He didn't want to lose her again. Marcie had been his best friend, his dream girl, as long as he could remember. They'd grown up together, shot marbles, swam in the stone quarry, hiked through the ravines, and shared the same passions for books and nature. Then one day she was gone, leaving behind only memories.
He'd found her three years ago strictly by accident, or fate as he liked to think, when one of his cousins who still lived in their home town had seen Marcie's e-mail request on the city's website for a picture of her old house. He immediately e-mailed her.
'I don't know if you remember me or not, but I'm the one who took you to your first dance. I don't have a picture to send you, but the last time I was home, your house looked great. The current owners have taken excellent care of it. Thinking of you all of these years, Earl'
He didn't have the heart to tell her that the house he'd grown up in, a mere two houses away, had been torn down to make way for an antique mall. If tourism continued to prosper in the small farm town, her house could be razed next to make way for a concrete parking lot.
Earl reread Marcie's latest e-mail.
'Joe says he wants to try again. Why now, two years after the divorce? Earl, I am so confused. What he says makes sense--throwing in the towel after almost thirty years of marriage seems wrong. He says there's no law saying that we can't get back together, remarry. That the divorce papers weren't written in stone. But how can I ever trust him again after what he's done? I shouldn't burden you with my tales of woe, but since you've come back in my life, I finally feel like I have someone I can talk to, someone who cares. What do you think? Luv, your old friend, Marcie.'
His thick fingers flew over the keys with an agility that most men his age lacked. He'd endured a lot of teasing in high school from the jocks and the hoods when he signed up for typing after Marcie dared him to, saying, "No where it is written in stone that a guy can't learn to type." It'd paid off though and he'd gotten the last laugh. With the birth of personal computers, unimaginable in the late 1960's, those guys were probably still hunt-and-pecking the keyboard to type one paragraph in the time that he could type a whole manual on safety procedures for oil and gas well explorations. He couldn't help wondering if perhaps her taking auto mechanics in school, his double-dare, had helped her in life as well.
Flexing his fingers to relieve the pain from the carpal tunnel in his right wrist, he scanned what he wrote,
'Marcie, don't fall for his line of crap. I'll tell you what's written in stone. Once a cheater, always a cheater. If you need me to come down and pulverize the creep for you, I will gladly. You deserve better. So did your mother. You have no idea how much your pain hurts me, too. I wish I could wrap you in my arms and make all the pain go away. I've always loved you. I spent years trying to find you and now that I have, I'm not letting you go. Come back home to me. We can make a fresh start, a new life together. We belong together, always have.'
He posed his finger over the escape key that would wipe away the words that his heart had dictated to his fingers. She was in a vulnerable place and as much as he wanted to, he would not take advantage of it. His love for her had endured all these years; it wasn't going anywhere.
He reread his phase, 'come back home'. What was his heart thinking? Neither of them had stayed in the small farm town in Iowa after graduation. They'd gone the opposite directions, he north, she south. His home was now in Williston, North Dakota, had been for over twenty years; hers apparently in Houston, Texas. She'd traveled farther, but then she had more to run away from than he had.
When her mother had left her and her alcoholic father for another man, Marcie was only a junior in high school. The small town with its small-minded people quickly tried, judged and convicted both her and her mother. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, you know," they'd say. It didn't help that Marcie's best friend got pregnant the next summer, either. "Birds of a feather flock together," they'd whisper behind her back.
Earl, the proverbial boy next door, remembered the pain etched in Marcie's face when they'd talk after school over the white picket fence between her back yard and the alley. But even through the sadness in her eyes, her easy smile and quick wit could make them sparkle like green cat-eye marbles in the sunlight. At least with him.
He mentally kicked himself. If he had only broken up with Darlene sooner, the girl he'd been going steady with during his junior and part of his senior year. If he'd only realized that his love for Marcie was more than just a childhood crush, maybe he could have stopped her from disappearing from his life. His words vanished with the flick of his finger and he typed quickly to replace them.
'Marcie, don't let him or anyone else tell you what you should do, including me. It's your life and only you know how you truly feel. I admit I'm prejudiced. I think you deserve better, always have. If you need anything or just need an ear, I am only a broadband width away. Thinking of you, Earl.'
Marcie had sent him a picture after they started e-mailing, one taken at her son's wedding three years earlier. He studied it again. It's amazing, he thought, how little she had changed, she still being short and slender with the curly dark hair and same sweet smile he remembered. He, on the other hand, hadn't faired so well. Portly now, instead of wiry like he'd been in high school, and with his remaining hair turned into white fringe, he looked like the epitome of the class reunion nightmare come true. He'd sent her a picture of himself anyway. He was who he was, a fat old fart who still believed in fairy tales and happy ever afters, and was proud of it.
He stood and stretched. Walking into the living room, he glanced at the picture over the fireplace mantle. It'd been taken at his and Julie's thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, three short years before the cancer took her away from him. He'd met her at college in Des Moines, the same city that had swallowed up Marcie and spat her out only God knew where after she and her dad had moved from the small Iowa town.
Julie and he had had a good marriage, their only regret being that they never had children. Even so, he'd occasionally thought about Marcie, his childhood friend and girl next-door, wondering where she was and if she was okay. Like he'd written Marcie after she'd answered his first e-mail, 'Finding you and knowing you are well has filled a hole in my heart that's been there for years.'
Mr. C, a gnarled-ear feral cat who had adopted Julie and him years ago, meowed about the same time Earl heard his stomach growl. "Dinner time for both of us old farts," he said, walking to the kitchen and reaching into the pantry. After eating, he took a brief nap in the recliner with the television turned low. When he woke, it was nearly nine. Time to get back to work, he thought. Since Julie's death, he'd become a night owl, and compiled most of his safety reports between ten and midnight. They tended to work better than counting sheep in making him sleepy, ready to climb into that big lonely bed.
Turning the computer back on, Earl couldn't resist checking his e-mail first. He smiled when he saw that she had responded to his last one.
'Dear Friend, what would I do without you? In fact, how did I ever manage without having you in my life? Obviously not that well. You are right as usual. It is up to me and there are no easy answers, it seems. Joe has convinced the kids that he's changed and that I'm being a total bitch for not giving him a second or third chance. My friends tell me the opposite, natch. So I'm being pulled in both directions and feel like I'm going to split in two.
I wish I could run away, like I did so many years ago, make a fresh start somewhere else. That's the problem with getting old. You get practical. A good thing for you, too, or I might have decided to take a little trip through Iowa to North Dakota! Thanks for being such a good friend. Marcie."
Earl saved her message as new and closed AOL. He needed time to mull over her comments. In the early part of their two-year e-mail relationship, he'd confessed to her that he'd always loved her, how he'd tried to find her in Des Moines after her father's suicide, and how he'd often wished he'd stolen more than the one kiss when they were teenagers. He'd even fantasized about marrying Marcie once upon a time until he met Julie, he'd written.
Marcie's e-mail responses hadn't exactly been reciprocal at first. She sent him gentle reprimands such as, 'Count your blessings. I would have made your life miserable.' But after a few months of correspondence, her e-mails grew warmer and when he wrote a teasing threat of, 'Don't be surprised if you find me on your doorstep one day so that I give you that hug in person,' she'd written back, 'No fair. I need a couple of days' notice.' .
He even called her, the first time on Valentine's Day last year. Big mistake. The joy and lilt in her voice when she realized it was him had caught him so off guard that he cut the call short and didn't dare call back for months.
Sighing, Earl tried pushing Marcie out of his mind and concentrate on his safety reports instead. Usually he liked to make them colorful, creative, but he wasn't in the mood tonight. He finished the last one about midnight, shut the computer off and went to bed. As he hoped, OSHA regulations and violations were his sheep rather than thoughts of Marcie.
The next morning he rose, fed Mr. C and himself, then took a walk. Winter was approaching with a soft dusting of snow. He mused on how different their lives were now, Marcie and his. He loved the Midwest cold, she the Texas heat. He loved the flat open land; she loved the maze of concrete dotted with tall city buildings. He stuck out his tongue to catch a lone snowflake and remembered the snowball fights they had, the ruby in her cheeks, the laughter in her eyes when he wrestled her into the snow bank. No. She may have changed locations but she was the same Marcie deep down inside. He could tell from her e-mails, the picture.
His thoughts then traveled to Julie. She had stolen his heart and kept it until her dying day. She'd also taught him that love wasn't limited; there was always more than enough to go around. He'd told her about Marcie and their friendship growing up, the loss he felt when she left with no forwarding address. "Don't ever stop trying to find her," Julie said. "There's no law that says you can't have two best friends." She laughed. "Don't look so shocked. I'm your wife and I'm vain enough to know that she can't replace me. Plus that's one of the reasons why I love you so much. You know how to be a best friend."
No, Marcie could never replace Julie any more than Julie had totally replaced Marcie, but... His pace back home from his walk quickened. He knew what he had to do. Turning on the computer, he clicked on the AOL icon, his fingers impatient for the connection. He wrote,
'Hells, bells, Marcie, being practical is what makes you feel old! Now I'm not telling you to run away again. God knows, I wish you never had to begin with. But there's a big difference between running away from something and running to something. There's nothing wrong with a fresh start. Hell, we get one every morning when we wake up. So don't be practical. Pack your bags and take that trip! I'll even meet you at our old stomping ground, the A&W drive-in, (believe it or not, it's actually still standing). I might even be able to show you a few things that'll make you want to stayJ. Thinking of you, Earl'
He hit the send key. No changing his mind allowed. There might not be anything between them anymore, might never have been. But he had to know. She needed to know, too, before she made a mistake of going back to Joe. Taking a chance, gambling that things might work out, made him feel young again, he realized. He could end up looking and feeling like an old fool, but damn it, at least he felt alive again for first time since Julie's death.
Like a teenager waiting for the phone to ring, he listened for the "You have mail". And when he finally heard it, he froze, afraid to read Marcie's e-mail. His crazy impulse probably cost him what he feared the most, losing her friendship again. And why in the hell would he think showing her the A&W's cornerstone where they'd written their initials and '4-ever" on it would make any difference? No. He'd made a damn fool out of himself and it'd serve him right if Marcie never wrote to him again. He forced himself to click on the e-mail and stared at Marcie's two-sentence answer, then grinned like the school boy he felt like once again.
'Go ahead and order our favorite with two straws as usual for next Saturday. 4-ever, Marcie'