Kristin’s eyes fluttered open at the first hint of daybreak, before the sun had even shown its face above the horizon. She stretched her stiff body and then tucked it snug against Kevin’s bare skin. Kevin awoke with a smile and quickly pulled his lover into his arms. “Well that was a good night.”
“Yeah.” Kristen smirked, “One of these days we’ll have to come back alone and try that again without the tent. Just you, me and the stars.”
“I’m free right now. We could get lost in the woods for a while.”
“That’d give Nick and AJ something to talk about all day wouldn’t it?”
Kevin sat up and gave Kristen a curious look before laughing. What was that all about last night? You know everyone knows about us.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean I have to disclose every detail. I don’t want to share you with anyone, not even AJ.”
Kevin got a smirk on his face that Kristen knew all too well. She rolled her eyes, beating him to the punch, because she knew exactly what was about to come out of his mouth. “If you would just marry me already, then legally I would be bound to you and you wouldn’t have to share me.”
“Don’t tempt me. You keep proposing and one of these days I might just say yes.”
Kevin smirked again and then pulled a small box from under his pillow. “That’s kind of what I’m going for.”
Kristen stopped playing when she saw the ring sitting in front of her. Kevin proposed on practically a daily basis, it was sort of their thing, but never once did she expect it to be real. Kevin drank in the shocked look on Kristin’s face. To him, this moment couldn’t have been more perfect. “When I was sixteen I’d saved up enough money to buy my first car and when I went into town to pick one out I came home with this instead.”
“You were ready to marry me at sixteen?”
“I was ready to marry you at twelve, I just didn’t think our parents would let us.”
“You think they’re gonna let us now?”
“We’re 18. They can’t stop us.”
“Well that sounds romantic.”
“It could be.”
Kristin laughed but gazed down at the ring one more time, seriously contemplating the idea. “It doesn’t matter if you say yes right now or not. You can keep the ring either way. I know you’ll be mine someday.”
“So sure are you?”
“You know you want me.”
Kevin puckered up for a kiss but didn’t get one. Kristin simply laughed at him. “You certainly are one of a kind, but you’d better just hang on to that for a while.”
Kevin placed the box in Kristin’s hand. “I told you it’s yours.”
Kristin hesitated, but there was no man on Earth more stubborn than Kevin and fighting him was useless so she smiled and reached for her pack. “I’ll just put it here for safe keeping.”
She tucked the box safely into the very bottom of her bag and then smiled once more as she zipped it shut. “Thank you.” She whispered and placed a soft kiss on Kevin’s lips. “I’ll go start the fire. We need to get going if we want to reach camp before dark.”
With that, Kristin scrambled out of the tent. Kevin watched her go, not at all worried with her lack of an answer. He knew, he didn’t know when, but he knew. She couldn’t resist him forever and he would never give up.
Kristin gathered a small pile of sticks and dragged them over to the fire pit. As she began stacking them she saw Leighanne quietly sneak out of Brian’s tent. Their eyes made contact and that’s all it took for Kristin to know exactly what had happened. Leighanne was excited to see her and joined her by the morning fire. “So?”
Leighanne looked around to make sure no one was nearby and then sighed dreamily. “It was everything I imagined.”
“And you told him right?”
Leighanne nodded proudly. “You have no idea what a relief it is to have it out there after all this time.”
“And what’d he say?”
“He actually didn’t say much, he was pretty shy about it.”
“I can imagine. The poor guys is so dense when it comes to girls.”
“Yeah, but when we were together he was so sweet. I know I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’ve never been with someone like that before.”
“You mean you guys actually had sex?”
Leighanne gave Kristin a stern look. “AJ has sex. Brian made love to me last night. He couldn’t say it, but the way he touched me, and the way he looked at me? He loves me Kristin. I know he does.”
“I told you he did.”
“I can’t thank you enough. I never could have done it without you and you know he never would have.”
“So are you guys together then? Am I allowed to tell Kevin?”
“Well we didn’t define it, so I wouldn’t say anything just yet, but I think it’s safe to say that things will be different from now on. You know how Brian is. I don’t want to scare him off so we’ll just move at his pace.”
“You do know how slow that is, right?”
Leighanne sighed heavily. “He’s worth it.”
Kristin wrapped her arms around her best friend. “I’m really happy for you Leigh.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Kristin and Leighanne talked for a few more minutes until the rest of the camp began to stir. After that, it was pretty much strictly business until they were all packed. The group had quite the hike in front of them, a hike that had become somewhat of a tradition over the last few years.
They were headed to a place called Mercy Springs and it would take the majority of the day to get there. The trip consisted of a strenuous 10-mile hike down the side of a mountain where they would then follow a small stream for another three miles until they came to a valley with pools of natural hot springs. They would then camp the night, spending most of it enjoying the warm water by the light of the fire and then make the journey home the following day.
It was quite the trip, but growing up in Montana they’d all had their fair share of outdoor adventures. None of them compared to Kevin though. They often called him McGiver. He always protested the nickname, but he could truly navigate by the stars and live off the forest with nothing but a good Swiss army knife.
Kevin had practically been raised in the wilderness and over the years had done plenty of exploring. Montana is one of the few states in this country that still has vast amounts of undiscovered land. While it has all been mapped at one point or another, most of the state remains unpopulated.
When Kevin became old enough that his parents would let him go exploring on his own, he would wander off into strange parts of the forest and often dragged the gang along. When they were 14 they happened upon a small group of natural hot springs that had not been listed on any of the National Parks maps. They figured they were probably the only people in the world that knew they existed; therefore the place had very special meaning to them.
They originally referred to the beautiful secluded pools as the hideout because they all felt it was the one place where they could escape all their troubles and no one would ever find them. But, after a while Nick declared that it was pretty juvenile to be planning trips to a “secret hideout”, so the group decided on a new name.
They figured that since Kevin was the one who found them, he should get to pick. And having so much pride in his hometown, Kevin went a traditional rout and simply called it Mercy Hot Springs. He took a little heat from the others for his lack of creativity, but he stood his ground, and from then on the hideout became known as Mercy Springs.
As always, Kevin led the way and the group reached Mercy Springs by dusk. They quickly set up camp and had a traditional dinner of franks and beans cooked over an open fire. Then, after every last marshmallow had been consumed, they found themselves relaxing in a secluded paradise admiring the stars by the light of a glowing fire. AJ groaned a giant sigh of relief as the hot water enclosed around his sore muscles. “This is the only reason I make this stupid trip every year.”
“This trip is not stupid.” Howie protested.
“Yeah, some of our best memories have been these campouts.”
“Gee Kris, you’re starting to sound as cheesy as Kevin, maybe you two should get married already.”
“Gee AJ, you’re starting to sound as dumb as Nick maybe you guys should get married already.”
“Sorry Nicky, but no offense.”
“Alright you guys, let’s not start a fight and ruin the whole point of this trip.”
It was amazing the way Kevin could command attention. No one was even sure why they listened to him, but they obeyed him more than most of them obeyed their own parents. The squabbling immediately stopped and the mood became serious. All attention focused on Kevin as he lit a candle. He smiled gently around the circle and then sat up straight and held the candle in front of him. “Every summer since we were fourteen we have come to this very spot and confessed one thing that no one else knows. Last year we decided to keep our future plans a secret and I don’t know about you, but I am dying to know what’s going to happen to all of us now that we’ve graduated.”
“Amen to that!”
“I guess we should start with Nick since he’s the only one that couldn’t keep it a secret.”
Nick pouted as Kevin handed him the candle. “It wasn’t my fault. I’m not the one who leaked it to the town newspaper. I can’t help it if I’m the first person from Mercy to make the UMT football team.”
The group all shrugged and then laughed as they congratulated the local celebrity. “What I can tell you that you don’t know, is that I have been awarded a four year full-ride scholarship as long as I remain on the team. I’m going to be the first Carter to get a degree. Then I’m gonna get out of the crappy town, no offense Kev, and I’m gonna make something of myself.”
There were congratulations and hugs all around and then Nick handed off the candle to the person on his left, which happened to be AJ. AJ took the spotlight and felt a little sick to his stomach as he divulged the secret that had been haunting him for nearly a month. “My mom got a job in Seattle and we’re leaving at the end of the summer. I’ll have to pay out of state tuition so I can only afford community college, but I want to major in English. Hopefully be a writer someday.”
There was silence for a minute as reality started to hit everyone. They always talked as if they were going to be returning to Mercy Springs every summer until they were all old and decrepit, but deep down they knew that it couldn’t possible end up that way. AJ’s news was just the beginning of a much different life.
Everyone looked around wondering what they could possibly say to comfort their friend. Finally Leighanne broke the silence and with tears in her eyes forced a beautiful smile. “You will AJ. The poems you write are amazing and someday when you get your first book tour, you’d better make sure Mercy is your first stop.”
“You can count on it.” AJ replied as he tried not to become choked up.
AJ quickly handed off the candle to Howie who nearly buckled under the pressure of having to be the one to lighten the mood. “Well,” he began as he cleared his throat. “I’m not going quite as far. I’m only going to Missoula.”
“You’re going to the University of Montana too? Man, we should be roommates!”
Howie laughed, but shook his head. “I don’t belong in a frat house Nick, and I’m not going to UMT. I can’t really afford college either. I’m going to get my real-estate license. There’s a place there and the program only takes like 5 or 6 months.”
“Oh well, it could have been fun to room together. But you’ll always be invited to the frat parties.”
Howie shuddered at the thought of having to attend a college party with Nick and quickly passed the torch so that Nick would forget the subject. Leighanne timidly took the candle and swallowed nervously. “I’m actually still undecided.” She shrugged. “I think I want to go into law like my father and I’ve been accepted to six different schools, but I was kind of waiting to see where everyone else was gonna be.” Leighanne glanced quickly at Brian and then back to the group. “It sounds like UMT might be my best bet so far.”
Brian was practically shaking when he took the candle from Leighanne. He knew his news was going to come as quite a shock to everyone, and he knew not everyone was going to be happy about it. “I’m going to Missoula too.”
Leighanne’s face brightened up, but Kevin’s dropped. “You’re leaving Mercy!”
“It’s only 2 hours away. I’ll be able to visit.”
This news wasn’t the least bit comforting to Kevin. “Kev, the ranch is your thing. I have to find my own place in the world.”
“I thought you liked living with us. We’re your family.”
“I love it here and you’re like a brother to me, but I think my calling in life is a bit different.”
Brian looked at Leighanne and her excitement and curiosity tortured him. His eyes glazed over with moisture as he broke the news to the group. “I talked to Father Paul and I start seminary next week.”
There was silence as heavy as when AJ confessed he was moving clear across the country. Everyone was shocked, but no one more so than Leighanne. She sat in silence, unable to move as her heart broke. Tears filled her eyes when Brian looked to her for approval. Kristin, who had betrayed Leighanne’s secret hours ago to her boyfriend, and Kevin both sat in silence attempting to control their tempers.
Brian had been the very last to know about Leighanne’s feelings for him. It had always been clear as day to everyone else, and it was just as clear right now to see that she was deeply hurt by his news. The air was thick and no one dared be the first to move except Nick. “You’re gonna be a pastor? Pastor Littrell?”
“Um, Father Littrell, actually.”
“But those dudes can’t have sex! Like ever!”
Brian glanced nervously at Leighanne again, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. “That’s right Nick. Once I take my vows I have to live a celibate life, but I’ve accepted it. The Lord has always been there for me when I needed him and I’m ready to spend my life in his service. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
“Good luck with that.”
The next in the circle to receive the candle was Kevin. He took a deep breath and somehow managed to lift the doom and gloom of Brian’s announcement. “Well I haven’t told any of you this, but I’m sure it’s no secret. I’m staying on the ranch and will one day inherit it from my father.”
The group laughed. No one was the least bit surprised by this. The Richardson’s ranch had been in the family for four generations now and nobody was happier there than Kevin. “My father gave the back forty acres as a graduation present and I’m going to spend the summer building a house on the property. Then I’m gonna find me a nice wife who will have me a million babies.”
Again there was laughter all around from everyone except Leighanne and Kristin. Leighanne never wanted to talk about marriage or having babies ever again seeing as how the man she’d just given her heart to had just rejected her for Jesus.
Kristen had somehow managed to lose herself in Kevin’s speech as she pictured sitting on the front porch of the house he was talking about rocking a baby to sleep in a chair that Kevin made himself. She wasn’t shaken from her trance until Kevin handed her the candle.
Kristin would be the last to make her confession, the last to take the first step into adult hood. She knew what she wanted to say; she just didn’t know where to start. “My parents want to retire, so I’m going to be taking over the shop for them. I guess that’s good news for Kevin because he won’t be the only one staying home. And you know, I have kept a journal of all the times Kevin has asked me to marry him in the last 6 years. So far the grand total, including this morning’s beauty, comes to 5,763. That means that to date, this poor man has been rejected 5,762 times.”
Kevin looked curiously at Kristin when the numbers didn’t add up. He didn’t remember her ever saying yes before and he was sure that a detail like that would not have slipped his mind. “I know you won’t all be here forever, but you all damn well better stick around for our wedding.”
Kristin pulled her hand out of the water to reveal the ring Kevin had given her this morning. While everyone gasped and offered their congratulations, Kevin just stared wide-eyed at Kristen. “Really?”
Kristin smirked at her astonished fiancée. “If you really want a million babies, then I figure it’s best we don’t wait much longer, don’t ya think?”
Kevin didn’t waste another second. He found Kristin’s lips so fast that he practically tackled her below the water. Nick frowned when Kristin didn’t hesitate to crawl into his lap. “I think you guys could wait five more minutes.”
Kevin, who was already breathing heavily, pulled his face from Kristin’s long enough to smirk at Nick. “This year’s meeting is officially adjourned so everyone go find somewhere else to be.”
Everyone gave Kevin and Kristin strange looks, but they were too busy making out to notice. They left the two lovebirds in the water, and everyone except Leighanne headed toward the fire to dry off. Leighanne grabbed her towel and quietly headed toward her tent. She stopped before she got there when she felt someone take her hand. “Can we talk?”
Leighanne looked into Brian’s eyes and could no longer take it. “How could you!”
“Leigh. I’m sorry. I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
“You could have tried! I told you that I loved you!”
Leighanne broke into furious tears and all activity in the camp took a time out to witness the spectacle. “For God’s sake Brian we made love last night! Did it mean nothing? Was I just an easy way for you to finally get some before swearing off women forever?”
“Leigh, please calm down.” Brian pleaded as moisture crept into his frustrated eyes. “That’s not what last night was about.”
“Then what was it?”
“I care about you so much Leighanne. I have for a long time.”
“Then don’t do it Brian. Don’t go.”
“I have to.”
Leighanne could feel her heart breaking all over again and she turned to leave but Brian stopped her again, pleading with his eyes for understanding. “If you knew you were going to go, how could you let last night happen?”
Brian sighed. He felt sick with guilt over the pain he was causing her, but he couldn’t regret it. “I dreamt about last night, about being with you, so many times. I didn’t plan for it, but you came to me and then you said all the things I wanted to hear and I just… I just couldn’t let you go. Please don’t be angry. Last night was the most special night of my life and I will remember it forever and I hope you feel the same way.”
Leighanne’s manner turned cold and her tears seemed to freeze as her blue eyes turned steel gray. Slowly she shook her head. “Last night was a mistake.”