Last summer at the pool I wore a suit as red as a bitten strawberry, a book tucked into the crook of my arm. You had your dark curls and white sunglasses; you walked past and our shoulders bumped. I stumbled. You gave me a slippery-slope smile and a shrug. I rubbed my shoulder and watched you walk away. When I pulled my hand back, a golden flake glimmered in the center of my palm. I brushed it off. It landed on a mother’s beach towel, sticking to the gooey stains from her toddler’s hands. I sat on the edge of the grass, pretending to read. You dove into the deep end, swimming halfway across the pool before coming up in a burst of inheld breath and laughter. I worked at the library that summer, shuffling on my knees to file books about erotic papayas and losing weight after menopause. A boy asked me where to find a book by Hemingway, sliding a folded Summer Reading list into the pocket of his jeans. His skin was the same dark tan as yours. I rocked back on my heels. When I stood, he was shorter than me. I led him to the American Classics end-cap shelf and glanced at the sliding glass doors, wondering if you had books to read as well. The boy took the book on his list off the shelf; I handed him a book from mine. The Last Journey of Alabaster Crain, a book with pirates and sea monsters that took two hundred words to say what Hemingway said in two. A single golden speck, no larger than the flecks of green inside the boy’s hazel eyes, marked the curling Y in the book’s title from where I’d picked it up. “You’ll like this one,” I said. He smiled nervously at me and bobbed his head, shoving it beneath the book he had to read for school. At the end of my shift, I found The Last Journey of Alabaster Crain on the research librarian’s desk, left behind to be reshelved. I tucked it beneath my arm and walked out the staff door. My bangs were slicked to my forehead with sweat and humidity by the time I reached the pool. I trickled my fingers over the chain link fence, trying to stand straight, shoulders back, tall and strong and carefully casual like I walked this way every day. I sat beneath an old oak tree, Alabaster lying on my knees, pretending to read. I picked up the golden fleck, its hue softened to tan by the tree’s shade. On my tongue it burst with the tangy spice of fresh ginger. It wasn’t until summer was trampled beneath the tires of a yellow school bus that I saw you again. First day of school, our lockers assigned side-by-side, as if someone was laughing at me. I knew you at once; you knew me when your friend shoved you and you stumbled back into my open locker door. It hit me in the ear. This time, you said sorry, that same smile slipping around the side of my locker warm and minty, Winterfresh gum crushed between your teeth. A piece of me, just under the curve of skin where my ear kisses my neck, dislodged at your gaze. Your friend called; you winked at me; it fell, joining last year’s broken pencil and crumpled college-ruled paper already cluttering the bottom of my locker. I stared at your back, wondering if the wink meant you’d spent the summer looking for me over your shoulder the way I’d looked for you over the spine of my book. The weeks rushed by, measured in due dates and the number of times you trapped your thumb between your middle fingers when you said hey. Once, your elbow caught your water bottle, tipping it off where you’d sat it on the bottom shelf of your locker. It fell; I lunged for it and caught your hand instead. The bottle cracked, spraying water over two pairs of tennis shoes. You learned my name. You learned my next class; once, you walked me to it, then ran to yours. We were both late that day--you because your class was three halls over and me because I stood outside the door until I couldn’t hear your footsteps any longer. When I finally opened it, I left behind a handle coated with gold. Thirteen pieces of myself later, I lost Alabaster somewhere beneath the bleachers and you asked me to sneak out during lunch period. You drove; I played with the air vent. Neither of us had money, so instead of eating we tangled hands then lips, your body reaching across the console to press against mine. You sat back when my stomach growled. The corner of your smile shone with my gold. I dug for a granola bar in my bookbag instead of reaching for you. The next day I held my breath as I closed my locker. You were throwing textbooks into yours. I said your name; you laughed. I couldn’t tell if it was at me or the math textbook crashing off your shelf back into your hands. “Hey,” you said. Your curls, longer than in the summer, fell forward to hide your face. I told myself I imagined the laugh and waited for you to turn so I could see if I was still stuck to the crease of your smile. You closed your hand over the lock hanging from your locker door, clicking through each rotation so slowly that I knew that hey meant something else entirely. The hall was full, people I knew and people I’d never seen before, all walking past us. Wanting you to follow me, I joined them. Cracks spiderwebbed from tile to tile across the floor. I swerved to avoid a cluster of girls in matching pink tennis shoes, each pair nearly touching the one to either side. My grey shoes were streaked with brown; it had rained that morning, my walk to the bus stop mired with mud. Footsteps pounded, the beat of a runner forcing its way through the cacophony of hundreds of people flirting, gossiping, rehearsing lines. I twisted sideways to start our dance before you could slam into my shoulder again. But it was just a boy, a duffel bag slamming against his legs and a basketball clutched to his chest as he passed me. The warning bell rang. The crush thinned. I could see a trail of myself leading back to where we’d stood side-by-side, each of my footprints yellow-gold instead of mud-brown even beneath the fluorescent lights. The line was unbroken, leading from me to us, waiting to shatter around your feet when you turned and walked the opposite way. I closed my eyes and imagined that before you left you crouched in front of your locker, your eyes caught by something beautiful. I imagined you looking up, seeing me, my gold balanced on your palm’s lifeline. Imagined your palm fitting perfectly around the slope of my cheek, pressing into place my heart’s lost piece. I bent down, reaching for my own footprints. A flake stuck to my finger; I pressed it to my tongue. It tasted of mint. A hand tapped my shoulder. I swallowed your taste and my smile and turned. A book bridged the distance between the boy from the library and I. He bit his lip, forcing his hey out around his teeth. It sounded like sorry. “Is this yours,” he said, his tone even, missing the rise of a question. I didn’t have to look away from his hazel eyes, my hand knew Alabaster’s cover as well as my heart knew its words. “Did you like it?” I said, watching him nod and set his smile free so I wouldn’t look down the hall for you. The second bell rang. He turned from me and ran, his shoulders pulled up into uncertain mountains. I watched my heart’s trail scatter around his fleeing footsteps. A torn paper bookmark had slipped into Alabaster’s pages, lying between the pirate king’s shout from the crow’s nest and the splash of waves lapping around his fallen body. He wrote on the slip in cursive, letters climbing sideways up the side of the tear like thick coiled rope. A single silver flake sparkled in place of the period. tell me what to read next
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Jenni Meade is a writer, CFO, and mother of four with cluttered dreams and an imperfect heart. She can be found on Twitter @jmeadeski or online at www.jennimeade.com.
**This piece was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2021.