The first time I ever laid eyes on Casey Lankford, I was soiled in dirt, lying face up in the mud. My head was throbbing painfully from the soccer ball that had pinged me in the head and my voice box was rattling from letting out the short, panicked scream.
And somehow, he made his way across the crowded park, coming to my rescue like an unconventional hero, there to save the day.
"Ma'am!" he said, falling to my side. "Ma'am, are you okay?"
I looked up at him and stared. I found myself strangely taken aback both by his quick response to one of my many near-death-by-sports-equipment accidents (most people just stared at me, shaking their heads in pity), and by the fact that he was just down right gorgeous. We kind of sat there awkwardly, staring at each other for the longest time. I studied his face carefully; his deep chocolate eyes, his lovely chocolate hair, his sincere grin, and the flawless curves of his beautiful face. I could feel my entire heart rejoice astoundingly, like angels in the heavens. From the second I looked into those elegant eyes, I wanted to kiss him…I wanted to hold him…I wanted to feel the warmth of my hand in his. I swear I could almost feel it for real…
"How many fingers do you see?" he was asking, wagging two fingers in front of my face.
I smiled mischievously. "Four."
His face fell pale. "Oh…Oh! That cannot be good!"
He searched his pockets frantically for his phone and I began to laugh. He stared at me confusedly, unable to figure out what I found to be so damn funny.
"There's two," I said, laying my hand lightly on his arm. "Don't worry! I feel fine!"
He let out a long, relieved breath and a glowing smile spread across his face. Almost as if he could read my deepest desires, his gentle hand caressed my forehead with such compassion that my entire body sparkled with sensation. My head was throbbing, but I still managed to focus my attention on him.
"Damn…" he muttered, examining the bump on my head. "I think we should take you to the hospital…"
"No! No, I'm fine! Honest," I say quickly.
"I want to be sure."
"No! I swear! I'm fine! All I need is an ice pack and some aspirin."
"Are you sure?" he laughed a little, mostly in a surprised manner.
I nodded and grinned. "It's happened before…don't worry, I know what I'm doing."
He took my hand and helped guide me to a stand…and just as I had imagined, his palm was gentle and warm and I felt a shimmer of joy jolt up my arm and through my entire body. I felt like I had just stepped off onto a cloud, and I felt like dancing. But before I could even contemplate whether or not to bust a move, I felt a little dizzy and blacked out for a few seconds. After the darkness passed, I found myself on my back again. Casey was lying beside me, the front of his face brown and sticky with mud…and he was laughing. I tried to gather my thoughts…what happened?
I examined the situation closely for a moment before realizing I had slipped and fallen back, dragging poor Casey with me. If I hadn't have been in so much pain, I'd have busted out laughing right away. It took me a moment to work up the energy after knocking the wind out of my lungs.
We were both soon hysterical with laughter. People stared at us like we were a couple of goofs…maybe we were, but we were too giggly to even care. My side started to hurt after a moment and I tried to roll over onto the grass. Casey was desperately trying to smudge globs of mud from his eyes as he crawled beside me. I squished my face into the grass and let out a fitful chuckle before hearing a small voice beside me.
"Miss…Miss, I'm really sorry! "A young boy stood towering over me, his sandy blonde hair fluttering in the breeze. He was deathly pale."I didn't mean to hurt you! Honest, I swear. I'm real, real sorry!"
Casey stopped laughing for a moment to listen.
"It's ok, sweetie. It was just an accident. Don't worry about it!" I said, wiping my eyes free of tears. I chuckled a little bit and looked at him. He couldn't have been more than nine years old, but he was on the verge of crying. Suddenly I felt terrible.
"Listen, cutie…" I said as I reached into my sopping coat pocket. I withdrew a five-dollar bill and shook some of the mud off. "Why don't you take this and go get yourself a soda or an ice cream bar at the food court. And we'll forget about all of this…okay?"
He nodded slightly and took my offering with some hesitation. "Thank you," he said, nodding his head shyly.
I nodded and he apologized once more before he gathered up his soccer ball and left. We both stared after him silently, unable to decide what to say next. Casey let out a happy sigh and rolled over onto his back, looking up at me as i propped myself up on my elbows.
"That was nice of you," he said.
I shrugged. " It was no big deal. It was just five bucks."
"I know…but still."
His face was just splattered with mud and I couldn't help but laugh again.
"Come here," I said, pushing myself up to my knees. I wiped my palms clean and pulled a clean napkin from my pocket. He obeyed and sat up a little, closing his eyes. I leaned over and wiped his lashes gently with the corner of the napkin. He smiled and asked if I always got hit by soccer balls in the park. All I did was giggle and shake my head.
"No…this is the first time I got hit with a soccer ball. I've gotten hit by volleyballs, baseballs, footballs and a basketball. But not a soccer ball."
His eyes brows scrunched curiously, "Are you serious?"
"Hold still," I said gently as I rubbed mud from his mouth. He opened his eyes and looked at me softly, waiting as I balled up the dirty napkin. After a moment, I continued, saying, "I'm serious! I'm the most accident prone person on the planet!"
"What do you mean?"
"I trip a lot…I fall a lot…I get hit by flying objects a lot…I run into things a lot…I am just not coordinated enough to function."
He chuckled and I wiped my hands on my jeans shyly.
"So what were you doing out here on this fine day?" I asked.
"Walking. You?" he replied.
I shrugged. "Walking. By yourself?"
"Yep. So there's no…"
"Nope. Would you like to go get some ice cream?"
I grinned. "Sure."
We sat outside the Dairy Queen munching on Oreo Blizzards and French fries. That's when I first learned his name…Casey Lankford! It spun over and over in my head like a million dollars and I kept repeating it in my mind so I would never ever forget it.
He was a bartender and he had grown up in Helena, Montana. His mother used to own a jewelry store and his father was a car dealer. He had three sisters all who were younger and an older brother. He had a dog named Buddy and he lived on the south side of Great Falls in an apartment all by himself. He was a Lakers fan (which was one of the things I never got into: sports), and he coached baseball, football, and sometimes basketball for both middle and high school.
I kept crowding him with questions, eager to learn everything I could about him in the short time we had together.
"So where do you bartend at?" I asked, wiping the corners of my mouth with my crusty, grass stained sleeve.
He handed me a napkin and said, "The State Street Bar."
I giggled, "Thanks...I would have never guessed that you worked in a bar!"
"What would you have guessed?"
"Oh, a carpenter or a contractor or something. Maybe a P.E. teacher."
"I thought about doing that." His voice fell serious. I swallowed my ice cream hesitantly. What have I done?
"What happened?" I asked carefully.
He shrugged. "Some shit happened and I had a change of plans."
There was an awkward silence afterwards, like I had just touched on the most personal subject for him. I tried to think of a new subject, but I was too confused by his sudden soberness.
"So what about you. What do you do?" he asked finally.
I let out a nervous giggle. "I-I'm a…well I'm sort of a waitress at Dante's right now." He nodded approvingly, indicating for me to continue. "I mean, I have a degree in teen counseling, but there aren't any openings here."
"What about out of state?"
I shook my head. "There are plenty, but the thing is…well…" Suddenly, I stopped and took a deep breath, deciding it was best to just simply say it. "I don't adapt very well."
He didn't say anything. I watched him nod slowly, licking his spoon absentmindedly. I knew he was waiting for me to explain, so I let out a low sigh and wiped my mouth again. "You see my dad was in the military and we moved around a lot. I'm afraid of having to move and start all over. I had enough of that when I was a kid, and I don't want to go through it again. Especially alone."
He didn't seem disappointed with my reply. He looked me in the eye and nodded approvingly, and said, "I understand."
I sighed again. "I'm so sorry…it's just so hard to explain."
"That's okay. You explained it just fine." He stirred his ice cream. "That's really cool that you're willing to hang around like that." We both sort of smiled and went back to eating in silence. After a while, he turned to me and asked, "How far are you from here?"
"Not too far…maybe eight or nine blocks."
"I'll walk you."
"I'd like that!"
As we walked, I asked Casey about his family. I learned that he had three younger sisters and an older brother. Both of his parents owned a jewlery store on Central Avenue, and they were soon to retire. He spoke of them fondly, smiling as he introduced each person to me.
"I bet they're as nice as you, aren't they?" I asked. He blushed a little.
"About a million times nicer," he said.
"They sound like great people."
"Yeah…they are. What about your family?"
My heart skipped a beat. "My family," I stammered.
"Yeah. What are they like?"
I hesitated to even answer. "They're...well, you see, they're..."
He gave me sort of a funny look, but it didn't make me feel uncomfortable. I just held my hands out in front of me, trying to figure out a way to explain. "It's just that…" I tried, wiggling my fingers nervously. "I'm not sure I'm ready for you to know about them yet."
He nodded and smiled. "Okay, I understand."
Slowly I came to a stop in front of the Maria Apartment Complex.
"This is it," I told him, brushing my bangs out of my face. "Thank you for the lovely walk…and the ice cream…and for scraping me off the ground."
Casey chuckled a bit a nodded. "It was my pleasure!"
I reached out to shake his hand. "It was great to meet you, Mr. Lankford!"
"The honor is all mine," he said comically, but sincerely, gripping hand softly. We shook hands for a short moment, and when it got awkward again, we both shied away like tow little kids.
"Goodnight," I told him, laughing.
He smiled and said, "G'night."
I watched him walk away, down the street further and my heart fluttered. I started to hum quietly to myself as I pulled out my keys. A part of me wanted to just fall down and laugh because I was so excited and so overwhelmed at the same time. Here was a great guy, one who-oddly enough—took an interest in me and was willing to spend two hours in my presence. I just wanted to dance. So I did. For like a second. I had hardly wiggled my booty three times before I sensed his presence. And I froze, turning ever so slowly, half shocked to see him standing there. Busted. My face burned a bright red and he was choking in his laughter..
"Hi…" I said slowly.
"Hi," he chuckled. "I won't ask."
He looked up at me and asked, "Can I see you again?"
I nearly fainted. Was I dreaming? "You…you…me? You want to see me again?"
He nodded. "Why wouldn't I?"
A sincere smile spread across my face, and I stood there like a dope, grinning, considering my options. A part of me was afraid of a new relationship…the other was all for it. I couldn't give him my number until I was sure of what I wanted. But how long would that take?
"I don't know if I'm ready for that yet," I explained slowly. "I mean, I would love to see you again, but I don't know if I'm ready. I'll find you when I am. That's a promise."