I watched and listened closely as Genna sat, cross-legged, in the meadow-green grass near the neighborhood drainage ditch and laughed- a strange laugh I hadn’t heard before. It was a bit tinkly, a bit brassy, but most of all, confident and loud. She tossed her long, blond-chestnut hair over her shoulder marked with the thin strap of her white cotton sundress. Jay and Jonathan, our Saturday afternoon guests, were also watching Genna closely. I noticed how their eyes took in every single strand of hair that landed, perfectly-placed, on her bare, tanned skin.
I looked at my own bare shoulder- pasty-white and dotted with heinous brown splotches other call freckles. I tried tossing my own hair, but with its short, red-turned-pool-water-green, split ends…the effect was less than memorable. The boys didn’t even glance my way.
As Genna continued to hold her audience captive, I climbed to my feet and wandered over to the dewberry bushes. My favorite summer fruit grew wild along the edges of the ditch and was a favorite lounging spot, not only for 7th grade girls, but all sorts of lovely, untamed creatures- birds, mice, chipmunks, rabbits and even deer. The fruit itself was an adventure waiting to be discovered; sometimes, it was small and tart, other times, plump and sweet; you never knew just what you’d find as you inched your fingers delicately along the bramble-covered branches.
I began to pick a few berries to place in the bucket I’d brought. A few, especially plump fellows, detoured their way into my mouth, and their sweet juiciness filled my senses with the aroma of summer. A few in the bucket, a few in my mouth- now the bucket, now my mouth. An eternity might have passed, but in this moment of heaven on earth, I’d never have known if indeed it had done so.
Another hand appeared next to mine wandering along the thorns. I shyly glanced to my side, then up, up, up into the face of my chosen guest. Jay was looking down at me with sky-blue eyes as a lock of stubborn hair fell across his cheek. Time stopped. Or was it just my heart?
Either way, I definitely stopped breathing until he said, “The best berries are hidden in the back. They’re the toughest ones to find! Ouch!” He brought out a handful of plump, ripe berries (and a few scrapes) and offered them to me. “But, they’re my favorite.”
I took them in my hand, and feeling bolder than ever before, I touched one to his lips. He smiled, opened his mouth, and as he bit down, the summer-sweet juice of the very best berry squirted directly into my eye!! Holy Stinging Mother of All Berries!! I was no longer blinded by Jay’s good looks, the steamy mirage of summer, or Genna’s perfect white sundress- just the blasted juice of that dang, toxic berry!!
I dropped the bucket and sank to my knees as I grabbed my eyes, watering profusely from the burn. After a moment, Jay offered my the corner of his shirt which I gently used to dry my eyes, and oh yeah- my now-snotty nose- all thanks to the newly renamed Hellberry!
Wait! Did I really just do that? Wipe my nose with his shirt?!
I dared not look at his face (maybe he didn’t see?! please, oh please?), so I dropped his shirt and scooped up the berry carnage from around my knees, tossing them back into the bucket. I felt the red sting of humiliation on my face.
Smiling, Jay said, “That adds a nice touch to my favorite shirt.”
He reached down, took my hand, and as he helped me up, I mustered the last dribble of dignity I had and laughed- a strange laugh I’d never heard before. It was a little bit tinkly, a bit brassy, but most of all, confident and loud. Jay laughed, too.
As we walked, hand in hand, back to our friends and favorite grassy spot, I tossed my hair once again over my shoulder and this time, I felt the sweet kiss of the sun on my freckled, summer skin.