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I SMACK into him as if shoved from behind. He doesn’t budge, not an inch. Just holds my shoulders and waits. Maybe he’s waiting for me to find my balance. Maybe he’s waiting for me to gather my pride. I hope he’s got all day.
I hear people passing on the boardwalk and imagine them staring. Best-case scenario, they think I know this guy, that we’re hugging. Worst-case scenario, they saw me totter like an intoxicated walrus into this complete stranger because I was looking down for a place to park our beach stuff. Either way, he knows what happened. He knows why my cheek is plastered to his bare chest. And there is definite humiliation waiting when I get around to looking up at him.
Options skim through my head like a flip book.
Option One: Run away as fast as my dollar-store flip-flops can take me. Thing is, tripping over them is partly responsible for my current dilemma. In fact, one of them is missing, probably caught in a crack of the boardwalk. I’m betting Cinderella didn’t feel this foolish, but then again, Cinderella wasn’t as clumsy as an intoxicated walrus.
Option Two: Pretend I’ve fainted. Go limp and everything. Drool, even. But I know this won’t work because my eyes flutter too much to fake it, and besides, people don’t blush while unconscious.
Option Three: Pray for a lightning bolt. A deadly one that you feel in advance because the air gets all atingle and your skin crawls—or so the science books say. It might kill us both, but really, he should have been paying more attention to me when he saw that I wasn’t paying attention at all.
For a shaved second, I think my prayers are answered because I do get tingly all over; goose bumps sprout everywhere, and my pulse feels like electricity. Then I realize, it’s coming from my shoulders. From his hands.
Option Last: For the love of God, peel my cheek off his chest and apologize for the casual assault. Then hobble away on my one flip-flop before I faint. With my luck, the lightning would only maim me, and he would feel obligated to carry me somewhere anyway. Also, do it now.
I ease away from him and peer up. The fire on my cheeks has nothing to do with the fact that it’s sweaty-eight degrees in the Florida sun and everything to do with the fact that I just tripped into the most attractive guy on the planet. Fan-flipping-tastic.
“Are—are you alright?” he says, incredulous. I think I can see the shape of my cheek indented on his chest.
I nod. “I’m fine. I’m used to it. Sorry.” I shrug off his hands when he doesn’t let go. The tingling stays behind, as if he left some of himself on me.
“Jeez, Emma, are you okay?” Chloe calls from behind. The calm fwopping of my best friend’s sandals suggests she’s not as concerned as she sounds. Track star that she is, she would already be at my side if she thought I was hurt. I groan and face her, not surprised that she’s grinning wide as the equator. She holds out my flip-flop, which I try not to snatch from her hand.
“I’m fine. Everybody’s fine,” I say. I turn back to the guy, who seems to get more gorgeous by the second. “You’re fine, right? No broken bones or anything?”
He blinks, gives a slight nod.
Chloe sets her surfboard against the rail of the boardwalk and extends her hand to him. He accepts it without taking his eyes off me. “I’m Chloe and this is Emma,” she says. “We usually bring her helmet with us, but we left it back in the hotel room this time.”
I gasp. I also try to decide what kind of flowers I’ll bring to her funeral after I strangle the life from her body. I should have stayed in Jersey, like Mom said. Shouldn’t have come here with Chloe and her parents. What business do I have in Florida? We live on the Jersey Shore. If you’ve seen one beach, you’ve seen them all, right?
But noooooooo. I had to come and spend the last of my summer with Chloe, because this would be our last summer together before college, blah-blah-blah. And now she’s taking revenge on me for not letting her use my ID to get a tattoo last night. But what did she expect? I’m white and she’s black. I’m not even tan-white. I’m Canadian-tourist white. If the guy could mistake her for me, then he shouldn’t be giving anyone a tattoo, right? I was just protecting her. Only, she doesn’t realize that. I can tell by that look in her eyes—the same look she wore when she replaced my hand sanitizer with personal lubricant—that she’s about to take what’s left of my pride and kick it like a donkey.
“Uh, we didn’t get your name. Did you get his name, Emma?” she asks, as if on cue.
“I tried, Chloe. But he wouldn’t tell me, so I tackled him,” I say, rolling my eyes.
The guy smirks. This almost-smile hints at how breathtaking a real one would be. The tingling flares up again, and I rub my arms.
“Hey, Galen, are you ready to—” We all turn to a petite black-haired girl as she touches his shoulder. She stops mid-sentence when she sees me. Even if these two didn’t share the same short dark hair, the same violet eyes, and the same flawless olive skin, I’d know they were related because of their most dominant feature—their habit of staring.
“I’m Chloe. This is my friend Emma, who apparently just head-butted your boyfriend Galen. We were in the middle of apologizing.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose and count to ten-Mississippi, but fifty-Mississippi seems more appropriate. Fifty allows more time to fantasize about ripping one of Chloe’s new weaves out.
“Emma, what’s wrong? Your nose isn’t bleeding, is it?” she chirps, enjoying herself.
Tingles gather at my chin as Galen lifts it with the crook of his finger. “Is your nose bleeding? Let me see,” he says. He tilts my head side to side, leans closer to get a good look.
And I meet my threshold for embarrassment. Tripping is bad enough. Tripping into someone is much worse. But if that someone has a body that could make sculpted statues jealous—and thinks you’ve broken your nose on one of his pecs—well, that’s when tripping runs a distant second to humane euthanasia.
He is clearly surprised when I swat his hand and step away. His girlfriend/relative seems taken aback that I mimic his stance—crossed arms and deep frown. I doubt she has ever met her threshold for embarrassment.
“I said I was fine. No blood, no foul.”
“This is my sister Rayna,” he says, as if the conversation steered naturally in that direction. She smiles at me as if forced at knifepoint, the kind of smile that comes purely from manners, like the smile you give your grandmother when she gives you the rotten-cabbage-colored sweater she’s been knitting. I think of that sweater now as I return her smile.
Galen eyes the surfboard abandoned against the wood railing. “The waves here aren’t really good for surfing.”
Galen’s gift is not small talk. Just like his sister, there’s a forced feel to his manners. But unlike his sister, there’s no underlying hostility, just an awkwardness, like he’s out of practice. Since he appears to be making this effort on my behalf, I cooperate. I make a show of looking at the emerald crests of the Gulf of Mexico, at the waves sloshing lazily against the shore. A man waist-deep in the water holds a toddler on his hip and jumps with the swells as they peak. Compared to the waves back home, the tide here reminds me of kiddie rides at the fair.
“We know. We’re just taking it out to float,” Chloe says, unconcerned that Galen was talking to me. “We’re from Jersey, so we know what a real wave looks like.” When she steps closer, Rayna steps back. “Hey, that’s weird,” Chloe says. “You both have the same color eyes as Emma. I’ve never seen that before. I always thought it was because she’s freakishly pasty. Ow! That’s gonna leave a mark, Emma,” she says, rubbing her freshly pinched biceps.
“Good, I hope it does,” I snap. I want to ask them about their eyes—the color seems prettier set against the olive tone of Galen’s skin—but Chloe has bludgeoned my chances of recovering from embarrassment. I’ll have to be satisfied that my dad—and Google—were wrong all this time; my eye color just can’t be that rare. Sure, my dad practiced medicine until the day he died two years ago. And sure, Google never let me down before. But who am I to argue with living, breathing proof that this eye color actually does exist? Nobody, that’s who. Which is convenient, since I don’t want to talk anymore. Don’t want to force Galen into any more awkward conversations. Don’t want to give Chloe any more opportunities to deepen the heat of my burning cheeks. I just want this moment of my life to be over.
I push past Chloe and snatch up the surfboard. To her good credit, she presses herself against the rail as I pass her again. I stop in front of Galen and his sister. “It was nice to meet you both. Sorry I ran into you. Let’s go, Chloe.”
Galen looks like he wants to say something, but I turn away. He’s been a good sport, but I’m not interested in discussing swimmer safety—or being introduced to any more of his hostile relatives. Nothing he can say will change the fact that DNA from my cheek is smeared on his chest.
Trying not to actually march, I thrust past them and make my way down the stairs leading to the pristine white sand. I hear Chloe closing the distance behind me, giggling. And I decide on sunflowers for her funeral.
COPYRIGHT © 2012 BY ANNA BANKS