After the first dance, Annie followed Tom as he limped out onto the wide porch. “That’s enough for me,” he said as he dropped into a chair. “Tell me, Annie, why does a pretty young girl like you waste your time with a tired old soldier like me?”
Old? Why had he said old? “You’re not old,” Annie tried to make her laugh light. “You can’t be a day over twenty.”
“Things aren’t always as they seem,” Tom said, and there was a thoughtful sadness in his voice that made Annie’s insides chill. Did he know? He couldn’t know her secret.
She knew she had to tell him, but not yet, oh no, not yet. One more evening, that’s all. Then she’d tell.
They sat on the porch together while inside the music started up again.
“Well, even if you are a day over twenty, I prefer you to any of those other silly boys in there. You suit me fine.” Oh dear, Annie thought as soon as she’d said it, what a terrible thing to say. How can I lead him on like this? I have to tell him. Have to tell him now. She tried to find words to begin, but nothing would come.
“Would you mind going for a little walk?” Tom asked. His voice sounded heavy, as if he had something he wanted to say too. Annie’s heart beat faster with fear, dread, and excitement. If only, if only she didn’t have this awful secret. If only this wasn’t all a sham.
Together they strolled through the village in the moonlight, slowly, because of Tom’s bad leg. Neither of them said a word for a long time.
“Annie, I’ve got something to say to you,” Tom said.
I have some thing to say too, Annie thought, but I wish I didn’t have to say it.
“There’s no other girl I like as much as you, and that’s the plain truth.”
Annie suddenly burst into tears. “Oh Tom, you’re going to hate me, I just know it. I hope you can forgive me. I’m so, so sorry, I would never have done it if I’d known this would happen!’
“Annie, what is it?” Tom asked.
“I’m old, Tom! I’m old. I’m a shriveled old crone that you wouldn’t even look at if you saw how old I really was.”
Tom didn’t say a word.
“There’s a pool in the wood,” Annie whispered, choked through her tears. “If you wash in it in the moment before sunrise, it makes you look young again. But it only makes you look young. I’m still old inside, oh Tom, I’m so sorry. I should have told you sooner, should have told you before…”
“So it was the pool!” Tom said.
“What?” Annie asked.
Tom laughed and picked her up and swung her around before setting her down again on the path.
“It was the pool,” Tom said. “I thought maybe it was the village, but it was the pool. Annie, I have two things to say to you now. At first I was only going to tell you the same thing you’ve just told me.”
Annie took a step back from him, not daring to let the hope leap up in her heart.
“I’m old too! Or I was, until I walked into this town. Folks were treating me different, like I wasn’t a bent old soldier, but a fine young man back from the wars. I didn’t understand it until I got a good look at my hands, at my face. I’d turned young again. I didn’t know how it happened until now. I’d forgot all about sleeping by that old pool in the wood, and stopping to wash when I woke up before dawn.”
Annie was laughing now, still crying, but laughing too.
“Now the second thing. Annie, I haven’t got many years left in me, but what I have, I’d give them to you, if you’ll have me.”
“Of course, Tom, of course!” Annie said.
And arm in arm, they went back, slowly back, to the dance.
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