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Authors: M. Leighton

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BOOK: Fragile
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“I don’t have any plans tomorrow.  How ‘bout I meet you there?  I’ll bring both cameras so I can get some shots in, too. I’ll get a leg up on my homework.”

Miracle’s smile widened and her eyes sparkled with pleasure and interest.  At least Hardy hoped that’s what it was—interest.  In him.

“Seriously?”

“Sure.”

“Okay.  Tomorrow then?”

“Tomorrow.  What time?”

“Eight?  Is that too early?”

She was so considerate, Hardy had to grin.  “No.  Eight is fine.”

Hardy left in high spirits.  He thought of Miracle all the way home.  Never in his life had wanted to kiss a girl so badly. 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Hardy would never admit it, but he’d awakened at 6:07.  Despite his inability to go to sleep for thinking of Miracle, he was still up early, practically vibrating with excitement.  He relished the idea of getting to spend the whole day with her, even if it was in a public place taking pictures.

Time seemed to creep by, so Hardy made a quick trip to the store and was already at the park by 7:30, thinking he’d just wait on her.  Only he didn’t have to wait. She was already there.

They’d neglected to establish a place to meet, so Hardy thought he’d walk to the bench on which he’d first seen Miracle.  Typically, he wasn’t a very sentimental person, but that day, that first moment he’d seen her, was indelibly etched into his memory.

When he topped the small hill that led down to the bench under the tree, Hardy stopped in his tracks.  There, sitting in a single shaft of early morning sunlight, was Miracle. 

She was alone.  The park was still quiet and empty around her.  As usual, she was wearing a peaceful yet hauntingly sad smile as she watched something closely.  Hardy followed her gaze and saw two squirrels cavorting at the bottom of a tree.  Round and round they went, chasing each other in a spiral pattern first up the trunk and then back down to romp and play around the roots.  While they were cute and entertaining, Hardy didn’t find them nearly as fascinating as the girl who watched them.

Squatting, careful to make no noise that might alert her to his presence, Hardy knelt to take his camera from the bag, leaving the case and the other camera lying at his feet.

He took pictures of Miracle smiling as the two squirrels frolicked in the dewy grass.  He took pictures of her closing her eyes and tilting her face to the sun.  He took pictures of her staring off into space, as if deep in thought.  And he took pictures of her bowing her head, as if those thoughts were too troubling to face.

Hardy watched her for nearly an hour before he realized he was technically late for their meeting.  Stowing his camera back in its case, he untied his gift from the strap of the second case and stood to make his way to where Miracle still sat.

She must’ve heard his footsteps when he got closer.  Miracle’s head jerked toward him and she smiled brightly.  Almost too brightly.

Hardy knew the instant she made note of what he was carrying.  He watched her smile fade and her chin begin to tremble.  When he stopped in front of her, he saw the tears shimmering in her beautiful green eyes.

“What’s that?” she asked, a slight tremor in her voice.

“It’s a gift.  For you,” Hardy said, offering her the ribbon attached to the bright red balloon he towed.

Miracle reached forward and took the balloon, tears spilling down her cheeks.  “Thank you,” she whispered.

Hardy was at a loss.  He’d thought it would make her happy, not make her cry.  Fidgeting with the straps of the two camera bags, he confessed, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Miracle shook her head, visibly struggling to get a grasp on her emotions.  “No, you didn’t.  It’s just…it’s so…I’m just happy.  That’s all. It’s very nice of you.”

Not knowing what else to do, Hardy moved to sit beside her on the bench.  Miracle stared up at the balloon for the longest time before she spoke again.

Sliding her eyes to Hardy, she concluded, “You remember me.”

Holding her gaze, Hardy nodded.

Miracle looked back up at the balloon.

“I had kidney cancer.  Oncocytoma.  They removed my left kidney and were pretty sure that got it all, but I still had to have chemotherapy and some radiation.  I was so sick during my treatments I didn’t feel like using my camera.  I’d see all these amazing things I wanted to take pictures of, but I never seemed to feel like it.  I promised myself that if I lived through the last treatment, I’d bring a red balloon to the park and get a picture of it drifting off into the sky.  When I was so sick I could barely hold my head up, I could close my eyes and picture that scene.  I think in my head, it was almost like watching my cancer disappear.”

Hardy remained silent.  There were no words that could express how he was feeling.  There was no way to tell her that his heart was breaking for her, that he would rather have taken those chemo treatments himself than for her to have to suffer through them.  He knew it sounded absurd, probably
was
absurd, but in his soul he knew it was true.  Somehow, Miracle had shaken him to his core.

Although they’d practically just met, Hardy wanted nothing more than to take Miracle in his arms and protect her from the world—from hurt, from illness, from suffering, from disappointment.  He wanted to keep her safe and happy, to give her a life free from cares and worries.

Her soft, cool fingers on his arm brought him back to the present.

“Thank you,” she said again.

The words themselves were simple enough, but in her eyes was a depth of emotion, of gratitude that he couldn’t fathom.  She appreciated in a way that most people never would.  She appreciated like someone who had nearly lost everything and would never take another day, another breath for granted as long as she lived.  She appreciated like someone who had looked death in the eye.  And survived.

“My pleasure,” Hardy managed to squeeze out past the lump of uncharacteristic emotion in his throat.

He watched Miracle dig and claw her way out of the quicksand of bad memories and reach forward for the happiness of the moment, of the now.  Her lips curved into a bright smile and her eyes glistened with pleasure.

She hopped up off the bench and held out her hand.  “Come on.  We’ve gotta let this baby go and get some pictures.”

Hardy, unable to recover quite as quickly, had to work to find a smile to return.  But he did.  And then he took her proffered hand and stood to his feet.  “Lead the way.”

She grinned impishly at him and turned to drag him toward the gazebo.  At that moment, Hardy knew he’d follow her anywhere.

********

They were out of film by lunchtime.  Hardy had brought six rolls plus the ones already in each camera, but they’d burned through them in no time.  The funny thing was, Hardy knew when he developed them there would be very few shots of Miracle’s balloon floating off into oblivion.  Although they’d both snapped a few pictures, the moment had been so poignant they’d spent the majority of the time just watching the balloon rise, each lost in silent thought.

Sniffling had brought Hardy’s eyes back to Miracle.  Her face was tilted toward the sky and tears were streaming from the corners of her eyes across her temples to wet the hair just beyond.  He’d felt uncomfortable staring at her, although he really wanted to, so he’d forced his eyes back to the balloon.  But he’d been compelled to do something, anything to give her some comfort, some support, so he’d reached over and grabbed her hand, holding it between them on the bed of the grass.

She’d let him hold it for quite a while, long past the time when her sniffles had died off.   Hardy could’ve stayed that way forever—sitting with Miracle, holding her hand, staring up into the perfect sky—but the intimacy of the scene had been destroyed by a group of kids with kites that seemed to emerge out of nowhere.

Hardy knew exactly how she felt when he heard Miracle sigh.

“Wanna go grab some lunch?  My treat,” he asked lightly.  Even though the morning had been incredibly comfortable, he suddenly found himself nervous.

Miracle looked at him solemnly, nearly making his heart stop in disappointment. But then she smiled.

“Lunch sounds great, but only if it’s my treat.”

“Nope. It’s on me.”

“Absolutely not. I used all your film!” Miracle argued.

“That’s why I brought it.  So it’s still my treat.”

Miracle started to argue and Hardy reached out to put his finger over her lips.  It was meant to be a playful gesture.  Yes, for Hardy it had the added benefit of being able to touch her, but he really did mean for it to be playful.  It quickly turned more serious, however, when Miracle’s eyes met his and he felt her lips relax beneath his finger, parting slightly.  Hardy lost awareness of everything around him except for the feel of Miracle’s soft mouth and warm breath against his skin.

Slowly, Miracle raised her hand and wound her fingers around his wrist to pull his hand away from her mouth just enough for her to speak. 

“Then next time it’s my treat.  Deal?”

As long as there was sure to be a next time, Hardy would’ve agreed to anything.  “Deal,” he agreed.  “Now, what kind of food do you like?”

“Anything and everything.  I’m not picky.”  At Hardy’s wide smile, Miracle asked, “What?”

“It’s just a nice change, that’s all.”

“From what?”

“From superficial girls who don’t eat.  I’d take a girl like you any day.”

“Oh,” Miracle said, smiling shyly.  “Thank you.”

Hardy wanted so badly to reach out and touch her pinkening cheeks.  But he didn’t.  “How about Mexican food then?”

“Sounds good. I love nachos!  With extra cheese.  And jalapenos.”

“Jalapenos?  Omigod, I love you!” Hardy exclaimed, rolling his eyes heavenward.

“I love spicy food.”

“So do I.  And I’ve got just the place for you.”

With that, Hardy led Miracle to his car and they sped off to one of Hardy’s family’s favorite restaurants.

********

They’d just ordered their food and were talking about developing their film in the school’s dark room when a deep voice interrupted them.

“Who’s your friend, Hardy?”

Hardy’s head snapped up to meet his father’s curious eyes.

“Um,” Hardy began, clearing his throat.  “Dad this is Miracle St. James.  She’s new at school.  Miracle, this is my father, Wayne Bradford.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Miracle said politely, extending her hand.

Wayne gripped it politely and smiled. 

“Nice to meet you, too, Miracle.”  Turning toward his son, Wayne Bradford asked pointedly, “Where’s Cheyenne?”

Hardy’s eyes flickered to Miracle uncomfortably before he gave his stilted answer.  “We broke up.”

A thunderous expression rolled into place over Wayne’s features.  “When did this happen?”

“Last night.”

“Why did this happen?  How could you let it happen, Hardy?”

Hardy felt his cheeks sting in embarrassment. He’d known his father’s reaction wouldn’t be pleasant; he’d just never thought he’d have to weather it in front of Miracle.  His back straightened and his spine steeled a bit more with the knowledge that she was observing the scene.

“I didn’t
let it happen¸
Dad.  I
made it
happen.”


What?”

“She’s a horrible person and I couldn’t stomach dating her for one more day.”

“Hardy, it’s about more than losing your cool after a fight or finding someone else that temporarily strikes your fancy,” Wayne said, glancing quickly at Miracle and back.  “She was part of your future.  She was good for you, good for your career.”

“I’m not gonna date someone because they’re good for my career, Dad.”

“Well, you’d better think long and hard about that, son, because your entire future is riding on how you play this season.  And you know as well as I do that Cheyenne was a big part of that.”

With a curt nod to Miracle, Wayne Bradford stormed off.

Hardy watched the door for a long time after his father disappeared before he found the courage to meet Miracle’s eyes.  When he did, he didn’t see anger or hurt feelings; he saw pity.

“Sorry about that.  My dad’s a little…um…fanatical about football.”

“It’s fine.  Don’t worry about it. He obviously just wants what’s best for you.”

Hardy looked at Miracle, shaking his head.  “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Manage to see the good in people.  Even the ones who don’t deserve it.”

Miracle shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I guess because I look for it.”  After a short pause, Miracle cocked her head to one side and considered Hardy.  “I take it you don’t see much good in him.”

A bitter bark of laughter escaped before Hardy could stop it.  “No, not too much.”

“What is it that you see?”

Hardy met Miracle’s hypnotic eyes and, before he knew it, he was spilling his guts.

“I see a man who didn’t get to live his dream and feels like he had to settle in life. I see a man who is determined to see his son live that dream, whether it’s his dream or not.  I see a man who will put aside the desires of everyone in his life if he thinks he knows what’s best.  I see a man who won’t stop until he gets what he wants, no matter who it hurts.”

BOOK: Fragile
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