Updated: Jan 18, 2022
The beauty of autumn in Clarkstown depends on how hot and dry the summer is leading up to it. June and July were so wet in '71 that the river flooded every inch of bottomland in the county. Most of the folks on the bluff could skip rocks right from their backyards, and rain is all they talked about on WJKM for two months. It's mostly dirt roads, and they were too muddy to drive over, so half the town had to walk wherever they needed to go. Not much changed for Ricky, though, because he rode his bicycle everywhere anyway.
Ricky got kicked out his first year of high school for fighting, but he's too afraid to tell his pop, so he leaves every morning like he's off to class and comes back after dark. It works out fine because Pop could care less, and Ricky only has to see his father when he is asleep. Many got depressed with over seventy days of rain, but it never phased Ricky. He's fought off some brutal demons, and that heart of his is callous enough to withstand any punches life flings his way. His pop would say the same because he's swung at Ricky more than once but never made him cry. Ricky held on to his tears, refusing to let Pop get what he wanted.
Thankfully most of August has been dry so far, except for an occasional afternoon shower. Those midday downpours are over quickly, and if you look for it, you'll see a rainbow every time. Ricky never cared to look; he'd just grab his bag full of books, get on his bike, and ride. The bag always got dropped off in the barn down the way a bit because it was only for show. Sometimes he would pedal so vigorously his chest would vibrate from the throbbing underneath. Ricky wouldn't stop until his legs turned to jelly, and there was enough of a stretch between him and the old man. Today he stopped at Bryers Creek and dropped his bike under the willow so he could listen to the sounds. The first thing to catch his attention wasn't the trickling burbles of water flowing over rocks and branches.
"I'm Abigail, but you can call me Abby." Ricky was so focused on catching his breath and dipping his toes into the cold water he never saw Abigal come from behind the tree. The young lady was a bit winded herself, possibly from carrying all of those heavy books lined up those lanky arms. Her long sundress extended below her ankles, barely exposing a pair of scruffy sandals only visible when she'd take a step. An oversized ballcap guarded her pale face against scorching in the sun while her sepia hair did the same for her neck. Visibly impatient, Abby introduces herself again and waits for a response after gently placing her books on the malachite-colored Tennessee grass.
"Look, I don't have a problem finding another spot to sit if you don't want me here. I've introduced myself twice, and now it's your turn."
Breathing heavily from the ride, Ricky does his best to speak, "I'm Ricky."
"Nice to meet you. I don't mind joining you at all." Abigal flips her shoes off, pulls her dress up a few inches, and slips her feet into the creek along with Ricky. After noticing his chest swell and deflate, she asked a question. "Can I touch you?" Before Ricky could answer, she placed her hand directly over his heart and closed her eyes. His first instinct was to pull away, but he felt safe enough to let her continue. Had anyone witnessed the two together, he would have indeed drawn back and called her a dork, but he was glad they were alone. Peaceful contact is new, and Ricky doesn't particularly know what to feel.
"Why do you have your hand on my chest?" Ricky wonders out loud.
"Shhh, I can hear it. It's the most intoxicating sound in the galaxy." Abigal's eyes remain shut, and her face lights up like she's five years old on Christmas morning. " A hundred thousand beats in a day while two thousand gallons of blood flow through it. I'd like to imagine this creek is powered by some magnificent heart somewhere. Just as the current begins to slow down, it's pushed through some mystical tunnel and forced out of the other side. Every ounce races as fast as it can over pebbles and down spectacular waterfalls breathing vigor into every creature and plant it touches." Abigal sighs, and her eyes open on her new friend.
"Abby, you sound smart. Why ain't you in school?"
"Well, I am smart, and I could ask you the same."
Ricky confesses, "I got kicked out for gettin' in fights. I never started a single one, though unless you count Willie, he had it comin.'
"I'm sure Mr. Willie did. What did he do? Steal your nickel for milk? Did he talk about your mother?"
"My mamas' dead, I believe. At least that's what Pop told me, but I don't trust a word that comes outta his mouth for nothin.' Willie tried to steal my bike. He saw me comin' and ran off. I caught him the next day at school and gave him a knuckle sandwich. They said I could come back after Christmas break."
"You promise you're not a bully, Ricky? If there's one thing I will not tolerate, it's a bully.
"Naw. I swear I'm not a bully."
"I'll take your word for it then. My parents teach me at home, so I don't have to go."
"You one of those rich kids, Abby?"
"Hardly, Mom and Dad both teach at the university during the day, so they leave me assignments. They check my work when they get home. I always do the math and stuff I'm not fond of the night before, then I come here when they leave every day to read for my book reports. If you ask me, this is a lovely classroom. Why did Willie want to steal that bicycle? It doesn't look like it's in the best shape."
"That's exactly what I thought too." The two laugh together for a bit.
Abigal reaches for her copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and places it in her lap. "My favorite quote in this book is, 'Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.' The world is unfair, and it always seems like people are getting hurt every time I read the newspaper."
"My daddy hits me," Ricky blurts out without thinking, wishing he could take it back. "I shouldn't have told you that. You don't wanna hear it."
"Why does he hit you, Ricky?"
"He says it's because it makes him feel better, but if he didn't drink so much, he probably wouldn't do it, or maybe he would, I don't know."
Abigal hands the book to Ricky, "Read this to me." Startled by her request, Ricky hesitates but decides to try even though he's aware that his reading skills aren't the best. Her company is worth any humiliation, and he doesn't feel like she'll judge him. Ricky spends several minutes on the first page, but with help from Abby, he manages to move on to the next. The entire day passes while the two read Mark Twain together.
"It's after three. I better get back to the house before my parents beat me there. Hang on to the book tonight. You can bring it back tomorrow," Abigal says.
"Wait, I'm comin' back tomorrow?"
"I doubt you have anything better to do. Keep reading; we have a lot of books to get through."
Ricky followed Abby's instructions and kept reading until it was too dark. He rode home, snuck inside like usual, and went to his room after grabbing cereal from the kitchen. Ricky snacked from the box all night, getting lost in the story. Abigal would give him another whenever he'd finish one book, which went on for quite some time. By the end of the month, it only took him a day or two to complete a whole novel. The kid read more in August and September than he had his entire life. Each day they both grew closer, and each day nothing mattered more to either of them than meeting by Bryers Creek.
"The leaves have already started turning. Fall is my favorite time of the year. I can sense the electricity of love bouncing around when I look to the sky," Abby mentions before playfully stealing her copy of The Great Gatsby while Ricky was in mid-sentence. He nudges her with his shoulder and smiles.
"Yeah, pretty soon it'll be too cold to put our toes in the water," Ricky mentions before swiping the book back.
"I hope you know how to build a fire, Ricky because I don't plan on letting you use the weather as an excuse to skip our class."
"It'll take more than a little snow to keep me from showing up. Abigail, I wish you could be here on the weekends too. Those days are long when I don't get to see you. I wonder if we'll ever get to go to one of those big parties like in the book? Like on a date."
"Well, sir, I doubt you'll ever invite me to a grand ball because you haven't even attempted to kiss me yet."
"Do you want me to kiss you?" I mean, to be honest, it's all I've thought about for days now."
"You won't know until you try."
Ricky leans in to kiss Abigal, and she pulls away. "I guess you don't want to. You could've said somethin' instead of embarrassing me like that."
"I'm kidding, you big goof. You should give it another try."
"Alright, but if you pull away again, I'm just gonna start reading." Ricky and Abby lock their fingers as their hands shake in anticipation. The instant the couple's lips touch, a soothing peace drowns any fear, and Abby's head finds a home on Ricky's shoulder. Right there, under the willow, the teenagers shared a first kiss, and it could not have been more perfect. Ricky clears his throat and reads from the book.
"No, Ricky, let's sit here for a spell and watch the trees change colors."
"I'd like that, Abby."
The pair sat in silence for about an hour then Abigal spoke up. "Do you have any regrets?" Before Ricky could respond, Abigail continued, "My aunt Chloe lived right beside our house up until I was eleven years old. She loved to tell stories about her childhood and how difficult it was growing up in her time, as she'd put it. One day I stopped going next door, and soon after, she up and died; just like that, Aunt Chloe was gone. I think about her all the time now and how much I miss her stories. It would be nice to hear one more. How about you, Ricky?"
"I used to regret never running away from Pop, but now I'm glad I stayed. My procrastination led to something good for once, and I met you."
"Look at you using all the big words. It's pretty incredible the difference reading a few pages can make. You're going to have to get away from your dad, you know."
"I'm thirteen! The closest relative I have lives in Oregon, and she don't want nothin' to do with me."
"You should try that sentence again," Abby insists.
"She doesn't want anything to do with me."
"Much better. We'll think of something, Ricky." Abby spends the remainder of the afternoon resting her head on Ricky and thinking about that first kiss.
After avoiding his father over a long weekend, Ricky can't wait to see his girlfriend. He hasn't officially asked Abby to be his girlfriend, but he has high hopes for Monday. It took him a little longer to get out of the house today because his pop was up earlier than usual. Ricky didn't want to take a chance on catching him in a bad mood, so he felt it was best to hide away in his room until Pop left for work. By the time Ricky finally made it to the willow, Abigal was nowhere in sight.
Pulling a book out of his bag, he started turning pages to pass the time. There was no sign of Abigail the next day either, and by Wednesday, the young man began to lose his mind worrying if she'd decided to forget him. It had never dawned on Ricky before, but he didn't even know where she lived. Several nice homes lined the road over the hill, and he never asked to walk with Abigail because he was frightened her parents would think he wasn't good enough for their daughter. "They'd be right to think I'm trash," he spoke as if directing his comments toward God and asking for peace. "I don't see one bit of love when I look up at the sky," he mentions while reflecting on Abigail's observations. Ricky never believed he was the best match for the girl who placed her hand on his chest and sucked his heart right out of it with her words. Damaged and defeated, Ricky hopped on his bicycle and rode away early.
The October wind picked up as Ricky approached his home. His Huffy glided over the dirt to the soundtrack of autumn leaves dancing across the road. Dust clouded up behind the back tire when Ricky forced an abrupt stop several yards from his destination. Blue lights from three police cars reflected off the cracked paint on his front porch. Fury choked out lingering despair to ignite an explosion of energy in the young man. Throwing his bike to the ground, Ricky runs toward the cops as they wrestle him to the soil.
Ricky shouts as he's pinned down, "What he do this time? Did he rob some old lady? Did he shoot somebody? I hope you lock him up for good. Let me go! I wanna spit on him!"
One of the officers encourages Ricky to calm down before he speaks. "Do you have anyone you can stay with, son?"
"I ain't got nobody to stay with; let me go!"
"You can't go in the house, kid."
"It's my house. I can go in if I want to!" Ricky continues to struggle.
"You're Ricky, right?" The officer inquires.
"Yes, I'm Ricky now lemme go, you stupid cop."
"Ricky, your father is dead. He shot himself about an hour ago. Neighbors heard it and called 911. I'm sorry, kid."
Ricky's body went limp, and before his mind roamed off into oblivion, one final sentence crept from his mouth, "Good, I'm glad I wasn't here 'cause he woulda' took me with him." The police loaded Ricky into the patrol car and dropped him off at the church about two miles away until they could figure out what to do.
The following morning Ricky awoke to the noise of the police officer from the night before speaking with a church volunteer. The muffled sound seeped through the wooden door enough for Ricky to make out what they were discussing, "Yep, it's a shame, alright. Poor kid never had a chance, but luckily we found out he has family out west. He'll be on a bus this afternoon, and hopefully, they'll be able to get him back in school." There was no time to waste. Ricky escaped through the window with one thing on his mind, to tell Abigail goodbye.
The teenager arrived home to grab his bicycle well before anyone discovered him missing. As he made his way down Farmer Road, he thought about his house feeling tranquil. Ricky only stood in the yard facing the empty structure for a minute, but it was enough to witness a peace that he never associated with those walls. Any other day Ricky could have ridden up and down that path invisible to anyone who happened to be in their yard. Today, the spectators stopped to stare at the boy on his bicycle as if to say, "That's the kid whose daddy shot himself yesterday." Concerned eyes followed him all the way to the willow overlooking Bryers Creek.
Moments before Ricky arrived, Abigal stood in the open-air classroom arguing with her father. "What are you thinking, Abby? That doctor clearly explained the dangers of over-exerting yourself. The walk down here is bad enough but carrying all of those books? Are you trying to kill yourself?" Abigail held her tongue while tears streamed down her face. Hearing the familiar sound of a Huffy dropping in the grass behind her, Abigail swings around in hopes of an embrace that'll make it all better, but her father restrains her. "Oh, I see what's going on. You've been sneaking off to see this boy every day." A patrol car arrives, and Abigail's father continues as the officer approaches, "Look at this kid, Abby! Is he even worth risking everything? A boy like him will spend his life in and out of jail, and that's if he's lucky!"
After a brief argument with the cop, the father calms down and decides to give Ricky a minute with his daughter. The officer explained that the young man would be out of their hair for good by the end of the day and shared the tragic news from the previous afternoon. Abigail's dad changed his composure completely and stood by the patrol car with the officer so the teens could have privacy.
"I'm so sorry for not being here all week, Ricky," Abigail manages to say before fully breaking down.
Ricky wipes his face and replies, "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another, Abigail, but you've always been kind to me."
Pushing a smile, Abigail responds, "And you've always been kind to me. I've never seen you cry before."
"No one else was ever worth my tears before I met you. Will you be my girlfriend?"
"I was your girlfriend from the moment you first read to me, Ricky."
"I need a promise from you right now. I know autumn is your favorite time of the year, and we can't let that change. We spent hours talking about how pretty the trees are and how you can feel love when you look up into the sky. The funny thing is I noticed you looking at me whenever you'd say those words, more than once. I love you, Abigail, and we can't let the chaos ruin autumn. The trees, the smells, and the love in the sky will forever belong to the two of us if we meet here again."
"That's impossible; you're leaving today."
"Then we'll meet here in five years from now. We'll both be eighteen, and nobody can stop us. That way, you'll smile big every fall and think of me."
"I'm gonna think about you every day Ricky."
"Well, me too, but I was trying to sound poetic."
Abigail grins and continues the conversation, "You did. You sounded remarkably poetic. I promise I'll be here in five years from today to see you again. I do suppose that will save autumn." The officer dragged Ricky away from the couple's tight embrace. Before the car door shut, Abigail screams out four final words, "I love you too."
It wasn't easy at first, but Ricky made the most of his new home in Oregon. He wasn't used to three meals a day and a decent night's sleep in a warm bed free of anxiety. His aunt got him back in school before Christmas break, and he managed to catch up in no time. Ricky took a job bagging groceries after school and on weekends when he turned fifteen. It didn't pay well, but it was enough to save for a car. His job, grades, and even the friends who surrounded Ricky were all measures to move him closer to Abigail. Nothing influenced the boy unless it propelled him into a life with that girl in it. Of course, his efforts also blazed the trail for a future filled with success.
Weekly book clubs, work, and filling out college applications took up most of his time when he reached his seventeenth birthday. The misery of his first thirteen years grew fainter with each passing day. Memories of the joy he'd discovered after the rain with Abigail took the place of the scars Pop left behind. The closer the calendar inched toward their reunion, the seconds stalled until weeks felt as long as months. Ricky found more to occupy his time, hoping to get distracted from the neverending wait. He took on a management role at work after graduation. Every dime went in the bank except for his two weekly paperback book purchases. After buying the car, he ended up with a few thousand left over, so he got the perfect suit for the upcoming encounter and still had plenty saved for the trip.
After a few days on the road and only pulling over a couple of times to sleep, eat, and shower, he passed the 'Welcome To Clarkstown' sign. One final stop to change into his dress clothes about two miles into his hometown meant he was only minutes away from seeing his Abigail. Ricky smiled at the friendly cop who'd helped him years ago after exiting the diner bathroom. The man didn't recognize the boy that grew a few feet since their last encounter, but he grinned back anyway. It took all the effort Ricky had to stop himself from speeding down the newly paved street before turning on to Farmer Road. He spotted a figure underneath the willow, but it was not Abigail.
"Excuse me, sir, you're Abby's father if I remember correctly?"