fog rising off the lake reminded him of a thick soup. None of it quelled the jitters in his stomach or the palpitations in his heart.
Ten years since he’d seen her last. More than ten, really, but who counts after so long? Tony had lived a life since then. Married, a kid, a divorce, a girlfriend, a pregnancy scare. He was single now, which meant Tammy wouldn’t be.
That’s the way it worked, after all. That’s what got them into trouble in the first place.
It was a frustration of Tony’s that they’d never actually tried to date. The timing just didn’t work. They wanted different things. They weren’t right for each other. He could think of another dozen excuses offhand — how she wouldn’t leave town and how he’d always been destined to move on, or how she was a cat person and he was a dog person. They were all things that seemed relevant to the future but never in the moment.
Not that the future had done either of them any favors over the years it passed them by.
She turned when she heard the gravel crushing under the wheels of his blue pickup as it rumbled down the road toward the parking lot. He almost forgot to pull the key out of the ignition as he climbed out of his car, ran a hand through his hair, and threw the door closed.
Tammy had turned her back to him by then, back to watching the fog rolling off the lake and the sun glittering on the water in those rare moments when the rays made it to the glassy surface. It was a magical morning, but one that both of them had witnessed a thousand times before.
He walked up behind her, stopped beside the boulder, and leaned against it with his forearm. He didn’t look at her. Didn’t need to, the same way she didn’t need to look at him.
“Hello, Tony,” she said. “Been a long time.”
“Too long,” he said.
“Yeah. I had a feeling I’d see you back here one day.”
“Mom’s sick,” Tony said. “Cancer.”
She frowned, stared into the distance, then hung her head. “Shit. Sorry. Life’s a bitch.”
“Yeah. I’m only in for a few days. Not much time to get into trouble.”
But they were already in trouble, and they both knew it.
“How’s your folks?” Tony asked.
Tammy shrugged. “About the same. You know how this place is. Frozen in time, like always. Nothing changes around here.”
Tony looked out across the lake, at Whistler’s Rock jutting out of the water like the knuckle of some invisible hand. The city had already drained the lake for the winter, and it would be easy enough to wade out to those jagged stones where the two of them had spent a fair amount of their childhood.
“You remember when we used to jump off the top of Whistler’s?” Tammy asked.
“Like it was yesterday,” said Tony.
It was safe to dive during the summer, when the water was up, and they’d done it through their teenage years until Tammy broke her leg on a floating log floating under the surface and nearly drowned. Tony had dragged her out, saved her life.
“I remember the log,” she said. “You don’t need to remind me.”
“I wasn’t thinking about it,” Tony lied.
They sat there for awhile, just the two of them enjoying the calm. The fog roiled around them, bandied itself about with coils and loops that dissipated into nothingness when the sunlight caught up with them.
Tammy leaned back, put her hand on the rock as a counterbalance to her weight. She didn’t mean to put it so close to Tony’s hand, he figured. But there it was, so close, and he couldn’t stop staring at it.
“What are you doing?” Tammy asked when she looked down. There was a nervous tremor in her voice that matched the pulse in his heart.
Tony swallowed. “Nothing. I should probably be going before, well, you know. It was good seeing you, Tammy. I’ll tell mom you said hello.”
“You, too,” she whispered.
It took every ounce of Tony’s will to shove himself away from that rock. But he did it. He did it and he walked away, the dirt and gravel crunching under his feet as he made his way back to his truck.
He was halfway there when Tammy called out to him.
“Tony,” she said. “Are you seeing anyone right now?”
The words struck him like a lightning bolt, shooting up his spine. He turned. She was on the ground now standing beside the boulder.
“No,” he called back. “You?”
She shook her head. Tony took a step forward, toward her, and the two of were in each other’s arms — together — before they took another breath.