"You sure it's okay to be here?" I say as we climb over the restricted access fence in the middle of the night.
"Of course! I wouldn't bring you here otherwise would I? I love you too much to let anything bad happen to you, Rach!" she says earnestly, but excitedly.
"Yeah, I know."
I walk just a couple of feet behind her, constantly checking the surroundings, unnerved by the strangely quiet atmosphere around us, only broken by our footsteps crushing the dead autumn leaves.
"So," she says to break the silence. "Do you know where we're going?"
"How would I?"
"Understandable. It's been a while."
She sounds, off. Having a serious tone of voice isn't like her at all. I don't quite understand what she's saying, but I don't think I'll break the tension by prying deeper into something she might not want to talk about, so I opt to change the topic.
"So, how'd your work experience go?"
"Alright I guess. They didn't seem too happy to have me around but hey, I got some bricklaying experience at least. I need that if I'm gonna work on building sites for sure."
"Better than nothing for sure!"
Awkward. I know she's always wanted to renovate old and torn down buildings, but I never thought about why. I would ask, but now seems like a bad time. We walk in silence for a while. She looks inside her bag a few times before we reach a clearing.
"We're here," she says. Her serious tone's sort of gone now, now drifting towards a more sad tone.
She turns around with a spin to reveal her crying eyes, cracked red skin underneath. I run over and hug her. She seems shocked at first, but hugs me back when her initial shock dies down.
"You know, Rach?" she says, wiping her tears in the process. "You're the only one who's ever hugged me."
I hug her tighter for a minute, until she stops hugging me.
"Over there," she says, holding in tears, pointing to a practically destroyed log cabin. "Let's go."
As we approach the destroyed cabin, I can't help but get an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia; I've been here before.
We sit on a log next to where the door would be of the destroyed cabin.
She pauses for a second, before saying "Who am I?"
"Eh?" I say with surprise.
"Oh c'mon Rach!" she says, clearly annoyed.
"Alright sorry, I'll say it. You're Eli. My girlfriend."
She smiles, wiping her tears again.
"Yeah, that's right. I'm Eli. Rach's girlfriend."
I'm confused, but that doesn't matter. As long as she's happy, that's all that matters to me.
She gets up and leans down to grab my hand, which I happily accept.
"We're going in. There's some things you should see."
We head inside, and are immediately greeted by cobwebs everywhere; not surprising considering the state of this building. Looking around doesn't reveal much due to how late it is, but the one thing I do notice is parts of a miniature train set. As soon as I do, memories begin to flood back. Memories of summer break, eight years ago.
I remember when mum brought me here for the first time. She told me this was ours; a place for her to relax and me to do whatever I felt like, including bringing friends round, should I make any. I was excited to say the least. On my ninth birthday, we came here to celebrate. We didn't have any other family or friends; just us. That was until the day I met this young boy who I don't remember the name of, although I do remember him not being very fond of it. We'd play with this miniature train set for hours on end; usually from around 9am to 4pm every day during that summer break. Those seven hours were absolute bliss. Every night I'd think only about being able to play with him again the next day.
That was, until the last day of summer break. He came to us in tears, saying his family was moving house, and that he'd rather stay with us than go back to them. I remember mum trying to comfort him to no avail. I remember the excruciating pain of knowing I'd never see him again once he left. I remember... feeling totally and utterly helpless against the cruelty of the world. Even though this wasn't our problem to get involved in, nine-year-old me certainly thought it was. I remember his parents coming to get him, dragging him out of our cabin, and me running as fast as I could, knocking my mum out of the way, and landing the hardest punch I could muster on his mum. The pure anger and hatred of a nine-year-old not getting what they want, condensed into a single punch. Little did I know, his parents were the landlords of our cabin.
We were evicted, never able to go back there again. They really must have despised us to let this place end up like this. Even now, I don't know how to feel about letting my anger loose on that woman. In some ways, I'm glad; That boy must've had a reason to want to stay with us, and that punch was my way of saying "Let him do what he wants". In other ways, I'm annoyed; My selfish judgement lost us the thing mum worked hardest to get. And when I look back, I can't help but hate my younger self.
I'm brought back to reality by Eli hugging me and wiping my stream of tears. I know this isn't right, but I can't help but say "I'm so sorry..."
"Whatcha sorry for?"
I'm interrupted by Eli hugging me even tighter and crying with me as she just about manages to say "It's okay... I hated them too."
The realisation hits me.
"Wait, so you're-"
She stops hugging me and jumps around to be in front of me and puts a finger on my lips, silencing me. As she releases her finger, she pulls me into her, bringing me into a soft, warm kiss. We stay this way for a while, until she pulls away from me.
"Let me explain," she says. "That 'boy' you knew was me, as I grew up in an intensely transphobic household. As you've probably figured out by now, I'm trans, and my parents hated the very thought of it. Because of this, I always kept any femininity of mine hidden from them, despite the immense damage it caused me. But then, I found you and your mum. You two were the only ones I felt I could be myself around, despite not being brave enough to ask to borrow your clothes or anything. But then, when summer break ended and I knew I'd be moving house, I couldn't take it. I couldn't go losing the only people who made me feel like, well, me! I thought that maybe if your mum took me in, I could've transitioned as a kid, not have to pretend I was male for another nine years and not have to go through the wrong puberty, I could've lived a decent childhood."
She cries again. I hug her tight as she continues. "It's been seven years since I ran away. I went to my grandma's house, since she didn't live in a property owned by my parents like the rest of my family and always opposed my parents' transphobia whenever we all got together. I didn't tell her I was trans for a while, but when I did tell her, she told me she'd already figured it out. She was the parent I never had. But then, one year ago today, she passed away. Peacefully, but still..."
She explodes into tears, hugging me ever tighter. "She was the only one who cared! She was... the only one... who cared..."
This is where I have to be brave. I've got to do it. "Eli."
"I love you. More than you'd ever believe, honestly. Doesn't make a difference that you're trans; I love you regardless, and you'll always be my girlfriend, without a doubt."
She stops hugging me and pouts while saying "Not your wife then?" as she rummages her hand inside her bag. She kneels on one knee in front of me, slowly opening the box she had in her bag to reveal a ring.
"Rach... Will you marry me?"
We both blush heavily for a moment. I can't believe this level of happiness is possible. "Of course I will, Eli!"
We kiss again for a while.
Back in the clearing, we both lay on the grass, staring up at the stars.
"You figured out why I'm studying architecture and construction yet?"
"To renovate this cabin, right?"
"That's one of the reasons, yeah. The other is to house people like me who needed to run away from their home. I know for a fact I was incredibly lucky having grandma take me in; hardly any of us have that possibility available to us."
"Makes sense! You'll do an amazing job I know it!"
"Thanks! I sure hope I do."
We lay in silence for a minute, until she says "Hug me again please."
We hug again.
"Thanks a ton, seriously," she says. "You know why I love hugs with you so much?"
"Because we're fiancés?"
"Because it reminds me of the one time I felt safest as a kid; in the arms of the only one who was brave enough to defy my mum. I love you so much Rach."
"I love you more, my beautiful fiancé Eli."
She pouts. "Alright you started it now I'm finishing it!"
"...I love you more."
We laugh together far into the night, surrounded by trees, memories, and my beautiful fiancé being safest in my arms.