They were in his father’s apple orchard. Vibrant shades of green all around, providing a cooling amount of shade on a scorching summer day. A dainty hand lifted itself to pick of the fruit, a smile dancing across lightly glossed lips as she waited for a response. Time seemed to move a little too fast, and she wondered if he’d felt the quickness too.
He could only stare, admiring the way her skin glistened beneath the sunlight that forced its way through the leaves. The droplets of light kissed her bare shoulders the way he wished he could, gently with each slow move she made as they walked a straight line and filled baskets.
A hand placed at the small of her back, she froze at the chill that ran down her spine. Turning to face him, she smiled. Instantly lost in the beauty of his bright blue eyes.
“Am I only here to pick apples today, Liam? Or did you have other things in mind?”
Liam shook his head, tucking tufts of his curly blonde hair behind his ear. “This just seems to be the only way we can be around one another, without watchful eyes, to enjoy ourselves. Sucks not having a car; otherwise, I could take you all over the world for more fun.”
“What bit of it there is outside of Hollygrove, right?”
He nodded, shoving his hands into his pockets. Sweat was forming in his palms, his nervousness becoming far too evident. Liam chose to hide it, forcing a question that had been on his mind for quite some time. “Imani, I want to ask you something.” Moving to the next tree, she asked him to go on while she picked a few more apples. “How come you always leave at the end of the summer while your parents live here year-round? Don’t you ever miss them?”
“I still hear from them too often to actually miss them.”
“Ever miss Hollygrove?”
She stood still for a moment, taking the time to think before she answered his question. It was something she’d never focused on, something no one had ever bothered to ask her. Not her parents, not her guardians back home, and not the few people who knew of her summer trips and excursions.
She answered honestly. “I miss absolutely nothing about this place. Not the heat or the bugs, not the airs I have to put on when I’m here, the friends I am forced to associate with to keep appearances. Certainly not the country club. Nothing.” Liam lowered his head, and at that moment, Imani realized how harsh her words must have sounded. She dropped the apple she’d just picked into the basket beside her and turned to Liam, smiling. “Except for you. I always miss you. When the school year ends, and I know where my summer is going to be spent, you’re the first thing on my mind. The only thing that gets me excited to come here.”
“Ahh, Imani, you’re just saying that.”
Without warning, she threw her arms around Liam, holding on to him tightly until he returned the gesture and affection with a comforting embrace. He cared for Imani deeply, felt relief that she cared for him too. “I mean it. And I’m going to miss you, but I don’t want to dwell on it because I don’t want to cry.”
Imani pulled away, adjusting her top as she looked around aimlessly, her brown eyes landing on the bit of the sky that peeked through the trees. “And why dwell on it and think about it now? We’ve still got all afternoon to spend together before we have to get on with the hard part. No use in thinking about sad goodbyes right now.”
They were alone in the orchard, nothing to be heard but the sounds of a few birds tweeting and fluttering overhead. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Looking down at his watch, Liam took a deep breath. “Want to go somewhere else, find something to get into? Maybe we can meet up with Austin and Makenzie. I know how quickly you get bored being in one place for a long period.”
Imani shook her head, making an admission she’d kept to herself for many summers. “No, I like it here with just you and me. I like being around you, without others, because nothing is forced. Things are never weird or awkward. We can laugh and chat away about any and everything, or we can just chill while doing and saying nothing at all. I like the comfort I feel, that we can be bored together and still somehow have the best times. I like that this has become our thing. I enjoy your company, the safe spaces you create for us to be free. Most importantly, I’m not ready to share my best friend with anyone else. Not while I still have time to keep you all to myself. If that’s okay with you.”
Throwing his arm over her shoulder, Liam planted a kiss on Imani’s cheek. “Perfect.”
The remainder of their afternoon was spent in bliss and contentment. Their time in the orchard ended, to be followed immediately with a playful swim at a lake only they knew about, hidden away from the prim and proper surroundings of the gated community their parents loved so much. Away from the eyes and negative energy of those that didn’t approve of their relationship in the first place.
When that concluded, they lay beneath the setting sun, lightly swatting away the few bugs that dared to flit around them as they talked about everything and nothing.
When she returned to her parents’ home, Imani was greeted with packed bags sitting beside the front door. They were lively, oblivious to the lack of excitement in her eyes. Walking into the living room, she spoke softly as her mother and father shared an embrace, dancing with one another the way they did every evening. Their love and zest for their life evident and sickening to the sixteen-year-old that stood before them. “Celebrating early, huh?”
“Don’t start that, Imani.” She threw her hands up, taking a seat on the couch as she watched them sway back and forth. She recognized the song playing as her mother’s favorite Nat King Cole standard.
“I just think it’s a mighty big coincidence that you’re busy all summer long, and then the night before I leave to go home, suddenly, you have all the time in the world to laugh and enjoy life. Must be great to get the kid out of your hair.”
Candice sighed lightly, slipping out of her husband’s arms. “Now you know better than that, Imani. There’s no place we’d rather you be than here with us. But we want you to have the absolute best in everything, and that includes education. As great as Hollygrove is for the wealthy, their school system is not one of the best. We kept you at St. Croix because they have the best teachers, the best programs, top rated…”
“Yeah, you’ve explained it all already, Mom. It’s fine.” It wasn’t. However, at this point in her life, Imani had learned that there was absolutely no use in arguing back and forth with her mother. A woman who made up her mind the first time, and kept it made up for all eternity. Her father, though she adored him, simply shelled out the money and Imani had yet to be able to step to him without him offering a raise in her allowance as a solution.
Kirk looked at his young daughter, pained to see anything other than the bright and beautiful smile Imani usually wore. Taking a seat beside her, he waited patiently for her to move into his open arms, holding her close as he spoke. “I know it’s not easy, but before you know it, you’ll be back with us. How about next summer we take a family trip?”
Candice perked up, nodding her head in agreement. “Yes! I bet you still want to go to Paris. It’ll be an awesome trip before your senior year, and you’ll have so much to tell all the girls at St. Croix.”
“I don’t even like them, but sure.”
Candice continued, brimming with excitement as plans formulated in her mind. “In fact, we can spend the whole summer traveling around Europe. Lots of food, lots of shopping, the arts and theater. How’s that sound?”
Imani shrugged her shoulders, wiggling out of her father’s grasp before she stood. “How can I object? You’ll think something’s wrong with me if I do.” She headed upstairs to wash up.
Dinner was short, to her relief, and she made the first excuse she could think of to avoid last minute family time.
Imani rushed to her room, locking the door so that neither of her parents would barge in unannounced. She set an easy atmosphere for herself within her personal space, throwing on a pair of shorts and an old hockey jersey after a long shower. Lying back on her bed, her box braids dangling over the side, she stared at the ceiling, wondering if Liam were thinking of her too.
As she did at the end of every summer, she wished she’d gathered the nerve to tell him everything she felt for him. The things that went beyond what she knew best friends should feel for one another. And at the same time, she thought they may have not been meant to be anything more than what they were.
Just as she felt herself dozing off, lightly humming along to the song playing from her stereo, her phone began to ring. Looking over at her nightstand, the lights flashed throughout the clear receiver and it’s base. Turning on her stomach, she reached over and took the phone off the hook, placing it to her ear a moment later.
Her voice was soft, fatigue dripping through the single word she spoke. “Hello?”
“I don’t think that last goodbye was good enough. I think we should keep talking until the very last minute possible.”
A smile spread across her face as she twisted the phone cord around her fingers, lying back as she shook off her sleepiness, jumping into another conversation with Liam. They’d say all they had to say now, Imani would make sure of it.