I wove through the bushes, trying not to snap any branches as I headed to the space I'd prepared in the woods. I could hear Ray Anne gasping and sighing as she followed the unfamiliar course I'd set for her.
I arrived at the small clearing- Ray Anne's final destination. It had taken some time to get rid of the lifeless ground cover left over from winter. I was glad to see that all my candles still held flames despite the breeze.
I hid in the trees off to one side, anxious to see Ray Anne's expression when she beheld my romantic gesture. I'd gotten the idea from a picture I'd happened to see on the back of some girls' magazine; only, in that picture, the candles were scattered all around. Mine were arranged in a heart shaped pattern—100 percent my own inspiration, thank you.
Ray Anne approached with careful steps, crunching leaves. Before I could see her face, I heard her inhale, hold her breath a second, then gush, "Oh my goodness!"
She came to a stop right where I'd hoped she would, in the center of the candle heart.
That's when I stepped up behind her. She spun around and smiled up at me, stealing my breath away, as usual. We'd officially been a couple for three months now, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I still got butterflies around her.
To be honest, I envisioned being with Ray from here on out—like, for the rest of my life. First, though, I had to prove I could be a good boyfriend.
Even though I'd rehearsed my speech over and over, in the moment, it all went out the window. I just spoke as the words came. "Ray Anne, I nearly lost you, and not a day goes by that I don't thank God that you survived—that we have the chance to be together. And today, on your nineteenth birthday, I want you to know how much I care about you. That you're in my heart."
Surprisingly smooth, if I do say so myself. I took her hands and pulled them to my chest. "You mean the world to me, Ray."
Her eyes got glossy, and she gave me the biggest smile I'd ever seen. "I feel the same way about you, Owen."
She hugged me, and the aura on the ground around us was twice as bright now that we stood so close. It was a perfect moment.
But then Ray stepped back, her grin replaced by straight lips. "Owen, there's something I really need from you—for our
"Okay?" I was prepared to do anything.
She gripped my shoulders and stared me in the face like a coach about to give a key play. "Quit blaming yourself for what happened to me."
I instinctively turned my head, as if she could see shame welling up in my pupils. Of all the things she could have asked of me . . .
"Ray Anne, you got shot because I couldn't take Dan down. Nothing will ever change that."
"I chose to do what I did." She craned her neck, keeping her face in mine so that I had to make eye contact. "It's not your fault, and it breaks my heart to watch you beat yourself up about it. And believe me, I know what guilt does to a relationship." Her voice cracked with emotion. "You know my mom still blames herself for my brother's suicide, and it's destroying my parents' marriage."
I'd seen the way Mrs. Greiner pulled away when her husband tried to hug her or take her hand, like she didn't deserve the tiniest amount of affection.
I sighed and raked my fingers through my gelled hair. This was far from the first time we'd had a conversation like this. I had no idea why it was so hard to let go of a grudge against myself.
I guess Ray could tell I was struggling. She put her hand on my chest, over my heart. "Owen, I'll say it for the millionth time, even though I never once blamed you to begin with." Her palm on my chest was warm. It felt like kindness was spilling from her soul into mine. "I forgive you. Completely."
I wanted to believe and accept her words this time, but it felt like they slammed into a steel wall that kept anything from getting to the guilt and shame I carried inside me.