Prompt: Write a story inspired by an image of your choice (found online).
Everyone knew about the bicycle in the tree.
Local children measured their height against how far they were from it and their bravery by whether they could climb to it. Teenagers at the high school north of town passed along the superstition that touching the bicycle’s tire could bring good luck. The high school to the south believed touching the same tire would give you a broken heart that no love would ever mend.
There were other rumors, of course.
Mrs. Doyle claimed the bicycle belonged to her sister. That she left it chained to a tree before running away in the middle of the night to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. But everyone knew Mrs. Doyle’s sister ran away with a newspaperman with a nasty temper and a drinking habit to match. Everyone knew they eloped and died in a car crash before any kind of honeymoon.
Old Tom Button once suggested the bicycle was left by a boy before he went to join the army. That was too plausible to believe.
The only person who might really remember was Paula Putnam–the oldest woman in town. Busy with her wealth and whatever being ninety-nine might involve, Paula Putnam kept to herself. She did not visit anyone. She did not invite anyone into her mansion. The only time she was seen in town was every Founder’s Day. The pub had an ongoing pool for when Paula Putnam would finally die. Odds were recalculated and bets renewed once she made her appearance. Some people wondered if she would ever die.
Paula Putnam did not waste her breath on idle conversation. But every year at the Founder’s Day dinner she would tell anyone who would listen about waiting at the tree every night for five years to meet her sweetheart. He rode his bicycle over from the neighboring town–one hour each way, she said–just so he could gaze into her bright eyes and try to steal a kiss. For years he told Paula Putnam that he would marry her. For years Paula Putnam told him she was too young to marry anyone, especially a handsome young man with a fine bicycle and little more to his name beyond striking violet eyes.
But then the story got strange. Paula Putnam did get older eventually, as people are wont to do. Her bright eyes got sharper, her face thinner and suitors came calling from all around. But Paula Putnam’s thoughts stayed with the handsome young man and his fine bicycle.
Paula Putnam didn’t notice it at first. It’s hard, she always said, to notice changes in a person when you see them every day. But then Paula Putnam turned twenty-one and that called for parties and dinners and such that she couldn’t get away even for a moment to meet her sweetheart by the tree.
A week passed.
Paula Putnam saw her sweetheart one more time beneath that tree. She always said it wasn’t the same that final time. She always said that absence doesn’t always leave a heart aching although even those who never knew the full story understood that part for the lie it was.
Paula Putnam ended the story the same way each year late into the Founder’s Day dinner. With her walking away while her sweetheart watched from the tree. She looked back once, she said, and saw him there watching. The moonlight cut through the night in such a way that his brown hair seemed to glow red and even with an entire path between them, she saw the hurt in his unusual violet eyes.
Paula Putnam never saw her violet-eyed sweetheart again but the bicycle stayed there. Paula Putnam told the story as if the bicycle were a reminder of her beauty and her discriminating taste. Nothing more. She would not allow herself to consider what she knew she would never have again.
No one ever knew if Paula Putnam could be trusted. Most people thought she could not. Most people were certain her Founder’s Day story, as it came to be called, was just a story. A way for an aging woman to remember what it felt like to be beautiful and young with her entire life ahead of her.
If anyone did believe Paula Putnam’s story, no one admitted it.
Still, everyone wondered about the bicycle in the tree. For years and years they wondered. Like so many things that become a part of town tradition, the bicycle and the tree started to blend in until it was part of the larger backdrop of the town. Sometimes people would walk by the tree, look up, and remember the strange stories.
When Paula Putnam died the local paper published her story. People talked about it for a while. But nothing lasted forever; not rumors or stories and certainly not memories.
Eventually the tree and the bicycle were forgotten.
Gabriel Sullivan waited a very long time for people to forget.
Covering violet eyes or darkening brown hair to black were easy things in this modern age. It was harder, he found, to erase a previous century’s behaviors. It was harder to change a dialect more commonly associated with another time. Aside from which the colored contact lenses always made his eyes ache.
Gabriel was used to waiting. He had gone entire decades doing nothing else and would likely do so again. He waited for Paula Putnam to stop telling her story about her violet-eyed sweetheart with his fine bicycle. When it became obvious she would never stop, he waited instead for her to die.
It was an easy thing, waiting. Gabriel had nothing but time.
Many years ago Gabriel’s tutor told him once that legends rarely knew they would live forever in myth or song. They were just ordinary people, he had said, often leading ordinary lies. His tutor told Gabriel every subject of every legend was dead and gone long before their stories were told.
Back then Gabriel believed his tutor. It was a long time ago and Gabriel believed things much more readily.
Now he walked, a legend of sorts, through the town that had forgotten him.
If anyone had passed Gabriel they would have noticed the cut of his trousers was a bit sharper than most off-the-rack clothes found in the area. They might have thought his coat a bit out of fashion as he walked toward the cemetery, his hairstyle wrong. Odd. They may have wondered why he stared so intently at Paula Putnam’s tombstone. But it was raining and Gabriel was the only one outside. He preferred it that way.
Gabriel had needed to wait longer than he expected to make this trip. The carved name on the tombstone not nearly as sharp as he would have liked. He brushed moss away from the top corner while he said his goodbyes. He placed a ring box in front of the grave. She deserved more but he had nothing else to give.
He stopped, briefly, to stare up at his bicycle.
He remembered the night he left it chained to the tree. Remembered when the tree began to grow around it and pull the bicycle up off the ground. Gabriel had watched it often, from a distance, over the years. The same way he watched Paula Putnam
Staring at it now he remembered her. She was the prettiest girl in town, no one denied that, but she was also the smartest. She was the one Gabriel loved without quite knowing how much it would hurt. It would be many years before he learned to consider consequences so he courted Paula with wild abandon despite being eight years her senior–with flowers and late-night confessions, with stolen kisses that lasted long than would be deemed proper even now in this modern time when women wore trousers and skirts above their knees.
Gabriel had been so used to time working in his favor. It never occurred to him that a week apart would be his undoing.
Paula Putnam had been meeting Gabriel under that tree for five years when she turned twenty-one. Gabriel was used to watching for small changes so even before that night he noticed how Paula Putnam had aged and grown. He never realized until that night how Paula Putnam might notice some things as well.
Staring at him under the too-bright moonlight she saw his unlined face and its open admiration. She saw that he looked exactly as he had when they first met those five years ago. She asked him what it meant, of course. If he had laughed at it or shrugged her question away, things might have gone differently that night. Except he had no answers. He had no reassurances beyond his love and a ring she would never see.
Gabriel’s eyes stayed on the bicycle as he remembered the fear in Paula Putnam’s eyes as he tried to explain, to tell her it didn’t matter. Paula Putnam was the prettiest girl in town, no one denied that, but she was also the smartest. She knew better than Gabriel himself how much staying with him would cost. She knew letting him go would be nothing compared to getting older and watching his beautiful face stay exactly as it was.
Paula Putnam left him with his bicycle under the tree. Even with an entire path between them Gabriel knew her bright eyes were already turning away. He walked away too, leaving the bicycle behind–another reminder of what was lost to him.
Legends could last for lifetimes stacked one on top of each other. But memories only lasted as long as you let them. Gabriel, for all that it hurt, knew he would remember Paula Putnam for a very long while. But only when he wanted to because Gabriel had lived long enough to know when it was time to move ahead to new places and to new people as well.
Now was such a time.
Nodding once he turned his back on the tree and the bicycle and walked on, pulling his hat down against the thickening rain. Gabriel had seen a great many places and done a great many things. Now that he had said a proper goodbye to the girl he might have married and the life he might have had, he planned to do many more.
After all, Gabriel had time on his side.