He didn’t say much, but Molly watched the way his smile played coy with his face when he snuck glances at her. Walt Fuller’s eyes might be windows to an old soul, but the fireflies in her belly flocked to the light that flickered in them when he got out of his truck in the dooryard.
“See that break in the fence ahead?” she said. “Take that. It Randy said we’re meeting up at the mill.”
Walt nodded, slowing the truck and turning onto the dirt road. They bumped down the frost-heaved tractor road that wound from Route 7 around the orchards to the abandoned mill, Molly wondering if he was thinking about the crackling atmosphere between them. Once the tidy rows of bare trees were behind them, she could see the glow of the bonfire through the woods beyond. A scattering of vehicles met them around a bend, and Walt stopped the truck.
He let out a long breath and pulled the key from the ignition. Molly touched his shoulder.
“Come on, let’s go.”
She paused for a beat when he let himself out of the truck. He’d surprised her, closing her door in her parents’ driveway; she wondered if he’d come around to get the door for her.
Her patience was rewarded. Walt opened the passenger door and offered her a hand. With her feet firmly on the ground, Molly looped her arm through his and led him towards the fire pit.
A chorus of greeting rose up from the knot of people around the already blazing fire. Molly felt Walt hesitate and squeezed his arm.
“Walt! Hey, man.” Randy Strickland got up from the log he’d been perched on. “Hey, Molls.”
“Hi, Randy. Thanks for the invite. Nice night for it.”
“Cold night for it.” Walt reached out a hand, the two men shook hands. “Been a while.”
“Yeah,” Randy laughed. “Think the last time I saw you, we were out at your place for a party. Summertime?”
“My mom’s fiftieth.” Walt filled in the information.
Randy’s grin sank. “Sorry about your old man. My folks didn’t mention it until I got back from school.”
Molly snugged his arm against her to ward off the sadness she knew kept him company.
“There’s beer in the cooler over there.” Randy gestured at the circle around the fire. “Grab a seat.”
A girl with a wheat colored braid hanging down over one shoulder was playing a guitar and singing, with help from a couple nearby. There was space on a picnic table across the clearing.
Molly slid her hand along his arm, twining their fingers where they met. “Want to grab a couple of beers? I’ll grab some seats.”
Walt nodded, and made his way to the cooler on the tailgate of another pickup. He met her at the picnic table with two bottles of Labatt’s. Molly leaned against him when he sat, enjoying the way her head fit in the crook of his shoulder.
More cars and trucks filled in the makeshift parking, and the crowd around the fire grew. Someone left their car running, providing more music when the guitar-playing girl’s fingers got too cold.
Cora Atkinson and her tall, dark-haired date joined them. “Molly! I didn’t know you’d be here. You know John, right?”
“Hey, John,” Molly said. “John Pease, Walt Fuller.”
Walt’s posture shifted, she felt him relax. “We know each other.”
“Just a bit.” John dropped down next to Walt with an easy grin. “How’s the farm?”
Cora sat on Molly’s other side. “John’s parents live next door to the Cartwrights.”
Molly tilted her head, squinting at her friend.
“Walt’s Aunt Yolie?” Cora prompted her. “Walt’s mom moved in with her sister after Jed Fuller died.”
Cora went on, but Molly wasn’t listening. Next to her, Walt was deep in conversation with Cora’s boyfriend, more at ease than she’d seen seen him yet. His father hadn’t been gone a month, his mother had decamped to her sister’s—she knew from Janey that his sister and brother weren’t nearby.
No wonder he was so solemn, with only cows for company.
She leaned into him a little more, the layers of clothing between them warming from the contact. In wordless answer, Walt’s hand pressed against hers. A quiet gesture, but Molly’s heart felt it just the same.