Tonight, he was waiting behind his house, hands in his pockets. His stance showed neither impatience nor boredom. She always wondered if he saw her from his window, or if he just came outside early, and didn’t mind waiting.
“I stole something from work today,” he said. The moons gave enough light to let her see he was holding his tongue against his back teeth, proud of his own guilt.
“You what?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll bring it back. I just wanted you to see it. Come on.”
Inside, he showed her the brush he used to pollinate each pumpkin blossom by hand.
They only opened for one day, Sam had told her when he started at the Bonners’ farm. An explanation for the slow, careful work of taking pollen from each anther and brushing it onto each flower’s stigma. That small act made a blossom become a pumpkin. The Bonners gave Sam this task because they thought his skill with brushes covered in paint would translate to brushes coated in pollen.
But Miel had never seen one of the brushes before. Now Sam flicked the oat-colored bristles first against her forearm and then against her rose. For those few seconds, the tiny birthmarks on her arm were grains of pollen, and her rose was the corolla of a pumpkin blossom.
The bristles made her flinch, like the petals growing from her wrist had as much sensation as her fingers. They didn’t. Yes, pulling on the stem would hurt her. Knocking the flower head against a kitchen table stung the opening her roses grew from. But the petals themselves were like her hair, rooted in her, but not the same kind of alive as her skin.
For that moment though, of those bristles skimming over that lipstick-colored rose, the sense that those petals could feel as much as her lips or her fingers shimmered through her.
Her eyes flashed up to his.
His eyes were a little more open than they always were, the brown clearer.
The brush and his fingers stilled on her skin.
He hadn’t meant it like that. She knew that. She could tell by that startled look.
This wasn’t his fingers tracing her back and shoulders, finding stars. This wasn’t her checking the flush of his forehead and then leading him home in the middle of a school day. This was a thing that turned into his mouth on hers. This was the pollination brush he’d forgotten to set down, still in his hands as he held her, bristles feathering against her neck. This was the breaking of the strange nervousness that had grown between them over the past few months, a hesitancy to touch that would vanish one day and reappear the next.
She felt the shape of pumpkin blossoms glowing on her skin, waiting for Sam’s fingers.
The understanding settled on her that it was Sam, not that wooden-hilted brush, that held the magic of turning a vine-laced field into a thousand pumpkins.
Now Miel’s body felt like soft, papery petals. She kissed him back, pushing him toward the stairs, him stumbling up them without turning around. Even with his eyes shut, taking the stairs by muscle memory, he was careful not to crush her rose. She reached for his belt and the top button of his jeans, and he let her. He slid his hand under her shirt, and she let him.
He let her, she let him, and then they were in his bed. The smell of paint made the air in his room bitter, sharp. A tarp covered the floor, his brushes and paints and the makings of half-finished lights scattered in a way that looked disordered to her but made sense to him.
Light from the moons spilled a layer of milky lilac over the floor. They were covered in the blue-green of his bedroom walls, and the smell of spices from his mother’s kitchen that soaked into his hair and came off onto his sheets. Orange flower. Green cardamom. Pomegranate molasses. It was so sharp and vivid on him that it made her bite the back of his neck. He startled, then settled into the soft pressure of her teeth, and set his fingers against her harder.
He didn’t take off his shirt. She didn’t try to take it off him. He never took off his shirt for the same reason he worked on the Bonners’ farm. Their school let his work weeding the fields and cutting vines stand in for the PE requirement he’d put off since ninth grade. He couldn’t meet it any other way, not if it meant changing for class or team practice in a locker room.
His skin smelled like warm water, not taking on the scent of his soap. She ran her fingers over the faint scarring that shadowed his jawline, from acne he had both grown into and out of early.