But with every perfect afternoon, sweet kiss, and walk on the beach, Anna can’t ignore that the days are quickly growing shorter, and Will has to leave at the end of August. Anna’s never felt anything like this before, but when forever isn’t even a possibility, one summer doesn’t feel worth the promise of her heart breaking….
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|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers|
|Product dimensions:||5.36(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.84(d)|
|Lexile:||HL800L (what's this?)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The first time you lay eyes on someone who is going to become someone to you—your someone—you’re supposed to feel the earth shift beneath your feet, right? Sparks will course through your fingertips and there’ll definitely be fireworks. There are always fireworks.
But it doesn’t really happen that way. It’s messier than that—and much better.
Trust me, I know. I know how it feels to have a someone.
To be in love.
But the day after my sophomore year ended, I didn’t know anything. At least, that’s the way it feels now.
Let me clarify that. It’s not like I was a complete numbskull. I’d just gotten a report card full of A’s. And one B-minus. (What can I say. Geometry is my sworn enemy.)
And I knew just about everything there was to know about Dune Island. That’s the little sliver of sand, sea oats, and sno-cones off the coast of Georgia where I’ve lived for my entire sixteen-year existence.
I knew, for instance, where to get the spiciest low-country boil (The Swamp) and the sweetest oysters (Fiddlehead). Finding the most life-changing ice cream cone was an easy one. You went to The Scoop, which just happened to be owned by my parents.
While the “shoobees” who invaded the island every summer tiptoed around our famously delicate dunes (in their spotless, still-sporting-the-price-tag rubber shoes), I knew how to pick my way through the long, fuzzy grass without crushing a single blade.
And I definitely knew every boy in my high school. Most of us had known one another since we were all at the Little Sea Turtle Play School on the north end of the island. Which is to say, I’d seen most of them cry, throw up blue modeling clay, or stick Cheetos up their noses.
It’s hard to fall for a guy once you’ve seen him with a nostril full of snack food, even if he was only three at the time.
And here’s one other thing I knew as I pedaled my bike to the beach on that first night of my sixteenth summer. Or at least, I thought I knew. I knew exactly what to expect of the season. It was going to be just like the summer before it, and the summer before that.
I’d spend my mornings on the North Peninsula, where tourists rarely venture. Probably because the sole retail establishment there is Angelo’s BeachMart. Angelo’s looks so salt-torn and shacky, you’d never know they make these incredible gourmet po’ boys at a counter in the back. It’s also about the only place on Dune Island where you can’t find any fudge or commemorative T-shirts.
Then I’d ride my bike south to the boardwalk and spend my afternoon coning up ice cream and shaving ice for sno-cones at The Scoop.
Every night after dinner, Sam, Caroline, and I would call around to find out where everyone was hanging that night. We’d all land at the beach, the deck behind The Swamp, Angelo’s parking lot, or one of the other hideouts we’d claimed over the years.
Home by eleven.
Rinse salt water out of hair.
This was why I was trying hard not to yawn as I pedaled down Highway 80. I was headed for the bonfire on the South Shore.
That’s right, the annual bonfire that kicked off the Dune Island summer, year after year after year.
One thing that kept me alert was the caravan of summer people driving their groaning vans and SUVs just a little too weavily down the highway. I don’t know if it was the blazing, so-gorgeous-it-hurt sunset that was distracting them or my gold beach cruiser with the giant bundle of sticks bungeed to the basket. Either way, I was relieved when I swooped off the road and onto the boardwalk.
I tapped my kickstand down and had just started to unhook my pack of firewood when I heard Caroline’s throaty voice coming at me from down the boardwalk. I turned with a smile.
But when I saw that Caroline was with Sam—and they were holding hands—I couldn’t help but feel shocked for a moment.
In the next instant, of course, I remembered—this was our new normal. Sam and Caroline were no longer just my best friends. They were each other’s soul mate.
As of two Saturdays earlier, that was.
I don’t know why I was still weirded out by the fact that Sam and Caroline had gotten together that night. Or why I cringed whenever they gazed into each other’s eyes or held hands. (Thankfully, I hadn’t seen them kissing. Yet.)
Because the Sam-and-Caroline thing? It was really no surprise at all. There’d always been this thing between them ever since Sam moved to the island at age eight and settled into my and Caroline’s friendship as easily as a scoop of ice cream nests in a cone.
We even joked about it. When Sam made fun of Caroline’s raspy voice and she teased him about his gangly height; when she goosed him in the ribs and he pulled her long, white-blond ponytail, I’d roll my eyes and say, “Guys! Get a room.”
Both of them would recoil in horror.
“Oh gross, Anna!” Caroline would say, sputtering and laughing all at once.
Inevitably, Sam would respond with another ponytail tug, Caroline would retaliate with a tickle, and the whole song and dance of denial would start all over again.
But now it had actually happened. Sam and Caroline had become a Couple. And I was realizing that I’d kind of liked the denial.
Now I felt like I was hovering outside a magical bubble—a shiny, blissed-out world that I just didn’t get. Sam and Caroline were inside the bubble. Together.
Soon after they’d first kissed, both of them had assured me that nothing would change in our friendship, which, of course, had changed everything.
Still, Sam and Caroline were sweetly worried about my third-wheel self. And they were clearly giddy over their fresh-hatched love. So I was trying to be supportive. Which meant quickly hoisting my smile back up at the sight of them looking all cute and coupley on the boardwalk.
I eyed their empty hands (the ones that weren’t clasped tightly together, that was) and raised one eyebrow.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t bring firewood,” I complained. “I hate being the only one who did her homework.”
“Naw,” Sam said in his slow surfer-boy drawl. “We already piled it on the beach. The fire’s going to be huge this year!”
“We were collecting wood all afternoon,” Caroline said sunnily.
I couldn’t help it, my smile faded a bit.
I guess this is how it’s going to be, I thought. Sam and Caroline collecting firewood is now Sam and Caroline On a Date—third wheel not invited.
Caroline caught my disappointment. Of course she did. Ever since The Kiss, she’d been giving me lots of long, searching looks to make sure I was okay with everything. I was starting to feel like a fish in a bowl.
“We would have called you,” she stammered, “but didn’t you have sib duty today?”
She was right. I did have to go to my little sister’s end-of-the-year ballet recital.
So why did I feel this little twinge of hurt? I’d had countless sleepovers with Caroline that didn’t, obviously, include Sam. And Sam and I had a regular ritual of going to The Swamp for giant buckets of crawfish that were strictly boycotted by Caroline. The girl pretty much lived on fruit, nuts and seeds, and supersweet iced tea.
But ever since Sam and Caroline had gotten together, a kernel of insecurity had been burrowing into the back of my head. All I wanted to do was shake it off. But like an especially stubborn sandbur, it wasn’t budging.
This is stupid, I scolded myself. All that matters is that Sam and Caroline still love me and I love them.
Just not, the whiny voice in my head couldn’t help adding, the mysterious way they love each other.
I sighed the tiniest of sighs. But then my friends released each other’s hands and Sam plucked the firewood bundle out of my arms. He hopped lightly from the boardwalk onto the sand and headed south. Caroline hooked her arm through mine and we followed him. I ordered myself to stop obsessing and just be normal; just be with my friends.
“Cyrus is already so drunk,” Caroline said with a hearty laugh and an eye roll. “We have a pool going on how early he’s going to pass out in the dune grass.”
I pulled back in alarm.
“There’s beer here?” I asked. “That’s, um, not good.”
The bonfire was not more than a quarter mile down the beach from The Scoop, where my mom was working the postdinner rush. And when you make the most to-die-for ice cream on a small island, everybody’s your best friend. Which meant, if there was a keg at this party, it would take approximately seventeen seconds for the information to get to my mom.
Luckily, Caroline shook her head.
“No, the party’s dry,” she assured me. “Cyrus raided his dad’s beer cooler before he got here. What an idiot.”
Down the beach, just about everybody from our tiny high school was tossing sticks and bits of driftwood onto a steadily growing pyramid. By now, the sun had been swallowed up by the horizon, leaving an indigo sky with brushstrokes of fire around its edges. Against the deep blue glow, my friends looked like Chinese shadow puppets. All I could see were the shapes of skinny, shirtless boys loping about and girls with long hair fanning out as they spun to music that played, distant and tinny, from a small speaker.
But even in silhouette I could recognize many of the people. I spotted Eve Sachman’s sproingy halo of curls and Jackson Tate’s hammy football player’s arms. It was easy to spot impossibly tall Sam. He tossed my firewood on top of the pyre, then waved off the laughter that erupted when most of the sticks tumbled right back down into the sand.
I laughed too, and expected the same from Caroline. She was one of those girls who laughed—no, guffawed—constantly.
But now she was silent. So silent, I could swear she was holding her breath. And even in the dusky light, I could see that her heart-shaped face was lit up. Her eyes literally danced and her lips seemed to be wavering between a pucker and a secret smile.
I looked away quickly and gazed at the waves. The moon was getting brighter now, its reflection shimmering in each wave as it curled and crashed. I zoned out for a moment on the sizzle of the surf and the ocean’s calming inhale and exhale.
But before I could get really zen, I felt an umph in my middle, and then I was airborne.
Landon Smith had thrown his arms around my waist, scooped me up, and was now running toward the waves.
If I hadn’t been so busy kicking and screaming, I would have shaken my head and sighed.
This is what happens when you’re five feet one inch with, as my grandma puts it, “the bones of a sparrow.” People are always patting you on the head, marveling at your size 5 feet, and hoisting you up in the air. My mom, who is all of five feet two and a half, says I might grow a little more, but I’m not betting on it.
Landon stopped short of tossing me full-on into the surf. He just plunked me knee-deep into the waves. Since I was wearing short denim cutoffs and (of course) no shoes, this was a bit of an anticlimax. I looked around awkwardly. Was I supposed to shriek and slap at Landon in that cute, flirty way that so many girls do? I hoped not, because that wasn’t going to happen. After a lifetime of tininess, I was allergic to being cute.
I’m not saying I cut my hair with a bowl or anything. I’d actually taken a little extra care with my look for the bonfire. Over my favorite dark cutoffs, I was wearing a white camisole with a spray of fluttery gauze flowers at the neckline. I’d blown out my long, blond-streaked brown hair instead of letting it go wavy and wild the way I usually did. I’d put dark brown mascara on my sun-bleached lashes. And instead of my plain old gold hoop earrings, I was wearing delicate aqua glass dangles that brightened up my slate-blue eyes. (Or so my sister Sophie had told me. She’s fourteen and reads fashion sites like some people read the Bible, searching for the answers to all of life’s problems.)
While Landon laughed and galloped doggily back onto the dry sand, I said, “Har, har.”
But instead of sounding light and breezy, as I’d intended, it came out hard and humorless. Maybe because I was just realizing that Landon’s shoulder had gouged me beneath the ribs, leaving a throbbing, bruised feeling. And because everyone was staring at me, their smiles fading just a bit.
I felt heat rush to my face. I wanted to turn back toward the ocean, to breathe in the cloudy, dark blue scent of it and let salt mist my cheeks.
But that would only make everyone think I was really annoyed, or worse, fighting back tears.
Which I wasn’t.
What I was feeling was tired. Not literally. That afternoon I’d downed half a pint of my latest invention, dark chocolate ice cream with espresso beans and creamless Oreo cookies. (I might have eaten the cream from the cookies as well.) My brain was buzzing with caffeine and sugar.
But my soul? It was sighing at the prospect of another familiar bonfire. Another same old summer. A whole new round of nothing new.
Except for this restlessness, I thought with a frown.
That was new. I was almost sure I hadn’t felt this way the previous summer. I remembered being giddy about getting my learner’s permit. I dreamed up my very first ice cream flavors, and some of them were even pretty tasty. I graduated from an A cup to a B cup. (I’m pretty sure all growth in that area has halted as well.) And I was thrilled to have three months to bum around with Sam and Caroline. The things we’d always done—hunting for ghost crabs and digging up clams with our toes, eating shaved ice until our lips turned blue, seeing how many people could nap in one hammock at once—had still felt fresh.
But this summer already felt like day-old bread.
I shook my head again and remembered one of those first ice cream flavors: Rummy Bread Pudding.
If I’d turned stale bread into magic once, I could do it again, right?
It was this bit of inner chipperness that finally made me laugh out loud.
Because me channeling Mary Poppins was about as realistic as Caroline singing opera. And life was not ice cream.
Who was I kidding? Nothing was going to change. Not for the next three months, anyway. On Dune Island, summer was the only season that mattered, and this summer, just like all the others, I wasn’t going anywhere.
After the bonfire was lit, I rallied, of course. It’s hard to be too moody when people are skewering anything from turkey legs to Twinkies and roasting them on a fire the size of a truck.
I’d already toasted up a large handful of marshmallows and was contemplating the wisdom of a fire-roasted Snickers bar when Caroline trotted up to me. Sam was right behind her, of course. Since Caroline didn’t like anything that tasted of smoke, she was just drinking this year’s Official Bonfire Cocktail: a blueberry-pomegranate slushie garnished with burgundy cherries.
“This was a terrible idea,” Caroline said, taking a giant sip of her drink. “Everybody’s teeth are turning purple. But mmmm, it’s so yummy, I can’t stop.”
She slurped noisily on her straw.
“Real attractive, Caroline,” Sam joked. But from the uncharacteristic lilt in his monotone, I could tell he wasn’t joking. He really was swooning.
Caroline responded by taking another slurp of her slushie, this one so loud it almost drowned out the crackling of the fire.
I threw back my head and laughed.
And then—because what did I care if I had purple teeth in this crowd?—I reached for her plastic cup to steal a sip of the slushie.
“Get your own, Anna!” Caroline teased. Holding her cup above her head, she shuffled backward in the sand, then turned and darted into the surf.
Laughing again, I ran after her, kicking a spray of water at her back. Caroline scurried back up to Sam, still cackling. She threw her free arm around Sam’s waist and nestled against him. He slung a long arm around her shoulders. It was such a smooth, natural motion, you’d think they’d been snuggling like that all their lives.
I didn’t want them to know that their PDA was making me regret all those marshmallows, so I grinned, waved—and turned my gaze away.
And that’s when I saw him.
Of course, I didn’t know his name yet.
At that moment, actually, I didn’t know much of anything. I suddenly forgot about SamAndCaroline. And the too-sweet marshmallow taste in my mouth. And the fact that you don’t—you just don’t—openly stare at a boy only fifteen yards away, letting long seconds, maybe even minutes, pass while you feast your eyes upon him.
But I couldn’t help it. It was like I forgot I had a body. There was no swiping away the long strands of hair that had blown into my face. I didn’t worry about what to do with my hands. I didn’t cock my hip, scuff my feet in the sand, or make any of my other standard nervous motions.
There were just my eyes and this boy.
His hands were stuffed deep into the pockets of well-worn khakis, which were carelessly rolled up to expose his nicely muscled calves.
His hair—I’m pretty sure it was a chocolaty brown, though it was hard to tell in the shadowy night light—had perfect waves that fluttered in the breeze.
His skin looked a bit pale; hungry for sun. Obviously, he was a summer guy, though (thank God) he wasn’t wearing shoes on the beach. And he didn’t have that “isn’t this all so quaint?” vibe that some vacationers exuded.
Instead, he simply looked comfortable in his skin, washed-out though it might have been. He shot a casual glance at the party milling around the bonfire, then looked down at his feet. He did that thing you do when you’re a summer person getting your first delicious taste of the beach. He dug his toes into the sand, kicked a bit at the surf, then crouched down and let the water fizz through his fingers.
He stared at his glistening hand for a moment, as if he was thinking hard about something. Then he looked up—and straight at me.
I wish I could say that I smiled at him. Or gave him a look that struck the perfect balance between curious and cool.
But since I was still floating somewhere outside my body, it’s entirely possible that my mouth dropped open and I just kept on staring at him.
It’s not that he had the face of a god or anything. At first glance, I didn’t even think of him as beautiful.
But the squinty softness of his big, dark eyes, the strong angle of his jaw, a nose that stopped just short of being too thin, that swoop of tousled hair, and the bit of melancholy around his mouth—it all made me feel something like déjà vu.
It was like his was the face I’d always been looking for. It was foreign and familiar, both in the best way.
Looking at this boy’s face made me feel, not that famous jolt of electricity, but something more like an expansion. Like this oh-so-finite Dune Island beach, which I knew so well, had suddenly turned huge. Endless. Full of possibility.
“Who’s the shoobee?”
Caroline’s voice brought me back with a thud. I must have been holding my breath, because it whooshed out of me.
I closed my eyes, then turned around. When I opened them, I was looking at my friend. But I wasn’t really seeing her. I was feeling the boy’s gaze. It was still on me, I was sure of it.
“He’s … he’s not wearing shoes,” I pointed out to Caroline. “Which means he’s not a shoobee. Not technically.”
Caroline shrugged and peered over my shoulder at him. I was dying—dying— to turn around and look too, but I bit my lip and made myself stay put.
“He’s kind of hot, for a short guy,” Caroline said idly.
“He’s not short,” I huffed.
“Hmm, maybe five nine,” Caroline allowed. “Of course, compared to you, everybody’s tall.”
“And compared to Sam,” I reminded her, “everybody’s short.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Caroline said with a giggle.
I gaped. Caroline did not giggle. She cackled. She brayed. Was this what love did to a girl?
Caroline’s eyes widened slowly. Was she wondering the same thing?
If so, she didn’t let on. Instead, her focus returned to the mysterious boy down the beach.
“You should go talk to him,” she said.
“No!” That’s when my heart actually did leap into my throat. But it wasn’t a love-at-first-sight thing. It was abject terror.
Which Caroline didn’t notice at all.
“Look, this is totally low-risk,” she said. “I saw him checking you out, so he’s probably interested. And if he isn’t, or if you screw it up, well, he leaves at the end of the week and you can forget all about him.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said dryly. “But have you considered the other possibility? That he doesn’t leave until the end of the summer? And I run into him everywhere I go, my humiliation festering like an infected wound?”
“There is that,” Caroline agreed with a laugh. I was happy to hear that she’d gone back to the bray. “Or … it could go really well.”
Could it? As Caroline danced back to the fire, I glanced the boy’s way again. He was sitting on the ground now. Clearly, he didn’t care at all if he got those nicely threadbare khakis wet or gritty. His bare heels were dug into the sand. His forearms rested on his bent knees. They looked strong and a little ropey and were completely mesmerizing. To me, at least.
The boy was gazing out at the ocean. I didn’t get the sense that he was itching to join the bonfire. Or, for that matter, that he was burning to talk to me.
At least, that’s what I thought until I saw him sneak another glance in my direction.
Before I could look away, he caught my gaze. And then neither of us could look away.
Instantly, I felt like I had to know what color his eyes were.
I wanted to hear what his voice sounded like.
I needed to know his name.
Caroline was right. I really had no choice.
I was going to talk to him.
Unless I had a heart attack as I walked across the sand, I was going to talk to him.
One of my feet inched forward as if it were testing to make sure the sand hadn’t magically turned quick, ready to suck me under.
I took another, slightly bigger, step.
The boy got to his feet.
The sadness that had been dragging at the corners of his mouth and eyes was gone. He was starting to smi—
The boy turned away. He squinted beyond the fire at a woman on the deck of one of the beach’s smaller cottages. Even from this distance, I could see the weary sag in her shoulders.
“Will,” she called again, “can you come back in? We’ve got three big suitcases left to unpack and I just can’t face them.”
The boy—Will—paused for a moment.
And then, without another glance at me, he began to tromp across the beach to the house. His mom had gone back inside to what sure sounded like a whole summer’s worth of unpacking.
I stood there watching him go. Now I felt like a speck on this newly big beach, as invisible as one of the ghost crabs that darted around the sand waving their ineffectual little claws.
But then everything changed again.
When Will had almost reached the rickety little bridge that connected the beach to his cottage’s deck, I got the second of the summer’s many surprises.
He turned around and looked right back at me. He shrugged and smiled, a rueful, crooked what’re you gonna do? smile.
Then he lifted his arm in a loose half wave. His smile widened before he turned and jumped gracefully onto the bridge. He crossed it with long, almost-bouncing strides.
Maybe that was just the way he always walked, I thought as I watched him bound away.
Or maybe, just maybe, I was the spring in his step. Maybe he’d seen something in my face that was foreignly familiar too.
In the coming days, I’d kick myself for just standing there as Will waved at me, too dumbstruck to wave back or even smile.
I’d play out different running-into-Will scenes in my head. It would happen back on the beach or in the nickel-candy aisle at Angelo’s or under the North Shore pier.
I’d think of his name, Will, and wonder if it was going to move to the tip of my tongue.
So what if it wasn’t fireworks the first time I saw Will? Fireworks are all pow and wow and then—nothing. Nothing except black ash dusting the waves.
But me and Will? I thought we could be something. If I was lucky. If he’d seen the same spark in my eyes that I’d seen in his. If, somehow, this summer was going to be different from all the others.
The possibility of that was much better than fireworks.
“Has anyone seen my wrap?” I’d just stalked into the screened porch that covers the entire front of our house. My parents and sisters, Sophie and Kat, were at the long, beat-up dining table, munching buttered Belgian waffles (leftovers from The Scoop). My five-year-old brother, Benjie, was sitting on the floor feeding his breakfast to his pet tortoise.
Not one of them even glanced at me.
Sophie ignored me completely. My mom didn’t seem to hear me. Kat shrugged her shoulders. And my dad’s eyes never left his smart phone as he said, “Nope!”
“Thanks for the help,” I muttered.
It was Wednesday, four days after the bonfire (not that I’d been counting or anything), and I was trying to get ready to go to the beach. And yet I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the front door.
First, I hadn’t been able to find my swimsuit top. I should have known to look for it in Kat’s room. Lately, Kat, who was seven, had been obsessed with breasts. She kept stealing bras and swimsuit tops from the laundry room and trying them on.
Sure enough, I found my blue-flowered bandeau crumpled on Kat’s bedroom floor. Only then did I realize that I didn’t have my wrap!
And girls on Dune Island never went to the beach without their wraps. Unless they were shoobees, that was.
The summer people lugged all sorts of unwieldy stuff to the beach: folding chairs, umbrellas, voluminous beach towels, all piled on top of giant, snack-stuffed coolers on wheels.
Local girls took three things and three things only—big sports bottles of something cold and caffeinated, reading material, and our wraps.
Wraps were homemade and usually hemless, so their edges were always fraying. They were made of a light, crumply fabric that could stretch to the size of a small tarp or be wadded into your back pocket. We used them for everything. Your wrap was both beach blanket and towel. It was a sarong, a tube top, or even a long-tailed bandanna. When the noon sun got too sizzly, you could drench your wrap in water and tent it over yourself.
Every April, which was when the sun on Dune Island started to graduate from merely sultry to scorching, we all made new wraps. We wore them until they were shredded, which conveniently happened right around Labor Day.
I loved the wrap I’d made this spring. It was pumpkin orange with a white tie-dye design in the middle in the shape of a giant eye. I’d been going for a crescent moon, but when I’d gotten an eye, I’d shrugged and kept it. Sophie always dyes and re-dyes her wraps, going for perfect, but that’s just too girlie-girl for me.
Sophie had always desired the feminine stuff I couldn’t fathom—popularity, a fabulous wardrobe, boys raising their eyebrows when she walked by.
But me? I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. Sometimes I wanted to dance and laugh with my friends until midnight, and sometimes I wanted to screen all calls and hide away with a tragic novel and a bag of candy. Sometimes I spent an hour trying to pretty myself up, and sometimes I could barely be bothered to comb the knots out of my hair before I left the house.
Sometimes I wanted to know what it felt like to tell a boy all my secrets. Other times, that seemed as impossible as waking up one morning to find myself fluent in a foreign language.
Sometimes I felt better alone than I did with people. And sometimes that just felt lonely.
It didn’t seem normal to be so wishy-washy. That was a term my mom used a lot, and it always made me think of gray laundry water, swishing around and around in circles before it drained away. And as anyone can tell you, gray is the most invisible color there is.
Orange is better.
Orange is a color people notice, people like … Will.
And there I was, thinking about this stranger named Will again. I was picturing that smile, that half wave, and the way he’d looked in his khakis. It made me want get out of the house faster than ever.
It was irrational—actually, it bordered on crazy—but here’s what I was thinking as I frantically searched my cluttered house for the wrap: I’m late for The Moment.
That’s right. I was certain that somehow Will and I were supposed to meet—really meet—right then.
At that very instant, I was supposed to be on my way to the beach and Will was supposed to be somewhere along that way, and I was supposed to bump into him.
Then I’d actually, finally, get to talk to him and …
Well, I had no idea what would happen after that. Destiny? Bitter dejection? Or some vague place in between the two? That seemed like the worst fate of all. But at this point, I would’ve welcomed even a lame Will interface—say, in front of my parents or something equally mortifying—if it would just happen already.
But it wasn’t going to happen, my newly superstitious mind was telling me now. Because while I was searching for my wrap, the magic window of time—in which a boy bumps into a girl at that perfect moment when her teeth are freshly brushed, she’s wearing her favorite bikini, and she has the whole morning to herself—was closing.
I was late. I was going to miss him.
Just like I’d probably missed him the night before when I’d somehow gotten a big gob of sunscreen in my hair and had to quickly shampoo it before going out with Sam and Caroline. And the day before that when I’d completely forgotten about a fishing party at the southern pier and had instead spent the afternoon at home doing ice cream experiments.
Those ice creams, by the way, had all tasted wretched. Probably because the spot in my brain where deliciousness usually dwelled was filled instead with all these made-up missed connections with Will.
All this was why I was pretty darn grouchy when I began searching our cluttered screened porch for my wrap. I barely looked at the plate of fluffy waffles or the sweaty pitcher of minty iced tea on the table. I made eye contact with no one and sighed loudly as I pulled cushions off the couch and rockers, peered behind the porch swing, and even rifled through the magazine rack next to the hammock.
I could not find my wrap anywhere.
I almost considered leaving for the beach without it. But the thing was, when you’d low-maintenanced yourself down to a single item, you really needed that item.
I sighed louder. And finally my mother looked up from the Scoop accounting books. She’d been poring over them with a pained squint. (Not because business was hurting. Numbers just made my mother’s head hurt. It was one of the things, besides shortness, we had in common.)
“What’re you looking for, honey?” she asked, her eyes a little bleary.
“My wrap?” I said, trying to keep my voice from sounding shrill. “The wrap I asked you about fifteen minutes ago?”
Glancing up from her magazine, Sophie snorted.
“Okay, five,” I allowed.
“Mmm.” Mom cocked her head, thought for about half a second and said, “Pantry. Next to the bread.”
Now Sophie laughed, and I heaved one more sigh, this one equal parts irritation and gratitude.
I had no doubt that the wrap would be exactly where my mother said it was. My mom is famous for random brilliance like that. Which is kind of a surprise because both my parents are—how to put this delicately?—a bit scattered. Their very existence on this island was sort of an accident. They came here from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin when my mom was pregnant with me. And then they just … never left.
They’d stumbled into the ice cream biz too, when a kitchen fiasco led my mom to invent The Scoop’s most famous bestseller, Maple Bacon Crunch. (Trust me, it’s much better than it sounds.)
My parents had added onto our house as they’d added more kids to the family, and now it kind of reminded me of Sam—a kid who’d grown too tall, too fast. With all the new nooks and crannies, our place was pretty much chaos. But it was a chaos that my mom had a mysterious mastery over.
She’d decorated with mismatched vintage wallpaper, funky estate-sale furniture, and painted floors. She’d added a fancy marble pastry counter to the kitchen, but kept the creaky, pink sixty-year-old oven. She stored everything from safety pins to sugar in old mason jars, then stashed them on random windowsills or bookshelves.
And this morning she could remember exactly where she’d spotted my wrap—but it had never occurred to her to move it to a place where I might ever have considered looking for it.
Like Maple Bacon Crunch ice cream, my mother’s world should have been a mess, but instead it was sort of sublime. You can only imagine how annoying that was.
I gritted my teeth while I thanked my mother. Then I knotted my wrap around my waist and flew out the door.
But I’d been right about missing that Magic Moment.
Even though I took the most roundabout route possible to the North Peninsula, I didn’t see Will anywhere.
So then I sped through the end of my novel, requiring a trip to the library for reinforcements. But Will wasn’t there, either.
Finally I committed an act of desperation. I convinced Sam and Caroline to go to the touristy end of the boardwalk for lunch.
“Ah, Crabby’s Crab Shack,” Sam said sarcastically as we walked into the café. The screened-in dining room was artfully distressed, with deliberately peeling turquoise paint, paper towel rolls on every table, and a big fish tank so crowded with pirate, mermaid, and fisherman figurines, I wondered how there was any room for the fish.
“My grandparents love this place,” Sam continued. “So ‘authentic.’”
“Oh, shut up,” I said, looking around with shifty eyes. The tables looked way too shiny and the floorboards had been oddly swept clean of sand. “You know you love their curly fries.”
“The cheesiest food ever,” Caroline said.
She snorted so loud that all the sunburned shoobees twisted to stare at her before returning to their fried shrimp baskets. Not one of those flushed faces was Will’s, I noted with a quick but thorough scan of the joint. I was both crestfallen and relieved.
If Will was at Crabby’s Crab Shack, I wanted it to be ironically. Or because he’d been dragged there by a clueless parent. Or because he was laughing at, not with, the curly fries.
But I knew it was too much to hope that Will would understand all these requirements just a few days into his summer here. From my experience of shoobees, there was a lot they didn’t understand about us, and vice versa.
Dune Islanders live inland in candy-colored cottages. Our houses hide like turtles’ nests on twisty cul-de-sacs and overgrown dead ends off Highway 80.
The shoobees’ vacation rentals on the South Shore stand on stilts above prime real estate. The houses stand shoulder to shoulder like a barricade. They face the waves, casting long shadows behind them.
When inlanders cross the highway to go to work in bike rental shops, boardwalk bars, beachmarts, and sno-cone stands, we don’t see the ocean. Our view is of the summer people’s trash cans.
Okay, that sounds a little dramatic. It’s not like shoobees and inlanders are Sharks and Jets, staging rumbles on the beach. It’s just that we live in separate worlds. They’re on one side of the cash register, and we’re on the other.
“If you’re so desperate for Crabby’s,” Sam said after we’d settled into a table that smelled of cleaning solution and fish, “does that mean you’re paying, Anna?”
“I’m not desperate,” I said, glancing through the screen at the boardwalk. “I just need a change. I’ve eaten at Angelo’s for the past four days.”
“Yeah,” Sam said with a grin. “The same fried shrimp you can get on the other side of the island, but for five bucks more? That is a refreshing change.”
I would have responded with a crack of my own, but I was distracted by the faces passing by outside the screen. Not Will, not Will, definitely not Will, two more not-Wills …
“Hey, who are you looking for?” Sam blurted, jolting me back to our table. “Is it Landon Smith?”
“Landon Smith?” I said. My voice was as flat as an algae-covered pond.
“Landon Smith!” Sam said. “Hello?”
“Sam thinks he likes you,” Caroline said. She glanced at Sam. He glanced back. His eyes crinkled into a secret smile, and her lips pursed into a gossipy grin. Clearly they’d already discussed the possibility of a romance between me and—
“Landon Smith?” I said with a little laugh. “I don’t think so.”
“The guy made a clear gesture at the bonfire,” Sam insisted.
I laughed again.
“Oh, would that have been this gesture?” I asked, swinging my arms around like an ape. “I guess I didn’t realize that was a declaration of like.”
“Duh,” Sam said.
“Maybe he should have made himself more clear,” Caroline suggested, grinning at me. “He could have dumped a smoothie over your head.”
“Or broken some of my ribs,” I suggested with my own grin, “instead of just bruising them. Swoon!”
I clasped my hands under my chin and fluttered my eyelashes.
“I’m just saying,” Sam said, “you should think about Landon. The guy digs you. I can tell.”
But the preposterous idea of me-and-Landon evaporated from my mind almost immediately. As Sam and Caroline started chatting about something else, my gaze drifted back to the boardwalk and its seeming flood of not-Wills.
I’d been so sure that he’d “dug” me that night at the bonfire. But now, after days of not running into him on this very small island, I was starting to think that perhaps I just wasn’t meant to see him again. Maybe Will’s sweet smile and cute shrug had meant nothing, and the spark I’d seen in his eyes had just been a reflection of the dancing fire. Maybe the beach was the same size as always.
I decided right then that it was time to give up on this boy named Will. We didn’t have a destiny together. We didn’t have some Magic Moment.
Coming to this decision in Crabby’s Crab Shack, across the table from my mad-in-love best friends, was so depressing that I ended up ordering an extra-large curly fries from the waitress in the pirate hat. And a fried shrimp basket with cocktail sauce. So when I stumbled into work at The Scoop after lunch, I had greasy skin and clothes that smelled like fried fish, not to mention a stomachache. After two hours of ice cream scooping, I was also sticky and sweaty, with my hair pulled back in a sloppy bun and an apron smeared with hot fudge.
So of course that was the moment—during the lull between the afternoon-snack crowd and the ice-cream-for-dinner crowd—that Will walked through the door.
Will was with another boy, who was the same height as him but with lighter hair, broader shoulders, and lots of freckles. Still, he was clearly Will’s brother. They had the exact same pointy chin and the same squinty eyes. But Will, it had to be said, was much cuter.
I’d been right about Will’s eyes. They were brown, but a much darker, richer, prettier brown than I could ever have imagined.
Will’s brother didn’t even notice me. Like most customers, he went straight for the glass cases, peering down at the tubs of Mexican Chocolate, Grapefruit Mint sorbet, and Buttertoe (a Butterfinger bar smashed into vanilla ice cream with some toasted coconut thrown in). I think he might have asked me if I preferred the Salted Caramel to the Pecan Praline. And I might have mumbled a reply.
But I’m pretty sure I just stared at Will and thought two things: (1) It’s him! And (2) Oh, crap!
Will had clearly spent the day on the beach. He was wearing faded red swim trunks and a worn-to-almost-transparent gray T-shirt. I wanted to reach over the ice cream case and touch it. Luckily, that would have involved some not-terribly-subtle climbing up on the counter, so it wasn’t too hard to restrain myself.
There was also the fact that as good as Will looked, that’s how gross I felt.
Maybe, I thought with a mixture of hope and dread, he won’t even recognize me, with my hair up and ice cream toppings all over my apron. For all I know, I’ve got Marshmallow Fluff on my face.
A quick swipe at my sweaty forehead came away Fluff free, but it was small comfort.
I glanced at my dad, who was sitting on a tall stool behind the cash register, his nose buried in a copy of Time magazine. I could only hope he’d stay this oblivious until Will left.
I managed to eke out a panicked smile at Will, then quickly spun around and pretended to attend to the chrome hot-fudge warmer. In actuality, I was peering at my distorted reflection in the silver cube. My face was supershiny. I grabbed a paper towel, blotted surreptitiously, then tucked a few errant strands of hair behind my ears. I would have loved to pull my hair out of its rubber band and whisk off my chocolaty apron, too. But that would have been ridiculously obvious, so I just took a breath and tried to recapture the feeling I’d had after my lunch with Sam and Caroline, when I’d written Will off and resigned myself to a summer without him.
A summer alone.
And yes, what I’d felt was sort of empty. Maybe even a little tragic.
But I hadn’t curled up and died or anything. I’d survived.
So what did it matter that Will was here, and that he was likely to take one look at me and try to forget he’d ever smiled at me? (That was, if he even recognized me.) Since I’d already lost him, the stakes couldn’t have been lower, right?
Then why was my face feeling hot (and probably getting even pinker and shinier)? And why was I having trouble getting enough oxygen into my lungs to make my brain work correctly?
Luckily, I could scoop ice cream in my sleep, so when Will’s brother finally decided on a sugar cone full of Sticky Toffee Pudding Pop, I was able to dish it up without any disasters.
But then I had to look at Will.
I mean, he was the next customer in line. I had no choice.
Unlike his brother, Will wasn’t studying ice cream flavors. Or searching for an open booth or admiring the hundred vintage ice cream scoops that dangled from the ceiling.
He was looking right at me.
His eyes were a little wide. And his hands were suddenly digging deep into his pockets, sending his shoulders up to his ears.
Oh yeah, he remembered me all right.
But I had no idea if this was a good or a bad thing.
“Um …,” I croaked out. “Ice cream?”
I gestured with my scoop at the bank of ice cream cases. You know, just in case he hadn’t noticed the two tons of electronic equipment that stood between us, humming loudly.
“I …” Will’s voice was on the froggy side, too.
Wait a minute. Was Will as tongue-tied as I was?
“I’m not really into sweets,” Will said. “He is.”
He glanced over at his brother with a shrug. The broader, blonder version of Will, meanwhile, was kind of moaning his way through his ice cream. Clearly, he was the sugar fiend in the family.
“I can’t believe you don’t want some of this,” he said to Will with his mouth full. “It’s the best stuff.”
“Yeah, it is! My daughter invented that flavor!”
I froze. Was that actually my dad inserting himself into the most awful, yet potentially fabulous, moment of my life?
“Um …?” I squeaked.
Dad had shoved his reading glasses up so they rested on top of his endless forehead. He was pointing his rolled-up Time at Will’s brother’s ice cream cone.
“Sticky Toffee Pudding Pop, right?” Dad said. “That’s Anna’s!”
Now he was pointing the magazine at me—at a shocked and mortified me.
“My daughter,” Dad went on, getting off his stool, “is an ice cream genius.”
He grabbed a tiny sample spoon, scooped up a little chunk of Pineapple Ginger Ale gelato, and thrust it over the counter at Will.
“Try it,” he ordered Will.
“Dad, he just said he doesn’t like sweets,” I said. My voice sounded reedy, as if my throat had completely closed up. Because it had.
But Will gave a little smile as he took the spoon from my dad and popped the ice cream sample into his mouth.
I cringed. I assumed my dad had chosen Pineapple Ginger Ale because it was his favorite. I had to admit, it was one of my favorites too. When I’d come up with it a few months earlier, it had emerged from the churn both spicy and subtle, bubbly and sophisticated. It had been the first time that I’d felt like an alchemist in the kitchen, instead of just someone who messed around with cream and sugar, hoping for a happy accident.
Still, Pineapple Ginger Ale definitely wasn’t for everyone. I wished my dad had picked something easier to love, like Peanut Butter Crisp or Mud Pie.
I watched Will’s face as the ice cream melted in his mouth. His dark eyebrows shot upward. The corners of his mouth slowly lifted into a surprised, and very satisfied, smile.
He looked at me and said, “I’ll have a double.”
I bit my lip and looked down at my feet, trying to keep a dorky grin from erupting on my face. I failed completely, of course. But hopefully Will didn’t see me beaming as I ducked into the ice cream case and dished up his two scoops. I hovered in the case for a moment, my eyes closed, feeling a cloud of sugar-scented coldness billow over my hot cheeks. It felt wonderful.
But it couldn’t compare to the knowledge that Will loved my ice cream.
Or, I realized, he didn’t, but had ordered it to be polite. Which you would do only if you really cared what the creator of that ice cream thought of you!
Either scenario seemed shockingly promising.
I carefully stacked Will’s scoops into a deep brown waffle cone.
“It’s a gingerbread cone,” I explained as I handed it to him. “It really brings out the zing in the ice cream.”
Will smiled at me for two beats too long, as if he didn’t know what to say but wanted to say something.
I wanted to say something too. I felt my head buzz as I searched for the perfect witticism.
“I just don’t understand people who don’t like sugar,” I blurted. “I’m obsessed with it.”
Um, what was that?
I so badly wanted to bite my words back, I think I might have clacked my teeth together.
Of course, I couldn’t take the words back. So for the next minute or so, I squirmed because I’d basically just called Will a sugar-hating freak. And Will took galumphing bites of his ice cream, probably thinking that the sooner he finished the stuff, the sooner he could get out of The Scoop and never come back.
We were saved from all this awkwardness by Will’s brother, who spoke up once again as he paid my dad for the two cones. I liked that guy already.
“I know, right?” he said to me. “How does anyone not like sweets? Of course, you’ve never seen anyone more obsessed with salt than Will. He used to buy those giant soft pretzels on the street and cover them with mustard. Then he’d lick the mustard off, along with all the rock salt, and throw the pretzel part away. It was like nails on a chalkboard listening to him crunch that salt between his teeth.”
This made Will stop eating. His mouth dropped open and he gave his brother one of those how am I related to you? looks. I knew that look well.
I glanced at my dad, who was now cleaning out the milkshake machine, his Time open on the counter next to the sink so he could read and (messily) work at the same time.
Well, Will and I already have something in common, I thought, feeling shaky and exhilarated at the same time. Familial humiliation.
Will returned his gaze to me.
“We’re from New York,” he explained. “There’s a lot of street food there.”
“I know,” I said quickly. “I love New York.”
Which was true. I had absolutely loved New York during the three days my family had vacationed there when I was twelve. I’d loved it so much that my daydreams about my future self were almost all set there. I always pictured myself—taller and with shorter hair—striding down those impossibly busy streets. I carried a cute little short-handled purse under my arm and often ducked into one of those subway stairwells with the wroughtiron railings and the globes that glowed green or red.
What this future self was doing in New York, and how she would get there, was a mystery. More than that, really. It seemed just as fantastical as, say, becoming magic. People in movies and books did it all the time, but in real life? It just didn’t happen. Likewise, it didn’t seem possible that a girl who’d lived her entire life on a nine-mile-long island could end up in New York City.
“I never had a pretzel when I was in New York,” I told Will. “But I remember having a knish from a street cart. It was delicious.”
Suddenly, Will’s mouth started twitching. He looked like his was trying mightily to suppress a laugh.
His brother didn’t even try, though. He guffawed.
“It’s kuh-nish,” he said, correcting me. “Not nish.”
“Oh …,” I choked out.
Will gave his head a little shake, then took a few more enormous bites of ice cream. The silence between us grew awkward. And more awkward, until …
“Did you know,” Will blurted, making me jump, “that if you leave your beach towel on the sand at seven p.m., it’ll pretty much be sucked out to sea the minute you turn your back?”
I shrugged and said, “Well, yeah. This time of year, that’s right before high tide.”
“High tide,” Will said with a shy smile. “I always thought that was just a saying.”
I was floored. Not only was Will (probably) choking his way through my ice cream just to be nice, but he’d admitted to flubbing something as basic as the tide.
Or, I supposed, as basic as the pronunciation of “knish.”
And even though it’s much cooler to be a big-city guy who’s ignorant about Dune Island than a backwater babe for whom Manhattan is practically Mars, I decided that we were even.
So now I didn’t even try to hide my smile from Will. I just laid one on him. A big, toothy smile.
Will returned the smile, and instantly, I was back at one end of that wire-thin connection I’d sensed between us. I was feeling the glow of the bonfire all over again.
And I wasn’t just wishing I could hear Will’s voice or see his eyes up close. I was listening and seeing—and feeling so floaty, I was a little embarrassed.
Until Will’s brother broke the spell by grabbing Will’s waffle cone.
“You’re dripping,” he said, helping Will out by taking several large bites around the base of the scoop.
“Gross, Owen,” Will said, snatching the cone back.
Will’s brother looked bewildered for a moment, then glanced at me. His eyebrows shot up and he murmured, “Ohhhhh.”
Then he leaned over and whispered—good and loud—in Will’s ear, “So that’s the girl from the bonfire. I think the dad said her name is Anna.”
“Shut up,” Will hissed.
Owen just gave a little laugh, then strolled over to the bulletin board by the front door and peered at the rental flyers, lost cat photos, and join-my-band pleas.
Will avoided my eyes until his ice cream started dripping again and he had to scramble for a napkin from the box on top of the freezer case. I tried to make myself busy until he spoke again.
“That bonfire the other night,” he said, “was it fun?”
“Oh, yeah.” I shrugged. “I guess.”
“So those people were …”
“… pretty much everyone in my school,” I said. “It was an end-of-the-year thing.”
“Yeah …“Will said, trailing off. “And then where does everybody go? For the summer?”
I opened my arms and gestured to my right and left. Since The Scoop was smack-dab in the center of the boardwalk, there were cafés and candy shops, surf shops and beachmarts on either side of us. I probably knew a kid who worked in every one of the boardwalk’s stores.
“Oh, yeah, I should have known that,” Will said. “We usually stay home for the summer too. Other people go to the Hamptons or the Catskills or places like that, but we just stay in the city and sizzle. It’s actually kind of fun. New York just empties out every August.”
I didn’t tell Will that I had been in New York in August—and thought I’d never seen so many people smashed into one place.
“So …,” Will said after popping the soggy end of his cone into his mouth. “I guess you’re going to the thing tonight?”
“The … thing?” I was confused. Sam had said something about folks going to The Swamp to watch a Braves game later. But how did Will know about …
“The Movie on the Beach?” Will asked. “I think it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“Oh, that,” I said. “That’s a shoob—”
I caught myself, then said diplomatically, “That’s the first movie of the summer. They happen every other week.”
“Pretty cool,” Will said, ignoring my squirming. “Where do they put the screen?”
“It’s kind of funny,” I said, leaning against the ice cream case. “The guy who does it is a movie nut. He’s the dad of someone I go to school with. And every year he tries a different screen placement. Once he put it on the pier, but the sound of the waves on the wood drowned out the movie. Then he put the screen on these poles literally in the water. But the wind kept blowing it down, you know, like a sail? So he had to cut these little semicircles all over the screen to let the air through. Ever since, the people in the movies looked like they had terrible skin or black things hanging out of their noses, or …”
I stopped myself. Once again I was putting my foot in my mouth, making fun of something that Will obviously thought was cool. He had no idea that my friends and I only went to Movies on the Beach when there was absolutely nothing better to do.
And when we went, we laughed at the holey screen, or drifted into loud, jokey conversation halfway through the movie, ignoring the glares and shushes of the summer people who found the whole scene so enchanting.
I could tell Will could see the lame alert on my face.
“So I guess you have something else going on tonight, then?” he broached.
I caught my breath. Had he just been about to ask me to the movie? And had I just completely blown it by being snarky?
Once again I became painfully aware of my father, who’d finished cleaning the milk-shake blender. Now he was loading a fresh tub of Jittery Joe into the ice cream case just to the left of me. He was so close I could feel a gust of cold air from the freezer. The blond down on my arm popped up in instant goose bumps, which only added to the shivery way I was feeling as I talked to Will.
“Um, well, my friends are kind of having a thing …,” I said weakly.
“Yeah, that’s cool …,” Will said, stuffing his hands back in his pockets. “I heard about a party going on tonight, too, actually. It’d be funny if it was the same one.”
I was incredulous. And hopeful.
“At The Swamp?” I asked—at the exact moment that Will said, “At the Beach Club pool.”
“Oh,” I said, deflating a bit.
Of course, Will hadn’t heard of The Swamp. The dark little bar and grill, surrounded by an alligator moat, was hidden in a mosquitoey thicket off Highway 80. It had no sign, just a break in the kudzu and a gravel driveway. The only shoobees who ever found it were Lonely Planet types who tromped in with giant backpacks and paid for their boiled peanuts and hush puppies with fistfuls of crumpled dollar bills.
And the only locals who went to the Beach Club were the retirees who lived on the South Shore year-round. Mostly the Beach Club was filled with summer people from Atlanta who wanted to hang out with their country club friends—in a different country club.
Suddenly, it became clear that almost everything about The Moment was going badly. I was a muscle twitch away from just hustling Will out the door with a chipper, Have fun tonight. Maybe I’ll see you the next time you want some Pineapple Ginger Ale. Unless, of course, you hated it and you think I’m drippier than your ice cream cone! Ta!
But before I had a chance, Will stepped closer to the ice cream case. He rested a hand on top of it in a way that was probably supposed to look casual. The only problem with that was Will’s hand was knotted into a white-knuckled fist.
I felt a prickly wave of heat wash over my face. He was about to say something. Something that mattered. I would have sworn on it.
“Why don’t you come with me to the party?” Will blurted.
“Or to the movie, if you want,” he added quickly. “But at a movie, you can’t really talk. And it’d be kind of … nice. To talk. I mean, if you want to … and you don’t mind ditching the, um, swamp?”
Then I was hanging onto the ice cream case for dear life, too. I felt another head-rushy wave, but it didn’t feel at all bad.
Even so, I wasn’t sure at first what I should say. As cheesy went, Movie on the Beach was a stack of American slices—so bad it was kind of good. But a party at the Beach Club pool was more like stinky French cheese—you could swallow it, but only if you held your nose. I definitely would have preferred pockmarked Harrison Ford to the fusty air-conditioning, horrid wallpaper, and uniformed “staff” of the Beach Club.
But Will wanted to talk.
Fuzzy though my mind was at that moment, my gut told me this was a good thing.
It was such a good thing that I sort of wanted to start the conversation right there. That very minute. But one sideways glance reminded me that my dad was still there, fumbling around the cash register and so obviously eavesdropping on me as a boy asked me out for the very first time.
And then there was Will’s brother, Owen. He was still stationed at the bulletin board but had his head cocked in such a way that it was just as obvious that he was listening in too.
And then, the wind chime on the screen door tinkled as a quartet of locals—most of whom I knew of course—came in for their sugar fix.
I had to make a decision and I had to make it immediately.
So I said yes to the Beach Club pool party. To a night of eating bad hors d’ouevres among an army of shoobees … and to a date with Will.
“Meet you there at eight?” I proposed.
Will grinned and nodded. Then grinned some more and nodded again until finally Owen came over and grabbed his arm, muttering, “I’m gonna save you from yourself, here, mm-kay? Let’s go.”
They left so fast, I barely had time to squeak out a “See you later.” I was too floored to form complete sentences anyway.
After that, I nodded my way through four ice cream orders before I realized I hadn’t heard a word the customers had said. After I asked them to repeat themselves, I got half the orders wrong anyway. But I didn’t really care. How could I when all my hopes and dreams (at least, all my hopes and dreams of the past four days) had come true?
Will and I had had our Moment. Our weird, awkward, yet somehow amazing, Moment. It hadn’t been destiny, but it had made me excited about going to the Beach Club of all places. So maybe it actually had been magic.
Time, I thought, looking anxiously at the clock over the screen door, would tell.
I had an hour and a half left in my shift. If I’d been keeping a log, here’s how it would have read:
5:05: Went to the walk-in cooler and called Caroline to tell her I had a date. But hung up when I got her voice mail. Leaving this information on a message seemed jinxy somehow. A recorded declaration of swooning would only come back to bite me later, right?
5:07: Began a catalog (on a paper napkin) of all the date-worthy outfits I owned.
5:08: Despaired at lack of date-worthy outfits in closet. Began a catalog (on several paper napkins) of Sophie’s dateworthy outfits.
5:14: Plotted sister bribery for that pale blue halter dress.
5:16: Decided the blue halter dress was trying too hard and I should just wear jeans.
5:18: Called Caroline to confirm. Hung up on voice mail again.
5:19: Okay, I would compromise with a skirt and top.
5:20: Realized I’d been in the cooler for fifteen minutes and was freezing. Returned to work. Dad was scooping away and messing up all the orders. I took over and Dad reminded me that he preferred to be the backstage operator at The Scoop, before slinking into the kitchen to make a batch of Strawberry Rhubarb.
5:44: Scooped for a group of shoobees who looked less like individuals than just a tangle of sunburned limbs and expensive sunglasses. Occurred to me that Will might not have been asking me out for a date per se. Maybe he’d just meant for it to be a group thing. A join-the-crowd kind of thing. That’s what a party really was, wasn’t it?
5:53: Called Caroline to confirm suspicion. Voice mail again. She was probably too busy making out with Sam (ew) to answer. Hung up. Again.
6:03: Certain now that I was delusional. Of course Will wasn’t asking me out! It was just a “Maybe I’ll see you at the Beach Club party” invitation. Right? What were his exact words? Obviously, goose bumps had impaired my hearing.
6:06: Considered asking my dad for his impression. Questioned own sanity. Ate extra-large scoop of Maple Bacon Crunch to calm nerves.
6:10: Worried about having bacon breath at party.
6:11: He was definitely not asking me out on a date. Wondered if I should even go.
6:15: Okay, I would go, but I wasn’t dressing up.
6:17: Wait a minute, Dune Island was my turf. Decided I should just call Will and tell him I was going to The Swamp. “And maybe I’ll see you there.”
6:18: Realized I didn’t have Will’s number. Despaired.
6:19: Went back into the cooler. Breathed in stale fridge smell and tried to get zen. But goose bumps on arms reminded me of conversation with Will, so went back to work.
6:23: Epiphany! Called Caroline. Actually left a message.
6:29: Shift (almost) over! Tore my dad away from his backstage maneuvering and hightailed it out of there.
* * *
Just as I was getting home, my phone rang.
“Is this The Scoop?” Caroline rasped in my ear. “I’d like one Nutty Buddy, please. Oh, wait, I’ve already got one.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “We don’t have time for your corny jokes. I’ve got an emergency.”
“So I heard after about eighteen hang-ups,” Caroline said. “It was the other part of your message that must have gotten mangled in my voice mail. You didn’t actually say you want me and Sam to come to a party at the Beach Club pool, did you?”
“He invited me,” I whispered as ran up the stairs and into the screened porch. Kat was on the porch swing eating a bowl of bright orange macaroni and cheese.
“Ugh!” I said, looking away. I was already queasy, and watching Kat eat fake food as she swung in long, lazy swoops gave me motion sickness.
Kat pointed a bright orange fork at me and said, “That was rude!”
I gave her an apologetic shrug, then headed up the stairs. Hoping not to run into (and possibly offend) any other family members, I darted down the wide second-floor hallway, then ducked into the steep, narrow staircase that led to my room.
Meanwhile, Caroline was chattering in my ear.
“What ‘he’?” she said. “That he? The he from the bonfire?”
“Yes!” I said as I flopped into my unmade bed. I stared through my skylight at a wispy, strung-out cloud. My parents had finished the attic for me and Sophie three years ago. Well, it was their version of finished, which meant floorboards painted with pink and orange polka dots to hide their unevenness, curtains made out of vintage bedsheets, and in the bathroom, a claw-foot bathtub that my parents had gotten cheap because someone had painted the entire thing lime green.
Sophie and I had been granted one wish each for our room. She’d wished for a walk-in closet, of course. I’d asked for a skylight over my double bed, so I could watch the stars blink at me as I fell asleep. I’d somehow forgotten about the flip side of stargazing—blinding laser beams of light waking me up every morning. But it was worth it. I loved looking through the glass dome just over my pillow. It made me feel like I was outside, even when I was in; like I could just float away, weightless and free, at any moment.
As I pulled the rubber band out of my hair, letting it fan over the cool pillowcase, the view of the sky calmed me. For a brief moment I forgot about my armoire full of non-datey clothes and about the fusty Beach Club.
I only thought about him.
“The he from the bonfire is named Will,” I told Caroline. It came out as a sigh—the kind of simpering, love-struck sigh I usually mocked on TV.
But hearing the sigh in my own voice felt, strangely, kind of good.
It also brought all my nervousness rushing back.
“He asked you to the Beach Club pool party?” Caroline said. I knew she was curling her thin upper lip.
“Yeah, but I don’t think he knows what it’s like there,” I said defensively. “I bet he just heard about the party from people on the beach.”
“From the other shoobees he’s been hanging around with,” Caroline insisted. “Is that who you want to be with tonight?”
I thought about all the summer people who’d ever called me a “townie.” Most of them didn’t even know there was anything obnoxious about that word. They weren’t malicious so much as clueless, which was somehow even harder to swallow.
If this date (or whatever it was) with Will was a bust, the presence of all those shoobees would only make me feel worse. That was why I needed backup.
“Look,” I pleaded with Caroline. “I’ve basically been your third wheel ever since you and Sam got together. Now it’s your turn. You guys have to go with me tonight. Just in case.”
“In case of what?” Caroline said.
In case my heart gets broken, I thought.
Then I shook my head in disbelief. A broken heart? I’d never used that phrase in my life. I didn’t believe in broken hearts. Or guardian angels, destined soul mates, or any of the other things that my sister and her friends giggled about when they rented romantic comedies.
I knew that the tide wasn’t mystical; it was just the rotation of the Earth relative to the positions of the sun and moon. I knew that ice cream wasn’t magic; it was an emulsion of fat, milk solids, and sugar. And I knew that girls like me became chic New Yorkers only in the movies.
I also knew another thing from Sophie’s favorite flicks. The “townie” who got swept off her feet by a big-city boy usually found out she’d been played.
That was why I needed Sam and Caroline to come with me. Because if I’d misunderstood Will and this was a group thing, they were my group.
And if my heart did get shattered, they’d be my shoulders to cry on.
I pictured myself standing on the sand in front of the Beach Club with my head literally on Caroline’s shoulder (because Sam’s shoulder is impossible for me to reach).
The image made me smile through my nervousness.
But then I imagined Sam in this scenario. He’d be standing on Caroline’s other side, holding her hand.
And that made me sigh wearily.
I slithered off my rumpled bed and went over to my dresser. The first thing I saw in the top drawer was the slightly crumpled camisole I’d worn to the bonfire.
The top was silky with thin, delicate straps. When I’d tried it on while I was getting ready, it had looked soft and romantic, like something a ballerina would wear with a long tulle skirt. It had made me feel pretty, almost too pretty for the Dune Island High bonfire. But if I’d stashed the camisole away for a special occasion, I might have found myself waiting forever to wear it. So I’d gone ahead and kept it on.
Little had I known, I’d been going somewhere special after all.
And maybe tonight I’d be surprised again.
“Can you meet me at the club at eight?” I asked Caroline.
Maybe she heard a change in my voice. I was no longer the girl who’d shrugged Will off over a plate of curly fries that afternoon.
Now I actually had something to lose.
And though it filled me with a sort of hopeful dread, I had to see this night through; see who this boy was who’d (most likely) lied about liking my ice cream and who’d asked me out in front of my dad.
He wasn’t afraid to look foolish. So the least I could do was show up.
Even if it ended up breaking my heart.
I hadn’t been to the Beach Club since The Scoop catered an ice cream social there two years earlier. As I walked in that night with Sam and Caroline, the entry hall smelled exactly as I remembered it—of slightly fishy ice and Sterno.
I knew the odor emanated from the ice sculptures and chafing dishes in the large main room. But I always imagined the smell came from the club’s hideous wallpaper. The pattern, a burgundy and gold paisley with forest green borders, made me imagine horrible things usually seen only under microscopes. Just looking at it made my queasiness return. Or maybe I was just nauseous over the prospect of this nebulous perhaps-date with Will.
Sam wasn’t exactly making me feel better.
“Anna, if you tell anybody I ditched the Braves versus the Padres to go to this,” he threatened, “I’ll seriously have to kill you.”
“I’m sure there are plenty of guys out there who can tell you the score,” I said, pointing at the wall of windows and French doors on the other side of the ballroom. Through them we could see the pool deck, packed with men in wheat-colored blazers and women in pastel shifts; boys in long shorts and golf shirts, and girls in tube tops and A-line skirts. It was like they’d all gotten an e-mail instructing them to wear a uniform. They skimmed back and forth on the other side of the glass like a bunch of extremely white fish in an aquarium.
“Yeah, right, I’ll ask them the score,” Sam muttered. He looked even more gangly than usual in the low-ceilinged foyer.
“You are going to keep it together, right?” Caroline asked Sam. “Please don’t get in another fight.”
“What are you talking about?” Sam said. “Fight?”
“You know what I’m talking about!” Caroline said. She’d been jokey at first, but now her voice had a bit of an edge to it.
“Anderson Lowell’s party,” Caroline and I said together.
“Last August?” Sam squawked. “Well, that was totally provoked!”
“What, a shoobee simply showing up at one of our parties forced you to punch him in the head?” Caroline said.
“What was that, anyway?” I asked, with one eye on the French doors. I still didn’t see Will. “I always meant to ask you. I thought you Neanderthal boys always went for the nose or the chin. But you hit him on the head.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Sam said, a semiproud smile tugging up one corner of his mouth. “The guy was so short, I couldn’t reach his face.”
“Oh my God,” Caroline said, rolling her eyes. “I can’t believe I allow myself to be seen with you in public.”
She was joking, of course. But I could hear a thin shard of impatience in her voice.
And in Sam’s there was a touch of wheedling as he said, “You know that’s not me, Caroline. The guy was a complete jerkwad, throwing his weight around. It was just … a bad moment, I guess.”
“Well, remind me never to make you have a bad moment,” Caroline said.
“You could never …,” Sam began, but Caroline had already waved him off. She was peering out at partygoers.
“Looks like skirts were indeed the way to go, Anna,” she said.
She and I were both wearing skirts, if not the A-line uniform of the shoobee girls. Caroline’s was short and sporty. Mine was more flowy, tickling my ankles when the hem fluttered.
Even though we’d ditched our cutoffs for the evening, I knew Caroline and I didn’t look like those girls. And it wasn’t just because they had bleached teeth and manicures and we didn’t. There was a shininess to the shoobees. And a chilly breeziness. In my mind, these qualities created a sort of force field around them that deflected funky odors and ugliness. Not to mention insecurities about vague date requests from strange boys.
I was the one who lived here year-round, yet in this “club,” it felt like they owned the whole island.
“Oh!” Caroline rasped. She grabbed my arm and pointed through the windows to the left side of the pool deck. Thinking she’d spotted Will, I felt my stomach swoop.
“Daiquiris!” Caroline exclaimed. She was pointing, it turned out, at a bar where people were ordering frozen fruity drinks in voluptuous glasses. “I forgot this place serves the best virgin daiquiris.”
“Caroline,” Sam said. “There’s nothing less cool than a virgin daiquiri.”
“Of course there is,” Caroline said, motioning to the entire pool deck.
Sam and Caroline both dissolved into snorts of laughter.
I wanted to swat them on the backs of their heads Three Stooges–style, but then I thought of the alternative: Caroline curling her lip at the shoobee girls, Sam swaggering by the shoobee guys, then everyone jumping down to the beach for a good old-fashioned fistfight.
A little derisive laughter, I decided, was definitely preferable.
“Listen, can you get me a drink too?” I asked Caroline. At that moment I had as little interest in a virgin daiquiri as I did in geometry. But I was pulling out the trick my mom always used on Kat and Benjie when they were acting insufferable—she distracted them with a task.
“I’ll see you out there, okay?” I said, pointing vaguely toward the right side of the pool deck.
Then I headed across the ballroom to the French doors. Just before I reached them, I had an impulse to run to the ladies room, where I could check my teeth for food particles, blot my shiny face, and fruitlessly attempt to pee.
But at that point I was annoying myself with all the nervousness, so I just gritted my teeth and plunged through the double doors. They automatically swung shut behind me, actually making a little squelching sound as they closed. They reminded me of spaceship movies where people get sucked out of the airlock.
What am I doing here? flashed across my mind.
Then I was scanning the crowd dizzily. The people really did all look alike to me. But none of them looked like—
There he was, leaning against the pool deck railing. He wore a pumpkin-colored T-shirt and faded jeans. With the sand and darkening ocean behind him, he almost seemed to glow. In just four days on the island, he had gotten very tan. Somehow I hadn’t noticed in the fluorescent lighting of The Scoop.
His brown hair had also gotten cutely frazzled by all the salty breezes.
But did Will have one of those shiny force fields around him? That I couldn’t tell yet.
When he saw me, though, he lurched off the railing so hard that an ice cube flew out of the Coke he was holding.
I couldn’t help but laugh.
He laughed too as he hurried around the pool to come meet me. I relaxed a little as I wondered if he was as scared, and exhilarated, by this moment as I was.
If he was really different from the other shoobees.
And if this was going to be a night that I’d always remember.
* * *
“Hi,” Will said as he sort of skidded to a stop in front of me. “Hi,” I said.
Then we both tried, and failed, to stop grinning unrelentingly.
Will smoothed down his flyaway hair with his palm and straightened his slightly wrinkled T-shirt. I marveled at how pleasurable it was just to look at him.
Then we started talking—and things spiraled downward from there.
“So,” Will said as we found a couple of deck chairs to perch on, “it’s pretty cool that this isn’t a members-only club. Anybody can go, right? It’s so different in New York. You can’t even get into most apartment buildings without a birth certificate.”
“Yeah …,” I said. I glanced at the Beach Clubbers as my voice trailed off. My smile went plastic. How could I tell Will—without sounding like I had a big, fat attitude—that the Beach Club felt like the most exclusive place in town? It was about the only place on the island where I didn’t feel absolutely comfortable.
“So … how’d you find out about this party?” I asked. It was a lame conversation starter, but it appeared to be all I had.
“Oh, my brother, Owen,” Will said with a laugh. “He found out about it from someone he met on the beach. Of course. The guy can’t ride the subway without becoming best friends with everybody within five feet of him.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s not normal?”
In Georgia, when you pass someone on the street, you not only say hello, you ask after her mama and find something—anything—about her outfit to compliment.
“No way,” Will said with a laugh that made me feel like a yokel. “You don’t talk to anybody on the subway. Unless you’re Owen.”
Or, I thought, me.
“So … Owen’s here with you?” I asked.
Yes, my wit was positively sparkling.
“Well, he wanted to come,” Will said. “But I kind of didn’t want him to.”
He gave me a shy smile and I … had no idea how to respond. What did he mean? Had Will ditched his brother because he’d wanted to be alone with me? Or was it just because he and Owen didn’t get along? Was Will trying to tell me that he sometimes felt overshadowed by Owen the Extrovert? I could totally bond with him about that! But how to broach this subject without potentially dissing his brother? What if they were actually really close and I offended him and …
Yes, as you’ve guessed, the silence that ensued while I pondered all these scenarios was long. And awkward.
Will swirled his ice cubes around in his glass—clink, clink, clink— until finally he broke the silence with some more (nervous, I think) chatter.
“Anyway,” he said, “my mom roped him into going to this place for dinner. I think it’s called Caleb’s?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Out on Highway 80. It’s, um, nice.”
Once again I was censoring myself. Caleb’s, a restaurant in a semicrumbling, Civil War–era mansion, was more than nice. The food was so decadently Southern, it drawled. But I loved Caleb’s because whenever my family went there for dinner, Sophie and I made up stories about all the ghosts that haunted the old house. As Kat and Benjie gripped their deep-fried drumsticks harder and harder, our stories got more and more grisly. Then one of the kids either cried or freaked out and we had to get our dessert to go.
It was tradition. Even my parents kind of liked it, despite the nightmares the kids usually had afterward.
But telling Will about these goofy family dinners would make me feel about twelve years old. It was out of the question.
“Well, all I know is my mom used to go there when she was a kid,” Will said. “It’s the only place from that time that’s still around, so she decided she had to go. And Owen never, ever turns down a free meal.”
I grinned, and Will pressed on.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “My mom’s on a nostalgia trip. She spent summers here when she was a teenager. We’re even staying in the same cottage her parents rented every year. Of course, the place has been totally redecorated. Mom’s kind of heartbroken that the owners got rid of the orange shag carpeting.”
“My parents always go on about shag carpeting too!” I said, grateful that I finally had something to say, even if it did invoke my parents. I took comfort in the fact that Will had done it first.
“Oh, my mom’s got it bad,” Will said. “She gets all mistyeyed over everything from the good old boardwalk to the smell of the seaweed that washes up on the beach every morning.”
“I ate seaweed once,” I volunteered with a shudder. “In a sushi restaurant in Savannah. It tasted exactly like that stuff on the beach smells.”
The moment the words left my mouth, I regretted them. First of all, gross. Second, could I sound like any more of a hick? New Yorkers probably ate sushi for their after-school snacks.
A waiter walked by with a tray of goat cheese mushroom puffs or some other fussy party food. I glanced at him and realized that the server in the red polyester jacket and too-short black pants was Jeremy Davison, a boy I knew from school.
Being spotted by Jeremy just as I’d revealed my sushiphobia made me feel doubly dumb.
At that point I pretty much clammed up—until Will gave a little jump, sending another ice cube flying.
“Oh my God, I just realized,” he said, “you don’t have anything to drink.” He made it sound like this was a really serious problem.
“It’s okay,” I assured him. “I’m not thirsty.”
Because you can’t drink anything when your throat has closed up.
“But I invited you here,” Will said, jumping to his feet. “I should have gotten you a Coke. Do you want a Coke?”
“It’s okay,” I said, getting up too. “I don’t like … I mean, I don’t need anything to drink.”
“Here’s your daiquiri!”
I closed my eyes for an agonized moment. Of course. That was Caroline, bouncing over—with the drink I’d requested.
The slushie she thrust into my hand was the color of a sunset.
“It’s peach-raspberry,” Caroline said. “So good. I got strawberry-lime. Want a taste?”
“No, thanks,” I muttered.
“Um, hi?” Will said. He was clearly confused. He looked from Caroline to me. Then Sam strolled up, swigging a Coke from the bottle.
“This is Sam and Caroline,” I offered lamely. “This is Will.”
“Hey,” Sam said, giving Will a floppy wave.
“Hi, Will,” Caroline said. “How do you like Dune Island?”
“I love it,” Will said, nodding for too long. He gestured politely toward the clubhouse. “This place is great.”
All four of us froze.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Caroline squeeze Sam’s forearm, warning him with a dig of her nails not to make One. Obnoxious. Comment.
I felt, bizarrely, like I might burst into tears.
And Will looked even more confused.
Then Sam shook off Caroline’s claws and blurted, “Dude, seriously?”
“What?” Will said. His eyes went wide.
“You like the Beach Club?” Sam said. “Nobody likes the Beach Club.”
“Sam …,” I said.
Will gaped at Sam. Then he glanced to the right as another waiter walked by with a tray of smoky-smelling Scotch glasses. To our left, a woman wearing a lot of jangly jewelry came through the French doors, bringing a gust of stale-smelling air-conditioning with her.
“So you guys don’t hang out here,” Will said. It wasn’t a question.
As Will processed this information, I literally saw a crease between his eyebrows melt away.
“You know,” Will said after yet another awkward beat, “a month ago I wiped out playing basketball on an asphalt court. I had this big scrape all down the left side of my calf. And when it scabbed over … it looked just like that wallpaper in there.”
I blinked. Had Will just done what I thought he’d done?
When Caroline started laughing, I knew that he had.
From the moment this awkward date had begun, I’d felt like there was a barrier between me and Will—that invisible wall between the ice cream scooper and the guy paying for the cone.
But with one little joke, Will had batted that barrier away as easily as if he were slapping a mosquito. I laughed, as much from relief as from Will’s quip.
Sam gave Will a friendly wallop on the back.
“So do you want to get out of here?” he proposed. “You heard of The Swamp?”
“I have, actually,” Will said, looking at me. A smile played around the corners of his mouth, but it was only a small one. The rest of his face was not very smiley at all.
Will’s eyes shifted quickly to Sam and Caroline, then back to me. Then they dropped to his glass of ice cubes. Clink, clink, clink.
With a sinking sensation, I realized I’d blown it.
This hadn’t been a group thing.
It had been a date.
And I’d invited not one, but two friends to come along. All because I was worried that a date at the Beach Club had meant a date with a Beach Clubber.
I mean, would that even have been so bad? I thought. Now that I knew Will wasn’t one of them, I was feeling magnanimous about the people at the party. I took a quick survey. A boy with eyelash-skimming bangs pulled a flask out of his pocket and dumped some clear liquid into his Coke. The girl who was flirting with him flip, flip, flipped her long, blond hair. An older couple laughed as they woozed their way toward the bar.
Um, yes, it would have been very bad, I told myself with an inward and, okay, smug giggle.
When I returned my gaze to Will, though, all self-congratulation ceased. I would have bet that Will wasn’t sizing me up nearly this exactingly. He hadn’t even smirked at my sushi gaffe. All he’d wanted to do when he’d asked me out was talk, but I’d been too freaked-out to be even remotely charming—or charmed.
Until now. Was it too late?
I wanted to find out. And I didn’t want to do it with my friends at The Swamp. Pulling Will into my world felt like cheating somehow. No, I wanted to get to know him there, at the Beach Club.
Or maybe, I brainstormed, breaking out my first confident grin of the evening, not quite at the Beach Club.
“You know what, guys?” I said. I was talking to Sam and Caroline but I was looking at Will. “You go on to The Swamp. I think we’re going to do our own thing.”
That “we” felt strange and wonderful to say. Maybe Will caught it too. His thick eyebrows shot up.
I didn’t have to ask Sam and Caroline twice. Caroline gave Will a little wave as she slurped up the dregs of her daiquiri. Sam gave him a fist-bump. But Will seemed to be looking at me during the entire exchange.
Ever-watchful Caroline noticed and flashed me a quick grin.
It was official. My friends liked Will. It seemed like something I should be glad about. Everyone knew that was a classic sign of boyfriend worthiness.
But at that moment, I didn’t feel in a position to be testing Will. Quite the opposite. I had some making up to do.
As Caroline and Sam drifted away, I tried to smile lightly at Will. I pointed to the railing at the edge of the pool deck, the one that overlooked the beach.
“Can you go wait for me over there?” I asked. “I’ll be just a minute.”
I was being cryptic, I knew. Will looked skeptical and I couldn’t blame him. He probably thought I was sending him into another ambush—my parents, say, ready to hop out and interview him about his credentials and intentions.
But to Will’s credit, he just shrugged and also tried to smile. Then he headed over to the rail.
I ducked into the crowd of partiers.
My plan took longer than I’d thought. By the time I headed back toward Will, a good ten minutes had gone by and I could see he was getting annoyed. He tipped his plastic cup to his lips, clearly forgetting that his ice cubes had melted long ago. Then he carefully knelt to put the empty cup on the edge of the pool deck, stretching his orange T-shirt tightly across his shoulder blades. He hadn’t seen me yet, which was a good thing, because looking at his back made me stop and take a deep, wide-eyed, admiring breath.
Looking at Will was so different from looking at other boys. When you live on an island, you don’t even think about seeing boys’ bodies. They’re just always … there. I barely noticed when Sam whipped off one of his holey T-shirts to go galloping into the surf. My friends’ tan skin, broad shoulders, and angular shoulder blades all sort of looked alike.
But here was Will, so fully clothed even his ankles were covered, and I was practically hyperventilating.
Which was not good, given all the plates, glasses, and foodstuffs I was balancing in my arms.
When Will straightened up and glimpsed me, I could swear he gave his own little gasp. His smile was instant, and natural this time, lighting up his entire face from his crinkling eyes to his slightly scruffy chin.
He simply looked happy to see me, which, given all the confusion of the past half hour, seemed like a feat.
Suddenly I felt like the old independent me—the one who thinks nothing of cutting her friends free and committing acts of petty larceny all over the Dune Island Beach Club.
I found myself beaming right back at Will.
“Come on,” I said, transferring a few of my more awkward items into Will’s hands. I sat on the floor, swung my legs out, and inched beneath the railing’s lowest bar until I’d landed in the sand below. I kicked off my flip-flops, then started collecting my loot from the edge of the pool deck.
“Am I supposed to come down there too?” Will said, glancing furtively over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” I said. “Make a break for it before they notice all the stuff I took.”
Will grunted as he squished himself through the railing. His T-shirt scrunched up to his rib cage and I tried not to stare. Instead I bent over and sidled under the deck, which was about four feet off the ground. The sand felt cool and slithery under my bare feet. I smoothed a patch of it into a makeshift table, then arranged on it all the dishes and napkin-wrapped bundles I’d collected.
“Has anybody ever told you,” Will said, grunting again as he crab-walked under the deck to join me, “that you’re really small?”
“Watch it, bub,” I muttered with a laugh.
As Will settled in on the other side of my little sand table, I arranged votive candles in a circle around us. We were quiet as I lit them. The party chatter over our heads was muffled by the stone deck, but the crash/sizzle of the waves seemed to echo all around us. The candlelight danced on the blond fuzz on Will’s arms and made my own hands look almost graceful as I pulled a burgundy cloth napkin off a dinner plate. It was piled with hors d’oeuvres.
“What’s this?” Will asked, taking in the crab puffs, hot artichoke dip and crackers, spinach pies, and bacon-wrapped dates.
“A picnic,” I said, using a toothpick to pluck up a crispy date for him. “A tremendously old-school picnic. I don’t think the Beach Club has updated their menu since before we were born.”
“When were you born?” Will asked with a curious smile.
That’s when I realized—we didn’t know anything about each other. I didn’t know Will’s age. I didn’t even know his last name!
I looked down so he wouldn’t see the momentary panic flutter across my face. I busied myself with cracking open a bottle of lemony sparkling water and pouring it into two champagne flutes. I felt a little sheepish about the flutes. When I’d filched them from the bar, I thought they were sophisticated and romantic. Now they seemed way too heart-shaped-hot-tub for comfort.
“I’m sixteen,” I told Will.
“Seventeen,” Will said, tapping his chest with his fingertips. Then he reached for the flute of fizzing water and said, “What’s with these skinny glasses, anyway? I mean, where do you put your nose?”
Confirmed. The glasses had been a cheesy choice. I pointed at the pool deck above us. “So much of that just baffles me,” I said. “I mean, a bathroom attendant to hand you your paper towel? Really?”
“You’re right,” Will said, popping the date into his mouth. “That’s just dumb.”
I skewered my own date and twirled the toothpick between my thumb and forefinger.
“Is that what it’s like in New York?” I asked. “Poshness everywhere?”
“Eh, there’s a lot of posh, I guess,” he said. “Just not necessarily in my house. Especially lately …”
His voice trailed off and he took a quick sip of sparkling water.
“Um, what …,” I stammered. “Why…”
I didn’t want to pry. But on the other hand, I seriously wanted to pry.
“It’s nothing,” Will said, still looking down at his crossed legs. “Just—my parents split up in February.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t a scandal or anything. My dad didn’t slink out in the dead of night or leave my mom for a younger woman. He just moved into a studio a few blocks away.”
“Did they fight a lot?” I asked. Which seemed very prying, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“Naw,” Will said. “That was one of the things that was weird about it. One of many, many things. They just—I think they stopped seeing each other, you know? Stopped talking. I had a feeling that when Owen and I weren’t around, our apartment was just … silent. I could almost feel it when I got back home—this heaviness.”
I thought about my own house, where the front door was always open, letting in the breezes from the screened porch. Where the floors were often crunchy with sand and dried dune grass and waffle crumbs. There was always chatter in my house, and cooking smells, clashing cell phone rings, and somebody calling up or down the stairs. Heavy, it definitely wasn’t.
I braced myself, wondering if a barrier would rise up between us again. A wall with Dune Island on one side, New York on the other; big, happy family on one side, fractured home life on the other; inscrutable boy on one side, confused girl on the other.
And maybe that would have happened if I hadn’t been so focused on what Will was saying. If my interest in him hadn’t drowned out my own self-consciousness.
“After the divorce,” Will went on, “my mom and Owen and I had to move, too. We rented a two-bedroom, which meant I had to share a room with my brother for the first time since we were little kids.”
“I share a room with my sister too,” I said. “It definitely can suck sometimes.”
“Yeah …” Will picked up one of the triangular spinach pies. He peeled off the top layer of crispy phyllo. But instead of popping it into his mouth, he crumbled it between his fingers. I had a feeling he didn’t even realize he was doing it.
“The truth is, and this is going to sound really dorky,” Will said, “but it was actually kind of nice to share a room with my brother. He just graduated and he’s moving out to go to NYU in the fall. So it was the last time we’d ever be living under the same roof in New York.
“Plus”—Will crushed up another layer of the phyllo before tossing the spinach pie back on the plate— “Owen’s the only one who can understand what it’s like to be in my family. To go out for sad Chinese food with my dad on Sundays or pretend not to hear my mom crying some nights.”
I felt a little choky just imagining such a bleak scene.
Then I knew why I sometimes saw that melancholy dragging down on the corners of Will’s mouth.
Of course, I hadn’t seen it since we’d ducked under the pool deck, which made me feel a little thrill as Will kept on talking.
“My dad left right before Valentine’s Day,” he said. I had a feeling he hadn’t talked about this very much and was sort of unleashing. I leaned forward a little, not nodding or going, “Hmm.” Just listening.
“It was Owen’s idea to take my mom out for an anti-Valentine’s Day,” Will said. “I never would have thought of it. We went over to the Bowery to watch the garbage barges. For dinner we had street meat, these disgusting gyros you buy from carts on the street. With extra onions, of course. Then we went to a horror movie.”
“That’s brilliant,” I said with a laugh. “I hate Valentine’s Day in general. But that one must have really been awful.”
“Why do you hate Valentine’s Day?” Will asked. He was looking at me seriously, almost sadly.
“Oh, well …”
Suddenly I felt stammery. How did I tell Will that I hated Valentine’s Day because nobody had ever wanted me to be his valentine? Every year on February 14, my school was overrun by cheesy red and white carnations—the bigger your bouquet, the greater your social status. I’d gotten plenty of flowers, but they’d always been white, signifying friendship. Not love.
“Valentine’s Day is so … schmaltzy, don’t you think?” I said.
“And you don’t like schmaltz?” Will asked. He lifted his champagne flute of bubbly water and took a giant gulp. “Could have fooled me.”
I felt myself turn bright red.
But then I looked at Will’s eyes, which were all sparkly in the candlelight. They were also filled with warm humor, and not a speck of judgment.
So I decided to get over myself and just enjoy this okay-I’m-just-going-to-call-it-an-official-date.
Because I was enjoying it. Against all odds, I really, really was.
Will and I talked until the votive candles sputtered out. We emerged from our little cave under the pool deck and Will snuck back under the railing to return our plates and glasses.
I waited in the sand, feeling pleasantly overwhelmed by the big, black sky after the intense coziness of our picnic.
Or maybe I was whooshy-headed because I’d been chatting with a boy for over an hour and it had felt like five minutes. It had been as fun and easy as coasting my bike down an endless, gently sloping hill.
Will came back to the railing. This time, instead of sliding under it, he vaulted over it. He sailed over the rail so easily that he almost looked buoyant, as if he were in the water rather than the air. He landed in the sand, stumbled, then righted himself with a self-mocking grin.
Okay, there’s the catch, I thought, trying not to laugh out loud. He can fly. He’s a superhero, like one of Benjie’s action figures.
Then I did end up snorting as I imagined Caroline shaking me by the shoulders and saying, “Get a grip, Anna. Just because you finally decide to like a boy doesn’t mean he’s Superman!”
The Caroline in my head was right. I was being an incredible dork.
“What are you laughing about?” Will asked as he kicked off his shoes. “Or should I say, what are you laughing at? Did I just look incredibly klutzy jumping down here?”
In quick succession, I thought:
1. No, he hadn’t looked klutzy at all.
2. I loved that he’d even asked. And …
3. The fantasy Caroline in my head had been right. I liked Will. I really liked him.
And that made me feel so overwhelmed that I had to catch my breath.
Except that I couldn’t. I continued to feel hopelessly breathless and giddy. So I ran. I ran down to the frothy edge of the surf, which was already cooling down for the night. Plunging my feet into the churning water calmed me, as it always does.
Will jogged up and joined me. We didn’t make eye contact. Instead we both gazed out at the violet-black horizon. One point of light was twinkling brightly and I wondered if it was a star or a satellite. I decided it was a star.
I extricated a bit of hair that had flown into my mouth and smoothed it behind my ear. I scratched an itch on my neck. They were the completely mundane fidgets I did all the time and never noticed. But now, they felt weird because I was doing them next to this boy. Will was standing so close to me, I could almost feel warmth radiating off his arm. It felt pretty amazing.
I wondered what Will had noticed about me. The fact that I walk just a tiny bit pigeon-toed? That my nose was peeling because I’d forgotten my sunscreen a week earlier? That I was having a pretty good hair day? I hoped he’d noticed that this silence between us wasn’t awkward in the least. It was lovely, in fact.
“I love this feeling,” Will said, looking down at his feet, which were planted ankle-deep in water that was rushing back out to sea. “The sand sort of sweeps out from under your feet and you feel weightless for a second, you know?”
“Yeah, I do,” I said, looking down at my own legs, submerged to the ankle. They looked so twiggy next to Will’s muscley calves. “I love it, too, now that I think about it.”
“Do you know, when you walk on the sand,” Will said, “you don’t even stumble? It’s like you’re walking across a perfectly flat floor or something. How do you do that? I feel like I’m picking my way through wet cement out there.”
He jabbed over his shoulder with his thumb, pointing at the part of the beach that was feather-soft, drifty, and seriously uneven.
So, I guess that’s what Will had noticed about me. I smiled, feeling proud. So what if he was basically complimenting me on my ability to walk, which was a fairly basic skill.
“I think I took my first steps on sand,” I said to Will with a shrug. “And pretty much took it from there. It’s a local thing, I guess. But don’t worry, you’ve got a whole summer to get the hang of it.”
“Or you could just cast a voodoo spell to help me skip the pesky learning curve,” Will suggested.
“What?!” I blurted with a laugh.
“Oh, come on,” Will said, grinning. “You must have some spells going on at The Scoop, for instance, to lure in unsuspecting tourists. There’s no way normal ice cream can taste that good.”
“Oh yeah, that’s it,” I said with a sly smile. “Next time you come to The Scoop, just ignore that pentagram smeared on the door with chicken blood.”
Okay, what was that?
That was me trying to be clever and quippy. That was my sushi comment all over again, but even more disgusting.
The only thing different was that it was two hours later. And I wasn’t mortified by the dorky thing I’d said. I just laughed my way through it, the way I would with anyone I knew.
Sure enough, Will didn’t recoil in horror. He just laughed and said, “Gross, Anna.”
“You’re the one who brought up the voodoo.” I giggled.
I cocked my head and gave Will a quizzical look.
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “Are you glad to be here? I mean, you seem pretty urban. And it’s for the whole summer.”
“This place is a loooong way from New York,” Will admitted. He glanced over at me. “I was a little anti at first. But I gotta say, Dune Island’s growing on me.”
I was glad it was so dark out. My blushing, I could tell from the heat on my face, was intense.
“Besides, I wasn’t going to take this summer away from my mom,” Will said, turning away from me and gazing out at the sea. “First my dad left, next Owen’s leaving. She’s kind of a basket case right now.
“So—the find-yourself mission,” I said with a nod.
“Pretty much,” Will replied. “The get-back-to-your-roots, find-yourself, and forget-your-ex-husband mission.”
“My parents have basically been finding themselves my whole life,” I commiserated.
“Oh, they’re not from around here?”
“No way,” I said. “They’re refugees from Wisconsin. Every Christmas, they tell these epic tales of the awful Midwestern winters. You know, snowdrifts up to the roof, digging out the driveway, clunking radiators, the whole bit. And then they go on and on about the paradise that is Dune Island.”
“Oh my God, that’s so my mom,” Will exclaimed. “If I have to hear once more how much better all the food tastes here in the fresh sea air, I’m going on a hunger strike.”
“Besides which,” I said, “there’s no way we have better food than you do in New York.”
“Well, they don’t have Pineapple Ginger Ale ice cream in New York,” Will said.
“Pineapple Ginger Ale,” I said with a sly smile. “What kind of twisted mind came up with that?”
“That’s what I intend to find out,” Will said with a sly smile of his own.
I looked down and nudged the sand with my bare toes so he couldn’t see how hard I was grinning.
“So I have a question for you,” Will said, “now that we’re on a last-name basis, Anna Patrick.”
Last names had been one of the things we’d covered under the pool deck.
“What’s that, Will Cooper?” I asked.
“Can I have your phone number?”
I laughed. Because his asking for my number after this amazing date seemed so backward.
And because I was overjoyed that Will wanted it.
And finally because I couldn’t wait to see Will again. Yes, the night wasn’t over yet and I could still enjoy the sight of Will’s hair blowing into his eyes, the way his back muscles rippled under his shirt when he threw a clod of sand into the water, and the way the scruff on his chin glinted in the moonlight.
But I was already looking forward to more.
I wish I could say I dreamed about Will that night. But that would have made the date a little too perfect. Untoppably perfect. When you think about it, you really don’t want that on the first date.
So I suppose I should have been grateful that when I got home a squeak after curfew, I stubbed my toe on the front steps because the porch lights were off.
Then I realized I was famished because I’d forgotten to eat more than a couple of dates during my picnic with Will. And when I went to the kitchen to grab a snack, I accidentally tipped over a glass of tea that someone had left on the counter.
After mopping up the spill, I grabbed a few crackers and tried not to crunch as I tiptoed up to my room. I didn’t want to wake anybody and have to talk about my date. It would have broken the night’s spell.
Or worse, someone (probably Sophie) might have pointed out that there had been no spell; that it had just been an ordinary night, complete with soggy spinach pies and more than a few verbal gaffes on my part. That I really had no reason to be so gaga.
Luckily, I made it to my room without waking anybody. When I slunk through the bedroom door, Sophie was breathing evenly, deep in her own dreams. I went straight to the bathroom, closed the door, then sank onto the round stool at the vanity. Sophie and I both loved our antique wooden vanity, which was ornate and curvy and had a slightly pink cast to it. It had lots of tiny drawers, niches, and cabinets where we used to stash things like Barbie shoes, gumball-machine jewelry, and illegal candy.
Now most of the nooks were taken up with Sophie’s makeup and perfumes, but I’d staked out one drawer all for myself. In it I put keepsakes that only I could decipher.
I’d saved a piece of sea glass, for instance, that I’d picked up during my last beach walk with my grandfather before he died.
I had my childhood hair comb, the one with the mermaid on the handle, which I’d never been able to pass on to Kat.
There were pebbles, shells, and notes passed in class that I could sift through when I wanted to recall certain perfect afternoons, moments of hilarity, or even waves of sadness.
Now I pulled from my skirt pocket a green plastic toothpick. It was shaped like a pirate’s sword, with a D-shaped handle and a flattened, pointed blade. It was ridiculously cheesy and pure Dune Island Beach Club. I stashed it in my little drawer, tucking it under the torn-off bits of paper and the smooth, flat sea glass.
Then I reached across to the sink, soaked a soft washcloth, and dabbed it on my face. I felt too luxuriously dreamy to stand in front of the sink and be all efficient with my washing up. I stretched out my legs, gazed out the window, and enjoyed the feel of the cool, damp terrycloth on my hot forehead and cheeks.
As I swabbed off my neck, I glanced at myself in the vanity’s cloudy round mirror. My skin was both summer gold and flushed from my bike ride. My hair was wind tousled. There was a speck of pale green artichoke dip on the scoop neck of my T-shirt.
I didn’t look exactly ravishing but I felt sort of extraordinary. Not polished like one of the shoobee girls from the club or effortlessly buoyant like my sister or casually confident like Caroline. I suppose I felt like myself, only slightly shinier. Lighter. Happier.
And that was the girl who fell into a blissfully zonked, dreamless sleep that night. I didn’t completely understand why Will and I had clicked so well. In truth, I couldn’t fathom what exactly he saw in me.
But I was confident I would find out the very next day—as soon as Will called.
There was one problem with that little scenario.
Will didn’t call the next day.
Which was perfectly fine at first. Good, even. That way I could spend the morning floating around inside my own fuzzy head, replaying the entire date like it was my favorite movie. I could pause on Will’s face when I handed him that silly champagne flute. I could fast-forward through the early, awkward bits. And I could scene-scan my way through all our conversations.
I also imagined what our phone call would be like.
It went something like this …
Will: Nobody ever made me a picnic before.
Me: Oh, it’s no big deal.
Will: True, the food was pretty bad …
Me: Hey, I’m not the one who chose the Beach Club and their antique artichoke dip.
Will: Well, at least I chose the right girl. You gotta give me credit for that, right?
Me: Oh …
Will: Anna? You didn’t really think I cared about the food, did you?
Me: Oh …
Will: Tell me you’ll have dinner with me again. A real dinner this time. Tonight.
I’d go on with my fantasy banter, but you’re probably throwing up a little in your mouth right now.
Believe me, I was just as mocking of myself. I just wasn’t a romantic. One time I found a yellowed bodice ripper in my parents’ bookshelf and reading it had made me feel like I was eating corn syrup. Yet here I was spinning so much schmaltz you’d think my brain had been replaced by a cotton candy machine.
It wasn’t that I wanted Will to be Prince Charming. I didn’t, believe me. I guess this crazy dialogue was just my brain adjusting to life on the other side. On the other side of a fabulous first date.
On the other side of falling in like for the first time.
On the other side of Will.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Dune Island? Will continued to Not Call.
He didn’t call while I was at the beach dishing with Caroline. He didn’t call during my shift at The Scoop. He didn’t call while I was in the shower or during any of the inconvenient moments when, Murphy’s Law, he was supposed to call.
By that evening I resolved to call him. He’d given me his number, too, after all.
But first I needed sustenance.
Since my parents were both at The Scoop with Kat and Benjie, it was a fend-for-yourself night dinner-wise. I shuffled down to the kitchen and tried to decide if I wanted sweet (ice cream of course) or savory.
I decided spicy was better for my pre-call state of mind. It would wake me up, whereas ice cream always lulled me into a happy stupor.
As I was sizzling up some bacon for a sandwich, Sophie strutted in from the porch. She had her hot-pink wrap knotted around her waist and her sparkly pink cell phone clamped to her ear.
“Okay, so you’re signing us up?” she was asking.
I heard a high-pitched voice on the other end of the phone. It reminded me of a mosquito’s whine.
“I thought we decided the team name,” Sophie said. “Summer Lovin’, right? I know—love it! Okay, buh-bye, babe.”
Strangely enough, I could completely translate that cryptic conversation.
“So that’s the name of your team?” I said. “For the sand castle competition?”
The Dune Island tourist bureau staged the competition every August, just when things started to get impossibly sleepy around here. My sister and a gaggle of her friends entered every summer. Castle building was one of Sophie’s random obsessions, along with gymnastics and a crocheted bracelet business she’d started with yet more of her friends. Sophie pretty much had people buzzing around her at all times. It made me claustrophobic just thinking about it, but she was one of those people who hated being alone.
I suppose that’s why she hung around in the kitchen while I poked at the bacon strips on the griddle.
“Yeah, we’re calling the team Summer Lovin’,” Sophie said. “It’s that song from Grease. Sung by Sandy? Get it?”
“Got it,” I said dryly. “It’s definitely better than Days of our Lives, from last year. Though I still think you’re flirting with copyright infringement there.”
“Um, what?” Sophie said, slouching into a chair at the kitchen table.
“Nothing,” I said, shaking my head. “Do you want a sandwich? PBJ?”
“What am I, eight?” Sophie balked.
“Not that PBJ,” I retorted. “It’s peanut butter, bacon, and jalapeño. Very gourmet!”
“Ugh!” Sophie said. She flounced off her chair and headed to the walk-in pantry to forage for something else to eat. “Your diet is so weird. I don’t know why you don’t weigh a hundred and fifty pounds.”
“The one perk of our genes, I guess,” I said. Like me, Sophie was short and bird boned. Unlike me, she preferred her food bland, predictable, and in tiny portions.
“Come on, try my sandwich,” I cajoled her. “It’s like Mom’s bacon ice cream. You think it’s going to be awful, but it ends up being awesome. And don’t worry, the jalapeños are pickled. They barely even burn.”
“Guh-ross!” Sophie squealed.
I smeared some peanut butter on a butter knife, topped it with a crispy crumb of bacon, and thrust it toward her.
“So-phiiiiieee,” I singsonged like a ghost out of one of our Caleb’s stories. “Eeeeat me! Eeeeat meeee, So-phiiiiieee.”
“Oh my God,” Sophie said, dodging my sticky butter knife. “Why are you always trying to be so weird?”
I laughed, shrugged, and turned back to the counter. After I’d assembled my sandwich, I sat at the table with Sophie, who’d decided on a (boring) bowl of granola.
“You know, I don’t try to be weird,” I said after I’d taken my first (delicious, I might add) bite of my dinner. “Everyone is weird. You’re the one who’s trying to hide.”
“Hide what?” Sophie demanded.
“You’re trying to hide your inherent weirdness,” I said. “It’s futile, you know. Nobody’s really normal.”
“See?!” Sophie screeched, slapping her cereal with her spoon and sloshing milk on the table. “That’s such an abnormal thing to say! That’s what makes you weird!”
“Fine, Soph.” I sighed. “Whatever you think.”
I glanced at my cell phone, which was perched not inconspicuously on the corner of the kitchen table. If Sophie hadn’t been there, I would have checked it to make sure the ringer was set on loud. But she was, and besides, I’d already checked the ringtone status. Twice.
“Are you waiting for him to call?” Sophie blurted. “That guy you went out with last night?”
Clearly, I hadn’t been surreptitious enough for my sister.
“No,” I said. “I mean, I’m not not wanting him to call. I’m just … well, I’ll probably just call him. Just to say hey. No big deal, right?”
“Yes big deal!” Sophie cried. Suddenly, she sat up straight in her chair. “You can’t call him.”
“Um, yes, I can, Sophie,” I said. “This isn’t the movies and it’s not 1950. You can call a boy after you’ve had a great time together.”
“So it was good, then!” Sophie said. She raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, it was good,” I said defensively. “Don’t be so surprised.”
Sophie waved off my bruised ego. She was too intent on issuing orders.
“First of all, you think the date went well,” she said. “But you can never be sure. He could have a different story altogether. That’s why you have to wait for him to call. If he does, you know. But if you call him, you never will. Plus you’ll look desperate.”
“Why doesn’t it make him look desperate if he calls?” I sputtered.
That one stopped Sophie. She frowned, looked confused for a moment, and then got irritated (because she clearly didn’t have an answer).
“This is just the way it is!” she declared. “I can’t believe you don’t know that.”
Part of me was glad I didn’t know that. I’d always zoned out a little when Sophie or Caroline dissected the latest social dramas at our school. I knew just enough of the “rules” to get through school without humiliating myself, but not enough to play all the little games. Because I’d always hated games. I read my way through whatever school sporting events Caroline and Sam dragged me to. And I could never get through more than a few minutes of Monopoly with my family.
Sophie, of course, adored Monopoly—and she always won. Which was why it was hard for me to completely ignore what she’d just said.
So I didn’t call Will.
I didn’t sleep much that night either.
And when I left for the beach the next morning, my wrap pulled around my shoulders like a dowdy shawl, I was officially depressed.
By the time I got to the North Peninsula, though, I was officially mad. I mean, what kind of boy asks for your number, then doesn’t call? A boy who wants to mess with your head, that’s who!
That must have been why my head felt hot and buzzy and the hair sticking to my temples was as maddening as a swarm of mosquitoes.
I tossed my wrap onto the sand, then ran into the surf. I dove head-first into a seething whitecap, then swam a few frantic laps back and forth along the shoreline. The hissing and churning of the water felt like a perfect match for what was going on inside me.
Only when I could dive beneath the surface and actually feel a hint of the peace I usually got in the water did I allow myself to stop swimming and just drift.
I dove down and skimmed my hands across the sand. My fingers felt floaty. The wet sand sifted through them, weightless and velvety. As I often did while swimming, I gave in to the illusion that I was part of the island, as elemental as the sea oats or the sandbars that emerged every day at low tide.
Still sifting, I uncovered a sand dollar. I zinged it from one hand to the other before flipping it back to the ocean floor. Then I swam by pressing my legs together and undulating them like a tail. My sister and I had taught ourselves to do that when we were little, imagining that we could go faster if we swam like mermaids. I’m not sure if it worked, but the habit had stuck with me.
Swimming like that now made me remember when mastering a mermaid kick (or a cartwheel or double Dutch) had seemed to matter so much and had been so hard.
They seemed easy now compared with all the mental gymnastics it took to just sit on my butt and wait for one boy to call me.
The thought of my silent cell phone got me simmering again, and I pushed out of the water with a big splash and gasp. After blinking the ocean out of my eyes, I spotted Caroline on the beach, waving her pale blue wrap at me.
I trudged up to join her.
“Where’s Sam?” I asked her as I collapsed onto the sand. I didn’t even bother to spread my wrap out beneath me, but just let my soaked arms and legs get breaded like a fish fillet.
“Where’s Will?” Caroline retorted.
The fish fillet gave Caroline the fish eye.
“He hasn’t called?” Caroline asked with a little gulp that she quickly tried to cover up with a cough.
“So that’s bad, right?” I said. I flipped out the straw on my sports bottle and took a big gulp of sugary, minty iced tea.
Caroline started to stay something, then reconsidered and clamped her mouth shut. Then she inhaled again, but cocked her head and clammed up a second time.
“What?!” I sputtered, breaking into the debate Caroline was having with herself. “Just say it! Will is blowing me off, isn’t he?”
“That’s the thing,” she said with a helpless shrug. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if Will not calling is tragic or totally fine. I might have a boyfriend, but I haven’t figured any of this stuff out yet. I mean, Sam and I didn’t go through the mating dance when we got together because we already knew each other so well.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s different,” I said. I’d been propped up on my elbows but now I flopped flat on my back, not even caring that I’d have to scrub sand out of my hair later. “Why couldn’t I have given my number to someone I’ve known forever?”
“Because that’s the whole point,” Caroline said. She was sitting cross-legged on her wrap, picking at one of its many loose threads. “You don’t know Will at all and that’s the appeal. He’s a mystery. He’s nothing but possibility.”
“Or impossibility.” I sighed. “That’s what’s killing me. If this were Sam, I would know what was going on at his end. I’d know that he was working a double shift at the bike shop or having an emergency band practice for a gig. Or I’d know that the more caffeine he drinks at night, the later he sleeps the next day.”
“Yeah, well, you never know everything about a boy,” Caroline said before lying down herself.
I lifted my head and squinted over at her.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Is everything okay with Sam? Where is he, anyway?”
“What? Sam? Oh, everything’s fine,” Caroline said with a brusque wave of her hand. “He’s just where you said. Double shift at the bike shop.”
I plopped my head back down, then laid a hand on my stomach, which was feeling a little queasy.
“Uch,” I said. “I think I sucked in too much salt water. Let’s go to Angelo’s for some sour candy.”
“I’m way ahead of you,” Caroline said. She pulled out a white paper sack filled with unnatural colors and flavors.
Angelo’s was the closest beachmart to both Dune Island schools, so naturally, it was the island’s best candy source. In fact, its bulk candy bins were legendary. During the school year, Angelo’s was like a stock market floor every afternoon, complete with jostling, negotiating, and trading.
But in the summertime Angelo’s was sleepier, so he was lazier with his stock. You might end up with nothing in your candy bag but popcorn-flavored jelly beans or Bit-O-Honeys.
“The pickings weren’t that bad today,” Caroline said. “I got a ton of sour straws. All the apple, cherry, and watermelons were gone, though. We have to make do with blue raspberry.”
“Too bad Benjie’s not here, he’d love that,” I joked, fishing a long, cobalt-blue gummy straw out of the bag. The sour sugar made my mouth smart for a moment before the man-made deliciousness of the gummy took over. I took another bite before musing, “Remember when all it took to make us happy was mermaid kicking and some blue candy?”
“Um, no!” Caroline said. She stared at me and gave her head a frustrated little shake. “Anna, that stuff has never made you happy. You’ve always been waiting for something better to come along.”
“I have?” I said. Now I sat up, feeling little rivulets of sand slide off my limbs. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” Caroline said. “I mean, it’s not extreme. You don’t do that whole ‘I hate my small-town life so I’m going to dye my hair matte black and start piercing myself’ thing.”
“So cliché,” we said at the exact same time.
After we stopped laughing, Caroline got serious again.
“Sometimes it just feels like you’re not completely here,” she tried to explain. She pointed at the water. “When you swim laps out there, like you were just doing, sometimes I wonder if you want to just keep going. Like you wish you could swim all the way across the ocean or something. I mean, Anna … did you really think Dune Islanders were going to go for Cardamom Hibiscus ice cream?”
I laughed again.
“Holy non sequitur,” I said. But Caroline only half smiled.
Of course, she was right about the ice cream. That lurid orange stuff had sat almost untouched in the ice cream case for two weeks before my dad had hauled the poor freezer-burned tub out and tossed it.
But just because I made some exotic ice cream didn’t mean I wanted to run away to India tomorrow.
“Maybe that’s why none of the Dune Island boys are good enough for you,” Caroline went on. She looked down in her lap and fiddled with her gummy straw. “And why you were so instantly into this guy from New York.”
“Good enough for me?” I said. “That’s so not it. Especially since Will isn’t even like that. He’s way more like us than a shoobee. I told you what we talked about the other night.”
“I’m just saying,” Caroline said, looking away from my confused face and gazing out at the water, “it is possible to go out with someone you know. Someone who would call the next day.”
My mouth dropped open. I had a million retorts to this, but also—none.
I’d never really thought about why the Landon Smiths of my world held no interest for me.
It also hadn’t occurred to me that I might like Will simply because he was different; because he was from someplace else.
Especially since right then he couldn’t have felt farther away and I definitely didn’t like that. Already our date was starting to feel hazy to me and I wondered if I hadn’t invented some of its swooniest parts. Maybe I’d been the only one who’d felt like the night had flown by in about five minutes—and left me wanting more.
I didn’t know which was a more depressing thought. That I liked Will only because I was a pathetic small towner and he was a glamorous city boy.
Or that this boy I liked so much seemed to have forgotten about me entirely.
I crammed the last of my gummy straw into my mouth, then said, “It’s hot. You want to swim?”
Caroline peered at me, one eye squinted shut against the sun.
“I promise not to make a break for England,” I said with a forced laugh.
“Your lips are bright blue,” Caroline said as we got to our feet.
I laughed, feeling a little bit better.
I mean, other than the black hole of rejection that was eating up my insides.
Perhaps to fill that hole, I reached into the candy bag for one more mouthful of sugar therapy before we headed into the water. Since the gummy straws were all gone, I popped three sticky Swedish fish into my mouth.
When I straightened up, I almost choked on them. Because walking toward me, with a bright red rental bike kickstanded in the parking lot way behind him, was Will. He was still far away, waving as if we were in a crowd on Fifth Avenue and not all by ourselves on this empty stretch of sand.
I grabbed Caroline’s arm with one hand and waved weakly at Will with the other. Then I began chewing like my life depended on it. It pretty much did. If Will walked over to find me—encrusted with sand, red-eyed from my salty swim—and with a mouth glued together with candy, I might have literally died.
Luckily, Caroline was my lifeguard. As Will approached, she spoke in my place.
“Well, hello, Will!” she called with a little too much joviality.
Then she crossed her arms over her chest, and my sigh of relief got caught in my throat. Because Caroline’s stance was the same one she takes before a varsity volleyball game or a debate over fossil fuels with her dad—or before putting annoying shoobees in their place.
The annoying shoobee of the moment was clearly Will.
I started chewing much faster, hoping I didn’t look like a rabbit.
“Hey!” Will said. He was trying to be polite and look at Caroline, but he kept peeking at me. I tried to chew between glances, promising myself that if I was ever able to swallow these ridiculous gummy fish, I’d never eat candy again.
Well … not in front of boys at least.
“That bike looks familiar,” Caroline said, pointing at Will’s shiny red beach cruiser. She wasn’t smiling.
“Yeah!” Will said. It looked like the blue laser beams Caroline was shooting him with her eyes were making him a little sweaty. “I went to rent it and there was Sam!”
“And he told you where we hung out,” Caroline provided for him.
“Uh-huh,” Will said. He turned to check out our almost-empty beach (while I finally swallowed). There was nothing there but Angelo’s and its cracked parking lot, a spindly looking fishing pier, and a big, sloping dune that hid all of it from Highway 80. “This is amazing. So this is why I don’t ever see you at the south beach.”
“Sam and I sometimes hang down there,” she said, “but Anna’s a loner.”
“No, I’m not!” I protested. “I’m a … reader.”
I pointed wanly at my novel, which was tossed into the sand next to my wrap.
“Beloved?” Will said. “Kind of heavy for the beginning of the summer, isn’t it?”
“Have you read it?” I asked. “I love it. When it’s not, you know, tearing out my soul and stomping on it.”
“I had to read it for school,” Will said. “I go to this kind of intense private school because my mom teaches there. They’re always making us read books that feel like they’re in a foreign language, even though they’re in English. But Beloved was one of the ones I actually really dug by the time I finished it. Writing a term paper on it? Not so much.”
I felt a pang. So Will dug impossible books like Beloved? Even if he’d read it reluctantly, that was definitely another checkmark on his growing list of pros.
Caroline rolled her eyes at my lit-geekery and stepped in again.
“I’m just curious,” she said to Will, “what brought you to the bike shop?”
“Just wanted to do some exploring, I guess,” Will said. “I still have a lot of the island to see. I didn’t even know about this peninsula. It’s awesome.”
“I know somebody who could have given you a tour,” Caroline said. Her folded arms tightened. She was practically a pretzel. “But you’d have to have, you know, called her.”
“Caroline,” I whisper-shrieked.
“Oh yeah?” Will said. “Dune Island does seem to have a lot of, like, really passionate volunteer types. Especially those people who camp out to protect the sea turtle nests? I met one the other night. She was a little scary, I’ve got to admit …”
“Not as scary as some people I could name,” I said, glaring at Caroline.
“You know what’s scary?” Caroline said, glaring back at me, then shifting her laser beams to Will. “Being caught in a new place without a phone. I mean, you’re practically paralyzed if you lose your cell phone. That ever happen to you, Will?”
“Um, no …” Will was looking at Caroline in confusion. Then suddenly his eyes went wide. He’d realized what she was really talking about.
He looked at me in alarm.
“Wait a minute,” he blurted. “My brother told me not to call you for thirty-six hours.”
“Thirty-six hours?” I said. Now I was confused. “Is that like not swimming for a half hour after you eat? Because you know that’s a myth, right?”
My voice was as flat as my feelings. I wondered if Will’s thirty-six-hour spiel was going to be more or less lame than a couldn’t-find-your-number one.
“It just seemed like … what you’re supposed to do,” Will said.
“Why?” I blurted. Just as I had with Sophie.
“Because …” Will shook his head as if he had a sudden case of fuzzbrain. “You know, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But now …”
Will looked at me. And his expression was something I’d never quite seen before. Call it a meeting of delight and nausea.
Which was pretty much exactly how I’d been feeling ever since our date.
Could that be what smitten looked like?
I glanced at Caroline. Her blue laser beams had softened and her mouth was slowly widening into a big grin of recognition.
The next thing I knew, she was scooping up her wrap. She whipped it around her waist so fast that she covered both me and Will with a spray of sand.
“I just remembered,” she said, “I told Sam I’d meet him for coffee on his break.”
Sam didn’t drink coffee. I was about to point this out when I stopped myself—and smiled slyly.
Caroline, of course, knew that Sam didn’t drink coffee. She was speaking in code, which seemed almost as silly as Owen’s thirty-six-hour rule. It also felt, somehow, very sophisticated. If the language of love was French, the language of dating seemed to be some sort of spy code. Like being in the CIA, boy-girl relations were all about intrigue and subterfuge and wearing cute outfits.
“Well, tell Sam thanks,” Will said as Caroline began to walk away. “I never would have found this beach if he hadn’t pointed me in the right direction.”
“You should really call that tour guide,” Caroline said, grinning at Will. She gave the knotted waist of her wrap one more tug, then strode over to her bike, which was propped next to mine in front of Angelo’s.
After Caroline left, Will and I stood in uncomfortable silence for a moment. And suddenly I became painfully aware of what I was wearing.
A bathing suit.
A bikini, to be specific. And nothing else, unless you counted a whole lot of sand. When Will had arrived, I’d been so focused on my mouthful of candy that I hadn’t even thought to consider the rest of my body and every curve, freckle, and scar on it—all just laid out there for Will to size up.
Now it was my turn to whip my wrap off the ground. I quickly sausaged myself within it while simultaneously dusting sand off my arms and legs.
“My brother …,” Will began.
“Oh, say no more,” I said, holding up my hand.
Which was sort of a mistake, because he did say no more. At least for a minute.
But when Will finally found his voice again, what he said made my jaw drop.
“Nobody’s ever made me a picnic before,” he said.
He paused to look even more queasy/delighted—and I gaped at him. He hadn’t really just said that, had he?
It sounded much less cheesy than it had in my daydream. It was just straightforward and sweet. I was starting to think that Will would make a terrible spy.
I pointed at his bike.
“So are you renting that by the hour?”
“Sam actually gave me a deal on it for the summer,” Will said. “Even if I knew how to drive, we don’t have a car here, so …”
“You don’t know how to drive?” I said.
“I know, it’s embarrassing,” Will said. “But, listen, it’s impressive that I can even ride a bike! A lot of people I grew up with can’t even do that because their parents never lugged them over to Central Park to teach them.”
“I can’t even remember not being able to ride a bike,” I said. “I don’t know what I’d do without Allison.”
I pointed over in the direction of Angelo’s.
“Oh, is that who taught you to ride?” Will asked, following my gaze.
“Um, no, that’s my bike, Allison Porchnik,” I stammered, suddenly realizing how dumb that sounded. “You know, from Annie Hall, the Woody Allen movie?”
I’d always named my bikes, from my first trike (Lulu) to my old green Schwinn (Kermit) to my current gold cruiser with the white seat and the super-wide handlebars. The bike was so seventies fabulous that I’d had to give her a name from that era. After watching every movie in my parents’ Woody Allen collection one rainy weekend, I’d come up with a perfect one: Allison Porchnik, one of Woody’s dry-witted, golden-haired ex-wives.
Will was giving me a funny look.
And suddenly I realized something else.
“Oh my God,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand. “My mouth is bright blue, isn’t it? Caroline got us these horrible gummy straws and—”
“No, no.” Will waved me off. “It’s just … Woody Allen. The guy from New York?”
“Um, he’s kind of more than ‘the guy from New York’!” I said. “He’s like the best filmmaker ever. Or he was, anyway …”
“Yeah, decades ago.” Will shrugged.
“Yeah, that’s when he was at his best!” I insisted. “You know, ‘especially the early, funny ones’?”
Will looked at me blankly, and I smiled and rolled my eyes. So much for us having an instant private joke.
“That was a line from Stardust Memories,” I told Will. “You have to rent it sometime.”
“Well, if I have to,” Will said, teasing me. Then he glanced over his shoulder at his bike.
“So,” he added casually, “do you and Allison Porchnik want to go for a ride?”
I looked down at my toes so he wouldn’t see how hard I was beaming. Who cared about private jokes? I was about to go on my second date with Will Cooper.
It had been a long time since I’d ridden the entire nine miles of Highway 80. I usually was too busy getting from point A to point B to just tool around for the pleasure of it.
But it was fun listening to Will’s amazed exclamations as we skimmed down the endless stretch of asphalt. On our right was a prairie of swamp grass, emerald green and practically vibrating with cicadas, frogs, and dragonflies. On our left was the ocean, shooting flashes of gold at us every time the sun hit a wave.
With Will beside me, I slowed down, and not just because his red bike was a heavy clunker. The traffic was sleepy and we rode side by side, with me playing tour guide.
“We could go to the lighthouse at the south end of the island,” I said. “That’s what the chamber of commerce would have us do.”
“Ah yes, the lighthouse from all the T-shirts and mugs and mouse pads?” Will said. “I’ve been there already with my mom and her Let’s Go book.”
“Dune Island’s got a travel book?” I gasped.
“Um, no,” Will said with a laugh. “It’s more like three pages in a travel book. But they’re a really packed three pages!”
“Well, does the travel book mention our water tower on the west side?” I asked. “Because I think it’s a much better view than the lighthouse. If you ask me, the swamp is a little more interesting from that high up. Every time you go up there, the tidal pools are in different places. They make a picture.”
“Of what?” Will asked, lazily looping his bike back and forth across the highway.
“I usually see Van Gogh,” I said. “You know, all those swirls and swoops like in Starry Night? Most people just see Jesus.”
“Seriously? Like the people who see him in cinnamon buns and water stains on the wall?”
“Will,” I said gently, “Remember, you’re in the South now. There’s a lot of Jesus down here.”
“Believe me,” Will said. “I can tell just by talking to you.”
“What?!” I sputtered. “I don’t have a Southern accent. My family is from up North.”
“Um, I hate to break it you …”
Will lifted one hand off his handlebars to give me a helpless shrug.
“Okay!” I admitted. “So I say ‘y’all.’ I suppose that sounds pretty Southern. But come on. ‘You guys’?! That just sounds so … wrong.”
“Yeah,” Will agreed, “if you have a Southern accent.”
I coasted for a moment, staring at the glinty ocean.
“Well, that’s kind of a big bummer.” I sighed.
“Why?” Will asked.
“Because everyone thinks that people with Southern accents are dumb,” I complained. “Even presidents are totally mocked for their Southern accents.”
“Well, you’re not dumb,” Will said. “Anybody who talked to you for more than two minutes would know that.”
It took my breath away, it really did. Will said these things to me so matter-of-factly, as if he wasn’t giving me the most lovely compliment but simply stating the obvious that anybody could see.
He didn’t know that, up until then, nobody else had.
“And besides,” Will added, “I like your accent.”
See what I mean?
“My second favorite view,” I said, pedaling harder so I could get a bit of breeze on my now flaming face, “is from the biggest dune on the island. It’s way south, past the boardwalk. But you can’t go there at this time of year. The panic grass is just sprouting, so it’s too delicate to even look at.”
“Maybe I’m dumb because I didn’t understand a word you just said,” Will said. “You call that dune grass ‘panic grass’? Why?”
“That’s just what it’s called,” I said. “I don’t even know why, actually. All I know is, as soon as you learn to walk on this island, all you hear from your parents is, ‘Watch out for the sea oats! Mind the panic grass!’ Maybe that’s why. They sound so panicky about it. I mean, if you thought the turtle nest sitters were scary, wait until you meet a dune grass guard. They’re very, very passionate about erosion.”
“Well, after Toni Morrison books, erosion is my favorite subject,” Will cracked, with that half smile that was already starting to feel sweetly familiar. “I mean, I could go on and on and on.”
I threw back my head and laughed.
And then we did talk on and on and on. Not about erosion, of course. Mostly Will asked me questions about Dune Island. Like why the gas station at the south end of the island is called Psycho Sisters. (It’s a long story involving the Robinson twins, a sweet sixteen party, and a way-too-red red velvet cake.)
“Okay, and why, when I went to the library,” Will asked, “was there an entire shelf with nothing but copies of Love Story on it? There were fifteen! I had to count them. I mean, that many Love Storys in a one-room library is pretty weird.”
“Oh, yeah, the Love Storys.” I sighed. “There’s an island-wide book club, and someone had the fabulous idea of having that be the selection a couple of summers ago. Everywhere you went, women were reading this cheesy book and just crying.”
Will had started laughing halfway through my explanation and I had to laugh too. It was kind of fun recounting these random little Dune Island details that I’d always just known and never thought twice about.
Before I knew it, we were at the southern tip of the island, which was as different from the North Peninsula as could be. The north juts out into the Atlantic with absolutely nothing to shelter it. It’s craggy and lunar and feels as deserted as, well, a desert if you turn your back to the beachmart and the pier.
But the southern end of the island hugs the coast of Georgia like a baby curling against its mother. There’s a sandy path there that leads into a giant tangle that my friends and I have always called the jungle. It’s lush with out-of-control ivy, dinosaur-size shrubs, and big, gnarled magnolias, palms, and live oaks. The sun shoots through breaks in the greenery like spotlights, and the sounds of bugs and frogs and lizards spin a constant drone. In the middle of the jungle is a clearing, and in the middle of that are some half-decayed tree trunks arranged into a sort of lounge.
Without even discussing it, Will and I got off our bikes and walked down the path toward it.
For the first time in a while, Will didn’t ask me any questions. I was quiet too. This cranny of the island suddenly felt special. Not just someplace to go with my friends to break the monotony of our beach/Swamp/Angelo’s loop, but like something out of a fairy tale—my very own Secret Garden.
I hadn’t done anything to make all this teeming life happen, of course. Still, showing the jungle to Will, like the rest of the island, made it somehow feel like mine. So instead of rustling quickly over the path, just trying to jet to the clearing, I found myself lingering over things. I stroked feathery ferns with my finger, enjoyed the dry, green scent of an elephant ear plant brushing my cheek, and pulled a dangling swatch of palm bark free from the trunk that was still clinging to it.
It was all very romantic, until Will started cursing under his breath and slapping at his calves.
“Oh, the mosquitoes,” I said. “I can help with that. Come on.”
We hiked back to the head of the path, and because we were hurrying against the drone of the bugs, we got there in only a few minutes. I pulled a little plastic box out from beneath my bike seat. In it I had an emergency stash of sunscreen, bug spray, and sno-cone money.
I held out the spray bottle, but instead of taking it, Will cocked his leg in my direction.
I hesitated for a moment, then dropped to one knee to spritz the fumy stuff on Will’s ankles and calves. I tried not to fixate on Will’s muscles, the hair on his legs that was somewhere between light brown and sun-bleached gold, or the way his frayed khaki cutoffs grazed the top of my hand when I stood up to mist his arms.
I guess I held the bottle a little too close when I sprayed the back of Will’s neck, because the repellant pooled up in a little froth just below his hairline.
“Man, that’s cold!” Will said.
“Sorry!” I giggled, then used my fingertips to rub the stuff in.
Touching Will’s neck seemed shockingly intimate. Part of me wanted to jerk my hand away. Another wanted to put my other hand on his neck too, and maybe give him a little massage.
But instead I just swiped the bug spray away quickly and said, “You know, my shift at The Scoop starts kind of soon. I should probably …”
Will nodded, smiled, and walked toward his bike.
I had no idea if he’d thought of that moment as A Moment—or if he’d just been grateful for the bug repellant.
Either way, I felt calmer as we walked our bikes back to the highway and headed to town.
Because whatever that moment had been, I now felt pretty certain that it wouldn’t be our last.
Over the next couple of weeks, Will and I fell into such a comfortable groove, it was almost hard to remember that day and a half of will he call or won’t he? Because Will did call, whenever he felt like it.
Or I called him.
One morning he wandered over to the North Peninsula with a beach towel, a paperback book, and a giant iced coffee, just because he knew I’d be there.
And one evening I stashed some ice cream in a cooler and drifted over to the crooked little boardwalk that connected his rental cottage to the beach, because he’d told me that he liked to sit there at night, dangling his legs over the tall grass and listening to music.
We covered every corner of Dune Island, me on Allison Porchnik and Will on Zelig. That’s the name, from another Woody Allen movie, I’d come up with for his chunky red bike.
But with each day that went by, I realized we hadn’t given our bikes the right names at all.
Unlike Zelig, the character who traveled the world pretending to be all sorts of people he wasn’t, Will was incredibly honest—but sweet about it. (For instance, he eventually told me that he had noticed my blue lips that morning on the beach. But he also told me he’d thought they were cute.)
And after Will chucked Owen’s thirty-six-hour rule, I never felt like jilted Allison Porchnik again.
It was thrillingly comfortable being with Will.
But also uncomfortably thrilling.
Every time I saw him, I felt like my eyes opened a little wider and my breath got just little quicker. I felt intense, like I was getting more oxygen than usual. And even though this was preferable to the way I’d felt when I’d first met Will—and couldn’t get enough air in—it still made me a little self-conscious.
I worried that I looked like a chipmunk in a Disney cartoon, all fluttery lashes and big, goofy smiles—basically, the worst incarnation of cute.
But I couldn’t stop the swooning. Every day I discovered another little bit of Will. One afternoon he told me he’d been the resident haunter in his old apartment building. Every year on Halloween, he’d dressed up in a different creepy costume to scare the sour candy out of the kids trick-or-treating in the hallways.
Another time he reminisced about spotting his dad one day eating alone at a diner. He said he’d almost burst into tears, right there at 66th and Lex.
All these layers made me like Will more and more.
But was I falling for him?
That was the big question—that I had no idea how to answer.
“How did you know?” I asked Caroline one day. It was the third week in June and the heat had gotten to that point where you could see it waving at you as it shimmied off the hot asphalt. We were sitting on a shaded bench at the far end of the boardwalk, eating coconut sno-cones. We shoveled the crushed ice into our mouths, trying to eat it before it melted into syrupy puddles.
“How did I know what?” Caroline slurred. Her tongue was ice-paralyzed.
“That Sam was it,” I said.
Caroline looked down into her Styrofoam cup, then smiled a private smile, remembering.
“You’re gonna think it’s dumb,” she said.
“Caroline,” I said urgently. “This is research. I’m totally objective.”
She gave me a funny, searching look, but then went dreamy again as she thought about Sam. About their Moment.
“It was almost nothing,” Caroline said. “We were out at the Crash Pad.”
The Crash Pad was Caroline’s dad’s bizarro version of a play set. He had this ancient Airstream trailer that the family used to take out for long camping trips. But when Caroline was eight, her mom had put her foot down and said she’d rather live in a yurt made from recently slaughtered yak skin than spend one more night in that camper.
So Caroline’s dad had moved the Airstream into the backyard. Then he’d put an old trampoline next to the camper and connected the two with a slide.
And that was what we’d grown up playing on. Now the camper was completely taken over by kudzu and the slide was no longer slippery, but the huge trampoline still had some bounce. We’d named it the Crash Pad, the perfect place to look at the stars through a halo of crape myrtle branches or to just goof around, jumping between snacks and snacking between jumps.
“We were just sprawled on the trampoline, talking about some school drama,” Caroline reminisced. “I don’t even remember what it was. But then a wind came and blew all these pink crape myrtle blossoms all over us. A bunch of them stuck in my hair and Sam started pulling them out. He was so gentle, so careful not to pull even one strand. And when they were all out, he made this tiny bouquet out of them and handed them to me.”
I wanted to laugh, because this was just the sort of goofy thing that Sam did all the time.
But obviously, this time it had been different. It hadn’t been a joke. And somehow they’d both known it.
“For me,” Caroline said, “it was kind of like when my dad got new glasses. He wandered around for two days just so happy because everything suddenly looked more clear and crisp and colorful. Well, suddenly Sam looked, not different. Just more vivid, I guess. More interesting. More Sam.”
My own eyes went wide. That sounded a lot like what I was feeling for Will.
“I just knew,” Caroline said with a happy shrug. “And somehow he knew that I knew and he told me that he’d loved me for more than a year!”
“Really?” I gasped. “He kept it a secret all that time?”
“Well, what if I hadn’t felt the same way?” Caroline posed. “Can you imagine how crushing that would be?
Yes, that I could imagine.
Like Sam, I didn’t know how Will felt about me. Of course, I knew that he liked me. But did he like me like that?
Had he gone shivery all over when I’d touched his neck, or had he forgotten it before his mosquito bites had even healed?
And how much of all this time together was happening because there was nobody else here for him hang with except his brother and his mom?
The only time I asked myself these questions, though, was when Will wasn’t around. When we were together, I was having too much fun to think about the nuances of his feelings. We could be bobbing in the waves, talking, and suddenly two hours had gone by and I was a total prune, late for my shift at work.
We’d get lunch and I’d be too busy talking to eat it.
Strolling down the boardwalk, he’d make me laugh so hard I’d forget that I hated attracting the attention of nosy islanders.
Will didn’t mind people looking at him. He seemed to actually like the fact that we couldn’t go anywhere without people saying, “Hey, Anna! What’s the flavor du jour?” Or, “Anna, tell your mom Kat left her goggles at our house.” Or especially, “Anna, who’s your friend?”
“At home,” Will told me as he was walking me to work one afternoon, “you’re always walking through this sea of strangers. Here it’s like everyone’s family.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And what does family do? Nose into your business, remind you of embarrassing things you did when you were four, and never fail to let you know when you need a haircut. You don’t know how good you have it.”
“Yeah, well …” Will drifted off as we arrived at The Scoop. He looked through the window and as I followed his gaze, I cringed.
My entire family was inside.
Sophie was behind the ice cream case with a friend, sneaking samples. My dad was settling Kat and Benjie at one of the kiddie tables with some sorbet, and my mom was scooping for a small crowd of customers.
They looked like, well, my family. Chaotic and dreamy and … happy.
They were everything Will’s family wasn’t. And I’d just stuck my big, sandy foot in my mouth.
While I was wondering if I should apologize or if that would just make things worse, Will opened The Scoop’s warped screen door and went inside.
This was new. Will had walked me to work once before, but I’d said a quick good-bye before we’d arrived. I hadn’t wanted to subject him to my dad’s clueless questions, my mom’s big, overeager smiles, or God forbid, Sophie scanning him from head to toe for fashion appropriateness.
Plus, bringing Will home to meet my family (because The Scoop was home just as much as our house was) seemed so old-fashioned. So girlfriendy. And we weren’t there.
I watched Will pause inside the door and glance back at me with a look that said, Aren’t you coming in?
There were a million ways I could have analyzed Will walking into The Scoop. But I tried (really hard) not to.
Whatever was happening between me and Will—whether it was a “relationship” or just a friendship—would make itself clear soon.
It has to, right? I asked myself. How many dates can you have without any handholding, kissing, or sappy declarations of like before you realize that they’re non-dates? They’re just two friends (one of whom has an unrequited and possibly tragic crush) hanging out.
Something would happen, I told myself, or not happen, soon.
And I just had to keep myself together until then.
With that I gulped and went with Will as he met my entire family.
* * *
My peace-love-and-gelato parents are not exactly the types to give boys bone-crunching handshakes or a threatening mention of my eleven o’ clock curfew. When I introduced them to Will, they only wanted to foist heaps of ice cream on him.
“Will, I want you to taste this,” my mom said from behind the counter. Her voice sounded a little shrill and overenthusiastic. I was both touched and mortified that she was trying to make a good impression on Will. My parents hadn’t asked me much about this boy I’d been spending so much time with, but clearly they’d been curious. As my mom mixed up something at the marble slab, she kept shooting Will quick, probing glances. She must have been wondering if this introduction to Will Meant Something.
Of course, I was wondering the same thing.
Mom plopped a huge, shaggy scoop of ice cream into a bowl and placed it on the counter.
“This,” she told Will, “is a mix-in I’ve been playing around with.”
“Mom,” I interjected, “I don’t think—”
“Looks good, Mrs. Patrick,” Will interrupted, giving me a nervous glance. “I’ll give it a try.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh at all this posturing or leap in to save Will. My mother was an ice cream genius, but somehow her mix-in ideas were almost always awful.
Will took a very large first bite. He started chewing. And chewing. His eyes practically watered from the effort.
“Mom?” I quavered. “What’s in there?”
“Maple Bacon Crunch ice cream with mandarin oranges and sliced almonds,” my mom announced proudly. “It’s my play on duck a l’orange.”
“But,” I sputtered, “bacon is not duck. And anyway, duck ice cream?”
I think it took Will a full minute to choke his mouthful down.
“You don’t have to eat any more,” I assured him. “My mom won’t care, right, Mom?”
“Well, I guess not, sweetie,” Mom said. “But, Will, maybe you should tell us what you think.”
She looked at him eagerly.
I watched Will’s jaw tense. Either he was trying to figure out what to say, or he was working the horrible taste out of his mouth.
“Well …,” he said carefully, “it’s very, um, textured. Yeah. A lot of textures going on in there.”
“Do you want a palate cleanser?” my dad offered. He jumped off his stool behind the register. “Some sorbet?”
“No!” Will burst out. Then he reddened. “I mean, no thanks … sir.”
At this Sophie and her friend dissolved into giggles. I had to stifle a laugh too as I grabbed Will by the elbow and pulled him into the kids area.
“Sir?” I said.
“Well, like you’ve said,” Will said defensively, “it’s the South. I figured where there’s a lot of Jesus, there are probably plenty of ma’ams and sirs, too.”
“That’s true,” I admitted, “but believe me, not with my dad.”
“Oh,” Will said. He shook his head wearily. And then … he shrugged it off. He pointed at the doodles Kat and Benjie were making on their chalkboard table.
“Hey, what’s that you’re drawing?” he asked. “Is it an Ewok?”
An instant later Will was sitting with my brother and sister, doing a Darth Vader voice. He seemed completely recovered from the duck a l’orange, not to mention meeting my parents.
So what does that mean? I started to ask myself. But before I could even begin to ponder that question, I gave my head a little shake.
Don’t analyze, don’t analyze, don’t analyze, I ordered myself. Just because he isn’t traumatized after kind of bombing with Mom and Dad doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not interested in me.
After another few minutes of amusing my brother and sister, Will stood up to leave.
“So my brother wants us to try ghost-crabbing tonight,” he told me.
“Ah, yes,” I teased. “For those who don’t like cow-tipping, there’s always ghost crabbing.”
“You know I have to do it,” Will said. “It’s so Dune Island.”
“Yeah, you kind of have to,” I agreed with a grin. “Well, you and Owen have fun.”
“Um, Anna,” Will said, clearing his throat. “That was sort of me asking you if you wanted to come.”
“Oh!” I said, rolling my eyes and grinning. I hesitated before answering, though. A date with a boy and his brother was definitely a non-date, wasn’t it?
Just like this powwow with my family seemed to be too.
It was all just so friendly.
My heart sank a little bit. But then Will grinned at me, and he shrugged his bony, broad shoulders and I noticed a small hole in the neck of his faded navy T-shirt. It all made me feel that familiar Will-induced intensity once more.
So what could I do? I said yes. But in the back of my mind, I was also steeling myself.
Crabbing with Will’s brother isn’t exactly a setup for a first kiss. I might as well face it—it’s not going to happen tonight.
I didn’t want to think about the bigger picture, though, which was this: If we didn’t kiss soon, there was clearly not going to be any romance between me and Will Cooper.
“Wow,” I said to Owen and Will that night on the beach. “It’s a good thing I’m here. You guys really don’t know anything about crabs.”
Both of them were crouching next to a little hole in the sand, shining their flashlights down it. They looked at me, bewildered.
“Yeah, where are they?” Owen said. “It’s eight thirty and finally cooling off. I heard this was prime ghost crab time.”
I laughed, walked over to the brothers, and turned their flashlights off.
“Give your eyes a minute to adjust,” I said. “Then listen …”
The three of us stood very still.
Except I didn’t feel still.
Ever since I’d made that secret pact with myself at The Scoop, I’d felt buzzy. Like a quivering pitch fork. Like a ticking timer.
All I wanted was for Will to put his hand on my arm or shoulder, to quiet all that nervous vibration.
But he didn’t—because Owen was there, cracking jokes.
Or maybe Owen was there so that Will would have the perfect excuse to keep his distance.
Maybe this was his signal.
Maybe this was how it was going to be. Me and Will—and Owen. And Caroline and Sam and my parents and siblings …
Maybe we would just be friends.
I was trying to be fine with this. I mean, this evening had been fun so far. Until I’d turned off their flashlights, Will and Owen had been splashing water on each other and romping on the beach. Like all boys, they reminded me of dogs. (In a good way.)
Also, Owen—who would apparently do anything for a laugh—had actually checked out one of those Love Storys from the library. He kept tossing the book’s cheesiest lines out at the most perfect moments, cracking us all up.
And I’d forgotten how ridiculously fun ghost-crabbing could be.
That was, if I could get the crabs to actually recover from Will’s and Owen’s flashlights.
I told Owen to stop talking.
“Just listen,” I whispered.
Then I heard that familiar crunchy skittering and my instincts took over. I snatched Owen’s flashlight out of his hand and clicked it on, illuminating four tiny crabs zipping sideways over the wet sand.
If not for their darting, spidery movements, we never would have seen them. Ghost crabs were often smaller than your palm and a mottled beige, the exact color of the beach. They camouflaged themselves so perfectly, they were always a surprise, even to ghost crab lifers like me.
“There!” I shrieked.
“Aaah!” Owen and Will yelled together as the crabs scattered. Will grabbed the tin bucket they’d brought with them, pounced at one of the crabs, and scooped.
Which left him with a bucket of sand, water, and probably some crab poop.
“Oh my God,” Owen huffed, bending at the waist and putting his hands on his shins. “Those things are scary. And so fast! I mean, they’re worse than roaches.”
“Naw, they’re cute!” I said. “Let’s try again. This time let me do it.”
While Will laughed at Owen, we turned off our flashlights. Soon the creepy crawling sound returned and I leaped into the fray. Cornering one crab, I hopped around it, blocking its escape with my ankles. Then I scooped it up. You had to hold ghost crabs carefully on the sides of their bodies. Their front claws were little, but they could still pinch you until you cried. I thrust my little crab toward Owen and Will and it wiggled its many limbs in annoyance.
“That was simultaneously the most ridiculous and cool thing I’ve ever seen,” Will said, cracking up as the crab writhed in my hand. I put it down and it darted into the water.
“I’m so freaked out right now,” Owen said, glancing at the sand nervously. “Keep your lights on so they don’t come back!”
“You should see him when there’s a spider,” Will said. “He screams like a little girl.”
“I do not,” Owen started to say, when his phone buzzed.
“Oh my God, Mir,” he said as he answered. “You would not believe what we’re doing right now …”
Owen wandered down the beach as he talked.
“So much for Owen,” Will said. “That’s Miriam, his girlfriend. They’ll be talking for the next hour at least.”
I cocked my head. Will didn’t sound disappointed.
“Clearly, he can’t handle the crabs, anyway,” Will said. He grinned and I could see his teeth shining in the moonlight.
“So you’re the bug killer in the family,” I said. “So am I. Well, except for spiders, because we need all of those we can get to eat the mosquitoes. And crickets, of course. They’re good luck. And bees and butterflies—”
“Pollinators,” Will filled in. “What about ghost crabs? Do you ever, you know, cook them?”
“Uch.” I laughed. “Believe me, those things aren’t for eating.”
Will started to laugh with me, but before he could, he whooped and jumped to the side, kicking his right leg around frantically.
“I think one just crawled over my foot!” he yelled.
I burst out laughing.
“Who can’t handle the crabs now?” I asked.
“Oooh,” Will said, shuddering. “You win. I was trying to be all macho, but those things are skeeving me out!”
“I’ve got to go ghost-crabbing, Anna,” I said in a deep voice. “It’s so Dune Island.”
This was me embracing the just-friends thing. Because you don’t mock boys that you’re angling to kiss, right?
Will uttered a faux growl and turned his flashlight on himself, making a gruesome face in the shadows.
I just laughed again, then pointed at his feet.
“There goes another one,” I announced.
“Where, where?” Will yelled, running with pumping knees into the water.
“Oh, it must have just been your toes, wiggling around,” I said.
“Oh, really,” Will said.
“Yes, really,” I replied, trying not to giggle. “It was an honest mistake.”
And suddenly Will jumped back onto the sand, grabbed me around the waist, and plunked me into the water.
I was just wearing cutoffs and a striped tank top, so I didn’t care about getting wet.
I also couldn’t remember what I’d always found so unlikable about boys scooping me up and dunking me into the ocean. Will’s arms around me had felt as different from Landon Smith’s as a hammock feels from a desk chair.
Will stepped back and pointed at my splashed clothes.
“Oh, it was an honest mistake!” he teased. “I’m sorry.”
Then he splashed me some more.
I started to laugh, but it got caught in my throat when I looked at Will’s smile in the moonlight. I still felt wonderful, but no longer in a giggly way. I wanted Will’s arms around me again. I wanted to know what his lips felt like. I just plain wanted. Him.
Will’s smile, too, faded and in midsplash he retreated, dropping his hand by his side.
Then, with a couple of quick strides, Will closed the open space between us and he was holding me. He pulled me tightly to him. I looked up into his eyes, feeling both surprised and … finally.
I didn’t know how I could have doubted it. This was the place we’d been moving toward on all those walks and bike rides. Toward Will’s warm, firm arms around my shoulders. Toward my hand on Will’s back, feeling his muscles shifting under his clean-smelling T-shirt.
Toward this kiss.
This soft, sweet, so-worth-the-wait kiss.