Read an Excerpt
Like Moonlight at Low Tide
By Nicole Quigley
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Nicole Quigley
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePeople never ask me the right question when they ask me what happened the beginning of my senior year. They always ask what his last words were. They figure he would have had great ones, the kind that would haunt a girl and echo off of empty lockers long after graduation. They wait breathlessly for me to describe the moment he jumped off the boat and into the glass-topped Gulf, cutting the ribbon of moonlight on the surface with the white of his arms.
"Surely he was trying to kill himself," they'd say. "Why else would he leap into the water without the hope of rescue?"
And so I tell them what they earnestly hope to hear. How I searched desperately for the bob of his head in the water. How I jumped in myself, swimming fifteen feet until I felt the absence of the boat behind me, the vessel leaning away from the edge of the bay and into the dark, magnetic waters of the deep. They want to hear how hard it was to make my way back to the boat, and how, by then, the storm was beginning to unleash its rage. They want to hear how I scoured the cabinets for a radio and failed. How I searched for a flare gun but found no rescue.
And when I tell them of all of these things, they never ask—and I never mention—that I did all of them in complete silence.
The truth is, he said nothing before he jumped. And I never called his name, not once. I knew that he had plunged into that water so that he could not be found.
When the sheriff pulled his boat next to mine, he spoke the first words I had heard in hours. He lifted me from beneath the captain's console, where I had waited with my knees tucked under my chin. That was the evening Hurricane Paul swept through our state.
This story is not about suicide. But you should know that when I was seventeen, the only boy who ever called me by my full name took his own life. It was the first time I ever saw a mistake that was permanent, that couldn't be undone with whiteout or atoned for with an after-school detention. Nothing else I do for the rest of my life will ever be able to change this fact.
This story is actually about three boys. One who loved me. One who couldn't. And one who didn't know how.
My name is Melissa Keiser, and I was raised on Anna Maria Island, Florida.
The best description of the place I can provide you is a temperature: eighty degrees. It is not always eighty degrees on the island, but the humidity looming off the white foam of the Gulf of Mexico combined with the faint, sickly sweet emission from the orange juice factory always seems to make the place feel like it's been wrapped in a warm blanket, just soft enough to make you feel safe or sleepy, but always feel slow if you tried to move too much within its folds. In truth, it is the most beautiful beach town I have ever seen. And then the breeze comes and reality finds you hiding behind a sand dune.
The Anna Maria I'm writing of is not the same island that you would see if you went online and searched the images posted by Yankee tourists and gray-haired Canadians. Those visitors love the island as much as anyone who has never suffered here can. They post pictures of things like starfish and sandcastles and pelicans at sunset. They marvel at the brightly colored flowers that seem to grow from the ditches like weeds, and the waist-high herons, and the restaurants grilling grouper underneath tin-roofed sun decks. This is, after all, a place overflowing with such abundant beauty that its residents actually chased off native, jewel-colored peacocks to the neighboring cities because it deemed them a nuisance. Only an island sure of its place among beach towns could afford to do such a thing without regret.
But pictures of these things don't show what life was like for me or for the others who walked these streets that year. To the tourists, we are points of curiosity. They wonder what it would be like to raise their children in a place where the speed limit is twenty-five and the town shuts down for the high school football game. And we oblige to tell them and show them how to pick up crabs with their bare hands. This is what happens when you're surrounded by people who visit for two weeks at a time, intent on happiness, always reminding us of how wonderful the island is compared to where they live, because where they live is lucky to have a city park and a tree that has kept its leaves. But when the conversation ends, we never make it into their pictures.
In the time since I was a child, those tourists have slowly razed the neighborhoods of my youth, house by house, in order to build pink, tall homes in their place that people like my family could never afford to rent. But that was never the point. Now, their new winter domains sit empty six months out of the year, while locals move to the concrete mainland in search of cheaper rent. It is an odd thing, to love these visitors and to depend on them for supper, while at the same time knowing the more who come will mean less room for us.
But I am writing of the island not pictured on Google, the one that still harbors the necessary number of the working class who have found a way to make a home on a seven-mile stretch of paradise without the rich folks noticing.
* * *
When my mother moved us back in the winter of my junior year after spending three years up north, it felt like a flood was coming and I had forgotten how to swim.
"When are you coming home?" I regretted my tone instantly because I knew exactly what it was going to get me.
"It's none of your business," Denise shouted into the phone to mask the sound of the band starting up in the background. "I left ten dollars on the kitchen table. Go to the store and buy some subs for you and your sister." My mother was certain that ten dollars could solve most of my complaints, whatever they were. She never used the same tactic with Robby. My older brother never had to babysit, and he was never home long enough for us to consider that he would.
"I don't want to have to be here all night, Mom."
"You don't have a choice, Missy. I gotta go." The band started its rowdy thump in the background as the phone clicked off. Maybe tips at the restaurant would be good tonight.
I turned to my sister in resignation. "It's you and me again, Crystal. Put on your shoes. We're going to get some dinner."
She struggled with the strap of her sandal until I squatted down and gently brushed her hands away. These things were always easier when I fixed them myself. She was too small to help with much of anything, and I was certain she wouldn't be growing anytime soon. She hadn't grown in a year. This would be alarming to a doctor, if we could afford one, considering she was only seven.
"Wrong way," I said, quietly. I tugged her hand in the other direction so we would walk down Gulf Drive instead of our neighborhood road, where Tanya Maldonado would have surely spotted me from inside her climate-controlled home. I hadn't seen Tanya since middle school, since before my mother made us chase her boyfriend Doug to the gray hills of Pennsylvania.
And even though I had been gone for three years, I knew she would be waiting for me as if I hadn't missed a day. In middle school, she had found everything I did to be endlessly fascinating.
If I fixed my hair a different way, it gave her entertainment for a week.
"Do you think you look pretty with that new haircut?" she'd ask with narrowed eyes.
If I had managed to get a new outfit, she'd demand to know all of the details.
"Is that shirt new? I've never seen one like that before ... It's almost like a boy's shirt, isn't it?"
I could avoid her attention many days by taking an extra long time in the bathroom stall, waiting for the warning bell to sound so I could rush off to class without having to face her.
This worked for several weeks until almost the end of seventh grade. I sat on the toilet and held my breath when she entered with all of her friends, setting up a virtual beauty parlor in front of the age-spotted mirror. Between the pops and clicks of makeup bottles, I heard her give her army its marching orders.
"Ask Messy if she likes Sam King. She totally does. As if he would ever be seen with her!" I could hear the group smacking their lips to blend the fresh applications of glitter lip gloss. "I have a hard time even sitting next to her in class. I'm afraid she has bugs that will jump off onto me or something."
The girls giggled with excitement as if they had just decided on a new dance routine and headed out with a renewed sense of purpose. Tanya Maldonado had given them a job to do, and by the end of the day all five of them would test me to see if the unthinkable rumor was true. Had Melissa "Messy" Keiser actually dared to like one of the school's star athletes?
The truth was that I had never told a soul I had a crush on Sam King. But in the cafeteria at lunch, Tanya had the perfect view of everything I had hoped to hide. She sat at the center table of the center of popular kids, where she practically ruled the entire middle school from the throne of our social universe.
When Sam passed by my seat to get near her, a blotch of pink brushed across my cheeks, and I saw Tanya zero in on it like a sharp shooter. It was all the confirmation she needed, and she pounced at the opportunity. Within minutes, half of her table was glaring at me through the corners of their eyes and the other half was shaking with laughter. Their eyebrows were raised so high that their foreheads wrinkled in confusion, as if whatever thoughts were crossing their minds were unthinkable. As if they were looking at someone who was certifiably crazy.
Sam was in seventh grade, like us, but he already had friends in the ninth grade and the high school coaches already knew his name. He never made eye contact with me after the rumors began, but a gang of his friends rushed in to protect his reputation accordingly.
"You do know you're ugly, Messy?" said one in the hallway as I passed.
I pretended not to hear it. Just maybe, hopefully, I had heard wrong.
And then, in science, loud enough so I could hear from a few rows back, "She's a total dog."
This began the new way I was greeted every time I entered the class. The boys would bark like a pack of dogs when I walked into the room and chuckle when I passed by. It was not until the Ian Owens episode that the trouble stopped. The student council vice president turned around from the front row, looked at me, and grabbed the sides of his cheeks in horror as if he had just seen a ghost. The message was clear: I was a fright to see.
The teacher gave Ian a detention for the incident, and it seemed the barking lost its novelty. An event like that was hard to top. But by the end of the ordeal, I had been called ugly thirty school days in a row. By various people. Even by Mike Lewis when he passed me alone in the hallway and shoved my books hard into my chest, attacking where no one else was even there to see him do it. My family moved away several months afterward, just before the first semester of eighth grade came to a close. I got to finish middle school and start high school in a new town, where no one knew me as Messy, where no one knew me at all.
I tell you all of this so you will understand just what was at stake by the time I returned to the island just a few years later, over the winter break of my junior year. I was about to transfer back and face all of those same people again. I held out the hope that outright name-calling and barking was something that ended at the high school doors, but I knew there was no way that I could escape the stigma, the memory of what it meant to be Messy Keiser. The only good thing I looked forward to about returning home to Florida was the chance to swim again, any time of year, and already knowing that my old friend, Julie Peterson, was right where I had left her, seemingly immune to the scorn that came with being my best friend. I had one strategy to get me through my return to the island. Hide.
When Denise finally returned from work, it was past midnight, and I was pretending to be asleep in my bed with the radio set to low. I heard her keys hit the glass table and the door to Crystal's room open and shut briefly for a check-in. She walked past the locked door to my bedroom and on to her own, where I heard her release a dark giggle that followed the low, unmistakable rumble of a man I was sure I didn't know. I waited five minutes before I applied another coat of lip gloss, popped out the screen of my bedroom window, and lifted its heavy glass as high as it would go. We were lucky the rental house was big enough for all of us to have our own rooms, even if Robby's was just a converted glassed-in porch off the back.
I darted across the grass, crushing its fresh, stiff blades. I sprinted through the unfenced backyards of my neighbors' houses until I made it to the opposite street. The earth seemed to palpably rotate beneath me, an accomplice to my escape, if only for a while.
When I arrived at Julie's house five blocks away, I could hear the thump of music from the curb. A car and a truck were parked out front, but I knew neither belonged to Julie's family.
"I thought you were never going to get here!" Julie shook her head in disbelief at the sight of my hair in a bun at the top of my head. "I can't believe your mom makes you babysit on Saturday nights!"
"I have my swimsuit on underneath my clothes in case your parents let us go for a swim. Where are they, anyway? And whose cars are those?"
She pulled me through the front door and began to tug on her lower lip with a devious grin. "My parents are still out for the night."
I searched her expression. Tugging on her lower lip was Julie's giveaway. She hadn't revealed everything. "And?" I pressed.
"Well, follow me."
We rounded the living room and past the photos of her family on vacation. The wall was plastered with bejeweled, framed scenes of cruises and Jamaican timeshares and postcards from Mexico with images of her satisfied father and her bronzed, big-haired mother. They were a certain breed of Floridian, the kind who lived on an island and vacationed on islands. They knew what they liked, and there was no reason to waste time on what they didn't. I also remembered they were the type of parents who actually complained when their children didn't party enough. This must have been the reason Julie and I got along so well. We both understood why it was important to count your mother's drinks after five o' clock.
When we arrived on her back porch, two boys were playing with lighters, holding their palms over the open flames until one of them flinched from the pain. I froze in shock at the sight of them until Julie nudged me from behind. I knew exactly who they were, and I took a seat in a white wicker chair, dreading the moment they would look up, which neither of them did for another two minutes.
Just beyond them I saw the demure frame of Julie's other best friend. "Hey, Leigh," I waved as she looked up from the orange flame shooting from Brett Smith's fingers. Leigh Doherty had grown out her long, wavy blonde hair since I had last seen her. And this, I decided, made her the most beautiful girl in the room.
"I didn't think you were hanging out tonight. Julie said you had to babysit." She talked as nonchalantly as if she was finishing a conversation from earlier in the day, although I hadn't actually seen her since I was thirteen.
"Yeah, well, my mom had to work a double so I just got off."
"Sucks." Leigh shrugged. "You should have been out at the docks earlier. Everyone was there. Welcome back, by the way."
"Hey," Brett said. He flipped the lid of his lighter shut and turned to me for the first time. "I remember you."
"Hey." I answered. I remembered him too. He was friends with Ian Owens and Mike Lewis, and one of the outliers of the clan of kids who had tortured me. This was how it went when the world around me was divided into two camps. Every guy I knew was part of the group that couldn't stand me or part of the group that didn't know me. And now Leigh had apparently crossed enemy lines to date one of the former.
Brett squinted his eyebrows together as if searching his memory. "Didn't they used to call you Messy?" He smirked as if he was proud of himself for remembering something so far in the past, something that was surely nothing more to him than seventh-grade entertainment.
"Shut up," Julie interrupted. "Her name's Missy."
"I remember you now, Messy." He grinned in defiance until Julie threw a Frisbee at his head. "Just kidding."
"Missy just moved back from Pennsylvania."
"That's cool," Brett answered. He nodded his head slightly and slumped back into his chair, seemingly already bored with the topic.
"And what did they used to call you in the seventh grade?" Julie eyed him with a wry smile.
Excerpted from Like Moonlight at Low Tide by Nicole Quigley Copyright © 2012 by Nicole Quigley. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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