First published in Christian Fiction Online Magazine.
Today of all days, couldn’t God have seen fit to give her a break? All Maggie wanted was to have the old park bench—her sanctuary—to herself.
An unfamiliar woman occupied the weathered seat beneath the towering maple tree. The bench where Maggie and Tony shared secrets from the time they were eight until the day she turned twenty. The bench where they talked of changing the world. And the bench where Tony broke her heart with news that he was leaving college to change the world—without her.
Maggie slid onto the end of the wooden slats. Maybe the woman would leave if Maggie opened her Bible. The stranger glanced over and then turned to watch a young boy about the age of Maggie’s second graders. Ducks raced along the sparkling river in front of them, snapping up chunks of bread the youth tossed.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Maggie looked up—not remembering a word she’d read—into eyes as soft and damp as green moss, freshly rained upon. Her smile, though timid, seemed genuine.
“I’m sorry for disturbing you. I was just sitting here praying, then you show up with a Bible.” She brushed hair the color of corn silk back from her face and swiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “Maybe it’s a sign.”
Maggie couldn’t be rude or unkind to someone who appeared to be troubled. “I’m Maggie.”
Their two hands joined. The woman’s eyes flickered with recognition—then something else. Fear?
“You’re Maggie Anderson.”
“And you’re …?”
Maggie withdrew her hand. Tony’s wife. How could God do this to her? Hadn’t she hurt enough? She’d come to the bench for comfort, but instead sat next to the woman she’d envied for years.
“How did you know?”
Autumn gave a slight smile before rummaging through her purse and handing Maggie a photo. “He carried this in his wallet. Your eyes are the same. And your hair is still curly, just a little shorter.”
Maggie caressed the photo taken at an amusement park, her vision blurring. Tony and Maggie were twelve. Maggie blinked back the moisture before turning again to the woman sitting next to her. “Tony’s mom mentioned you were coming.”
As Autumn’s eyebrows arched, Maggie explained, “I check in on her almost every day.”
“I didn’t know.”
“How long are you staying?”
“As long as she wants or needs me. Now that his father has passed away, and with Tony gone . . . I’d like to help out where I can.” Autumn fidgeted with the frayed handles of the large purse in her lap. “Regardless of what she may think of me, she is Tony’s mother. I want to meet her. I want to learn more about what it was like for my husband to grow up in this town.” She sighed and slumped against the bench backrest. “I miss him … and I’m trying to find a part of him here. Does that make any sense?”
Maggie gripped the edge of her Bible, praying for heaven’s support. She’d been the one to console Tony’s mother when his father died. The relationship was the last connection she had with Tony, and if Autumn built a strong bond with his mother, Maggie would lose that tie.
“He loved you.” Autumn’s voice barely carried above the gentle breeze. “I hope you know that.”
Had she heard right?
“He told me you were the best friend he ever had. That your father was a minister and the two of you talked to him about what it meant to have trust and faith. Your family provided a safe place to go when his father went on one of his drinking binges. And at this very bench, he realized what he was supposed to do with his life.” Autumn leaned over and touched Maggie’s arm. “That’s why I needed to come. To see where God spoke so clearly to him. I guess I hoped to hear from Him myself.”
“We were going to change the world.” Maggie whispered, more to herself than to Autumn.
Autumn’s face lit up with a warm smile. “He changed my life. And he lived in one of the toughest neighborhoods so he could touch the lives of people living there.”
“But, he died because of it.” Maggie’s heart ached. “Where’s justice in that?”
“God will decide.” Pride seemed to strengthen Autumn’s voice. “Tony did what was necessary to save that little boy from being beaten to a pulp by his own crazy father.”
No wonder he loved her. Autumn understood her husband. When Tony called to tell Maggie that he had married, she’d hung up on him. Hurting and feeling abandoned, she’d returned his letters unopened and erased his unheard phone messages. She’d resented how he’d failed her. Shame squeezed Maggie’s heart as she faced the truth.
He had loved her.
As a friend.
And she’d turned her back on him. Not the other way around. Tony had pledged to change the world, but he never pledged to do it with her at his side. That’s what she had desired, and when he didn’t feel the same way, she wasted years in anger and bitterness. In the end, she lost her best friend.
Maggie’s heart softened and her fingertips lovingly traced the top of the bench. God had spoken, just as He had to Tony years before. It wouldn’t be easy. Not at first. But, she’d been given another chance. Tony couldn’t be with his family, but Maggie could be the kind of friend Autumn needed right now.
“If you’d like, I could introduce you to Tony’s mom.”
“You’re sure?” Autumn’s face reflected hope.
“I’m sure.” Maggie smiled. “And don’t worry. She’s going to love you.”