10 months later.
It was probably a dumb idea. I knew that. But it was worth trying. Or, that’s what I told myself when I landed in Denver and waited in baggage claim for him after a red eye flight from California.
I looked around, looked at the people mulling around, waiting for baggage and hugging their loved ones. I ached a little bit. I ached all the time. I missed the Everett that lived in my memories. The Everett that lived now was in so many ways the same Everett. He still said rude things just to make me laugh. But he was confused a lot. I tried not to push him. I stuck around through his first round of chemo before heading home to California. Everett stayed in Texas, with his sister. She took him to his chemo appointments and to the gym as often as possible. The surgery had weakened him, but he was practically back to normal. His memory of me was still absent, and that stung a little bit. Especially when he remembered his life before me.
He’d called me from Texas a few weeks after the surgery and asked me if I knew Charlotte. His memory had left off being with her. I tried not to make gagging sounds in the phone, so all I said was, “Trust me, you don’t like Charlotte.”
Everett, to his benefit, was committed to me. In the only way he really could be. He called or texted me daily. He asked me questions and I did my best to answer him. He read the notebook where he’d written things done, so he knew a lot of things about me that the Everett pre-surgery had known. He’d made comments on the picture he drew of me on the first page, the one of my profile, my head back, my lips slightly open. I’d laughed when he made the comments, saying how ‘hot’ it was. Once in a while, I flew out to Texas to visit him, but there was still emotional distance between us.
To be clear: we hadn’t kissed. I knew Everett wanted to. But he seemed to respecting whatever it was that was holding me back. And the only thing holding me back was his memory. I was desperate for him to remember. I wanted that look he’d given me, the look with feeling. I wanted it more than anything. And I was still holding onto a shred of hope that he’d remember someday.
And that’s why I was sitting in baggage claim after claiming my keys from the rental car company. My eyes searched the crowd for him. His hair had grown out again, though he kept it shorter than it’d been when we first met.
I missed the long hair. I missed a lot of things. And I tried my damnedest to push it from my head, to focus on what was important. Everett was alive. And he was strong. And he’d listened to me, when I’d made my emotional plea before leaving him in New Orleans.
So when I saw him emerge through the doors into baggage claim, my heart skipped a beat. And I walked towards him, my heart in my throat and my eyes shining.
“Parker,” he said, holding his arms out. I went into his arms. This was my favorite place. He still felt the same to me, even if he didn’t feel the same for me. “You haven’t been hugged enough.” It was something he’d read in the journal, but each time he said it, a fresh wave of tears started.
I pulled away first. “I have the keys to our Jeep. You ready?”
He angled his head towards the baggage carousel. “I just need to grab one bag.”
“Oh, of course,” I said, motioning him along. When he walked away, I missed Everett the asshole.
Everett had written a lot about me in the journal. But he didn’t write about Picketwire Canyon or our tattoos. I wasn’t sure why. He’d written about the Four Corners, about meeting Mira in Colorado, about how I’d kissed him with feeling in Texas. But it was as if an entire chunk of the journal was missing. He’d left his descriptions of each time we’d had sex, which was embarrassing for Everett to tell me about. It felt like a stranger was reading about our more intimate scenes. But I tried hard. I tried to accept Everett now. I tried not to mourn the Everett who remembered me. But it hurt.
Everett and I met up with the caravan for our trip through the canyon. We stopped at the petroglyphs first. I watched Everett look at them, waiting to see if he made the same comments the first time. He didn’t. He just nodded and we returned to the vehicle.
When we stopped for the arch, my heart started thundering. I grabbed my camera and walked around the car to Everett. “Let’s go,” I said impatiently. I reached for his hand instinctually and he clasped it. We looked at each other and our hands for a second. Everett scrunched his brow. It was the first time we’d held hands since I’d left him in New Orleans. But it felt right, right with the moment. So I tugged him, pulled him along with me.
As expected, everyone clambered up to the arch but I pulled Everett to the view that meant so much to me. “Don’t look at the arch,” I said.
“You’re so bossy sometimes,” he muttered.
“Get over it,” I muttered back. “See this?” I said, gesturing towards the valley in the canyon, the river that cut through it. “This is the Purgatoire River.”
“Purgatoire.” Everett tasted the word and looked at me with confusion. “Like purgatory?”
He was screwing up my speech. It was very Everett of him. “Yes. The Spanish explorers came through here first and their men had a rough time, so they called it a version of ‘The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory’. And French explorers came through and renamed it the Purgatoire River, their name for purgatory. And then American’s butchered the pronunciation so they call this the Picketwire Canyonlands.”
“Slow down, Parker,” Everett said looking at me like I’d grown three heads. “I didn’t know I’d be getting a history lesson.”
I gritted my teeth. I wanted to yell, “You imparted all that knowledge on me, asshole!” but I kept my mouth shut and breathed in through my nose. “Everyone comes here to look at the arch,” I continued, using my thumb to gesture behind us. “But I like this view myself.”
Everett looked back at the arch and then at the view in front of us. “I agree. I’d rather look at this than the arch.” I wasn’t getting what I wanted from him. I grabbed his hand again. He looked down at our clasped hands and up at me again.
“What is purgatory to you?”
Everett studied me a minute, opened his mouth to say something but closed it again. Something was working its way behind his eyes. “A place to cleanse your soul before being admitted to Heaven.”
My heart leapt. “Yes,” I said animatedly. “One last stop before forever.”
Everett was staring at me. I couldn’t read him, but I wanted to continue. “Come,” I said, pulling him up to the arch. Everett jumped up on the ledge below the arch first and reached his hands for me, helping me up.
“Hey,” I called to a person that was taking photos of the view. “Can you take a photo of us?”
The older woman in her khaki hat nodded and took the camera I tossed down to her. I blew out a breath and turned my head to Everett. I wrapped an arm around him and took his hand and pulled it on my lap, clasping it firmly in mine. My blood roared in my ears. My heart thudded painfully in my chest. I put my lips to his ear. “Everett, look out. Over the canyon, at the river. Look at all of it. Look at this view as this woman takes a photo of us.” I squeezed his hand. “Everyone who sees this photo will see us, underneath this arch. But when you look at the photo,” I swallowed emotion. “When you look at this photo, remember the canyon, the water, and all the beauty in front of us.” I blew out a breath. “When you look at this photo, remember looking out at purgatory with me. While everyone else was looking at the arch, we were looking at that.” And then I closed my eyes. A tear slipped, reminding me of how I’d felt when Everett had said those words to me. The fact that I’d felt at all. One year ago, we’d sat on this ledge together and I’d fallen in love with Everett. I ached for that moment.
The hand in mine on my lap squeezed once. Then again. Then once more. Three times. I opened my eyes and saw Everett staring at me. His eyes were red, but soft. And his brow was furrowed. “Parker,” he said, with recognition. With feeling.
“Everett,” I said back. My words were strangled with fresh tears. Tears on top of tears. He touched my hair, slid a hand down my face, looking at me as if seeing me for the first time in forever, and then he cradled my face and kissed me.
I pulled back first and put my hands on his face. “You remember?” I asked, hardly able to see him through the tears.
He nodded, his thumbs on my chin. “Parker,” he said again.
I brought my hands up to his wrists and squeezed. “I’m so happy,” I said, laughing from relief.
“You’re laughing,” he said, tilting his head to the side. “It sounds so weird.”
I laughed and squeezed his wrists again. “You’re still an asshole.”
“I am,” he confirmed. He blew out a breath. “It’s coming back to me so quickly. I can hardly keep up.”
“It’s okay,” I said, wrapping my arms around his upper back. His arms wrapped around me and he hugged me, tightly.
“I’m so sorry,” he muffled against my hair. He ran a hand down my hair, a move that was as familiar as it was deeply comforting.
“Don’t be. Oh, Everett.” I couldn’t stop crying. “I’m so glad you’re back. I’ve missed you.” Understatement of the year.
His hand touched my ribs, where my Purgatoire tattoo was. “Why did you wait so long to bring me here?” he asked.
“I wanted you to be well enough to come.”
He shook his head. “Did you get the box?”
My mind went to the box, the one still sitting in the corner of my bedroom, unopened. “Yes,” I said, “but I didn’t open it.”
“Why?” he asked. “No wait,” he said, holding up a hand. “I get it. But in the box are the Picketwire Canyon pages from my journal. And the photos.”
“Photos, as in plural?”
“I took a lot of photos of you, when you weren’t looking. I asked Bridget to send that box to you. I hoped you’d understand the reason, and bring me here in case it would trigger my memory.”
“Huh,” I said. “I feel kind of bad I never opened it.”
“You could have saved yourself all this heartache, all this pain.” He brushed my hair from my face.
“I don’t mind the pain so much,” I said. “I’ve found pleasure in the pain.”
Everett smiled at me. “Good. It’s good to feel.” His fingers tugged on my hair. I smiled, a real smile.
“Smiles suit you. You should wear them more often.”
“You suit me.”
Everett hopped down from the ledge and put his hands up to catch me, as he had the first time. He pulled me to him for a hug. I clung tightly to him, thankful for the gift. Thankful for the Purgatoire River. Thankful for a text message that was sent to the wrong number. Thankful to feel, to be healed and broken at the same time by Everett.
“You’re cold,” he murmured. It was early June and early in the day, so I did have a slight chill.
“Ten below zero?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said, pulling back and kissing my forehead. “Colder than that.”
I laughed, pressing into him, into this kiss. Relishing this connection.
Everett pulled back and stared into my eyes, the way he had before. His hands clasped mine.
“Are you in love with me yet?”
I smiled. “Unfortunately. Are you in love with me?”
In answer, his hands squeezed mine. Three times. With each squeeze, he mouthed three words. “I. Love. You.”