My boots scuffed the red dirt road lightly as I walked, armed with a water bottle, a book, and a mission. Allured by a rumor of fresh berries, I had decided to exchange a Sunday afternoon doze for a hike to a waterfall and an alleged patch of wild strawberries. My path’s trajectory would lead me past the barn, through two swinging metal gates, across a meadow, and down a steep hill to a crannied waterfall hidden in a rocky cove.
The day was hot. Dry wind blew puffs of dust into the air. I walked a little faster, eager for the sound of rushing water, the peace of thick, pure-scented pine trees, and the sweet tang of wild strawberries.
I had barely reached my first landmark when I saw him—the bookish boy wearing a cowboy hat. He sat in the shade of the barn, reading. Long-legged and gangly like a spider, he could stretch his face into a split-second Howdy Doody grin.
I wasn’t surprised to see the book in his hand. He often sat by himself in the staff dining room, reading. I watched him sometimes. He would mindlessly fork food into his mouth and chew while his eyes feasted on the black print that ran across white pages. Gripping the thick tome with one lanky hand, his sat for moments on end with his fork suspended between plate and mouth.
He always sat at a back table. Sometimes I sat beside him. Often, I just watched from a distance, observing as one thick tome blended into another and the days drifted into weeks. Though we worked at the same ranch located high in the Rocky Mountains, he lived in fictional worlds and visited far-off realms. Books filled every spare minute. He read at dinner. He read in the barn. He read cross-legged, sitting on a fence rail with his back braced against a fencepost and his knees bent and folded like chicken wings.
We both liked books, he and I. If we had met in the pages of a book, we might have even been friends. But, walking by the barn that day, I lacked the magic that the rest of his friends possessed because I was real and they were fictional. So, as he sat there, lost in his book, I almost walked by him without speaking.
“Hey.” My own voice surprised me. It sounded careless, flippant even. “I’m going to look for strawberries. Want to come?”
He looked up, this tall boy with a reading habit, and squinted in my direction. I stepped into the shade, away from the sun’s glare.
“Bring your book if you want to read.” I shrugged. “I’ve got mine.” I waved my book in the air as if to prove my statement and continued my planned trajectory. A board creaked in the wooden table he was sitting on, and a thin shadow fell in step beside me.
We continued past the barn, through the two swinging metal gates, across the meadow, and down the steep hill. A narrow trail threaded its way through tall pines and craggy outcroppings of rock. The liquid static of water falling over rocks met our ears as the trail veered sharply to run beside the creek bed.
Wordlessly, he crossed to the far side of the creek, his book tucked under his arm. I stayed on my own bank. The search for the strawberry patch began. Upstream and down, we paced. Long, skinny weeds slapped my legs. I parted their feathery heads with my hands, searching the undergrowth. Mosquitos droned their high-pitch tune in my ears. My eyes scanned the ground.
Then I saw them—rounded leaves with lacey edges spreading along the creekbank. I waved him over from the far side of the creek, flapping my arms to get his attention. Then I bent, searching beneath the leaves, hoping for plump, crimson berries to peek at me from the low-growing thicket of greenery. I found none.
Crossing the shallows in long-legged hops, he soon stood beside me. He knelt and brushed the leaves back gently.
“No blooms.” He stood up and brushed his hands against his jeans. “Must be out of season.”
I stared at the patch for a long moment, imagining the tiny, individual bursts of wild strawberries in my mouth. For a split second, I envied the little birds and squirrels that had gorged themselves on nature’s candy and left none for me.
“Guess I’ll read now.” I turned away from the patch and plopped down on a rock. I opened my book. I heard the bookish boy moving upstream, pine needles whispering under his footsteps. He found a rock to his liking and settled down to read.
Words blurred into paragraphs and paragraphs into pages. Time rolled as easily as the water droplets that bounced into white water at the base of the falls. Shadows stretched longer as sunlight angled lower through the pine trees. Together, we read beside the creek—lost in two separate worlds. Chapters later, we finally hauled ourselves back to the real world that we shared and headed back to the ranch.