Yesterday’s story got me into the second round of the Alexandra Writers Centre’s “Write Your Way Out Of Isolation” competition. This is what I submitted in the second round; I didn’t progress to the third round, but I’m happy with what I wrote. Hope you like it, too.
Genre – Open Setting – any location in Alberta
Prompt – 50 years later
It was a cool summer morning in the mountains. The mist hung heavy and low on the trees, and as George hiked down the quiet trail, he watched the rising sun slowly burn the mist away. Ahead, he could see all the way down into the valley, an endless sea of pine and spruce, with mountains peeking out above, and the paved path beneath. The water in the ditch next to the path steamed, light tendrils stretching out, imitating the fog above.
George shivered beneath his thick flannel coat, his well-worn boots moving him forward without a conscious thought. All his attention was in the fog, trying to draw a face in the clouds.
He didn’t have a photograph of Frank, but he could trace every contour of his face with his mind’s eye. He could see the graceful curve of his high, strong cheekbones, the deep dimples of his smile, and the deep, rich blue of his eyes, flecked through with teal and sadness.
He had last seen Frank just down the hill from here. It had been the summer of 1970, and George had been working at the Miette Hot Springs Aquacourt as a lifeguard. He had just finished high school and had taken the job as a sort of working vacation and escape. Tall, strong, and tanned, he stayed in the provided room at the hotel, ate at the restaurant, and swam between shifts for exercise and fun. He saved all of the money he made, and was thinking about putting it towards a used car when he returned home to Lethbridge.
It was a weekday, towards the end of the summer, and the hot springs were relatively quiet; only a few seniors were out, enjoying the restorative waters and beautiful views. From behind the lifeguard’s station, a pair of shadows stretched out from two approaching figures. George turned to assess the new patrons in the pool, and his heart skipped a beat. He had heard the expression before, but the jolt of it surprised him.
Frank was coming out of the dressing room, along with an older man he assumed to be his father. The young man was slim and sleek, like an otter, his thick black hair combed back and held in place with a pair of sunglasses. He had a swimmer’s build – muscles made for work, not for show, and a grace about his gait that felt like the world had begun to move in slow motion. The older man lowered himself into the hot springs, and his son waited until he was settled before he slid into the water next to him, but a bit more than a respectful distance away.
George had to stop himself from staring. His wandering eyes had already caused enough drama back home, and he had hoped that some time alone in the mountains would help to settle his restless heart. But he kept glancing over at the young man, and noticed once or twice that his gaze had been returned. Their eyes met only once, and the young man immediately slid his sunglasses down from their perch, slamming down like a barrier across bright eyes. George took the hint, and studiously avoided looking in the young man’s direction until they left the pool.
The rest of the day passed by uneventfully, and after work, George ate at the hotel restaurant, and went back towards the pool for some fresh air. There was a viewing deck above the pools, and it afforded an even more stunning view of the surrounding mountains. George, a boy who had grown up on the prairies, has always loved the majesty and eternity of the mountains, and was so engrossed with the view that it took him a few moments to realize he wasn’t alone on the viewing deck.
The young man stood a few meters away, dressed all in white. He was smoking a cigarette, and the sunglasses were once again tucked back into his thick black hair. He turned towards George, and from this distance, George could see the eyes he had tried to avoid were a striking, piercing blue, like the glacial waters of Lake Louise, but with a sparkle that seems like shining stars, reflected on their cool surface. They were eyes that even an experienced lifeguard could drown in.
The boy had introduced himself as Frank, a vacationing student from Italy who was travelling the country with his father, practicing his English for an application to university in London. He was indeed a swimmer, having grown up in a small fishing village on the coast. His father was the town’s leader, and had big dreams for his young Franco.
They had spent hours on that observation deck, smoking and talking, until the sun had set so far that the only light was from the tips of their lit cigarettes, and the glow from the pool lights below. George reached a tentative hand toward Frank’s, which was resting on the railing. Frank pulled his hand away, but smiled apologetically, and sadly.
“I don’t know, what it’s like here,” Frank had said. “But at home, and with my father, this is…”
George nodded. He knew what Frank meant. His parents knew that something was different about their son, but seemed to think it best to never broach the subject with him directly. Heck, it might be the 70s, but there was still so much discrimination, hatred, and fear. It often seemed like no one wanted to understand. He had come here to distract himself, maybe to let the mountain air make a man of him again, but there was a singing truth in just being next to Frank that could not be distracted from.
“It’s… the same here,” George said. “But it’s getting better. Maybe someday…”
Frank laughed, quiet and joyless. “Maybe. Maybe, fifty years from now? That seems like enough time, doesn’t it?”
Fifty years seemed like an eternity, but at that moment, their hands only a meter apart but separated by infinity, fifty years didn’t seem so long, after all.
George came to the end of the path, the old abandoned aquacourt before him. A chain link fence surrounded the grounds now, and the pool had gone back to nature, with trees poking up over the rim. George wove his fingers through the chain link, resting his weight against it. He could see the spot, fifty years ago, where he and Frank had stood and talked, hours seeming like a lifetime and yet only minutes.
They had agreed to come back here, but George knew that Frank wasn’t coming. That wasn’t the point. After Frank, after the talk that lasted nearly an entire night and set an entire lifetime, it was about honouring that moment. That perfectly imperfect point in time, that beautiful, perfect event that memory enhanced and buttressed and polished into a shining souvenir, a lucky talisman.
From here, fifty years onward, Frank would forever be perfect. George, in that moment, would forever be perfect. Their conversation would hang just below the cigarette smoke, warm and gentle in the breeze, and nothing could ever spoil that. They were forever there, together but not.
George’s cell phone rang, quietly, in his pocket. He answered it.
“How it is down there?” asked his husband.
“Quiet,” said George, pulling back from the fence. “Like it should be.”
“Get what you came for?”
George looked back at the spot on the balcony. “I did.”
“Coming back soon?”
“Be back in about ten minutes, Ben.”
“Take all the time you need,” Ben said.
“Ten minutes,” repeated George. “Love you.”
He pocketed the phone, and turned back towards the trail. The morning mist was almost gone.
They would say that the aquacourt had closed because of its foundations, but for George, they were as strong and steady as the mountains themselves, held up on pillars of memory. Frank’s hand, forever just out of reach, but forever almost reachable.