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Usually when two people are reunited they share hugs, laughter, and reminisce about fond memories they shared with one another. Today’s reunion was foreign to me. I stared blankly ahead at the cold, grey stone that stared back with the words “Drew Thompson, 1985-2007” written on it. I felt guilty that my eyes were dry, but I felt numb, I couldn’t even breathe. I could barely make out the sound of the military band that played just a few feet away. I caught a glimpse of a folded up flag that sat abandoned upon the altar. I saw his mother; she looked as though her world had stopped. This didn’t happen to boys like him. How could this have happened?
I remembered the day I first met Drew like it was yesterday. I was six years old and had awoken to the sound of Ma’s singing and the smell of pancakes coming up from the kitchen.
“Riley,” Ma called to me in her sing-song voice, “time for breakfast.”
Sitting down at breakfast with my family, I gazed out the window to the field out back. We had a lake that sat in the middle of our back-yard where I had learned to swim, and spent my summer days. Even to a six-year-old, that view was breathtaking. After inhaling most of the pancakes, Ma hurried me upstairs to get ready for church. I complained as she pulled my long blond hair into curls, and brushed my cheeks with pink blush. I stared into the mirror at my bright blue eyes and my white dress with the pink bows; I loved that dress. It could make any girl feel like a princess. Grabbing hold of Pa’s hand we walked into town and up the church steps.
Growing up in the small town of Coalgate, Oklahoma, there was never much excitement. When something happened it was only a matter of minutes before the whole town knew about it. The first grade class consisted of eighty-four kids, so the fact that there was a new boy in town was quite obvious. Daddy knew everyone in town and loved meeting new people, so he introduced our family to the Thompson’s. Mr. Thompson stood there towering over me, and I could barely see his face. Mrs. Thompson was a lot shorter than he was, and she very kindly told me she loved my dress. Mr. Thompson introduced me to their son, Drew. He stood there with his dark hair and remarkable green eyes. He was slightly taller than the other boys in my class, but my attention span was short, so I simply smiled and proceeded to sit down with Ma.
“Riley, I’d like you to show Drew around after church this morning,” Pa told me. I rolled my eyes and he returned a stern glance at me. Arguing with Pa was a pointless battle, so I figured I’d humor him.
After the mass ended that day, I found Drew and asked him to spend the day with me so I could show him around town. He gladly accepted, probably realizing he had no one else to show him around. I showed him all the places that would be vital for him to know about. The playground behind the school yard, the ice-cream shop, the penny candy store, and the corn-fields, of course. We spent most of the day playing in the corn fields, hide-and-seek, only stopping once for a quick peanut butter and jelly break, courtesy of Ma.
I had saved the best stop for last. I took him to my back-yard, my favorite place in the whole world. The moon was beginning to rise, reflecting off the water. We sat by the lake and skipped stones into the water, just talking.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” I asked.
“It really is, I’ve never seen anything like it,” replied Drew.
“Why do you talk so funny,” I asked.
“What do you mean?” He looked confused. I think I might have offended him.
“Well you have a weird accent. Where are you from?”
“We moved here from New York City, we don’t have lakes like this back home,” Drew paused, he seemed sad. I felt guilty for not wanting to be his friend. I think he missed New York. So I generously told him he could come spend time by the lake with me anytime he wanted to. That day marked the beginning of a remarkable friendship and from that day on Drew and I became inseparable.
The years passed by so quickly, and nothing could keep Drew and me apart. He was my best friend; he knew every little secret: from joy-riding Pa’s truck and hitting the mail box, to kidnapping my neighbor’s cat, he was by my side through it all. It wasn’t until freshman year of high school that anything stood between us. Her name was Abigail Bridgewater. She had long, dark hair, and every curl bounced with perfection as she jumped up and down in her cheerleader uniform. I despised her. Drew would stop and stare at her in the hallway, and I would roll my eyes and walk away. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t like him or anything; he was my best friend, just Drew. But the day he asked her to be his girlfriend and she gladly accepted, was also the day I felt my heart break. The jealousy overwhelmed me; you’d think I would be happy for him, but I couldn’t be happy about losing my best friend, I just couldn’t. There was no way she would ever be good enough for him; so I did what any best friend would do, I painted on a smile and pretended.
I became pretty good at pretending to be okay with him and Abigail. The first month they dated, I spent a lot of time with my other friends and began to really enjoy high school. I tried to see Drew as little as possible, but he made that virtually impossible. I remember our first fight; it was the worst day of my life.
“Riley,” he called from down the hall. I didn’t turn around, so he ran up behind me and grabbed my shoulder.
“What’s wrong with you, Riley? You never talk to me anymore; you ignore me everywhere we go.”
“I do not,” I said defensively. I turned to go, but he wouldn’t let me.
“Will you please just tell me what I did wrong,” he pleaded.
“Oh I don’t know Drew.”
“Is it Abigail,” he asked.
“Of course it’s not Abigail! I could care less about the two of you,” I said coldly and stormed off. Was he serious? I couldn’t believe he had just asked me that. I hated him; I didn’t talk to him or look at him for two whole weeks. I hadn’t gone that long without talking to him ever in my life, and I hated every second of it.
In those two weeks, I heard that Drew was now single. He had broken up with Abigail. I still refused to talk to him, and made it a point to avoid him in the hallway. He found me one night sitting by the lake. I could hear his footsteps behind me, and he sat down beside me. There was a long silence.
“Why’d you break up with her,” I finally asked, breaking the silence.
“I don’t know, just didn’t like her all that much I guess,” he calmly responded.
“Oh. Well I’m sorry to hear that.” I couldn’t look at him. I felt guilty now, like it was all my fault he broke up with her. There was another long silence.
“Riley,” he said hesitantly, as though he was holding something back. I looked up into those bright green eyes, I didn’t hate him. I knew I didn’t hate him. He stared back, and leaned over and kissed me. This caught me by surprise, but I kissed back. Tingles ran down my spine, I had no idea what to do, this being my first kiss and all. We looked at each other and I smiled, he smiled back. We said goodnight and I went to sleep that night, having never been happier in my entire life.
At sixteen I didn’t know what love was. But Drew and I spent everyday together, and I treasured every second of it. Summers were my favorite; we’d sneak out real late and just drive around in his blue truck; it was a Chevy. When we weren’t together, we were on the phone. I could be having the worst day, but he always found a way to make me smile. It was like I was living in a cloud, nothing else seemed to matter, I was just happy to be myself and I hold Drew responsible for that.
Senior year seemed to sneak up on us, and time became our greatest enemy. We never talked about what would happen when we graduated, but it was always on the back of my mind. Our senior prom easily became one of my favorite nights. Walking arm in arm with Drew into the country club that night, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I told my parents I was sleeping over at one of my friend’s houses that night. Drew and I snuck out of the dance a little early and hopped in his truck. We left the truck on the side of a dirt road, and walked hand in hand through our favorite field. Memories of that first day he moved here flooded my head, and I just couldn’t stop smiling. It was a little chilly that evening as we laid there staring up at sky.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere, but here,” I said. Drew didn’t say anything and I knew something was on his mind.
“Riley, I got a letter from the Coast Guard Academy.”
“Well, I got in,” he answered quietly. “I’m not going to go though,” he said further.
“Drew, you’d be crazy not go.” Saying these words broke my heart, but I knew how competitive it was to get into, and I knew it was Drew’s dream to serve our country. I wouldn’t be the one to stand in the way of his dream.
“I’m crazy about you; I don’t want to leave you.” I smiled as he said those words, because I knew he meant it. I changed the subject; I didn’t want to think about him leaving.
That summer quickly faded to fall, and saying goodbye to Drew wasn’t easy. We wouldn’t be able to talk really while he was away at the Academy. I attended the University of Oklahoma with the majority of our classmates. I made the most of my time there, met a lot of people, even went on a few dates here and there, but no one ever measured up to Drew. I knew that nobody would ever be Drew. I’d get occasional letters from him, telling me stories about different parts of the world he’d travel. I never did see him again. The last letter I ever received from him read:
We’re back at the Academy today; we have a break from training this week! Last week we were overseas in Europe. It’s so amazing over there. You would love it. I want to take you there someday, though it’s nothing like home. I miss Oklahoma more and more each day, and not seeing you is killing me. I don’t know when I’ll be home next, but I can’t wait to see you.
It was impossible to read his letters without crying. It was about three weeks after my twenty-first birthday, when I got a phone call. “Thompson,” flashed across my caller ID, it was Drew’s mother. I could hear her sobbing on the other end; she didn’t need to say anything. I hung up the phone speechless. I found myself back home in Coalgate holding the Obituary page in my hand. I could barely make out what it said; my hands were shaking too much. All I got out of it was a team of four from the Coast Guard were sent out in a storm on a rescue mission, only three of those team members returned safely.
I found myself still staring blankly at that bleak, grey stone. A tear rolled down my cheek. Drew was my childhood, my first and only love; he was what made me Riley. He taught me how to love, the day he died; I felt a piece of myself die inside.