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Authors: Cat Jordan

The Leaving Season

BOOK: The Leaving Season
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For P, who said “I love you” first


Nate called it a shade box.

“A shade is a memory,” he once told me. “What's left of a person or place after they're gone.”

The box was for cherished objects, keepsakes, curios, the special things you wanted to hold on to and remember forever and ever. Nate had about a dozen of them. All made of wood, a few inlaid with mother-of-pearl, some carved, some sanded so smoothly I could see my reflection in them. He got them from all different places, and each one was special to him.

The one I bought for his trip was the first one I'd ever gotten for him, which is kind of crazy when I think about it.
In all the years we'd been together, I never gave him one. Not for lack of trying; I just never found the right one. But this shade box was perfect and I knew because Nate had picked it out himself.

Last year, almost exactly, we were driving back from Sunset Bay, where we'd spent a weekend at his family's summer house swimming and hiking and beachcombing and, well . . .
doing any of those things. The gift shop next to the gas station in Tenmile was the size of a broom closet, and it was filled from floor to ceiling with one or two of
. Nate could have spent an entire weekend in there, picking his way through every shelf.

The only thing he wanted was a rectangular wooden box with hand-carved curlicues and leafy vines and wild animals on top and a gold-plated clasp and hinges. It was about eight inches long and four wide, the size and depth of two really nice paperback books. Inside was lined with the softest black velvet I had ever touched.

Nate loved it. “I feel like whatever I put in there wouldn't just last forever—it would become lucky, you know?” If I could have afforded it, I would have snapped it up then and there.

It was a week later that Nate made his decision to take a year off between high school and college to go with Global Outreach, a nonprofit that provides vaccinations to underprivileged children in Central America. I knew I had to give him the perfect shade box—and fill it with
take with him. Every day for a year I put something inside the box—a note, an object, a memory—representing us.

First date? Check.

First kiss? Check. (Note:
the same day).

There were names and dates and places, glass beads and a flat skipping stone, a funky little knot of red and green yarn. I smiled, remembering that bit of fuzzy string. Two Christmases ago, in the five minutes when knitting was cool, I made Nate a sweater. It was an obnoxious red snowflake pattern on a neon green background, and it looked much better in my head than in, well, yarn form. I was so certain it would look fantastic on him. Sadly, when the sweater was complete, it would have fit someone five inches taller than Nate's six-one frame and about twenty pounds heavier.

I was crushed when I saw how it hung on him, but Nate loved it and wore it proudly. “You
my girlfriend made you one of these,” he told his basketball teammates with his arm wrapped firmly around my shoulder. “You're all just jealous.” He was so convincing and so steadfast about it, I actually felt my cheeks burn with pride.

Before I snapped the lid on the shade box, I placed one last item inside. Beneath the velvet lining was a secret compartment. Nate would have to empty the contents of the box before he could find it—
he found it.

I imagined him in Honduras, at the end of his year, relieved to be returning home to me, the box finally empty after three hundred and sixty-five days. He would see the
folds in the velvet and stick his finger between them. Curious, he would poke at it until he discovered that there was a false bottom that slid open. He would smile with surprise and then . . . would he cry?

“Oh, Middie, I love you,” he would say.

And that's what I wanted. Because I loved him too. Always and forever.

“Middie! Come in, come in!” Nate's mother had to shout over the excited din of the house. “You look so pretty!” She held me at arm's length, her gaze traveling from my French braid to my Grecian sandals. “I love this dress!”

Mrs. Bingham would know: she was as fashionable as they came in our small town of Roseburg, Oregon, where most women considered the L.L.Bean catalog the bible of good taste. For Nate's going-away party, she wore a garnet poplin sundress with pink trim and a soft belt at the waist that showed she still had a figure after four children. She was barefoot, as she often was in the summer, and her toes were painted in the same deep purple-red as her dress. It wasn't hard to see where Nate got his good looks and auburn highlights: his mother was stunning in a simple, uncluttered way.

“Oh, this? Thank you!” In truth, I had agonized over this dress. It was pale blue cotton with appliqué flowers along the skirt and a smocked top. Very classic. It was a relief to hear Nate's mom compliment it. She and Nate had similar taste.

“Come say hello to everyone.” She hooked my elbow
around hers and led me from the high-ceilinged foyer of the Colonial to the family room, where all of the Binghams—cousins and kids and babies and aunts and uncles—were gathered. In my ten years of knowing the family, five as
the girlfriend
, I'd had an opportunity to meet every single one of them.

But there was one I hadn't met yet. “This is my great-aunt Pamela from Eugene,” Mrs. Bingham said, introducing an elderly woman in khakis and a tangerine knit top straight out of Bean's summer sale catalog. She had hearing aids in both ears.

“Auntie Pam, this is Nate's girlfriend,” Mrs. Bingham said a little loudly.

The woman smiled uncertainly. “Hello.”

“I'm Meredith Daniels—”

“Middie Daniels,” Nate's mom said and then looked at me. “Oops. I'm sorry, sweetie.”

“Oh, that's all right.” Middie was a nickname I'd had since I was a kid. I was the middle child between my sisters, twenty-year-old Allison and nine-year-old Emma. I didn't mind so much when my family and Nate used the name—even though I'd been trying to be Meredith for a while now.

Aunt Pamela leaned into Nate's mom. “She's the one, isn't she?” she said in a voice loud enough for the rest of the universe to hear. “The one he's going to marry?”

Oh my god.
I felt my cheeks burn with embarrassment as every head in the room turned to me. Mrs. Bingham was
gracious. “Auntie, there's still a lot of time for that, but we sure do love our Middie!”

Those were the last words I heard as I bolted from the family room straight into the empty-thank-god kitchen.
Oh my god, oh my god.
It was one thing for Nate and me to talk about a future, and quite another to hear about it from his mother and great-great-aunt.

I ran some water in the stainless steel sink, careful not to splash the cold cuts and sandwiches Mrs. Bingham had artfully arranged on a platter on the counter, and rinsed my hands. The cool well water calmed my racing pulse.

What was I so nervous about? I didn't really care about Aunt Pamela's gaffe or Mrs. Bingham calling me Middie or the dress it had taken me a month to pick out.

It was Nate. And it was Nate spending an entire year away from me—not at Lewis & Clark College, which was a three-hour car ride away, but in Central America, in a tiny village with no clean water or internet service—no reliable phones or transit.

It wasn't familiar. It wasn't safe. What if something happened?

“Don't be silly, Middie.” I heard Nate's voice in my head, answering the question I'd asked a thousand times. “Global Outreach isn't some fly-by-night organization. And I'm from Oregon. I've spent time in the wilderness. I can handle myself.”

I knew that. I did. Still . . .

I opened my purse and felt the shade box inside, wrapped in recycled paper with a bow fashioned from Sunday's comic strips. Being green was important to Nate. He'd appreciate the effort.

Through the window I saw his twin sisters and younger brother playing in the backyard. They were entertaining their cousins—the girls and their swings, their brother and his basketball hoop. I didn't see Nate anywhere, though. I closed my eyes and listened for his voice, imagining where he might be. I knew every nook and cranny of this house, every squeak of the hardwood stairs, every squeal of the hot water pipes. I knew which doors swelled in their frames during the summer heat and which ones needed an extra tug to make them close properly in winter. I knew the boys' bathroom on the second floor always smelled like cat litter, even though the Binghams had no cats, and I knew that the side porch was the worst place to make out because the sound traveled through the whole house.

It was comforting to know these things. It made me feel like I belonged, like I had a special place in this family. Sure, I had my own family—and I loved them too—but Nate's was different, just as Nate himself was different. He was . . . like the shade box in my purse. Perfect.

I felt hands cover my eyes, and I yelped involuntarily. “Nate!” I turned around and leaned my back against the sink as Nate nuzzled his lips along my neck. He wrapped his arms around my waist and pressed his chest to mine.

Oh! How I will miss this when he's gone,
I thought as we kissed. Five years ago we'd had our first awkward peck on the lips after ice skating with a group of friends from junior high. Even though we'd graduated far beyond that, kissing Nate made me as nervous now as it did then. I hoped it would be like that for us forever.

When he finally released me, I felt my lips tingling as if I'd been mildly shocked; I ran my finger along them. Nate was a good kisser, but seriously, what was
? He saw my confusion and laughed.

“Tingles, huh?” His voice was husky and he lifted one thick black eyebrow at me.

“Um, yeah. . . .” I giggled and felt my cheeks blush.

“Lip balm,” he said. “Cassidy and Chelsea gave it to me for my trip. It's cinnamon, but it's supposed to have a million SPF or something like that.” He shook his head with a grin.

“That's sweet!”

His smile sagged almost imperceptibly, but I knew him so well, I could see the subtle change. He was thinking about how much he would miss his sisters. “I think they just liked that the tube is purple.”

I took his hands in mine, clasping them gently. The pads of his fingers were callused from basketball, his palms rough from working timber with his dad all summer. “They want to take care of their big brother,” I said.

He laughed again. “You know they think this is their
chance to get into my room. Chelsea's already planning to redecorate it. There's a
of pink involved.”

I rested my head against Nate's chest and listened to the steady thumping of his heart. He was about to leave for a whole year. I wished I could absorb his calm and hold it within me.

A year . . .
I could feel my breath about to catch in my throat and tears sting my eyes.
Do not cry, Meredith Daniels! Do not! Not now, not yet.
I fanned my face with my hand and looked at the floor for a moment before meeting his gaze again. “How exactly did you sneak up on me?”

He grinned and pointed to his feet. “New sneakers.”

They were lightweight track shoes, blue nylon with bright yellow stripes and green soles.

“Another gift from the twins?”

“Nope. Scotty picked them out. Little brother's got taste.”

“Yeah, I do, don't I?” We both turned to the side door, where Nate's eleven-year-old brother was standing. He wore black, red, and white—Trail Blazers' colors—on his oversize jersey and long shorts. He was a mini-Nate, with a tangle of auburn-highlighted hair and the sprinkling of freckles Nate had long since grown out of.

Scotty rolled his eyes when he saw us embrace. “You guys! Don't do that near the food. Geez!” He bounced a basketball on the linoleum floor as punctuation.

“Do what? This?” Nate grabbed me then with both hands and made ostentatious kissing noises.

“Nate! You said you'd shoot hoops with us!” Scotty protested.

“I will, I will.”

Scotty's basketball dribbled on the floor,
thump, thump, thump
, echoing Nate's heartbeat.

“Scotty, take that outside, please, and leave Nate alone,” Mrs. Bingham said as she swept in with the no-nonsense, take-charge attitude I'd often seen in Nate. She reached for the platter of sandwiches with one hand and lifted it high over our heads. Just before she left the kitchen, Nate called to her.

“Hey, Mom, we're gonna take Rocky for a walk, okay?”

I looked at him. I was not really dressed for a walk in the woods with a dog. He grinned at me.

. I bit my smile back and glanced away.

“Fine with me.”

“But Nate!” Scotty's voice was on the verge of a whine. “You promised!”

“Scott, what did I just tell you?” his mother said. “Go. Now.”

Scotty groaned and stomped his feet as he went back out to the court. Nate smiled and took my hand, whispering, “Let's walk the dog.”

My fingers tingled at his touch, no magic balm required.

“Um, guys, hey?” Mrs. Bingham said. “You forget something?”

We both glanced around at the counter and floor. I spotted
my purse near the sink. The shade box! I quickly slipped the strap over my shoulder. “Thanks, Mrs. Bingham.”

She smiled slyly and jerked her head toward the side porch, where one elderly mutt was sprawled in a pool of sunlight. “I meant Rocky.”

Nate clapped his hands and the dog slowly rose onto shaky legs. “Come on, Rocky! Come on, boy!” My heart always broke a little when I saw Nate try to play with his dog. And Rocky was Nate's, no question about it. They were nearly the same age, Rocky having been rescued when Nate was a little boy, right before Scotty was born. He slept at Nate's feet, greeted him every day after school or practice, and accepted every command from Nate, no matter how hard it was for him to move.

BOOK: The Leaving Season
2.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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