The tourists left in September, the students started school, and the beaches were usually left empty on the most beautiful days of the year.
David could see the beach now, because the bus from the airport took the Coast Highway on its way to Pacific Holiday. The sand looked whiter than he remembered, the sun hotter, the waves wilder. Had he really ever swum out there, past the white wash, past the breakers, all of the way to the end of the pier? It had been almost five years, but he still remembered the way it felt, the salt in your mouth, the sting of the sand whenever a wave slapped your back. He must have been crazy back then.
He leaned back in his seat, wondering why the homecoming was so much harder than the farewell had been. He’d only been a kid then, hardly 18, ready to conquer the world. One year of college had sobered him greatly, and then he’d moved to Canada for a year to help his father in his new Church calling as mission president. It had made him enthusiastic to begin his own mission, and now even that was over, ended just yesterday when he’d flown out of Bogotá.
It would be great to see his parents. They never changed. The house would still be yellow, the gate brown, and even his car would still be there, outdated no doubt, but still the same car he’d spent his high school years in, either behind the wheel or beneath the hood.
It was his little friend Tessie he was worried about.
He pulled out his wallet and slowly pushed back the flap. There she was, just the way she’d looked five years ago, her brown hair a little bit messy after climbing a tree, her blue eyes looking almost ridiculously big in her little face. She was grinning, her left dimple showing, her chin held high.
Funny how a picture didn’t change at all in four years. He could look at her and pretend that things were just the way they’d always been. He was a teenage boy, she was a little girl of seven, and they were best friends.
They’d had their own special kind of friendship. She’d been the only person who didn’t drive him crazy back then, like parents who enforced rules, friends who talked him into doing things he didn’t want to do, and girls who followed him everywhere and wasted his time.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like people. He liked them okay, but he was a quiet guy.
It hadn’t been that way with Tessie. She was as awkward in her world as he was in his, new in California after being given to her mother in a messy divorce settlement. He remembered the first day she’d moved into the neighborhood, lost in the shuffle of refrigerators and dining room tables. She had sat in the branches of the birch tree between his house and hers, thin legs dangling, her big eyes solemn. His heart had gone out to her as he watched from beneath his car, where he’d given up on his drive shaft to watch the scene next door.
He had worked on his car a lot back then, where he could be alone and not worry about being the life of the party or what to say when the best-looking cheerleader in the school said hello to him. Tessie had watched him from high in the birch tree, never saying a word, just watching him work. It had bothered him at first, like having a shadow looking over his shoulder, and then he’d grown to like it. It was comforting to have her there, and lonely when she wasn’t.
It was almost Christmas when David had come home late one night from a date with Sherri Gilbert. Sherri was cute, and a lot of guys liked her, so when Hank had excitedly told him that she was looking his way, well, it had only seemed right to ask her out. He hadn’t known then that the movie would be boring, the hamburgers cold, and that she would talk about nothing but her summer in France with her cousin Louisa. He had been ready to swear off women forever when he’d turned the corner and seen Tessie sitting on her front porch, her head on her knees.
She’d heard the car and looked up as it turned into his driveway. He’d cut the engine and waited a few minutes before slowly climbing out.
“Past your bedtime, isn’t it?” He’d glanced at his watch and seen that it was almost midnight. “My name is David White.”
“Hello.” She’d lifted her head slightly and peered through her bangs. “How come your car’s always broken?”
“Broken?” He’d grinned. “I don’t know. Maybe I never fix it the right way.” He’d glanced at it in the driveway. It certainly didn’t look like much, one side stripped down to primer, waiting for its paint job. “Maybe if I had somebody to help me, I could talk it over and do a better job.”
She’d hesitated a minute. “Maybe I could help. I used to help my dad with his car.”
“Hey, I’d like that. I don’t suppose you have a name?”
“Tessie Tobin.” He’d thought he’d seen excitement in her eyes. “I’m only seven, and everybody tells me that I’m too little to do anything, because I’m the shortest girl in my class, but that doesn’t matter, does it?”
He’d hidden a smile. “I don’t think so. I like short people just as much as the tall ones.”
And that had been the beginning. She’d kept her promise and left the birch tree to become his first-class mate, always ready with a wrench or rag or sometimes just a glass of lemonade.
He’d never forget the day he’d driven the car home from the paint shop, so gloriously white that it glowed. She had been waiting on the porch when he’d rounded the corner, his horn blasting across the neighborhood. She’d whooped and hollered and raced him to his driveway.
“It’s beautiful! It’s all white and pretty, and it’s ours!”
“You bet it is, kid. Hop inside and we’ll take it for a spin.”
They had gone to the toy store, had bought a red kite with long white streamers, and had taken it to the beach. The sky had been filled with puffy white clouds and a crisp breeze that carried the kite high into the sky and over the waves. He had given her the string, once he’d gotten the kite into the air, and she had run across the sand, her bare feet kicking a trail behind her. The kite had faltered, then fallen, slow and steady, until it had dipped into the ocean and disappeared.
“The kite! It’s drowning!”
“It’s okay.” He’d picked her up and lifted her onto his shoulders. “We’ll buy another one.”
“Wow, I’m on top of the world!”
“Ouuff, you’re on top of me, fatso.”
She had giggled and squealed, and for the first time he’d realized how much he really loved the kid.
That had been a long time ago. He shut his wallet and stared out of the bus window. She would be different now, probably a pretty 13-year-old going to junior high school with a dozen boys calling her up. He wouldn’t know what to say to a 13-year-old girl, and she probably didn’t have any use for a 22-year-old just home from his mission.
She didn’t have the Church. David had always meant to tell her about it, but somehow the moment had never been right. He hadn’t realized the importance back then, not until he’d gotten that letter from his mother, the letter that had made him realize that Tessie Tobin was no longer the little nine-year-old he’d said good-bye to.
“… You remember the little girl next door, of course? She’s much bigger now and going through some growing pains. I’ve seen her with some friends that I’m not terribly impressed with, and a short visit with her mother further convinced me that she’s socializing in a bad crowd. Her mother found some cigarettes in her room and doesn’t know what to do about it.”
Tessie smoking? Little Tess, with her energetic enthusiasm for life, hanging around with a wild group of friends? There wasn’t a rebellious bone in her body, or at least there hadn’t been.
He’d never forget her first football game. She’d been so excited that she could hardly sit still, dressed in a new red sweater, a matching ribbon on her ponytail. His friends had fought to sit next to her, buying her candy from the concession stand. They’d asked her how old she was and where she went to school. Tessie had loved every minute of it, laughing at his friend Hank’s dumb jokes and cheering more loudly than anyone else when the game got exciting. He’d set her on his shoulders so that she could watch the final few minutes, then held her hand tightly so that she didn’t get lost in the crowd.
That had been the first of many games he and his friends had taken her to, and pretty soon she’d known everybody. She’d loved the football games best, but basketball had been fun, and she could cheer for Hank during the baseball season. David had occasionally taken her to the movies or the beach, and she’d baked him chocolate chip cookies with cereal in them, her own special recipe.
It wasn’t fair, the way it had ended. He hadn’t known when he’d left that he would never see her again. Not little Tess, the little girl who climbed trees and flew kites and raced him to the park. Tessie Tobin still lived next door, but she wouldn’t be the Tessie that he remembered, the one that he loved.
His parents were waiting at the bus stop, his mother crying, his father proud. Relief washed over him at their familiar sight, so unchanged, still as loving and supportive as the day he had left.
The town looked different, because Pacific Holiday was a new city, still growing and changing. He’d never seen the new shopping center before or the housing development behind the church. He craned his neck to see his high school around the corner, then held his breath as they turned the corner onto Woodside Drive, the street he’d grown up on.
It was as if he’d never left, seeing the house so much the same, except for the trees, which were bigger, and the bushes, which were thicker. His heart jumped when he saw his white car, glistening so brightly that he knew his father must have spent hours on it.
“The Jacksons still live across the street. He’s the first counselor in the bishopric now.” His mother was pointing out the familiar sights. “And of course the Tobins, next door. I think I wrote to you about them.”
David stared. The house looked the same, and for a moment he could imagine Tessie dangling from the tree or maybe eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the front porch. He forced himself to look away.
His bedroom had been carefully dusted and cleaned, a new bedspread on the bed, but his shelves were unchanged. He set his suitcases on the floor.
“It even smells the same.” He touched the dresser.
“We had a tough time getting the house back in shape when we got back from Canada.” His mother waited in the doorway. “The leasers changed it quite a bit, completely neglected my garden.”
“Looks nice.” He wanted to be alone for a minute, to open his suitcases and see familiar things. He felt lost, suddenly realizing that he’d been in another country yesterday, eating breakfast with Elder Collins.
His mother left him alone, and he unpacked his things. His high school letterman’s jacket was pushed to the back of his closet, replaced by his navy and brown suits. He was putting a sweater in the bottom drawer when he saw the Shell family, tucked in the corner where he’d put them four years ago.
Tessie had made them out of seashells collected at the beach, Mr. and Mrs. Shell and their four children. Their faces were painted carefully and had tiny pebbles glued on as eyes and yarn for hair. She had given them to David on his 17th birthday.
“This is a good family,” Tessie had said. “Mr. Shell works hard, and he doesn’t live far away like my dad. Mrs. Shell stays home and takes care of the house, and the four kids go to school all day.”
“What are their names?” David had touched each one carefully, feeling the ridges with his fingertips.
“I don’t know their names. I didn’t get that far.”
“This one is Butch.” He’d picked up the boy with the biggest grin. “He looks like a ballplayer, and ballplayers are always named Butch.”
She’d nodded in agreement, then lifted the oldest girl.
“I think this is Annabelle. That’s my aunt’s name. She’s a stewardess and flies all over.”
“Annabelle Shell.” He’d grinned. “It has a snappy ring to it.”
“And this is Rachel, the baby of the family.” It had short, navy blue hair and large pebble eyes. “This boy … umm … his name is Tony, like the boy at school who doesn’t know English.”
They looked old now, Annabelle’s hair falling off and Mr. Shell without one foot.
He shopped the next day for things he’d be needing now that he was home. The bishop wanted to see him that night, to talk to him about his mission and have a short interview. He drove his car to the church, loving the way it smelled inside, the way the steering wheel felt beneath his hands. The bishop asked him to speak in sacrament meeting in two weeks, and he accepted.
The street was dark when he rounded the bend, except for the Tobins’ porch light shining yellow across the front lawn. He slowed down, peering carefully, uncertain at first of what he saw.
Sure enough, it was a person sitting on the porch, just like Tessie used to sit. It had to be her. He slowed to a crawl and turned into his driveway. She had only been a silhouette before, but now his headlights caught her and she blinked in surprise.
Tessie! So different, and yet, so much the same. Long brown hair, big eyes, and she was small, so much smaller than he’d pictured the grown-up Tessie to be.
He climbed out slowly, wondering if she was as glad to see him as he was to see her. She was a silhouette again, watching him. He waited under the birch tree.
Her voice sounded unsteady, and for the first time he thought of how she must feel, seeing her childhood buddy all grown up.
He cleared his throat. “Is that you, Tessie? I hardly recognize you.”
“It’s me, only they call me Tess now.” There was an older tone in her voice now, maybe a touch of rebellion. He stepped closer and could see her more plainly, dressed in jeans and a simple red sweater, looking just like the little girl who’d gone to her first football game with him.
“I kept hearing how grown-up you’d become. I was almost afraid to see you.”
“Well, I am 13.”
“But you’re still Tessie.” He said it forcefully, almost as if his saying so would make it true.
She watched him, her head tilted. “You’ve been on a mission or something, haven’t you? For your church.”
“Yes, in Colombia.”
“Well, I have new friends now.” She looked away.
Could she really be like this, so cold and calculating? Could she have changed so much?
“I was hoping that you’d help me get the car back in shape.”
“It runs fine. You just drove up in it.”
“The clutch doesn’t feel right, and the brakes need adjusting.”
“Go to a mechanic.”
He stared. “This isn’t much of a welcome. I know that I’ve been gone a long time, but I thought that at least you’d be here, excited to see me. I guess I was wrong.”
He turned to go.
“Easy for you to say!”
“Where were you when I needed a friend? You just left, and I had nobody. You said that you’d be back after college, but you never came back, not that summer, not ever, and I had to find new friends.”
She was crying now, her shoulders shaking.
“Every time I get a friend, they always leave. My dad didn’t want me. When I wrote to him and said that I’d run away and live with him if he sent me the plane fare, he never even wrote back. You were a pretty good substitute, but you didn’t really care about me either, because you had college and a mission to think about, much more important than me. Well, I don’t need you either, because I have new friends now, and they’re a lot more fun than you ever were.”
“Tessie, I never knew any of that.” He sat beside her, put his hand on her shoulder. She pulled away and buried her face in her hands.
“Honestly, Tess, I never knew that you were lonely. I wanted to write, but I’m not very good at it. I have your picture, right in the front of my wallet. You’re my best friend. I need you.”
And she needed him. He’d been wrong, thinking that he didn’t have anything to offer a 13-year-old girl. He had a lot to offer, the same thing he’d always had to offer. He’d gone to South America for two years to teach the gospel of Christ, yet he’d neglected to share it with one of the most important people in his life, his next-door neighbor.
“Listen, you cry all you want to, but when you’re done, we’re going to the Ice Cream Hut for hot fudge sundaes.”
“I can’t let anybody see me like this.” She sat straighter, wiping her eyes.
“Then you can stay in the car. Hey, I’ll bet the car would love to have both of us riding around in it again. I suppose it’s been pretty lonely, parked in the driveway all these years.”
“I see it every day on my way to the bus stop.” She looked down, suddenly embarrassed. “Sometimes I talk to it, but not out loud. Sometimes I pretend that you’re home again and we’re working on it, like we used to.”
“But I am home.” He grinned. “And this time I’m not leaving until I give you a special present.”
“Present? What kind of present?”
“It’s another friend, a friend of mine who never leaves, even when everybody else turns away.”
She squinted in the porch light. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ll tell you about it some other time. Right now I need an ice cream sundae covered with hot fudge.”
She giggled, the same old giggle, and they walked toward the car.