Chapter 1 : Waiting
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July 22nd, 1980
Cicadas chirruped in the trees, an unrelenting chorus on this sweltering, humid afternoon. A young man sat hunched on the edge of a long wooden dock, his legs dangling freely over the side and his face peering below into his rippling mirror image. He wasn’t paying any attention to his choppy reflection, the blurry strokes reminiscent of an Impressionist painting; and he paid no mind to the scenery or the mosquitoes buzzing greedily about his ears. The invigorating fumes of cedar and pine drifting through the dense branches completely escaped his notice; he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t smell – he could barely see because of the toil of emotions coursing through his brain.
Wesley was single-minded, only able to concentrate on his own anxiety and how the lack of action was making him insane and fidgety. He considered peeling his sticky shirt off and jumping into the lake, but of course he must suppress those urges. She would be coming any moment now – hopefully – and it wouldn’t do for him to be bobbing around in the stagnant, algae-infested water when she arrived.
He inhaled deep breaths of sultry air through his nostrils, shaky and nervous. Beads of cool, clammy sweat glistened on his forehead and he squinted through the forest for any imaginary glimpses of her auburn hair, or any sign that she was going to come at all. At this point, it was anyone’s guess as to whether she would show. He straightened his posture, wanting to give a decent first impression and hoping he didn’t stink like summer heat.
A warm breeze skimmed over the lake, rolling toward him slowly as though weighed down by the muggy moisture. He felt like he could taste it – could probably drink it, the water was so thick in the atmosphere. As hot as it was and as feverish as he felt, he couldn’t convince his body to make up its mind in temperature; he was certain that with these chills electrifying his spine in response to every snapping of twigs in the forest, or the occasional splash from the lazy leap of a fish, he was going to have a stroke. His stomach churned and clenched sporadically – it clenched so tightly that he could practically feel each pointed rib digging into his intestines.
Yes, Wesley Meadowes was almost definitely going to have a stroke and keel head-first into the water, and no one would ever know what happened to him. She would come by, perhaps, and see nothing but bubbles prickling along the dark liquid surface. And she would leave without warning – he would miss her. He could not miss her.
She had to come. They met here every year. It would be torture in the worst way if he couldn’t view her lovely face when he was so eagerly anticipating it…if he didn’t get to see her for just a few moments before she disappeared back into the forest, ignoring him once more.
He ran a hand through his dark hair, damp with perspiration, and hoped his face wasn’t flushed. Where was she, anyway? He’d been waiting for at least ten minutes. She knew the place and the time better than anyone, better than Wesley himself. This was where he fell in love with her, and it seemed fitting that they visit this location annually. They’d first met in her grandmother’s summer house just up the hill behind him, with her friends Marlene and Alice. They weren’t supposed to be using the summer house; her parents would have had a cow if they’d found out she wasn’t at Marlene’s like she said she was.
Frank Longbottom had invited Wesley along since Wes was staying at his place over the break. Neither of them had known any of the girls that well besides Alice, and Wes was hesitant to tag along. And once again, he found himself falling prey to Frank’s schemes that usually turned out badly. Frank was determined to make Alice Parrington his girlfriend, and Wes supposed he was just going to have to deal with it while they were all flocked together for a whole week in July.
“What’s your name?” she asked, looking up at him in a curious sort of way. Her unabashed staring made him feel doubly nervous; he wished she would blink a little, or at least break eye contact every so often and look at something else. Her brown eyes seemed to sparkle in the sunlight, and her skin was bronzer than he remembered, smattered with freckles on her shoulders and across the bridge of her nose. “You’re in Slytherin, right?”
“Yeah.” He hoped she wouldn’t hold this against him, being in Gryffindor herself. Their Houses were rivals to the extreme, and some of the kids took it a bit too far, avoiding each other and sometimes even being outwardly nasty. “I’m Wesley, or Wes, or whatever.” Merlin, he sounded so stupid, and he felt suddenly very awkward and gangling, his limbs distorting in his mind to resemble that of a gorilla. He was certain that her attention must be zeroing in on his too-large hands and feet, and their disproportion to the rest of his teenage body. “I mean, my friends call me Wes. Only my mother calls me Wesley, usually.” He couldn’t believe he was actually talking about his mother. How utterly smooth.
There was a pause and he watched her ponder that thoughtfully, her gaze flitting out over the lake. He wondered if he’d blown his chances with the pretty girl, if he’d even had a chance to begin with. “I’m going to call you Western, and you can call me Dory,” she replied at long last. And then she turned to face him again, her auburn curls swinging over her sun-kissed shoulders, and she smiled brilliantly. He wasn’t sure what to make of the girl, but her expression captivated him. “Want to go for a swim? I’ll race you.”
The cicadas were stirring wildly now, taunting him. They had lounged together on this splintery dock side-by-side for the past seven summers, always on the twenty-second day of July. Would she break tradition now? Wesley was so deeply in love with her, he believed his heart would crack right down the middle if she didn’t make an appearance. He’d been waiting all summer for today; he needed this like oxygen. More than he needed oxygen. It was his last chance.
He desperately wanted to tell her that he loved her. He needed to press his hands on either side of her face and linger by this woodsy lake for eternity, holding her and staring into her warm brown eyes, seeing himself in them. He needed her to listen to him just this once. It was like bargaining with some unseen, mysterious deity. Wesley swallowed a lump in his throat and drummed his fingers on the grainy wood. If she comes, I’ll never be dissatisfied about anything ever again. If she comes, just this once, that’s all I’ll need.
A finch trilled from somewhere in the massive oak towering high above them, and Dory tilted her head back, closing her eyes. “Greenfinches are my very favorite birds,” she commented serenely. “I used to stay here every year when my grandparents were alive, and listen to them sing outside my window at night. It was magical.”
Wesley stared at her, unsure of what to say. Dory seemed so…candid…so unfiltered in what she said. Whatever was in her head flew right out her mouth, and she was never embarrassed by it. This trait kind of intimidated him and mesmerized him at the same time, and he couldn’t do much besides gawk at her. Dory didn’t seem to notice; her eyes were still closed, and she was smiling in a dreamy way. It was just her and the birds. Wes might not have even been there at all.
After what felt like an endless period of time, he began to wonder if Dory had fallen asleep, propped up against the trunk of the tree with her head lolled back, one cheek grazing the rough bark. Should he wake her? Ask her if she wanted to go inside and join the others? He didn’t really want to leave, though. He thought he could sit under that tree with her all night and not grow bored, even if his company was asleep.
“You don’t have much patience with nature, Western,” she spoke out of nowhere, and he blinked his eyes in surprise, sitting up a little straighter. His mother had always told him that his posture was atrocious. “I can practically hear your mind buzzing. You don’t even hear the birds, do you?”
And he didn’t. He only heard her.
The hours ticked by slowly. The sun was beginning to blaze a fiery red, settling low between two mountains; and yet, here Wesley sat. He was not willing to believe that Dory would stand him up. The past year had been tumultuous, sure, but he thought that certainly she would still uphold their yearly ritual. Or perhaps she just forgot?
He slapped away a mosquito, realizing long after the itchy, swollen bump cropped up on his elbow that he was serving as a twilight snack. Wesley wiped the balmy moisture from his forehead and the scratchy stubble on his chin where sweat always beaded like dew on a spiderweb, straining his vision to see into the swiftly darkening woods. No loud pops of apparition, no whistles of wind in a broomstick’s twigs. At that moment, Wesley was the only person in the world, lonely and forgotten on the edge of a dock at some woman’s summer home in the wilderness. The girl from long ago, before she grew into a woman, seemed to ghost along the bank. Right out of Wesley’s hazy memory, there she was – skinny, all legs, running around and doing everything just as good as any boy. Better, in fact.
In his mind, the freckled girl would wander over to where the willow twists out of the bank, her forehead and nose glowing silvery under the narrow crescent moon while her other features were thrown into shadow. She would swing her arms, digging her toes into the soft earth, and then swivel her head from right to left, seeing if anyone else was around. And then quick as a flash, she’d strip down to her underclothes and dive into the coal-black chasm of water, an exhilarated smile washing over her face. Dory was never more alive than when she was in the water. He was always halfway expecting for her to begin spouting Mermish out of the blue and grow fins, disappearing under the lake and never surfacing again.
Memories of this lake flowed in a steady current before his eyes. He could see the steam rising from it on the foggiest and darkest of nights, peering through the thick glass from Dory’s bedroom window. He could envision Dory slicing through the calm waves under pale moonlight, doing a back-stroke as nice as you please from one bank to the other. He saw the two of them sauntering endlessly around the shore in circles, plucking flowers and tossing their petals one by one into its uneasy black depths. There had been bonfires and hiking trips, and fishing in the ice-cold rain.
He wasn’t as awestruck about the outdoors as Dory was. He didn’t admire the way sunset bathed the lake in scarlet, fiery orange, and blinding canary yellow hues. He didn’t smile dazedly at the clouds or reminisce about orchestras of crickets. Constellations in the night sky were beyond him, lost to the stars in Dory’s eyes. When she watched everything else, he reveled only in watching her. They were made for each other in this way, functioning perfectly in a completely backwards manner. Wesley didn’t have to watch his own step because he could judge his movements based on Dory’s expressions, by the arch of an eyebrow or the twitch of a mischievous smile. He lived through her, the center of his universe. It was like some warped phenomenon of gravity.
It was absolutely unbearable that she didn’t show up. He knew the date was correct – he’d circled it on his calendar with bright red ink from an ostrich feather quill. It was the quill he used solely for the most important things. Letters to Dory, letters mentioning Dory, writing in his old leather-bound journal about Dory. Always Dory.
“I love you,” she whispered, pecking him on the nose with a light kiss. His eyes were blazing, delighting in those words. He’d heard them tumbling from her mouth thousands of times before, but today it was different. Today she’d spoken them as his wife.
“I love you, too,” he answered. His soon-to-be mother-in-law was making her way over to them, holding a plate of wedding cake high over her head while she snaked between the guests. Her eyes were brimming with tears, always the most emotional of Dory’s family when it came to weddings, births, or funerals.
Before her mother could wade into earshot, Dory leaned forward, squeezing Wesley’s hand with two delicate fingers. She was so close, he could make out every scattered freckle on her cheeks. He wanted to kiss her all over. “You promise?” she asked. It sounded so urgent, and he knit his eyebrows. It seemed strange for her to reply that way. Of course he promised. Why would he say it if he didn’t promise? Why would he marry her if he wasn’t going to love her for the rest of his life?
She was looking fretful now, and he pressed his lips to her forehead. “I promise.”
Wesley stared out into the forest, his red-rimmed eyes somewhat misted over. His throat felt sore, raw with words he hadn’t been able to speak to her today, on their day. She hadn’t come. She wasn’t here. And yet, he could feel her eyes on him. Always, wherever he went – and especially here – his skin tingled under her beautiful brown gaze. The intensity burned him through and through. He knew all along, of course, that she would never have shown up. Hurricanes couldn’t pry her from him – not friends, not relatives, not a snowstorm or a monsoon. The only thing that would ever force Dory to keep her lover lonely and waiting on the dock on this day of all days, was death. And Dorcas Meadowes had been lying in a coffin under the earth for a year.
He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had personally taken her from him.
Wesley’s arms would be perpetually cold without her in them. The crook of his arm felt empty at night, the hollowness ripping through his heart like shards of glass. Right there, draped over his arm, was where her neck was supposed to curve as she slept. They would get tangled up in each other, breathing peacefully because even in their unconscious states they were aware of each others’ presence.
Wes had taken to lining pillows on the space where his wife used to lay, attempting to fill up that wide, aching hole. But no matter what, she was never coming back. He cooked meals for one. He sat at the kitchen table by himself night after night under the dusty kitchen lamplight, staring without seeing at the patterns on the wallpaper. And he slept alone. Always alone. The pain rose from the pit of his stomach, sliding up his throat until he could ignore it no longer.
Closing his eyes, Wes choked out a sob. The cicadas’ melody seemed to skip for a few beats – or maybe he was just imagining it – and his eyes stung behind their lids. It was agony, being here. But he had to come; it was their day, and their place. And as long as his own heart continued to tauntingly pound away in its ribcage, he would always be here on this dock on the twenty-second of June. He would forever wait for the lover who would never show, would never sit by his side ever again.
Wesley rubbed his hands together, feeling the silver band on his ring finger chafe against the sweaty calluses on his right palm. It was a harsh reality, but she was not coming for him tonight. He stood to his feet, pushing back the thoughts of his wedding ring and the engraving ‘Dory and Western Forever’. He made his way with unsteady legs over to the tent he pitched under Dory’s favorite tree. And just for her, he stayed awake well into the night, staring at the red fabric of the tent and listening to the birds singing to each other from clandestine perches above. The birds knew what day it was, and it wasn’t difficult to believe that Dory was singing sweetly to him through them, smiling as she did so.
In the morning, it would be three-hundred and sixty-four days until he would hear Dory’s song again.