A Pocketful of Poppies by Kate
She had the saddest smile he had ever seen.
Even when she was laughing, even when she looked as if she was happy, he saw something in her eyes; in her face. Where there should have been a brightness in her eyes, when her smile should have overtaken her entire face, that never happened. He would wait for it but it would never appear like it did for most people.
When Poppy Sheppard smiled, it passed across her pale pink lips like a ghost, barely appearing, barely staying, barely taking the time to fully form before disappearing.
Justin Aldridge normally wasn’t the type of person to watch those around him. He had a small world and it consisted only of his friends, basketball, school, his mom and plenty of ready and willing girls eager to be with him. He didn’t pay attention to anything around him but for some reason, Poppy Sheppard had caught his interest.
He watched her in the cafeteria as she sat at her usual table with her tight circle of friends. They were loud, boisterous, always joking and making fun of one another, and she never seemed as if she fit in with them. She smiled and laughed along with them but when Justin truly started watching her, he noticed that she seemed to always be so far away when she did so. Her eyes never lit up. Her smile was faint, brushing over her face.
Justin watched her, wondering what would truly make her smile.
Before he started watching her, Justin had never noticed how beautiful Poppy Sheppard was before. Her long, brown curly hair, tumbling down to almost the small of her back, her dark brown eyes, pale rose lips, pale skin. When his eyes seemed unable to leave her, he didn’t understand why he had never noticed her sooner than he did. He had been going to school with Poppy since they were both in kindergarten but he didn’t first see her, truly see her, until they were juniors in high school.
He started watching her in their shared English class. She didn’t talk a lot but whenever Mr. Gardocki called on her to answer a question, she always knew the answer. Most of the time, she spent the forty-minute class period staring out the window. Justin sat in the row next to hers, a couple seats back, and he began passing the time in class by watching her watch the world outside.
She wasn’t like the other girls he surrounded himself with. Her hair wasn’t dyed a bleach blonde and her skin wasn’t tanned to an unnatural shade of bronze. She didn’t wear clothes that left nothing to the imagination. She wore jeans and tee-shirts and hooded sweatshirts with Converse or Puma sneakers. She dressed for comfort instead of for fashion and Justin really didn’t hang out with girls who did the same.
The girls he knew wore outfits that made them look so much older than seventeen and eighteen years old. And though their short skirts were easy to maneuver around while in the backseat of a car, Justin was intrigued with Poppy’s complete lack of sluttiness.
He was the most intrigued by her smile though and the fact that she never seemed to actually produce a real one.
Justin didn’t talk to her. They were in two completely different social circles and he didn’t know if he had ever actually talked to her before. He wanted to though and he was Justin Aldridge. He could talk to any girl he wanted.
Already though, he knew that Poppy Sheppard was different.
He supposed that he had had preconceived notions about her. She was a nerd, a bookworm, a genius, a skater – mainly because of the others she hung out with. Of course, before he started watching her, Justin hadn’t thought much of her at all. She was just another face in the crowd, another girl that went to the same high school. Someone he didn’t know but knew of.
The rain had pouring down all day and Justin got out of basketball practice around five o'clock when the sky was completely black and the rain poured down in thick torrents that made visibility weak. He ran across the parking lot towards where his car was parked. His mom had told him to wear his raincoat that day but like most stubborn teenagers, he hadn’t wanted to and his sweatshirt was completely soaked and plastered to his body by the time he unlocked his car doors and slid in the front seat behind the wheel.
He sat up slightly, looking at his reflection in the rearview mirror, rubbing a hand through his dripping wet dark shaggy hair. He needed to get home and change his clothes. The basketball season had its game opener in three days and the last thing Justin, the team’s starring point guard, needed was to go and get sick because he refused to listen to his mom and wear a stupid raincoat that day.
He drove carefully, his windshield wipers on at full speed but the street in front of him was still too hard to see. He wasn’t sure how but he managed to see a flash of red walking down the sidewalk. Slowing the car down, he peered out his window, trying to see who was stupid enough to be walking through that storm.
He stopped the car completely when he saw dark brown curls sticking out from underneath the hood and he rolled down his window.
“Poppy?” He shouted out, trying to be heard over the low rumble of thunder shaking off in the distance.
The person stopped walking and turned her head. He smiled when he saw that it was her. Lucky guess.
“What are you doing?” He asked, sticking his head out the window.
“What does it look like?” She shouted back. “I'm walking home.”
“Couldn’t one of your friends give you a ride?”
“Not today, they couldn’t,” she said with a shake of her head and then began walking again.
Justin put the car in reverse and slowly followed her. She stopped once she realized what he was doing and turned her head to look at him again. He smiled at her.
“Let me give you a ride.”
She stared at him for a moment as if she didn’t quite comprehend the words he had just spoken and he smirked. It was a bit strange. Justin Aldridge, a boy she didn’t even know, offering Poppy Sheppard a ride home.
“If you haven’t noticed, Justin, we are heading in two opposite directions.”
He smirked a bit wider. “I don’t mind. Let me give you a ride. It’s pouring and it feels pretty dry in my car.”
Poppy hesitated, chewing on her bottom lip, looking up the street for a moment. Justin watched her as she pondered his offer. He really didn’t know why he only started noticing her. In English class, her answers to questions asked were always well-thought out and intelligent even though it looked like she was a thousand miles away when her name was called. And that sad smile of hers… he didn’t know why but he was almost becoming obsessed with that ghost-like smile and his determination was growing.
For some reason unknown to him, Justin wanted to get her to give him a real smile. He didn’t even know her and yet, getting a smile out of her was his newest goal.
“Come on, Pops,” he said, using the nickname he heard her friends use towards her. “No funny business. Just a ride wherever you need to go.”
Poppy gave him a doubtful look. “Somehow, I think you are incapable of getting a girl in your car and just giving them a ride.”
“Oh, I give plenty of them rides,” Justin grinned and then laughed when she rolled her eyes in disgust. “Come on.”
She looked at him for a moment before sighing heavily and Justin grinned again. He leaned over the seat, unlocking her door as she crossed in front of the car to get in, sliding into the front passenger seat. She knocked the hood of her red raincoat back from her head and he immediately directed one of the heat vents towards her so the warm air blew directly onto her.
“Thanks,” she said softly and he saw the perpetual sadness on her face had returned.
He shifted the car back into drive and pulled into someone’s driveway so he could turn around. “Where do you live?”
“Covington subdivision,” she answered, scrunching the ends of her wet hair and he nodded, heading in the opposite direction of which he was originally heading.
“Comedown” by Bush was playing through his stereo at the moment and Gavin Rossdale’s voice sang softly through the speakers. Justin kept glancing over at her, debating whether or not he should try talking to her. He talked to dozens of girls ever day but this was different. Poppy Sheppard was different. He would actually have to make an effort with her. He couldn’t just use who he was as a way to get ahead with her. Poppy wouldn’t fall for his typical “I'm Justin Aldridge” line.
He wet his lips with the tip of his tongue, his fingers tightening slightly around the steering wheel. “You coming to the game on Friday?” He asked.
Poppy glanced at him before staring back out the windshield. “Basketball, right?”
“I don’t know. My friends and I… we aren’t really into school sports like that,” she said softly and he smirked.
Poppy looked at him. “What does that mean?”
“Your friend, Brady, he’s always surrounded by his own stratosphere.” Justin shook his head slightly. “You sit anywhere near some of your friends and you can get high.”
She stared at him for a moment and then shrugged. “Just something they do. Doesn’t mean I do it.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that you did it,” Justin said, looking at her again, slowly easing the car to a stop at an intersection with a red light.