He was here again.
Levi. This boy in my class.
He was the silent and dangerous kind. The kind of boy they told you to stay away from, but sneak out to be with. Or so they say.
He was savagely beautiful, and the rare times when our eyes met in class, the devilish intensity in his whiskey brown eyes made me want to step back for fear of getting burned.
He was often alone, but I had a feeling he preferred it that way. I couldn't blame him. In a small town, everyone knew everyone's business. Everyone knew his father was a drunk.
Everyone knew Levi had a rough childhood.
"You guys are back," Mr. Lock said, handing me my ticket. "Dunno why y'all keep coming back every week to this zoo. Folks go to the new zoo now. 'Sides, there are no more animals here except the buffalos."
I smiled at him and searched my backpack for my wallet. Oh no... I'd forgotten it.
"Reckon we'll close the zoo tomorrow. For good," he continued. "Gonna demolish it, I heard."
"You gonna pay?" he asked impatiently.
Close the zoo.
An image of two little girls on an old swinging bridge played in my head. A huge sign in big bold letters: DO NOT ENTER.
Race you, Lizzie!
Running, giggling. Best day ever. Horrific sounds of wood breaking. Terrified screams. Darkness.
"I got it," a deep male voice said behind me.
I blinked, and the image disappeared. Levi stood in front of me, his eyes searching my face. I saw two tickets in his hand and realized he'd paid for mine.
"I'll pay you back," I said, embarrassed.
"Don't worry about it," he said and walked away.
"Wait!" I ran after him. He was tall, his long legs eating up the ground faster than mine could. "Oof!"
The air whooshed out of me as he stopped abruptly and turned, our bodies colliding with each other. His arm snaked around my waist, pulling me to him to keep me from falling. My hands instinctively wrapped around his shoulders.
Our eyes met.
A moment suspended in time.
There was a burning anticipation in the air so strong I could taste it, feel it from the warmth where his body and mine touched.
"You okay?" he whispered. He was so close I could see the specks of honey gold in his brown eyes.
I swallowed. Nodded.
"What are you running away from?" he asked. Teasingly.
I flushed. I had no idea why I said that. I had no idea why he was talking to me suddenly. I pushed away from him and walked faster, hoping he'd go the opposite direction. He caught up with me quickly, his warm brown eyes smiling.
It was impossible not to smile back. It was even more impossible for me not to ask, "Want to... walk with me?"
"Where?" he asked.
There it was again. That teasing, almost playful tone in his voice. Was I imagining it?
He knew where I was going. He'd seen me countless of times here before.
There was one place in this zoo I wanted—no, needed—to go to. Petrified to go to, but couldn't stay away from.
And tonight was the last time.
My breath caught in my throat as I stopped across the bridge. They had rebuilt it, stone instead of the rotting wood it was before. I had come here every Saturday night after the accident that changed my life. Maybe I was trying to defeat the past, telling myself that someday I would finally cross that bridge.
Hannah never did.
"I used to come here with my best friend." I took a deep breath. "Hannah."
It was the first time I said her name after the accident. It hurt.
"I know," he said quietly.
Shocked, I looked up at him.
"I was there," he said. "My father... had a rough day at work that day. He'd take it out on me, usually. So, I escaped before he could. And came here." His eyes burned. "I saw what happened. It wasn't your fault, Liz."
It wasn't your fault.
Tears poured down my face. I heard that so many times but never accepted it. Until now. He'd seen it. He'd seen the wooden bridge collapse, he'd seen Hannah... fall in the water. And disappear. My heart broke, and somehow, somehow accepted his words fully, cleanly, honestly.
"After... the accident," I said shakily. "All those times I came here, I saw you here too. Even today..."
"I didn't want you to be alone," he said simply.
Something burned in my heart as I looked at his beautiful face.
"Tonight," he said, his eyes turning to the bridge, "is your last chance to cross it."
Cold sweat trickled down my face. "I can't."
"The only thing stopping you is yourself." Slowly he placed his hands over my eyes. "Don't look at it then."
I was terrified, but somehow his presence comforted me.
"Don't think," he whispered gruffly. "Just take the first step. Take it."
I closed my eyes. And took it.
My legs were shaky, my body weak as I slowly put one foot in front of the other.
"Race you, Lizzie!"
"Hannah! Wait for me!"
"You gotta go faster, dummy. Run faster!"
I had no idea how I reached the end of the bridge, but when I opened my eyes, Levi was standing in front of me, his hand holding mine.
"I did it!" I sobbed, covering my mouth with my shaky hand. "I did it!"
My heart felt light. The cross I was carrying was gone. The absence of fear was a vindication. Forgiveness.
"Thank you, Levi."
"You're welcome," he said, his eyes warm and sincere. "Want to walk with me?"
I looked back to the bridge. And saw Hannah waving at me. Smiling.
"Goodbye, Hannah. Thank you."
I turned around, reached for Levi's hand, and smiled. "Yes."