The hot June sun beat down on the back of my neck as I waited for Joshua to throw me the ball. Other kids playing on the swings nearby or sailing down the slides laughed, several of them running right past us as they chased each other through the park. This was our favorite hangout. All of the kids in the neighborhood came here almost every day in the summer, especially on Saturdays when our folks were home and likely to give us chores if we were sitting around the house.

Slamming my fist into my baseball glove, I impatiently egged my best friend Joshua on. “Come on, man. You’re never going to get your grip perfect. Just throw the damn ball.”

“What did your mom say to you about cursing?” he asked, laughing at me. The ball flew out of his hand but went sailing over my head. Even leaping into the air I couldn’t catch it.

“Damn it, Joshua,” I muttered. “You throw like a girl!” Turning around to go retrieve the ball, my eyes landed on a girl approaching on her pink bicycle, her wavy red hair swinging back and forth from her ponytail as she pedaled up the street. Beside her, I spotted her younger sister, Rose, rushing to keep up with her. My heart started pounding in my chest as Poppy Briar brought her bike to a stop right in front of the wayward baseball.

Putting down the kickstand, she got off and picked up the baseball. “This yours, Landon Johnson?”

Immediately, I reminded myself that I couldn’t let her know how pretty she was, or how she always made my palms sweaty and my heart start to thump in my chest. The Briars were a bunch of weirdos. Everyone knew that. They lived across the street from us in a big house like ours, but my dad called them hobos, saying they let their overgrown yard look like a forest in the making.

Not to mention Poppy was three years younger than me. The other guys in my high school would never let me hear the end of it if they knew I thought a middle school baby was cute.

“Yeah, that’s mine,” I told her with a shrug. She was still a good twenty yards away. “Dumbass Joshua doesn’t know how to throw straight.”

“Hey, you’re the one who can’t catch,” Joshua shouted back.

“Throw it here if you think you’ve got the arm for it,” I taunted. “I bet you can’t.”

Poppy’s eyebrows raised over her sapphire eyes. “You don’t think I can?” she repeated.

Seeing her get all worked up just made me laugh. “I mean, you can try.”

With that, Poppy reared back and heaved the ball at me so fast and hard, I could barely get my glove up in time. Thankfully, I did catch it, but only when it was half an inch from colliding with my nose.

Behind her, Rose, who had finally caught up, burst out laughing. “You suck at baseball, Landon,” she told me.

“Shut up, Rose.” Shaking my head, I told Poppy, “You’re okay at throwing a ball, I guess. For a girl.”

“You’re okay at catching, I guess, for a boy,” she shot back. “Is your sister around?”

Ignoring what was clearly meant to be a snide remark, I glanced across the park. I saw my sister, who was Poppy’s age, running around the teetertotter with some other kids from school, and pointed. “She’s over there.”

“Thanks,” Poppy said, always polite.

About that time, Liberty spotted Poppy and took off running in our direction. For some reason I didn’t quite understand, I hated to see Poppy smile at seeing my sister. Why didn’t she look at me that way?

“There you are!” Liberty exclaimed. “Sam’s here.” She grabbed Poppy by both hands and jumped up and down. “He was asking about you.”

Poppy’s cheeks turned pink, and my gut twisted into a knot. Sam Henderson? Was she really interested in that eighth-grade dope? He was such a nerd, always walking around with his pants hitched up to his chest.

“Gross,” I muttered, getting both of them to turn around and stare at me.

“Sam’s the hottest guy in our school,” Liberty told me. “You wouldn’t know because you don’t go to our school.”

“That’s right. I’m not a baby,” I shot back at her.

“We’re not babies.” Poppy sounded very matter of fact with her response. “You know, one of these days a three-year age gap isn’t going to seem that big, Landon. When you’re thirty and we’re twenty-seven, everyone is just going to assume we’re the same age.”

“People make a lot of assumptions about you, Poppy Briar, but your age isn’t one of them,” I replied, hoping to hurt her feelings. After all, she’d offended me by making eyes at Sam Henderson.

It did hurt her. She knew exactly what I was getting at. Her face fell, and her once pink cheeks turned pale white.

“Don’t be a jerk, Landon!” Liberty shouted at me. “Her family has a lot of money or else they wouldn’t live in our neighborhood. They just choose to do different things with it, like better the environment.”

“Not the environment in their yard,” I said snidely. “You’ve got a natural habitat that matches the rainforest growing there.”

“Landon!” Liberty yelled at me.

“No, it’s all right.” Poppy actually didn’t look angry at me for saying such mean things to her. She just looked hurt. “He’s not wrong. My dad doesn’t mow as much as he did before his promotion, and he tells me not to do it because he doesn’t want me to get blisters.”

“Maybe if you’re so rich, you can pay someone to do it. Or get a riding lawnmower.” My suggestion sounded cruel coming out of my mouth, as it was meant to.

“I’ll suggest that,” Poppy said, still being nice to me for some reason.

“Come on.” Liberty yanked on her arm again, and the two of them headed over to where Sam and the others were playing, Rose following behind.

“See you later,” Poppy said, her blue eyes cutting to my soul.

“Huh?” What did she mean by that?

“The neighborhood street party is tonight,” she reminded me, walking backward as my sister continued to try and tug her away.

“Right.” Damn. I would see her later.

As soon as they walked away, Joshua said, “Your sister never says hi to me.”

Spinning to face him, I said, “Why do you care?”

He only shrugged.

Handing him the ball, I told him, “Let’s toss this thing around some more. I know how much you love sports, man, but damn if your aim isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. Coach is going to sit you on the bench if you don’t get better.”

Joshua nodded. “I know. Thanks for practicing with me. Sports are my life. Someday, I wanna play in the major league.”

“Shit. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” I got back into position, and he backed up, giving it another shot. This time, I was able to catch his throw at least, which was surprising because the sound of familiar laughter from the teetertotter was very distracting. Poppy Briar. Always in my head.

Later that evening, I found myself sitting on Joshua’s back porch, the scent of grilling meat wafting from the BBQ where his dad stood flipping things every few minutes. The annual Swanson Ridge neighborhood party was underway, with the Smiths doing the majority of the hosting this year, though some people were utilizing the pool next door, too.

I sipped my lemonade, my mind on other things while Joshua tossed a baseball in the yard with one of the other kids from down the street. He was getting better. The Smiths were all so athletic. If his father knew how bad Joshua was at throwing the ball, he’d be so embarrassed. Thank goodness the practice was paying off.

Music from some band my parents used to like in college blared over the outside speakers. Finishing off my drink, I got up, deciding to go play with the other kids. At fifteen, I was almost too old for most of these kids, too old to play, but I figured this might be the last summer I was around for this. By next year, I wanted to have a job and my own car so I could get a little bit of freedom.  My parents, Remington and Elizabeth, could be overbearing at times. I liked the idea of putting some space between me and them.

Approaching bikes had me slowing up, making sure I wasn’t about to get run over. Once again, I found myself mesmerized by the swinging red ponytail on the back of Poppy’s head as she approached me, riding her bike alongside my sister, Liberty, with a bunch of other kids. They rushed over and dropped their bikes, switching them out for hula hoops. I watched my sister struggle to get the hoop to stay around her scrawny hips, but Poppy knew how to move just right. I really shouldn’t be watching this. She was practically a little girl, after all.

Yet, I found myself walking in that direction, my mind searching endlessly for an insult, something that would really sting. After all, the only way I knew how to talk to her without letting her know I thought she was cute was to be mean.

I found myself saying, “I didn’t know stick figures could hula hoop.”

“Shut up, Landon,” Liberty growled as her hoop fell to the ground again. “You should go away before you say something else really mean.”

“It’s okay,” Poppy offered, looking at me with one eyebrow raised. “I’m used to it by now. Your brother doesn’t know how to open his mouth without sounding like a real jerk.”

“I’m a jerk, huh?” Her words felt like a blow to my heart, but I couldn’t let her know that.

“Yeah, you are. You know, you’re never going to find a girlfriend if you keep talking to people that way. What’s the matter, Landon? Don’t you ever wanna grow up and get married? Maybe leave Franklin behind you?”

I snickered at her. “Don’t worry about me, Poppy. I’ll be married before you know it.”

“Oh, yeah? You think a jerk like you is gonna find true love?”

“You’re twelve years old,” I reminded her. “You don’t even know what that word means.” Hearing her speak of love made my heart long for her, though. I had to keep reminding myself she was just a kid. Even if she didn’t look like the other twelve-year-olds.

“Well, I feel bad for you, Landon,” she went on. “No girl is gonna want to be with someone who is always so mean. I think you can be nice, but you don’t like to show it.”

Shaking my head, I told her. “Nah, being nice is overrated. Tell you what, Poppy Briar. If I’m not married by the time I’m thirty, I’ll take the worst punishment the universe could ever give me.”

“What’s that?” She stopped moving the hoop around and stared into my eyes.

Swallowing hard, I told her, “I’ll marry you.”

“Gross,” Liberty proclaimed. “Poppy would never marry a jerk like you.”

A grin spread across Poppy’s face. I didn’t know what to make of it. “You think marrying me would be the worst thing ever?”

I nodded, even though it was all a lie.

“All right, Landon Johnson. I think you deserve that, then. If marrying me is the worst, then if you’re not married to someone else by the time you turn thirty, you have to marry me. Serves you right.”

Shocked to hear her say such a thing, I just stared at her. Then, she stuck out her pinky, and I knew exactly what she wanted me to do.

Fully confident that I would have fallen in love with a beautiful woman my own age by then, I had no qualms about it, though. Electricity shot up my arm as our fingers wrapped around one another.

“Pinky promise.”

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