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Lexi's Grove by Carrie Aulenbacher

On an unnaturally bright Sunday morning, a knock at the back door led me to find my best friend’s ex, Tyler, waiting on my back step. Hanging his head like a dog that had been out all night, he looked up to meet my gaze with an unspoken apology. I hadn’t seen him in four months. In a gray T-shirt and black commando pants, he looked ready to go on a wild safari in the jungle. I hesitated, her ghost hanging between us.
'Got a minute?' He asked. I thought of my morning ritual, but decided that, if he was going to show up after all this time, I could delay my breakfast a bit.
'Yeah.' I said. He pulled the lit smoke from behind his back, meaning he didn’t want to come in. 'I can be right out.' I told him. Grabbing a light jacket, I stepped out into my driveway. I felt I stepped back in time to the first day he’d shown up on my back step after a fight with Lexi.
The lit cigarette hung from his lips, curls of smoke wafted upwards through the air, tangling themselves in his sexy blonde hair. The bandana that held the locks back was simply a red handkerchief. Now clean-shaven, he seemed younger than he had in years. However, when he looked at me, a sage look covered his face that he had acquired from all he had been through. Her death had been hard on everyone, especially him.
He stood and held out his hand to me. I awkwardly took it, even though I felt I was somehow betraying her by doing so. We started walking back into the woods that surrounded the house. He’d camped out back with Lexi plenty of times, and we’d had bonfire parties before. But this was our first time walking back there alone . . . together.
I’d loved my house for how safe it had felt in the dense forest. He and Lexi had always enjoyed visiting because of the stretches of uninterrupted paths where they could explore and camp in the summer. I’d never minded sharing it with them. The dozen acres was more than I could ever possibly use all on my own.
Lexi and I had both been children that grew up in the country, so it was natural that, as friends, we would gravitate towards exploring the woods together. When Tyler came into the picture, we had invited him into our favorite pastime. But, for all that had happened, it had never been like this. I let him lead me, while my heart secretly fluttered.
I marveled at how insistently the shafts of sunlight pushed through the dense canopy of leaves overhead. Several different kinds of trees framed our path. After passing by the fire pit, he took a sharp right hand turn and headed south. I kept my eyes down to watch my footing as now I was heading into unfamiliar territory. It had been ages since I’d explored so far.
Deep in the forest, the trees themselves changed. The maples and oaks were filtered out and replaced with gigantic pines. The fresh smell greeted me and drew me in. I stopped craning my neck to see the sun dance through the wide arms of the pine trees to watch where I was going. I kept a tight hold of his hand while we walked in silence. I was glad I had grabbed my jacket, for, although it was the middle of summer, the early morning damp was cool to the cheek.
Getting to know Tyler wasn’t like knowing anyone else’s boyfriend. His strong nature was rivaled by his quiet way. He was a bit of a gypsy that came and went in and out of my life as Lexi fell in and out of love with him. But his soft spoken nature was attractive after being around other guys who never ceased in their chatter. All I knew for sure was that it was one of Lexi’s pet peeves; that Tyler never talked to her like she wished he would. I, on the other hand, found myself drawn to that reticent quality.
After a steady ten minutes heading due south, Tyler's pace slowed. His steps grew reverent as he began picking his way around dead stumps in the leaf litter. I followed suit, wondering where we were at. She had never forbidden me from exploring my own property, but I had always respected this area as theirs. It seemed that the very branches overhead held secrets that only he and Lexi had shared. Their time together had been rather private and I was wary of treading thoughtlessly on memories. Would she have been jealous had she seen us together like this? Somehow, the way the forest darkened around my shoulders gave me a creepy feeling as if she were near, hovering, watching.
The sunlight started to brighten ahead, and Tyler slowly came to a stop. His hand was loose in mine, but warm. Just ahead of him, beyond a few more stumps, a clearing opened up where a few spindly pines had been felled. Enough sun had been able to warm the spot for the moss to give way to tufts of grass and lush green bushes that were surging forth. We stood before the clearing as if it were a room we did not have the right to enter. This deep in the woods, there was even a bit of haze through the tree trunks as the sun had not burned off all of the dew from the night before.
I took in the height and breadth of the space, feeling the sun on my face as a shaft cut between us. A few birds trilled a sleepy morning song, but otherwise, all was stone silent. It felt like an ancient place, foreign to the friendly woods I’d known. It was as if we were surrounded by ghosts from ages past. I wondered how he had found it.
'I want to show you something.' Tyler spoke in a low voice that was respectful.
I met his gaze and silently nodded. We picked our way into the clearing. A yellow salamander scuttled off of a wet leaf and underneath the nearest log as I carefully stepped around his home. The birds continued to call out to each other as we walked slowly to the center of the area. The trees that had been felled were long since dead; their branches devoid of any needles.
He stopped suddenly and let go of my hand. I looked a few feet in front of me and saw what appeared to be a headstone. Tyler knelt beside it and picked off a few leaves that had blown against it. When he cleared them away, the stone spoke Lexi's name. Her full name was carved across its face in spindly gothic letters. Underneath the dates was carved:
I was speechless. The sun broke through at that moment and bathed us in fresh summer light. It made me shiver to see something so cold and final in an area full of warmth and new growth. Tyler traced the words with his finger, cleaning it. It was as if he was blind and was trying to commit the letters to memory. Although I knew it had to be new, the stone he had selected was not polished, but a dark worn marble, almost straight black. Unless the dates were erased, one would think it had stood there for a hundred years. He had even tucked moss around the edges to cover the dirt.
'Oh, Tyler.' I breathed, unsure of what else to say. He stood and stepped back a few paces. With our shoulders touching, we let the moment stretch out. Seeing something like that made her death fresh all over again. Finally, he spoke.
'I brought all her stuff out here to find a place to give myself closure.' He said. 'Everything she ever gave me is in a chest beneath that stone. I just needed a place to put it all so that it didn't continue to creep into every corner of my life.'
I imagined a chest of priceless treasures rotting senselessly beneath my feet. I knew it had been hard for them to not only break up, but for them to walk off on separate paths entirely.
She and I had met at work about two years before she’d met Tyler. The three of us had hung out so much it was like we were all dating each other. As things had gotten more serious, she had devoted more time to her relationship with Tyler and I’d been pushed out. However, with each fight, suddenly I was needed as a referee or a sounding board, and I would get drug back into things. It had been hard on me to be pushed and pulled through their tumultuous relationship. When Tyler had started coming to the house to seek counsel from me in his own way, I’d never told Lexi.
Keeping my tenuous friendships with each of them while hiding what they said about each other left me feeling guilty. I’d never made a move on Tyler, and he’d been nothing but a gentleman to me as our talks continued. He said he just needed somewhere to stop and vent while we kicked back a beer and tried to make sense of things. He was falling hard for Lexi, but as time went on, I could tell that she was just in love with the idea of love, not with Tyler specifically. At least not in the way she should have been in love with a guy like him. And I’d walked that fine line of trying to keep from letting my heart fall for him . . . in vain.
They had broken up the final time over exchanging a ring and taking things to a new level. Lexi was feeling left out of everyone getting engaged and wanted in on the deal, but again, it was the idea of love she was obsessed with. And Tyler refused on the grounds that he wasn’t going to jump into something until he knew that she accepted him for who he really was. She’d come to me, fiery and self-righteous, cursing his name. A week later, she spontaneously quit her job and moved downstate. She wouldn’t email me back or answer my voicemails.
We’d gotten word about two months later that she’d overdosed on something and her mother had found her unresponsive at her flat. Without an answer to my calls to Tyler’s cell, I’d never known that he knew she was gone until I’d walked into the funeral parlor. Slumped in the corner chair, his grief and guilt overwhelmed everyone. I was so taken aback by seeing him again; it was all I could to just to sit next to him quietly. We’d walked to the casket a final time together and had silently prayed with tears enough to have filled her casket to the brim. After that, he’d rushed out and dropped off the radar and I hadn’t spoken to him.
Now I finally knew how he had handled it all. He had buried it.
'I made sure it's water tight so nothing will be ruined.' He said, reading my thoughts to the letter. 'I couldn't bear to destroy our history; I just needed to separate myself from it.' He crouched next to me for lack of anywhere proper to sit, and I mirrored him to listen.
'I'm sorry.' I said, touching his arm. He gave me a warm smile full of understanding.
'I thought maybe you'd want to see this place and have some time to say goodbye yourself. Then you might feel a little closure too.' Tyler said. I looked back at the stone. Did he mean to dig it up so I could symbolically add something?
'But . . . ' I sputtered.
'Hayden, we went through Lexi’s storm together.' He picked up a stick absentmindedly and twirled it between his fingers. 'You were always there for me and I just thought I could—' He stopped himself, choking up.
'What's hardest to wrap my mind around is that...for how vibrant she was . . . that she's really gone.' I managed. He nodded, a painful expression crossing his countenance. He gave a deep sigh as his eyes focused on the headstone.

 'a love like no other'

'Well, yeah, in a strange way, for how close we all were…must’ve felt like you got dumped, too.' He said somberly. 'Felt like we all got divorced. I see now that I wasn’t the only one who lost her.'
My mind swirled as it clouded over with memories. I had enjoyed my share of times with Lexi. There had been times we’d gone shopping and met up at the club after work to let our hair down. As I allowed myself to go back in time, I realized she’d been just as big a part of my life as she had been a part of Tyler’s life. There had been two divorces, in his manner of speaking; two deaths.
I hung my head.
'I didn’t mean to upset you.' Tyler said. His hand rested lightly on my shoulder, his guilt palpable. I swallowed hard.
'It’s okay.' I said, my vision blurring with tears. 'I never told you all the times that she and I would get together and she would tell me things about you. I heard about all your fights and I saw that she wasn’t . . . in love . . . ' I lowered my voice to whisper. 'She wasn’t in love with you the way she should have been.' After that, I felt I had said too much and lowered my head to cry. I reached out and took his hand in mine, standing to my feet.
Pulling my hand to his lips, he kissed it lightly, his eyes so sad.
'I’m sorry that I never told you everything she said. You’d come over so upset and I held back things...if I’d only opened my mouth and stopped it before the engagement had come up . . . ' I said, feeling lower than the moss at my feet.
'It’s not fair for you to put yourself through all that.' He whispered in a dusky baritone. 'You didn’t do anything wrong.'
'I tell myself that things just didn’t work out. I didn’t want to force you two back into a relationship where all you did was fight any more than I wanted to force myself back into a friendship where we did nothing but sit around and crab about how much fighting you two did. It would’ve just been a waste of time. So I did nothing when I should have . . . said something.' Snaking his arm across my shoulders, he pulled me into a half hug there in the vast green cathedral of nature. The sunlight was warming the space more with every passing minute, promising a bright future for us if we could just put the past at the feet of the mighty pines and let it go. The moss all but seemed to say that it would soften and cover every sharp corner of every broken dream if I would just surrender it to the ground.
'You always try so hard to fix everything.' He said, kissing my hair. My eyes were locked onto the headstone as I leaned into his warmth. 'I know how hard it is for you to see this end – I know how much you wanted to fix it.' His words were kind, but they exposed a vulnerability in me that pained. My vision blurred as tears gathered.
'If I could just have gotten her to see—' I stopped myself in mid-sentence, shame burning my face. Tyler seemed to know me better than I knew myself at that point.
'Nobody was mad that you didn’t fix this.' He whispered. 'It’s not your fault that Lexi and I broke up.' I started to cry and he pulled me into a bearhug.
'She and I chose this. We don’t blame you.' And he hushed me there at the makeshift grave while I cried onto his shoulder. I didn’t want to be there anymore, I didn’t want to look at that headstone any longer. It was just serving as a sentinel that seemed to say that my time here was fleeting, and I had better turn to the living relationships around me that needed nurturing.
It still made me sick to admit to myself that I was feeling responsible for her death. But it felt good, deep inside, to hear Tyler tell me that he wasn’t mad and didn’t hold it against me that I couldn’t fix it for him. It felt even better to admit that I was finally enjoying his embrace, though I didn’t know if it meant anything more than polite solace from him.
'Can we go? Please?' My voice squeaked. He stroked a hand lovingly over my hair and down my back, slowly turning me away from the headstone. The look in his eye was of a new day, a new possibility. I felt something change.
'Yeah, let’s go.' He said. I almost wanted to genuflect upon stepping back through the tree line. I didn’t turn around, however. The sight would have been too heartbreakingly beautiful for me to stand looking at it again. Plus, Tyler’s hand was in mine, pulling me into the sunshine. Would he let me love him the way he should have been loved? After everything that had happened, I still clung to hope.

2 comments (Add your own)

1. Penelope Wallace wrote:
(Who is Kieren Taylor? I thought this story was by Carrie Aulenbacher?)

I think you are very brave the way you refuse to do a complex plot, but put everything into a walk in the woods. The backstory slowly fills up so that by the end we know everything we need to know.
The description is evocative and the story touching.
Only criticisms that there seems a little too much self-awareness, and the main character (like Eve) is a bit too nice and passive.
But then romance isn't really my genre!
Keep writing!

08/02/2016 @ 6:01 PM

2. Carrie Aulenbacher wrote:
Penelope,
Thanks for your feedback - how awesome you picked up on Eve's big flaw of passivity!
Let's hope Tyler is able to help Eve feel more confident now that they've addressed Lexi's death.
All the best for you this year - just remember - sometimes, hard things don't have to be difficult and complex things can be addressed simply...yet not all walks in the woods are easy!
~C

09/01/2017 @ 3:48 PM

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