Thirteen Again

Reconnecting with the past helps Rachel find a piece of herself that she thought was lost.

It was hard not to be nervous. It was hard not to care about what people thought. Rachel had to remind herself. “I am a strong woman who has a family that loves her.” She hadn’t seen most of the people perusing the shop windows and filling the tables at the café for thirty years. While shadows of their younger selves peeked around the crow’s feet when someone smiled or called out a familiar hello when they laughed, not too many people looked the same. It only made sense that they had changed since leaving Paradise Hills after graduating high school.

She took two lemonades she had purchased from the food truck, and people watched on her way to meet Valerie. Bonnie and Will Martin waved at her from across the street. Someone from the table they sat at must have said something interesting because the other four people burst into laughter. Bonnie and Will turned back to join the conversation. When they were in grade school, they fought over everything. Rachel had to smile at the turn of events brought on by adulthood. The two reconnected after graduating college and had been inseparable since. Rachel loved hearing the happily-ever-after stories. The ones where her classmates struggled hurt her. They may not have gotten along, but she never wished bad things on them.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mark Larner. His hair had signs of gray at the temples, but he still had the same smile. Rachel’s heart soared, and then her memories scolded her. He was the jerk who invited her to the dance and then dumped her after the first song. He spent the entire evening with Marcy Turner, adding salt to the wound. They ended up married shortly after high school. As an adult, Rachel recognized that she was accidentally placed in the crosshairs of their destiny. But still, he could have been nicer about it.

Rachel sat on the bench Valerie had been holding for them. 

Valerie looked cool beneath her baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, sipping her lemonade while watching the people in front of them. “We should be used to crowds. We have a festival of some sort once a month.”

“Yes, but none of those have all the graduates from 1985-1990.”

“And then some.” Valerie tilted her head to point at Pattie Becker. She graduated five years after them but married the 1986-1987 class president. “She should realize that those red, white, and blue leggings combined with that tiny top are more suited for twenty-year-olds looking for a man. Not a full-grown woman who has given birth to three children.”

“Aww, give her some points for confidence.” Rachel tilted her head. Perhaps a different perspective would help her understand why Pattie chose the outfit. All she saw was the limit on what could be eaten. She was one carbonated beverage away from having to wear a longer top.

“Nah, I’m going to say she’s wishing that dress could bring her back to 1992.”

Pattie tapped on the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to begin the class games.”

People holding Solo cups full of the beverage of their choice gathered around the stand. Mark and his childhood best friend, Reagan Miller, joined Valerie and Rachel. “Good to see you two.” Reagan held out his beer to toast. “This should be interesting. I heard that Pattie talked the committee into class games.”

“We don’t have to play,” Rachel said.

“The class that wins gets to pie the class that loses.”

“That’s stupid!” Rachel exclaimed.

“It gets better. The class that loses can buy the pies, and the money gets donated to Gary’s scholarship.”

Rachel’s eyes watered. When her husband was shot by a man who mistook him for someone else, the community organized several things to make sure his memory was honored. Gary used to volunteer at all the school events, so they started a scholarship in his honor. Before, she’d overlooked Pattie’s outfits out of kindness. Observing her under the light of the situation, she knew it was because she was too busy to consider what people thought. Rachel had to agree with Pattie’s unspoken motivation. With a heart like that, who cared how the woman dressed? “I need to write Pattie a thank-you note.”

Pattie held up five containers. Labels with the years the classes graduated were glued to the front. “We’ll pick five people from each class to play the first game.”

Mark wondered aloud, “What if someone can’t play? Like they have an injury or something?”

“If you’re unable to play for health reasons, let us know, and we’ll choose someone else and throw your name in the bucket for a different game.”

People around them laughed. “She knows what you’re thinking.”

The anticipation of hearing whose name would be called silenced the crowd. Rachel leaned forward and silently hoped, Please, don’t pick my ticket.

“Mark Turner.” Pattie placed her hand over her brow to shield her eyes. “Does anyone see Mark Turner?”

“He’s right here.” Everyone had turned and pointed at Mark, who rolled his eyes and waved.

“Good to see you, too.”

People chuckled. The crowd quieted for the next name to be drawn. “Rachel Landon”

Valerie jumped off the bench, muttering, “This is not a good place to sit.” Reagan and the people around them chuckled. However, Rachel noticed they all took several steps away from the bench.

While Pattie called the names of the participants, Rachel tried to think of an excuse that would get her out of the game. When nothing came to mind, she resigned herself to the situation and hoped it would be more fun than embarrassing.

The five piles of burlap sacks and a chalk line gave no indication of how they were supposed to tackle the first game. Someone from the class of 1984 grumbled, “I’m too old for a potato sack race.”

Rachel agreed. Her back didn’t do jumping very well. It sure wouldn’t like jumping one hundred feet in a burlap bag. Her earlier admiration for Pattie waned.

“The human caterpillar is a team effort,” Pattie coached. “Every member of the team must cross the finish line together.”

How is that possible? Rachel tried picturing Mary Pickford, class of 1989, fitting in the bag, let alone finishing at the same time as Ivan, who looked like he hadn’t gained a pound since he left high school.

Mark picked up a bag. Another bag had been sewn to it. He lifted higher, and the chain of burlap grew. People in the crowd laughed at the participants’ befuddlement. The piles weren’t bags! They were long strips of burlap stitched together to make a loop large enough to fit more than five bodies.

“You walk on the bottom of the strip and use your hands to hold up the top. As you move, you look like the wheels of a caterpillar.”

Pattie’s adult sons demonstrated the feat with a smaller strip of fabric. When the one in front stepped forward, the one in the rear pushed forward the slack. When they got moving, they resembled the inner workings of a quad tractor tire.

Mark clapped. “We can do this! I’m the tallest, so I should be in either the front or back.”

John picked up the other side of the strip. “I’ll be the back, so we have balance.”

Rachel and Mandie Coleman grimaced at each other as if to ask, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

By this time, Brandon Lester had stepped into the middle, leaving room for one of the women to be in front of him and one behind him.

Mandie shrugged and stepped behind him.

The teams to the right and left of them were in position. Their members had mixed reactions of concern, confusion, and competitiveness. Rachel could only imagine what her team looked like.

“On your mark, get set, go!” a bullhorn blared, announcing the official start of the event.

The team from 1990 pulled into the front but came to a quick halt when the leader of their caterpillar ran face-first into the burlap. Caught up in the activity, the person behind him plowed into his back and started a dogpile collapse, with the team ending up under the burlap.

The spectators howled with laughter.

“We should have seen that coming,” Brandon joked. “They were goofballs back in high school. Why’d we think they were any different now?”

“Maybe we should step in unison,” John suggested. “That way, we don’t run into each other.”

“Yes, and move the opposite hand to help the top move,” Brandon added.

“Great. On the count of three, let’s start with our right,” Mark called out.

He counted, and they all moved their right foot forward and passed the burlap over the top of them with their left hands. It worked.

“Now, left.” They did it again, and it worked.

Mark called out the foot sequence, and the team echoed. One step at a time, the team pulled out in the front.

The class of 1987 heard the plan and mimicked the action.

When they caught up to the middle of the class of 1986, John called out, “We’re going to have to speed up, guys.”

“They always copied us,” Mandie grumbled. “Remember the year they made the exact same float as us?”

“Less complaining, please,” Mark called out.

If Rachel hadn’t seen it herself, she would never have believed it had happened. Everything was moving as efficiently as a group of over forty-year-olds could expect. Out of nowhere, a swarm of bees flew overhead.

Mark froze. The team stopped with him and huddled.

To their right, the class of 1987 collapsed under their burlap and peeked out from beneath it to watch for where to run. The class of 1985 ditched their sacks and ran for it.

Pattie’s husband’s voice took over the microphone. “Let’s just stay calm, folks. They’re just honey bees. They won’t sting anyone.”

At that exact moment, two bees got under the burlap. One flew into Mark’s neck. He slapped his neck and said some things about the bee’s mother that would have hurt her feelings.

The sprinkler system turned on and soaked the unsuspecting participants. It was more than the team could handle. “I’m out of here,” Brandon declared, stepping away from the cloth and releasing it. The wet fabric landed on Rachel’s head. The last thing she remembered thinking before falling beneath it was how the moisture brought out the light scent of fabric softener.


From one person to the next, Pattie said the same thing. “I am so sorry. Never in a million years could I have imagined anything like that happening.”

Nobody had decided on whether or not to be angry with Boyd Atkinson for turning on the sprinklers. He thought it would scare the bees into going someplace else.

Mark dried his hair with the school-issued white towel and said, “We have to give him credit for trying.”

Water dripped from the bottom of Rachel’s braid onto the towel she wrapped around her shoulder.

Mark pinched the drip with his towel and sat beside her. He smiled and had a faraway look in his eyes. “We were looking good out there.”

“It was fun.” Brandon leaned into Rachel. “But don’t tell Pattie I said that. I plan on giving her a hard time for a while.” He rose and marched across the field. Rachel giggled at the cuffs of his cargo shorts clinging to his knees.

Mark shook his head at Brandon’s appearance and turned to talk to Rachel. “We haven’t had a chance to catch up since I’ve come back to town. How have you been?”

“Good, I guess.” Rachel didn’t know what to say. Her husband was taken from her five years ago, and bit by bit, she’d picked up the pieces of her life. She had the patrons at her hair salon to keep her spirits high. And thanks to them, she was at an advantage. They told her all about Mark when he returned.

“You guess?” He nudged her with his shoulder. “C’mon, you can tell me more than that. We were a couple for two whole days when we were in the eighth grade.”

“Yes.” Rachel grinned at the memory. “And you dumped me at the dance to go out with Marcy Turner.”

“I have to plead insanity.” Mark held his palms up. “She had an Atari system.”

His fake innocence still charmed Rachel. Thirty years had gone by since that night, which had seemed devastating at the time. She wished she could go back in time and tell her younger self that one day she’d be with Mark, laughing about it.

Her son Jeremy sauntered through the auditorium doors. He scanned the room, and his eyes stopped on Rachel. Having found her, he strolled across the room.

“Your son?” Mark asked.

Apparently, he knew more about Rachel than he let on.

“Yes, I should go.”

Rachel rose to meet her son. “It was nice catching up with you.” She meant it. Rachel would have found herself guilty of being attracted to Mark if she wasn’t older and wiser to his ways.

She hadn’t got too far away from him when Mark said, “I’m not seeing anyone.”

Refusing to believe what she’d heard, Rachel turned to look at Mark.

He grinned. “I thought you might have been wondering.”

Yes, she noticed that he was easy to talk to, and she smiled a little wider than usual. But she wasn’t about to let him know it. Then again, she wasn’t good at lying. So she told a half-truth. “I’ll admit I think you’re cute.”

Mark arched his left eyebrow. “Just cute? Puppies are cute. I’m a man.”

Rachel shrugged and held out her hands to show that they were empty. “That’s all I’ve got. I don’t know what to tell you.”

Both coughed out a laugh, and she giggled. Flirting with him was easy too. Her steps were a little lighter when she turned to leave with her son. 

She’d lost the braces and was more confident about where she was in her life. Otherwise, Rachel felt like she was thirteen all over again.


“Hopefully, the night will make up for this afternoon,” Valerie groused as she unfolded her cloth chair and set the back feet against the curb.

Rachel parked her chair next to it and planted herself in the perfect spot to hang out during the street dance. They were close enough to people-watch and far enough away not to be mistaken for wanting to dance.

Mandie and Preston Coleman rolled their cooler to where Rachel and Valerie sat. “Do you mind if we join you?”

While she enjoyed the silly activities people planned for the class reunions, it was moments like these that Rachel cherished. People came from all over the country to reconnect with childhood friends. Mandie and Preston moved to Texas to work for an oil company. Because of the demands of his job, visits were few and far between.

One by one, classmates joined and expanded the circle. Some had chairs. Others sat on a blanket someone set out on the ground in front of them. They looked different, but their personalities were still the same from when they were together every day of their lives. When the band started playing, Larry Johnson said, “I don’t realize how much I miss this place until I come back.” He pointed at the couples dancing in the street. “We don’t have things like this in Orlando,” he offered.

“Give me a break; you have Disney World.” Mark, who had joined the group, rolled his eyes. “You either get Mickey Mouse or Earl Haskett’s band. You can’t have both.”

Rachel, who had never left, wondered if she had missed out on something. Her friends’ comments assuaged her concerns. She could go to those exciting places any time she wanted. Knowing her neighbors and living in a community that honored the passing of her husband at the reunion had more weight.

Mark pointed at the dance area with his chin. “Do you want to go have some fun?”

The last time she’d danced at a street dance, she was married. She watched a couple twirl and smiled. That used to be her.

He held his hand out in front of her in invitation. “I owe you a couple of dances from eighth grade. I promise I won’t break up with you this time.”

Rachel accepted his offer and rose. A fluttering tickled the top of her heart. Yes, dancing would be fun. Mark started the dance steps they learned yearly in P.E., and Rachel fell in line with him. They twirled, he spun her, and they sashayed together. The years faded with each measure of the music. Rachel had so much fun dancing. The drips of disappointment when the song ended surprised her. It had been so long since she’d just had fun. She’d thought she’d forgotten.

Mark asked, “How about we stay out here for one more song?” 

Quicker than a snap, delight with his request flicked away the sadness.  She’d embrace the moment, enjoy the dance, and cherish the memory. 

One more dance became another and another. 

Then the tempo changed to a slow song. Rachel backed away and motioned to join their friends.

“This is the kind of music men look forward to dancing to.” Mark took her hand, silently requesting to stay and dance some more.

When Rachel settled into position, his lips formed a smile. She was in heaven. It had been so long since she had been in the arms of a man who liked her–she’d forgotten how good it felt. Most likely, nothing would come of the day’s activities. But it was fun to feel alive. To smell popcorn from the nearby booths and hear people talking mixed in with the music.

And then the explosion above them cut off the joyful sensations. Rachel’s mind went dark, and she fought to piece together what happened. Red and purple sparkles formed flowers in the sky. It was a fireworks display.

Rachel’s pulse clogged her ears, so all she could hear was her heart’s plea to go home. To sleep so she could forget the sounds that were similar to gunshots.  She smiled to mask her pain. “I had fun today.” Then she pulled away to start her retreat. “It was good catching up with you.”

“You’re leaving in the middle of the show?” Confusion clouded Mark’s face. “Did I say something wrong?”

It was the exact opposite. Mark had been perfect. Perfect enough for Rachel to hate Marcy Turner for stealing and then divorcing him.

“Loud noises are hard to handle.”

Mark scowled, and his eyes darted toward the speakers.

Rachel could read his mind. It’d been loud all night. Just then, the cannon boomed, releasing another round of fireworks. Her body stiffened to absorb the waves of shock.

Mark’s face brightened in recognition of something. Then it softened. He reached for Rachel’s hand and wriggled his fingers until they twined with hers. “I don’t like to be alone during fireworks displays either. Do you mind if I join you?”

Horror filled Rachel. He knew they scared her.

“Or we could just go hang out in the back of my pickup and make out.”

Was he flirting to distract her? Mark pulled Rachel toward him. He cupped her cheek with his other hand and kissed her. Right there in front of all their classmates.

Rachel was too far into her head to connect anything with the kiss. He let go of her hand and nudged her closer by tapping her lower back.

The touch freed her from her thoughts. Warmth softened her body, and her heart hummed.

Mark pulled away from the kiss before Rachel was ready. She didn’t want it to end.

He waggled an eyebrow and grinned. “Your kissing skills have improved since eighth grade.”

“We never kissed in eighth grade.”

“I know. Let’s get a move on. We have a lot of time to make up for.” Mark took hold of her hand and guided her through the crowd. The calendar may have said they were thirty years older, but if anyone were to ask, Rachel would have said she felt like she was thirteen again. This time, she suspected Mark would get it right.