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She watched the cool stream as it cut its way though the green banks and she smiled. It had been ten years since she was here in this spot and very little had changed. The sun felt the same, beating down on her shoulders. The gurgle of the water as it crashed over the rocks sounded like an old friend. And the smell. The smell of strawberries ripe on the vine in late July took her back in time.
She stripped off her stockings as she settled by the stream, not caring about the grass stains on her black dress, and plunged her feet into the swiftly moving water. As she lay back and closed her eyes, time slipped away, back to that last summer she was here, the summer she was seventeen.
The letter lay on the small hall table when she came home from school, instantly recognizable by its delicate cerulean color and spidery handwriting. As Buffy laid down her keys, she knew at once who it was from. The only person who ever sent her letters. Her grandmother.
She picked up the envelope to carry with her upstairs. It was May. School would be done in two weeks. Could it be they wanted her to come this summer after all?
She sank down on her bed as she slid open the letter, the scent of lavender taking her back to a wealth of memories.
Summers with her grandparents in Sunnydale had always been the highlight of her young life. Every year from the time she was a little tiny girl, as soon as school was out she’d beg and plead with her parents to go stay with Gramps and Gram. Her mom came from a big family, several sisters and multiple cousins, but they lived far away on the east coast, distant relations she barely knew from photos and the biyearly Christmas visit. But her dad was an only child and so was she. As the only grandchild, she was the apple of his parents’ eye and they always welcomed her summer visits.
Gramps owned a small vineyard outside of town where he tinkered with the vines, as her dad would say, and he and Gram lived there in a old white house that never seemed to change. They were fairly isolated, no near neighbors, no other kids her age.
But Buffy rarely noticed. She had her own special room at their house, fluffy and frilly and covered in white eyelet ruffles her Gram sewed just for her, where she felt like a princess. And down by the stream that meandered on the edge of the property, her Gramps had built a small treehouse where she could hide away and watch the world.
She could go out and trail Gramps around all day, bugging him to tell her about the vines and what he was doing. Or Gram would show her how to bake one of the cakes she was famous for, or let her tag along to pick the strawberries that were her specialty. Her Gram always teased Gramps that one day her strawberry wine would take off and she’d put him out of business, but she really just made it for friends and family.
Yes, summers had always been good. That small white house in Sunnydale was a little place apart, her own secret garden, the place where she could just be Buffy.
And then her sophomore year of high school, her world fell apart. Fights of epic proportions could be heard nightly behind her parent’s closed bedroom door, at least the nights her father came home, while on the surface they insisted everything was fine. The transition to high school that year for a late bloomer like her, still chubby with baby fat and awkward at sixteen, had been less than smooth and teenage hormones had intensified everything. Her parents had been so eager to bundle her off to Sunnydale by the summer, yet for the first time, she hadn’t wanted to go, hadn’t wanted to be excluded from whatever was making her family fall apart, from her few close friends, from the chance to just hang out like everyone else.
Everything had looked different that year. The white house needed a fresh coat of paint, the little treehouse seemed childish, her grandparents antiquated and behind the times. She didn’t want to be alone in the middle of nowhere. She wanted her friends, few though they were, her MTV, access to the nearby beach where the cool kids would hang out. Instead she spent the summer sullen and moody, complaining about everything, the lack of cable, how far they were from town, let alone a mall, how much fun her friends were probably having at the shore with everyone else. She’d ruined her own little Eden with her discontent.
For the first time, Gramps didn’t invite her to go down to the vineyard with him and help, and she fought constantly with her Gram about everything, from how much makeup she could wear, just a little chapstick and some light blush according to Gram, to how she was doing in school, not so well, to what chores she had to do while staying with them. Nothing was good enough for her and finally it was too much for everyone. She left early that year, going back to Los Angeles and home.
And then reality hit in a huge way, as the crisis she’d known was coming started them all on a roller coaster ride. Her Mom and Dad had separated at the beginning of the summer when she’d left for her grandparents, a fact no one had felt she should know at the time. It's complicated, Buffy. We just wanted to protect you, sugar. The explanations didn't soften the blow at all. She arrived back to find her mother packing for the move to a smaller house in a different part of town and her dad more and more absent.
Money was tighter as her parents’ divorce meandered through the legal system. She’d had to get a part-time job, and start worrying if she was really going to be able to afford to go to college after all. In the wake of reality, her priorities of trying to be pretty and popular seemed less important than they had before. Just getting through each day became the bigger task.
By Christmas things had leveled out and she felt more settled. It was like the roller coaster had crested a peak, and she’d finally hit the bottom where she could just coast for a while. And with the freefall behind her she remembered what had happened during the summer, and how she’d hurt two people who had always loved her and wanted to be there for her. Who’d never let her down.
So she wrote the first long letter to her Gramps and Gram, apologizing for the way she’d acted and they responded in kind with even longer letters. Actual mail almost seemed an anachronism in the days of instant communication, but she treasured each of those missives, written on this fine notepaper in the elegant scrawl that marked her Gram’s script.
The dialogue back and forth gave her an outlet for what was happening between her folks, a place for the pain and anger to go. Her grandparents were a sympathetic ear, having always liked her mom and none of them really understood why her dad had suddenly decided to walk away. Her mom called it a mid-life crisis, complete with the little red convertible, and Buffy wondered sometimes if she thought he was coming back when he’d gotten it out of his system.
She didn't think he ever was. And part of her was glad.
Every time her dad would invite her over for a visit to his new apartment, or she’d see her mom with red eyes, she got a little more jaded about the idea of love and romance and the whole fairy tale. She’d had friends whose parents had split, but she’d never thought it would happen to her family. Not to Hank and Joyce. They’d always seemed so . . . perfect. So in love.
She could remember, almost like an old movie reel, watching her dad creep up behind her mom, catching her off guard as he swept her back for a big screen style kiss - the kind the curtain came down on. Her mom had squealed and threw her arms around his neck, giggling as she called out his name. She’d been fourteen at the time, with nothing more than the usual share of unrequited crushes and more than one Tiger Beat star grinning from the walls of her bedroom at home. But she could remember thinking, one day, that’ll be me. In love. Because that, she was sure, was what it looked like.
But then the fairy dust cleared as her fifteenth year brought quiet arguments, her sixteenth outright fights, and now, at seventeen, the shattered bits of a couple she’d once watched with starry eyes. She knew better now. Love might have meant something back in her grandparents’ day, but not anymore.
But there were two people who had a different kind of love for her that she was sure was unconditional. Which brought her back to the letter. She began to scan the lines quickly, then leapt from the bed in her excitement as she found the words of invitation she’d been looking for. Come spend the summer with us. She flew down the stairs with the letter, babbling happily to her mom and begging to go.
She said yes.
The day after school was done for the year, her dad picked her up and drove her up to her grandparents’ place. They didn't have much to say to each other, and conversation dwindled to a halt after the usual standard inquires about school and jobs. He mentioned he’d be leaving town soon for a working vacation, but promised he’d be back for the big Fourth of July weekend he always came and spent with them. It wouldn’t be the same without her mom, but she was glad he hadn’t forgotten. They listened to the radio then, forgettable adult contemporary tunes as the miles flew by, bringing them closer and closer to Sunnydale and a fresh start. Somehow Buffy knew that if she could just get back there, everything would be alright again.
When they arrived, her dad went in for a moment, carrying her suitcase onto the front porch as he gave his mom an awkward hug and shook hands with his father. The air hung with unanswered questions and he didn’t stay long, claiming work required him to hurry back. As the taillights of his car eased down the driveway and back to the main road, she was engulfed in the hugs of her two favorite people, chattering happily. She was home.
Gram held her at arm’s length, eyes twinkling, commenting on how grown up she’d become, and Gramps told her she’d become quite the looker. The last year had changed her, not just inside but outside as well. She’d lost the roly-poly look she’d had for years and her features had become more defined. She’d finally gotten something of a figure, some recognizable curves. She knew when she looked in the mirror now that she saw a young woman, not a little girl reflected back.
Gramps deposited the suitcases in her frilly room, still the same after all these years, and she welcomed the familiarity that last year has merely annoyed. Gram had followed her up to help unpack. She pursed her lips a time or two over a few of the halter tops and shorts, but held her tongue, with just a few clucks here and there. Buffy teasingly offered to loan her something for date night with Gramps, and Gram laughed at the ludicrous thought of her in a midriff baring top as she shooed her down to the kitchen for a snack.
They descended the steps together and returned to the kitchen where Buffy found her grandfather sitting with the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. At that moment she knew the summer was going to be different from any other.
And she was right.