Wes climbs into his seat, shutting the door and shifting the truck into drive. He makes a U-turn and stops at the corner, his head falling to the side as he talks. I love when he looks at me like this. Just once, I’d love him to do this and say something sweet—something just for me.
“Where to?” he asks, and I laugh lightly to myself, because his question—it’s sweet enough.
“Just pull out on Main. Take it to the flower farms. There’s one in particular, but I forget what road it’s on. I’ll know it when I see it,” I say.
Wes nods and makes the turn, driving us through the outskirts of town, past rows of combed dirt ready to grow the next season’s crops, until we hit the messier farms, the ones with clusters of green jutting from the ground in haphazard patterns, with splashes of color and splinters.
“It’s a few more ahead,” I say, leaning forward and propping my elbows on his dashboard. I catch his smile on me as I do.
“You like the flower farms, I take it,” he says.
“I love them,” I answer without looking at him. My response is instant and from my heart.
When I was a little girl, my dad would come home from road games with a cluster of flowers. He’d always make a bouquet for my mom, but he’d be sure to make a smaller version just for me. One day, he picked me a little cluster of peonies, and those quickly became my favorite. He couldn’t find them all the time. Peonies only grow for a short season in California. They’re rare here, which somehow I understood. It made them more special. It made the fact that my father would force the team to stop at this rickety stand in the middle of nowhere that much more important.
“Here…stop here,” I breathe, tugging my seatbelt loose.
Wes pulls to the side of the road into the dirt, and I open the door before he’s fully stopped. His hand reaches for me on instinct, and he grabs my leg firmly. My eyes flash to him.
“Wait…please,” he says. His eyes wide, and his swallow hard.
I don’t tease him. I don’t get angry. I understand. I’ve scared him enough.
Nodding, I wait for him to shift the truck into park before climbing out and hopping over the narrow canal lining the road. I bend down and press my nose deep into the petals of the pink flower, inhaling the memories that come along with it.
My smile grows automatically.
“What is it?” Wes asks. I was so lost to my moment of bliss that I didn’t hear him step up behind me.
“They’re peonies,” I say, my fingertips brushing over the soft petals of a few fully-bloomed flowers. It tickles.
“I didn’t peg you for a pink flower kinda girl,” he says. I look up at him, and his smile is just enough. Yet one more sweet thing from his lips. His thumbs are looped in his pockets, and the sun is casting a dust of golden light over his face. He’s devastatingly handsome, and suddenly I’m glad he’s here to share this with me.
“I need to get my camera before the light goes away,” I say.
“Okay, you want me to pick one? This one you were touching?” He bends down and places his thumb and forefinger on the stem.
“No! Leave it. I…I want to shoot it like it is,” I say. Wes steps back, his brow a little bunched, but he nods in acceptance.
I rush to grab my things and pull the Canon from my bag, popping the lens cap off and tucking it in my back pocket. I untie the flannel shirt from around my waist and lay it on the ground near the canal, pulling it close to the flower I spotted first, and I kneel on my knees in front of it, lowering myself to my elbows until I’m eventually laying in front of it.
“Here,” Wes says, pulling his sweatshirt from over his head and tossing it in front of me. “So your elbows don’t get sore,” he says, smiling once, quickly, on the side of his mouth.
“Thanks,” I say, moving the fabric under my arms. It helps—makes my arms more steady. That’s not why I like it though, and it’s not why I took it.
It takes me a while to get the focus just right, the pink vibrant and crisp, and everything beyond the petals soft and out of focus. I shoot a dozen shots like this before sitting up and searching for another flower. The ones here look the same, so I loop the camera strap around my neck and pick up the two shirts, shaking them free of dirt and stepping into the rows of bushes.
I glance around the flatland to make sure nobody sees me, but we’re out here alone. The workers come in the early mornings. I move six or seven rows in, Wes walking slowly behind me, when I spot my next subject.
I repeat my routine, getting close to the flower, and then I wait, holding the camera still and resting my chin on top for the perfect moment.
“That one looks like it’s on its way out,” Wes says, kneeling next to me. I’m thankful he’s on my right, his shadow not interfering. I don’t think I could ask him to move if he were in my way. I like him here too much.
“That’s what I love about it. It’s already blossomed, but before it goes, it has these last few petals,” I sigh as my eyes stare at the soft, wilting, pink pieces clinging to their last moments of beauty in front of me.
“Is that supposed to be you?” Wes asks.
I inhale slowly, filling my lungs with that thought. Is that me?
“Sometimes,” I answer.
Seconds pass, and I hold my breath, waiting patiently as the golden rays crawl along the dirt and stems of the rows in front of me until finally the color reaches my flower. It’s haloed by it—heaven shining down on the end of a life, giving it one last moment of glory.
I capture it all, every last moment, until the shadow of the neighboring flower shades it and the light is gone.
“I think I got it,” I say, pushing up to my knees.
I pull the camera in front of me and flip through the dozens of shots—each one minutely different, but the entirety telling a story.
“It’s beautiful,” Wes says, his breath soft against my neck as he kneels behind me, looking over my shoulder. I close my eyes and keep my face forward.
“Thank you,” I say. I mean it for so much more.
He knows. I can tell by the way his breathing shifts; by the way everything seems to slow.
Standing, I pull our shirts up, shaking the dirt from them both and handing his sweatshirt back to him. He waits for me to walk before moving back to the truck, almost as if he’s making a concerted effort to be by my side, not to leave me.
The sun is disappearing, and the air is growing colder, so before I climb into his truck, I pull my shirt over my bare arms. I hold the camera in my hands once inside and buckled, and as Wes begins to drive out from the dirt road and turn around, I flip through my shots one more time. Every single photo hits me, and without warning, a tear forms in my right eye. I wipe it away quickly and tuck my camera in my bag.
“Why’d you choose the flower?” Wes asks.
I breathe in deeply, pulling one leg up into my chest and hugging my knee with my arms, laying my head on it and looking at him. His face is different at dusk. It’s just as handsome.
“They remind me of my dad. They were kind of our thing—his silent way of telling me he loved me,” I say, lowering my leg and moving my gaze to my window. The farms are already giving way to brick walls and business fronts.
“Loves you,” Wes says. I look at him with my brow pinched, his eyes waiting for mine. “You said loved. But he still loves you.”
I hold his gaze until he has to look back to the road, and when he does, I let the soft laugh escape my lips.
“I know it doesn’t feel like it. But he does. He talks about you all the time. Compares us to you,” Wes says. I turn in my seat, curious.
“You don’t have to lie,” I say.
He grins and chuckles.
“I’m not lying. He does. At least once a practice,” he says. “It’s a bet we make every practice—we see who’s going to get the Joss comparison this time. Yesterday, it was me.”
My smile is subtle, but inside it feels enormous. My chest fills. My heart beats louder. I feel…
“What’d you do? You know, to earn that honor?” I ask, hoping he did something good, that it’s not an admonishment to be compared to me.
Wes laughs to himself and squints one eye, chewing at his lip before looking at me. “I hit Kyle in the arm with a pitch for crowding the plate. Your dad said you used to do that when you pitched. You called it nudging. He said you did it better.”
My smile is full now, the kind of grin that dents my cheeks and aches on my face. “I did do that,” I say, remembering pitching in sixth and seventh grade. All that time, I thought my father wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was just irritated for having to take time away from his practice to pick me up. He always saw the last inning, and that was all.
“And you did it better,” Wes says, pushing me lightly on my leg. He clears his throat when he moves his hand away, but glances at me sideways, nodding. “That’s the important part. Your dad said you did it better.”
I watch him drive for a minute, thinking about what he said.
“I probably did,” I say, pulling a heavy laugh from him. It’s the first time I’ve heard this sound from him, and it fills the space of his cab. It’s loud and deep, and I bet when he’s together with his brothers and dad, the house is filled with this sound too. It’s my new favorite sound.
“You’re not humble, Josselyn Winters. I’ll give you that. You’re stubborn, but shit if you’re not miles away from humble.”
I shrug, but my smile remains, even as I turn to face my window. We’re getting closer to my house, and the good feeling is fleeting.
“Thanks,” I say. When Wes tilts his head in my direction, I explain. “For telling me that…about my dad? Thanks. I miss him. How we used to be. And sometimes I feel it more than others.”
It grows quiet after that honest moment, and when I look at Wes, his thoughts seem to be lost somewhere. I watch him work through whatever it is, and when he catches my stare, he shakes whatever it is off.
“Why didn’t you pick one? Or make yourself a bouquet?” he asks.
I turn back to him, shrugging.
“People pay a fortune other places for those flowers. It’s the only farm in Northern California that grows them. Yet, all I need to do is trespass and pick one. I can’t seem to do it, though. I’ve stolen things from the mall. I’ve walked out with cases of beer from the minimart. I’ve taken balls and equipment from the school for softball. I can’t steal a flower I think is beautiful. I just don’t want to rip it from the ground just so it can die in my hands. It needs its roots. It needs its home. I don’t know…that probably doesn’t make sense.”
“It makes perfect sense,” he says, returning his gaze to the front as he sucks in his bottom lip. I wait for him to say more, but he doesn’t.