Aracely was trying to make a joke of it, sipping her coffee like this was any other morning gossip. She was all charm and assurance. It was what made her so good at curing lovesickness. Less skilled curanderas left their patients stricken with susto, a fright so deep they wandered the woods startled and blind. But Aracely never left a lovesick man or woman sobbing on the wooden table. She placed her palms on their shoulders, whispering to them, so they barely noticed the lovesickness leaving their bodies.
Miel knew Aracely’s voice better than those men and women. She heard each catch and hitch. It wasn’t that Aracely was afraid of the Bonner girls. Aracely wasn’t afraid of anything; she had pity for Miel’s fear of water but little patience for her fear of pumpkins. Each fall, on the night that half the town came out to set carved, glowing pumpkins floating on the river, Miel hid in her room, and Aracely stood outside the door saying, “Oh, for God’s sake, they’re fruits not hornets. Get out here.”
But even Aracely was wary of the fire-haired girls. She’d always thought their nervous mother and father pulled them from school less because of what happened with Chloe, and more because if they taught them at home, it was less obvious that the girls had no friends but one another. That they never invited anyone over. That they flirted with boys on crowded streets but that even those boys were not their friends, would not last the next frost or blossom that marked a new season.
Miel left the spoon on the counter and went back upstairs.
“Don’t do it,” Aracely called up.
Miel heard the smile in her voice, but that smile didn’t veil the warning.
“I mean it,” Aracely said. “Don’t do it. You’ll just torture yourself.”
She listened until about four that afternoon, when she stood at the edge of the Bonners’ farm trying to keep away the echo of Aracely’s words.
If Mr. or Mrs. Bonner saw her, she could always say she was there to see Sam. She could say he was going to show her how he used the pollination brushes.
No. Something else. Not the pollination brushes.
Miel kept her distance from the vines. No matter Aracely’s reassurances that they were just fruit, Miel still feared pumpkins the way other girls feared spiders or grass snakes.
Then she saw the curtain of Chloe’s hair, the softening light turning it peach.
The opening of Miel’s rose grew from prickled and turned hot.
Chloe had graduated last year at nineteen, and had turned twenty while she was away. Twenty, that number that Miel always thought of as making someone, in some final way, an adult. Now Chloe swept across her family’s side yard wearing cigarette jeans that would have looked out of style on anyone else, and a sweater thin enough to show the pink tone of her skin underneath. She’d grown out her hair. When she left last winter, it had fallen to her shoulders in uneven curls. Now it tumbled to her hip, the weight stretching it straight, so light it was almost blond.
She must have been wearing jeans that tight to show her flat stomach, to show that the thing everyone knew about had not happened.
When Chloe left, the Bonner sisters had lost just enough of their hold to let every other girl in town breathe. Their parents, as frightened of their own daughters as they were concerned for them, had pulled Lian, Ivy, and Peyton out of school, convinced they’d end up like Chloe. So the girls stayed in that house. They sat at the kitchen table with their mother’s lesson plans. They peeked out of windows with white edging that stood crisp against the house’s navy paint. Or they wandered through their father’s fields, barefoot or in soft, worn slippers they borrowed from their mother but were too vain to own themselves.
Chloe wore no shoes. Her feet and her ankles, bare from her cropped jeans, were pale as Lumina pumpkins.
Miel dragged her gaze away from the corner of the farm where Chloe stood, sure if she stared too long Chloe would know, and catch her looking. Her eyes swept over the fields, and found Sam. First his hair, like black ribbon curled with scissors. The harvest season had left him even darker, his forearms the brown of a Welsummer chicken’s egg. He wore that color with the pride of knowing he’d inherited it from his grandmother, a woman Miel knew only from the few bright details he remembered enough to tell her.
The metal of his shears glinted in his hands. He was checking for vines that had started to die off—going away, he said they called it—and shells just beginning to harden.