He loved coffee.
She loved coffee.
He saw her every day.
He was the highlight of her day.
Aleydis watched the handsome See What I Bean’s employee create the shocking wonder of the double caramel frappuccino with a dexterity that only comes with being a high school student with a long-standing need for caffeine. It was very impressive, really. At the same time, it was maybe a little strange how one’s passion turned to coffee.
He turned to face her, adding a fancy flourish to the whipped cream. “More? Less?”
He grinned, setting the whipped cream back on its shelf and writing her name on the side of the cup.
“How come none of my other customers are like you? They’re constantly bugging me about everything I do, especially the older people.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t like old people.”
He chuckled. “Okay, I won’t. Let’s just say they have a ton of experience as to what the perfect coffee tastes like. You’re never going to get that experience, you realize. You’ve only ever ordered a double caramel frappuccino from me. Every time.”
Aleydis shrugged with a satisfied smile. “Cause that’s what I like. And you do it the way I like, so why try anything else?”
He shook his head with a mock disappointed click of the tongue. “Shame. The dirty chai is way good, too. ”
“Dirty chai? Maybe I’ll get that when I’m an old person.”
“So funny. I’ll have retired.”
“Then forget See What I Bean. I’ll make it myself.”
“My boss wouldn’t like that.” Graham smiled as he handed his beautiful classmate her double caramel frappuccino. “There you go. You want me to send your muffin to your usual table?”
“Yeah. Oh wait,” She looked down at her wristwatch and grimaced, shouldering her purse and chewing at her straw from the corner of her mouth. “I totally forgot. My brother’s soccer game is in a half hour, I think. The car’s in the shop and Mom will probably want mine. How could I forget that?”
“People forget things, Aly.” Graham chuckled. Aleydis shrugged again with a little sigh, turning a little to move to the door.
“Well, ‘teach me how I should forget to think.’”
“Romeo and Juliet.”
She whirled with an elated grin, pointing at him triumphantly. “Victory! You’ll have that Brit Lit essay in the bag!” She pushed on the pull door as always, then stepped back to pull it open. Graham glanced down at the counter.
“Wait, you want your muffin!”
She groaned and walked back. “‘But men are men; the best sometimes forget.’”
She took the bag and thanked him with that fantastic smile that never failed to make Graham’s day. He watched her leave. Why weren’t the boys at Saint Bernard High fawning over her? She was perfect, slender and graceful with a rose petal complexion and gently curling dark brown hair with golden tips that cascaded past her narrow waist. Her blue hazel eyes glowed beneath a cape of long, dense black lashes when she smiled. She was easily one of the most modest girls at school, preferring dark jeans, pastel t-shirts, and denim jackets to the short skirts and tight tank tops most of the LA divas displayed. Shakespeare tripped as easily from her tongue as the word ‘like’ and ‘so’ did from every other Californian valley girl.
She was so different from all the other seniors at Saint Bernard High, and she liked coffee.
Graham West liked Aleydis.
Why should a perfect girl like her notice a guy like him? He always thought of himself as a rather average sort of guy. Sandy blond hair with the same gelled style that every other guy assumed as the ‘regular’ look. Blue eyes like a good percentage of the California population. Not many gave him a second glance and he preferred it that way. He knew that Aleydis would not appreciate the attention, either. She was too humble, too graceful.
Graham smiled despite himself. They were getting together with a bunch of friends from church for a Bible study on Wednesday.
He couldn’t wait to see her again.
She looked over her shoulder as she pulled out of the parking lot. Her dad had drilled safety rules into her head, what with all the crazy people who could not wait to see every inch of Los Angeles. He had even been reluctant to allow her to buy the adorable little Echo as opposed to a truck, which would win any sort of crash that could possibly happen.
Aleydis had smiled at his concern. She appreciated his fatherly distress, but she knew how to navigate Los Angeles as carefully as was needed. It was not hard and she had done so a hundred times before. The coffee shop was a familiar place to her, as she had been one of the first people to hear that Graham got a job there.
She had been his first customer.
Content, she sipped her perfect frappuccino as she backed out of her parking space and turned out onto the street.
She was satisfied with life. There was a scholarship waiting to ride her to Notre Dame for a business degree and she had already secured a job on the campus. There was a family who had known the Greys since she was a baby who lived just a mile from the school and had offered to board her for free if she would babysit the youngsters every now and then, something that she was more than happy to do. A thorough perfectionist through and through, she was already planning out her packing, considering that graduation was only two weeks away.
It was still hard for her to wrap her mind around. It seemed just yesterday that both she and Graham had been nervous kids coming into high school for the first time. Now she would be moving to Indiana. With a light sigh, she considered again that she would be leaving so many friends who had proved themselves to be so good for her life behind.
Everyone was leaving.
Aleydis wondered briefly where Graham was going. She hadn’t asked him yet. She could call him. No, she would see him on Wednesday at the Bible study. That would be more personal.
A car whirled around the corner at breakneck speed, tires screeching. Aleydis yelped in surprise, jerking on the wheel.
Graham nearly dropped the paper mug he had filled at the horrendous screeching that exploded from just outside. Quickly handing the cup to the customer with an apology, he vaulted over the counter and ran outside, already yanking his cell phone out of his pocket. After working at See What I Bean’s for almost three years, he had grown accustomed to calling 911. There had been several emergencies right outside the coffee place in the middle of Los Angeles.
The two cars were tangled with each other at sickening angles, a tire in a window still rapidly spinning and creating a nauseating smell of burning rubber. A middle aged man was crawling out of his truck, holding his ribs delicately and groaning with each movement. Graham ran to him, already dialing.
“Sir, don’t move.” he breathed, gently laying a hand on the man’s shoulder so that he let himself relax, prone on the street. The cars and pedestrians around were stopping, looking, dialing 911. “We’ll have an ambulance here for you in no time.”
“The other driver…” the man grunted in short bursts of breath. “Get her out. A girl.”
Graham’s heart froze. He barely heard the woman on the other end of the line pickup and ask him for the emergency. He answered all her questions out of mere reaction as he ran to the other car. A small grey Echo with a tire in the shattered windshield. The front was demolished. A beautiful young woman lay slumped against the driver’s seat, an air bag pressed against her body.
Blood seeped from a corner of her mouth and her arm dangled loosely from the side of the chair.
“No. No, no, no, no. Please, God, no."
Aleydis did not understand.
It seemed that just minutes ago, she had been still. It had all happened so quickly, and she was grateful for it. The other car had appeared out of the blue. She could not avoid it, not without hitting the dozens of pedestrians on the sidewalk or hitting the other cars in the other lane. The terror had been complete and paralyzing. There had been a blood-curdling shriek of metal on metal as a roaring beast lunged for her, smashing through the windshield separating them. She had whiplashed forward and her neck hurt and the airbag burst into being. She had huddled behind it, but the bigger car kept coming. The spinning tire had plowed through the window. The hood had caved in with a crunch. There had been a terrible, searing pain, blossoming in her pelvis and shooting upwards through her spine and attacking her neck with a vengeance.
She had screamed once before a light enveloped her. It had been warm and her pain had vanished as quickly as it had come. It had been so easy to give up and let herself float in a state of semi-conscious unconsciousness. She knew that her eyes were closed, but then there was nothing to see. She knew that she was still, but where was there to go? If she was going to be trapped, might as well lose the pain while she was at it.
But she could still hear. The fluid in her ears told her that she was moving. The many footsteps told her that there were at least four people around her. They were all talking at once, but she did not care what they said. There was only one voice that remained low enough to not hurt her head with its panicked pitch and she focused on it. It was a nice voice, one that she knew. She could not put a finger on it, though.
“Stay with us, Aly,” it whispered over and over again, never leaving her side. “Hang on, you’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.”
She believed the voice. It meant safety, kindness, truth.
Then she remembered what all that meant.
It was going to be the most awkward thing he had ever done in his life, but it had to be done. For her. Drawing in a slow breath, Graham pressed talk and held Aleydis’ cell phone to his ear. It rang three times, a peppy tune that sounded like something out of a broadway musical with lots of colors and exciting dance numbers. A woman’s voice answered. She sounded like she had just finished laughing over a hysterical joke.
“Hey, honey, where are you? Lyle wouldn’t let us go to his game until we had you! Not that we wanted to, of course, but isn’t it nice that he thought of you? Actually, now that I think of it, he probably just didn’t want us to walk. The car’s still in the shop and we’ll need you to drive, if you don’t mind.”
Graham closed his eyes, leaning his elbows on his knees and trying to calm his stuttering heart. This was going to be harder than he had anticipated.
“Mrs. Grey, my name is Graham West. I go to school with Aleydis.”
“Oh.” She laughed a little self-consciously. “The Wests. Yes, I know your parents from church! Sorry about that. We’re going to her little brother’s first soccer game and we need her car. Um, why...why do you have her phone? Did you mean to call someone else?”
“No, ma’am. I…” He stood again, pacing back and forth across the hospital lobby. A couple of waiting people looked up at the eighteen year old boy talking into the phone with the hand drawn flower designed case with sympathy. No one would have liked to be in his shoes. Graham rubbed his forehead. “Well, I work at See What I Bean’s and Aleydis stops in every other day after school to get coffee, so I was there, but -”
“What happened?” Mrs Grey demanded, her voice low and firm. The sure sign that she was on the brink of crying. Graham fought tears himself.
“A speeding car swerved into her, head on. There was no way she could have avoided it. Both cars were totaled and the other driver broke three ribs. Aleydis’ injuries...were…The doctors are with her now.”
“Are you at the hospital?”
“Yes, ma’am. They wanted someone here.”
“We’re coming. John, get the...no, the car’s in the shop!”
“I’ll come get you.”
“Of course. I have room for four.”
“That’s perfect, for my husband, me, and Lyle. I can send our address to Aly’s phone.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Thank you. Thank you and God bless you, Graham.” She was crying as she hung up.
Graham lowered the phone and waited for the address as he hurried for the parking structure. The paramedics had offered to let him ride with Aleydis in the back of the ambulance, but he had driven to the hospital in his car, having anticipated the need to drive back and forth between the hospital and other places.
His mom had already given him her blessing to stay with this girl as long as he needed to. Graham felt in his heart that he was doing the right thing as he ducked into his car, mapped the Grey’s address, and pulled out into the streets of Los Angeles.
It was just starting to get dark.
He knew that he belonged wherever Aleydis was. Already, if he had not gone to the hospital with her, he would not have gotten her phone. Without her phone, he would not have been able to call her parents or offer a ride. His manager at work had given him the rest of the day off for the emergency, but Graham couldn’t care less if he had gotten fired for following Aleydis.
She was the one who needed him right now. She was probably too unconscious to realize it, but as long as he did, he didn’t need anyone thanking him.
Seeing her safe would be thanks enough.
There were people all around her.
They were moving, smoothly and precisely. Aleydis could not see them, but she could feel them. They were talking quietly, using large words that she could not understand.
Graham would have understood most of what they said, most likely. He was smart. And he cared. He had been there as they carried her away, before she fell into a deeper loss of consciousness. He had been there. Reassuring her.
Holding her hand.
It was so strange. They knew each other better than they thought. Even as she had let go, forgotten everything that should have mattered to her after the collision, in order to let go of the pain, Aleydis had known that Graham would somehow be there for her. He was close when she needed him. She wanted him again. She wanted to tell him what she was thinking, how she felt. She had a feeling that she could no longer afford to wait until Wednesday. She had too much to lose.
‘I wonder if he knows. I wonder if he’s thinking the same things.’
He waited for her.
She waited for him.
He quietly walked into the pristine white hospital room that always managed to smell like clean plastic, keeping behind Mr. and Mrs. Grey and nine year old Lyle. The family smiled through tears and reached for the eighteen year old girl on the hospital bed, pale and nearly paralyzed but smiling.
Graham felt a weight lift off of his chest. The doctors had assured him that, although she would certainly need a couple years of physical rehab, she would live. But there was always that nagging feeling in the back of his mind.
‘What if she does die? Anything can go wrong during surgery. What will I do? What else could I have done to stop it?’
“Mom, Dad! Oh, Lyle, I’m sorry about missing your soccer game.”
But she hadn’t died. There she was, alive and beautiful with sparkling eyes.
“It’s okay; they lost anyway and I didn’t have to be there to see it!”
While her face was animated, her hands stayed limply by her sides. There had been damage done to her spine. The surgery had taken care of it, but it would take two years of physical therapy to regain complete usage of all her limbs.
“Honestly, Aly, I told you we should have gotten you a truck!”
‘Could I have saved her even from this? Could I have done more?’
“Okay, Dad, but look at it this way: the other driver would be dead. As it is, we only have two injured ones.”
‘She doesn’t even seem to mind. It’s like nothing is different. Look at her laugh.’
Then her eyes flicked to him. They widened and she smiled. Graham swallowed and smiled back. She was happy to see him. That was a good sign.
“Graham.” she breathed. He came closer, stopping at her bedside.
“Hey. How are you feeling?”
“Fine. Well, I can’t really move, but, you know, what’re you gonna do?” She winked. “If I could, I would have shrugged just then.”
Graham chuckled. Mrs. Grey came behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I don’t understand why you’ve never had this wonderful young man over, Aly. He’s been an absolute saint since you were put here!”
Aleydis’ smile turned quizzical. “Yeah?”
Mr. Grey chuckled incredulously, shaking his head and refusing to release his daughter’s hand.
“Once upon a time, I thought that all guys who stepped within the same state as my daughter were evil, but...well, Aly, he just about saved your life.”
He told her the story. Aleydis’ eyes were fixed on him and they glazed with tears. Graham felt Mrs. Grey’s hand linger on his shoulder. They appreciated all he had done, but why did she still have to have been so hurt?
“Wow.” Aleydis finally whispered, biting her lip. “Thank you, Graham. I mean...well, that doesn’t even amount to what I’m feeling now.”
“It’s okay, I think I understand.” Graham squeezed her limp hand gently. “Don’t thank me. You just focus on getting back up on your feet. If you ever need help, I’m just a phone call away. I’ll be there, okay?”
Aleydis didn’t answer immediately. She kept looking at him. Then she flicked her eyes to the side just enough to see the rest of her family.
“Can I talk to Graham alone really quick? Five minutes?”
Mr. and Mrs. Grey exchanged a glance and Lyle groaned, slapping his palm to his forehead.
“You had better not be talking about love stuff, cause if you are than no! And why is it always five minutes? That’s so random. Why not like seven minutes? It’s a bigger number. Or eight minutes or something? I feel like five is just getting a lot of attention here.”
“Lyle, come on, your sister isn’t feeling good.” Mrs. Grey winked as she guided the indignant boy out of the room. Mr. Grey nodded a little before following them.
Graham watched them go, then turned back to Aleydis, lowering himself to crouch at the side of the bed. She wiggled her fingers and he picked them up again, rubbing them gently. She looked at their hands.
“You’ve done so much already.”
“What was I supposed to do? Leave it to someone else to handle? I was there and available.”
“But you drove my family here, you didn’t even leave. What time is it, anyway?”
Graham glanced down at his watch.
“Almost one.” he replied quietly, looking back up to meet her eyes. They were the most stunning shade of blue, and they cared. Aleydis released an incredulous breath, blinking. The tear she had meant to imprison was released and rolled down her cheek. He covered her hand with his.
“In the morning? Graham, I don’t know whether to call you dedicated or crazy!”
He chuckled, shrugging his shoulders a little. She wished she could do that. Soon, she promised herself.
“I’m usually up this late finishing homework or something. It’s no biggie.”
“It is to me.” Aleydis felt her stomach tumble a little as she drew in a long breath. “Graham, I...that crash scared me. But not in the way I would have thought just a few hours ago. I would have thought it would have frightened me out of ever stepping out of my house again. Instead...I guess it’s scared me out of staying in my house. You never know what’s around the corner, and I’m terrified of everything I’ll have missed out on if something happens.”
Graham cocked his head, laying his chin on his crossed arms over the mattress.
“You’re not afraid of everything you’ll lose?”
“Not so much as being afraid of everything I’ve never experienced. I heard something once: be happy for the time you’ve had instead of angry for the time you’ve lost. I just want to make as much of the time I have. Like you said earlier about me only ever having had the double caramel frappuccino. Now I want to try the dirty chai, because I might die before I get a chance to be the old person I said I’d be. So,” She almost stopped herself. But his eyes urged her to continue, looking up at her with a sweet earnestness. She smiled helplessly. “I was going to ask you tomorrow...or today, I guess...but what are your plans for the future?”
Graham’s eyebrows shot up and he straightened. “That’s what you were going to ask me?”
“Yeah. I mean, we’re graduating soon. What about college and all that?”
“That’s really what you were going to ask me?”
She lowered her eyes again. He was still holding her hand. Her breath came a little quicker.
“Yes...but that wasn’t all.”
“Do you want to finish?”
“I’m scared.” Aleydis looked up at his face once more. He was smiling softly. She managed a soft giggle. “And that’s why I’ll say it. Graham, I’ve liked you since freshman year. I tried my first coffee after I heard that you got a job at See What I Bean’s and have been going ever since. I keep getting a double caramel frappuccino because it’s the first thing you suggested to me, back when we were fourteen. I always looked forward to seeing you. I’ve always wanted to talk to you the way we are now. Just the two of us. That’s why I was going to ask you about the future and college at the Bible study. Of course, I’m interested, too. But I just really wanted to talk to you before graduation when we’ll probably be separated for a really long time if not forever. I’ve sort of been psyching myself up for this all throughout high school. Tells you how much of a coward I am.” She smiled up at him. “That’s pretty much it.”
Graham stared at their laced fingers. Then he laughed, shaking his head. Aleydis sighed, closing her eyes.
“No, no, it’s okay! You just…” He laughed again, reaching up and brushing her long, soft hair from her face. “You just have no idea how alike we are. I was literally going to tell you all of that before Bible study later! You have been the only girl I have ever really wanted to know from school. All those cheerleaders all the other guys are after, the drama club divas, they’re fine and all, but I was looking for true beauty, inside and out, a love that went above and beyond new clothes and the hottest jock. A love that became holy and pure.” He nodded a little at her wide eyes. “I found it in you, Aleydis.”
How bold could a guy get? Then again, she had admitted it first.
Again, a weight exploded and disappeared and his heart felt free. It was with Aleydis, and she felt the same way. The way her eyes filmed with tears struck a chord inside of him and he rose up and kissed her forehead. She gasped against a sob, unable to move either to protest or encourage. He sat back again, standing. She could not have grinned wider.
“You couldn’t have said anything I needed to hear more than that.” she breathed. “I just...wish that we’d had the courage to say all of it before graduation and college.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” He cocked his head, trying not to let the thought dampen his euphoria. “Graduation’s in a couple weeks. You going to university?”
“Uh huh. I’ve got a full-ride scholarship to Notre Dame. I’m going to major in business and hopefully...get a...Graham? You okay?”
He could hardly breathe. Notre Dame? Indiana? Halfway across the country?
“Aly, do you believe in fate?”
“No. I believe in God opening and closing doors, though.”
“Good. So do I.” He held both her hands in his. “I’m going to Notre Dame, too.”
Her eyes shot wide open. Graham laughed at her expression.
“I’m not even kidding! I’m going to major in architecture with a full tuition scholarship.” He was beyond hysterical laughing, beyond making many sounds beyond what was necessary. “God must really want us to be together!”
One more tear trickled down Aleydis’ cheek. Graham brushed it away.
“Than I guess we’ve got good taste. Are you going to make it official?”
“Of course.” Graham cleared his throat and patted his chest, raising himself up officially. “Aleydis Grey, will you be my girlfriend?”
She winked. “A thousand yeses! And we already know that Dad doesn’t hate you, so I think life could be awesome.”
“Yep. And I’m going to help you through this therapy, Aleydis. I’m going to be right by your side through it all, I promise.”
“That’s all I need.”
“Five minutes are up!” Lyle announced, marching back into the room with a stopwatch brandished. “What’d you talk about?”
Graham stood and faced Mr. Grey. The older man nodded in silent understanding of the unspoken communication.
“I see. I’ll want to have a long talk with you first.”
“Yes, sir. I would want no less from such a treasure’s father.”
Lyle frowned, looking between the two as they tucked themselves in a corner and launched into a quiet conversation.
“Um...I missed it.”
“Lyle, sh.” Mrs. Grey admonished, already sitting by Aleydis. He sighed and shrugged.
Four Years Later….
Notre Dame University was famous among its students for its lakes. These became a special attraction at dusk. The setting sun lit up the water surfaces and seeped through the trees surrounding the edge to create an almost ethereal scene. Notre Dame Basilica created a shadow on the calm lake surface, casting a cross onto the grass shore.
Graham and Aleydis sat on a blanket on the shore, finishing off a picnic dinner. Aleydis found herself staring at her boyfriend as he collected their dishes and started packing them neatly into the basket. They had both grown up a lot since that early morning in the hospital where they had revealed their patient and affectionate regard for each other. It had all worked out so beautifully. Aleydis knew that there was no human being on earth who could claim to be perfect, but there were definitely human girls who decided they could lay claim to perfect boyfriends. She had joined their ranks long ago.
Graham stowed away the last bottle of sparkling cider. Aleydis was dazing out, staring somewhere into the distance. He glanced over his shoulder, but there was nothing so vastly interesting behind him. He turned back to her.
“What is it?”
She grinned and ducked her head, her hair tumbling into her face. Graham cocked his head, smiling at her bashful giggles.
“I was just thinking. I am probably the most blessed girl alive. I’m pretty much living heaven on earth.”
He allowed just a little smile to slip through his features. A sly one. College graduation was just days away. He was graduating with a bachelor’s in architecture, she with business. They had gotten everything they ever wanted.
Except for one thing. Just one more thing would make his life complete.
He had planned for it to be right after graduation, but he had it in his pocket anyway...never left the dorm without it.
She looked at him again.
“Okay that it’s heaven?”
“Okay, that you’re allowed to have it.” He reached surreptitiously into his pocket, covering it by shifting his weight and rolling to sit cross-legged. “Nothing is too good for you, Aly. I know that, and I also know that I’m not perfect. But I can try, because you’re worth it.”
He rose to a knee. Her face morphed into one of shocked ecstasy as she scrambled to her feet, clapping her hands over her mouth. Graham grinned.
“Aleydis Moira Grey, I don’t want to be without you. You make me a better man and all I want is to make you happy and aid you on this perilous journey to the Gates of Heaven. Will you, my beloved Aly, be my wife?”
She was nodding before he finished. Too choked up for words, she gave him her left hand. He did not take his eyes from her as he slipped the delicate ring, encrusted with tiny diamonds, around her ring finger. Her heart swelled with love for this beautiful man.
How could he have deserved her?
How could she have deserved him?
He kissed her.
She kissed him.