LOVE IS FRAGILE
I was excited to go to Yosemite after our vow renewal ceremony. Thirty years of marriage, and we’d do it all over again. We’d planned for this “second” honeymoon to last through the weekend. Our romantic destination? Not Europe, like we had the first time around. Or exotic Bali or tropical Hawaii. We preferred the good old national park just north of our home.
Scott had splurged for the trip. Instead of tent camping, he’d rented a bonafide wooden cabin. To my surprise, when we arrived, the entire outside was festooned with flowers. The morning air smelled full of a rich fragrance. Fresh pink roses decorated the door frame. Huh, he must have snuck out to the mountains on his “quick business trip” last night. A printed sign taped to the window read, “Re-Newly Married.” My husband, the jokester.
He couldn’t carry me across the threshold, though, because a group of four kids sprang out of their car and clustered around the cabin. They touched the soft petals, and the girls oohed-and-ahhed. I thought they were high schoolers at first, but they soon corrected my thinking. Just graduated, they told me. Two couples who were celebrating their newfound freedom in “the real world.” The two young men were tall, with wavy brown hair just short of messy. One wore glasses, and the other didn’t. One had on a red jacket, and he shook our hands. The other sported a blue coat, and he kept his hands in his pockets, mumbling a hello to us. They were identical in every other way. “We’re twins,” they said: Max (in glasses, wearing red) and Matt (no glasses, in blue).
The young women had their arms draped loosely over each other’s shoulders. “Best friends,” they said. Penn and Trix. Penn had long blond Rapunzel hair that draped over her petite but muscular frame. Trix had short-cropped hair, and her face was that beautiful androgynous, sharp-featured model look.
After the introductions from the young women, my husband asked, “What’s with the unisex names?”
I was too far away to nudge him, but I gave him a short glare. He never made polite conversation.
Penn shrugged. “We get that all the time. Blame our parents.”
“Our names are how we first bonded.” Trix tugged at the heart locket around her neck, part of a “best friends” necklace. Penn had the matching half. “We both got teased a lot growing up.”
“Even in college.” Penn rolled her eyes. “Good thing we had each other.”
“Were you roommates?” I asked.
Trix grinned. “Later on. That first year, we lived diagonal from each other in the dorms.”
The twin brothers shuffled their feet. “We’ll put the bags in the cabin now,” Max said. He pulled them out of their car.
I counted three backpacks. “You all pack light.”
“The guys packed twice as much as us,” Penn said.
“Yeah.” Trix pointed at a light purple bag. “Penn and I share clothes, so one backpack’s enough for us.”
I noticed that the two women both wore tight-clinging T-shirts with jeans. Penn’s black shirt was a little too tight and had frayed seams at the shoulders.
“Well, we did have to bring the climbing gear,” Matt said. He pecked Trix on the cheek. The brothers waved at us and shuffled off to their cabin next door.
“What are you climbing?” Scott asked. “Not Half Dome.”
“No way,” Penn said. “The guys are tackling one of the smaller slopes. You can see it from here.” She pointed in the near distance.
“Yep. We’re going after we take a peek at Bridal Veil Falls,” Trix said.
Penn nodded and fiddled with her left ring finger. “Well, see you later. Happy renewal!”
Scott and I nodded to them and entered our cabin.
* * *
A few hours later, we heard the couples laughing. Scott and I had already packed a picnic lunch. I’d cut the sandwiches diagonally. My husband liked eating triangle-shaped bread better, a leftover habit from his childhood. “Why don’t we eat lunch near the climb?” I suggested.
Scott nodded. He liked watching athletes (and absolutely adored American Ninja Warrior) even if he didn’t participate in the sporting experience himself. The group had already started ahead of us, and we followed their disappearing figures. We could see the flash of bright red and blue from the jackets the young men wore.
We eventually caught up, and they nodded at us. “Great,” Trix said. “You can take photos for us.” She handed me one of those new-fangled digital cameras. She switched it on for me and adjusted the setting.
“We’ll be belaying the guys.” Penn rolled a carabiner in the palm of her hand. “Each to her own boyfriend.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” Scott asked. “Shouldn’t partners be of equal size?”
“Nah,” Penn said. “They can climb in their sleep without our support. And we’re pretty strong.” Penn flexed her muscles, and I could see the outline of her biceps. Trix’s arms, by contrast, were thin and flat.
I watched in amazement as Matt (no glasses) checked on the equipment with care. He stuck his face close to the ropes to make sure everything was in place. Meanwhile, Max lounged on a nearby rock. He took off his glasses, rubbed at his eyes, and cleaned the lenses.
“Max,” I said. “What will you be doing next year?”
He blinked at me slowly before answering. “Um, Peace Corps. Two years in the wild.”
“Wow,” Scott said. “Must be amazing to go overseas.”
Max shrugged, and Scott left him alone.
“All set,” Matt said. The two brothers geared up and stared at the precipice.
“Beat you up there,” Max said.
The twins climbed the ascent with sure steps, although Matt moved a little faster. They grabbed at tiny crevices, each making their way up by using natural footholds. Soon, they disappeared over the top. We could hear them whistling at the presumably amazing scenic view.
Finally, the two brothers appeared at the peak and grinned down at us. I snapped a few shots of them with victory shining in their eyes.
“Ready to return to you lovely ladies,” Matt said.
I’d missed their ascent with the digital camera, but I’d be certain take more pictures as they descended. They made their way smoothly down until the halfway point. Then, all of a sudden, Max missed his step and slid a little. Penn held onto Max’s rope, her entire petite body taut. It seemed like she had him stabilized, but the wind picked up and whipped her long hair into her face. She pushed the hair out of her eyes, and her arms lost their tension.
Max hurtled down towards the ground, while Matt shouted out: “Ma—”
His cry was drowned out by a horrendous piercing scream from Penn. Max’s body lay sprawled on the ground, and he wasn’t moving. Penn buried her head in her hands. “What have I done?”
“Call 9-1-1,” I told my husband. While he dialed, I ran over to Max. Thankfully, he was still breathing. Matt, his face blanched, was safely at the foot of the mountain now, and Trix rushed over to hold Penn.
Everything happened in a blur after that. The ranger came by, and an ambulance wound its way up the steep terrain. Matt rode with Max to the hospital. Scott and I promised to drive the girls there. Penn was hysterical, and Trix kept rubbing her back and whispering reassurances.
When we arrived at the hospital, the ambulance having beat us there, Matt was busy talking to a police officer. He waved at us, but continued talking to the cop. As we passed him to go over to the information desk, Matt was saying, “It was a practical joke.”
The hospital staff told us that Max was in a coma. We couldn’t visit him, but we could talk to one of the nurses. She wouldn’t give us much information, but she motioned me over. “Terrible about your son,” she said, as she handed me a clear bag with his possessions. Was I old enough to be mistaken for his mom? But I didn’t correct the woman. She winked at me. “Take care of his precious valuables.”
I ushered the girls into a waiting room, hoping that Max would wake up soon. “Here,” I told Penn, handing the bag over. “His stuff.”
She pulled out his red jacket and wore it. It engulfed her small frame. “I can’t believe it,” she said. A tear dripped down her cheek.
Trix squeezed her hand. “Maybe he’ll wake up soon. In the meantime, Matt and I will take care of you. We’ve got our eye on a two-bedroom condo. The guest room can be for you.”
Penn shook her head. “I can’t impose on you when you guys will be —” She turned towards me. “Newlyweds need their privacy, right?”
I looked at Scott. We’d lived in a little studio apartment a stone’s throw away from his parents, and I’d appreciated the (slight) distance.
“I plead the fifth,” Scott said.
“You’re getting married?” I asked Trix.
A blush crept up her face, highlighting her stark cheekbones. “Almost engaged. We went ring shopping last week, so anytime now…”
Scott and I congratulated her. She smiled, her gaze fixed on Matt in the distance.
Penn scrunched her body tight. Poor girl. She might never have the chance to marry now. Her hands plunged into the red jacket’s deep pockets and she gasped. “What the —” She pulled out a black velvet box.
Trix’s eyes widened. “Max was going to propose to you, too?”
Penn frowned. “I thought he said we needed to slow down, what with him going to Africa and all.”
“A double wedding.” Trix rubbed her “best friends” necklace. “That would be exciting.”
Penn fingered the clasp of the box.
“Go ahead. Open it,” Trix said. “You’re such a good actress. He’ll never know.”
Penn lifted the lid and squealed. “An emerald ring!”
“What?” Trix peered over Penn’s shoulder. “That’s the one I picked out.” Trix’s legs started shaking. Matt came by just in time to catch her when she fainted.
Scott called out for a nurse to help, and in the corner of my eye, I saw Penn running away. The nurse came over to revive Trix, and I decided to chase Penn. She made it into the ladies’ room, where she hunched over the sink, dry heaving.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She splashed water on her face and rubbed it with a rough paper towel. Red splotches appeared on her porcelain skin from the scratchy material. She scrunched up the towel and tossed it away.
“He was never going to propose to me,” Penn said.
“Maybe after his two years in Africa…”
“That’s a long time to wait. Several years for him to change his mind.” She stifled a sob, but it was more a cry of resentment than grief. “Figures it was Matt’s ring.”
I narrowed my gaze at Penn. “You wanted to get married, but he didn’t.”
She stayed silent.
“Trix was going to get married to Matt. They were even looking at a condo,” I said. “You girls had always done things together. Clothes, men…until now.”
She picked at a small hole in her shirt, making it tear with her sharp scarlet fingernail. “Guess you can’t share everything.”
I remembered her hands gripping onto Max’s rope, so stable and strong. And then slipping. I pulled out the digital camera Trix had given me and flipped through the photos. Her hands had not been touching the rope for a brief moment. “You let him fall,” I said.
“I didn’t mean to really hurt him.” She looked at me with sad brown eyes. “I wanted him to get a broken leg or something, so he could stay in the States. Reevaluate his future.”
“His life with you, you mean.”
She fiddled with her left hand, like she was twirling an invisible ring around her finger. Which reminded me of something. What kind of man leaves his own engagement ring in another’s pocket, even if it was his own brother?
No loving man. The day Scott had proposed to me, he’d kept my ring close to him, feeling for it every second of that joyous morning. Just like one of the twins had kept his hands in his pockets when we’d first met.
“We need to go and talk to the others,” I said, pulling Penn out of the bathroom. We ran smack into Matt, pacing right outside the door. Scott and Trix were over in the waiting area. I could see that the young woman was trembling all over, while my husband was awkwardly patting her shoulder.
“I need to tell you something, Penn,” Matt said.
I gripped Penn’s hand in mine and interrupted him. “You’re Max,” I said.
“Yes,” Max said, breathing a sigh of relief, while Penn pinched my hand with her sharp nails.
“What do you mean?” Her eyes narrowed at him, scrutinizing his face.
Max’s shoulders slumped. “We switched jackets, and I gave him my glasses.”
“That’s why you sat on the side,” Penn said. “You couldn’t see.”
“And why the real Matt stumbled a little while he climbed,” I said. “His vision was blurred from the glasses.”
“It was a practical joke,” Max said. “You know us.” He tried to nudge Penn’s shoulder, but she backed away from him.
“Oh no,” she whispered. “I dropped the wrong brother.”
Max frowned at her. “Did you say dropped?”
“I mean, slipped. My hands slipped,” she said.
“You’re really strong,” Max said, rubbing at his chin. “I’ve been your spotter at the gym before.”
I handed Max the digital camera without a word, the incriminating picture displayed, and he glared at Penn. Scott and Trix came over right then and interrupted the tension. “The nurse said we could go see Matt,” Scott said.
“I’m so sorry,” Penn said. She pulled the velvet box out of her jeans pocket and handed it over to Trix, who slipped on the ring. It fit her perfectly.
We waited around the bedside, taking turns to whisper something to his prone body. Trix went last, gripping his hand. “My answer is yes,” she said to Matt. “I love you.” At her words, his eyelids flickered, and he squeezed her hand. The machine near him started beeping, and nurses rushed in and made us leave the room.
Later on, the doctor informed us that Matt was responding well to medical care. He would likely regain full consciousness soon. We waited around until we got the okay to go in again. When Trix entered the room, Matt’s eyes lit up. “My Trixie,” he said. He also greeted his brother with a warm hug. But he paused when he saw Penn. “Who are you again?” he asked with real confusion in his voice.
“She’s nobody,” Max said, pulling Penn out of the room. Trixie, with her hand holding Matt’s, stayed by his bedside but her gaze flew to the window. We all saw Max and Penn fighting, albeit with lowered voices. Finally, she blushed crimson, yanked off her “best friends” locket and dropped it in Max’s hand.
“Is everything okay?” Trix asked, when Max returned.
“Everything’s settled,” Max said. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
We saw the trio of friends smiling at one another and decided to bid them goodbye. We congratulated Matt and Trix on their engagement and wished them marital bliss. “Good luck in Africa,” I said to Max.
“I’ll be glad to leave this behind,” he said.
Scott drove us back and parked next to our prettily decorated cabin. “Love is beautiful,” I said.
“Sure is,” he said, leading me to the door.
I touched one of the roses, and a few pink petals swirled down to the dirt ground. “But also fragile.”
J. J. Chow’s short stories have been published in several literary magazines, most recently in Hyphen Magazine and Yay! L.A. Magazine. Her recent cozy mystery novel, Seniors Sleuth, was Runner-Up for the 2015 Beach Book Festival. Visit her author website at www.jenniferjchow.com.
Copyright © 2016 J. J. Chow. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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