June - Maxine Phoenix

            “I adore you,” I repeat. Henry’s lips, curling around what’s left of his cigarette, open at the sides ever so slightly. Smoke furls out when he exhales, two thin clouds dissipating in the sunlight.

“You’re my best friend,” I explain. I kick my heels against the grass, leaning back on my towel. The heels of my shoes leave two even crescent-shaped indents in the grass.

            Mutely, Henry removes the cigarette from his lips and rolls it between his fingers. White ashes flake off and land between our shoes. I’d have smoked with him a few months ago, perhaps, but lately I find it easier to lose my thoughts in other ways. Instead of brainlessly fumbling around for tobacco to spread and paper to roll, my fingers search for pens, pencils, charcoal. Doodling is just as bad a habit-turned-distraction, I confess. Even now, my fingers tap and trace random shapes against my leg as I watch Henry smoke. His fingers deftly curl around his cigarette, the nails that need a clip scraping against the chalky white wrapping.

            “Schools out, I can’t believe--”

            “No.” His voice cuts across mine. “We still have exams. It isn’t.” A few lone ashes float down and land between blades of grass, disappearing into the dew.

            “I spoke with Father this morning and we’re meeting at half-past four to go over some things. Can’t fail again. But you wouldn’t know what that’s like, now would you?” I unbutton and roll up my left shirt sleeve to get a good look at the time. My wrist is bare. Force of habit; I don’t have my father’s watch anymore. “Because,” I continue, raising my eyes to meet Henry’s, “you’re lucky you’re so damn smart.”

            “Shut up, compliments will get you nowhere. I’m not planning on helping you cheat.” With another close-lipped smile, Henry stubs the dying cigarette out against the terrycloth of his towel, pushing and twisting pale ash into the faded, childish pattern. Back in October, he could have burnt the field and forest to the ground if he’d done that, with flying sparks and brittle grass. But the damp towel and the dew saves our lives. “Now,” he announces, “Onto more pressing matters: food.”

            I look between us. Our spread is small and mostly red: an assortment of cherries nestled on double-folded paper towel, the sticky plastic bag they came from flattened under a cheap bottle of red wine Henry deftly stole from the Communion supply closet, now rolled on its side, loose bits of grass stuck against the condensation on the bottom, and two stacked red plastic cups.

            Henry reaches for a cherry, fingers brushing the tips of every individual stem before pressing forefinger and thumb together around one and pulling it up towards his mouth. He dangles the selected cherry above his lips, tilting his head back until his curls fold into each other against the nape of his neck. He gives the sky a wily smile and grazes the fruit against his teeth. The cherry yields under his canines, skin breaking. Some juice beads on his lip, daring to drop down and stain his collar. 

            Quietly, I reach for the wine and stand it up straight so I can uncork it properly. My arm skims Henry’s hand as he drops the cherry pit from his mouth into his hand to the grass, and he stares at me. I don’t move. Henry smooths the pads of his fingers, sticky, up under my rolled sleeve and slowly over my eczema like he’s reading braille. A breeze picks up and the plastic bag starts to flap around trying to escape from the bottle.

            “Look at that. It’s going away.”

            “Yes. Less stress, apparently. And less polyester sweaters, now the weather’s changed for the better.” The cold front had finally passed a few weeks ago. Henry had been the one to drag me out in celebration at twilight on a humid Wednesday, insisting that we could now swim naked in the lake without risking all sorts of sickness.

            Without much thought, I place my thumb against Henry’s lip, fingers curling around the side of his face, as I wipe the drop of juice away. He lets his lips fall open a little more, eyes focused just past my head, and the tender skin under his jawline ticks under my fingers.

            “How about that wine?” I ask, lowering my hand. A soft pressure wraps around my other hand and twines through my fingers, skimming across my knuckles. Henry’s eyes are still gazing past me, pupils softened as if he’s on the verge of sleep. “I’ll pour,” I try to continue.

            He looks at me now. “Thank you, James,” he responds, bowing his head with a smile. And his smile’s different. Violently, the breeze amplifies and we both shudder, arm hairs raising, despite the sun.