<< Back to Main | Read the Free Romance Story – Wrecked by Shayne McClendon
Summer faded and Elizabeth met the changing season with a sense of excitement and trepidation.
She didn’t see Dylan and her thoughts drifted to him at the most unexpected times.
The week of the marathon arrived and she wondered if he would come to watch. It was silly because she knew they weren’t exactly friends.
Not that she didn’t wish they were.
Nana didn’t plan to miss the marathon for any reason and Elizabeth found a lovely little café near the end of the race for her to sit and relax. She took the waitress aside with a smile.
“It will be a few hours. She won’t be any trouble but I don’t want her outside. It’s still too hot. If you’ll keep her in tea and little snacks, notice if she needs anything, and talk to her now and again – she’ll be just fine. I know she wants to be here for this.”
The woman was older, heavy, with silver roots showing along her hairline. Her eyes and smile were kind. “Don’t you worry about her one bit. Enjoy your race, dear. I couldn’t run from here to the next block over if a bear was chasing me.”
Elizabeth grinned. “There was a time I didn’t think I could either. Thank you so much.”
Nana kissed her and wished her luck and she took a cab across town to the starting line.
The experience was unlike anything she’d imagined. So many thousands of people but there was a camaraderie and a sense of teamwork among them. People of all ages and races ran together, sweated together, and helped each other. Spectators lined the route and cheered for all of them.
For almost four hours, Elizabeth felt what it was like to fit in, to be around a group of strangers who didn’t care what she looked like, how manly she was, or that she was shy.
They ran, she ran, and it was perfect.
Elizabeth promised herself that as long as she was able, she’d run the marathon every year to remind her that peace and contentment could be found in the strangest and most unexpected places.
As she crossed the finish line, she felt amazing. Strong and focused…truly proud of who she was and what she’d accomplished.
She took plenty of time to recover; walking around, eating orange slices, and drinking was seemed like her weight in water. Nana would worry if she came back gasping and cramping.
On her third lap of cool down, she glanced up and saw her grandmother standing on the corner. Nana was smiling and waving with both hands.
Dylan stood beside her.
“You did it, my darling girl! I’m so proud of you!” Her favorite person in the world was practically jumping up and down with excitement.
Approaching with her heart in her throat, Elizabeth kissed her forehead. “Thanks, Nana. I’m all sweaty or I’d hug you.”
“Psshhtt! Come here, best girl!” Then she was wrapped in a tight hug. “Magnificent, Elizabeth.”
She nodded as Nana pulled her face down and kissed her cheeks. To the man standing less than two feet away, she said quietly, “I can’t believe you came. I didn’t expect you to do that.”
Hoped, but never believed.
“It’s a big deal…the marathon. I wanted to cheer you on. The crowds are ridiculous.” He smiled down at Nana. “She was standing outside watching as I made it to this end.” His face lifted and his eyes stared into hers. “We were able to watch you cross the finish line. Good job, Lizzy.”
“Thank you, Dylan.”
There was no way she could have said more but she thought he saw the tears in her eyes. The rest of the runners eventually made it across and she wore her medal of completion with pride. They passed the time at the little café and Elizabeth tipped the friendly waitress heavily for watching over Nana.
It was a good day.
When they made it back to Long Island that night, Dylan walked them home and lightly kissed her lips again on the back steps.
“Goodnight, Dylan. Thank you for coming today.”
His smile was slow. “It was my pleasure.”
He turned and went down the steps. She watched as he walked into the dark with butterflies in her stomach. Every personal interaction with Dylan entrenched him further into her mind and heart.
At the time, she didn’t realize it would be almost a year before she saw him again.
Across the aisle, a beautiful young man gave her a careful smile. Frowning, she analyzed him for a long moment because he looked familiar.
“Hello.” She stared at the front of the room and ignored the heat that spread over her body in embarrassment. Why did someone she’d gone to school with have to be in the same class? Hadn’t they tormented her enough?
Elizabeth heard him clear his throat. “Hey…can I talk to you for a minute, Elizabeth?”
She kept her eyes forward but murmured, “Sure, Riley.”
Swallowing against the coming humiliation he probably had planned, she held her breath and willed her body to settle. Her fingers curled around the edge of the small writing surface just above her lap.
“I’m sorry for everything. All the bad things that happened in school. Please believe me.”
It was not what she expected but she didn’t relax her guard. “Okay. Thank you.”
She heard him stand up and watched as he took the seat directly in front of her. Turning around, he stared directly at her. His eyes were very blue.
“I know you don’t believe me but I mean it. I…I’m gay, Elizabeth. I stood by as my so-called friends tortured you so I could survive high school by keeping their focus away from me.”
With a small nod, she looked down at the top of her desk. She couldn’t imagine being a gay male in high school. It must have been awful because young people thought being mean was cool.
Thinking back, she remembered that Riley had never actually said or done anything directly to tease her or hurt her feelings. That he hadn’t stepped up to help her might have been weakness and immaturity but in the cutthroat world of high school, it wasn’t unusual.
“I’ve lost sleep for years over what happened to you, Elizabeth. I wanted…so many times…to help you, to stop it.” He added in a whisper, “I was a coward.” Riley reached out and took her hand. “You seemed so much stronger than me and I’m so fucking sorry I took advantage of that.”
Glancing up, she was surprised to see that his eyes were filled with tears. Actual tears…for her. The expression on his face was tortured.
Nana had always taught her that forgiveness cost nothing and it was good for the soul. Holding on to anger and hurt eventually turned poisonous to the bearer.
She gave him a careful smile. “I forgive you, Riley. School was hard for all of us.” Taking a deep breath and hoping she wasn’t being pranked, she added, “I hope things are better for you now.”
His fingers curled around hers and he squeezed.
Over the years, when she thought back on her first real conversation with Riley, the one thing that would stand out was the fact that he held her hand.
“I had to move out of my house. My parents, they aren’t okay…with who I am. I worried so much about people outside my house…I never thought I’d lose the people who raised me.” His face contorted in true pain. “I’m staying with the youth pastor at our church. He believes I can be “prayed well.” They think I’m sick.”
Riley’s expression told Elizabeth that he probably wondered the same thing.
“I’m sorry, Riley.”
“Why are you sorry?”
She shrugged. “Of all the reasons I would have had to dislike you, whether you liked boys or girls would have been at the bottom of the list.” His eyes widened in surprise. “You aren’t sick, Riley. If you go through your life being as kind as you can be to others, it doesn’t matter who you love along the way. Not to me and, I don’t think, to God. I bet He has bigger issues to worry about.”
His hands wrapped around hers and she noticed they were smoother and his nails were in far better condition. The smile he gave her reached his eyes and it struck her for the first time how beautiful Riley Pritchard was.
“Elizabeth, thank you.”
A few minutes later, their professor entered and took his place behind a podium. Riley moved to sit in the spot beside her and commented under his breath about how funny the acoustics made the man sound – who obviously had a severe head cold or some sort of allergy.
She barely controlled her laughter. It was fascinating to her how much Riley touched when he spoke. Tapping her arm, leaning close, and nudging her with his shoulder – all simple interactions she’d never experienced with anyone but Nana.
At the end of the hour, Riley stood and linked arms with her. Grinning, he asked, “Coffee?”
“Um…you want to go get coffee with me?”
Pulling her to a stop, he told her seriously, “I want to be friends, Elizabeth. I’ve always admired you. I think you are one of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met and I would be honored if you’d give me another chance – in the adult world – and come have coffee with me. I promise I won’t ever give you cause to regret it.”
Initially hesitant, not sure if or when Riley would reverse to the boy she remembered, Elizabeth agreed to have coffee with him that day.
Over their four years of college together, the two of them would share thousands of beverages over conversations ranging from politics to travel and everything in between. She was thrilled to discover that Riley was well read and knowledgeable on many of her favorite subjects.
Nana loved Riley and his effect on Elizabeth. She would tease them while they sat studying together at the dining table in their kitchen that they sounded like happy magpies. They would invite her to sit and soon enough, the elderly woman would be chattering right along with them.
Six months into their freshman year, Riley appeared at her house in the middle of the night. Though it was freezing outside, he wasn’t wearing a coat. There were strange marks on his skin and raised welts around his wrists.
Barely able to stand, he allowed Elizabeth to half-carry him to the sofa in the living room. The sound of the doorbell woke her grandmother and she joined them downstairs.
Shaking, in tears, he related what had happened in the twenty-four hours since they’d seen him. Riley’s parents – at the urging of the pastors at their church –subjected him to a sort of “exorcism” to cure his “gayness.” He’d been tied down, flogged, and prayed over while he was doused in holy water. He hadn’t been allowed to sleep, eat, or use the bathroom.
Horrified and furious, they insisted he move into one of their guest rooms immediately. Before Lizzy took him upstairs, Nana hugged him tightly.
“I’m dirty. I smell so bad, Nana,” Riley told her sadly.
“Hush, now.” Glancing up, the little woman smiled. “You are just as God made you, Riley. As beautiful and flawed and filled with potential as the rest of His creations. In this house, you are loved and accepted without condition.”
She stroked her fingers through his dark red hair. “Lizzy will get you all settled and tomorrow morning, she’ll make her banana pancakes. Those always make me feel happy on the inside. Tonight, a snack and sleep. Yes?”
He started to cry and they hugged him, murmuring softly as he let go of a family who would never accept him and embraced the two women who always would.
Elizabeth sat cross-legged on the bathroom rug while Riley soaked away the soreness from being in the same position too long. After she started the tub, she went downstairs to get him sliced fruit, meats, and cheeses. Her tray held a pitcher of lemon water to help him rehydrate.
His hair was damp and slicked back from his face. He stared at the ceiling and she didn’t interrupt his thoughts. Turning his face, he smiled and there was less sadness in it this time.
“You and Nana are like Glenda the Good Witch without the inability to give good directions.”
She laughed. “Thanks…I think.” Worrying the towel she held in her lap, she told him quietly, “I’m sorry, Riley.”
“Me, too.” Raking one hand through his hair, the water made it look brown instead of dark red. “I think back, you know? I remember spending Christmases together as a kid, trick-or-treating, learning how to ride my bike…and I don’t understand how they can be the same people who used to read me stories before I went to bed at night.”
Tears slid from the corners of his eyes. “They stood on one side of the room staring at me like they’d never seen me before, Elizabeth. Letting this guy they’ve known less than a year lay a strap over my body, trying to get a demon out of me that doesn’t exist.”
“Have you always known?”
He nodded. “Even in first grade, I knew I wasn’t supposed to like my friend the same way he liked one of the girls in our class. I hid it. For so many years, I hid. I didn’t want to make anyone mad. I didn’t want to be different.”
She laid her hand over his where it rested on the edge of the tub. “Being different is hard. I know. I like that you aren’t the same as everyone else, Riley. You have a fresh perspective and I think you’re a wonderful, caring person. I’m so glad you’re my friend.”
Turning his hand, he whispered, “I didn’t do anything to deserve a friend like you, Elizabeth.”
Gently, she petted his hair back from his forehead. “Sure you did. You talked to me.” She grinned. “As pretty as you truly are, I don’t need to see your naked butt. You clean up now that you’ve snacked. We’ll pick clothes up for you tomorrow but I think we’re about the same size so I left some stuff for you on the counter.”
Leaning over, she kissed his temple. “Take your time. I’ll make up the guest room so you can get some much-needed sleep.”
“I’ll figure it all out, Elizabeth. I won’t overstay my welcome.”
She’d started to stand and lowered again until they were eye-level. “Listen to me, Riley. As long as you want it, as long as you need it, this is your home. You’re part of our family now. Get through school and then decide what you’d like to do.”
Between the two determined women, they talked him into doing exactly that.
Elizabeth and Riley would live together for years. It was one of the many times in her life that she would be grateful for the lessons she learned from Nana. Forgiveness, opening her heart despite past hurts, had initiated her first true friendship at age eighteen.
Riley would play a crucial role in her happiness as someone her own age who could understand the struggles and pain she never talked to anyone about – not even Nana. Though the causes of sorrow were different for each of them, the results were real and achingly similar.
The night she talked to Riley about Dylan, he listened carefully and urged caution. Over the next decade, Riley would often warn her to protect her heart. Elizabeth would wish she’d asked her best friend more questions.
He’d known far more about Dylan than she did – and he didn’t even know it.
© Shayne McClendon