Note: Wow, we are so close to the end. With two posts today, we’ll see the last post for our daily serial novel arriving tomorrow morning. So, without further delay, here’s our first part for today. Hope you enjoy!
Part 62: Saying Goodbye
We stood by our cars looking back at the face of Orchard House. I took a deep breath so I could have one more sensory overload. Apples, Peaches, Honeysuckle – from this moment I would always associate the scents with this place. I would never catch a whiff again without being mentally transported back. I took in the sights around me. The big white farmhouse with its magnolia tree out front. The vast orchard, populated with apples, peaches, and grapes on the vine. The migrant workers in the field, the visitors picking their own baskets of fruit. The makeshift stage in the field out front, the country store up the road, the sight of the church steeple around the bend. And it was then the vast array of memories came piling up on me at once: Summer’s embarrassing entry in the house, she trying to get me to dance to Kenny Chesney in the kitchen; tubing on the river, eating Italian in the nearby town. First kisses at the Orchard’s edge, streaking like wild teenagers through its center. Making love in every room, creating memories for all time; heartfelt conversations at night, love longing eyes in the morning; walking hand in hand down a path, watching the sunset from a mountaintop, finding her estranged father, forgetting a failure called Ashley; dancing at the street party, making friends of strangers; sleeping outside on our last night, laying in my bed and thinking of her on our first. With this, I turned to her and saw she was already looking at me.“I know,“ she said, as if I had spoken the words aloud. “I feel them, too.”
She leaned into my arms and I folded them around her, pulling her close so she could look up into my eyes. Our last kiss at Orchard House was just as warm and wonderful as the first. I could almost picture this scene, as if I were distant and removed from it, a bystander to the events instead of a participant. Two people standing on a hill, a white farmhouse looking over them like a protective angel. A sign reading “Orchard House”. A kiss speaking volumes of love that could never be fully expressed within the confines of a book. I knew I would write the story, but it wouldn’t be restricted to just Summer and I; it would also be of Gunboats and Hope, Raymond and Helen, Earl and Mary. And though we were told we would be the last to fall in love under her eaves, I had a feeling that others would come after us, and they would add their own chapter to the story of Orchard House.
I drove down the gravel driveway, looking back at the house and the woman who followed me in her own car. Out on the dirt road and up around the bend to the country store we drove, and yet I kept looking back as if were a child leaving the comforts of home for the first time. The country store wasn’t very busy. We parked side by side out front and stepped through the doors the same way. There were some customers milling about, mostly locals doing their morning must have shopping, practicing their right not to drive into town to the Wal-Mart. Two kids at the soda case looked over at us sheepishly smiling, and though Summer didn’t notice them, I gave them a smile. A couple at the back of the store was browsing the various jars of apple butter, and they too looked up at our arrival. With a smile, they went back to what they were doing. I noticed Twyla’s lemonade stand wasn’t set up, but a handmade sign was on the table reading CLOSED DUE TO ILLNESS, however ILLNESS had been crossed out and replaced with SOMETHING in small letters overhead. Raymond was helping a young mother close by select the healthiest apples for her brood who hovered nearby. He looked up and flashed us a smile and wave.
“Hello folks,“ he said as he walked by, heading to the counter to ring up the lady’s purchase. “Looks like the home place has done you both a great service.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, as we followed him.
He gave us a friendly smile. “Because you two are absolutely glowing.”
The woman turned around and looked at us. She too couldn’t help but smile. “Just married?” she asked.
“Engaged, “ Summer replied.
“When’s the date?”
“Um…I’m not sure.”
The woman nodded with a smile that you couldn’t have erased off her face, and she looked over at me. “You’re a lucky man, she’s adorable.”
“Yes mam, she is,” I agreed.
As the woman collected her apples and children, she headed out the door, looking back at us with a knowing smile, as if she remembered her own engagement and how she had glowed, too. I looked at Raymond. “So what’s up with Twyla? I asked. “She sick?” I pointed to her empty table.
He laughed a little nervously. “Oh that. No, she’s just creative. Had to take the day off and she didn’t want to disappoint all her customers. I’m closing up for a few hours myself.”
“Oh yeah?” Summer asked. “What for? Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, just some family business to take care of.”
“You’re closing the house today, aren’t you?” she asked.
“In a manner of speaking, yes, I guess we are.”
I pulled the key out of my pocket. “Well, you’ll be wanting this then.”
“Yeah, I reckon so.” He took the offered key and as Summer got hers out, she reluctantly handed it over, too. He smiled. “It has been so nice having ya’ll here,“ he said. “I guess you know you’ve been the talk of the community. Nothing bad, mind you, but it’s been wonderful to see you two falling for each other. I almost feel like a matchmaker. We’ll have to consider a new line of work after this.”
Summer and I both laughed. “It has been wonderful,“ I said. “Thank you for letting us stay.”
“Hey’ you paid,“ he reminded me with a chuckle.
“Yes, but still. You can’t begin to imagine what you and Helen have done for us. Is she around? We’d like to thank her personally.”
He pointed out the front window. “She’s up there at the church with a few ladies. It’s their turn to clean up this week. Feel free to stop in and say bye. I know she’d love to see you, just don’t let her talk you into any of that cleaning stuff.” He leaned forward and added in a whisper, “I love that woman, but she can kill ya with that pine sol.”
We laughed. “Okay will do.” I held out my hand. “It has been a pleasure, Raymond.”
He smiled. “Yes it has. You take care of this little lady, okay?”
“I certainly will,“ I promised, as he shook Summer’s hand as well.
Not contented with a handshake, Summer hugged him. “We’ll miss you, “ she said.
“Not too much, I hope,“ he said.
We all shared one last smile, and then taking Summer’s hand in mine, I led her out the door. The bell overhead seemed to make a louder clang as usual as if it too were saying its goodbyes.
“Come on, let’s go say goodbye to Helen,“ I said.
There were two other cars in the parking lot when we pulled in. We parked beside them, and as we got out and looked up at the church steeple, I wondered if it had an actual bell in it, or if the bells we’d heard the other morning was a recording. It certainly had enough room for a real one, and it made me think of an on old movie with a bell ringer pulling on a rope and letting the bells peal out as the end credits roll. I took Summer’s hand and we walked up the front steps. I stopped.
“Remember the first time we were in here?” I asked.
“Yeah,“ she laughed. “We got called down for making out.”
I smiled. “I wanted to propose to you then.”
“Yeah, you know we were in a church. It seemed the time was right.”
“Well I didn’t have a ring at the time… and I wasn’t sure if you’d say yes.”
She kissed me. “Silly boy.”
“And…I was scared…really terrified of what comes next.”
I reached for the door and opened it. We stepped into the church’s foyer. The sanctuary lay ahead of us and I could hear Helen’s country twang coming from within.
“I guess I understand how you were feeling,“ Summer said. “I get scared too.”
I pushed the door open leading into the sanctuary.
“But it’s okay to be…” She stopped. The sanctuary was not being cleaned at all. It was being decorated. White and red flowers were lined across the backs of the pews. From the ceiling hung white plastic bells wrapped in ribbon. A red runner lay on the carpet leading up to the altar which had a gazebo type trellis sitting in front of it, decorated with wild flowers. Red rose petals were scattered down the aisles. I looked at Summer and squeezed her hand. “Still scared?” I asked.
Her eyes found mine. “No.”
“I’m not scared anymore either.”
She smiled and her eyes seemed to sparkle in the light of the sanctuary.
I took both her hands in mine. “Marry me today, Summer. I don’t want to wait three months, or six, or a year. I want to be your husband right now.”
A tear slid down her cheek. “I want to be your wife right now.” She wiped the tear away with her hand. “But I’ve nothing to wear.”
I smiled reassuringly. “I think maybe Helen has that covered.”
Summer turned to look at the altar and saw Helen coming towards her. “Please tell me there’s a wedding today,“ the woman said.
“Yes mam, there is.”
Her face registered happiness and then a little bit of alarm. “Then we need to get the bride ready.” She took Summer’s hands away from mine. “Come on, girl. Let me show you how us country gals get dolled up for weddings.” She started leading her up the aisle, but then stopped and turned. “And you sir…you ain’t going to get married in your blue jeans. So you better dig that fancy tux out of your luggage and finally put it to proper use.”
I grinned. “Yes, mam.”
Summer looked back at me, her eyes filled with happy tears. As she silently mouthed ‘I love you’ in my direction, I placed my hand over my heart and mouthed back ‘always.’
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.