Michael tossed a rock into Crystal Lake. It skipped three times before disappearing beneath the murky depths. He went to pick up another, but stopped at the sound of a noise. He rose to his full six feet and searched for the culprit.

Around the water, tall bare trees stood, their branches reaching toward the sky like skeleton fingers. Interspersed between the naked branches of the elm and aspen were the fir, their needles a soft silvery-green and the prickly forest green needles of pine.

The small lake rippled, a slight wind pushing the water to and fro against the muddy shore. He turned, zipped his letterman’s jacket, and grabbed a blanket from the hood of his car. A little ways off stood a thicket of long yellow weeds, the strands bending in the breeze like bullied children. At the base of a gigantic tree, he shook out the large blanket over a patch of dried grass. The ground was firm, though it hadn’t frozen. That would change soon. Mid October meant freezing weather in Wyoming. At the moment, it was a beautiful afternoon and the spot would serve as the perfect table for the picnic he’d prepared his girlfriend, Cheverly.

With all the crap that went on in his not-so-happy family, he’d been surprised—still was—that he and Chev had been in a relationship. Somehow they’d managed and today marked their six month anniversary. As a surprise, he’d made a meal, put it in a basket and asked Cheverly’s best friend, Lori, to help him plan their date. On top of that, here next to Crystal Lake and their favorite elm, Michael planned to tell Chev he loved her.

In the past, they’d argued about it, the fact that he never said the words. It wasn’t that he didn’t have affectionate feelings toward her. He did. He even believed the feelings might be love. Most of his life had been spent keeping emotions at bay. At the ripe old age of seven, he’d come to recognize that expressing fear, anger, pain, or for that matter, happiness, joy and, heaven forbid love, only caused his father and then later his mother’s abuse to be more severe.

Michael had scars on his back, feet and a long, thin scar on his cheek to prove it. Showing no emotion kept the violence to a minimum. As for real love, if it existed, he figured that might be what he felt for Cheverly. He had no idea, but to keep the peace between them, he’d decided to tell her. Say the words.

Lori should’ve dropped Cheverly off already. He knew getting Chev to do something without knowing all the details demanded skill. Michael’d been cryptic today, during school, and that’d caused Chev to give him dirty looks. Probably upset and a little hurt, too. A surprise around her required stealth and he’d wanted the moment to be special. So when his cell rang, Michael felt relieved.

“Hey, Lori. Where you at?” He’d begun to pace.

“I’m sorry dude, but I can’t find her. I’ve called. Left messages. Texted the girl like ten times.  She isn’t answering me.”

He allowed his mind to run through the various places she could’ve been. Work. Cheerleading practice. At the mall. “I guess I’d better call her. Hope she isn’t too mad.” With his old, orange converse, he kicked a hole in the ground.

“Yeah, you know how Cheverly feels about surprises, though.”

“Thanks, Lori.” Michael hung up and dialed Chev’s number. It went straight to voice mail. He left her a message. Then he texted her.

“Happy Anni, Chev. Wanted 2surprise U.  @the lake nxt 2r tree. Com hang w/me.” He debated about whether or not he should add the words, those three words she’d wanted him to say for so long. “Might as well.” He spelled them out completely. “I love you.” And hit send.

He sat on the blanket and leaned against the old tree. A large bird flew overhead, calling out. An eagle. He watched it circle the lake, drop its claws into the water and pull out a fish.

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