The dust chased the racing engine of the small import as it labored up the canyon road. It nearly succeeded in enveloping the car at the turn-around curve of each switchback only to be left behind as the gears changed and the complaining engine sped up. Near the top of the ridge the car turned sharply to the right, coasted up a slight incline to a small level opening overlooking the valley below, and stopped. The dust caught up with its now silent prey.
They sat in silence and watched the valley begin its transformation from day to early evening. After a few minutes, he opened the window, sniffed the last remains of the settling dust, and then opened his door to get out. “Well, here we are at Lover’s Leap. Ladies before gentlemen!” he said, as he opened the door for her.
They walked a short distance up the ridge to a large boulder. It was level enough near its base to serve as a chair for her as they attempted to find from this viewpoint the location of their homes among the orchards, fields, and tiny towns that made up their valley.
From that lookout the valley ran for fifteen miles to the north and twenty-five miles to the south. Its boundaries were fixed by the mountains that surrounded it on all sides.
“Brad, does it seem good to be home again?” she asked.
“You know, I think a large part of me is still back there giving discussions. It was, let me see, just twenty-six hours ago that I left my mission president and his wife at the airport. The plane flew home in about the time it took to figure out how to open the salad dressing lid on my supper. When the plane landed, I was in a different world. There was my mom and dad, brothers and sisters, my dog Smart, and you.”
“Listed in the order of their importance?” she teased.
“No, of course not. I’d rate Smart above my brothers and sisters. But what I want to know is, where on that ride did I change from Elder Roberts, missionary, to Brad Roberts, college dropout? Should I have asked the stewardess to help me drop my former identity out of the plane?”
“No. I think that if you ask for anything unusual on a plane now, they just fly you to Cuba.”
“This morning I woke up at six. I was racing for the shower to ace out my companion and just got to the door when I realized there was nobody to beat. I was home.”
“So you decided to get back to a civilized way of life and went back to sleep?” she asked.
“No, I went fishing.”
“And how did you do?”
“Brad Roberts, do you mean you were skunked?”
“Zero fish. It’s the full moon.”
She laughed. “That’s what my dad says when he doesn’t catch any fish—or else the river is too high or too low or under-stocked.”
“My old fishing hole, the one I kept secret from my brothers, the one you have to walk down the railroad tracks for a half mile and then into a bunch of trees to get to—I went there this morning.”
“By the way, how is it that you took me there once? Weren’t you afraid I’d tell everybody?”
“You are so bad at giving directions I knew that anybody you’d tell would wind up somewhere in the middle of a corn field in Nebraska.”
“Well!” she said, faking insult.
“So I tromp through the trees and what do I see across the river? A trailer camp with maybe a hundred campers and trailers. There’s no fish there now. All those guys from California or Montana or some place have taken my fish and gone. You know, I used to get my limit in an hour all the time there.”
“Has anything else changed, Brad?” The question, as she had intended it, should have evoked a discussion of the new motel, or the new stretch of interstate highway, or the addition to the ward chapel, or the way his brothers had grown in two years. But a certain edge in her voice betrayed her.
He caught the uncontrollable change in direction. “Whatever happened to Cathy Miller?”
“Isn’t she still waiting for Brad Roberts to get back from his mission?” she replied.
“All this time? Good grief, she waited all this time?”
“The happiest two years of his life,” she teased.
“What was it like for you?” he asked.
“The easiest thing in the world. I just called up all my old boyfriends and told them I was available.”
“Really? I knew you went and joined the Peach Fuzz Festival just for publicity; you know, for those guys who may not have been blessed to have been born in our fair town but could still read the paper.”
“It was the Strawberry Festival.”
“Cathy, what was it really like?”
She thought a while before answering. “After you left, I imagined I could wrap my life in Saran Wrap and let it sit for two years until you came back. But it’s a sterile existence to try to stop living and watch the clock tick. I couldn’t do it, Brad. I’ve had a busy life since you’ve been gone. But I always had a little comfortable room in my mind where memories of you hung like pictures from the walls. I often visited that room and remembered how good it was when we were together. That’s the way it was, Brad. You didn’t want me to tell you that I cried myself to sleep every night, did you?”
“No, Cathy. I never wanted that.”
They had walked back to the car. The sun had dropped down behind the mountain across the valley from them.
He reached through the window, opened the glove compartment, and pulled out a small package. “Cathy, I’ve got something that I want you to have.”
She opened it up. An engagement ring lay mounted on a velvet cushion.
“It’s beautiful, Brad.” She spoke quietly, her voice nearly cracking.
“I bought it two years ago before I left.” In case she might not realize, he added, “Cathy, it’s an engagement ring.”
“I know, Brad.”
“Will you marry me?”
She touched his hand lightly. “Brad, could we sit down for this?”
The cold silence beat its fury on them as he helped her into the car and walked around to the driver’s side and got in.
“Brad, why did you do this?”
“Because I want to marry you.”
“Why do you want to marry me?”
“We’ve talked about this before, Cathy. We agreed we would get married if you were still here when I got back.”
“And so now you feel obligated to me for waiting for you?”
His words leaped out. “Have you decided to go into law, for crying out loud! Why have we been writing all this time? Why did you go to summer school while I’ve been gone? So that you could work while I finished school. Why have you spent so much time with my parents while I’ve been gone?”
“You do feel obligated to me for the last two years, don’t you?”
“You’re twisting my words! You do remember that you said you would marry me, don’t you?”
“That was two years ago, Brad! Maybe you can say that it seems like you just left yesterday, but I can’t say that. It seems to me like you left ten years ago!”
He was confused and off balance. “I love you, Cathy,” he said softly.
“Why, Brad, you don’t even know me now; how could you love me?” Her words seemed to hit him. “Do you know who you love? You love a girl that doesn’t even exist anymore—a girl with my name but two years younger than me. You go ask her to marry you. But she won’t. Because she loves someone with your name but two years younger than you. You wouldn’t stand a chance with that girl.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“That I can’t accept your ring. At least not now.”
“Is there someone else?”
She touched his arm. “You don’t owe me a thing, Brad. Most of all, you don’t owe me a proposal of marriage as a payment for waiting for you. I am not going to hold that club over your head. When I kneel across the altar in the temple, I’ve got to be certain that it’s the right guy for me and I want him to be convinced too.”
She handed him the jewelry box containing the ring.
“Am I still in the running?” he asked quietly.
“You are if I am, Brad. But with no pressure because of what we’ve talked about or written in the past. And not because our parents wish it. And not because of what it was like two years ago. You can’t save cotton candy.”
“You can’t what?”
“I was just remembering something that happened to me when I was a little girl. My father took me to a carnival and bought me some cotton candy. It was pink and looked like the clouds at sunset. I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When we got home, it was time for bed. I decided to save it so that every day I could have it and look at its beauty. I put it in a little box and put the cover on. The next morning when I woke up, I rushed to look at my beautiful treasure. There was just a lump of sugar and a sticky cardboard funnel. I cried because I thought someone had destroyed it. When I told my mother that I had wanted it to last forever, she said, ‘You can’t save cotton candy. If you want cotton candy forever, you have to make a little every day.’”
They took a long silent look at their valley. The several small towns could be seen as small clusters of light around the darkness defining the lake.
“Thanks. Is there anything else I should know?”
“What is it?”
A hint of a smile swept across his face. “Well, at least that hasn’t changed.”
“Watch it, fella! That’s no way to talk to Miss Strawberry Festival.”
“Let’s go to the taco place we went to before I left.”
“We can’t. They tore it down last year.”
The car backed slowly down to the road, stopped, and then in low gear crept down the dusty road.