Her mother's voice floated up the stairs to where Melanie was getting dressed in her bedroom. Another day of excitement loomed over her.
"Yeah?" she called back.
"Can you come down here for a minute? I need to show you something."
Melanie threw on a t-shirt and quickly ran a brush through her hair. As she headed down to the first floor and into the kitchen, a familiar form came into view, showcased in a pair of simple khaki shorts and a deep green polo shirt. Her steps slowed. Bryan stood just inside the side door, leaning against the kitchen counter as he had fifteen years ago. It was as if he had never left. Somehow she wasn't surprised to see him, especially when both of her parents seemed to suddenly be missing.
"Hi, Mel," he said softly.
"Hi." She felt self-conscious, remembering her hastily-clad clothes and disheveled hair. She didn't know what to say. "What are you doing here?"
"Your parents mentioned you would be home for a few days. I thought I would stop by and see how you've been. I didn‘t know when I‘d get another chance to see you." He paused. "It's been a long time."
"I know." Melanie looked down, playing with the corner of the kitchen counter. After a moment she looked up again. "Can I get you anything? Coffee? Juice?"
"No, I'm fine. I just --" He paused again. "It's great seeing you, Mel."
"It's great seeing you again, too." She felt like a gawky teenager, unsure of herself, butterflies in her stomach. She could feel the color creeping into her cheeks and knew she would be beet red in a moment. "Did you want to sit down?"
They sat across from each other at the kitchen table, silent for several moments as each attempted to gather thoughts.
"So how have you been?" Melanie asked, anxious to break the silence.
"Not too bad. Keeping busy. I started my own construction company a while back. It's going pretty well."
"That's good." She paused again, unsure how to continue. "Any --" She cleared her throat. "Any women in your life?"
She sneaked a look at him from beneath her bowed head. He met her gaze firmly.
"Not in a long time. I'd say no one serious in about fifteen years."
Melanie swallowed. How could she respond to that? "I'm so sorry," she settled with, her voice barely a whisper. "You have no idea how sorry I am."
Bryan began to reach for her, then pulled back and settled back in his chair with a sigh. "I'm sorry, too."
Melanie looked up. "But you have nothing to be sorry about. I'm the one who went and screwed everything up."
"It was a long time ago, Mel, and I've had a lot of time to think about it. We were both young. I disappeared for two years, and you didn't now how to deal with it. I wish things had worked out differently, but they didn't."
"I'm so sorry I hurt you, Bryan."
Bryan shrugged and looked down at the table. "I'm not going to say I wasn't hurt, Mel. That would be a lie. You were what kept me going those two years I was away. I kept your picture in my helmet, and every night I would pull it out and dream of our future. When I came back to find you gone, I didn't know what to do."
Melanie's heart flew into her throat. She was on the verge of tears, grieving for everything that could have been. Part of her wished she hadn't left New York, that she wasn't sitting in her parents' kitchen listening to the only man she had ever loved pour his heart out. But she needed to hear it, and he needed to say it.
"Look, I didn't want to get into this now. I just wanted to see you, to see how you were doing."
"As you've probably figured out, not so good."
They sat in silence for a few minutes, the sound of birds chirping filling the void. After a moment Bryan sighed.
"I'll never truly understand what happened, Mel. I don't know why you went away or why you didn't come back, but I never stopped thinking about you."
"I never stopped thinking about you either, Bryan." Her voice was hoarse with the emotion she held in. "I was just didn't know what to do. You were my world, and suddenly you weren't there."
"But I was coming back."
"And I didn't know how to survive until you got back."
They sat for another moment in silence, each lost in thought as they absorbed what they had heard.
"My parents encouraged me to go away," Melanie finally confessed, her eyes gazing back at the past. "After six months of seeing me mope around the house, miserable and depressed, they encouraged me to go to college, meet people, live on my own. I went, thinking a change of scenery might help me make it through the next year and a half. I thought if I didn't have a reminder of you every time I went anywhere or did anything, maybe it would help."
Melanie shrugged. "A little, I guess." She paused again, unsure how much to say. "Meeting Bill helped more, at least at first." Melanie looked up to gauge Bryan's reaction to the mention of her first husband. His gaze was blank, so she swallowed and continued. "He encouraged me to let go of the past, to become my own person. Little did I know he didn't want me to be my own person; he wanted me to be the person he made me become. I just didn't realize it until after we were married and I was constantly struggling to be who he wanted me to be. Life with him was no picnic."
"You should have married me, Mel."
"I know that now. But I was young and alone, and I didn't want to be alone anymore. I just wish I had known that being married to Bill would make me feel even lonelier than before."
"What about husband number two?"
Melanie met his gaze, surprised that he wanted to hear about her ex-husbands. After taking a deep breath, she continued. "Jack and I were doomed from the start. We were both trying to fill the holes in our lives, but there was never a real spark. After a couple of years he met someone and left me. That was eight months ago. I can't say I really blame him. I'm happy that he found someone he can love, and I guess I knew from the beginning that it wouldn't be me. I think deep down we both knew our marriage was a temporary fix."
"I'm sorry, Mel. I hate knowing that you've been in so much pain."
Melanie shrugged. "I got what I deserved, Bryan. After what I did to you, I don't deserve happiness. I'm not a good person."
"That's ridiculous, and you know it."
"Is it? Isn't that what the whole concept of karma is about? Getting in return what you dish out?"
"You've just been -- misguided."
"My mother says I was confused."
"I'm sure that's part of it, too."
"All I know for sure is that I'm tired of living like this, that it's eating me up inside. I need a change."
"Is that why you came back after all this time?"
"I hadn't planned on coming back. I just didn't have anywhere else to go."
"Are you going to be in town long?"
She shrugged again. "I have no idea. I have three weeks vacation time from work, but I don't know how long I'll be here. Maybe what I need is a real vacation, sitting on the beach sipping pina coladas, getting sunburned during the day, dancing all night."
"If that would make you happy, then go for it."
"I don't know what would make me happy at this point."
"There has to be something."
"The only thing I can think of would be going back in time and changing the last fifteen years of my life."
"I wish we could do that, too."
"Do --" Melanie broke off, took a deep breath for courage. "Do you think there's any way that you and I could start over?"
Bryan paused, sighed, and looked down at his hands on the kitchen table. "I don't think it's that easy."
"Probably not." Melanie took another deep breath and closed her eyes. "I don't deserve you, Bryan."
Bryan shuffled his chair until it was beside Melanie's. Her eyes opened, and he held her gaze, a flurry of emotions crossing his face. He closed his eyes, then opened them, reaching out a hand to touch her cheek. After a moment he leaned in and touched his lips ever so slightly to hers.
Melanie burst into tears, first pulling away, then clinging to him, holding him to her. After what seemed like hours, the tears slowed, and Melanie sniffled. "I'm sorry."
"How can I stop when I've screwed up so badly?" She blinked back more tears as she held onto Bryan's t-shirt, afraid to let go. "Every night I would imagine you were holding me close. It was the only way I could get to sleep. This is the only place I've ever belonged."
Bryan held Melanie, resting his chin on her head. She could feel him sigh, and his breath blew through her hair, bringing tears to her eyes. It was hard to believe she was here, cradled in his arms like she used to be when they were teenagers. It was as if she had never left.
"Maybe it's not too late, Melanie."
Melanie shook her head. "It is. I'm not the same person I was, Bryan. You might not even like me anymore. And after everything that‘s happened, I wouldn‘t blame you. I don‘t even like myself."
Bryan kissed the hand that still lay in his. "We'll work on that." He pushed his chair back and stood up. "I'm coming by later and taking you to dinner. Okay?"
Melanie could only nod.
"Okay," he repeated. "I'll be by around 7."
With that, he was gone, and she was left wondering if she had imagined the whole thing.