The Bridge Over Wilson's CreekbyPenelope Street©
© 2005 by Penelope Street
It's a lovely summer Sunday, but no one's outside. We're all gathered about the television; my mother, two of my brothers, their wives, and myself. All but two of us are watching the television. My sister-in-law Elizabeth is looking at me, mouthing the words of the announcer that I might know them.
If Mr. Cronkite's word is true as always, a pair of astronauts will soon exit their space ship and walk upon the moon. In the history of mankind, this is a big event, no doubt; but it doesn't hold much personal interest for me.
I'd be staring at Elizabeth no matter what. She has plenty of gray hair and more than a few wrinkles, but I don't see a woman approaching sixty. The image I see, though but a memory from four decades ago, is much clearer then the grainy black and white image on the television.
I see a girl not yet twenty, standing several dozen yards away beside a dirt road. Her dress is close to the color of her eyes, so blue they make the sky seem pale. She's a head taller than I am, lithe and muscular in the way of a farm girl. Her hair flows halfway down her back like a magnificent golden waterfall. There's a cute little nose and cheekbones that make her smile seem even wider, but she's not smiling. Her mouth is moving, opening wide. She's yelling something.
* * * * *
I grinned, seeing Beth's lips move, along with the muscles and tendons in her neck. She then beckoned with a broad sweep of her hand, a far more practical approach to conveying the urgency of the situation.
As if yelling makes any difference, I thought, my smile broadening. Neither did the hand waving, really; I already knew why she fretted. She didn't want to be late for our last day of school. I had taken a few extra minutes getting into my good dress and fussing over my hair. With a sigh, I increased the pace of my walk. Having over a mile to go, running would have served little purpose.
A melancholy gripped me as my eyes lingered on my friend, waiting there like she had every morning for the past dozen years. She had been my best friend longer than I could remember. Being the only girls in two adjacent homesteads, we didn't have much choice but to be friends, yet I always imagined we would have struck it off in the most crowded of cities.
As girls we'd played together in the mud, the fields, the woods, and even the water. My sadness departed for a moment while I pictured Beth in her chemise and bloomers, fingers pinching her nose closed, jumping from the bank into the waist-deep murk of Wilson's Creek
More recently, we'd slipped into being young ladies instead of girls, but this only made us closer. We'd shared our hopes, our dreams, and most of our desires. We had even shared our thoughts on which of the other's brothers were the cutest. We'd shared everything, or so I imagined.
We shared a smile as I arrived.
Beth reached toward my shoulder, lifting with her fingers one of my pigtails, and the bow therein that had consumed too many of the minutes I was late. With a tilt of her head she played the rope of hair back and forth across my chest. "Nice."
I gazed down at my breasts, a pair far too large for the ideals of the day. With my lips forming a pucker, I looked back to my friend. "Really?"
"You're the berries, especially in yellow."
My smile returned. "Thanks."
Beth glanced back to my braided locks. "Your hair always reminds me of chocolate." Cutting her eyes back to me, she bounced her brow. "Or maybe you do."
I tilted my head. "Me?"
"Yeah. You know, sweet."
"Thanks," I managed to mumble. "So are you."
"Well," Beth began with a sigh, "guess we better get a wiggle on." She turned and started to walk. I fell into step on her left.
We had walked to school together hundreds of times, thousands even, yet I found that I remembered not one of them. With a tear sliding down my face, I determined this walk I would remember. Little did I know how easy a vow it would be to keep.
Beth and I proceeded at a pace that compelled both of us to keep our eyes to the road ahead, precluding conversation. Even had we said anything, I suppose it would have been just chatter in the awkward fashion of most conversations when an unwelcome change is imminent.
Thus, in spite of my promise, I recall next to nothing before we reached the barn-like structure that was the bridge over Wilson's Creek. Beth was on my right, on the outside where she always walked; I could feel a car upon the bridge, but she could hear one much farther away.
My calves burned from the exertion. I didn't have a watch, but I felt certain we'd made enough time to justify a brief stop and the shadowy cool of the old bridge beckoned.
I slowed and turned to my friend. "I need to rest."
Beth looked to me, her features tight with anxiety. "What? We'ze already gonna be late."
"Are you sure?" I protested. "I think we're doing fine."
Her chest heaved with a sigh. "Ok. But only for a minute."
I dropped my satchel, then brought my fingers to the back of my lower leg, massaging the muscle. "It's not fair. My legs are so much shorter." My gaze drifted the few degrees from my legs to my pudgy midsection. And they have to carry so much more, my self-conscious psyche added.
Beth knelt in front of me and, to my surprise, reached for my other leg. She turned her face toward me, her habit by now. "Here. Maybe I can rub the other and we can be on our way quicker."
I nodded my agreement, then looked away, hoping she hadn't seen in my eyes how much I liked the feel of her hands upon my body. For some seconds, the whole of my consciousness focused on that one muscle, and my friend's fingers upon it.
I might never have thought of anything else had not Beth's free hand found my chin and steered it toward her face. "Does that feel better?"
My head moved in a nod. In the next second my friend's eyes widened. Her hands leapt to my shoulders. She shoved me upward against the planks of the bridge wall, before flattening herself against me. Before I even had a chance to think, an automobile flashed past in a rush of dusty air that was replaced in the next instant by the sickly scent of exhaust fumes.
Beth and I turned our heads in unison to watch old man Hill shaking his fist at us from the driver's seat of his tin lizzy. My heart pounding against hers, we continued to stare as the vehicle shook its way off of the wood and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Neither of us moved, except for our faces, these turning again to one another. My eyes wandered for a second while I tried to recall when we might ever have been so close. Maybe when we were girls, I reasoned, but never as young ladies. Young ladies don't...
I snapped my eyes back to her face, wondering if Beth was tormented by the warmth of my body in the same way I was by hers. The car was long gone, and the danger with it, but I could still feel our hearts beating almost in unison within our adjacent chests.
Beth opened her mouth. Thinking she would speak, I looked to her lips, but instead she leaned. My eyes widened. I inhaled a quick gasp, all I had time for before she covered my mouth with hers. My head inched back, but only for a moment. The next instant the pleasant warmth of her lips compelled me to lean into them.
Her taste was far from sweet, pungent even, yet I found my lips groping for more of her flavor just the same. This is wrong. This is wicked. I emitted a whimper before adding a third, more important, observation. This is wonderful.
Our kiss was over, like all things wonderful, far too soon.
Beth muttered something as our lips parted, but I couldn't quite see what it was. A heavy breath later she took a step backward. "We better go."
I nodded my agreement and we resumed our journey. Though Beth did not urge me onward, my legs moved at a pace near frantic. Yet something besides my calves burned, something a little higher. I couldn't quite identify what it was that smoldered so, but I liked it smoldering just the same.
For the remainder of our journey we each had our faces forward, again focused on the ruts of the road ahead that we might not stumble due to our haste. Thus I did not see my friend say anything over the next quarter hour, and I said nothing in return despite the multitude of questions fluttering about my head.
Seeing other students walking as we made our way into town, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed my pace to something close to comfortable. This respite lasted until we were two blocks from the lump of red bricks that was Darcy Public School.
There, Beth grabbed my hand and rushed ahead, dragging me behind her. I saw the younger children begin to run as well. Glancing up, I saw the bell in the tower swing once before I shifted my gaze forward. With a grin, I twisted my hand from my friend's and stopped.
Beth turned, her lower lip falling agape as she did so. "Vicki!"
My smile broadened. "We're already late. Why run? And who's going to remember in fifty years anyway?"
My friend's eyes wandered for a second before returning to me. "You're right," she agreed. "Who cares?"
Thus Beth and I were late for our last day after all. We should have been quite embarrassed, I am sure, but as we took our seats, I found myself gripped by other emotions.
My friend's desk was turned opposite of the other students that she might face me and mouth the words of the teacher, the same as she had done for the past dozen years. I would never have even graduated without her, let alone been the recipient of a scholarship. If not for my presence, I suspect she might well have quit school; she had little reason to be there other than to help me.
With Beth mouthing the teacher's words this final day, I found myself seeing her lips instead of the words. A fright seized my spirit.
How will I make it without her? Hundreds of miles away, by myself, in a city. Must we really part? Can't we...
"It's alright, Vicki. Don't be scared. You'ze gonna do fine."
My jaw fell as Beth's mouth formed those words. Looking up, I saw our teacher still speaking behind her. My eyes returned to my friend. I licked my own lips then nodded my understanding, though that understanding did not equate to a belief.
Later I would wonder if she mistook the source of my fright to be the speech I would give after lunch. In a class of but a dozen, we had no valedictorian per se; being the only graduate to be accepted to a college, it fell to me to speak for my class.
Not only was the entire school assembled in the gymnasium that afternoon, but most of the town of Darcy as well. Beth sat on my right, that I might see her lips and the speaker at the same time. I suppose I should have been proud, but mostly I was scared.
"And now it is time," our principal announced, "to hear from the young lady who is the source of much pride in our town. As most of you know, Miss Victoria Campbell has been accepted with full scholarship to the prestigious Gallaudet College in our nation's capitol. Please give her a warm welcome."
With my best smile, I turned from Beth to the assembly as they all put their hands to one another in applause. Stepping onto a stool so that I might see over the lectern, I paused to gather my nerves. Most persons are apprehensive when addressing a large audience; that anxiety is magnified when you don't have the slightest idea how your own voice sounds.
I know the girl that I was must have spent evenings working on that speech, but four decades later I only remember the first sentence, and the last. The rest is lost to history, unless I have my notes packed in a box somewhere, to be discovered by those who go through my things after I pass.
"I know you are all counting on me to do my best," I began. Part of not knowing how I sounded was not knowing if I was speaking loud enough. I paused to look to my mother in the first row and saw her gesture upward with her index finger. Increasing the force from my chest, I continued, "and I won't let you down."
Momma smiled. I did likewise and went on with my speech in that volume, whatever volume that was. I suspect I put the assembly through several minutes of the trite and flowery stuff that fills a young girl's mind before I finally shifted my focus to my left.
"And a most special thanks to Elizabeth Monroe, without whom I'd be sitting home today, and everyday thereafter." With that I stepped off the stool, pausing to bow to the applause before returning to my seat.
A few more speeches from the faculty and then all twelve of us walked forward and received our diplomas. Then it was over, all of it; and we emerged from the bricks of the school, students no longer.
I turned to Beth as the sunlight enveloped us, unsure what words were appropriate for the occasion. Far less solemn ones than I had anticipated, it turned out.
"Your back is all dirty," she said. "From the bridge. Turn around."
I did so. Beth proceeded to slap the back of my dress, and me beneath it. I flinched beneath the first few blows, but by the third I had begun to smile at the feel of my friend's hands upon my body.
My smiled faded when Beth moved a palm to each of my shoulders, urging me to spin and face her. Her lips were pressed into a line and her eyes glazed with moisture, just like mine. I tried to find those solemn words, the ones I had attempted to conjure before, but none came. We just hugged and nodded, then got into our family cars.
The two little Fords bounced along the dirt road, the Monroe's in the lead, barely visible through the billowing dust cloud kicked up by the tires. Only as we slowed entering the shadows of the bridge did I catch a glimpse of Beth, leaning over the back of the car, her face turned toward me. A few seconds later their car exited the bridge, creating yet another pale brown cloud, obscuring the one thing in the world I longed to see.
* * *
The next morning, I was up with the sun. Even knowing the Monroe household rose on the same schedule, my responsibilities precluded me from rushing to their home. I helped my mother with breakfast, then went about gathering eggs, feeding the goats, and tending to other assorted tediums. The sun was thus nearing its zenith when at last I made my way at a sprint across the field to my friend's house.
Mrs. Monroe kinked her head, looking at me through the screen. "Beth went out a half hour ago. Said something about seein' you. Figured she was done headed for your place."
My heart fairly bounced out of my chest as I thought of where she must be. "Thank you!" I cried, before turning and dashing across the fields in the direction of the creek.
Ten minutes later, I was there. At first I panicked, seeing the bridge but not my friend. With a hand pressed to my beating heart, I crept up to the edge and looked into the shadows of the wooden tunnel. At once I saw her lean form silhouetted against the sunlight at the other end. My already thumping heart beat even faster. Beaming, I broke again into a run. A second later, so did she.
I knew why Beth had come to the bridge. She knew why I raced to meet her. We didn't say a word. Our forms collided. I wrapped my hands about her waist. My friend's palms found the edges of my jawbone, clamping my head like a vise. The next moment, her mouth was in motion. I licked my lips once and craned my neck upward.
There in the chilled shadows within the covered bridge, we kissed again. This time, it was no accident or impulse. Our mouths tangled with one another in a chaotic ballet of passion, a dance neither of us had ever practiced yet somehow we both knew.
She sucked on my upper lip while I nursed on her lower one. I felt her nibble once, maybe twice, before she drew the full of my lip within her mouth and ran her tongue over it. Eyelids fluttering closed, I felt her adoration pouring into my body, warming my very soul.
A few seconds later, Beth pried my face from hers. My eyes flew open. My chest heaved both from the exertion and the excitement. My friend released my head and took a step backward. For a trio of seconds we but looked into one another's eyes.
With a swallow, I uttered the three words my heart knew to be true. "I love you."
Beth's face lost all trace of emotion. That middle word wasn't one I had had many an occasion to use and, for an instant, I worried I might not have pronounced it correctly. Then her lips moved. "I love you too."
My eyes still locked on her mouth, I stretched upward, my lips leading the way.
To my surprise, and dismay, my friend's head retreated. The next moment, her golden locks swirled in the air, following the rapid twist of her head as she looked first right, then left, before turning back to me. "We can't stay here. Someone will catch us for sure."
With that she grabbed my hand and led me toward the end of the bridge. I didn't know where we were going, but I knew she was right; it would be disgraceful enough to be caught kissing a boy without my parent's knowledge. Kissing another girl would be nothing less than a scandal.
We scurried out into the sun, only to turn and rush into the shadows again, this time down to the bank of the creek, amid the timbers beneath the bridge. There we kissed again. And again. Until several minutes later when Beth stopped and directed her gaze upward. My eyes followed hers. From the shaking planks above dust fell in a succession of cascades that mirrored the motion of the vehicle passing over the bridge.
Only when the old structure was once again still, did I look back to my friend.
"This won't do either," she declared with a sigh. "Do you know how noisy a kisser you are?"
With my lips forming a pout, I shook my head.
Beth apparently found some amusement in my expression, giggling before she continued, "We need someplace no one will find us."
I tongued my lips. "Where?"
Beth's eyes widened with her smile. "The pines?"
My own eyes sprang open. I nodded my accord.
Hand in hand, Beth in the lead, we hurried along the narrow animal trail that paralleled the creek. Ten minutes later we left the stream to climb a small rise cloaked by an evergreen copse. Beth stopped, looking to all compass points. I could tell by the way she held her head that she was listening, making sure we were alone. When she turned her head to me I knew from her smile that she had heard nothing.
I took a step toward my friend and she moved to meet me. I stretched my neck, expecting another kiss, but she brought her palm to my face instead, petting my cheek. Unsure what to make of her actions, I moved my hands to her sides and leaned into her form.
Beth's lips maintained their subtle grin as she moved her free hand down. Her fingers intertwining with mine, she pried my palm from her flank. Without breaking eye contact she eased our joined hands upward and clutched them against her bosom. A sharp breath expanded my own chest as I felt the warm softness of hers.
Her grin became a smile. She released my hand, and moved her parallel fingers to pet the side of my breast. "Why?" she asked, her lips barely moving. "Why did we wait so long?"
I shook my head. "I don't know."
"What if old man Hill hadn't nearly run us over? Would we have missed all this?"
My thoughts wandered to the bridge and yesterday, seeking the answer to her question. I thought of all the joy, and sorrow, we had shared in our lives. Sure, she had always been my best friend, closer than any sister could have been, the most important person in the world to me- but I'd never allowed myself to think of her in that way.
I blinked, and realized my focus had fallen to the rusty bed of pine needles beneath our feet. Prying my eyes to meet my friend's gaze, I shrugged. "I would never have kissed you first." I paused for a breath and a swallow. My view dropped those few inches to her lips. "But now that I have, I never want to stop."