Strawberry Wine

(Psst - Rated T for underage drinking.)

"Hey Katherine," the boy exclaimed, grinning and holding up a brown paper bag triumphantly, as if it were a trophy. "Look what I've got."

The girl had crossed her arms, looking at the bag critically. But she was smiling. "Let me guess, Brendan, more stolen spirits? You rogue, you."

He smirked and drew a bottle out of the bag. "Nope, not spirits. Wine this time. Strawberry wine, for certain."

Katherine was seventeen - not quite a child, not quite a woman - and shouldn't have been tempted, but it didn't seem like a big deal. After all, here was Brendan, not yet twenty-one years old and still swiping a new alcoholic beverage from her grandfather's cellar three times a week. Katherine knew she ought to have informed her grandpa about his thievery, like the model daughter her parents wanted her to be, but she didn't have the heart. She liked Brendan. And if she ratted him out, her disciplinarian grandfather would surely fire him - he had managed to get a job with decent pay as a farm hand on his ranch, so he could work through college. Katherine didn't want to see his academic hopes go down the drain, so she felt protective of him, even through his foolishness. And besides, he was one of the few boys she knew who had a car.

They strolled together towards the pristine little river bordering the south side of the farm. The dirt was hard beneath their feet; they walked a well-beaten path. It was dusk, and the moon was rising as June bugs fluttered through the balmy air and the yellow grass swished in the soft breeze. There was something clandestine about all of this, Katherine thought, sneaking off to drink with the hired help under the dim light of the moon while her grandparents slept.

Brendan stopped and sat down; they had reached the river bank. As he struggled to unscrew the cork from the bottle, Katherine stood and hesitated. He would surely want to share the wine with her, but she had little to no tolerance for alcohol. Yet, she thought with a little smile, she would have done almost anything to please him. Anyone else would have told her it was stupid to be infatuated with a boy because he had a car and a handsome face, but Katherine knew her feelings for him had grown deeper in the weeks she had gotten to know him. Yes, it was a restless summer and they loved recklessly.

Impatiently she took off her shoes and dipped her feet into the river, waiting for Brendan to open the bottle. Years later she would reminisce about this feeling of hastiness she felt while the cool water rushed over her skin. It's funny how those memories last, she would think. Youth and its innocence is a flighty thing.

A small pop and the wine was opened. Brendan quickly took a swig straight from the bottle, rather unceremoniously, then flicked the cork into the river. It could just be seen bobbing lazily downstream.

"Litterbug," Katherine remarked, smirking and clucking her tongue.

"Your turn, missy," Brendan said, shoving the bottle towards her. She shrugged and took it in her hands. The wine, she noted, was a warm orange-red colour, like the sunset. Sighing, she pressed the bottle to her lips and drank.

It tasted as she expected, hot and bitter; she didn't like it much. But she accepted the bottle each time Brendan passed it to her, afraid that refusing it might offend him. However, she eventually discovered, strangely enough, that the wine became more palatable as her vision became more blurry and the world swayed more and more around her. She had tasted alcohol before, sure, but she had never been drunk. Not until now.

Brendan had almost knocked back what little wine was left in the bottle before he paused, gazed at it, then turned to look at Katherine thoughtfully. He leaned over to brush a lock of her golden hair behind her ear; she just looked at him expectantly in response. Apparently the wine had temporarily bestowed some confidence upon him, for he leaned in further and gave Katherine a sweet chaste kiss on the lips, something that he normally wouldn't have done. At least not until today . . .

"You know, Kat, you're a cute girl. I really like you."

"You're just saying that because of the wine, you idiot," she replied, slurring from her drunkenness. But she was grinning and blushing slightly. "You're such a lightweight." And she had fallen over in the soft grass, overcome with a sudden outburst of giggles. Brendan just rolled his eyes. He drank the rest of the pilfered strawberry wine as the girl passed out, filling the balmy night air with her snores.

Several weeks had passed since that midsummer day. The lazy, stifling-hot days of August had crept upon them suddenly, or so it seemed. Katherine knew that Brendan would be leaving in less than a month, quite possibly forever - after all, he had to go to college, start his career, and move on with his life. Her only cause for anxiety at this point was September; the month that would spell out his inevitable departure and the effect it would have on their relationship.

Katherine sat on a lawn chair on her grandfather's front lawn, sipping fresh lemonade and watching Brendan harvesting strawberries in a patch a couple yards away. It was a quiet day on the farm; the only sounds to be heard were the periodic plunks as Brendan idly dropped the small red fruits into a plastic bucket. Above, a few clouds drifted slowly and silently across the azure sky.

She sighed and walked towards the strawberry patch, hands folded. It could be so boring out here in the boonies . . . she had already finished all her chores, and it wasn't even three o'clock yet. Stooping at the edge of the field, she plucked a perfectly ripe, ruby-red fruit from the vine and bit into it, smiling at the sudden burst of sweetness. She nibbled mindlessly at a few more strawberries; at least it was something to do.

"Hey," a male voice drawled. "You're gonna eat up all my crop."

Brendan chuckled as the blonde attacked him with a bear hug from behind. "Your crop? I do believe - these are my grandpa's strawberries," she said, pausing in between to plant a kiss on his jaw.

In the next instant a loud voice interrupted their conversation. The two young adults turned to find a most peculiar sight; Katherine's grandfather was rambling and stalking up to them wearing a women's chestnut-coloured wig.

"Gramps, why are you wearing Grandma's wig?" Katherine asked, giggling. She turned more serious, standing with arms akimbo. "Are you drunk?"

He said something unintelligible in reply. Brendan laughed, but Katherine clucked her tongue.

The old farmer suddenly bent towards the strawberry plants. At first his granddaughter thought he had collapsed, but it was apparent that he was instead running his fingers lightly over the vines and leaves and jewel-like fruits, humming all the while.

He began to speak. "Y'know, I still remember my first taste of love. I was seventeen and just like you, Kathy." Katherine groaned and hid her face in her hands. "It was bittersweet. But I was like some of these strawberries here, green on the vine - " indeed, many of the fruits remaining in this patch were still unripe. "I was too immature . . . to appreciate . . . "

Brendan caught him as he began to stumble and mutter incomprehensibly again. Katherine sighed, ashamed. "Let's take him into the house," she suggested. "And put him to bed. He's right useless when he gets drunk." The young man agreed, and they guided him towards the house as the sky began to darken.

A few minutes later, Katherine's grandfather was safe in his room. The boy and girl walked back outside to stand on the porch, and they were surprised to see that the wind had picked up with dark clouds covering the sky.

"Never mind my gramps," Katherine said, turning away from the dismal-looking atmosphere. "He doesn't know what he's saying half the time when he's sober, and all of the time when he's intoxicated." She added as an afterthought, "but still, it's so unlike him to drink so early in the afternoon . . . "

Brendan shrugged. "In any case, it's hard to take him seriously when he's wearing a women's wig."

Katherine giggled in spite of herself.

Brendan and Katherine's attention was drawn back to the weather again as the wind howled and as raindrops began to pelt from the heavens. The wild grasses thrashed about with each gust of wind, and they could hear the weather vane whirl and creak on top of the roof.

"Looks like a storm," Brendan muttered.

Katherine made no hesitation in moving towards the front door. "Yeah, and I don't like it. It looks like a bad omen. I'm going inside, OK?"

"Me too, but I have to get the bucket first." And he ran towards the field.

She just nodded, watching as his form disappeared into the rainstorm.

The last week of August was stormy, in more ways than one.

A particularly destructive thunderstorm had struck Katherine's grandfather's farm, damaging the last of the tomato crop and even uprooting one of the old oak trees on the perimetre of the property. Brendan, Katherine, and her grandfather also had to work together to repair some damaged roofing on the ranch's main storage shed. It's not that the work was particularly difficult; but Katherine's grandfather was growing weaker, and she didn't want him to work any more than he absolutely had to, and especially not alone. Especially since that day earlier in the month.

Not only the weather took a turn for the worse. Katherine and Brendan's relationship suddenly turned cold around the end of August. When they found themselves having to work together - such as was the case with the damaged shed roof - they would glare at the other while they weren't looking. They refused to talk to each other at the dinner table except to ask for the salt or butter dish. It got so bad that by the last few days of the month, Katherine would promptly turn around whenever she saw Brendan walking towards her. Naturally, Brendan felt both perplexed and scorned at her behaviour.

Presently Katherine's grandfather requested that one of his young helpers fetch him a tool from inside the storage shed. The fair-haired girl immediately turned and jumped down from the roof without looking at Brendan.

Katherine thought she was alone when she walked into the shed, so of course she felt her heart rate shoot up quickly when the heavy doors slammed shut behind her. Turning around, she found none other than Brendan standing there, his back against the closed doors, a hardened look on his tanned face.

"Gracious!" She snapped. "You could've given me a heart attack!"

"Do you realize that's the most you've said to me at once during the past week?" Brendan replied bitterly.

Katherine just crossed her arms and looked away, saying nothing.

Brendan advanced upon her, stepping out of the shed's shadows. "Why have you been avoiding me?"

Katherine stuck her chin up in the air a little. "I should be asking you the same thing," she said haughtily.

He sighed and rubbed his temples. "I've tried to talk to you over and over again for the past few days, but you keep running away from me. Was it something I said? Was it something I did or didn't do? Please tell me, Kat, so I can make things right. What happened to us?"

"It's not what has happened," Katherine said quietly. "It's what's going to happen."

". . . I don't understand."

"You'll be gone in a week, Brendan. You'll have your life in college and I'll have my life back with Mama and Papa. It's better this way, that we break it off now. It'll hurt less when you say goodbye."

Brendan looked as though the young woman standing in front of him had just slapped him across the cheek. "S-so that's what this is about, me leaving? Kat, it doesn't have to be that way. I'll still write letters and call you . . . if you want me to, of course. Please, Kat . . . "

He moved to hug her, but she pushed him away. "Why don't you go and steal some more of that wine you like so much? Just get out of my face!"

"How can you say that? After all the things we did . . . "

"I felt nothing," she said icily.

"You don't really mean that," Brendan countered evenly, moving to block Katherine as she tried to run toward the doors.

"Yes, I do," she said in a small, hitched voice. "Now leave me alone."

"No, I won't leave you alone!" Brendan cried, loud enough to stun Katherine momentarily (and probably get a strange look from his boss, if he could hear them). He scratched the back of his head and continued in a quieter voice, "I'm not going to leave until you promise to . . . to . . . act normally towards me again, OK? Can't we at least be civil towards each other during our last few days together? That's all I ask. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. But these are the times we're gonna miss, so we can at least be friendly."

Katherine looked into his pleading brown eyes and the battle was over. A tear started rolling down her cheek and she knew she had lost. "OK."

Brendan cautiously pulled her into his arms and was surprised to find that she did not resist. Katherine held onto him for a bit, sniffling, then unfolded herself from his grip, rubbing her red eyes.

"Well, we better get that tool and get back out there, before grandpa thinks I've cut my foot off with a weed-eater, or notices we're both gone and calls shenanigans on us," she said, smiling.

It was September, years later, and the fields had all grown over. Katherine gazed at the lawn in front of her grandfather's farmhouse, where she had sat one hot summer day 10 years ago, watching a cute twenty-nearly-twenty-one-year-old-boy pick strawberries. It hadn't been mown in ages. After her grandfather died (from cirrhosis of the liver, no less), her grandmother went soon after, and nobody was left to care for the farm. So it fell apart, like all things do, and here the older, more mature Katherine stood, daydreaming about the past. Her past.

After her fiancé broke up with her, Katherine decided to pay the old farm a visit. She figured it wouldn't hurt to see for herself the condition it was in, rather than take other people's word. But inside, though she'd never say it out loud, she knew the real reason she came back.

She wanted to remember.

Stepping back onto her grandfather's property was like walking into the past. Although she was surrounded by acres of wild, overgrown weeds, dusty, barren fields, and buildings in various states of disrepair, in her mind's eye she could still see the farm as it once was, back in her youthful prime. Now that she was here, she could taste the sweet lemonade and bitter wine, see the lush green fields and the tanned face of her old flame. It didn't hurt. That old cliche was true, time does heal all wounds.

Katherine stepped lightly out of her black truck and onto the copper-coloured dirt. After a moment's hesitation, she headed south-west, towards the river. She casually wondered if it had dried up with this summer's heat wave.

Coming upon the riverbank, Katherine was relieved to see the water still flowing, but disappointed that so much garbage had washed up on the banks. I suppose time takes its toll on everything, she thought.

She looked at her reflection in the river and could plainly see the grey hairs that were already making their appearance known. Even me, she thought with a sad smirk.

Turning away from the garbage-strewn riverbank, she sat down to rest on a grassy knoll not too far away. This must have been the place where she sat under the moon with Brendan a decade ago, gulping down strawberry wine. Katherine ran a finger across her bottom lip. He would be thirty-one now.

Bittersweet memories flooded back to Katherine as she stretched out on the golden grass. She remembered how he touched her, how he looked at her, the way he scratched the back of his head whenever he was nervous, or worried, or scared. Katherine cursed herself silently for not taking more care in remembering every detail, every line. If she knew back then what she knew now, she never would have ignored him and said those awful things to him in the shed. She would have savoured every feeling she got from him as if her very existence depended on it. Her thoughts turned to what could have been, if their timing was better, or if the circumstances were different. In the end, he only wrote to her a few times and made only one long-distance call from college. They had drifted away like autumn leaves, but Katherine was forgiving. These things happen.

She didn't regret letting him into her life and she didn't begrudge him for stealing her heart. But, she thought with a frown, staring into the cool blue-grey sky, one thing is still troublesome. Katherine knew she had returned to remember her first love, as if she was missing something in her life - and maybe there was a void there, considering her fiancé left recently. But she couldn't figure out if it was him - her first boyfriend - or the loss of her innocence that she missed.

Sighing, she got up and walked back towards the ranch and her vehicle. The sun was steadily sinking lower and lower in the sky. Since the woman didn't want to drive all night back home, alone, she figured now was a good time to hit the road. However, when she was just a few yards away from her truck, she stopped. Something caught her eye.


The patch was still where she remembered it. Weeds and bramble had mostly overtaken the neglected strawberry plants, but they were still alive. To her astonishment, Katherine spotted a few ripe fruits scattered among the botanical mess. She reached over and plucked a strawberry from the vine. It was a little shriveled, but she popped it in her mouth anyway.

Something possessed her to hunt for more strawberries, so she stepped gingerly through the patch, eyes scanning eagerly for any hint of red. Suddenly her shoe made contact with something dark, rounded, and shiny. A stone? But when she picked it up, she found it was a bottle. The label was still intact and legible. Strawberry wine.

How redundant, she thought dryly, finding an old bottle of strawberry wine in an old patch of strawberries. She moved to throw it away. However, before she could discard the bottle, a memory resurfaced in her mind, consuming her thoughts, arresting her.

It was early September. The sun seemed further away now, but it was still shining brightly. A light breeze was playing with her golden hair. Words were etched on the girl's face, words that were screaming to be freed, but Katherine dared not speak them. In any case, she found it hard to speak at all right now.

Brendan had all his bags packed and was quite ready to go, except for one thing. He had already said his goodbyes to Katherine's grandfather, his boss, and now it was time to part with the object of his affection. Perhaps forever. He didn't like to think about it, but deep down inside he knew it was unlikely they would ever see each other again. The past few weeks he was constantly reminding himself that Kat was nothing but a fling, a crush at the most. After all, everyone would say that it'd be stupid to expect more, especially from such a young girl. Yet a little part of him hoped for a future with her - a future that would probably never happen. He pushed away the negative thoughts as Katherine opened her mouth to speak.

"I guess you're all ready to go then, huh?" she asked shyly, as if they barely knew each other. She was eyeing the mud-splattered pick-up truck behind him, his ride. The driver, one of Brendan's older friends, was glaring at them from the vehicle's open window.

"Yeah, I - "

Brendan was interrupted by his friend. "Come on already, LET'S GO! You're gonna be late!" He shouted.

"Geez, so impatient . . . " he muttered so only Katherine could hear. He turned and yelled: "Don't get your panties in a bunch! I'm coming in a second!"

Katherine couldn't help but snigger at the comment about panties: the imagery of Brendan's thirty-something-year-old friend wearing ladies' underwear was too much to bear. Her boyfriend grinned at her, but became more serious as she stopped laughing.

"I think you better go now," she said, pointing towards the truck. "The driver seems a little tired of waiting." She flashed him an unconvincing smile.

Brendan pulled her into an awkward one-armed hug. "I'll write you and call you at college, OK? Kat, don't you forget about me while we're apart," he said, capturing her chin between his thumb and pointer finger.

"I won't," she whispered as he turned to throw his luggage into the truck's bed.

"Oh . . . I almost forgot," Brendan said, stopping and turning to pull something out of his bag. "This is for you." And he handed her a bottle of strawberry wine.

When he saw the look on her face, he quickly added, "oh, don't worry, I didn't take it from your grandpappy. I bought it myself. I'm twenty-one now, after all . . . "

She smiled sadly and brought her lips to meet his. "I'll miss you," she said, leaning her forehead against his.

"And I won't stop missing you until you come back."

She cradled the wine bottle against her chest and walked away.

A/N: So, if you know the song "Strawberry Wine" by Deana Carter you'll recognize all the references I've put in here. I tried to keep from copying the song too much while still paying a tribute, you know? Anyway, it tells a lovely story, and I just wanted to capture a little bit of that here.

It's a big different than my usual writing style because normally I try to avoid using the passive voice so much . . . but I think it fits here, somehow.