The night was starry, blue and grey and inky, like a giant octopus had unleashed its wrath on the broad dome of sky above them.
“There’s something about an island,” said Lila, “in the middle of the ocean, that makes you feel completely endless.”
“Wanna get drunk?” said Aaron.
Lila took the can and let the stinging liquid splash over her teeth. “I wish I could just bottle this moment up,” she said, “and keep it forever, so that on winter days, I could look back on it and remember this feeling.”
“Don’t talk about winter,” said Aaron. “All we have is now.”
She looked at him and stars danced in her irises. The lights of the beach party shimmered on the water, a million glowing beacons scattered like beads on the feathered waves. “I love this song,” she said. “Can we just stay here for the rest of our lives?”
The screen flickered out, and static filled the speakers. “That’s one of my favorites,” said Lila, brushing at her eye, sending a sheet of silver eyeshadow fluttering over her cheek. “It keeps me warm, like something I can just call out of thin air, and it comes to me, no matter how many years separate this from now.”
“I can’t believe you kept all these,” said Aaron, who was standing with his back against the clean, varnished wooden wall.
“You were such a bad influence on me, little Aaron,” she teased playfully, running up to him, then growing serious. “I knew we would meet again.”
She was standing close to him, the way he remembered, but older, no longer a girl. Her sunshine-colored shirts, flowered shoes and pink barrettes had changed into oversized sweatshirts, tight floral leggings and rosy lipstick, a coyly hipster pseudo-lounge style. Still, there were those eyes, the color of blue Slushee ice.
“I missed you,” she said, a hoarse tinge edging her voice. She placed her hands on the collar of his shirt and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Instantly, his hand went to his face, to the small blossom of warmth there. “It’s been too long, Aaron. How long has it been?”
“Four years, two months and seven days since the last summer,” he said, in a slight undertone.
“Really?” Her eyes, bright, were wide. “You’ve been counting, then?”
He looked at the floor, shuffling his foot. The carpet was the color of red wine, or perhaps that was just a stain, for the rest of it looked slightly peachier.
“You were always so mysterious and brooding, Aaron,” she said, stepping back away from him and looking him squarely in the eye. It had been years since they’d been the same size, but seeing her, a small and defiant creature, looking up at him, felt strangely alien. “But I loved your videos. I do love them.”
“I filmed all of us,” said Aaron, curling his fingers. “I mean, when it felt right. With that little camcorder I kept in my shirt pocket.”
“You told me all that, silly!” she said, bouncing up and down on her toes.
“I hoped you’d remember.” His eyes were downcast.
“Can I offer you a drink? Coffee or cocoa, maybe?” She curled her lips. The silence was imminent. “Aaron, do you want anything?”
“Oh, yes. Just some hot chocolate is fine,” he said, catching her eyes for a second. They were light and vibrant, rimmed with a thick coat of mascara.
As she danced into the other room, Aaron had to steady himself against a piece of furniture. The room seemed to blur with surreality. He turned his eyes to the window, where a light pattern of snow was falling, leaving pale tear-streaks of lacy frost on the window. Someone had hung a string of lightbulbs above the mantle, and they glowed palely, spreading cool waves of tinted yellow light about the dark and wintry walls. Everything was surreal.
“I was so surprised when you called me,” she said, voice echoing around his head, and her little hands were wrapped around a mug of steam, which she presented to him like a gift.
“I was in the area,” he said, taking it from her, careful not to brush against her fingers.
“Oh yes? What brings you to Michigan, then? You still live in California, don’t you?” Her arms were swinging again.
“It’s Nova Scotia now,” he said. “I moved there last year.”
“Canada? What a terribly lonely place!” she cried. “And so cold there... What made you decide to go?”
“Work,” he said. “I’m a videographer now, for the National Geographic channel. Brown bears and salmon, mostly... I go all over, though. I’m here because... there’s a segment on the brown coyote, for this new documentary, and there’s supposed to be lots here. Coyotes, I mean.”
“Wow, that’s fantastic!” she chirped, jumping up and down, a crease forming at her eyes. “Aaron, you’re so successful! You really did something amazing!”
“You must be in college?” he said.
“Connecticut State,” she replied, “only here for the weekend. But wow, a videographer... I should have known! Only a prodigy could have taken such great footage from inside his jacket pocket.” She smiled. “I loved that summer.”
“Those were the best of days.” He could smell her perfume, mixing in with the sweet taste of the rich cocoa in his hands. “I really loved those summers, all of them. They meant a lot to me.”
“Remember our island,” she smiled, taking his hands. “We used to pretend we were hunters! You would bring home firewood and you’d make those funny squirrel traps, and I’d make stew out of berries. We were a happy little family.” She was inching closer to him, so that he could see each shadow as it fell across her smooth skin, across her lips, curled in a wide smile.
“And then remember the time we actually caught a squirrel?” he laughed, caught in the stale happiness.
“You don’t laugh enough, Aaron,” she said, running a hand through his hair.
“You always made me laugh,” he said, touching her wrist, a whisper of skin. Looking down, he laughed dryly. “Maybe that’s why I was so obsessed with you.”
She stepped back, her white sneakers clattering on the floor. The room yawned with tension. “You were obsessed with me?” she said, voice rising an octave.
“I... I thought you knew,” he said. The mug shook in his hand. A few droplets, still hot, slipped over the rim and sizzled on his flesh. “I mean, I gave you all those videos. I thought you knew.”
“I thought we were friends,” she said, tears quickly bubbling in her eyes. She stomped angrily on the floor, as if to punish herself for crying. “I thought things were simple. I had no idea. Oh my God, Aaron.” Now she was laughing, brushing at her hair, looking at the ground. “Of course. You were in love with me. Now I see it clearly. Was it difficult for you, all those years? How long?”
“Always,” he said, feeling the heat rush to his cheeks, but he couldn’t stop now. It was too late. “Lila, I always loved you, but I was too shy to admit it. We spent weeks together in the summer and all I could think of was how infatuated I was with you, but you were too full of light... so full of color... you passed someone like me right by.”
“You were my best friend,” she said.
The cocoa shook. “I spent so long trying to work up the nerve to come see you but you’re just as beautiful as I remember. You’re more beautiful than anyone.” The words were blurring; the cocoa sloshed. “I think I still love you. The second I saw you, I knew. I remembered. I’ll never forget as long as I live.”
She was looking at the ground, wiping her eyes. Dust swirled around them, illuminated by the lightbubs. The snow quickened its pace, little bursts of pale ivory clamoring at the translucent window.
He stepped towards her, a fragile lilt, and placed his hand on her waist. The rose-lips were inches away.
Then the cerulean eyes closed and the silver eyeshadow glittered like snow. “Aaron, I’d like you to meet someone,” she said, a jewel of a tear threading down her cheek. Then she was gone, like a burst of air.
He stood. The cocoa quivered.
There she was, Lila, the very apple of his eye. She was a spark, a summer star. So many nights he’d lain beside her, in a tent outdoors, on a quiet island beach, a love song playing, and he hadn’t had the nerve, and she hadn’t known, not after all those years.
Beside her was a man with eyes like pine and hair like an evergreen’s trunk.
He was tall, with a firm, friendly jaw and strong arms, one of which was around his beautiful Lila’s waist, as easily as it had always been there.
“This is my fiancé, Evan,” she said quietly, pulling a smile onto her lips. Spiderweb creases formed around the edges of her mouth.
“Nice to meet you,” said Evan, beaming, displaying a mouth full of teeth as white as the winter snow. A silver watch glittered from his wrist, which he was holding before Aaron’s face.
The cocoa slipped, fell, and shattered on the floor.
“Aaron, wait!” said the girl who was his first love, the constitution of his whole heart. She was beside him, a spark of light. “I won’t forget. I swear.”
“Don’t talk about summer,” he said. “All I have is now.”
He slipped into the winter courtyard and disappeared.