Home > Fragile(2)

Author: M. Leighton

Porcelain skin covered the most delicately feminine features he’d ever seen. The sun had brought a flush of color to the pale expanse of her cheeks, painting them a shade lighter than the dark rose of her full lips. She was turned slightly away from him, so he couldn’t see her eyes very clearly, only her pert nose and the gentle curve of her chin. The shine of the smooth skin atop her head drew his eye momentarily, distracting him from the beauty of her face. Her scalp glistened in the sun and she made no move to conceal it.

“I want one, Mommy! I want one!”

The cry of the child came from somewhere to the left. Hardy’s eyes darted to a young boy and his mother for only an instant before returning to the girl. She drew his eye like the shore draws the ocean. Nothing seemed as interesting, as captivating, as important as the face of that girl.

The girl had turned in the boy’s direction, and from his peripheral vision Hardy could see the child dragging his mother forward, toward the bench, his short arm raised to point at the bright red balloon.

“Where did you get that, sweetie?” the mother asked of the girl, her tone polite and gentle.

“I brought it with me,” the girl answered, her voice like smooth, cool water.

“Did you bring more? I want one,” the boy whined.

“Gabe, shh! Don’t be rude.”

“No, I didn’t,” the girl replied, her brow wrinkling in shared disappointment. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” the boy said, his voice clearly indicating that it was anything but okay.

“Come on, Gabe. We can get you a balloon another day. How about some ice cream?” the mother bribed.

“I’ve already had ice cream,” he moaned. “And I’m the only one at the party that didn’t get a balloon. Why can’t I get one today?”

The heartbreak in the boy’s voice was so evident, Hardy managed to drag his eyes away from the girl just long enough to glance at Gabe; his face was nothing short of crestfallen and his chin trembled with emotion.

“Did you go to a party today?” the girl asked.

The boy nodded.

“But you didn’t get a balloon to take home?”

He shook his head, one fat tear escaping to roll slowly down his rounded cheek.

“Everyone else got one, but not me.”

The girl slid off the end of the bench to kneel in front of the little boy. Pulling off the ribbon that was tied around her wrist anchoring the balloon to her frail body, she held it out toward Gabe. When he didn’t immediately step forward, the girl nodded encouragingly and smiled. Hardy’s breath caught in his chest. He was completely mesmerized by the simple gesture. In the back of his mind, he was certain he’d never seen anything more beautiful, more perfect than her smile.

“Here. Take mine. I can get another one,” she assured.

“You don’t have to do that,” the mother offered, grabbing Gabe’s hand when he reached to take the ribbon from her grasp; he was anxious to get hold of the coveted balloon.

“Please,” the girl said. “I want to. I want him to have it.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded again, her smile never faltering. “I’m sure.”

Thrilled, Gabe snatched the balloon from the girl’s hand, turning immediately to run excitedly toward an open expanse of grass to play with his new toy.

“I’m sorry. He’s not usually that rude,” the mother explained, visibly embarrassed. “But thank you. Really,” she called behind her as she scurried off to catch up to her son.

Hardy’s gaze dropped once more to the girl. She remained on her knees, her head turned toward the boy where he ran in wide circles, the red balloon bobbing in the air above his head.

“Why did you give it to him?” the younger girl asked. “You’ve been talking about letting that balloon go for months.”

Hardy saw the girl’s chest rise and fall on a sigh.

“Because it made him smile, Mila. Look at him.”

The younger girl, Mila, turned her head to watch Gabe as he frolicked.

“But still,” she argued.

“No, no buts. He needed it more than I do.”

Just then, a shrill voice broke into the strangely poignant beauty of the moment, shaking Hardy from his absorption. Reflexively, he looked to the left, in the same direction from whence Gabe and his mother had come, and he saw his girlfriend making her way across the grass to him. There was no more hiding from her. And he’d never wanted to hide more.

“There you are!” Cheyenne exclaimed, picking up her pace and jogging toward him.

Movement drew Hardy’s eye back to the girl who knelt but a few feet from him. She had turned to look at him, obviously surprised by his presence. He was immediately lost in the most incredible emerald green eyes he’d ever seen.

They stared at one another for what seemed an eternity before Cheyenne intruded once more on the perfection of the moment.

“We’re done. Are you ready?”

The girl’s gaze swung toward Cheyenne before she rose to her feet and moved back to sit on the bench. Cheyenne glanced briefly at the duo, instantly dismissing them as unimportant.

“Come on, babe. I’m hungry and we have to drop Elise off before we can go to The Depot.”

Before he could think to stop himself, Hardy’s eyes flickered to the girl. He found her watching him with the most curious expression. If he hadn’t known better, he might’ve thought it was pity. But why would she pity him?

Cheyenne cleared her throat, drawing his attention back to her. There was a fair amount of agitation etched on her face when he was finally able to actually concentrate on her.

“What? Are you suddenly into bald chicks or something?”

Hardy could feel the blood rush up his neck and flood his cheeks. They burned in embarrassment. He looked guiltily back at the girl, feeling a sickness in the pit of his stomach that Cheyenne might’ve caused her some pain. But what he found was an empty bench. She and the younger girl had quietly moved off the seat and were walking slowly away.

Hardy watched them as they retreated. He saw the girl pause for just a moment before they rounded one of the decorative gazebos that dotted the park. His heart leapt in his chest, thinking she was going to turn and look back at him. But she didn’t. Instead, Hardy saw her tip her head back and let the sun pour down over her face, as if she were enjoying the feel of the heat on her skin.

The simple gesture stirred something inside Hardy, making him suddenly ashamed of the company he kept, ashamed of the way he lived his life, ashamed of the things he took for granted. He had no idea how something so brief, so innocuous as that gesture could have such a profound effect on him, but it did. She did. It was undeniable.

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