August Heat

Anna Kraus surveyed the crowd. The candles on the cake before her blazed brightly, a stark contrast to the late afternoon light in the Christiansen farm kitchen. A wisp of a smile played upon Anna’s lips. Wish made, she blew. Applause erupted as the final flame flickered and died. She looked at Peter and winked. He understood. It was for him the wish would come true.

Covertly, Peter glanced across the room. He’d never seen her in the blue dress she wore, but he liked how she looked in it. He was glad Jennifer had given it to her. Looking back to his grandmother, he waited.

As the others left the room, their cake and homemade ice cream in hand, Anna Kraus, too, looked over and said, “Elizabeth?”

With a nervous glance at her father in the next room, Elizabeth crossed over. “Yes?”

Anna Kraus also checked. She did not wish to be interrupted. Frank Beehmer had been too polite the entire afternoon, polite in an obvious, uncomfortable way. Most did not know why; most did not notice how he had avoided Peter. Peter, for his part, had kept close to Jess and his other friends. To his disappointment, he hadn’t had a moment alone with Elizabeth all afternoon. Now, he alone hung against the inside kitchen wall, unobserved from the adjoining room, and waited.

Anna Kraus reached into her pocket and removed a small packet tied with ribbon. “This is for you. My husband gave this to me the day we were married,” she said softly, “and since I have no granddaughters to pass it on to, I decided it should go to Peter’s intended.” She gave Peter a second wink and a smile. “Since this summer’s been so difficult for you both, and at my age,” she chuckled, “why wait? This is my engagement gift to you.”

Elizabeth’s hands shook slightly as she accepted the package. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything. Accept it with my love, wear it with much happiness.”

For one of the few times that afternoon, Elizabeth risked a look at Peter. He obviously had known this was going to happen. With a smile and a deep breath, she removed the ribbon and lifted the lid from the small square box. Inside was a gold locket, heart-shaped and engraved with an intricate rose design.

“Open it, Beth,” Peter said softly.

She did, and what she found brought tears to her eyes. The pictures of George and Anna Kraus were gone. In their place were miniatures of her and Peter.

“Oh,” she sighed. Her chin quivered. She looked from Peter to his grandmother. “It’s so beautiful. How can I ever thank you?”

“Be happy,” Anna Kraus responded and patted the girl’s arm then left Peter and Elizabeth alone.

Elizabeth’s look made the long afternoon a memory. Peter smiled. His arms ached to hold her. His eyes held.

It was then Elizabeth noticed Jess standing just beyond the screen door, watching her. Not them. Her. And not for the first time that afternoon. She glanced over then away from those dark, electric eyes.

Jess felt her rejection and backed into shadow.

“Want some cake and ice cream?” Peter’s voice carried only to her.

“I’ll get it,” she whispered and reluctantly left the moment behind.

Outside, Jess leaned against a porch pillar and looked east. Pulling a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket, he lit it and took a drag. Exhaling long columns of smoke, he pondered whether he’d been right to stay. He studied his former home. Perhaps he should just take off. The scent of perfume filled his mind, changed it.

“Jess, there you are.”

The screen door banged closed behind Peter, then Elizabeth.

“Cake?” Peter offered Jess his own.

“I’m not much for sweets.”

“You could have fooled me.” Peter took a bite of cake then said, “You’ve been quiet all afternoon. What’s up?”

Jess shrugged. “Not much used to crowds, is all.”

As Elizabeth joined Jennifer Sturhman and the covey of young women sitting on the lawn chairs in the shade of one of the maple trees south of the house, Peter saw opportunity, stepped off the porch, and asked, “Coming?”

Jess raised his cigarette. “In a minute.”

Watching Peter join the group, Jess once more felt very much the outsider. Taking a final drag, he looked the other way. After all, he reasoned, what have I to offer her? Pete has everything. Family, respectability, land. What kind of future would she have with someone like me. I lost all that long ago.

Still, he could not deny his desire. He wanted Elizabeth Beehmer like he’d never wanted anyone before. And if the past few years had taught him anything, it had taught him to take what he wanted without regard for anyone or anything in his way. It was how a person survived in this world.

Jess flicked the dying cigarette butt onto the lawn and wished he had not come. Looking towards the western horizon where the sun hung over the familiar grove of trees, he felt the acute desperation of once more wanting what was beyond his reach. Angrily, he railed yet again at fate, at its apparent denial. He glanced at the girl in blue. Or maybe not all, not yet.

“Does your father know yet?”

Elizabeth glanced up, knife poised over the lemon she was cutting. “What?”

“That your date with Paul was a sham?”

Jennifer lifted half of an already split lemon and twisted it on the reamer.

Most guests were gone. The girls were making lemonade for those still there.

“I was right to give you that dress,” she added with a smile. “It suits you.”

“Jenn,” Elizabeth hesitated, waited for the other’s eyes. “If my father finds out . . .”

“Liz.”

The knife slipped. The cut burned deep.

Frank Beehmer stood in the archway to the living room. “Time to go.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “May I please stay for a little while? We’re making more lemonade. I’ll walk home.” She waited for his reaction.

“Please, Mr. Beehmer,” Jennifer chimed in. “We hardly ever get to visit. I can drop her off myself. Father let me bring my own car just so we could visit.”

Frank Beehmer’s ‘no’ became hesitation. “Alright. But not too long, Liz.” He turned and was gone.

Elizabeth exhaled then she looked at Jennifer. Seeing the look, Jennifer laughed.

“Men are such patsies—if you know how to use them. I’ve been practicing on Daddy for years.”

“Thank you, Jenn.”

“Don’t thank me, Liz. It wasn’t anything.” Jennifer lifted the lemon juice and poured it into the pitcher. “This summer’s been dreadfully dull. It’s kind of refreshing to have something interesting happen.” She stirred the sugar and juice then lifted the pitcher. “Coming?”

“In a minute.” Elizabeth dropped the knife. She lifted the cut finger to her lips and sucked the blood and stinging juice from it. A red streak marked the yellow rind of the lemon on the table.

Remembering where Laura kept her rags, she found one and wrapped the cut. Dreadfully dull. How she wished she could say the same. Her summer had indeed been dreadful. And, yes, dull in its way. But not a wit in the way Jennifer implied. If her father had heard their conversation . . .

All day she’d worried about a potential confrontation between her father and Peter. Her finger smarted as she threw the ruined lemon away. And if her father ever learned of their deception . . . well, even more than she hated deceiving him, she feared the consequence. For now, and for Peter’s sake, she would risk only what she had to.

By the time Elizabeth went outside, most of her friends were gone. Only Jess, Jennifer, and Eileen Kelly, Paul’s younger sister and Jennifer’s closest confidant, sat in the maple tree’s shade.

“Where’s Peter?” she asked, finally free to do so openly.

“Out back,” Jess said and nodded direction. The lie slid from his lips perfectly. Jennifer glanced at Eileen. All three knew Peter had gone to the barn only moments before.

“Thanks,” Elizabeth said, avoiding electric eyes and wondering why Peter would be in the orchard, but someone had mentioned green apples earlier. Peter loved green apples and salt.

Heading east, Elizabeth cleared the lilac bushes along the cave east of the house. She saw no one. Nevertheless, she continued past the washhouse. A quick look confirmed; no Peter.

A twig snapped. She turned. Jess was behind her.

“He’s by the barn.” His too familiar eyes sparked.

“Why did you tell me he was here?”

A shrug. “So we could talk.”

Elizabeth looked away. “What about?”

Jess was so close she could smell him. He moved closer, reached for the locket she’d fastened around her neck before coming outside. Her breath caught as she felt his fingers brush her lace collar, felt their heat against the soft voile she wore.

Elizabeth stepped back.

Jess grinned. His brows arched. “Careful,” he gave a firm tug, “you’ll break it.”

“What do you want?” Her breath came quickly.

“To see this. It’s very pretty.” Fingering the locket, he looked into her eyes. “So are you.”

“Jess, I . . . Let go. Please.”

Jess’ free hand floated lightly against her arm then took hold.

Elizabeth stiffened. “Don’t! Let go!”

Time stopped. For several long seconds his eyes held hers. He did not relent. Opening the locket, he said, “Handsome couple. Course, you’d dress up any man.”

Elizabeth’s head seemed oddly detached.

Jess sobered. “You afraid of me?”

Elizabeth inhaled slowly. “What do you want, Jess?” Everything about him unnerved her. She tried to look away.

His eyes arrested hers. “To talk.”

“Why?”

His fingers found a strand of hair.

“Stop it!” Fear and anger fueled violet eyes deep amethyst, enticing him on.

“Marriage? You’re pretty young to make such a commitment. Even to a guy like Pete. What happens if you meet someone new, say next week—next month—a year from now?

“I’d hate to see my friend hurt.”

“I’m not that kind of girl.”

“What kind of a girl are you?” Brown eyes mocked hers, surveyed her face then dropped lower.

Elizabeth took hold of the locket. She backed away. Flight possessed her; but turning to flee, she saw Peter, carrying a basketball, clear the lilac bushes, headed their way.

“Jess! How about a quick game?”

“Sure,” Jess said with a warning look.

“Good.” Peter tossed him the ball. “Now, get lost.”

Peter’s eyes suggested he was more perceptive than Elizabeth expected, and when he took her in his arms, he felt her tremble. “What’s wrong?”

Elizabeth weighed truth in the balance. Remembering that she’d already caused one fight between them, she decided that she’d deal with Jess herself.

“He . . . I don’t know how to take him, Peter.”

Peter studied her face. “What did he say to you?”

Holding firm to her resolve, Elizabeth forced a smile. “It’s . . . it’s everything lately.”

“Jess can be kind of crude sometimes. There’s a reason my folks made him stay here most of the time when we were kids. I was too young to take much notice back then, but I see it now. Don’t let him upset you, OK?”

Peter’s touch was love, passion to be sure, but respect and a gentleness hard to put into words. It must be felt to know it. Elizabeth reveled in it, allowed it to steady her.

Jess hands were base in a way that gave proof to Peter’s words.

“Peter,” her eyes searched his.

“What?”

She sighed. “Just hold me.”

“I’ve been waiting to all afternoon.”

Placing his nose against her hair, he inhaled. Her scent filled him with longing. “Beth,” he said softly, “You mean more to me than anything. You do know that, don’t you?”

She nodded, then after long moment, pulled away and gave him the look he longed for. She smiled. “You better go. They’ll be waiting.”

Peter kissed her tenderly. He turned then, realizing she hadn’t moved, stopped. “You coming?”

“In a minute.”

Curiosity filled his eyes.

“Go.” Elizabeth waved him on.

With a grin, he jogged away.

When he passed the corner of the house, Elizabeth leaned against a nearby apple tree and allowed the tears that had been choking her to come. Jess wasn’t their root. Fear was their wellspring. Jess had frightened her, but she was more frightened of Peter’s response to his friend’s behavior.

The deeper fear, however, remained her father’s discovering the lie . . . fear of his reaction to that lie. If he found out . . . as he’d almost done earlier. If he’d heard Jennifer . . . Her complicated summer had become even more complicated.

Only her feelings for Peter remained uncomplicated. Those held true as ever.

“Jess, you Paul and Matt against Leroy and I. OK?”

“Right! Stick me with the kid.”

Jess was smiling, but he wasn’t kidding. Peter looked at Matt who stood pouting by the barn. At thirteen he was a better athlete that Jess would ever be. He grinned.

“Tell you what, Jess,” Peter said, “Matt and I’ll take you three.” He grabbed the ball. “And we’ll beat the socks off you guys. Right, Matt?”

Matt’s grin matched his brothers. “Right.”

Both teams huddled. Peter tussled Matt’s hair and said, “We can do this, Matt. I’m sure of it. Just hang to the outside. Keep Leroy busy. You can take him or Paul any day. Leave Jess to me. You ready?”

“Got it.” Matt took the ball to pass it in.

“Hey, how come you guys get to take the ball out first?” Leroy called as he headed towards the imaginary line circling the side of the barn.

“Home court rules,” Matt said. “It’s our ball!”

The court was a half court of hard, packed clay at the center east side of the barn. The doors on the north and south corners, one that entered the horse stall area and one that entered the milking parlor, were the boundaries. The center door, the one that opened into the alleyway between, was closed. The beat up peach basket that hung just above the middle door gave evidence to many hours of playtime when Matt and Peter played one another or, as now, with friends. All present had played there enough that the boundaries were clearly defined in their minds. The only hazards were the door handle, an occasional rock that worked free from the clay, or the barn wall. Padding was as nonexistent as a rimmed basket.

Just as Matt tossed the ball inbounds, Elizabeth appeared. Peter caught the ball then saw her, saw the sluggishness of her steps; he saw the unnaturalness of her expression and noted there was absolutely no trace of her usual buoyant self. When she stopped near Jennifer and Eileen, she avoided his eyes. That’s when he could see she’d been crying.

“Time out,” Peter called.

“Time out!” Jess growled. “We haven’t started yet!”

“There’s an emergency in the cheering section.”

Peter walked to Elizabeth, glanced at her companions, draped his arms over her shoulders, and cocking one eye towards the other players, walked her several feet away.

“What’s wrong?” His eyes moved over her face. “It’s not like you to cry, not over nothing. Why have you been crying? Tell me.” His tone was loving but firm.

Elizabeth looked up. She would have to tell him something, but the words stuck in her throat. She knew how he might react to the truth. She also knew how perceptive Peter was. Besides that, she couldn’t lie. It wasn’t her nature to do so.

“Did Jess say something to upset you?”

Finding her cue, Elizabeth looked away, preferring not having eye contact as she told him half the truth. “He said . . . that he thought we were too young to . . . to make a commitment,” her voice broke, “that one of us might find someone . . . someone else,” her eyes found his, “after its too late.”

The hurt in those violet eyes broke Peter’s heart. “You know better than that,” he reassured her. Wiping his thumb along the corner of her eye, he caught the tear formed there. “Jess doesn’t have a clue how we feel about one another. How could he? He’s been here—what, a few days? And he doesn’t know you, not really.”

Dropping her eyes from his, Elizabeth took a breath as if to speak further, felt the others watching them, and changed her mind. If they’d heard any of what was said, she couldn’t tell, but under their scrutiny, she made a visible attempt to smile, and said, “You’re holding up the game, Peter.”

“They’ll wait. Are you sure there’s nothing else?”

With a sigh, she added, “Only everything. The whole summer, this long afternoon.”

Lifting her chin, Peter kissed her lightly. “I love you, Beth, and you know me well enough to know I don’t do things without thinking them through. Not important things. I won’t change my mind about wanting to marry you—not ever. Don’t let Jess or anyone else put doubt in your mind. Please.”

The quality of his voice surprised her, its pleading echoed in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Peter; I shouldn’t have let him upset me.”

“Never again. Promise?”

She smiled. “Go play.”

With a grin, he turned, hurried towards the waiting game. When his eyes found Jess, he grew somber. Jess ignored the look. Turning to Matt, Peter said a little more seriously than before, “Let’s take these guys.”

Inside the milking parlor, Laura was putting the cream separator together while Tom went to the near pasture to bring in the milk cows for the evening milking. She listened to the game, heard the ball bang against the barn wall, the grunts and groans of young men in competition. When finished, she filled the mangers with feed. All the while, she contemplated their conversation, hers and Tom’s, as they’d walked to the barn. They’d seen Peter talking with Elizabeth. They, too, noticed she seemed upset by something.

Laura had mentioned Frank’s changed demeanor to her husband. Tom had listened quietly, responded little. She looked up as Tom entered the rear of the milking parlor and said, “I’ll get the boys. They can take a break to do their chores.”

“I’ve already said I’d help this evening, give Peter time with his friends.”

“Well, Matt can milk. You don’t need to. It is Sunday.”

“Let him be, Tom. You’re avoiding the subject. I think it’s time to talk with Peter.”

“He’ll talk to us when he needs to; stop worrying.”

“Maybe you should talk to Frank, Tom. See what’s going on. He was tense as a cat all afternoon.”

“Maybe we should stay out until we know we’re needed.”

“But Tom . . .”

As the conversation inside the barn grew more intense, so did the game outside. Elizabeth, Jennifer, and Eileen watched while Matt and Peter fell behind, but consistently managed to stay within a basket or two. Facing Jess for a jump ball, Peter looked him in square in the eye and said, “Jess, if you have something to say about my future, say it to me. Got it? Don’t upset her again.”

The coolness of Peter’s eyes, his tone, his demeanor left little doubt. Elizabeth had revealed some of what had happened, but only some. If she’d told him he’d touched her, Peter would have confronted him immediately. Peter was nothing if not direct.

“Sorry, Pete, I didn’t mean . . .”

“What the hell did you mean?” Peter retaliated.

“Hey, you two. Let’s play ball,” Paul said.

Peter glanced over, nodded; Paul tossed the ball. Both jumped. Peter tipped it to Matt; the game resumed.

From that point on, the competition became truly intense, the play increasingly physical. It was soon apparent to everyone present that Peter was angry. Why, only Jess knew. And Jess knew Peter well enough to know that he intended to win. Peter hated to lose almost as much as he hated someone interfering in his personal business. Jess also knew that, as a player, he lacked the ability to defeat Peter in honest play.

Calling a time out, Jess corralled Paul and Leroy. “I don’t know what’s up with Peter, but he’s taking this far too seriously.”

“He always takes this seriously,” Leroy countered.

“We only have a four point lead. Leroy, block him outside. Paul you steal the ball any way you can. I’ll protect the basket, if you can’t.”

Standing beside Matt, Peter placed the ball on his hip and waited. Matt looked up. “You have a plan?”

“Just stay out of the way. If you get hurt, Mom will skin me.” He patted Matt’s head. “Think we got them wore down, don’t you?”

Matt grinned.

Rebounding Paul’s failed shot, Matt tossed the ball to Peter who scored from the outside corner. Quickly stealing the ball from Leroy, Peter dribbled around a surprised Jess and scored again, tying up the game. On the next effort, Peter blocked Jess’ shot, rebounded, and scored, putting he and Matt up by two.

Jess glared at him. Obviously, Peter was up to one of his old tricks. He’d been hanging back, playing with feigned effort, as he, Jess, had struggled at maximum ability. Once again, Peter intended to win. What Peter didn’t realize was that the Jess he faced was no longer willing to lose.

Blocking the pass from Leroy to Paul, Peter lifted gracefully, took the shot, missed. Rebounding, he turned, circled the hard-packed clay outside the barn, and made his move. Coming in from the opposite side, he took a shuffle-step, a long stride, and then, in perfect form, went up to finish the game.

Jess watched his approach. He, too, went up; but his arms were not raised. Using them and his full weight, he body slammed Peter.

Knocked off balance, Peter spun around. There was a solid crack as his head hit the barn wall. Peter buckled face down in the dirt.

“Peter!” Elizabeth screamed.

Inside the barn, Tom and Laura looked at one another. Tom turned first, reached the milk parlor door just as Jess bent over his son, lifting him, rolling him onto his back. Laura stepped in front of him, but as she started to hurry over, Tom took hold of her arm. “Wait,” was all he said.

“Don’t! Don’t move him!” Elizabeth said, as they gathered around Peter. “You don’t know how badly he’s hurt!” She knelt down. “Peter?”

“Hey, Pete,” Jess said, “Hey, wake up, OK?”

Elizabeth glared at Jess. “How could you?”

Peter moaned and opened his eyes. They moved from Elizabeth to Jess. “You always were a sore loser, Blakemore,” he said, forcing a weak smile.

“Sorry, Pete.”

“I bet you are,” Peter replied.

“Honey, are you alright?”

Peter touched her face. “I’ll live.” But when he stood, he was dizzy. Feeling the back of his throbbing head, he wavered slightly, looked at Jess, and commented, “You play a little rougher than you used to.”

Jess looked repentant. “Just sort of forgot myself for a minute. You OK?”

“Yeah, but I really need a time out now.”

Peter leaned on Elizabeth as she wrapped both arms around him; then, they slowly made their way across the yard, back to the lawn chairs under the maple tree.

Tom looked at Laura. They retreated inside the barn. New conviction filled Laura’s silence.

“I’ll keep my eyes on him, don’t worry. I still believe we wait for Peter to come to us. He’s not a child anymore, Mother. You can see for yourself what they feel for one another. That hasn’t changed. Maybe Frank is just hoping to slow things down. He let her stay, didn’t he?” With that he turned and opened the door to let the cows fill the stanchions for milking.

Reaching the law chairs, Peter dropped into one and gave Elizabeth a weak smile. “How about a glass of that lemonade?”

She gave him a worried look then turned towards the kitchen. He watched her until she disappeared inside. When he was alone, he looked back to the barn. A new game had ensued with a more friendly tone. Peter watched Jess pass the ball to Matt, watched Jess catch the return pass, watched him make the lay up. Peter watched thoughtfully, noted how he’d taken his place instead of letting Paul or Leroy. He studied Jess a long time before he looked away.

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