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Authors: Jodi Lynn Anderson

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“So where are you from, Grey?” Murphy asked, too cavalier and restless to notice the tension between him and Leeda.

“Nowhere, really,” he said, looking at the dog instead of Murphy. “I just got out of foster care when I turned eighteen.” Leeda felt her throat tighten slightly. “I'm just moving around now.”

Murphy cocked her head, intrigued and fascinated, while Leeda was just uncomfortable and unsure what to say. “Foster care, huh? What's that like?” Murphy pressed. Leeda shot her a look.

Grey shrugged coolly. “Depends on the family. I had three. They've been all right.” It didn't seem like an emotionally deep topic for him. He seemed as bored by it as he did by everything else.

Leeda tried to picture moving into a family that had its own culture and personality completely separate from you. It sounded like being raised by wolves.

Grey bent forward and let the dog off its leash, then stood and
started forward, taking off his shirt and dropping it on the grass. His back was pale. He walked down to the water's edge and waded in. The Chihuahua launched itself toward Majestic and the two dogs ran laps around the grass, like racecars sidling up to each other.

“He seems okay,” Murphy said, her green eyes, always alert, on Grey. “Quiet, maybe. That's crazy he was a foster kid.”

“Yeah,” Birdie said. “He's not ugly either. You said he was ugly.”

“I didn't say he was ugly,” Leeda said. “Just mean.”

“He doesn't look mean; he looks disappointed,” Birdie said, scratching at her head. “He looks like a taller, very sad Jake Gyllenhaal.”

“No way does he look like Jake Gyllenhaal,” Murphy said. “Anyway, Bird, you think everyone who's mean is actually just sad.”

“That's true,” Birdie said, picking at some grass. Majestic and the Chihuahua zipped up to them, and Majestic barreled onto Birdie's lap. The Chihuahua settled nervously at Leeda's knee, staring up at her uncertainly, licking his lips, and then settling down onto his front paws.

Birdie had loaded a batch of June Princes into the basket, and Leeda cradled two to her chest, nibbling on a third. Eating a peach was a multilayered experience. It was soft and juicy, fuzzy, tough, and messy. It involved your fingers and cheeks getting slopped with juice.

“Why are you hoarding food?” Murphy said with her mouth full. Which was ironic, considering she had tackled the peaches greedily. She had a tiny bit of peach skin pasted to the side of her chin like a murder clue.

Birdie sank against Leeda's side, and Leeda combed the tangles out of her hair absently while Murphy watched Grey, who was doing strong, steady laps across the lake. Leeda felt contentment bubble up in her, suddenly intoxicating. It was a perfect day, and there was a light breeze, and she had the sweet feeling of being in the best place and the best moment she could possibly be in. She only felt these moments from time to time, and all of them that she could remember had happened at the orchard. She only wished Eric could be there too. She picked a twig from the ground and stuffed it into her pocket.

Leeda was studying a bee when a shadow suddenly fell upon her, and she looked up to where Grey was blocking the sun and pulling his shirt back on. He looked like he was thinking something over. Murphy and Birdie kept staring at him like he was some kind of TV show, waiting for what would happen next.

“Do you want something to eat?” Birdie asked.

“No thanks.”

He looked at Leeda for a few seconds, long enough to make her uncomfortable. “I gotta go,” he said.

He scooped up the leash and attached it to the Chihuahua, who was sitting on his hind legs now that Grey was back, waving at the air. But Grey only stood there awkwardly, his athletic body paused and still, as if he wanted to say something. Finally he spoke. “I'm sorry I was rude about your grandmom, Leeda.”

And just like that, without a good-bye, Grey was on his way back into the peach rows.

They all watched him disappear into the space where the trees wove together.

“He's like Heathcliff from
Wuthering Heights
.” Birdie sighed. “All moody.”

“Well, he's definitely…special,” Murphy said.

Leeda stared after him, bewildered. The last thing she saw was the Chihuahua, straining back toward her, before he too disappeared into the trees.

“C
an you find me the tax stuff from last year?” Birdie's dad asked, leaning over his desk and fishing for a pen.

“Sure.”

Birdie walked over to the shelves of her dad's office and expertly scanned the chaotic piles, zeroing in on a blue folder and sliding it out of the mess. Her dad had called her inside to help with paperwork. He sometimes did so when things outside were running smoothly, which, by mid-June, they often were. This was the first time she'd spent much time in the house since she'd moved into her tree house.

The office was a small square room, with dark walls and crooked shelves and the same warped, sunken floors that held up the rest of the house. There was an old TV in one corner that hadn't worked since the eighties. Knickknacks littered the shelves. They had no particular shelving system—they were the only two people who could find anything.

Birdie and her father had spent many days like this, working in tandem on orchard finances, poring over information about pesticides and fertilizer, calling Southern Counties Farm Supply
to order anything they were low on. They had spent far more time together than most fathers and daughters, often holding the finances and the farm together by a thread. Birdie had always been eager to help, always excited to take over a job from her dad and take on more responsibility. By now, they were a well-oiled machine.

As she waited for her dad to hand her the next batch of work, she studied him. Birdie rarely looked at her dad—really looked at him. She looked at other people's dads, observed them objectively: the graying at their temples, whether they seemed strong or mellow or preoccupied. But she couldn't remember the last time she had looked at her dad with clear eyes. And now that she sat, gazing at him, he looked tired. Tired and stressed out. His hair had more white than other dads she knew. His hands were rougher from the farm work, and he had more wrinkles from spending so much time in the sun. Birdie's dad had given a lot to their farm, and the farm had taken things from him—his early mornings, his nights, all his time, really. It wasn't a place that allowed for days off. Nature kept moving whether you worked or not.

Birdie felt the same lost feeling opening at the pit of her stomach, so she stood and studied the messy shelves, looking for a distraction. There were huge tomes on trees and fruits, an old dictionary, cookbooks with their bindings coming apart, old photo albums, a couple of books on Bridgewater that included photos of the orchard and its “historic” house. “Historic” only because it was old.

She fished out one of the books and opened it to a well-worn page that featured the orchard. In this photo, black-and-white
and grainy, a dark-haired woman stood in front of the house, smiling in a gray dress. The caption read,
Owner Mandie Rae Adlai, 1932.

Mandie Rae's face was familiar to Birdie. It appeared in a couple of old photo albums that had come with the house itself and in a few histories of the town. Mandie Rae had abandoned the orchard, just up and left it one day. But Birdie had always felt a sympathetic connection to the pretty, petite woman in the photo. Like they were tied up by belonging to this place—like the orchard had been passed down like an heirloom between them. They were farm women, both of them. Mandie had given it up by choice, though. Birdie couldn't imagine doing the same.

“This is gonna take me a while,” Walter said. “Why don't you go get yourself some lunch or something?”

Birdie nodded and padded into the hall, her socked feet sliding on the old, slippery wood floors.

Poopie was humming in the kitchen.

Birdie hovered in the archway. Ever since Enrico had failed to get off the bus, she had known she was going to have this conversation. And yet, she hadn't been able to start it. She had been torn, but she'd also felt it was inevitable. And thinking about it was the only thing that had soothed her.

“Um, Poopie, can I talk to you?”

Poopie gave her a look, and then closed her book on her lap.

“Enrico and I…we aren't getting married.”

Poopie nodded slowly. “I know. Of course, Avelita.” She smiled gently and turned, pressing her back against the counter. She had flour on her hands, and she looked tired too. She waited for Birdie to say more.

“I don't have this…other life. I never really did.” Birdie cleared her throat.

Poopie nodded. Birdie's heart fluttered. She hesitated, and then forced herself to spit it out.

“I don't want you to sell the orchard.”

Poopie nodded again at the floor, unsurprised.

A lot of things moved around inside Birdie now that the words were out. Relief. Guilt. Giddy hope. “I know you have all these plans. And it'll be a lot of work for you. But I need you to wait until I'm done with school. Then…” Birdie swallowed. “Then you can go wherever you want. I'll be ready to move home and take over.”

Poopie only watched her and listened.

“There's this thing I feel inside when I think about not having this place,” Birdie said, and a lump got stuck in her throat. “It feels terrible.”

She was going to say more, but she realized there wasn't anything more to it. Poopie was silent. She looked at her hands. Then finally she came across the room, took Birdie's hand, and stared into her eyes.

“Look.” She thrust a finger toward the sagging line of the doors, the slanted floor. “A hundred years of sinking right into the ground.”

Birdie studied the door frames. Most of the doors in the house hadn't been properly closable in years. Birdie could roll marbles down the floor. The furnace often broke in the winter. The windows were drafty.

“I know,” Birdie said. “I know it's decrepit. But I'd be lost without this place.”

Poopie studied her hard. Her face scrunched into little, thoughtful lines. “I don't know how, but I'll talk to your father about what we might be able to do,” she finally said.

Birdie felt relief flood through her. Poopie reached her arms around her and squeezed tightly, and Birdie sank into the hug.

 

A few minutes later, Birdie stepped outside and back into the gray, overcast day. The workers had deserted the fields for lunch, and she could hear their familiar sounds through the trees. She walked down to the lake and, even though it was a little too chilly, stripped down to her skivvies and waded into the water. It had a gloomy coolness to it, but she liked it. It shocked her skin and cleared her head.

Birdie had tons of little rituals like this, all through the orchard, that she could turn to when her soul was sore or weary: a hollow oak tree into which she could crawl and count the termites, a tiny rise on the northwestern perimeter where she could sit and be completely alone with a bit of a view of the trees.

She lay back in the water and floated. She didn't separate from her surroundings in any way. They were like part of her own body. She couldn't leave the orchard, and it couldn't leave her.

She heard a muffled voice and drew herself back up out of the water, her toes making contact with the mud underneath her feet. Her hair dripped down her back.

Poopie stood on the shore.

“Your father says it's up to you,” she said. “He said we won't take the house down if you don't say it's okay.”

Birdie felt her heart soar, and she beamed.

“But Birdie, we think that when you have thought on everything, you will see that it is the only thing to do. And so we aren't going to say anything to the workers yet. They will still think it's the last summer. If, in the end, it changes”—Poopie shrugged—“we will invite them back and hope for the best.”

Birdie's spirits sank a little, but as Poopie turned and walked back up toward the trees, heading for the house, mostly Birdie felt relief.

I can fix this. I can fix my house,
she thought. She ducked back under the water to sweep her hair out of her face and came up again, refreshed. It was like she was being baptized.

T
he Dooly County Fair was in the town of Nomini Creek, sixty miles from Bridgewater down a winding back road. Leeda sat in silence in the passenger seat of Grey's truck, sipping a cup of coffee from the Circle K and watching the scenery go by—the scraggly trees surrounding downtown Bridgewater transitioning into thick, deep woods on both sides of the road. Compared to northern woods, which Leeda had seen on a trip up the Hudson RiverValley, the Georgia forest felt primeval. Northern trees seemed picturesque and petite to Leeda, their leaves small in soft, bright greens. Georgia forests were loaded with tall, drooping trees covered in kudzu and smothered in deep greens that seemed like they could swallow someone up. Leeda had never noticed it before.

She and Grey had barely exchanged more than hellos when she'd arrived at the cottage just after dawn that morning. Now, staring out the window, she was trying to wake up, occasionally looking back at the long silver trailer hooked to the back of the truck to make sure that it—and The Baron and Sneezy inside it—hadn't disappeared. A few wrinkled books littered the backseat. Something by someone named Immanuel Kant. A book called
The Fabric of the Cosmos.
A Tom Clancy novel, the cover curled back like a ribbon.

“So you took the dog back?” she finally asked, ending the silence.

“Yeah.” Grey nodded. Leeda felt a pang, but she quickly rationalized that it had been out of her hands. There had been nothing else she could do.

Grey was a good driver—focused, with quick reflexes. He swerved slowly to miss a snake slithering across the road, spotting it from several yards away.

“So you didn't go to college or anything?” Leeda asked haltingly, glancing again at the books in the backseat. She'd been dying to ask since the day at the lake.

“No.” He shook his head. “I could have gotten loans. But I'm just not very interested.”

“And you just…drift around?”

Grey nodded. It sounded kind of pointless to Leeda, but she didn't say so. “That must be very nice,” she said instead. But Grey seemed to sense the insincerity, and he frowned.

“Why do you want to do marketing?” he asked after a minute.

“Because…” Leeda thought about saying what she usually said to her relatives. Something about room to grow. Something with the word
dynamic
in it. “I guess because I can move on to an MA in business afterward. That's what my parents want,” she admitted, smiling sheepishly. “But I don't want to just give in completely.”

“You're planning your life around what your parents want? Don't you think that's kind of vapid?” he asked, sounding a little disgusted.

Leeda was taken off guard. “It's practical,” she said defensively.

“Is doing something soulless being practical?”

“It's not soulless…” she argued, feeling her face flush. “It's—”

“Being a cog in a wheel isn't soulless?” Grey asked, not letting her finish.

Leeda's fingers tightened into fists on her lap. “Could you be any more cliché?” she asked. He didn't answer. She let out an annoyed sigh and turned as tightly as she could toward the window. “I'll take your thoughts into account while I'm planning my life, Karl Marx.”

Grey just drove on calmly, and his continued silence infuriated her further. Like he'd provoked her emotions, and then removed himself by a thousand mental miles.

“Anyway, I don't see how you're doing anything so great by being a pony guy and…whatever else. It's so easy to say what I should or shouldn't do with my time when you're not really doing anything with yours.”

Grey rolled down the window and hung his arm out, completely ignoring her. Leeda wanted to reach across the seat and push him out the door. Instead she raised her chin and glared at the forest.

When they pulled into the parking lot of the fair, she poured herself out of the truck fast as a waterfall and went back to check on the ponies. Sneezy and The Baron both stared at her. The Baron let out a huffy, nasally sound.

She reached out to pat his muzzle, but he jerked away irritably, as if he sensed Leeda's bad mood. That's what she'd always
thought about animals. That they knew your soul. And something about Leeda's turned them off.

 

The fair sprawled out across a hundred acres of booths, dusty lots, and grassy fields, the Ferris wheel and the Salt and Pepper Shaker hanging above it all, the smell of hay and funnel cakes woven through the air. Grey led both ponies expertly off the trailer, and they each took ahold of one by the halter. Leeda pulled The Baron along awkwardly with Grey and Sneezy leading the way. She just hoped the pony didn't bite her.

By the time they crossed the lot to their booth—in a huge maze of booths where all the livestock was gathered—Leeda was sweaty, covered in a thin layer of dust, and irritable.

They set up the ponies with water and alfalfa, Leeda taking cues from Grey. Finally they were situated and stood with their hands on their hips, surveying the bustling crowds around them.

For the next hour or so, they casually ignored each other, leaning on the wall of the pony pen, staring out at the people who drifted by.

“You mind if I wander off and explore for a while?” Grey finally asked.

Leeda was relieved. “No. Go ahead.”

After he was gone, Leeda turned and looked at the ponies, who stared at her accusingly. She leaned her chin on her hands and watched the action go by—farmers with their kids, a lot of overweight people eating giant portions of greasy food, people in all the same kinds of outfits—jeans from the Gap, American Eagle T-shirts, and the like—anything easily found at the local mall.

She thought about Grey. What he'd said in the car rankled her, making her stomach ache. She kept finding herself holding her breath.

She didn't feel vapid, she argued in her head. Vapid seemed empty, and Leeda swirled inside much of the time. And she felt full of love and appreciation for things. She felt worry, too. But still, it felt like he'd peeled back a piece of her, hitting on something that sometimes scared her.

When she was little, her dad had read her
Pinocchio
many times before bed. Leeda still thought about the story a lot, in moments when she was sad or lying in bed, her defenses down before falling asleep. What worried her, sometimes, was that she had never been able to capture the feeling of being completely real. Even in New York, she hadn't quite been able to catch the elusive feeling she thought she should have of being complete.

Remembering NewYork made her realize she'd momentarily forgotten it. Leeda dug into her pocket, pulled out her cell phone, and hit two on the speed dial. Eric answered on the first ring.

“Hey stranger.”

“Hey.” Leeda picked at the fence of the pen. “I'm sorry I haven't called. It's crazy busy here.”

“I figured.”

They were quiet for a second, missing each other. Leeda could hear street noise in the background on Eric's end, and she longed for the dreamlike excitement of the city. “Hey, can I ask you something?” Leeda said.

“Sure.”

“Do you think I'm vapid?”

“What?”

“I don't know. I just…Do you ever feel like you don't know who you are?”

“Leeda, I know who you are. You are not vapid. You're wonderful. You're smart. You're beautiful. You've got so much going for you; trust me.”

Leeda took it in, just listening in silence. It wasn't quite what she needed to know. But she didn't know how to ask for what she did.

They talked about the last couple of days, and about plans, and about Leeda's estimated date for her return to New York, which was getting fuzzier and fuzzier all the time. “I don't know, maybe the first week in July,” she said. She couldn't believe they were already even talking about July.

Eric was disappointed but supportive. “Hey, I love you, Lee,” he said when she'd been quiet for a few moments.

“I love you too,” she said into the phone. She met Sneezy's eyes as they said their good-byes, and she hung up.

She smiled at the pony, like a peace offering, as if the animal could understand smiling. The pony just stared at her and, embarrassed, Leeda glanced away. Looking into the booth next to her, she noticed a display of baby chicks hatching in a big, clear plastic incubator. It was an agonizingly slow process—tiny little pecks, the occasional hairline crack, the eventual collapsing of a small piece of shell. And some of the chicks didn't make it. A few of them died right there, before they made it all the way out. But the ones that did were fuzzy and cute, stumbling about, snuggling together.

When she turned back, Sneezy was still staring at her expectantly with her big brown eyes. Leeda reached out and gently
touched Sneezy on the tip of the nose. The pony let out a warm breath that tickled her hand. Leeda let her hand fall and turned to watch the crowds again.

A couple of people took the business cards she'd had printed up at Kinko's. But no one seemed seriously excited about Sneezy or The Baron.

Eventually Grey reappeared. They silently watched the dusk descend and the lights of the rides and the vendors go on in bright whites and pinks. From somewhere across the grounds, the night's entertainment boomed in faraway notes and indecipherable words, reverberating through the dusty field. At around 8 p.m., when no one had stopped by the booth for an hour, they started to pack up.

 

It was late when Leeda and Grey pulled into the driveway of Primrose Cottage, the sound of the tires on the white paving stones interrupting the sound of the crickets. It had been a long, quiet ride, and Leeda was sleepy as she slid out of the truck and climbed the porch stairs into the house, leaving Grey to unload the ponies and bring them to the barn. She didn't feel like getting back in her car and driving to the orchard.

To the left of the parlor, a door opened into one of the spare bedrooms where Grey had been sleeping. Leeda walked to the doorway and peered in. Grey's belongings were few: a big duffel bag with a pile of dirty clothes inside, a canvas painting of bicyclists racing, a tiny bag with his toothbrush and razor. It smelled like boy's deodorant, sweet and masculine. Leeda turned back to the parlor and listened to the clock tick. She imagined that, on many nights, Grandmom Eugenie must have had only this sound to listen to.

Leeda walked upstairs to the bedroom and changed into one of her grandmom's old nightgowns, which felt a little spooky. She sat on the bed dangling her feet, feeling sleepy and restless simultaneously.

She stared at her grandmother's bureau. She thought about the letter she'd found. And then she popped up from the bed and walked across the carpet. Slowly, she pulled the first drawer open. But when that turned up empty of anything but old control-top panty hose and underwear, she got bolder, opening drawer after drawer, losing her compunction. Next she turned to the closet, searching the shoe boxes on the shelf at the top, and then turning to the boxes down below. On the third box, she hit it. She slid the box out of the closet and put it on the bed, opening it up. There had to be forty letters, tied together with a white ribbon and all addressed to Eugenie in the same hand with no return address. Leeda opened the first few—some were simply letters that planned out meeting times.
Oak tree, 7 p.m. Swimming tonight.
Others were longer, telling small stories about things that had happened in the course of a few days, and some were just full of sweetness, teasing Eugenie for her quirky, eccentric little ways or expressing longing and tenderness.

One, Leeda kept coming back to. It wasn't dated. But it was toward the end of the pile, and the things it said seemed to be a culmination of all the things before.

Genie,

I'm sorry for the other night. I know by now that trying to push you into anything makes you get farther away from
it. I don't know why I think trying to reason with you will work. Sometimes I just hope you'll be open, and human, and hear me, just because it's important to me and for no other reason.

I know there's too much in the way between you and me. But I also know that when I'm with you, it's like something more than being in my body. It's like a piece of my soul isn't inside me anymore, but it's all wrapped up wherever you are. It's one of the things in this world that makes me believe people are more than just skin and bones. That when I'm with you, I feel like someone and something bigger than what I thought.

Genie, I'm gonna ask you one more time. Please don't do what you're planning to do. Do the impossible thing instead. Be with me. Be brave and be with me.

Your M.

Leeda lingered over the words, touching them with her fingers, and then dug at the bottom of the box for anything left over. It was as if she didn't know how the whole thing had ended. It was like she hoped it would end differently. There was one final note, the folds worn, as if it had been opened and folded many times. It was brief.

Genie,

I'll wait for you tonight, you know where. And I know it's spoiling the surprise, but I bought you a ring. Isn't that the silliest thing? It cost me every last drop of my savings. And I know
you would never wear it. And nobody would ever understand it. But the thing is, I have a life ahead of me that doesn't involve watching you marry somebody else. So I'm going to leave tomorrow, either way. Tonight you need to decide. Are you coming?

M.

BOOK: Love and Peaches
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