During their first ever disagreement, Chris knocked Jodie to the ground with a fist to the face. It was surprise more than anything that made Jodie's knees buckle and sat her down hard on the rough school yard asphalt. She looked up at Chris standing over her, fists still clenched, jaw tight. Jodie's palms were scraped, and hot tears of shock and hurt prickled at the corners of her eyes, but still, after a moment of stunned surprise, she scrambled back on her feet and launched herself into Chris. The fight lasted only the few frantic seconds before their teacher rushed over to separate them. They made up during the next recess, hardly looking each other in the eyes, two kids with hot tempers. But Jodie had learned her lesson. She liked Chris and wanted them to stay friends, and so she never teased him about being a girl again.
The thing was, they'd become friends through shared adversity during the first months of school. The other kids in first grade said Chris was a tomboy. They said that Jodie's mom and dad were big city hippies. For the past couple of months, some of those kids had tried to give them trouble for it, but between Jodie's sharp tongue and Chris' fearlessness in fights they hadn't gotten very far. Jodie told her mom as much after school, standing at the edge of the vegetable garden in the beginning dusk. Her mom straightened up and wiped her hands on her jeans. "You just think Christy is the sun and the moon and the stars, don't you, kid?" she asked, laughter in her eyes, and Jodie could feel her cheeks heat, but she didn't disagree.
Chris kissed her for the first time four months later, out behind the birches where the teachers couldn't see them. Chris did a lot of things in first grade that he wasn't supposed to, like cutting his own hair and stealing his big brother's clothes, and tearing off the last two letters of his name from the label on his cubby. Like hooking a hand into the pocket of Jodie's blouse, and then leaning in close, his warm root beer breath ghosting across her face. "I like you," he said and kissed her with lips that were dry and warm and a little scratchy. Surprised, Jodie twisted her face away and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. "Ew," she said, her heart beating uncomfortably in her chest. She didn't get the whole kissing thing. Chris pulled away, muttering "shut up," as he got up from the dry ground and brushed the dirt from the seat of his pants. "Don't kiss me then," Jodie replied, petulant. For years after, Chris'd swear up and down that he had done no such thing, but Jodie knew better.
In the summer of '95, Jodie and Chris were eleven and eleven and a half years old, respectively. In the first week of October everything green was beginning to turn brown and gray and yellow. Out in the orchard the air was heavy with the sweet decaying smell of late summer. Jodie and Chris had spent a hot day helping Jodie's parents bring in the hay bales, and now they both had scratches and pinpricks from the hay strands peppered across the soft skin of their underarms.
Once the work was done Jodie's mom had brought them refrigerator-cool slices of watermelon - heavy and runny with juice – to bring out into the garden. Chris wiped his chin with a brown arm. He had rolled his t-shirt up over his pale white shoulders like his brother did. He brought his arm down to rest on his knee, and Jodie followed the shiny trail of juice down to his hand where his knuckles were bruised and scraped. Jodie bit her lip looking at the meshed skin, the puckered scabs. Chris had gotten those the day before, when he punched Mikey Dawson from fifth grade in the face for calling them lesbos. After a moment, Chris caught her looking and flexed his hand. "What?"
"You shouldn't have done that. It ain't right to punch people, even if they're bullies." Jodie pushed her bare feet into the ground so the grass came up between her toes. She looked up sideways at Chris' slanted eyes, his full lips. "And there's nothing wrong with being a lesbian," she added after a moment, heart pounding. A lot of time had passed since first grade, and by now she was beginning to understand the kissing thing better, although she hadn't had another opportunity to try it since that one time under the birch trees.
Chris spit out a watermelon seed. "No," he said casually, "but there's something wrong with being disrespectful." His voice was firm, but when he glanced at Jodie there was a shimmer of humor in his eyes and Jodie ducked her head.
"Come here." Chris threw the slice of melon and pulled her in against his side with a sticky hand. He still had a quick temper and a crass mouth, but these days it never came out around Jodie.
A couple of lazy flies were gathering on the half moon melon rinds they'd left in the grass. Across the large garden the terrace door was opened and Jodie's mom poked her head out. "Come on inside, girls, dinner's ready."
As soon as they turned sixteen, Chris bought a dusty old blue pickup truck. In the months that followed, he spent most of his time tinkering with the car, along with his brother and Mikey Dawson, who'd wised up since Chris threw that punch a few years back. Jodie saw them bent over the hood in the front yard when she biked past the Chambers' house on her way to soccer practice. Most times they didn't even notice her. It made her feel a little neglected.
Once summer truly came around, the kids of Castle Rock started going down to Blue Heron Lake where the city council had recently put up a new bathing dock and a couple of diving boards. Jodie usually drove down there with Hannah King and her sisters. The sun beat down on the naked shore all day. There was an ice cream stand which people gathered around in the daytime, seeking shade under red and white parasols and eating dripping ice cream cones. Once it got dark, the younger kids went home. Someone would bring speakers that they hooked up to the stereo in their car. A couple of eighteen-year-olds would drive into town and bring back six-packs of beer that they’d share around. They turned the music up loud. Chris came down there in the evening, sometimes, to sit on the edge of his truck bed and watch the girls dance in the headlights along with the rest of the boys.
Once in a while, though, Chris would come by to pick her up after soccer practice, and they would drive out past the city limit to the swimming holes down by Calapooia Creek. They'd leave the car door open and change the radio to something mellow and simple. Down by the swimming holes the light shimmered onto the water through the tall pine trees surrounding the river. Chris hadn't attended gym since fifth grade and he never swam at Blue Heron Lake, but here he let himself be naked. Jodie stole glances at his wet sleek body, feeling giddy and hot. After they got out of the water, Chris was always quick to pull on his undershirt and briefs, but Jodie liked to be naked in the sun. She liked the way Chris looked at her, too.
Chris shrugged on his shirt, then grabbed a cigarette from the pack in his jeans lying next to where he was sitting. "I'm gonna change this," he gestured down at his body. "I don't want to look like a girl."
"Hey," Jodie protested lightly, tipping her head to look up at him from where she was lying, "your best friend is a girl."
"Oh, I like girls just fine." Chris' expression changed from a frown into something playful. Jodie flushed hot. She watched his long graceful fingers pull the unlit cigarette from his lips. "And friends? Is that what we are?" he asked in a slow teasing drawl, changing the subject. He shot her a sly, questioning look.
It struck Jodie that maybe he had remembered that time under the birch trees just as well as her all along. "No," she said, a little breathless. "You can kiss me. I want you to." She raised herself up on her elbows. The sun was hot on her naked breasts, her belly. Her whole body was flushing beneath his gaze.
Chris knelt down to kiss her, and then he pulled her up to stand next to him. He walked her to his car and then he lay down with her on the back seat.
They dozed for a while afterwards. It was still hot, even after the sun set, but after a while they had to close the car doors to stop the midges which were drawn in by the dome light. Jodie stretched out, waking up a little. She was hit by a belated revelation. "You've done that before," she exclaimed accusingly. She knew that Chris drove into the city, sometimes, but she had never thought that he might have sweethearts there.
Chris only pulled her in closer. "Come on, Jodie, don't be mad." His voice was sweet and persuasive in her ear. After a moment he tickled lightly at her sides. "Anyway, don't tell me you didn't hook up with Timmy Hodge, that time back in June." She could hear the suppressed laughter in his voice.
"I didn't do that with Timmy," she said quickly, cheeks blazing. She pretended to push him away, struggling weakly in his arms before giving in and curling up against his naked body, too pleasure-drunk to be truly angry. She let her head fall back against the blanket that Chris kept in the back and Chris snuggled in to press soft kisses against her neck. The windows were turning a little foggy, but she could still see the waxing moon. "This is the best place on earth," she sighed.
Chris snorted. "You should come with me into the city some time," he said. He turned onto his back and out of her embrace.
Jodie felt instantly cold where they weren't touching anymore. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Jodie, how can you decide this is the best place on earth if you've never been nowhere else?"
Jodie didn't answer. Next to her, Chris let out a long sigh. "I'm not gonna stay here," he finally said, and there was an underlining of something hard and vehement in his voice. Jodie turned back into his body, hiding her face against his shoulder. She wanted to pretend like she hadn't heard that last part, just like she had been trying to pretend for some time now that she didn't know about the parts of Chris that were angry and restless and hurting.
Chris left town right after high school. He asked her to come with him once, and when she said no he didn't ask her again. In her heart of hearts, Jodie knew she shouldn't blame him, really, but she couldn't figure out how to get rid of that ball of anger and betrayal in the pit of her stomach.
For a while Chris sent postcards to her at her parents' address. Pictures of cities with short messages: he was in Philadelphia working as a bus boy, he was in New York bartending, he was a waiter in Boston. Most of the cards had a return address, but Jodie never knew what to write. After the first year the letters stopped. The last one had a phone number scribbled in the corner, but by the time Jodie called it, Chris had already moved on.
Jodie stuck around Castle Rock for a year after high school, working as a farm hand at out at Pioneer Farms. By then she had realized that Chris was right and went off to college in Portland. Both her parents had studied ecology and agriculture. Determined to do her own thing, Jodie studied English first, then biology, then gender studies, and then finally ended up in ecology, after all. She dated Millie, then Sean, then Theresa, then Sean again, and then no one for a long time. She went to concerts. She partied a lot. She drank a lot, too, then started drinking a little too much, and then stopped drinking altogether. Three years passed by in the blink of an eye.
The heat felt different in the city. There was no A/C in the room she rented. When it rained, the water turned to vapor on the hot asphalt and came wafting in thick and sticky through her open window, smelling like tar, like exhaust and rotting trash. Sometimes when she lay awake at night - listening the sounds of cars passing by beneath her window - she wondered why these days, even when she was happy, she felt a like a glass that was just about to shatter.
On one of those restless nights she got in her car and started driving. For mile after mile, telephone poles, trees and wires flew by in the beam of her lights until she turned down the dirt road which was surrounded by tall pines. She drove all the way down to the edge of Calapooia Creek and then she turned off the motor. There was no artificial light by the swimming hole, but out of the city there seemed to be twice as many stars in the sky. Jodie stepped out of the car and sat down at the brink by the water. Once the moon came out, the darkness was flooded in light. She looked down at her arms resting upturned on her knees, at the black smudges of ink which formed a dotted circle just below the crook of her elbow. When Chris and her were seventeen they had tattooed matching peace signs on each others' underarms with ball pen ink and a sterilized sewing needle. Their parents had scolded them, telling them that if it didn't fade the two of them were going to be sorry for years to come. Jodie traced the pattern with her fingertips. It hadn't faded, but she didn't regret it. She looked out over the river, the black rocks and the glistening rivulets coiling around them. Now she'd been somewhere else, she thought to herself. Now she knew for sure.
She stayed in Portland just long enough to finish her BA and then she packed up her bags and headed home. "Portland ain't for me, Dad," she said, standing on her parents' porch. Her mom and dad had the good grace to try and hide their bewilderment.
Half of the houses in Castle Rock were for sale. Jodie took up a loan and bought the general store when the Liebermans retired. It wasn't exactly a blooming business, but she liked the work. She set up a book swap shelf in a corner of the store. The lot came with a small apartment upstairs and a medium-sized plot of land out back. During the first summer she started experimenting with growing things in her garden: cabbages, pumpkins, fat tomatoes on the vine, a little patch of weed down at the far corner behind tall rows of corn. She bought a flock of chickens, and then had to go out and buy a second flock when a coyote took the first. She started thinking about getting a couple of pigs, next season. She cleared out a far corner of the plot, bought some fencing. After half a year she hired Paul Little to help her in the shop – he'd always been a good guy, although he wasn't too bright. He was just as much of a busybody as he had been in elementary school, and after he’d been working for her a few weeks she felt like she’d been filled in on everybody’s business. The locals accepted her return well enough. The few who didn't she ignored.
When she didn't spend the weekend in Portland visiting Millie and her girlfriend she went home for Sunday dinner. On one of her visits her dad said: "I nearly forgot, this arrived for you a couple of days ago." He stood up from the dinner table to unpin a postcard from the notice board, and handed it to her. She didn't even look at the picture before flipping it over. Chris was in Tacoma, training to become a carpenter. Jodie smoothed over the bendy corner, chewing on her lip. "I miss home," the card said, "I miss you." Tacoma wasn't all that far from home. There was a return address at the bottom of the card beneath his name.
"Is that from Christy?"
"Yeah," she answered, distracted. She carefully slid the card into the pocket of her sweater.
When she got home that night she locked herself into the store and picked a postcard from the stand, a photograph of the old railway bridge out by the gullies. "I miss you too," she wrote out. She signed it, found a stamp from under the counter. She hesitated, then grabbed the pen again. "Ps. I've been other places, now, and it didn't change my mind."
A few weeks passed by. After dinner on Sunday, her dad stayed in the kitchen to clean the dishes while Jodie and her mom moved out onto the porch. They were drinking a beer in companionable silence, looking out at the flicks and flashes of fireflies over the vegetable garden.
"I ran into Molly Chambers today," her mom said after a while.
"Your friend's coming back to town, did you hear?"
Jodie didn't answer. She stared out at the silhouetted trees by the edge of the garden.
"You okay, honey?"
Jodie nodded. She took a swig of her beer. She hardly knew how to contain her emotion.
Her mom cleared her throat. "Apparently Molly and Fred have two sons now."
Jodie had been so taken by the news that it took her another minute to parse what her mom had said. When it finally registered, she turned to face her, arching an eyebrow. "What do you mean, 'now'? Don't you remember Chris at all?"
Her mom smiled slightly. "You're right." She took a draw of her beer. "You know, I can't help feeling kids like you should be out in the big city"
"Maybe we're bringing the big city to Castle Rock, instead."
Her mom laughed. "Well, I guess you're your mother's daughter, huh?" There was a hint of pride in her voice.
That night after Jodie came home she heated up water for a cup of coffee on the stove. She turned on the TV and idly watched the news while she waited for the water to boil. She turned it off again when she realized that she wasn't going to be able to concentrate. She drank half the coffee while standing by the kitchen window, then placed the cup in the sink. She walked to her bedroom and took off her clothes, her watch and earrings. She lay down naked on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. Chris was coming back to Castle Rock. She felt like she was burning up in the cool room. She bit her nails, feeling weak inside. She closed her eyes. Outside her window, a choir of crickets was chirping. Finally she reached over, blindly, and turned off the bedside lamp.
She noticed the car first, a beat-up charming old flat-bed jeep, and then the guy who stepped out of it: a cool drink of lemonade, long legs in worn jeans, boots, his cap pushed down on his forehead. She leaned over the counter to see him better through the dusty shop window. She didn't get a lot of out-of-towners in her store. Even fewer handsome ones.
The guy put his hands in his pockets. He spent some time outside looking at the crates of home-grown vegetables which she'd put out on the porch. He probably couldn't see her inside, she realized, since the evening sun was beating against the windows. Impatient and curious, she stepped out from behind the counter and walked over to push the door open. She leaned against the door frame, pushing her hip out a little. "Excuse me mister, but we close in five minutes," she called.
She didn't know what triggered the recognition, but even before he was fully turned around to face her, she knew that it was Chris. She flushed hot.
"Look at you, flirting with the customers," he said teasingly, the skin around his eyes crinkling at the corners.
Jodie blinked. A sudden dry gust of wind blew her hair into her eyes and she absently pulled it back behind her ears. Chris' voice was a little deeper, but his accent was as thick as ever, despite five years up North. His t-shirt was pulled loose at the neck. He had a host of new tattoos snaking out on either side of his shirt and coiling down his arms, but at the crook of his left elbow the heavy swirls of ink flowed to the sides to give way to a faded peace sign. Jodie looked till she'd looked her fill, aware that Chris was appraising her in the same way. Her mouth was dry. She knew her cheeks were red, but she couldn't bring herself to care when her whole body was buzzing with joy and anxiety and anticipation.
"It's okay if you're closing up." He looked up at her through his lashes. "I came here to talk to you, anyway. Close up the shop, and I'll take you for a drive."
"Chris," she said, "okay," for once in her life short of words.
She went back inside to put the till away. In the back room she let the tap run cold and drank a couple of mouthfuls. She put a wet, cool hand at the back of her neck. Looking up at herself in the mirror, she watched a slow smile spreading across her face.
Once she came back out she strode straight for the truck, walking past Chris who was waiting in the shade under the porch.
"Wait, what about all this stuff?" he called out, indicating at the crates of fruit and vegetables.
She turned around fully. "Never mind that. I want you to take me driving."
Chris took the car left out of the city. While he was focused on the road, Jodie took the chance to study his profile. She hadn't felt like this for a long time – filled to the brim with emotion. "Thank you for all the postcards," she finally said.
Chris cast a quick glance in her direction, shifting his hands on the wheel "'s nothing."
She swallowed. "It meant a lot to me," she said quietly, suddenly a little shy with all the shared knowledge between them, all the things she hadn't managed to say.
Chris slowed down to drive over the first bridge over Calapooia river. Down at the far end stood a lonely figure with a fishing rod. Chris squinted. "Isn't that Paul Little?"
Jodie leaned forward in her seat. "It is." She rolled down the window. "Hi Paulie!"
As they drove past they both waved cheerfully at his open-mouthed expression. "Oh, there's going to be talking now," Jodie said gleefully, and Chris laughed, a low pleased rumble. Jodie could feel the corners of her mouth twisting upwards. She pushed off her flip-flops and put her bare feet on the dashboard, let her faded cotton dress fall up past her knees. Through the windshield the sky was blue as far as they could see. A slow, sweet Dixie Chicks song came on the radio - one of those songs it seemed like she had known all her life. "I love this one."
Chris sent her a fond look. "I know."