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Strawberry Blond

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“Be safe,” Archie told her. His smile was wider than the moon, his happiness overflowing into her breaking heart. “And all me when you get home.”

Betty’s smile was tight, a string that ran from her lips to her heart to constrict her every breath.

“I will.”

He pulled her into a bear hug that threatened to squeeze the last of her self-control onto the pavement between them. And then he turned and went back to the cafe where his fiance was waiting for him.

Betty watched him disappear as a tear ran down her cheek. Then another. She threw herself into her car and scrubbed at her cheeks. This wasn’t how today was supposed to go, she sobbed. This wasn’t how he was supposed to fall in love.

She chewed on her lip to try and quell the tears. Every inch of her body hurt as if it wasn’t just her heart that was broken. Her very soul It was one thing to be hopelessly in love; it was another to be the spurned woman.

The engine turned over on the second try. Above her the rain clouds that had lurked about all week cleared, leaving behind brilliant sunshine and bright blue skies. The car lurched forward into traffic with a loud growl, the only true reflection of Betty’s heartbreak.

This wasn’t the life Archie was supposed to have. He was supposed to come back to her.

They were meant to be, after all. It was what everyone had said when they were growing up, and even now, years later, they were mistaken for a couple all the time. Their personalities were a perfect compliment to each other.

It had been so easy when they were little. They were best friends who did everything together. Archie had even proposed when they were six. And despite the trauma and turbulence of middle school their friendship had survived and thrived through high school. He’d promised that college wouldn’t change anything between them.

Tears tickled her cheeks as she merged onto the highway. It should be raining, she thought morosely. Wasn’t that how things worked? A life changing heartache required the skies to pour down rain to match her own tears. To hide the bitter tracks on her cheeks.

Instead the sunny day only brought back memories of their last few days together before college, tucked away among the grass along the Sweetwater river. At dawn they’d snuck out of their houses with the picnic Betty had stayed up half the night making.

In the early morning light Archie’s hair was a strawberry blond that gleamed golden, proof of his long days working at the construction site with his father. Betty almost admitted her love for him right then; he looked so different without his fire red hair it would have been like admitting it to a stranger.

They’d never been anything more than friends, but he had to know how she felt. How her heart ached for the sound of his voice, the touch of his skin. When he kissed her forehead her soul had expanded to fill the universe with her love. In that moment she loved everyone because she loved him.

A few hours later he’d wandered off down the river to cool off and the grass held the shape of his body. She reached out to touch the ghost of his hand and ached at the life they could have together.

They’d walked home together that night, hand in hand, their laughter the only thing keeping the day from ending.

A car horn blared and Betty blinked back her tears to focus on the white lines ahead of her. There was another hour to go before she was home. Another hour to be honest with herself that the only thing she’d ever really, truly wanted was a life in his shape.

Despite their promise, they’d gone their separate ways, him to the city, her back to her family’s business. It hadn’t separated their friendship; if anything it made it that much stronger. Their weekly phone calls and rapid text conversations only deepened her love for him.

Every so often she’d get the courage to ask when he was coming back home. And ever time he’d promise her soon. Their phone calls were the highlight of her week, times she purposefully blocked off for him.

Last week he’d called her two days early and the oddity had her heart in her throat. Archie asked if she could come to the city. He had news, he said, that he had to tell her in person. And she’d come just as he’d asked.

When she arrived earlier this morning they’d hugged. Betty could hardly keep her nerves contained. This was the day she’d tell him, she’d decided, the day that she would finally put her heart fully in his hands. Because there was only one reason why he would ask her to come see him on such short notice: he’d finally realized he was just as in love with her as she was with him. That Archie had finally seen her in the same light.

Foregoing the normal pleasantries, Archie barged ahead and as she listened, Betty’s heart tore itself apart. He wanted her to be the first to know he was going to propose to his girlfriend, the first person to share in his delight. He gushed over the woman he wanted to marry, extolling every virtue and quirk.

Betty smiled, politely, as she fell apart inside. He told her he was in love for the first time, and she could only smile.

The world around her disappeared as her whole life was reformed. He’d never felt the same about her. He was never planning on moving back home. She knew that now.

A few minutes later his girlfriend arrived to join them. She was graceful, beautiful, sophisticated. Everything Betty wasn’t. It was torture, going through this, and even knowing he’d never love her she still cherished every glance Archie gave her.

But that paled in comparison to how he looked at his girlfriend, how attentive he was to her every word. He’d never paid such close attention to Betty even when she hung on his every word. It was a knife to the heart to realize how one-sided her life had been. How lopsided their friendship was.

Betty had gone into it with everything she had, with all the love she could muster. And so had he, in his own way. But in Archie’s eyes, she’d never be anything more than a dear friend. She’d never be the center of his world. Not like he was the center of hers.

As she neared the exit she gripped the steering wheel as hard as she could and forced the tears to stop. When she reached the old country road that lead to town, Betty rolled down the window and let the air dry her tears.

It would be easier to trap the world in a jar, she realized, than it would be to have him love her like she’d always wanted.

“That’s enough,” she said to herself, her words loud over the engine. “He’s had too much of you already. It’s time to move on.”