There are boys, and then there are boys, and for a girl like me, a hopeless romantic with an uncanny ability to torture herself, there’s Paul.
I see him every day after school, at his granddaddy’s farm stand just outside of town. I have to walk passed on my way home and since the summer he turned eighteen and graduated high school, he’s been working there. I walk by each day just to catch a glimpse of his sun-kissed skin and that smile that steals my breath.
“Afternoon, Ms Emma Jean,” he says, in that lazy way of his that exudes confidence without any hint of arrogance. It only makes him more beautiful. He stacks a crate of fresh-picked peaches next to the snap peas that Mama asked me to buy today. “What can I get you?”
I smile, but only just, hiding the way my heart hammers in my chest. “A pound of those,” I say, pointing to his hand resting on the crate of peas. His fingers are long, and calloused from days spent in the fields. I wonder what they would feel like twined with mine.
He grabs a peach and tosses it to me. I nearly fall over trying to catch it and he laughs. My cheeks burn. “Pretty peach for a pretty girl,” he says. And then he turns away to pack up Mama’s snap peas. The peach in my hands is soft, perfectly ripe, and means more to me than any piece of fruit ever should. I wish it meant something to him.
Another day, another glimpse, another pound of produce that Mama really doesn’t need. I should just walk by and not wonder how his hands would feel against my skin, or how soft his lips would be on mine. I should just keep going, but instead I say, “A dozen Granny Smith’s, please.”
“You gonna bake a pie?” Paul asks, as he sifts through the crate to find the best apples. He likes to be sure you get what you pay for, even if you don’t know what to look for in a good fruit. I like that about him. He takes pride in what he does.
“No. I mean, yes.” Heat creeps up my neck. “Apple is my favorite.”
“Mine too,” he says, handing me the bag. I reach for it and when my fingers graze his, he smiles. “Anything else?”
I look at the crates and try to think of something else, anything else that Mama might want. Anything to stay a moment longer. To touch his hand again. But there’s nothing, and my heart can’t take much more today. “No. That’s it.”
The next day I stay after school for softball practice and when I pass Paul’s farm stand, he’s already packing up the crates into the bed of his pick-up. My stomach sinks, realizing I have no reason to stop and talk to him. I hoist my backpack up on my shoulder and walk faster, trying to pass him without looking. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him bend and lift a heavy crate, and even though I can’t make out the details, I know the way his muscles move beneath his skin.
“Hey,” Paul says. I keep walking, hoping he didn’t see me watching him. “Wait, Emma.”
Me? I stop short, nearly tripping over my own two feet. Paul smiles and waves me over. I should keep going. Go right on home and forget about Paul. Forget about his dark brown hair and eyes like drops of chocolate. “Hey,” I say, walking toward him.
He closes the tailgate and leans against it, propping one foot up on the bumper. “Nothing for your mama today?”
“I was late. Softball practice.”
“Oh yeah? I used to play too. Baseball, I mean.”
He arches one eyebrow and I shy away from him. I’ve watched him for years, silently torturing myself with daydreams about a boy I can’t have. He could have anyone.
“So how was that apple pie?” He rubs the back of his neck and looks down at our feet. I kick at the dirt and gravel.
“It was good. Had to be with such good apples.” I close my eyes, not wanting to see the look on his face. I know how stupid I sound. “I’d better go.”
“Wait.” He grabs my wrist, but quickly lets go. He smiles. “Sorry.”
I can’t do it. I can’t stand here and pretend I don’t want him. “I really shouldn’t be here, Paul.”
He steps in closer. “But here you are.”
“Not in the way I want to be, “I mumble, not loud enough for him to hear. Or maybe I shout it, and I just can’t hear over my own heart beating. “See you.”
I pass by the farm stand but today it’s empty. No crates, no baked goods from his Mama’s kitchen, and no Paul. No Paul. Somehow I know he’s gone. I feel it inside, like when you spend every afternoon on the beach ‘til summer ends, then you don’t go anymore and something just feels off. Missing. Over.
Paul’s part in my story is over before I even turned the page.
I stop along the dirt road, stare at the empty spot at the edge of the field, and I notice how the sky meets the corn stalks in a way I never have before.
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