As he stood on the porch and waited, the teasing breeze played with leaves overhead and underfoot. Absent in his thoughts, he reached up and rubbed his bare arms as goosebumps prickled his skin. The hint of chill entombed him, drawing contours in the hair on his arms and ruffling the thick brown mop on his head. He stared, distant, his clear blue eyes seeming prophecies of the impending season. A familiar hollowness lay within him, aching, settling.
Another puff of wind, as though something impish were playing with the air. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes again she was there.
Like an apparition in the autumn twilight, expressionless, silent, she approached. Her hair, flapping in the wind, flowed in auburn streams to her shoulders while strands traced across her face. Her eyes, ever sad, stared out from her pale face with deep brown intensity. Her lips were drawn in a line, pale and tight. She stopped on the walk, mere feet from the steps up to the porch.
He stared at her, motionless now, save for his suddenly shallow breathing. This ghost was real. Her chest rose and fell under a pale pink sweater. She licked her lips, but remained silent.
The two of them looked at each other, unwilling to shatter the delicate balance of the quiet.
He was the first to buckle. He forced his words past dry lips.
“You—you came back.” His voice cracked, as if hesitant to be used.
She did not reply right away. Those eyes looked up at him, and the aching hollow within intensified.
And finally: “I did.”
Her voice was brittle, tense, the restraint noticeable. Neither of them wanted to admit the bitterness behind their statements, and both knew it was there.
“Rachel…” he trailed off, and took a deep breath. “You come back now?”
She glanced away, hiding her face behind a curtain of hair that shifted like the leaves on the ground. When she answered, he thought he could smell her pain in the sharp fall air.
“I had to go, you know.”
He nodded. “But you didn’t have to come back.”
She was silent for a time, and again the quiet solidified between them. The faint light of the evening was fading, as though it had waited until her arrival before finally bidding them goodbye. When she raised her head and again met his eyes, her face was cast into sharp relief by the light of the lamps behind him.
“I wanted to.”
For the first time, he felt the hollowness abate. Just a little bit, but those words were not the final, crushing statement he expected.
“Rachel,” he began again. “It’s been more than a year.”
She nodded, and he heard a sniffle. “I know, Brian. I….” But her voice cracked, and he saw tears on her cheeks.
Something moved inside of him, something that hadn’t stirred in so long. It moved his feet, and he descended the three short steps to her. No thought, and his arms were around her. She sobbed, once, and one of his hands moved up to the back of her head and stroked her hair. The breeze stirred again, making a startling contrast with the warmth of her pressed against him.
Unbidden, he felt tears come to his own eyes, knowing that he could never understand her pain. The aching within was nothing compared to what she must have felt—must still be feeling.
“I don’t hate you,” he found himself saying. “It hurt, but I can never hate you.”
She sobbed again, and he felt the heat of her tears seeping through his shirt.
“It was my choice,” she mumbled into his chest. He could feel her bitterness in the muscles of her shoulders, tight underneath her layers. “And I had to go. But I couldn’t stay away.”
He said nothing, just squeezed her closer. The pit in his stomach was still there, mirroring the hollowness in her.