At this time in the afternoon, the old tree overhanging the pier blocked the setting sun and Hux could sit out in his comfy old folding chair with his book and catch the magnificent colors cast across the lake’s surface without getting the light directly in his eyes. Taking sips from the last bottle of the microbrew porter he’d brought along, bought with a fake ID that he’d soon no longer need, he scanned the pages, memory filling in most of the words as he thumbed through another old favorite.
He’d need to find a new copy of Watership Down soon. This book had already been well-loved when he’d acquired it. Several pages clung to the binding by only a prayer. He’d held onto it for so long because of the inscription on the title page.
Happy birthday! Love, Grandma
Grandma had drawn a rabbit beneath her signature, and that drawing had come to life as Fiver for him the first time he’d read the book. He’d save that page, he knew, which was sad, really. It’s not like it had been his grandmother who’d given him the book. He’d never known any of his grandmothers, both Brendol’s and Maratelle’s having passed away long before his birth. Perhaps the nameless woman who’d born him as a surrogate when Maratelle had proven unable to have children might still have living parents herself, but he’d never find out. She’d done her duty and fled as soon as she was able, signing a no-contact agreement and receiving a hefty payment in return. Maratelle still brought it up when he’d particularly displeased her.
A splash drew his attention away from the book and he raised his hand to his eyes to stare out over the lake. Watching the fish jump at sunset had become a tradition over the years. No ripples broke the surface of the water, though, and nothing else broke the surface. It must have been something around the promontory to the south. Returning his attention to the book, he muttered a curse under his breath. A chunk of pages had come loose and had fallen to the dock, the early evening breeze threatening to tear them apart. He made a lunge for them and almost overbalanced in his chair, catching them just before they flew over the edge. He let loose a sigh of relief and then shrieked as Ben erupted from the lake. Hands grabbed his wrists and pulled, cutting off his scream as he hit the water. Spluttering, he flailed until his feet found purchase on the slick rocks.
“Dammit, Ben! You bastard!”
“Surprise! One last swim before you leave!”
“You could have asked. Shit.” Pages fluttered down around them.
“Wow. Is that your book?”
“It was.” One page caught his eye and he grabbed for it. The ink had begun to bleed, grandma’s cursive growing fuzzy around the edges and the rabbit fast becoming a blue blob.
“Hey. That’s … Where did you get this?”
“They used to have a rack of used books at one of the gas stations in town. I bought it the first year we came up here. Why?”
Ben traced the ink on the page, his finger turning blue. “This was my favorite book when I was a kid. My grandmother gave it to me just before she and grandfather died. I lost it on the one and only trip we made up here. I was miserable the whole time we were here and losing this was the worst part of it all.”
“Oh. Well, if it’s any consolation, it’s been one of my favorites too.” The ink had blurred into illegibility now, a pale blue smudge on the wet paper. Sighing, he let it drop, joining the rest of the pages as they floated away, propelled by the wind that had begun to pick up.
“I’ve got a bonfire set up over at my cabin, ready to light.”
“You were planning on dunking me, then?”
Ben grinned. “Well, no, that was kind of a spur of the moment thing. My plan was roasting hot dogs and marshmallows and then wrapping us up in blankets and watching the stars.”
They charred the hotdogs and managed to drop more marshmallows in the fire than they ate. Ben toasted them to a golden brown, peeling the outer layers off and insisting on feeding them to Hux, and then roasting them again, repeating until only marble-sized pieces of fluff remained. Hux insisted on licking Ben’s fingers clean after, which led to other things. In time the fire burned down to embers and the moon began to set, but still they stayed, cocooned in scratchy wool that smelled faintly of mothballs, counting stars until they finally fell asleep.
Ben helped Hux pack his car the next morning. It didn’t take long. He had one suitcase of clothes and one of books, plus his backpack and a bag of the trash that didn’t burn, flattened cans and glass and plastic bottles. They’d already exchanged phone numbers and emails, and Ben had even insisted on actual addresses.
“Columbia isn’t that far away from Harvard,” he’d said, and he’d smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners and one corner of his mouth riding up higher than the other and Hux had willed his heart not to melt and had failed spectacularly.
“So, I guess this is it,” he mumbled when the trunk slammed shut.
“Until midterm break,” Ben insisted, taking Hux’s hands and bringing them up to his lips.
“Right.” He could stand here forever, he thought. Forcing himself to let go, he slid into the drivers’ seat and Ben closed the door, leaning in through the window for one last kiss.
The road twisted through the trees and he lost sight of Ben in his rearview mirror almost instantly. But it wasn’t a goodbye, he reminded himself.
He sent Ben a picture of himself outside of the laundry where he left the books, and another of the hamburger stand where he stopped for lunch. He got one of three deer on the side of the road in return, and a three-word text.
Miss you already.
Two weeks later he’d settled back in at school. He’d switched from the residence hall to a small studio, after pointing out to his father that it’d be more conducive to studying. He was just mounting the stairs, keys in hand, when his phone chimed with a text alert.
Your package arrived today! I can’t believe it. This is so weird
What’s weird about it?
Check your mailbox
Sure enough, there was a package in his box, a small rectangle wrapped in brown paper. Book size, he noted as he slid a fingernail under the tape. When the paper fell away, he laughed, disbelieving.
Another text alert came, a picture this time, of Ben, holding a copy of Watership Down up next to his face, followed by second one of the title page.
To starry nights and bonfires. Not your grandma, he’d written before packaging up the battered paperback he’d found in the Friends of the Library rack when he’d dropped off this summer’s books. Opening his new to him and equally loved copy to the title page, he let his fingers trace over the inscription.
Happy not-your-birthday! -Ben
His phone rang, startling him, and he nearly dropped it.
“O Frith on the hills!”
Hearing those words in Ben’s voice he couldn’t help but grin. He couldn’t come up with a quote to respond with that wasn’t depressing, so he settled on a simple “Hey there.”
“I can’t wait.”
“I found the movie on DVD too.” Closing his eyes, he could picture Ben bouncing on the balls of his feet as he talked, pacing back and forth on the beach.
“Confession time. I never saw the movie.”
“WHAT?” Ben squawked into the line and Hux jumped, holding the phone away from his ear. “That’s criminal.”
“Six weeks, then.”
“First thing when I get there.”
“First thing? Really?” Hux teased.
“Well, second thing.” He heard a commotion on the other end of the line, then Ben’s voice, muffled, as if he’d put his hand over the speaker. “Gotta run. My roommate needs help with his stuff.”
“October will be here before we know it.”
“Can’t wait!” Ben made the silliest, sappiest kissing noise into the phone before he hung up, leaving Hux standing in front of his door, shaking his head and smiling. Six weeks until their first three-day weekend, and then Thanksgiving weekend after they both put in obligatory appearances with their families, and then Christmas break, then spring break, then next summer. Letting himself in, he dropped his bag by the door and headed in to the kitchen to grab a drink, already diving back into the familiar words.
…The primroses were over…