I dared her to eat the whole strawberry — green part and all — just to see if she would do it. Piper was like that, unpredictable, the try anything once kind of person.
“What happens if I do?” she said, pressing me for some sort of reward or competition; she was a girl who liked games.
“I don’t know, maybe a strawberry bush will grow inside of you.”
She frowned and half-laughed at my stupid joke.
“Max, you do know strawberries don’t grow on bushes, right?” she raised her eyebrows, as if she were some sort of expert strawberry farmer.
“Ha. Ha.” I said flatly. We both laughed.
The container of strawberries sat on the center console of my truck, I picked one up and popped it in my mouth, immediately pleased with our only purchase from the farmer’s market that morning. Piper looked out the window, mindlessly eating the berries. The windows were down and June’s summer air sent wisps of hair across her face. God she was pretty; so, so, pretty. Sometimes it caught me off guard.
“Ugh gross. This strawberry is all rotten on one side. How did I not see that? Blech.” Her interjection broke my attention away from her beauty and back to her mind, which was equally as pleasing to be around. She tossed the berry out the window and wiped its spoiled remnants from her lips — staining her sleeve with strawberry juice.
“Cute,” I said, almost without thinking.
She laughed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m so cute. Stuffing my face with strawberries while simultaneously getting them all over my shirt. You really know how to pick ’em Max.”
“Well that’s for sure,” I said while starting my truck, “I mean I picked those strawberries and they were delicious, so…” She turned on the radio and I put the truck in reverse, backing out of the overlook that showcases a dairy farm near our school. “Plus…” I added, half-looking at her, “You’re honestly the only person I know who can stuff their face with strawberries and still look cute.”
“Thank you. Now let’s get to Charlie’s. I like getting there before everyone else so we can snag some lawn chairs for the bonfire. I always feel like it’s colder when you have to stand.”
She turned up the radio, assuming my agreement with her proposition — she wasn’t wrong. We started out on the main road, a long stretch of asphalt connecting both halves of town. Trimmed with cornfields and cows, it made for a pleasant scenic byway to get from North Maybel to South Maybel.
“I love how it’s not dark yet. Makes me feel like I have all the time in the world,” Piper said, shifting in her seat to get a better view.
We continued down the road, the Strokes played on the radio — her choice, but I liked it. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Piper open the container of strawberries and start to eat them again, placing the container on her lap and examining each strawberry diligently before popping it into her mouth.
“You know what I think — “ Her sentence cut short as I jerked the wheel, the flash of headlights, the sound of metal, bits of red — strawberries, they were strawberries — flying through the air.
I opened my eyes to shattered glass and a smushed strawberry. The goopy mess sat in front of me, so pulverized by the impact it looked like liquid. I kept looking, breathing silently letting seconds pass. It was blood. I was looking at blood, not strawberries. Shit — “Piper? Piper? Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
I knew the truck was upside-down. My head hurt and my left arm bled freely as I looked at the glass in my hand. I need to find Piper. The image of her face just minutes before flashed across my mind. I needed to find her.
My seatbelt was a climbing harness suspending me inches above the asphalt. I clicked the buckle and slid down with a thud, using my left hand to cushion the impact. Then I felt the pain. Each fractal forced further into my palm and forearm, glistening with red and deep purple, silent streams molding pathways through the punctures. I cried. Where was Piper? The thought of her rebooting my adrenaline. I crawled through the crushed window, careful to cover my hands with my sleeves which were now heavy and wet, soggy with blood…so much blood… Why was there so much blood?
The sky was dark, the last sliver of sunlight illuminating just enough for me to make out the tangled heap which laid battered in the middle of the road. No. No. This cannot be happening-not Piper, Piper, God oh Piper please. My thoughts, both lucid and conscious, bombarded me as I staggered towards her. I fell to my knees and put my hand on her torso — she wasn’t facing me, her body curled like a humanoid in the fetal position. She’s breathing, okay she’s breathing, f*ck — is she? Is she breathing?
“Piper!” My voice cracked the quiet air around us. I moved my hand to her shoulder, and took a breath. I pulled her towards me, turning her onto her back. Oh my God. Oh. My. God. God Piper, I’m- I’m-…
Her face was raw, rubbed ragged by road rash. From the left temple to the corner of her mouth the flesh was open, bright red, bleeding slowly. Red clumped her eyelashes, pulling the strands together in a sticky web. Blood fell from her nose, too, bubbling occasionally as her body fought for breath. I pulled her onto my lap and cried for her, exclaiming that help was on its way — even though I had no idea — and that soon I’d be able to help her and she wouldn’t be in pain anymore. I repeated this over and over, wasting precious time. I looked down at her and noticed her hand across her chest — her knuckles were every color of the rainbow, cuts bleeding in time with one another — she was holding something. Curiosity lifted me from the current burden of reality and I opened her hand.
There it sat.
One, perfect strawberry. It gleamed in the dim light. Shiny and kept clean within the barracks that were her hand. I realized I couldn’t tell the strawberry stains on her sleeve from the blood stains and I wondered if I was dreaming. This strawberry made a mockery of other fruit, so preserved and unaware — I wanted to count the seeds. The seeds.
I wiped the blood from Piper’s cheek. “Look at what you saved, Piper — look at what you saved.”