Ashley was raised in a Southern Baptist family. They moved to Rhode Island from Georgia when she was ten, but they didn’t so much leave Georgia as drag it with them.
She spent every summer at a church camp in Western Massachusetts. She was a pretty, ordinary girl, and never really thought of herself as much of a rebel, but she met Simon when she was twelve. They became fast friends, and while being a teenager sucked, looking forward to camp got her through her mama’s lectures and her daddy’s anger. Each summer she would escape to trees and canoes and giggling slumber parties and yeah, there was some dramatic bullshit from the other girls because there was always dramatic bullshit from the other girls, but she just rolled with it.
And Simon was the actual best. When all the thirteen-year-old girls in her cabin were PMS-ing at once, she escaped the snarling to sit with him on the dock at the lake, just talking. He listened to her like no one had ever listened, and she listed to him in turn, and he always, always felt safe.
They became camp counselors the year they turned fifteen, and with that came more freedom than they’d ever had. Both of them had reputations as “good kids,” and by the beginning of the next summer, they had more freedom than either of them had ever had in their lives. They’d been close for two summers. Neither was allowed social media, and in 2002, for a couple of teenagers living with conservative Christian parents, it wasn’t all that strange. Writing letters wasn’t really an option because their parents were the sort who would read all mail, and her father would want to know everything. Running the risk of being banned from camp wasn’t worth a few letters.
It was the last week of camp, almost the last day, the summer she was sixteen, and they’d made their way down to the dock by the light of a full moon so bright they didn’t even bother with a flashlight.
She’d been the one to strip off her clothes and dive into the water, still warm from the sun, the humid air holding heat far into the evening. He’d been stunned, but eventually followed, and they’d swum out to the big rock in the middle of the lake.
They’d kissed, before, and they kissed then, and then things led to things and while she knew they hadn’t talked about much, she also knew it hadn’t been Simon pushing things along. Not that either of them was doing much thinking at that point.
When it was over, she smiled at him, shy, and he looked vaguely horrified, and the bubble of safety she’d felt with him seemed to pop completely.
“I have to go to sleep,” she’d said, sliding back into the water. “It’s a busy day tomorrow.”
He’d started to say, “I’m sorry,” but she dove off the ledge under the water and swam in powerful strokes to reach the shore before the words could finish coming out of his mouth.
He’d followed, and tried to say something about how he hadn’t meant to lead her into sin, and she’d just rolled her eyes, put on her clothes, and walked away.
It would be twenty years before they’d speak again, when she’d run into him in a park in Providence, a tall Black man with close clipped hair watching a curly-haired blonde boy shrieking with laughter on a swing while a blonde young man pushed the child up and up again.
He’d changed, shoulders thicker, face grown up, babyfat gone, but the kindness in his eyes was still there. It wasn’t that, though, that really caught her attention, but the way he’d tipped his head when he laughed at the little boy jumping off the swing.
She was on her way home from work, and she stared at him for a full minute before he’d noticed she was there.
She knew she looked different. Stress had drawn lines on her face, age had dimmed her hair and bleach had not quite done the job she’d wanted it to do, to put the light back into it. But she’d worn ponytails often enough at camp, and rarely makeup, and so maybe she hadn’t changed all that much, because his eyes widened and he was on his feet as soon as he saw her. His eyes darted back to the child and the young man behind him, and slid away, and all she could do was stare at him as he walked over.
“Cinders?” he said, his voice a much deeper baritone than she’d remembered.
“Simon says,” she murmured.
He stared at her another moment and then held his arms open.
She blinked back tears and accepted the hug, and then pulled back.
“I know,” he said.
“About the baby you had. My baby. About everything.”
She put her hand over her mouth. “Have you seen her? Is she okay?”
He hesitated, and then said, “Yeah, doing great. In college now. Has a trust fund, even.”
“And… the baby? No one told me what happened to it. I don’t even know if it was a boy or a girl.”
His eyes flicked over and then back to her and he said, “He’s just fine. He’s been adopted, and his parents adore him.”
“Do they let you… do they let you see him?”
At that, he laughed. “You could say that. Yes, I see them both, often.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “My daddy…”
“Suzanne told me,” Simon explained. “When she found me, she said you didn’t tell me because you were afraid your father would kill me.”
“I thought I’d done something against your will, and the idea of him hurting you after that…” She looked down at the ground. “I didn’t want to ruin both of us.”
“Against my… Ash, no. We were kids. No one told us anything like what we needed to know to stay out of trouble. I only reacted the way I did because I felt like I’d done something wrong to you, that I’d hurt you, that I’d ruined you. I still worry that I did.”
She shook her head. “I’m adult enough now to know where the fault lies. I should have told you about Shelly. I should have let you have the choice to be involved. Maybe I wouldn’t have…” Her hand came up to her mouth, and she sobbed. “I don’t think I knew how to be a good mother to her. I tried, and I failed, and I really hurt her.”
“You did hurt…her,” Simon said quietly. “And maybe, someday, she might be willing to sit down with you and let you apologize. But there’s a lot we’d have to talk about, first, things you’d need to understand about who she is and the life she’s living now.”
“I just wanted to keep her on a path with God, so that she wouldn’t make the mistakes I made, and when she said she was pregnant… Oh god, I did to her what my daddy did to me, didn’t I?”
“The difference is that she ended up where she needed to be, with people who could support her through the process and help her get to where she wanted to be. And you… didn’t.”
“I’m working. I’m surviving.” She wasn’t looking at him.
He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket, and said, “Can I get your number? I don’t want to lose track, and if our child is willing to give you a chance, I’d be more than willing to help make that happen.”
She glanced up at him and then took the phone, entering her number in, and sending herself a text.
She bit her lips and said, “I missed you, you know. Every day.”
“Yeah,” he said. He took the phone back, and glanced back over his shoulder again.
“I… You probably have plans,” she said. “I need to get home.”
“I do have plans, but please, do send me a message. Or I can message you?”
She smiled, a small, worried smile. “I think I’d like that.”
“Good.” His smile was genuine, and for a moment, she could see the boy she’d fallen in love with, so long ago.
She swallowed back a wave of emotion that threatened to swamp her, and walked away.
She looked back once, just before the park was out of sigh, to see Simon picking up the little four year old child and tossing him up in the air, and then handing him back to the other man. Her hand came up to her mouth, and she thought about going back, about asking if that child was her grandson, and then she thought about what he’d said, and what she’d done, and she turned, and walked away.
As she was locking the deadbolt on her front door, and hanging her purse up on the hat rack, her phone buzzed in her pocket.