But on October 1 of each year, ever since her divorce, Penny did return. She had come faithfully, year after year, to this bench, on this hill. She wasn’t sure why; she just came. Her visits had ended four years ago, though—an auto accident that summer cost her the use of her legs. Even now, today, her wheelchair sat folded and waiting beside her. But at least she was here again, at her favorite spot in all the world.
A movement of the bench snapped her out of her reverie.
Someone must have sat down behind her, on the long seat back-to-back with hers. She half-turned to see a dark-haired man in a jogging suit, standing and facing the other direction. He wasn’t sitting on the bench, it turned out; he was leaning against the iron armrest, to tie his shoe. And something about his hair, and size…
No, it couldn’t be. Penny didn’t believe in coincidences, and certainly didn’t believe in happy endings. She wasn’t confident she believed in anything good anymore.
Sure enough, the new arrival turned showing her the bearded profile of a man in his early 30s, at most. She’d never seen him before. Then, without noticing or speaking to her, he took a swig of water and headed off down the sidewalk through the falling leaves. She was watching him, adrift in her thoughts, when a surprised voice behind her said, “Penny?”
Her breath caught in her throat. Very slowly, she looked over her shoulder.
She and the man on the bench behind her stared at each other, stunned. Penny clapped a hand over her mouth. Her pulse was pounding in her ears.
“Ben,” she gasped. “Is it you?”
He looked as if he’d seen a ghost. “I might ask you the same thing.”
“What—what on earth are you doing here?”
“I’ve been here every year. For the past three, anyway.” He looked great, she thought dazedly: bright eyes, short gray hair, rugged face (though a little pale at the moment). The dimples in his cheeks had become laugh lines. Like a few other men she’d known, he seemed to have somehow improved with age.
“You mean here in Bridgeton?”
“That too,” he said. “I moved back from L.A. But I meant here, here. This bench.”
Penny’s heart skipped a beat. “Why?”
“It’s the first of October,” Ben said, his eyes softening. “Why else?”
For a moment she couldn’t speak. This was no coincidence. It was even logical, in a crazy way. A magnet that had drawn them both. Take deep breaths, she told herself.
“So…you’re not— ”
A shadow crossed his face. “My wife died. It’s been five years now. And you?”
“Divorced. Long ago.” She was struggling to keep her voice steady. This was simply too much to absorb. Not only was he here…he was here because of her. Whatever they had once felt was still alive. She could see it in his eyes.
This was exactly what Penny had dreamed of, for all these years—
And now it was too late.
She felt a cold emptiness in her stomach — the feel of reality, settling in. Maybe this was what she deserved, she thought, after making such a foolish mistake, so long ago.
“I heard—” She cleared her throat. “I heard you won a bunch of medals in the war.”
He grinned, looked embarrassed now. “I managed to get myself shot up, is all.”
She forced a smile. “You always were accident-prone.”
“Guess that makes two of us,” he said.
She realized his face had turned solemn. He was looking past her, at the folded wheelchair. Her cheeks flushed with heat.
“What happened?” he asked gently.
“A car wreck.” She hesitated. “Years ago. They say I’ll never walk again.”
She felt tears stinging her eyes, but she held them back. Her secret was out. Raising her chin, she waited for the inevitable. Well, he would say, really nice seeing you again, Penny—
“How good are you, with that thing?” he asked, nodding toward the wheelchair.
She blinked. “What?”
“I’d like to buy you lunch,” he said. “As long as you’re not in a big hurry.”
For a moment they just stared at each other. Then he picked up a pair of crutches from behind him and rose unsteadily from the bench.
“I’m moving a little slow, lately,” he said.
And it was then that she saw it. He had only one leg.
This time her tears came. Ben hobbled around the end of the bench and stood before her, leaning on his crutches. He bent down and kissed her forehead.
“Don’t worry,” she said, sniffling. “They’re happy tears.”
A minute later she was settled in her chair, and gazing with still-damp eyes at the face she’d once known so well. With a glance at his good leg, she said, “Did they tell you what those medals were going to cost you?”
He grinned and squeezed her hand as they started down the hill to the coffee shop.
“Maybe it was worth it,” he said.