The First Line: Change

Besides the Chuck Wendig prompts I do each week I also try to complete the prompt from The First Line each quarter.  The First Line is a journal that publishes four times a year and, each quarter, provides a prompt in the form of a sentence that is to be used as the first line in your story.  There are no restrictions on genre or form, but every story in each issue opens with the same first line.

I have been submitting to TFL for several years now and have never succeeded in being published.  I am at least zero for thirteen.  There may be more attempts that I have repressed forgotten about.  This was my submission for the current issue, which was due on May 1.  They didn’t accept it, so I can publish it here for you to read.  It’s a little over 2,300 words, making it the longest short story I’ve written in quite a while.  The first line for the quarter was “I wanted you to be the first to know,” Rowan tentatively confided in me.

The next submission will be due August 1.  I’ll give it another try and report back with the results.  In the meantime please to enjoy “Change”.

CHANGE

 

“I wanted you to be the first to know,” Rowan tentatively confided in me.  He paused, unsure of how to proceed.

Rowan and I were sitting in a coffee shop just down the block from the building where he worked.  He had called and asked me to meet him there after work.  He said he had some news for me.  Coffee always helped in those kinds of situations.

I gave him an encouraging smile and a “come on, tell me” sort of gesture.  I didn’t say anything; Rowan was pathologically timid at the best of times.  If you got too forward with him he retreated completely and disappeared until the next full moon, if not two.

He sighed.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I know I’m building it up to be this big reveal, but it’s not really all that important.”  He paused again.  “Or maybe it is, I don’t know.”  He looked like he was about to bolt.

I felt like I could speak this time.  “Hey, if it’s important enough for you to want to tell me about it, then it is all that important.  I want to know what’s going on in that head of yours.”

Rowan had been my best friend since the day we met in tenth grade.  His dad was in the Army and had transferred into the area when his assignment changed.  Like most Army families they had moved around a lot and Rowan, not a socially apt kid to begin with, never seemed to fit into our school.  I had first met him standing tharn in the middle of the English hall, freshly-printed class schedule in hand.  He’d had no idea where he was supposed to go.  I helped him find his next class—it happened to be my next class, too.  I invited him to sit with me at lunch, and the friendship was on.

More than fifteen years later, he still looked to me for direction and reassurance.  He’d never been able to make himself fit in, at our school, at college, or at any of his jobs since graduation.  I’d tried to talk him into enlisting in the Army after we got out of high school, but after his dad was killed in the Middle East he’d wanted nothing to do with the military.

That was a hard time.  We were slogging through spring, ready to graduate in less than six weeks, when his mom got the letter, hand-delivered by a couple of those guys in dress blues.  I’d thought they only did that in the movies, but it really happened.  Rowan had gone home from school that day and didn’t come back for a couple of weeks.  When he reappeared, his shell was thicker than it had ever been before.  He didn’t tell anyone what had happened.  If it hadn’t been on the news I don’t think we would have ever known.  To this day he’s never talked about it.  I think he wanted to, right after he came back to school, but he just couldn’t do it and he’s never come back to it.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not trying to paint Rowan as some sort of maladjusted misanthrope.  He’s normal, but he is the most intensely introverted person I’ve ever known.  He’s quiet, and he’s shy, and he keeps everything to himself, but that’s just the way he is.  I’ve occasionally been able to coax him out and see a side of him that no one else has ever seen, a bright, smiling, laughing man who I like to think is the person Rowan would have been if he could have grown up in a normal, stable home.  I like that version of Rowan more than I like the actual one, but I don’t see him often enough.

Now Rowan was sitting across the table from me in the coffee shop, hands clasped and squirming together in a motion I recognized.  He was highly agitated, almost to the point of a panic attack.  He had something to tell and it needed to come out quickly.  I’d only seen him this worked up once before, and it was when he was trying to make himself talk about his father.  He’d nearly passed out that day and I could see it coming again.  I reached out, intending to put a hand on his arm.  He flinched like I had slapped him and I pulled back.

“Whoa, buddy,” I said.  “it’s okay.  Take a deep breath.  Several.”  His face was flushed and his chest was heaving.  His eyes were wide and scared.  The man was terrified.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I said.  “Nothing can be this important.”

“It is, though,” he said.  “Something is happening and I have to tell you about it.”  He took a deep breath.  He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again without saying anything.  I started to talk, to offer what comfort or sympathy I could, but he held up a hand.  “I have to do this, Jack,” he said.  “I want you to be the first person to hear it.  It’s hard, though.”  He closed his eyes and sighed.  The next words came out in a rush, all at one in a long, unbroken stream of syllables.  “Imetagirlonlineandwenttovisitherandwe’regettingmarried.”

I closed my own eyes and went back through the torrent, trying to decipher it.  I thought I’d caught the gist, but couldn’t believe what my ears thought they had heard.  I opened my eyes and saw that Rowan was looking at me anxiously.  “Say it again,” I said.  “Slower.  Separate the words.  You’ve said it once, now.  The hard part is over.  Take a breath and say it again.”

To my surprise, he did.  He took in a deep breath, and as he exhaled he began to speak, words riding along on the outgoing air like a surfer riding a cresting wave.  “I met a girl a few months ago.  I joined an online dating service and we got paired up.  She lives in Shumate.  We talked for several weeks before we ever met in person.  Since then I’ve gone to visit her a few times.  We’ve really hit it off and I asked her to marry me.  She said yes.”  His voice was proud.  He smiled at me, and it was the most delighted, genuine smile I’d ever seen him wear.

I was stunned.  I’d never known Rowan to go on a date in high school.  He’d never gone to prom or homecoming or any of the other school dances.  Since going to college then to work I could count on both hands the number of times he’d spoken to a woman outside of work.  My mind was reeling.  Rowan had joined an online dating service?  And gone to visit a woman in Shumate?  They were getting married?  I gaped at him.

He grinned at me, loving my disorientation.  “I know,” he said.  “Can you believe it?  I finally decided that I needed to get out and meet someone, and I did it.  Filling out that profile was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but every step I’ve taken on this trip has been easier that the one before it.”

“Is this where you’ve been going the last few weeks?”  He nodded.  “I thought you said those were business trips.”

“It was business,” Rowan said.  “Personal business.”  He shrugged.  “I wanted to tell you, but any time I thought about it my old anxieties came up.  You saw what happened just now when I tried to tell you about it.”  He looked away from me, then down at his hands.  “I’ll be 35 in a couple of years, Jack.  I want to have kids, to be a father, and I’m almost too old.  I had to take charge of my life.  I had to change.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t have much romantic experience of my own.  I had been married once, a couple of years after college.  It had only lasted a few months before falling apart.  I dated occasionally—I wasn’t a monk.  I’d never had kids, but it didn’t bother me much.  I told Rowan this.  He shrugged.

“It bothers me.  I never knew my dad that well.”  His voice was so soft I had to lean forward to hear him.  “He was usually deployed and we didn’t get to see much of him when he was at home because he always had briefings and training and other military responsibilities.  It didn’t leave much time for a family.  That’s why I never enlisted after high school.  I know you thought it would do my self-confidence some good and it probably would have.  I just couldn’t do it, though; even back then I knew I would want to have kids someday and I wanted them to have a dad who was around.”

“You’ve really changed, haven’t you?”  I looked at him closely.  His entire self was different.  His posture was more erect; he was sitting straighter in the chair, not hunched forward like he usually did.  His shoulders were back, his chin was up.  He looked like an entirely different person.  Had he been like this for months and I just hadn’t noticed?  Or was it something new, something that had just happened when he finally broke through and told me about his new life?  I had to admit, I didn’t know.  I hadn’t been paying close enough attention.  To me he was just Rowan, had always been just Rowan.  Now, though, he was someone new.

“What’s her name?  Tell me about her.”

He lit up.  “Her name is Elle.  She’s an interior designer.  She keeps hoping one of those cable networks is going to call and give her a shot at creating a home improvement show.  She’s bright, funny, beautiful, and she brings me out like no one ever has before.”  I must have shown my indignation at that, because he laughed at me.  “You’ve always been able to draw me out, Jack,” he said, “but it’s different with her.  She’s more than a friend, you know?”

And the truth was, I did know.  For the first time since we had met I wasn’t at the center of Rowan’s world.  I thought about it for a moment, and I decided it was okay.  Rowan was finally emerging from his cocoon and becoming the person he should have been all along.

“Are you going to move to Shumate, or is she coming here?”

“I’m going to go there,” he said.  “She has a studio and clients and I don’t want her to have to start all over here.  I can get a job like mine anywhere.  Data geeks are a dime a dozen, especially in Shumate with all the companies that are moving there.”

“Sounds like you’ve got it all worked out,” I said.  I knew the cheer in my tone was forced.  I hoped he didn’t hear it.  I didn’t want to bring him down on such a momentous day.

He heard it, though.  “You think this is it for us?”  He scowled at me.  “Do you really think I’d let that happen?  You’ve been there for me for 15 years and I’m not going to just run out on you now.  Christ, Jack, you’re my best friend!”

“I know,” I said.  “I just realized that for all these years I’ve been trying to get you out of your shell and now that you are, I’ve suddenly seen the one that has been building up around me without my knowing it.  What am I going to do with myself when you’re gone?”

“Well, first you’re going to be the best man at my wedding, then we’ll see what happens after that.  If you can bring yourself to stand up with me.”

“You know I will.  I’d never let you go up there without me.  No telling what might happen to you if I did.”

He laughed.  “I need you up there to kick me in the pants if I freeze up on the vows.”

I shook my head.  “You won’t.  Strange newly confident alien Rowan will never freeze up, especially on his wedding day.”  I put a solemn look on my face that was belied by the twinkle in my eye.

Rowan saw it and knew what it meant.  We couldn’t allow things to get too sentimental, even now, or we’d both fall apart.  “That’s true, I think,” he said, softly.  “I don’t think I’ll ever freeze up again.  She’s changed me.  You tried for all those years, Jack, but she’s the one who finally did it once and for all.”

“You’re my brother, Rowan, and I love you, but her love trumps that.  That’s the kind of love that brings down walls.”

He smiled, and stood.  He looked around.  “I have to go,” he said.  I told Elle I’d Skype her at 7:30.”

“Give her my love,” I said, “and tell her thank you from me for everything she’s done for you.”

“I will.  Man, I can’t wait for you to meet her.  Now that you know about her she will come here and visit me.  She wanted to wait until you knew before she came.  She didn’t want it to be a surprise when you met her for the first time.  I’ll try to get her down here this weekend.”

“Probably a good idea,” I said.  “That way her first impression of me won’t be my jaw dropping to the floor.”  I laughed.  “I hope she comes, Rowan.  I want to meet her.”  I stepped around the table and embraced him.  He hugged me back and we pounded each other on the back, bro-style.  “I love you, brother,” I told him, “and I am so happy for you.”

We separated and he waved as he headed out the door.  I sat back down to finish my coffee.  I thought for a moment then pulled out my phone.  I opened the app store and typed in “dating services.”  If it worked for Rowan, I thought, maybe it’ll work for me too.  I found the one that he had used, and clicked “Install.”

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