Read an Excerpt
Everything changes so fast.
Yesterday the rides and game stands were all open. The thump of repeating bass lines from the concert on the pier could be heard as far away as the lighthouse. Thousands of people milled about. Laughing. Shouting.
Today the boardwalk stood eerily quiet.
No music. No giggling toddlers. No guys haggling you to throw a softball at a milk bottle. Only a few screaming seagulls broke through the Sunday afternoon silence.
Summer in Stellamar was now officially over. Not officially in the calendar sense. That happened last month. Over, according to the boardwalk—and here in Stellamar, the boardwalk is everything. Last night was the annual October Boardwalk Bash, a town-wide good-bye party to the tourists, the lazy days in the sun, the ever-present carnival.
I lingered inside the doorway of the arcade and peered out at the now-shuttered stands and frozen Ferris wheel. Only the arcade, the pizza place, the ice-cream place, and a hot dog stand or two braved the change of season. Heavy steel-colored clouds crept down to meet the dark waters of the Atlantic. The sand below the boardwalk’s graying wood looked bleak—the colorful kaleidoscope of towels and umbrellas already a memory. The humidity had lifted, blown away along with the scents of cotton candy, popcorn, and grilled sausage and peppers.
Change was in the air.
Not a big deal for me. For the past three months, change was all I’d done. New town. New house. New school. New friends.
Lots of new.
Without the boardwalk, what would this New Jersey town be like? I wondered. I pulled my hands up into my sweatshirt sleeves. When summer came around again, would I be one of the group? A local? Would that ever happen? Or would I still be the quiet blond girl from California?
“Hey, Sara. Come play this!” Lily Randazzo called from inside the arcade.
My new friend.
Some new was good, I decided as I walked into the warm, yellow glow of the arcade. Lily’s smile rivaled the bright video game lights. Maybe I can really fit in here, I thought. Lily waited by the skee-ball lanes with Miranda Rich and Avery Apolito.
“Let’s see who can get the highest score,” Miranda challenged us. Miranda liked to turn everything into a competition.
“I want to take home that pink bear.” Avery pointed to an enormous fuzzy animal that resembled a fat dog more than a bear. Avery was one of the shortest girls in the seventh grade. The bear-dog, dangling on a hook from the wood-beamed ceiling, looked larger than her.
“There’s no way.” Lily twirled a strand of her long, dark hair around her finger, contemplating the prize. “It’s too many tickets. You’d have to get every ball in the fifty slot for three games in a row. Try for that stuffed baseball with a face. It’s only fifty tickets.”
Avery scrunched her freckle-covered nose. “I have five of those already. My dog won’t even play with them.” She glanced around the arcade. There were maybe ten of us in the whole place. All summer it had been packed, but now it was just us. “Come on, Lily. Can’t you do something?” Avery asked.
“Not here, Ave. Mr. Chopra isn’t family.” Lily lowered her voice. “In fact, I think he secretly hates my family. Thinks there’s too many of us.”
“There are a lot of you,” Miranda quipped.
“The more the merrier, my mom says,” Lily shot back with a grin.
“Two’s company, three’s a crowd, my mom says,” Miranda countered.
“But four’s a party—and so is forty!” They both laughed. Even though I’d just moved here a few months ago, I’d heard this back-and-forth routine many times. Lily had more relatives living and working in Stellamar than the ocean had shells. They seemed to run everything, except, it turned out, the arcade.
“We could try to win it together,” Lily suggested. “The four of us all play and do amazing and then pool our tickets together.”
“I’m in.” Miranda dropped her token into the slot. Ten wooden baseball-size balls rolled down the chute, knocking one another as they came to a stop in a line.
Lily, Avery, and I each claimed a lane and pushed in a token.
“I got it! Fifty points!” Miranda whooped.
“Seriously? Seriously? What is wrong with me?” Lily stamped her foot next to me. She’d already bowled two balls up the ramp. Zero points flashed on her scoreboard. “Ugh. I was so close to that hundred-point hole.”
“That’s only there to distract you. Just aim up the middle,” Miranda called.
I let the weight of the smooth ball rest in my palm. How many other twelve-year-olds have thrown this ball over the years? I thought. Hundreds, probably. I swung my arm back, then followed through, twisting my wrist slightly the way my dad had taught me. The ball glided into the fifty-point slot.
I rolled the next ball in line. Another fifty.
This got Miranda’s attention. “You’re good,” she said, her surprise obvious.
I shrugged as if it were a natural talent. But it wasn’t. Dad and I had spent many nights in the arcade when we had first moved here and didn’t know anyone. He showed me how to put the right amount of spin on the little wooden ball.
“Go again!” Avery urged. “Maybe we can win the bear.”
I rolled the next ball. Not enough spin. Twenty points.
Lily finished her game and turned to watch. Avery edged closer. I tried to concentrate. Think only about the ball. Empty my mind.
“You are so lame!”
“No, you are. Can’t even walk.”
“Get your foot out of my way.”
I glanced toward the door. A group of boys from our school tumbled in, punching each other in the arms. I saw Jack L. and Luke. But there were others behind them. Was he with them?
I wanted to look. To find his warm brown eyes. His crooked smile. But then what? Nothing, I knew. It’d been a week since he’d even said hi to me in class.
So I focused on the skee-ball lane instead. Visualized the ball’s path. In one swift motion, I rolled the wooden ball, watching it hop, then drop into the fifty slot.
“The Harvest Queen is lucky,” a familiar voice said behind me.
“Not luck. Skill,” I replied, not turning. Not looking at him.
He was here. Next to me.
I reached for another ball. Studied the scuffed ramp while inhaling the faint scent of almonds. I loved that smell. Hosten’s soap. I knew that because I’d smelled all the soaps at the drugstore last week until I found the right one. Hosten’s comes in a three-pack. It was Jayden’s soap, I was sure.
Avery giggled. Jack said something to her I couldn’t hear.
I tossed the ball. It veered far to the right. Zero points.
“Luck,” he said again.
“You messed me up.” I turned, pretending to be angry.
“I’m sorry, Your Royal Highness.”
I cringed. “Don’t call me that,” I said. “That’s over.” Two weeks ago, I was crowned Harvest Queen for the school dance. Most of Stellamar Middle School seemed to have forgotten already, except for a few mean girls in the eighth grade who blamed me for ruining their quest to be even more popular than they already are. And Jayden. He brought it up almost every time he saw me. I think he just thought it was funny.
It was, I guess, if you really know me. The real me. The title, the wearing the crown at the dance, hey, even going to the dance, was so not me. I only did it to help someone. I never thought I’d win.
But does he know me that well? I wondered. There was still so much about Jayden Mendes I didn’t know. Didn’t understand.
“I have twenty more tokens. Let’s take photos,” Lily announced.
“Yes! Let’s go!” Avery squealed. She grabbed my hand, tugging me across the arcade to the photo booth. I tripped along, guessing the bear-dog quest had been called off. Miranda followed too.
The four of us piled into the narrow booth. Miranda’s long legs dangled outside the curtain, as she and Lily squeezed onto the metal bench. Avery and I perched on their laps, trying not to block their faces. Lily began giggling and couldn’t stop. Her laughter was contagious. Avery started snorting.
The photo strip slid from the slot, revealing all of us doubled over with laughter. I looked ridiculous. We shot different combinations. Lily and Avery. Lily and Miranda. Lily and me. Lily had a thing for the photo booth. One wall in her bedroom was covered with hundreds of photo booth strips that she’d woven together. She’s in every one, smiling broadly. That pretty much sums up Lily. The center of everything.
“Coming in!” Jack called. He and Luke barreled into the booth. Lily and Avery tried unsuccessfully to push them out.
Garrett and Jayden stood outside the booth. Garrett yanked the pale blue curtain closed. “Time to get cozy!”
Luke flailed his leg out and kicked Garrett in the shin. “Grow up, man!” He opened the curtain and they all tumbled out. Then Miranda and Jack took a photo, pretending to fight. Avery pulled Garrett into the booth next, both making monster faces.
“Our turn,” Jayden said suddenly. He nudged me into the booth with his shoulder. I glanced at Lily, who wiggled her eyebrows at me. She knew I liked Jayden.
I slid across the metal bench until my right side pressed against the wall. For a moment, I sat in the little capsule alone. Waiting. Jayden seemed oddly frozen. Then, as if making up his mind about something, he stepped in and sat right beside me. Someone pulled the cotton curtain closed.
I had never been so close to him.
The sleeve of his black T-shirt touched my gray sweatshirt. I gulped. The sound from my throat seemed to echo loudly in our little metal box.
I bit my lip. Should I say something? What?
“Hey,” he said softly, turning to look at me.
“Hey.” I was too scared to look at him. I studied my navy high-tops. The right shoelace dragged on the corrugated metal floor.
“You need to move over.”
“Huh?” If I moved my left hand an inch I would brush his hand. So close.
“Only half your head’s in the frame. Look.” He raised his hand to the monitor that showed our faces. My blond hair and blue eyes seemed so pale next to his caramel skin and thick brown hair.
I inched closer to him, praying he couldn’t feel me tremble. I tried to look natural, to smile. I wanted this photo to look good. The monitor counted down.
Ten . . . nine . . .
The air in our box grew warmer. Heavier. I could smell him. Almond soap. So close.
Eight . . .
But something else too. Something sour.
Seven . . . six . . .
Hot. So hot. The rotten smell clung to my nose and crept along the back of my throat. I needed fresh air.
Five . . .
Where was Jayden? My vision blurred. I could no longer sense his body next to me. It was as if someone had wedged a board between us. I struggled to turn my head. The air felt as thick as mud.
Four . . . three . . .
Jayden. He was still here. But there was someone between us.
Someone I recognized.
Someone who sent a chill down my spine.
I pressed my palms into my jeans, wanting to scream. Knowing I couldn’t.
We weren’t alone.
Two . . .
Jayden’s older brother.
He’d been dead for seven years.
But I could see him. Smell him. Feel him.
Dead. But here with us.
I have this weird bond with the dead that none of my friends know about. I can’t tell them about it. Can’t let them know. So I couldn’t scream. I had to hold it in.
Lily couldn’t know I saw spirits.
Jayden couldn’t know Marco was here with us.
One . . .
The camera clicked. The flash illuminated the booth as the force of Marco’s spirit shoved me. With nowhere to go but into the wall, I doubled over. The raised diamond pattern on the floor danced before me.
The curtain yanked open. Lily’s smiling face pushed in. “Let me see the—” She stopped when she caught sight of me. “Are you okay?”
I raised my head slowly, still dizzy. Jayden eyed me, confused. The faint outline of his dead brother now stood outside the curtain. Arms crossed. Dark hoodie. Shorts. Glaring eyes. Challenging me.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled. “It’s kind of hot in here, that’s all.” I watched Lily studying me. “I forgot to eat lunch,” I added.
“My mom usually has granola bars with her,” she offered.
With another searching look, Lily let it go. Pulling the photo strip from the slot, she inspected it with a practiced gaze. “That’s strange. Something must’ve gone wrong.”
Jayden peered over her shoulder. “Yeah. Maybe the camera’s broken.” He handed me the flimsy strip of four photos.
In every square, I was completely blurred. Jayden looked fine. Smiling. Cute as always. I came out as a smudge.
As if I didn’t belong next to him.
I held the strip in my shaking hands. The camera wasn’t broken, I was sure of that. I knew what had happened. Jayden’s dead older brother wanted me out of the picture.