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Baby-sitters Club: The Next Generation Super Special #1: What Happens in Sea City...

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Job
Posted by: Jeff
Visible to: BSC-Active

Baby-sat for Squirt Ramsey. No problems.

Tags: Ramseys

Hi
Posted by: Jeff
Visible to: Byron

Hey.

Hi yourself
Posted by: Byron
Visible to: Jeff

Hey. :)

Rain, rain, go away,” sang Squirt, pressing his hands to the window screen.

“Nah, man, rain’s good.” I stepped up to the window and took a deep breath of the fresh, loamy wet-dirt smell. I’m starting to really dig rain. Connecticut in summertime redefines “humid.” Air pressure just builds up and builds up, and a good storm is the only way to cut through it. I explained, “The trees and flowers need rain to grow.”

Squirt made a face. I guess I sounded like a real crunchy hippie.

“We could go outside anyway. In bathing suits, perhaps,” Squirt suggested.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe Squirt is only six. He’s got a crazy vocabulary, and he’s actually pretty big for his age. (The nickname started because he was born premature, but now it’s ironic.)

“Thinking outside the box, huh? That’s cool,” I said. “But it’s getting late to play outside.” I checked my watch for the fifteenth time. 7:18. Only one minute after the last time I checked, at 7:17. Back home I didn’t even wear a watch, but these days, I’m kind of obsessive about hours and seconds.

What drives me crazy is that I’m antsy even when I’m doing something I like, like baby-sitting. Especially sitting for Squirt. He’s such a good kid, and this was my first time baby-sitting him all summer. I wouldn’t have gotten this job at all, except that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey got last-minute tickets to a play in Stamford. Squirt’s Aunt Cecelia was at a church event, and his big sister, Becca, was baby-sitting the Salem twins, so Mr. Ramsey made an emergency call to the Baby-sitters Club cell phone. Our president, Adam Pike, answered; consulted with his brother Byron, the badass secretary extraordinaire; checked out the schedule; and offered me the job. And that’s how our club works!

Sort of. Technically, parents are supposed to give 48 hours’ notice, so we have time to meet and go over everything and make sure everybody gets equal shot at the jobs. But if an emergency comes up, it’s no big deal. Adam calls this “being accommodating to our customer base.” I call it the “shit happens” clause.

“I have a new bathing suit. I’m going to the beach for eight whole days,” Squirt told me. “On vacation.”

“I know. You and the Pikes.” I wasn’t looking forward to it. Everybody who makes my life here okay and good and tolerable was going to be gone at once. Byron told me he was working on plan to get out of it, but I didn’t have high hopes. The Pikes go to Sea City every summer. It’s like a law of nature.

Squirt nodded, not even a little surprised that everybody knew his exciting vacation plans. “Have you ever been to the beach?”

“Mm, lots of times. Back home.”

Squirt stopped jumping from one foot the other and turned to look at me. “Are you from Sea City?”

I smiled. “Nope. Different beach. Different ocean. I’m from California. My house back home is about an hour away from the beach. We go a lot. Even in the winter. Once we went to the beach on Christmas.”

This is normally a huge mindfuck for Connecticut kids, “the beach on Christmas?” But Squirt’s mind was million miles away. He nodded vaguely and said, “In Sea City, I’m going to wear my bathing suit every day.”

“Nice,” I said. I mean, what else do you say?

The back door clicked open, and I jumped up from my seat. “Hello?”

“Hello there!” called a brusque voice from the kitchen. “Who’s that?”

“Aunt Cecelia!” said Squirt, scrambling to his feet to run and give his aunt a hug.

Even though she’s Squirt and Becca and Jessi’s aunt, not ours, everyone calls her Aunt Cecelia. I don’t know why. It’s definitely not because she is this big warm person who is like an auntie to the whole world. The opposite. Squirt is probably the only person who has ever hugged her. Nobody else would dare to try it.

When she came to the doorway, Squirt clinging to her skirt, she looked just as uncomfortable to see me as I was to see her. “Hello, Jeffrey,” she said coldly. She has a way of saying my name like its true Old English meaning is “shifty-eyed pothead kid I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw him.”

“Heyy,” I murmured.

She was looking at me like she wanted something. I didn’t know what it was, so I just stared at her. She stared back, her eyes getting narrower and narrower.

“Well?” she said finally.

“Huh?”

“How long have you been here? How much do I owe you? When did Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey say they would home?”

“Oh! Oh. Yeah.” I explained about the theater tickets. I never notice how bad I am at talking until I’m talking to Aunt Cecelia. She winces at every “um” and “like.”

Aunt Cecelia counted out a few bills and handed them to me with a stern look, like she was trying to telepathically pre-scold me for blowing it on drugs and hookers. “There. I think our accounts are settled, then. And what are your plans for the rest of the night?”

From her, small talk sounded like an interrogation.

I coughed. “I, um, I sort of have a date?”

Aunt Cecelia sighed and shook her head. “Go on, then. Don’t keep the poor girl waiting.”

I didn’t bother to correct her. I’m out and proud to everybody--parents, grandparents, school administration, you name it--but Aunt Cecelia scares the bejesus out of me.

Freedom! I burst out into the street. I’d left my rain jacket behind, but I wasn’t about to go back for it. I didn’t care. The rain felt deliciously cool on my skin. I ran the whole way up the hill.

I raced round the corner onto good old Slate Street. It’s tree-lined and pretty, maybe the only pretty street in Stoneybrook. I flying-leapt that last few steps up to the Pikes’ door and pounded hard.

Mallory Pike opened the door with Vanessa close behind her. The Pikes always race to doors and phones. “Jeff Schafer. What a surprise,” Mal said in a not-very-surprised voice.

“Is Byron home y--?”

“Jeff!” called a breathless voice behind me.

I whirled around and there he was, dropping his umbrella and running up to meet me. I threw my arms out and he ran into them, and we gripped each other, turning around in a circle. He leaned his forehead against mine, resting his hands on my hips, and just like that, all the tension that had been building up in my muscles all day--poof!--gone. Byron is magic.

“Darling! How I have longed for thee!”

“Every moment of our parting was a knife in my very soul, darling!”

Byron turned to shoot a glare at Mallory and Vanessa, who were dramatically acting out our reunion scene in the doorway, hands clasped to their foreheads like they we were about to faint.

“Watch this,” Vanessa said to Mallory in her normal voice. “Hey Byron, what did you do today?”

“Me? I was just baby-sitting at the Newtons’.”

“And before that?”

“I was at Jeff’s, why?”

Mallory burst out laughing.

“What?” said Byron as we followed them into the house. “What’s so funny?”

Mal and Vanessa waved him off and wandered off in the direction of the rec room.

Byron turned to me, grinned, and took both of my hands. “Hi, you.”

Okay, it doesn’t look like much written down, but it was the way we said it. I felt a shiver go down my spine. “Hey,” I breathed.

He dropped my hands and we both ran for the stairs.

We were about halfway up when we heard Mrs. Pike call out, “Where are you two off to?”

Byron stopped short and turned around to face her, all casual. “I dunno. My room. Play computer games or something.”

“Where are your brothers?”

“Rec room. Watching TV.”

“Why don’t you join them? Or invite them to play games. Find something you can all enjoy.”

Byron and I glanced at each other. Well, we had to try. There are a lot fewer rules at the Pikes’ than at my house, but both families are equally committed to one new, special, summertime rule. Never Leave the Gays Alone.

Since we figured out we both liked each other at the beginning of this summer, Byron and I have spent exactly thirty-three minutes alone together. I can’t say we didn’t make the most of the little time we had. It was pretty much the hottest half hour of my life, and I’ve been in the back of Chip Ransom’s Buick. But, damn. The way our families act now, you’d think the world would end if we got each other off. Newsflash: we did, and it didn’t.

Not that I’m using that argument with my mom and stepfather. If they ever ask, by the way, here was our first and last thirty-three minutes alone together as boyfriends:

ME: For some time I have been feeling the strangest sensation. Could it be that my friendly affection toward you, my esteemed colleague, is deepening into something more? Dare I name the feeling?

HIM: You need not dare. I hardly dreamed it would be so, but my dear fellow, for some time, I have felt the selfsame feeling to which you now so obscurely refer.

ME: You are my intellectual equal.

HIM: And you mine.

*we hesitantly hold hands*

Here’s how it definitely did not go:

ME: Fuck, you’re hot.

HIM: Take off your shirt.

*we frantically hump like coked-out bunnies*

I don’t see what the problem is. Why can’t we be alone? Why can’t we have private conversations and make-out sessions and, yes, maybe, sex? We’re mature. We’re in love. I don’t know what to say to my mom to make her understand. For your reference, here are some tactics that do not work:

1. We know about STDs, Mom. I never go anywhere without a condom.

2. In three years I’ll be in college and I’ll be able to do whatever I want and you won’t be able to stop me or even know about it, so why not get used to it now?

3. Why can’t you be cool like Dad?

4. Dawn has oodles and tons of sex, and you don’t care about that. (I actually don’t have any evidence for this. Mom just said, “She’s an adult,” but the next day Dawn gave me an Indian burn and asked me why I hate her.)

Mom’s rebuttal is always the same. “You can’t because I say you can’t, and that’s it.”

My stepdad, Richard, is even worse, if you can believe it. He’s old-fashioned about dating, and when you add the twist that I’m dating a guy, his head basically explodes. The longer Byron is in the house, the nervouser Richard gets, even if we’re doing something non-coupley like playing Zelda or throwing around a Frisbee. God forbid we roughhouse. He’s started giving us projects. Last weekend we had to clean out the garage, and today he made Byron sweep the sidewalk while I weeded the garden.

Then there’s Mary Anne, Richard’s daughter and my stepsister. You’d think she’d be okay because she’s eighteen so she’s young enough to remember what it’s like, plus she started dating when she was younger than us, plus she’s not really related to me so she doesn’t have Dawn’s “ewwww my brother having sex” thing. Wrong. She treats us like we’re five. We went on a double date with her and her “ex-ex-boyfriend” Logan (whatever that means), but it was worse than hanging around the house. They insisted on a G-rated movie, wouldn’t let us order coffee with dinner, and coughed loudly when we tried to kiss goodnight.

It’s like my family got together and agreed on a sacred pact to do everything they can to keep us from being alone together, using every annoying tactic in the book.

The Pikes just do it through sheer force of numbers.

They were all piled around the TV watching Arthur when came down into the rec room.

“This is pathetic,” Nick was whining. “We have an average age of fourteen and we’re watching a show for six-year-olds.”

“I watched PBS Kids until I was nine,” remarked Claire.

“You’re a case of arrested development,” said Vanessa, not looking up from her book. She claims she can read and watch TV at the same time but I think she alternates. She’s always asking us what’s going on and who is that.

“Silly-billy-goo-goo,” said Claire in a baby voice.

“Why is this on so late anyway?” said Margo. “It’d after eight. Bring on the sex and violence!”

“On PBS?” said Mallory, not looking up from her sketchbook.

“It’s a Very Special Episode,” said Adam. He scooched over so me and Byron could squeeze onto the couch cushion next to him. “This is the one where the Brain gets addicted to prescription painkillers.”

“Really?” said Claire.

“Hey, Claire, did you know the word ‘gullible’ is not in the dictionary?” said Jordan.

Just another evening at the Pikes’.  

I actually really like Byron’s house. It’s always chaos, but in a nice way. He has, count ’em, seven brothers and sisters. Two of them, Adam and Jordan, are his identical triplets. When I first met them, I used to memorize what they were wearing each day so I could call them by the right names. Now I can’t even imagine that. Adam and Jordan are great guys, great pals, but every time I see Byron it’s like a swift kick in the heart.

Byron is about twenty times cuter than his brothers. Don’t ask me to explain the science, because I can’t. They all have blue eyes and dark hair and red lips and freckles, but for some reason Byron wears it the best.  Maybe it’s his thoughtful expressions. Or his gentle, graceful movements. Or the steady, smoldering way he has of looking at me from under his long lashes--I can’t even handle it.

Here’s how I met the Pikes. My mom and dad split up, and my mom moved my sister and me here to Stoneybrook, Connecticut, the armpit of the universe. I actually only lived here nine months before I went back home, to my dad, for a bunch of reasons. (I missed home so much it hurt. I got shit grades, I got in fights. I hated everything. I felt like I was going crazy.) But nine months was long enough to make lifelong friends with the triplets.

And when I say friends I just mean friends. We played action figures and stuff. I mean, we were nine. I didn’t even know I was gay until I was twelve.

The triplets and I kept in touch online for way longer than we knew each other in person. It helps that Adam thinks he’s super funny in emails, and I guess so do I. Byron never wrote all that much, but somehow he always seemed to guess when I was down and to choose that moment to send me a nice “How’s it going?”

Fast forward to this year. I finally ran out of excuses not to spend a summer with my mom. (Nothing against my mom. I just really fucking hate the East Coast.) I sucked it up and got on a plane. Three things I did not expect to find: Byron Pike was now into guys. Byron Pike was now into me.  Byron Pike was now beautiful. I mean, he couldn’t have let me know any of this ahead of time? I would have come out here sooner.

“Hey, quick question for the Baby-sitters Club,” said Mrs. Pike, sticking her head in the room. “At Sea City--”

A cheer went up. Claire, sitting on my arm of the couch, screamed in my ear. Byron just squeezed my hand.

Mrs. Pike paused, expecting it, before she continued. “The Ramseys are going to want to take some day trips around the Jersey shore--antiquing and things. I told them we’d have someone to look after Squirt. What do you guys say? Adam? Byron? Jordan, if he wants to?”

“Absolutely!” said Adam.

“Sure, if it doesn’t conflict with my practice,” said Jordan. He’s not a member of the Baby-sitters Club because of his baseball schedule (he’s even supposed to do intensive drills on vacation), but he’s still great with kids.

“Great. They can handle it,” said Byron. “I’m not going, as you know.”

“Oh, good grief,” said Mrs. Pike. “For the last time, Byron, you’re going.”

“I’m actually not.”

“Byron--!” Mrs. Pike began sharply.

“Somebody’s in trouble,” Claire singsonged.

Mrs. Pike looked at me pleadingly, like this was my fault. I gave her a “who, me?” puppy dog look. I didn’t ask Byron to come up with this scheme. It was going to be hell here without him, but I’d never ask anyone to stay in Stoneybrook for me. I piped up, “I think a beach vacation sounds fun.”

Byron shot me a “traitor” look.

“You see?” said Mrs. Pike. “For heaven’s sake, you can live without your boyfriend for one week!”

“One out of four,” he muttered under his breath, gripping my hand.

It even took me a moment to work out what he meant.

Four weeks from now was August thirtieth. I’m going back home August thirtieth.

Just four more weeks. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already figured that out for myself. I usually know the countdown to my return flight down to the hour. Down to the minute. Normally, when I’m visiting Stoneybrook, the only thing that keeps me sane is thinking about how soon I get to go home. When I think I have to stay, I panic.

Now, thinking about going home made me panic.

Well, I still felt that old familiar “yay! home!” feeling--that heart-soaring feeling you get imagining yourself standing barefoot under an acacia tree, smiling up into the sunshine--but I panicked, too. I hadn’t let myself think about what would happen to me and Byron when I left. “We have the whole summer,” I’d think.

I bit my lip and squeezed Byron’s hand hard. He squeezed back, not looking at me.

Mrs. Pike took a breath. “Byron, come talk to your dad and me in the kitchen.” She turned and disappeared up the stairs.

Byron glanced at me and swallowed.

About two seconds after he started up the stairs, Claire and I looked at each other, then as one we jumped up and followed after him.

By the time we had ourselves arranged outside the kitchen door at a good eavesdropping distance, Mrs. Pike was already mid-lecture. “...trouble to arrange Nicky’s camp schedule, not to mention Jordan’s training. Do you know how long I had to work on his coach? And the Ramseys set aside this time, too. Jessi’s classes start up in two weeks, and Mallory’s not long after that. When else do you want to go, if not now?”

“I don’t want to go a different time,” Byron’s voice replied. “I don’t want to go at all. I don’t want to .”

“But you love Sea City!”

“I wouldn’t enjoy it this year,” said Byron carefully.

Claire turned and glared at me.

“What do you think’s going to happen--you’ll just stay home alone?” Mrs. Pike asked. (Mr. Pike had still not spoken. I was beginning to wonder if he was even in the room.)

Can I?” Byron yelped. I held my breath. That would be amaz--

“No!”

--ing. Rats. Oh, well. It was too much to ask for.

“Why n-o-o-ot?” Byron whined, sounding a little, I hate to say it, like Claire. “I’m responsible. I wouldn’t have any parties.”

“You’re responsible for your age, but you’re still sixteen. Sixteen is a dangerous age. Honestly, I’d trust Claire alone in the house before you.”

Claire glanced back at me with wild eyes. I shook my head.

“Okay, fine. Whatever,” Byron said. “I don’t care, as long as I’m in Stoneybrook. I could stay with the--”

“Do not say Schafer-Spiers!”

“I wasn’t going to! I was going to say the Rodowskys or the Hobarts. Or I could spend one week with each, so as not to overstay my welcome.”

Finally Mr. Pike spoke. His voice was quiet, calm. “You’ve got this all figured out, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Byron.

“Well, forget your plans,” said Mr. Pike. “You’re coming to Sea City, and that’s that.”

That was that, all right. Mr. Pike had spoken. He’s usually pretty flexible and easygoing, so you know when he puts his foot down, he means it. I sighed.

Byron wasn’t ready to give up so easily. “No, I’m not, and that’s that!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. If Mr. Pike is easygoing, Byron is downright timid. Usually, I mean. I’d never heard him so--I don’t know--decisive. I liked it.

“I give up!” cried Mrs. Pike.

My heart leapt. Really?

Claire yanked me back onto the stairs just before Mrs. Pike burst through the door. She crossed to the living room and began furiously organizing suitcases.

Back in the kitchen, Mr. Pike was talking, but his voice was low. Claire and I had to creep right up to the crack in the door to hear.

“...and with Mallory graduating, this could be the last year we’re all doing this as a family. Someday we’ll all be separated. That day is coming sooner than you think. This means a lot to your mother, Byron, and to me, too. Just think about that.”

Oh, man. Guilt. The ultimate secret weapon against Byron.

I was standing right out in the open when Byron came through the door, but I didn’t care if he knew I’d been listening in. As soon as he saw me, his lip quivered, and he buried his face in my shoulder. My arms went up round him. This was bad.

“Sorry,” he mumbled into my T-shirt.

He heaved a gasping breath. I held him tight.

“It’s okay,” I said. “You can write me postcards.”

Chapter Text


A New Day
Posted by: Sasha
Visible to: BSC-Active

A new day has dawned for the Baby-Sitters Club. This is the first day of the rest of our week. And what a week it shall be. Take my hand and I shall lead you on an amazing journey. Prepare yourself for the greatest week of your living LIVES.

Tags: admin


When my brother and I got to the Kishis’ on Friday, Adam’s bike was already lying in on the front yard with Byron’s and Jeff’s. We locked our bikes to the lamppost and ran up the walk. Well, I ran. Milo sort of meandered behind me.

Just as I was about to open the front door, Claudia Kishi ran out. I gave her a wide berth. I didn’t want to get hit by any of the scarves or beaded braids whipping around her. She looked like Medusa.

“Not staying for the meeting?” I asked.

Claudia shook her head. Whip, whap, clinkety clack. “I’m meeting up with some of the old high school crew at Pizza Express. You guys don’t need me, do you?”

“Definitely not!” I told her. “Get out of here!”

Claudia grinned. Some people think I’m rude, but Claudia doesn’t mind me. She says I remind her of a young Kristy Thomas.

I take that as a compliment. Kristy Thomas was the original president of the Baby-Sitters Club, and she’s just the kind of leader I’d like to be. I’m the treasurer of the current club, but I guess I’m also first lady, since my boyfriend, Adam, is the president.

(Claudia was vice-president in Kristy’s administration. Her parents are nice enough to let us hold our meetings in her bedroom, a.k.a the Official Baby-Sitters Club Office, even though Claudia’s away at college during the year. During the summer, Claudia and the other girls sometimes come to our meetings. Luckily for us, they don’t take many jobs. Most of them have full-time summer jobs. Even Kristy comes less and less now that she has a power internship at Adam’s dad’s law firm.)

I ran upstairs, Milo at my heels. In Claudia’s room, Adam was looking over the schedule on Excel, and Byron and Jeff were curled up on the bed whispering secrets to each other. In case you were wondering, they are the first people who have ever been in love, and nobody has ever known a love like theirs.

“Baby!” Adam stood up when I came in, throwing his arms wide. I dropped my backpack and hugged him hard.

Adam is the number one greatest boyfriend of all time. I can recommend him without reservation (not that you can have him). He’s smart and funny, and I don’t know how this is possible, but he is way better looking than his identical brothers. Byron is all slouchy and shy with hair in front of his face. Jordan is just a little too “typical guy” for me—punchy and obnoxious, plus his new buzz cut makes his head look misshapen. (I guess that means Adam’s is too, but I try not think about that.) Adam is just perfect: confident but not too macho; stylish but not fussy; not too muscular, not too skinny; fun and mischievous but still serious and capable. A real leader of men.

I’ll never admit it to him, and don’t you say a word, but he’s a better president than I would be. I don’t even mind doing what he says. At least, not where the club is concerned. This is saying a lot. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not like to take orders.

So I was happy to squeeze him back and chirp, “Hiya, baby!”

He bent in to kiss me, and I dropped him in a movie-star dip. He laughed as I set him upright, and we kissed again.

At this point Becca Ramsey, our vice-president, and her best friend Charlotte Johanssen, an associate member, slipped into the room. I let go of Adam. It was time to get serious. It’s one thing to carry on in front Milo, who’s in his own world half the time, and Byron and Jeff (Byreff? Jefron?), the PDA kings. Becca and Charlotte are actual people.

Just as I was taking a step back, though, Adam grabbed me back and hugged me again. “Hello again!” I said, confused. “Um. There are people...”

“Don’t stop on our account!” said Charlotte, smiling.

“See?” said Adam. “Let’s not stop on their account.”

I glanced at the girls, who’d turned away from us to pore over some book.

“It’s early.” Adam turned my head back to his, pressing his forehead to mine. He swayed me from side to side. “Missed you today.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, laughing a little. I mean, I naturally assumed he was joking.

He pouted a little. “Didn’t you miss me?”

Wait, what was this, was he actually serious? Since when was Adam insecure? “I saw you yesterday, baby. I’m good,” I said, trying to sound more teasing than mean. For good measure, I gave him a kiss on the nose before I wrenched away. Luckily, I had a perfect subject change, a bit of business I wanted to get out of the way before the meeting started officially. “Becca, I have something for you!”

“For me?” she said, jerking her attention away from something Milo was showing her on the computer.

“You wanted a beach dress, right?” I unzipped my backpack and pulled out my coral halter sundress. I’d found it in my closet and figured Becca would get more use out of it in Sea City in the next week than I would here in Stoneybrook. It was nothing special, just a casual beach cover-up. It had pockets, for goodness sake. But Becca handled it like it was princess gown.

“Oooh!” she breathed, holding it up to herself in Claudia’s full-length mirror. “It’s beautiful! Thank you, Sasha! You’re my fairy godmother!”

Admittedly, it was slinkier than the dresses she normally wears, made of clingy material, with a saucy miniskirt and a deep V in the front. Becca’s fashion sense tends to be more “Catholic schoolgirl” than mine, and not in the sexy way. At the moment, she was wearing a white blouse with cap sleeves and scalloped collar, a plaid cotton skirt with a drawstring, and Tevas. Typical.

But maybe her tastes were changing. It was high time. She had a pretty good figure if she’d stop covering it up (not that I was going to say that out loud, in front of boys--I didn’t want Becca to die of blushing.) She was tall, too, which is why she wore my size, even though I had a couple of cup sizes on her. The halter dress, which had always kind of ridden wrong on my chest, was going to look amazing on Becca.

“I’m glad you like it,” I grinned. “Come over sometime after you get back from Sea City. You can go through my ‘give-away’ box. I’ve got tons of stuff that would look good on you.”

“You mean it?”

“Sure, why not? Hey, I’ve always wanted a little sister.”

“Ohhh... I came to the wrong meeting,” groaned Shea Rodowsky, our second associate member, from the doorway.

“No, no, come in,” said Adam. “The fashion show will now conclude. Are we all—”

“Here!” Karen Brewer, the Morale Officer, burst in just as the clock flipped to 5:31. “Perfect timing!”

“Great. Okay, kiddos,” said Adam brusquely. “Before we get to the calls, we have to talk about the elephant in the room. What are you guys are going to do while me and Becca and Byron are in Sea City? This trip is really decimating the club—president, vice-president, and secretary, all gone at once.”

“Well, I mean, the secretary will actually still be here,” said Byron.

“Yeah, no, ignore him,” Adam told the rest of us. “He won’t be here. He’s going.”

Byron retreated sulkily into Jeff’s personal space. Jeff sort of absorbed him like a sponge. I think if they could, Byron and Jeff would just merge into one giant gelatinous blob named Beff.

“It’ll be okay,” said Charlotte. “Summer’s always pretty quiet, and I can take on some extra jobs. My music program is still in session, but I have plenty of time in the evenings.”

“I have plenty of time all the time,” said Shea. “I’m so goddamn bored. Give me jobs. Give me jobs. Give me jobs.” He fidgeted in his chair. Shea’s trying to quit smoking, and it makes him edgy.

“And, anyway,” I said, “I’m going to be here, so everything’s covered!”

“That’s right, Sasha. That’s what I wanted to suggest,” Adam nodded. “How would you like to be official Acting President while we’re gone?”

I gasped. I nearly fell out of my chair.

I knew I might be left in charge but I hadn’t thought of it that way. Acting President! Is this the best man ever, or what? He couldn’t have made me happier with a bouquet of roses.

I jumped to my feet. It’s not like I had a speech planned, but something just came over me. I clasped my hands together in front of me.

“Friends. Brothers. Sisters. Jeff. This is the dawn of a new era. A short era, but an era nonetheless. Mr. President calls this ‘decimation.’ Ms. Acting President calls it a chance to seize greatness by the scruff of the neck and never let go. This brief era shall be our club’s finest. I will see to it! Who’s with me!”

Six pairs of eyes stared at me blankly. (Two pairs of eyes stared at each other.) Crickets chirped.

“Uh—sure, Sasha,” said Charlotte politely. “We’re with you.”

“Yeah!” said Karen. “Rah, rah, she’s our president! If she can’t do it, no one... cresident.”

Acting president,” Adam murmured.

Whatever. I didn’t care. I bounced and hugged him.

The rest of the meeting was the usual business. Adam played the voicemails. We scheduled two jobs for me and one each for Milo, Karen, Charlotte, Shea, and Jeff. I noticed Byron, for all his “rahhh, mahhh, I’m staying Stoneybrook,” didn’t volunteer for any jobs.

Milo went right home after the meeting—he had a raid—but Adam asked me to hang around and go over some organizational stuff. I was only too happy, of course.

It was a good thing Byron and Jeff were in no hurry to leave, because I needed more help from Byron than Adam. In effect, I was going to be a combination president and secretary. Adam sends weekly announcements and job reminder emails to every BSC member, but Byron’s the one who puts together the schedule. I was going to do both. The emails were no problem, but the schedules were kind of involved. I didn’t get how much work goes into it until I was sitting there in the driver’s seat, Excel open, Byron standing by and walking me through the process.

It probably shouldn’t have been that hard to understand, but I was pretty distracted. It was the damn boyfriends. I don’t know how Byron could just stand there and talk to me as if Jeff wasn’t holding him from behind. Clearly bored, Jeff kept swaying Byron from side to side, and at one point he bent in and blew lightly in Byron’s ear. Byron acted like this was normal behavior. Meanwhile, Adam was standing behind my chair with his hands on my shoulders. At some point, he started playing with me hair, then he began massaging my back. It was really distracting.

Finally, we got the schedule perfect. Celebratory hugs all around. I wanted to write up the weekly email while I was still there and thinking of it. I pushed Adam away so I could think, but I could still feel him staring at my screen. I turned and started to snap, “Don’t hover,” but cut myself off when I found my face in his. He was crouching next to my chair, his arm around my back. He grinned, nudged forward, and kissed me.

Okay, that was nice. I immediately felt bad. I had a good guy who didn’t deserve to be yelled at. I put my arms around his shoulders and kissed him. I was going to leave it at that, but he yanked me forward for a third kiss. This time, he pushed my mouth open with his and slipped in his tongue.

I was in an awkward position. Socially, I mean. Physically it felt good. But French-kissing in front of other people is pretty much the definition of tacky. Still, I guessed Byron and Jeff couldn’t call the kettle black. I had my eyes shut, but I could hear little smacking noises from over in their corner. Great; this had turned into a make-out party.

Screw it. You have to give your man some sugar every now and then, especially if he’s about to leave for two weeks, and you’re taking his job, and you have announced your desire to usurp him. If I pretended we were alone, it was nice. Adam’s mouth was firm against mine. I love the way he smells--like fresh mountain mist and Bedhead. I worked my fingers up through the back of his hair, where it was soft and not so waxy.

A jolt went through me as a warm hand brushed my breast.

I snapped my eyes open and slapped Adam’s hand semi-playfully but semi-actually. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What?” Adam looked offended. “Don’t you like that?”

“It’s not Time and place, dude,” I told him.

“Mmm” Byron murmured. He was twisted in a weird yoga backbend over the bed, Jeff leaning over him and sucking on his neck.

“Ugh, you guys, get up, before I turn the hose on you,” I told them. “I swear, next meeting I’m going to bring a video camera so Claudia can see just what goes on in her—waugh! Adam! What the fuck?”

Adam pulled his tongue out of my ear. “WHAT,” he said, like he really didn’t get what he was doing wrong.

“Is there some kind of weird sex hormone in the air that affects only boys?” I demanded.

Byron wiped his face guiltily.

Adam hastily rubbed his face, too, even though I hadn’t slobbered on it.

That was when I got it. It was a game, only nobody told me we were playing. Doubles makeouts: me and Adam versus Byron and Jeff.

Oh ick ick ick. Why would I want to win that? I couldn’t believe Adam thought Byron and Jeff were people we should emulate. Clearly they’re people we sort of put up with. I don’t want to win the crown for Couple with the Most Sloppy Public Makeouts! The only way to win is not to play.

“This is getting way gross!” I announced. I picked up my bag. “Adam, honey, I love you, but call me when you’re sane.”

 

“I talked to your aunt Maria. She’s coming next weekend,” Mom told us at dinner. That's not exactly what she said--she was speaking Spanish--but I'll translate for you.

“The baby too?” I asked (also in Spanish). My aunt Maria just had a new baby, Ani, and I’ve been begging to visit or invite them for weeks and months. I haven’t seen Ani since she was born and just a few days old. I want her to grow up with me as a good influence, so she’ll be awesome.

“Yes, little Ani too. You’ll be able to baby-sit, won’t you?”

“Of course!” I agreed right away. “I love babies. This will be fun!”

The phone rang. “I’ll get it!” I cried, jumping up. “It might be Aunt Maria!”

But it wasn’t Aunt Maria. It was just Adam. “Great news!” he said. “You’re coming with us to Sea City!”

“I—what?” I blinked. I understood the words, but they didn’t make sense. “Wh—why? How?”

“I don’t know, but I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth. We never get to take friends on trips—it would just be insane, there’s eight of us—but my dad just announced after dinner that each of us triplets can take a friend if we want. Well, I want! I want you.”

I smiled into the phone. I like to be wanted. “A friend, he said? Are you sure they’ll let you take a girlfriend?”

“They’ve got to. Byron’s taking Jeff.  That’s what all this is about, I’d bet anything. Byron kicked up a fuss, and they couldn’t let one of us take somebody without letting all of us.”

Byron kicked up a fuss?”

“Yeah. You’ve never seen Byron on overdrive. He’s quiet most of the time, but when he digs his heels in, he’s stubborner than all the rest of us put together. My parents are just giving in because they know he’ll make the vacation a living hell if he puts his mind to it, and the whole point is to have fun. Anyway, you and I benefit. Eight days of fun, sun, and yours truly!”

I still couldn’t get my head around it. Fun? Sun? Me? “Hey, wait, who’ll take the club?” I demanded. “There’s no one left. We can’t leave Karen and Milo in charge, they’re braindead!”

“True,” said Adam thoughtfully, like he hadn’t considered it before. I couldn’t help but feel a little triumphant. Maybe I would make a better president. “Maybe Charlotte or Shea will step up. Shea wants something to do.”

I snorted. “Yeah, let’s leave it with Shea. He’s bugging out.”

“Okay, okay. Well, what about the old guard? I bet Kristy would be more than happy to take over for awhile.”

I frowned. That was reasonable. “I don’t know,” I said. “Kristy practically kicked us out of our own club back in June. What if she doesn’t want to give it up when we come back?”

“We worked all that out. She doesn’t even want the club anymore. I’m sure she’d help us out, but she agrees it’s ours now, and anyway, she has other things to do.”

I knew that. I was grasping at straws. It was just that, deep down, I didn’t want to leave the club with the old guard. I wanted it to be mine.

I had two competing images in my head. One showed me in Claudia’s room: ruling the club with an iron fist, cackling over my minions, going home to find Aunt Maria and Baby Ani waiting for me. At this point the image dissolved into soft pink cooing and baby-holding.

The second image showed me lying on a beach blanket in my coral halter (which I would have gotten back from Becca). Better yet, a sexy new bikini. An ice-cold pink lemonade rested on one side; on the other lay Adam, bare-chested, in swim trunks. Both of us wore sunglasses. We turned to each other, smiled, kissed, and turned back up to the golden sunshine.

That image was good too. Maybe better. I liked that image.

“I’ll talk to my parents,” I said.

“They have to let you go. They have to,” said Adam. “Jeff already got permission. I can’t spend my whole vacation looking at Byron and Jeff. Not alone.”

Cold water splashed all over Daydream Sasha and Daydream Adam. They propped themselves up on their beach blankets to find Byron and Jeff Greco-Roman wrestling in the surf. I didn’t want to spend my vacation looking at Byron and Jeff, either, especially not if Adam was going to be all competitive the way he was after the meeting today.

Darn it, why did Adam have to go and make this about them? Why couldn’t this be about me? About him, even? Why couldn’t he have said, “I just can’t live without you for two weeks!” Okay, well, I wouldn’t have liked that either. That’s kind of needy. But he could have said, “It will be much more fun with you than without you.” Yeah. That would have been good.

“I have to go,” I told him. “We’re in the middle of dinner.”

“Great, then you can go ask right away. Good luck. Kisses, baby.”

“Kisses.”

We hung up and I walked slowly back to the table.

“Who was it?” Mom asked.

“Just Adam.”

“Qué sorpresa,” said Mom dryly. Of course it wasn’t a surprise. Adam calls almost every day and he has a special knack for calling during dinner, even though we eat at different times. “What did he want?”

I reached for the iced tea. “Nada.”

Chapter Text


Swing. Swing. Swing. That one was bad. Swing again.

It was five-thirty in the morning and I was at Brenner Field, swinging a metal bat into a tree. Batting practice is pretty much a waste of time without a pitcher and maybe a coach checking up on you, but I was going to have to get used to practicing on my own. Eight days off is a big deal when you work out every day.

It was going to be a challenge to keep up my skills in Sea City with only my dumb brothers to play with. They used to be pretty good competition, but they’ve really gone soft. Sometimes Adam pitches underhand, forgetting I’m not a Little Leaguer. And the less said about Byron’s pitching, the better.

Maybe Squirt would be competitive.

Swing. Swing. Crack.

“What’d that tree ever do to you?”

I jumped and turned around. I could have sworn I was alone.

Shea Rodowsky was leaning against another tree, sucking on a lollipop.

“Hey,” I said, confused. I’m not used to meeting anybody I know at the field at 5:30 in the morning, unless it’s Kristy Thomas getting in a quick run before work. “What are you doing up?”

Shea shrugged. “I don’t so much sleep anymore.”

That I could believe. He looked like shit. Purple bags under his eyes, pale ashy skin. He wandered up to my duffel bag and picked out a baseball. “You want a pitcher?”

“I guess,” I said doubtfully. The tree might be better than him. He looked like a strong wind could blow him over.

So I wasn’t ready when he crossed to the other side of the field, turned around, and ZAM! The ball was whizzing by ear before I was ready for it.

I turned around and took off my cap. “Hey, you know what you’re doing!”

He shrugged. “I’m rusty.”

If that was him rusty, he was the one who belonged in training camp, not me. But I didn’t tell him that. I ran after the ball.

I found the ball rolling under some bushes and ran it back to Shea. He was leaning again, as if it was a monumental effort to hold up his body for more than five minutes at a time. I handed him the ball.

“I’m ready for you this time,” I told him.

I got into stance and he turned and threw. It was a curveball and I only managed to glance it. He didn’t run after it but just waited for it to bounce, bounce, bounce, roll to his feet.

We kept at it for about an hour, just Shea throwing and me batting. He had a couple of tricks up his sleeve, but more often than not he just threw nice, clean pitches. He just had one huge handicap as a player. He did not run. He just sort of stared at the ball, wherever it went, like he wasn’t all that interested, and let me go after it and bring it back, like his puppy.

“What’s wrong? Did smoking kill your lungs?” I finally asked him.

He shook his head. “I’m just, I dunno. Tired, I guess. Don’t feel like it.”

“Do you feel like batting awhile?”

He shrugged but took the bat from my hands.

He was a solid batter too, and reacted so well to most of my pitches that I felt like a goddamn wizard whenever I got anything past him.

He started flagging around seven. The park was filling up with dog-walkers, so I threw him my Gatorade and packed up my stuff. “That’s enough for now.”

“Okay,” said Shea emotionlessly, like he couldn’t care less.

I walked him home. I didn’t want to be responsible for him fainting halfway there. While he walked, I asked, “Where have you been playing? Not on the school team.”

“Nowhere. Just pick-up games and stuff. Nothing organized, not since Little League.”

“Why?” I asked.

He just shrugged.

“You’re too good not to play,” I told him. It hurts me to compliment my brothers or the other guys on my team--like I’m helping the competition--but with Shea, it was different. I figured he honestly didn’t know how good he was. I was giving him new information.

“I guess I’ve just had other stuff to do,” he said.

“What, too busy hanging with the druggies and bike thieves on the hill behind the school?”

He grinned. “I’m also part of a criminal organization known as the Baby-Sitters Club.”

“Oh, right. Those jerks.”

“Yeah, bastards, all of ’em.”

“Well, look,” I said, with a sudden inspiration. “If you can spare a week, do you want to come with me to Sea City and be my coach?”

He squinted at me like I wasn’t making sense.

I decided to start at the beginning. “My family’s leaving on this beach vacation tomorrow.”

“I know. Adam told me to expect more work.”

“Oh. Right. Well, if you don’t mind missing out on the jobs, you should come with us. I know it’s short notice, but Mom and Dad only just told us we could bring guests. I think they were hoping we wouldn’t be able to find anyone. The thing is, I’m supposed to practice every day. I wasn’t going to ask anyone because it would be even more of a distraction. But actually it would be a lot easier if I had someone good to work with.”

“You want me... to come?” said Shea slowly. “To Sea City?”

I nodded impatiently. I didn’t know if he was playing dumb, or being dumb. “Yeah-huh, you want to? It won’t be all work. I figure I’ll practice in the morning, around this time, and then when the lifeguard goes on duty, I’ll just relax and swim with everyone else. There’s a great beach and all the usual boardwalk stuff—arcade, ice cream, mini golf, all of that. It’s a good time.”

The more I talked the more I realized this was not the kind of good wholesome fun that would appeal to a pale, leather-jacket-wearing wannabe thug. But when I was done talking, after a short pause, Shea nodded.

“Yeah, okay. Sounds cool. I’ll ask my folks.”

 

I didn’t realize my mistake until that night, when my parents called a Family Meeting.

“As you know, we’re leaving tomorrow morning—” Dad began.

Everyone cheered, even Byron.

“--so,” Dad went on, waving his hands to get us to lower the volume, “let’s go over some preliminary ground rules.”

“Beach only during lifeguard hours,” said Adam promptly.

“Buddy system,” added Byron.

“No drinking, drugs, or anything illegal,” Mallory ticked off.

“Don’t trash the house,” said Claire.

“Don’t let Claire overload on sugar until she goes nuts and trashes the house,” said Margo.

“All of those rules still apply,” Mom smiled. “We’d also like to note some additional rules now that we’re allowing some of you to bring special guests. First of all, nobody will be boarding in the same room with their guest, and furthermore, guests’ rooms will be off-limits during the hours of nine PM and nine AM.”

That’s when I got my first sinking feeling. Why would I want to go in Shea’s room at night, and why would Mom and Dad care if I did?

“So we have to do all our making out in the daytime,” said Adam, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Got it.”

That’s when I got my second sinking feeling. It was a sharper drop this time.

“Guests’ room will also be off-limits to their inviters, without at least one other person in the room,” Dad added, glaring at Adam.

“Daytime orgies,” Byron piped up. “Got it.”

“Byron!” Dad snapped.

“What? It was the same joke Adam just made!”

“Do these rules apply to Mallory and Jessi and me and Becca too?” Vanessa asked.

“I don’t care,” said Mallory. “It won’t be hard to follow them. Jessi and Becca will be staying at the Ramseys’ cottage anyway—and so will Jeff, sorry to break it to you, Byron.”

“What?” Byron’s smile flipped.

“That’s right,” said Mom. “We have space for two in Mary Anne and Stacey’s old room, so we’ll put the girls there, and the Ramseys can put up one on the pull-out sofa, so that will be Jeff.”

“When you say ‘the girls,’” I began.

“Yes?” said Dad.

“Uh... nothing.”

 

“Shea Rodowsky?!” Adam repeated ten minutes later in our room. He doubled over with laughter, nearly falling off the top bunk.

“I didn’t know we were supposed to invite dates!” I moaned.

“That’s what ‘guest’ means, when you’re over twelve,” Adam informed me. “Should Mom and Dad have called it a ‘plus one’? Or would you then have invited your math teacher?”

“I think guest can mean anything, anyone you want to take,” said Byron, using his most annoying high-horse nice-guy voice. “Jordan doesn’t have a girlfriend, so I don’t see what’s wrong with inviting Shea.”

“Sure, rub it in!” I said. “I could have found a date if I wanted, you know, I just didn’t know we were supposed to!”

“Who did you think we would invite?” said Adam. “Obviously Byron’s going to take Jeff and I’m going to take Sasha. What goes through your head?”

“I don’t know! I didn’t think it through!” I rubbed my hands over my head. I still wasn’t used to the prickles. I kind of liked my long hair, but it wasn’t practical for baseball, or for people thinking I’m straight. Stupid gay brother. This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for him and his stupid joined-at-the-hip boyfriend.

“I could take Sasha,” said Adam, “but you know what, now that I’ve thought about it, why don’t I invite fucking Buddy Barrett. Bet he’ll be great company on the Tunnel of Love.”

“Okay, okay, shut up. Now I know,” I said. “There’s still, ummm, eleven hours before we leave. I’m sure I can find a girl willing to go on a free beach vacation. What’s Haley Braddock doing?”

“She’s a CIT at a camp for the Deaf,” said Byron, “but also, I don’t know if she’d be interested. In, you know. Men.”

“Fuck!”

“Martha Rodrigues,” Adam suggested. “She thinks you’re cute.”

“Sold.” I grabbed the phone. “Do you have her number?”

“Better. I have her screen name.”

Five minutes later I was logged in and chatting with Martha. Adam was right about her liking me—she put a lot of eleventy-ones after her “YES!”—and I figured I was in the clear, until she came back with “My mom says no” and several sad crying faces.

I turned to Adam. “Strike one. Who has negligent parents?”

“Hmm...” Adam glanced down my buddy list. “Tiffany Kilbourne. Her parents don’t care what she does. She likes you, too!”

“She likes Byron,” I said. “She was all over him at the All-School Dance.”

“Well, not much happening there,” Adam pointed out.

“She only thinks she likes me because she can’t tell us apart,” said Byron. “Didn’t she offer to take you home and show you her garden?”

“Yeah, and it was kind of gross. The girl has wandering hands.”

Adam hooted. “All the more reason to bring her!”

“It wasn’t like that,” I protested. “It was just--I don’t know--”

“Awkward,” Byron suggested.

“Yeah! Well. No. Not exactly.” I didn’t want to agree with him. Of course Byron thought it was awkward to be felt up by a girl. I wasn’t supposed to...right? “I just like a girl to have a little finesse. You know, class.”

“Fine, fine,” said Adam. “Sarah Hill? She goes to Bible Study. That’s pretty classy.”

“Yeah, and her favorite joke is ‘Pull my finger.’”

“Okay, here.” Adam pointed at the screen. “Allie Sandbourne. She writes for the Literary Voice. Now that is undeniable class.”

“Urgh,” I said. “Anyone else? She gives me the creeps.”

“Do you want a date or don’t you?”

“Maybe you should just take, you know, Shea,” Byron put in. “You did ask him first.”

I scowled. “Of course you want me to be gay.”

“What? No. That’s not even--” Byron shook his head, confused. ‘What do I care if you’re gay?”

“I’m not gay!” I shouted.

“Good!” said Byron. “I don’t want you to be! That’s just competition for me, isn’t it? How are guys supposed to choose me over my identical brother?”

“What guys?” I demanded.

“I don’t know, guys! Any guys.”

“What about Jeff?” Okay, I was veering wildly onto a tangent, but this seemed important.

Byron shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “He’s not going to be around forever. He leaves next month.”

“And you’ll--you’ll just—you mean you’ll still be gay?” I sputtered.

Adam laughed.

“Well--yeah, of course! What did you think?” said Byron. “I was under a temporary spell, just for Jeff?”

Well, no, not exactly. I guess I didn’t think about it one way or another. It just shocked me to hear Byron going on about random guys, plural. Creepy. Scary.

“So wait, Byron was only temporarily gay, but he wanted you to be permanently gay?” Adam clarified. “Seriously, dude. What goes through your head?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know! Go away! I’m asking Allie!”

I don’t talk to Allie Sandbourne often—she’s always talking about death and ravens, it’s a problem—so it wasn’t so easy to figure out how to broach the subject of a beach vacation. I cracked my knuckles and carefully typed, “Sup?”

The “is typing” icon immediately appeared after Allie’s name. And stayed there. Jeez, how much was she writing? Was she really going to tell me everything that was up with her? She is so weird.

The phone rang while she was still typing. It was right by me on the desk, so I answered. I guess I was hoping it would be Martha with good news, or any other girl in Stoneybrook. “Pikes’. This is Jordan.”

“Jordan, hi! This is Muriel Rodowsky.”

“Oh...hi, Mrs. Rodowsky,” I murmured, shooting my brothers giant eyes of “help!”

Byron’s eyes widened. Adam covered his mouth, barely holding back laughter.

“Jordan, I just called to talk to your mother or father about the trip, but while I’ve got you on the line, I’d just like to thank you for thinking to invite Shea. You and your brothers have been such good friends to him through the last few months—it’s been a rough time for Shea, as you know. He may not always show it, but it means so much to him to have his friends looking out for him.”

“No problem,” I said faintly.

By this time Allie had typed: “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality. We slowly drove—He knew no haste—and I had put away my labor and my leisure too for his Civility. Sup with you?”

“He can go, of course,” Mrs. Rodowsky went on. “I’m happy to let him. It’s so rare to hear him excited about something these days. We’d have gone somewhere ourselves if we could afford it, and if he’d let us take him. He needs a change of pace. He’s finally serious about quitting smoking, and I think it will really help him to have something fun to take his mind off things.”

“Oh,” I said in a tiny voice. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Anyway, enough of that. He’d kill me if he heard me talking like this to you. Suffice it to say your invitation is basically a miracle for us. Can I talk to your mom or dad now?”

“Yeah, uh...let me just...get them,” I mumbled.

“Hey, Byron, help me out,” said Adam. “I just, I don’t know who to invite.”

“To Sea City?” said Byron, confused.

“No, to Jordan’s wedding. I’d ask Shea Rodowsky, but it looks like he’ll be busy being the groom.”

I barely remembered to hit “mute” on the phone before telling him to fuck off.

Chapter Text


Interim Vacation Policies
Posted by: Becca
Visible to: BSC-Active

Hi guys, well it’s here, Adam’s and my last post before vacation. We handed off the phone to Sasha this morning.

As a Reminder, here is our official Interim Officer Roster:

Acting President/Treasurer - Sasha
Acting Vice President/Treasury Assistant - Charlotte
Acting Secretary - Mary Anne

Mary Anne has volunteered to coordinate with other Retired members about them possibly taking associate jobs if needed. YAY MARY ANNE!! THANKS FROM ADAM & BECCA!

In case you still need to reach us:

Pike Beach House: (732) 555-2934
Ramsey Beach House: (732) 555-7961

We plan to check our normal email addresses, but the computer will be shared between everyone and the house has dial-up access only, so please do not expect a quick reply!

Some questions have already come up about Sasha’s Presidency. After discussion, we all agree that she has FULL PRESIDENTIAL POWER due to us not being necessarily reachable and also the Acting President title meaning nothing otherwise. Adam & me have asked her not to make sweeping changes. Any new policies will be reviewed by us when we return.

Thanks!
Adam & Becca

Tags: admin


Don’t forget towels. I always forget towels,” said Charlotte. She was lying on my bed, flipping through a Seventeen while I packed. “And a sweater, in case it gets cold. I know it’s hot now, but it’s always colder on the ocean.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I teased, tossing in my blue and white striped nautical sweater.

“Don’t get jealous of my packing prowess, now. Do you have one dressy-ish outfit, in case you go to dinner somewhere nice?”

“I borrowed Sasha’s dress,” I reminded her.

“Oh, right! That was so nice of her, wasn’t it? It’s a great dress. It’s a good thing you’re tall. Let’s see, what else? How many bathing suits do you have? If you’re going to be swimming every day, you might want more than one.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “I have a plan.”

Charlotte propped herself up on her elbow. “A plan, you say?”

“See, I just bought this new bikini. And I kind of feel like the first time I wear it, my parents will be like, ‘Put on your other swimsuit, that one’s indecent.’ Aunt Cecelia will, anyway. But if I don’t have another swimsuit...”

“Indecent?” Charlotte repeated. “You’ve got to show me now!”

I opened my duffel bag and pulled out the bikini. I bought it the other day with my baby-sitting money. It’s basically three small triangles held together with string. It reminds me of that song, “She wore an itty-bitty teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini” (except it’s shimmery mermaid green). I love it.

“Wow,” said Charlotte. “You’re really going to wear that? You?”

“Why not me?” I said, hurt. “I tried it on at the store. I thought it looked good.”

“I don’t mean you won’t look good. You have a great figure. Just, you know, do you really want to show it off that much? Aren’t you going to feel kind of... naked?”

I shrugged. I’d kind of worried about that myself, but I didn’t want to admit it. “Other girls wear worse than this.”

“I know, but you’re not other girls.”

“I think it’s important for me to try to come out of my shell a little,” I said, quoting every adult ever. “I need to push my comfort zones and, um, exhibit some confidence.”

“Uh-huh.” Charlotte eyed me for a long time, and then put her hand on her chin. “Let’s just do some math here. That bathing suit is maybe half a dozen square inches of fabric. You’re going on vacation with half a dozen boys...”

I squealed. “I don’t like any of those boys!”

“It’s because of Shea, isn’t it?”

“Shea Rodowsky?” I said, confused. “Is he going to be there?”

“Didn’t you know? Byron called me last night to offer me a job of his for next week. I guess he’s going as a guest of the triplets. He’s supposed to help Jordan with his baseball practice or something.”

“Oh. No, I didn’t know that. Why would I want to impress him? He’s a weirdo.”

“He is not.”

I grinned. “I get it. You think he’s cute!”

“Cute,” said Charlotte, “is not the word. He is hot. He is hot like fire. I’d wear that bikini for him in a second if I thought it would do me any good.”

I giggled. “I didn’t know you liked the bad boy type.”

Charlotte smiled dreamily. “Neither did I, but Shea pulls it off.”

“You should ask him out!”

Charlotte waved her hand.  “He’d never go for me. A nerdy kid like me? Forget it.”

“You’re not a nerd,” I said loyally.

“Yes, I am. Anyway, I’m too young for him.”

“You’re in the same class. That matters more than age.” Charlotte skipped a grade, so even though she’s not even fourteen yet, she’s going into her sophomore year. Me, I only just finished middle school.

“We’re talking about you here, not me. And if you didn’t know Shea is going, I guess it’s not him. Let’s see...who could it be...Jeff Schafer is cute. Super gay, but super cute.”

“He’s also super taken. And super lives in California.”

“Right, I mean, he’s not a good prospect for a number of reasons, but a guy doesn’t have to be a good prospect to be super cute. You can still admire him from afar.”

“I don’t know if I’m the admiring from afar type.”

“Really? I am. But, okay, I can tell from the way you talk about him that it’s not him. That or you have a really good poker face. That leaves the Pikes. Nick’s sort of young...”

“He’s the same age as us!”

“Yeah, but he’s a young thirteen, don’t you think? Besides, you’re practically fourteen... Why? it him?”

“Oh, hell, no. He’s a baby.”

Charlotte grinned. “You see? Okay, so, who’s left? Just triplets? I guess if you like one triplet, you like them all. They’re all right, I guess.”

“You really think Shea and Jeff are cuter than the triplets?”

“Of course! Don’t you? Becca!” she said, fake-scolding. “It is a triplet!”

“No way!” I giggled, rolling onto the bed. “Oh my lord, can you imagine? Talk about being too young for somebody. They’re older than Shea. Older than Jeff! I wouldn’t even dare to have a crush on one of them. It seems presumptuous or something. They’re, like, grown-ups.”

Charlotte laughed. “They don’t seem that old to me. They’re always clowning around. Anyway, lots of guys like younger girls.”

I shook my head. “It’s going to be weird enough trying to hang out with them on the beach, like I’m their friend or something.”

“You are their friend. You’re vice-president of the club. The club Adam runs. He treats you like an equal when it comes to club stuff, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah, but it’s not the same. That’s business.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s so out of the question, you and one of them. I mean, except for Byron, obviously. Which one is it?”

I shook my head. “None of them.”

“So who’s left?” said Charlotte. “Becca. Is there something you need to tell me? It’s Vanessa, isn’t it?”

I laughed and shoved her. “No, there’s nothing I need to tell you! It’s really not anybody in specific. It’s just, you know, we’ll be at the beach. There will be guys there. Not necessarily the guys I came with, just guys.”

“Oh, I see. You’re in the market for a summer fling.”

“Exactly.”

“I’m going to write you a postcard every day, and every day it will just say, ‘Tell me more, tell me more, like does he have a car,’” Charlotte announced.

“You better. I’m going to hold you to that!”

“Hey, you know what I just realized?”

“What?”

“We are talking about boys.”

“So?”

“So, we’re officially Claudia and Stacey!”

Charlotte’s greatest ambition is to be like her ex-baby-sitter and all-time hero, Stacey McGill. When Charlotte and I were eight, Stacey’s age, thirteen, seemed like the oldest and coolest age, and Stacey seemed so glamorous and beautiful. She bought trendy clothes with her own money, she did algebra, and she actually went out with boys! (We didn’t know at the time that when you’re in middle school, “going out” means saying, “We’re going out now” and then not actually going anywhere because it’s not like anyone has a car.) Stacey is eighteen now and goes to NYU. Eighteen is the legitimately coolest age. Stacey probably goes clubbing every night and makes out with college men in dorm parties.

“You can be Stacey,” I said, “and I’ll be Claudia. It fits because I’m the vice-president.”

“I’m not the treasurer, though, like Stacey was.”

“You’re good at math. That’s good enough.”

“Do you realize we’re older now than they were when they started the Baby-sitters Club?” said Charlotte. “I can’t even fathom that sometimes. Remember how grown-up we thought they were? I don’t feel that grown-up most of the time.”

“I think every year people get less grown up,” I said. “Just, you know, in general. Fourteen now is younger than fourteen five years ago.”

“It’s probably just psychological. We probably look grown-up to our charges.”

“I guess,” I said.

“Anyway, you’ll look grown-up in this.” Charlotte ran the bathing suit over her fingers. “Don’t forget to shave your legs. And, um, maybe some other areas.”

“I know, right?” I said. “I am not looking forward to trying to shave there. Is that really what people do? Real ladies wear stuff like this all the time. You see it in magazines. What do they do?”

“Brazilian wax,” said Charlotte, and for me reason, that made us both giggle uncontrollably. Yeah, we’re really grown up.

 

Jessi and I walked to the Pikes’ early Saturday morning. We were going to ride with them, for two reasons: (1) Fun. (2) No sane person would subject themselves to Aunt Cecelia’s backseat driving on a three-hour highway trip. Luckily, the Pikes have two huge station wagons with extra space for guests.

The whole neighborhood had to know the Pikes were going on vacation. You could hear shouts from all the way down the street. Claire was dancing and doing spontaneous jumping jacks, she was so excited. Margo was complaining that she already felt sick. Vanessa was yelling that someone hid her guitar. Mr. Pike was strapping suitcases to the top of one of the station wagons, and Mrs. Pike was loading a cooler into the trunk of the other.

Jeff had gotten there already, probably just a second ago. He was still holding his duffel bag over one shoulder. He was standing by the rosebushes, talking to Nick. Across the driveway, the triplets were huddled in a circle.

I walked over to them curiously. “What are you guys doing?”

“Three-way Rock, Paper, Scissors,” explained Jordan.

“We always do this do decide who rides bitch,” Byron explained. “It’s a tradition.”

Byron and Jordan chanted, “Rock, paper, scissors, bitch!”

Adam had scissors; Byron paper; Jordan rock.

They went again. “Rock, paper, scissors, bitch!”

This time, Adam and Byron both had scissors, and Jordan was paper.

“Ha!” said Byron.

“Fuck! Best three out of five,” said Jordan. He raised his fist.

“This is dumb,” said Adam. “I don’t care where I sit. You can strap me to the top of the luggage rack for all I care.”

“It’s a tradition!” said Byron.

“You know Jeff is here, right?” I asked him.

“Oh. Yeah. I saw.” Byron glanced across the driveway and gave a little wave. Jeff just nodded and went back to talking to Nick.

“Whoa. Did you guys have a fight or something?” I asked.

“Ha. No. We just agreed to, you know, be cool. Not make Mom and Dad regret inviting him. At least until it’s too late.” Byron grinned.

“I regret it already,” said Adam darkly.

I was surprised that he was in such a bad mood. Of all the triplets, Adam is the least moody. Jordan is often angry for no reason and Byron sometimes seems to be barely holding back tears, but Adam’s almost always sunshiney and can-do.

Mrs. Pike clapped her hands. “Okay, is everyone present and accounted for?”

“What about Shea?” said Vanessa.

“Maybe he won’t come,” said Jordan, sounding hopeful.

“There he is,” said Mallory, waving at a stooped figure trudging down the hill. Shea was wearing a wrinkled black T-shirt and jeans and carrying his possessions in a paper sack. His hair was sticking out every which way like he hadn’t combed it in days.

Charlotte is such a weirdo.

“Good. Great,” said Adam. “Everyone can come. Everyone in the world. Except Sasha.”

“You invited Sasha?” I asked.

“Of course I did, but she couldn’t get permission... I don’t think she tried very hard, though.” Adam kicked a rock. “I don’t think she even wanted to come.”

I couldn’t imagine that. Who wouldn’t want to come to Sea City? I found myself a little angry at Sasha. “She doesn’t know what she’s missing!” I said. “Look at the fun we’re having!”

“Fun, fun, fun,” Adam muttered.

“Okay, guys, pile in,” said Mr. Pike, throwing open the door to one of the station wagons. Somehow, even though they’d been standing on opposite sides of the drive, Byron and Jeff were first and second in line. They climbed into the way-back seat. Jordan shouted, “Shotgun!”

Mrs. Pike slammed the trunk to her station wagon. “Car two is open for business!”

Mallory, Jessi, and Vanessa piled into the back. Margo took shotgun (she gets less carsick in the front). Claire threw herself into the middle seat and patted the seat next to her. “Come on, Becca!”

I climbed in.

“Still room for one more, Nick,” said Mr. Pike. Shea had climbed in the back next to Byron and Jeff. Adam was sitting alone in the middle seat, staring out the opposite window with his chin in his hand.

Jordan turned around in the passenger seat. “Oh, man, Nick’s coming?” He started retching.

“I thought we were finally strapping him to the roof,” said Byron, waving his hand in front of his face like he was wafting away a bad smell.

“Guys,” said Mr. Pike warningly.

I felt strange watching this. On the one hand, it was mean, and I felt bad for Nick. On the other, it kind of made me feel relieved. Like even though they’re sixteen, the triplets are really not all that much more grown-up than me. Maybe less.

“Fuck it,” muttered Nick. He grabbed his bag and turned around, toward our door. “I’ll ride in the girls’ car.”

“Nicky is a girl!” I don’t even know who-all said that--most of the guys in the car, I think.

“I’m afraid we’re full up, honey,” said Mrs. Pike apologetically.

“I’ll trade,” I volunteered.

“You want to ride with the boys?” said Vanessa doubtfully.

“Sure, why not?”

“Good lu-uck,” said Mallory, in a voice which obviously meant, “It’s your funeral.”

I grabbed my purse and ran across the drive to Mr. Pike’s car. I jumped into the middle seat next to Adam. Shea reached forward and threw the door shut behind me, and I quickly pulled the seatbelt across my chest. As I clasped it, my arm brushed Adam’s, and he looked over and me and gave me a funny sort of half-smile.

My heart fluttered, and suddenly I knew why I bought that bikini.

Chapter Text


10 Pikes + 2 Ramseys + 2 Guests / 2 Cars = 2 Close 4 Comfort
Posted by: Mallory
Visible to: BSC-Retired

I know this blog is for baby-sitting jobs, and I’m not technically baby-sitting. Technically, my brothers and sisters don’t need baby-sitters anymore. Technically, some of them *are* baby-sitters. But you’d never know that from the car ride I just endured. I think Sea City makes my whole family regress.

Glasses. Pimples. Frizzy hair. I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview as I was climbing into the car, and that’s what I saw. I haven’t looked that bad since puberty.

We've been going to Sea City since I was two. I couldn’t regress to a cuter age? I had to relive my awkward tween years? Oh, well.

I grinned as Jessi climbed into the backseat next to me. It felt like a real luxury to get two uninterrupted, work-free weeks with my best friend. We were super-close once upon a time, but we hardly ever see each other now that I’m in boarding school and she spends practically every vacation in New York, working with some legendary ballet master or another. Even when we’re both home, she has to practice so much and I have so much homework and personally assigned writing work that it’s hard to schedule any best friend time. During winter break, we set aside the day after Christmas just for each other. Want to know what we did all afternoon? I sat in her basement working on a story while she did her barre exercises. We didn’t say much more than “hello” and “goodbye.”

I miss Jessi like crazy, but I’m also proud that my best friend is someone so awesome. Ballet is incredibly competitive, and Jessi has already been recruited to join a professional ballet company. (She told them she wants to finish high school first.) Jessi and I are both serious about our careers. It’s something we have in common, but it also drives us apart. Sometimes I just can’t wait to be grown up and have everything settled. Jessi will dance, and I’ll write, and we’ll both live in New York City. Maybe we’ll share an apartment.

First, though, we have to get through our dumb childhoods.

As Mom started backing out of the driveway, this was the situation:

Margo had put The Best of Hilary Duff on the CD player.

Vanessa was taking snapshots of a congealed pool of Mountain Dew in a cupholder. Mom appointed her the trip photographer because she’s “artistic,” so Vanessa was perversely determined to fill the camera’s memory cardwith the ugliest photographs she could find.

Claire was turned around in her seat, trying to get Vanessa’s attention with a “fashion show” of different found items on her head: Margo’s empty barf bucket, an atlas, an uninflated beach ball.

Next to Claire, Nick had his arms folded, and he was glaring out the window muttering to himself. “I don’t see where they get off saying I’m girly when Byron’s the one who fucks boys--”

“Excuse me?” said Mom.

“Nicky said a bad word!” said Claire, modelling a fetching ice scraper.

“I feel really oogy,” Margo announced, clutching at the door handle.

“That’s it, I’m done,” said Nick. “I’m done giving them chances to reject me. From now on they are dead to me.”

“Nick, that’s terrible,” said Mom.

They’re terrible.”

“You’re all terrible as far as I’m concerned,” Vanessa piped up. “Who hides a person’s guitar?”

Claire turned around and grinned.

Vanessa made a grab for Claire, but Claire ducked.

“I’ll just have to sing a capella. You can’t take my voice from me,” said Vanessa dramatically. “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz...

“Oh, God, not Janis,” I moaned.

My friends all got Porsches, I must make amends...

“How about a game, everybody?” I interrupted brightly.

“Ugh, not License Plates,” said Nick.

“I have a deck of cards,” I said, reaching for my purse.

“Can you play card games in the car?” Jessi wondered.

The answer to that was: not well. I tried to teach the group several card games, but all of them either required piles of cards, which slide around in car, or at least for everyone to hide their hand from everyone else, which was tough when we were all facing the same way. The people in the back had a distinct advantage.

“Oh, well, we’ll play when we get there,” said Jessi after our fifteenth attempt. She collected Vanessa’s cards and handed them to me to shuffle. “How do you know all these card games, anyway?”

“We play cards a lot at school,” I said. “Those of us who don’t have TVs in our rooms, anyway. Actually, most of these games aren’t much fun without betting.”

“You gamble?” Margo asked with interest. I had already taught most of my games to my younger siblings, but I’d kept out that detail.

“Mallory!” said Mom.

“What?” I whined. I knew I sounded like a little kid.  “I’m not a high roller. I mean, I’m a scholarship kid. They all know I don’t have as much money. It’s just symbolic. Quarters and stuff.”

“I know how you feel,” said Jessi. “You know the average family income for a ballet student?”

“No.”

“Neither do I, because I can’t count that high.”

I giggled.

“Gambling is a bad habit,” said Mom. “It can get you in real trouble.”

“Okay, Mom,” I said, rolling my eyes at Jessi.  I leaned over to her and whispered, “So I’m mature enough to handle my own life at school, but back home...”

“Right?” said Jessi. “Mom gave me a credit card to use in New York. I get home, and she’s tying my shoes for me.”

“Your mom gave you a credit card?” I was impressed. I had a debit card, but my mom always said credit was a dangerous thing for a young person.

“Sort of. A starter card. It’s only got a two-hundred-dollar limit. It’s for groceries and stuff. Mom doesn’t want me to be a burden on Uncle Michael. I guess it’s a good thing it’s not any higher. If it were a thousand, I’d have spent it by now.”

“Huh?” I was confused. She’d spend a thousand, but not two hundred?

“See, most of my classmates, the serious ones, anyway, have gone to Karen Winters. She’s this retired dancer who gives private lessons,” Jessi explained. “She targets your ‘problem areas’ and gives individualized instruction. My friends who’ve gone to her swear by her, and you can tell it works in their dancing. They really do improve in just a few sessions. I wish I could go.”

“You’re so good you don’t need her,” I said loyally.

Jessi gave me a grateful smile, but I could tell she didn’t buy it. I had to admit that if it were me, I’d feel the same way. Everyone has room for improvement, and I’d learned a lot from talking to real, published authors.

“Augh! Mom, Nick pinched me!” said Vanessa.

“She deserved it,” said Nick.

“Whooo. I am a ghost,” said Claire. Or rather, Claire’s voice, from beneath my seat. I looked down. She was crouched behind my legs. While we were talking, she must have unbuckled her seat belt and slithered down under the seats.

“Ooof,” Margo groaned. “Mom, where’s the, um--”

“Barf bucket!” supplied Claire from the trunk.

Mom glanced around. “Claire, what are you doing? Get back in your seat!”

“I’m just looking for my Gameboy.”

“If you packed it, you packed it. Get in your seat, and find some other way to pass the time.”

Margo dry-heaved.

Claire wailed, “But I’m bored!”

“For God’s sake, Claire, now!” Mom snapped.

Suddenly, Claire burst into tears. Even I wasn’t expecting that. The car fell silent as Claire, sniffling, crawled back into her seat, buckled her belt, and quietly blubbered out the window. Margo moaned like a drowning dog. Vanessa harmonized.

Just then, the other station wagon sailed by us. As each window passed we got a clear view of the joy within. Everyone seemed to be singing. Dad was tapping out a beat on the steering wheel; Jordan was turned around in his seat to face the others, swinging his hands back and forth; Adam and Becca were swaying with their arms around each other’s shoulders, Becca holding up a lit cell phone; Byron was clapping; Jeff was doing funky dance moves with his shoulders; Shea had his hand cupped over his mouth apparently doing some kind of vocal effect.

I couldn’t believe it. Before we left, I’d have predicted our car would be more fun than theirs, especially with both Jordan and Adam in capital-M Moods. But everyone over there was grinning and having a great time. Shea was smiling.

Jessi and I glanced at each other. We had clearly picked the wrong car. I sighed and pulled a book out of my purse. Jessi did the same (I mean, she pulled a book out of her purse, not mine.) The Car of Sadness stayed silent until we reached the rest stop.

 

By the time we pulled into the lot at Howard Johnson’s, the other car had already arrived. Clearly, things had gone south since we saw them last. Dad had pulled Jordan and Byron to a table away from the others and he was giving them a Quiet but Stern Talking To.

Jessi, Vanessa and I joined Adam, Becca, Jeff and Shea at their table. Vanessa helped herself to Shea’s fries. “What happened?”

“They were being idiots,” said Adam.

“Byron and Jordan both had trouble keeping their hands to themselves,” Becca explained. “In different ways.”

I noticed Shea was holding a napkin to his lip.

“Jordan hit you?” I guessed.

“He threw a CD case. I was asking for it.” Shea grinned over his bloodstained napkin.

“And what did Byron do?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.

“We were just holding hands,” said Jeff defensively.

“He was holdin’ something,” Shea muttered.

Mom led Margo to the table. She still looked green, and Adam wordlessly handed her the rest of his Coke.

“Dee, do you mind if we make some seating adjustments on the next leg?” Dad asked Mom. “I think it’s best to separate Byron and Jordan from their guests.”

“No!” said Byron, stricken.

“Sure, hand them over. I can handle them,” said Mom, giving the triplets her patented hairy eyeball. (Even Adam, for no particular reason.)

“Jessi and I will trade with Byron and Jordan,” I volunteered. Even the other car’s scandal and violence seemed more fun than our car’s silent resentment.

“Sure!” said Jessi.

“I won’t go!” said Byron. “You can’t make me!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” said Jeff. “I’ll go.”

“What?” Byron looked frantic. “No! Jeff! Stand strong!”

“Be cool, man,” Jeff muttered.

Byron pouted, sat at the end of the booth, and chain-ate several fries from Shea’s plate. (Poor Shea. He probably didn’t get to eat any of his own fries. Non-Pikes just don’t understand about speed-eating.)

Dad and his car were about ready to head out. Jessi and I hit the bathrooms, ordered, and took our food into the car. Shea climbed in the back, and Adam took his seat in the middle. Byron sat beside him and immediately crossed his arms, glowering.

“That’s, um, that’s where I was sitting,” Becca said softly.

“Sit somewhere else,” snapped Byron.

“Yeah, Beck, he can’t sit here in the way-back, it holds too many special memories,” Shea teased.

Jessi and I took the seats next to Shea, and Becca ended up in the front next to Dad, which I guess was sort of awkward for her. She kept turning around and sending us silent, plaintive looks.

“It’s not like I killed somebody,” Byron grumbled. “Adam and Sasha never get in trouble.”

“That’s because Sasha and I are never that obnoxious,” said Adam. “Sasha and I are a model couple.”

“Yeah? So where is she now?”

“Hey, Byron, come here.”

“What?”

“Closer.”

“Wha--ow!”

Beside me, Shea began fidgeting, quivering his knee and drumming on the back of Adam’s seat. Under his breath, he was murmuring, “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

“Um... are you okay?” I said, feeling like an idiot.

“Yes. Maybe. Yes,” said Shea distractedly. “I’m out of lollipops. I shouldn’t have given so many to Claire.”

“Do lollipops really help?” Becca asked.

“No,” said Shea. “But I kinda go crazy without something to do with my mouth. Uhh. Anyone hungry?” he looked around hopefully. “Can we stop off?”

“We’ll do a pit stop in a bit,” said Dad. “We want to get there before dark.”

“Don’t let him go in the mini-mart by himself,” said Adam. “He’ll buy cigarettes.”

Shea groaned and slumped in his seat. He pulled the gross, torn, linty remains of a lollipop stick out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth. Jessi winced and looked away. Shea just chewed morosely.

Ahead of us, Adam and Byron were gazing mopily out of opposite windows. Becca stared back at everyone else with an expression of extreme martyrdom. I realized we’d become the new Car of Sadness. Was it me? Something I exude? An aura of melancholy? A smell, perhaps?

Mom’s car zoomed past. Margo must have gotten over her sickness, or at least gotten distracted, because she was chattering excitedly to Mom about something. In the middle, Claire and Vanessa were busy with a slapping game. In the back, Jordan, Jeff, and Nick were laughing like old chums. Suddenly the three of them turned and, as one, flipped us enthusiastic birds.

“Oh-h-h!” Byron moaned, as if he’d been shot. His lower lip trembled.

“Grow up!” Adam snapped at him.

Jessi and I looked at each other and sighed.

Chapter Text


Fuuuuuuuuuck.

Okay, listen, I love the Pike family. I’d jump in front of a bullet for any one of those guys. But five hours in a tin can with half a dozen Pikes, and I want to shoot all of them and then myself.

I know I’m moody. “Irritability,” the quitting pamphlet calls it. How long does it take to fucking detox? My last cigarette was a week and a half ago. Ten days, six hours, and seventeen minutes, if you want to be exact.

I tried to quit once or twice before, but it wasn’t like this. The first time it was easy, almost fun. A game with myself to see how long I could go. It was so easy that I stopped trying just because I figured I could do it again anytime I wanted. The second time barely counts because I only went two hours, which is less time between cigarettes than normal. I mean, I can usually make it through a movie. It’s just that I knew I was trying to quit so I wanted it more than ever.

This time was the worst. For the first week or so, the cravings were these sudden, intense bursts, like being punched in the face. One second you’re fine, the next your knees are weak, you’re clinging to the wall and you can’t think about anything else. You want a cigarette and you want it now. It’s unbearable. I call this the “good stage” of quitting.

I’m at stage two now. I’ve never made it here before. The bursts are gone. I just want a fucking cigarette all the goddamn time. In stage two, you’re not being punched, you’re being slowly crushed. At least a punch ends.

I can’t think about anything else. And me, I have problems thinking to begin with.

It just feels unfair. I powered through the punch-you-in-the-face cravings, and this is what I get for my reward? But if I break down now, I’ve got to do it all over again.

Sometimes--okay, all the time--I think maybe I should just give up. Quit quitting. I tried my best, and it’s not for me. I’m a smoker. Why fight it? Cigarettes have been so good to me. They’re delicious and calming, and they look so fucking cool.

But then I think about Jackie.

Last week--well, ten days and six hours ago, more or less--I caught my little brother lighting up. At first I was mad that he got into my pack. Does he think they’re free? Then I was mad at myself, that that was what I was mad at. The thing about Jackie is he’s got the worst luck in the world. Murphy’s Law applies double to him. If anyone’s going to get lung cancer, throat cancer, mouth cancer, and chronic pneumonia from smoking, it’s going to be him. I can’t have that on me.

I yelled and screamed and broke shit until he was good and scared. I don’t think he’s had one since, which is good. I don’t want him to go through what I’m going through. But even if he never tries it again, I’ve still got to quit. Jackie’s not the only kid who looks up to me. I’m a childcare professional, as Adam likes to remind me.  Smoking is not an option.

Maybe I could just have one, though. Just one to get me through. I’ve been good. I deserve it, right? I sat there in the back of the car daydreaming about my one, perfect, “last” cigarette. It was straight-up Marlboro porn in my head.

Around exit 25, the Pikes started asking each other riddles. Adam turned around and said to me, “There is a room with a table, 53 bicycles, and four men. One of the four men is dead. How did he die?” I stared at him, a guy I consider a good friend, and all I could think about (besides how much I wanted a cigarette) was how far I could thrust a pair of scissors in his skull. Like if I really put my weight into it. Halfway? More? His smile faded, and he looked away.

Twitchy, I pulled out my shark lighter and turned it over between my fingers. Mom thinks I should get rid of it. She thinks it’s a reminder. Like I’m in any danger of forgetting. I told her I just like the feel in my hands. The weight of it in my pocket. It’s like my talisman. You want me to get rid of my habit and my talisman? I need one or the other, I told her.  Besides (I didn’t tell her this part) I’m pretty sure Jeff brought a dime bag.

Directly into my ear, Mallory screamed, “Purple cow!”

“Weiner’s Wieners!” shouted Adam. “Your favorite place, Byron!”

“We’re heeeeere!” shouted Byron.

We weren’t, though. We were ka-thunking down an endless gravel drive. The noise of tiny rocks ricocheting off the wheel wells felt like it was pounding directly into my brain. Nobody else seemed to notice how out-of-your-mind-crazymaking it was. When you’re already at the end of your rope, little things just get to you. I feel like this is a design flaw in humans. Shouldn’t we notice annoying shit less when we’re already annoyed, and more when we are feeling okay and equipped to deal with it? Sometimes I want to throttle God.

Finally, the car stopped, the door slid open, and I caught the scent of salt sea air. Byron and Adam flew out into the sunshine. Mallory and Jessi, blocking my way to the door, took their sweet time gathering up their purses and lady things. Auuuurrrgh.

Finally, finally, finally, I was unfolding my creaking knees and stepping out into the world. The other car arrived around the same time as ours, and everyone was outside, jumping and squealing, glad to be free. Adam and Jordan wrestled good-naturedly. Jeff jumped on Byron’s back. Becca and Vanessa sang “Surfin’ USA.” Margo threw herself down on the grass. Claire just ran around whooping. Goddamn, I wanted a cigarette.

“Beach!” Claire shouted. “Beachbeachbeachbeach!”

“It’s twenty to five,” said Mrs. Pike. “The lifeguard is about to go off duty. You know the rule—no swimming without a lifeguard. And we still have to unpack.”

“She’s still on duty for the next twenty minutes,” said Claire. “Can’t we unpack later?”

“Our suits are packed,” said Becca.

“Not mine!” Claire yanked off her shorts. She was wearing her bathing suit on underneath.

The Pike parents knew when they were beaten. Jordan, Adam, and Claire had all worn their swimsuits in the car, so they headed for the beach. I followed them, even though I wasn’t wearing my trunks. I didn’t plan to swim, but I didn’t want to be cooped up in the house just yet. Fresh air was nicer.

Fresh... nicotine-scented air. We passed a guy on the boardwalk just as he was blowing out a mouthful of smoke. My face automatically turned toward the cloud like Toucan Sam following his nose. Ahhhhh. How can anyone not love that smell? My head swam, and my hand tightened on my lighter in my pocket. Jordan grabbed my arm and pulled me along.

We stepped down from the sidewalk onto the sand. Claire, Adam, and Jordan kicked off their sneakers and T-shirts and started running, laughing as their feet sank.

I followed at a slow walk. The air didn’t smell so fresh here at the edge of the water. It was heavy and greasy and fishy. The beach was crowded with people. Chattering, screaming, people. Miles of beach blankets, umbrellas, coolers, neon swimsuits, pale fat flesh slowly baking in the hot sun. I was burning up in my black shirt. I leaned against the rail at the edge of the sidewalk and watched a seagull pick at an abandoned half a hamburger.

Out on the water, I heard Claire shrieking with joy. I squinted and found her spastically body-surfing. Trying to, anyway. A short ways away, Adam and Jordan were throwing around a ball with some guys. Nobody was paying any attention to me.

I glanced back at the boardwalk. The smoking guy was still there. Probably had tons of cigarettes on him. Looked like a friendly guy.

I took out my lighter and flipped it around in my hands. Tossed it in the air and caught it in my fist.

I glanced around again.

I pushed myself up off the pole.

Claire shrieked again, and this time, it didn’t sound like joy. I whirled around just in time to see her yanked under the surface from below.

I ran.

My lungs were already screaming by the time I reached the water’s edge. Oh, fuck you, God. My friend’s going to die directly because of my fucked-up lungs? No. I won’t give you the satisfaction. I doggedly splashed into the water.

Just as I was getting ready to take off at my fastest swim, I caught sight of the lifeguard expertly breast-stroking onto the scene. She ducked under the water and came back up with a struggling Claire. I stopped and stood there, waist-deep in water, dripping and feeling like an idiot. The lifeguard and Claire treaded water for a bit—the lifeguard seemed to be talking to her, checking her over—and then she put Claire’s arms around her shoulders and began moving back toward the shore.

I backed out onto the beach and sat down in my sopping clothes.

Claire didn’t seem any worse for wear when she made it to me. She slipped off the lifeguard’s back and immediately began splashing up to me at full speed. “Did you see? Did you see my accident? The undertow pulled me in! I was so scared! I thought I would drown! And then this angel came and saved me!”

“It’s my job,” said the lifeguard, gracefully coming up out of the water.

Angel. That was the perfect word to describe her. Her hair, wet and slicked down along her back, was blond and shining. Her eyes were big and green, and her smile was small and red and perfect. She was classy-pretty, lean and athletic. She looked sexier in her one-piece lifeguard suit than any girl showing skin in a fuck-me string bikini.

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” she said, squeezing Claire’s shoulder. “Is this your brother?”

“Oh, no, this is just Shea. There’s my brother. Jordan! Jordan, did you see my accident?” Claire took off down the beach.

“She bounces back quickly,” remarked the lifeguard. She smiled at me. “I saw you coming to the rescue.”

“Yeah, right,” I muttered, my voice coming out in a scratchy grumble. “Makin’ a fool of myself.”

“No, you were brave.”

Brave. A warm glowy feeling gooshed through me, starting at my crotch and ending in the tips of my fingers and toes, until my entire body prickled with goosebumps. I couldn’t speak. I just smiled like a dope.

“Don’t get any big ideas, now,” she said, smiling again. “Leave all future rescuing to the professionals. I don’t want to have to go out there and rescue you.”

I did. I wanted that.

I opened and closed my mouth desperately, but nothing resembling language came out.

She beamed at a point over my shoulder. I turned and found Jordan and Claire walking up to us. “Hey!” Jordan waved. “Thanks for saving my little sister. She’s a dope, but we’d have missed her.”

“Nice poem, Vanessa!” Claire nudged him. “And I’m not dopey. I’m charming.”

“No thanks necessary. It’s all part of the job,” said the lifeguard. “I’m Adela, by the way.”

“Pleasure,” said Jordan carelessly, shaking her hand.

Then Adela held out her hand to me, and I took it. Her hand was small and wet and cool. I never thought I had gawky hands, or that that was a thing, but my hands seemed too long and awkward around hers. Had we been shaking hands too long? I had no idea how long people shook hands. She let my hand go, still smiling, okay, that was probably normal.

“I should get back on duty,” she said. “See you guys around.”

I watched her walk away, heading for her lifeguard chair.

Jordan nudged me, grinning. “Dude. Your face is allllll red.”

“Shut up,” I muttered. “I burn easy.”

We watched as she knelt by the lifeguard stand, picking up a towel and dabbing her face.

“Nice,” Jordan appraised. “If you’re into the blonde beach bimbo type.”

“She’s not a bimbo!” I said. “She’s great.”

“Great” didn’t do justice to her awesomeness, but like I said, I’m not good with thoughts.

Adela blew her whistle, three long “phweeeet”s, and the swimmers began heading in to shore. Jordan signaled to Adam and Claire, and we all headed back up the sand.

It wasn’t until we passed the place where the smoker had been—the lingering scent of nicotine in the air—that I realized I hadn’t thought about smoking in almost twenty minutes.

Chapter Text

Dear Michael,

Here is the mosquito-repelling candle as discussed. For God’s sake light it every time you spend a second on that deck of yours. Malaria is the last thing we need. Ignore the Sea Breeze aromatherapy nonsense. It has a high eucalyptus oil content and that is why I bought it. Don’t ask me how much I paid.

To answer your question, I wouldn’t say I’m having fun exactly. I’m not here to have fun. I’m here to look after the children. And for your information, you can imagine me quite well on the beach, because I took you countless times as a child. Let nobody tell you you were deprived. When I was a girl, we could only go to the one colored beach and then only when we could spare the bus fare, which was rare.

Don’t touch any subway poles.

Yours respectfully,
Mama

Children of this generation seem determined to get themselves raped and murdered and thrown in the back of somebody’s unmarked van. That’s the only explanation I can think of for Becca’s plan to go out in public in that stripper costume she called a bathing suit. How she thought she could get away with that on my watch, I’ll never know.

I can only thank my lucky stars I caught her before she went over to the Pikes’ or met the boy-children on the beach. At one point the plan was to keep the Schafer boy on our sofa, but the Pikes ended up keeping him in their guest room. I don’t even want to know what’s happening in that house, seven boys and four girls under one roof, but I have to say I’m glad it’s not our problem.

“But I didn’t bring another swimsuit!” Becca complained. I don’t know why she persists in believing that I am a rube off the back of the turnip truck. If there’s one thing Sea City has plenty of, it’s stores that sell bathing suits.

Of course, the stores on the boardwalk carried nothing but flimsy little sunbathing costumes, all at exorbitant prices. Becca found plenty she liked. I vetoed everything and packed her back in the car. I was sure I’d seen some discount strip malls on 195.

“You won’t be happy until I’m wearing a full-body wool suit, like in the 1920s,” Becca complained.

“You’re on vacation with a pack of sex-crazed hormonal teenage boys. You don’t need to throw chum in the shark tank.”

“Oh my God, you’re so paranoid! They’re just the Pikes and Jeff and Shea. They’re my friends. And some of them aren’t even interested in girls.”

In retrospect, I didn’t put as much stock in this remark as I should have. “I know you still want to think of them as your little playmates, but the truth is, they’re changing. They’re halfway to men. And some men are wonderful, but all men are pigs. There are strangers on the beach, too, you know. Perverts are everywhere. You don’t need to encourage them. You know, black women have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously as--”

“Augh! This again!” Becca clapped her hands over her ears. “La la la la! I’m not listening!”

I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. When I was her age, I never would have sassed my elders like that. Of course, John and Janice are against corporal punishment. Honestly, it’s like trying to raise a decent child with one hand tied behind your back.

We finally found a decent selection of suits at a suburban Marshall’s. Becca refused to try on most of my choices. “Too mom-ish,” she’d say, or “Too babyish.”

“You’re acting like a baby now,” I told her. “We’re here as long as it takes. don’t care about going swimming today.”

Eventually she came to me with a perfectly acceptable suit she’d picked out herself. The pattern was silly blue stripes, but the suit itself was a simple, no-nonsense cut.

“Please, may I get it? It’s one piece, and it’s not too low-cut. You can’t have a problem with this.”

“Hmph!” I said, pleased. It was on sale, too. “Well, I suppose it will do.”

Conversation was more cheerful on the way home. We were smiling secret smiles at ourselves, each thinking we’d pulled a fast one on the other. We got home and changed and put together a nice little healthful lunch for Squirt and Jessi. As we walked down to the beach, I was proud to see her walking tall, looking classy and confident in her new suit--so much more beautiful than the shy, hunched girl shivering in her skivvies from this morning.

The whole clan was on the beach. John and Janice were sitting under a beach umbrella with John and Dee Pike, no doubt enjoying some adult conversation. Squirt was building a sand castle nearby. Mallory and Jessi were sunbathing and reading. Vanessa was going around taking pictures of everyone. Claire, Margo, and all six boys--Adam, Byron, Jordan, Jeff, Shea, and Nick--were splashing each other in the water. I was glad to see that the lifeguard today was a strong-looking man, not that skinny twig of a girl from yesterday who didn’t look like she’d be much help in an anything but a lip gloss emergency.

Becca trailed me to the beach umbrella, where I set up my chair. Once I’d sat down, I realized she was no longer looking happy and confident. Her lower lip was trembling.

“Good heavens, Becca, what is it now?” I asked.

“All the other girls are wearing bikinis!” she wailed. “Even Jessi! Even the babies!”

Claire and Margo were wearing midriff-bearing two-piece suits, pink and yellow with frills. I sniffed. I’ve never approved of that particular fashion trend, but I stopped myself from saying so in front of Dee Pike.

“You’re not all the other girls,” I told her. “You’re Becca.”

“I hate being Becca!” she yelled. “You don’t understand anything! You don’t remember what it’s like to be fourteen!”

“I remember all too well,” I told her.

She stomped off back toward the house.

“Where are you going?” I called.

“To be alone!”

I spent most of the rest of the day looking after Squirt. He’s still at an age where he is friendly, curious, kind, courteous, respectful, and unselfconscious. I hope he never grows out of it, although I know he will. Teenage boys are as bad a teenage girls. Maybe worse.

 

Swimming continued until the lifeguard went off duty. Afterward, I agreed to take Squirt back to the beach, not to swim, but to wade and look for seashells. We walked along the edge of the water in a quiet inlet. He was looking at tidepools, scooping interesting specimens into a bucket of water which he had somehow persuaded me to carry for him.

I walked down to the water’s edge, where the shore joined with a narrow strip of rocky beach under the boardwalk. Supporting myself against one of the boardwalk’s wooden support beams, I toed off my sandal and dipped my foot in the water. I lifted my head to the sunset and watched God’s miraculous creation.

Something in the quality of the light and the smell of ocean awakened a memory in me. I was  reminded of another sunset, another boardwalk. Cotton candy. A cotton dress, just the same color pink, new with a full skirt and gloves to match. Hands over my eyes. “Guess who...”

Movement at the edge of my vision brought me back to the moment and made me turn around. A couple stood behind me, shadowed beneath the boardwalk. The boy was facing me, although he was too wrapped up in his companion to notice me. I recognized him. Jeffrey Schafer was grinning wolfishly, backing some poor girl against the support beam. He leaned his head down, and she--

No, not she; Jeffrey’s companion had short hair, broad shoulders and a muscular build. Another boy! Another boy I knew, in fact. There was no mistaking it. It was one of the Pike triplets!

The triplet placed a hand on Jeffrey’s shoulder, the other around his waist. Both boys were shirtless, wearing swim trunks, so the triplet’s hands were directly on Jeffrey’s skin. Jeffrey tilted his head, as if to whisper a secret in the triplet’s ear.

Good God. Teenage boys! If they can’t find a willing girl, they’ll fornicate with each other. I shuddered. I’d told Becca as much, but it was still horrifying to see the proof: that innocent children you once knew and loved can turn, without warning, into wild, writhing, bestial creatures! Teenagers!

I started running toward them. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something. When I got close, I did the first thing that came into my mind to do. I took my bucket of water and splashed them. That’s what you do when cats are going at it, and it worked just as well. The boys jumped, turned, stared wide-eyed, and then ran.

Squirt looked up from his tidepool as the boys raced past him. “Jeff! Byron! Come look at my aquarium!”

Jeffrey paused long enough to give Squirt a little wave, as if to say, “Another time,” then he hurried to catch up with Byron. I put my sandal back on, walked over, and took Squirt firmly by the hand.

“You’ll be a gentleman,” I promised him, and myself. “You won’t be like those dirty, nasty boys.”

“Really? I’d kind of like to be like Jeff.”

“Heavens, why?”

“He knows a lot of cool skateboard tricks.”

I pressed Squirt’s head to my side. “Dear heart, if that boy offers to show you a trick, you just say no.”

 

The Pikes invited us to a big spaghetti dinner at their house. I made a salad and Janice made a cheesecake. I didn’t tell her what had happened. I’m not one for scandal and gossip. I’d already decided the most tactful course of action would be to pull Dee Pike aside during the evening and warn her that, if she didn’t do something, her boy was on a very dangerous path.

She might try to deny it. I know I would. Byron had always been such a polite, obedient child. He was the last boy I would expect to discover in a compromising, sexually deviant position. Jeffrey must be the instigator. Obviously they did things differently in California.

Whatever Dee said, I knew I had to do something right away. I decided I would volunteer to drive Jeffrey home in the morning. It wouldn’t be a pleasant trip, but I considered it my duty. Maybe along the way, I could talk some sense into the boy. I’ve been lucky enough to raise mostly naturally docile and well-behaved children (leaving aside Becca’s teenage tantrums), but I’ve always thought I had it in me to turn around a really delinquent child, if need be. Maybe Jeffrey and I were both put on this trip for a reason.

When we got to the Pikes’, the children were gathered in the living room playing Cranium. One of the triplets--Adam, I think--called out, “Squirt, man, we need your mad charades skills!” Jeffrey and Byron were sitting side-by-side, shoulders pressed together. I fixed them with the evil eye to let them know I was watching. Jeffrey shot back a defiant look, but Byron had the decency to squirm guiltily. He, at least, could be saved, I thought.

Dee looked up with a wounded expression when I came into the kitchen and set my salad down. She didn’t mince words. “Did you dump water on my son?”

“Is that what he told you?” I asked calmly, peeling back the Saran wrap.

“No, that’s what Adam told me. He heard it from Jeff.”

I glanced from John and Janice, who were unpacking the cheesecake, to John Pike, who was standing against the counter with his arms crossed. “Did Jeffrey tell Adam what he and Byron were doing?”

“What were they doing?” Janice asked.

“Fornicating!” I didn’t mince words, either. They had to find out sometime.

“For goodness sake. They weren’t fornicating, they were kissing!” said Dee.

I didn’t know how to respond to that. The way she said it, you would think kissing was a normal activity for two teenage boys to engage in.

“Really, Cecelia, you couldn’t have talked to them? Why did you dump water on them like they were animals?”

“They were acting like animals! What was I supposed to do?”

“Talk to them! Tell them to cut it out. They’re human beings!”

“I think maybe there’s been a misunderstanding,” John Pike put in. “It looks like Cecelia didn’t know about Byron and Jeff. I can imagine that it was a shocking way to find out that they’re dating.”

“Dating!” I repeated. “Dating!” I just couldn’t understand it. The word didn’t seem to apply.

“Yes. We treat them the same as we treat Adam and his girlfriend, or we try to,” said Mr. Pike.

I looked from one face to the next. “You all knew?”

“God, we all just thought you knew,” said Janice. “I’m sorry, Cecelia. Someone should have told you.”

“Well, okay then!” John--my John--said cheerfully. “Now Cecelia knows the policy...”

“The policy? The policy that you allow your children to be homosexuals?” I spat the word. I always knew the Pikes were permissive, but this!

“Gay, they call it gay, Cece,” said John.

“I don’t care what they call it!”

“We don’t allow or not allow it. It just is!” said Dee. “It’s not something you can control. If by ‘we allow it’ you mean we don’t try to intimidate him out of being who he is, then, yes, I suppose we allow it. We’re trying to raise him with love and acceptance.”

“Acceptance!” I said. “Kids today are raised with altogether too much acceptance. They run wild. That’s why none of them have any morals. That’s why you have a homosexual epidemic and little girls running around dressed as whores...”

“Cecelia!” said Janice.

“My sister grew up in a different time,” said John.

“Don’t make excuses for me,” I snapped.

“Don’t talk to me about growing up in a different time!” said Dee. “Don’t talk to me about a time when sexuality wasn’t discussed, and ‘gay’ was the worst thing you could call someone, because we all grew up in that time. When I was Byron’s age, ‘gay’ was practically a death sentence. Things are going to be different for my kid. But they’re only going to be different if we make them different. Some people are gay. We, as a culture, have all had the last ten or twenty years to get over it.”

“Now, now,” John rumbled, cutting me off because I could start firing off my response. “We all knew going into this trip that there would be some different politics here. Let’s agree to disagree.”

“No!” said Dee. “This is not an ‘agree to disagree’ situation! This is about my kid, and if you can’t treat him like a human being, stay away from him!”

With that she swept out of the room. As the door swung open and shut again, peals of children’s laughter could be heard from the dining room.

“A different world--pah! It breaks my heart to think of the world those children are inheriting,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s the movies and music and TV these days--it’s all so pornographic. Children used to know how to behave themselves!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said John, a twinkle in his eye. “Don’t you remember when you were sixteen, at another beach on the Jersey shore...”

“Unfounded gossip!”

John explained to the others, “The hotel manager’s son had a crush on Cecelia. A white boy.”

I sniffed. “I can’t believe you still remember those lies.”

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You didn’t ask for it. Anyway, it wouldn’t be a scandal now.”

“That’s right,” said Janice. “Eventually, America got on board with interracial dating, and we’re just going to have to get on board with this. I think gay and lesbian rights are going to be the next wave of the civil rights movement.”

“They already are,” said John Pike. “You know, Cecelia, Dee’s brother is gay.”

“I’m sorry,” I said stiffly.

“So am I. Not that he’s gay, but what happened to him because of it. His whole life, people told him that what he was--who he was--was wrong and disgusting. He grew up believing that. He still believes it. He married the girl everyone wanted him to, and made them both miserable. He was estranged from his parents when they died. We’re trying very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen to Byron. We don’t want him to grow up feeling like a freak.”

I raised one eyebrow. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” John Pike said seriously.

 

I didn’t say much else through dinner, and nobody said anything to me. We were all trying to hide our argument from the children. When they asked to go to the boardwalk, see the Ferris wheel all lit up, nobody could think of an excuse not to.

A few groups split up on the main drag. Mallory and Jessi took Claire and Margo to look at souvenirs. Becca, Vanessa, and Squirt wanted to ride the Ferris wheel, and Janice took them. John took all of the boys to the arcade. Mr. and Mrs. Pike went for ice cream by themselves.

I followed the arcade group briefly, deciding they might need more chaperoning than John could or would provide, but the noise of the arcade gave me a migraine almost immediately, and I left to take a head-clearing walk.

I found myself back on the beach, beneath the boardwalk. I’ll admit I was almost looking for a repeat of this afternoon. If those boys had slipped off again, I wanted to know about it. I wanted them to know they shouldn’t bother--I’d always be on top of things.

But it was abandoned, and oddly quiet, although the noise of the arcade and Ferris wheel weren’t too far off.

In a spot very much like this, on a warm balmy night very much like this one, a slender sixteen-year-old black girl in a cotton-candy pink dress and matching gloves waited for a boy. Her palms were sweating and her fingers, her toes, her face, all her most sensitive parts were tingling. She was half-excited, half-afraid. If anybody else found her, she didn’t want to think what would happen.

Soon, a figure would appear, silhouetted between two poles. Broad shoulders, wild hair. The girl’s heart would skip a beat. The boy would step into a patch of moonlight, and the girl would stare. She always stared. Stanley’s face was familiar and comforting and alien and frightening, all at the same time. His skin was silvery pale in the moonlight. The girl stepped forward and brushed that soft skin with a hand--ungloved--and lightning would run down her spine.

“Cecelia,” Stanley would say, reverent, and the girl would say, “Stanley.” Stanley would say, “You’re beautiful.” The girl would be too shy to say it back.

Stanley would kiss her. They’d both know it was wrong. His hand would grip her tiny waist, travel down to her knee, up her thigh... higher... “Mary doesn’t do this...”

The next time the girl saw Stanley, she’d be standing just inches from him, pencil poised above a pad to take his order. In the facing seat, Mary would twirl her blond hair around her finger and sigh and declare she just didn’t know what she wanted, it all looked so good! Stanley would smile blandly, as if he’d never seen the waitress before, and order, “Hamburgers and shakes, please, for myself and the lady.” Mary would smile and gaze at her diamond.

 

The groups had changed again by the time I got back. I passed Margo and Dee in line for the Ferris wheel, and I glimpsed Mallory, Jessi, and two triplets among the midway games. Then, turning a corner, I caught sight of them--Jeffrey and Byron. At least, I assumed it was Byron, from the way he was walking close to Jeffrey along the rail. Their hands were clasped.

I must have noticed it at the same time as the burly man in the bandanna passing by them. The burly man shouted, “Faggots!”  

Byron dropped Jeff’s hand, looking guilty and afraid. Jeff’s face reddened in rage.

I started running toward them. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something. I had a feeling Jeffrey was about to run his mouth off. There was no love lost between me and Jeffrey, but all the same, I didn’t want to see him killed.

But he didn’t say anything. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared very hard at his shoes. The burly man and his friends were laughing.

“You there! In the bandanna!”

The burly man turned to me. “You talkin’ to me?”

“Yes, I’m talking to you. Did you just call those boys a rude name?”

The burly man looked to his friends, a can-you-believe-this look. “So what if I did, lady?”

“This is a family place! There are children here! I don’t want to hear that word. I don’t want to see you think that word,” I snapped. “Phew! You reek. Go home, sleep off the alcohol. In the morning I hope you’ll have the decency to be ashamed of screaming obscenities at young boys. Good God.”

I stalked away, over to Byron and Jeffrey. I put my hands on their shoulders, guiding them away, back toward the arcade.

“Aunt Cecelia!” said Byron. “Th-Thank you!”

“Hush,” I told him. “Children should be seen and not heard.”

Chapter Text


Splack! I woke up to the stinging sensation of a wet beach ball being tossed at my side. I squinted into the sunlight. “Yeeeees?”

“Just making sure,” Vanessa giggled. “You keep that space between you, now. You don’t want anyone saying you slept together.” She grabbed her beach ball back up from between me and Jeff and ran off down to the water.

I turned my head on my towel. Actually, I was surprised to see Jeff. Last thing I knew, he was still out riding around on jet skis with Adam and Nick. I’m not as afraid of deep water as I used to be, but the idea of zooming out over the water made me more queasy than excited, so I decided to stay on the beach with the kids. I must have dozed off. It was nice to wake up to Jeff’s blue eyes glinting blue in the sun, his wide dimpled smile. More than nice.

This was the best vacation ever. I didn’t like to think about what it would have been like if he couldn’t come. Hell. Instead, it was heaven.

We were together every hour of the day, practically. I woke up this morning and the first thing I did was go to his room. Mallory was standing right at the end of the hall in line for the bathroom, watching, so I didn’t try to sneak in. I think my knocking woke him up, because he came to the door all sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired, wearing only his boxers. We just smiled at each other dopily for awhile until Mallory told Jeff to go put on a shirt. (I don’t know why. He was just going to take it off again at the beach.)

I stared at him again now. Just over a day at the beach, and already his hair was even lighter than usual—practically white—and his skin was darkening to its usual California tan. His eyes were just slits of sea blue, and he was smiling back at me. I could feel myself smiling back, broad and goofy. This is what it would be like every morning. Someday.

I edged my hand out into the sand between us, and his came to meet mine. I am the luckiest guy in the history of the universe.  

“Ah-ah-ahhh!” Vanessa called out.

I squeezed Jeff’s hand, dropped it, and raised my hand to flip Vanessa the bird.

“Forget it,” said Jeff, sitting up and brushing the sand off his shoulders. “We’re under a microscope.”

I propped myself on my elbow and glanced around. Vanessa, Mallory, Aunt Cecelia, and Mom were all either surreptitiously glancing or outright staring at me and Jeff.

I sighed.

Jeff rolled over and idly built up a little sand tower in the space between our beach blankets. Every time his hand moved over my towel, I wanted to grab it, but I didn’t. We sat there, inches from each other, not touching. I kept staring at his lips. It’s weird to be looking at somebody and miss him at the same time.

At least none of our baby-sitters were close enough to hear us if we spoke quietly. I edged closer and murmured, “Jeff?”

“Hm?”

“I just want to tell you... you’re...”

Beautiful, I wanted to say, but I couldn’t make my mouth form the word. It would just sound too gay. Not gay as in “likes guys”—it would be gay in that way, too, but I don’t mind that way—but  gay as in, you know, just queer. I don’t know the non-homophobic way to put it. I just knew that if I said “You’re beautiful” it would not sound sexy and exciting like I wanted it to. It would sound dorky and sentimental.

So instead I said, “You’re, you know, in your natural habitat.”

Okay, also dorky, but at least not too sentimental. He looked at me questioningly.

“The beach. You look good here,” I mumbled awkwardly. It was as close as I could make myself get.

“Thanks,” he said casually, like this was a normal thing that people always said to him. He is so cool.

“Just like home, right?” I babbled on.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, don’t you go to the beach all the time in California?”

“Kind of.” He put on his sunglasses and looked out over the colorful mosaic of umbrellas and families playing at the waterline. “It’s not really like this. You can always tell an East Coast beach from a West Coast beach. The sand is coarser, and the ocean is a different color. It’s browner or something. More muddy. The ocean back home is just blue.”

“Well, I like this beach,” I said, weirdly hurt on behalf of my beach. Like I’d made it or something.

“So do I. I didn’t say it was worse. Just different.”

Yeah, right. Anyone knows blue is better than muddy. Not just different.

Thinking about Jeff back in California would make me really happy, if I were a perfect, selfless person. Instead, it makes me sad and angry. I’m jealous of a state. I had him now, but California would always steal him away.

It was too soon to think about that. There were still long, luxurious, sunshiney hours stretching ahead of us. “You want to go for a swim?”

Jeff grinned and jumped to his feet. “Race you.”

We hadn’t even hit the water before we felt the first fat raindrops, but we didn’t care. We horsed around in the waves, getting wet from all sides, right up until the rain got so bad the lifeguard whistled everyone out of the water.

 

It rained on and off through the night. It was still going strong when I got up the next morning. Claire came and threw herself down across from me on the floor outside Jeff’s door. I was waiting for him to wake up, but it was cloudy and dark out, and everyone was sleeping in.

“Adela’s not out!” Claire sighed.

“Who?”

“The lifeguard. She’s not at her post. Chair. Thing.”

“I think that means the beach is closed for swimming.”

Claire sighed. “Lamezors!”

It rained even harder through breakfast. Everyone was in a mood. Vanessa was photographing a fly being eaten by a spider on the windowsill and wouldn’t let anyone clean it up. Adam was ruining postcard after postcard trying to come up with a message to Sasha that sounded like he missed her but not more than she missed him. Mallory grabbed her rain slicker and ran over to Jessi’s as soon as breakfast was over, and I didn’t blame her.

Jeff finally stumbled down as we were cleaning up. He sat down at the table and blearily unpeeled an orange while the rest of us, already bored out of our skulls, just sat and watched. Vanessa took pictures.

Jordan and Shea barreled in, soaking wet. Shea ran right upstairs to his and Jeff’s room and slammed himself inside, while Jordan reached into Jeff’s bowl and grabbed half his orange, which he ate in one gulp. “Anyone bring anything nice to wear? I got a date.”

“You! Who’d go out with you?” said Nick.

“Only the hot lifeguard chick.”

“Adela? Doesn’t Shea like that girl?” said Adam.

Jordan shrugged, peering at himself in the hall mirror. “He had his chance like the rest of us. Is it my fault he’s too chickenshit to ask her out?”

“Ooh, oooh! Jordan said a bad word!” Claire and Margo singsonged.

“Language taboos are so bourgeois,” said Vanessa.

“Mom, Vanessa said a bad word!” said Adam in a little-girl voice.

“All right, into the car, everyone,” Mom said. “We’re going to Fred’s Putt-Putt.”

Everyone groaned.

“Mini-golf is for babies,” said Nick.

“So is moping around because of a little rain!” said Mom. “Now, like mini-golf, and I’m almost forty,” ha, ha, “so you guys have no excuse. I know you all like it, so let’s get in touch with our inner children and go! Shea! Did you hear that? We’re going to mini-golf!”

“Ugh...” came Shea’s groan from upstairs. “Do I have to? I feel like ass.”

“Actually, I feel kinda shitty too,” Jeff put in. “I think I’ll just take an aspirin and lie down. The rest of you guys have fun.”

“I think I’ll stay behind, too,” I said casually. “I just want to look at the rain and... write poetry.” Well, hey, it always worked for Vanessa.

“Sorry to hear that you’re not feeling well, boys,” said Mom in her I-don’t-believe-you-for-one-second voice. “I’d better call Cecelia. She can come make you some soup and—”

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” said Jeff quickly. “I’m fine. You know what? I’ll go. Nothing for a headache like mini-golf.”

I jumped up. “Yeah, actually, I think a little mini-golf would be a great, uh, poetic inspiration.”

“I was about to say,” said Vanessa.

Ever since the epic game that nearly got us banned from the course for taking so long, my family has learned to split into small teams. There were eleven of us altogether--our family, minus Mal and Jordan, plus Jeff, Shea and Becca--which worked out to three teams of three and one pair. Obviously Jeff and I wanted to be the pair, but you can’t always get what you want, especially with a family conspiring against you. Vanessa and Becca dibsed Adam, the best player; Dad took Nick and Margo; Mom took Claire. Jeff and I got Shea. I had to admit that Mom, Claire and Shea would have been a weird team, but me, Jeff, and Shea made complete sense. Anyway, it felt mean to complain about getting saddled with someone who is (a) a good friend and (b) standing right there.

Our triad was in a terrible mood, as a group. Shea was nursing his wounds over the Jordan/Adela date. Jeff and I were sulky because we didn’t get our way. We both like Shea, but Mom and Dad seemed just a little too happy that Jeff and I didn’t even get to go off alone together on a mini-golf course. It wasn’t like we could make out or anything. We just wanted to feel like a couple.

Since we weren’t talking, laughing, or having fun, we were able to get down to brass tacks and play some serious mini-golf. Poor Adam spent most of his time waiting for the goofy girls to get their acts together, while we just sailed from one hole to the next. I’m not the best at sports, at least by triplet standards, but I’m pretty good at precision and aim, and I just wanted to get the game over with. Shea kept picking up his club like he’d never seen one before and didn’t know what to do with it, then he’d get a hole in one or two. Jeff was perfect, of course. Add mini-golf to the list of things Jeff does well and looks amazing doing.

Well, maybe more (b) than (a). His scores were no better than mine, but he had style. Finesse. Every time he bent over the club I wanted to go and put my arms around him, feel him swing those sexy hips against mine. Don’t worry, I didn’t. There were children everywhere, not to mention our chaperone Shea.

We were ahead of the others by about four holes by mid-game. This was when Jeff and I got our stroke of luck. (Get it?) It was at one of the harder holes, the Life Preserver. You have to guide your ball around this C-shaped rock with this complicated Tiki lifeguard chair standing in the curve. Me and Jeff were on par, but Shea just kept knocking his ball all over the place, getting it stuck in corners, then accidentally knocking it outside the rock altogether.

After his fourth stroke over par, he sighed heavily and leaned on his club. “You guys, I really don’t feel so good. I think I’m going to sit the rest of the game out.”

We didn’t try too hard to convince him to keep playing. He really did seem sick. We would have been bad friends if we made him go on. Really. We saw him safely to park bench and patted his shoulders and got him a water, and then we headed back to our game, grinning and hand in hand.

We’d lost a little time, but we were still two or more holes ahead of everyone else, and we only made up time from there. The rest of the family wasn’t even in sight by the time we got to the seventeenth hole, the horrible windmill. Other mini-golf holes have come and gone, but the windmill has been there since I was a little kid, and I’ve always hated it. It speeds up and slows down at random intervals, and it always messes up my game.

Jeff timed it perfectly and got a hole in one, the bastard. He wandered off during my second swing. I guess it was nice that he missed my second dead-on hit of a windmill blade, sending my ball ricocheting back to the starting position, but I also felt kind of insulted that he’d just up and left me.

“Jeff? Where are you, jerk?” I tapped the green with my club. “Come witness my failure!”

“Dude,” a voice echoed from somewhere. It sounded close, but at the same time, inside a barrel.

A sudden, loud bang seemed to come from the windmill itself. Bang, bang, ba-bang, bang... Shave and a haircut.

I stepped forward cautiously, avoiding the blades, and knocked twice on the body of the windmill. “Two bits.”

Suddenly, there was Jeff’s head, poking from around the corner. He grinned and disappeared again. I rounded the corner, pushing my way through the hedge, and there he was, his legs and sneakers anyway, inside the windmill. There was a little open trapdoor near the base of the windmill, nestled away in the bushes. I ducked and crawled inside.

The windmill was completely hollow. It had kind of cone shape, narrowing toward the top, but you could still stand up more or less comfortably. It wasn’t really big enough for two people--our heads were kind of jammed in together under the eaves--but, you know, Jeff and I didn’t mind getting close. In spite of the dark and the dust and cobwebs and the mildew and the creepy layer of condensation on everything (where did it come from?!), we immediately started kissing.

We’d kissed here and there all summer, whenever we could steal a moment, mostly just little pecks. We were never really sure we were alone, or that we’d stay alone. Now it was different. Jeff pulled me close, his hand bunched up in the back of my T-shirt, his other hand cupping the back of my head, holding me fast, his cool wet mouth opening wide, wide against mine, and I remembered what it was to be really close to him. I slid my tongue into his mouth. He breathed in deeply.

I leaned forward, forward, pushing my tongue further into his mouth, bending him back, knocking his head against the wall. He loosened and tightened his grip rhythmically on my back and moaned quietly in the back of his throat. His foot worked its way between mine, and I stepped behind him, intertwining our legs like Twizzlers, enjoying the warmth of his bare legs on mine.

Thwack! Something hard slammed into my foot. Instinctively I broke our kiss and hopped back. “Ow!”

Jeff jammed his hand over my mouth. He nodded down toward the ground. A golfball. Someone was right outside, playing through this hole. I patted Jeff’s shoulder to let him know I understood. Jeff lowered his hand from my mouth.

We both stood there looking at the ball for a second, not sure what to do. Then Jeff carefully moved the ball with his foot, lining it up with the exit hole, and kicked it on through. Outside, we could hear faint cries of surprise.

“There it is, Joe!”

“What the...”

I shook with silent laughter. Jeff grinned and dropped his head onto my shoulder. I stroked his hair.

“Here.” Jeff gently kicked the insides of my sneakers. He whispered, “Plant your feet near the wall. Let’s keep a clear path.”

It was awkward at first trying to lean into each other without moving our feet from the sides of the cone. I kept stepping forward and then quickly correcting myself back again, feeling like I was about to lose balance. But as Jeff leaned more of his weight against me, I realized I wasn’t in any danger of falling--we were holding each other up.

Again, I felt our hips lock together, and I shivered. There was something weirdly obscene about the way we were standing. Cool air shifted beneath as a ball whizzed by between our legs. I moved desperately from Jeff’s mouth to his ear, sucking on his earlobe, and Jeff made a strangled sound like he was so turned on it hurt.

“...are they?”

“I don’t see them.”

“They probably came by here a long time ago. I bet they’re waiting for us outside.”

The voices were so familiar and so close that Jeff and I jumped apart. I lost balance and stepped square down into the middle of the windmill, and Becca’s pink ball hit my foot, followed by Vanessa’s purple one. I picked them up and threw them out the other side.

“A hole in one! Did you see that? I got a hole in one!”

I was glad Jeff pushed his way out first, because I needed a few moments alone to calm myself down and think about anything at all besides sex. Baseball. Beetles. Baby Jesus.

“Hey, Jeff! Where did you come from?”

“Oh, man, I can’t find my ball! You have no idea how long I’ve been on my hands and knees back here.”

Greasy grimy gopher guts. Eyeballs. Everybody you know will one day be dead.

“I thought you guys finished a long time ago.”

“Yeah, well. We would’ve, but I lost my ball.”

“Where are Byron and Shea?”

“Shea’s not feeling so good. He went to go sit down. Byron’s probably checking on him. Come on, let’s go find them.”

The rustling of feet in bushes faded away, and I climbed out into the open. I picked up the clubs and balls from the ground where we’d left them, took a deep breath, and pasted on a smile.  “Hey! Is this what you were looking for?”

Adam gave me a suspicious glare as I ran up to them. I saw him turn to investigate the hedge. He must have thought that we were making out in the bushes, but they were so short that you’d have to be a gnome.

“You see? That was fun!” Mom said when she and Claire joined the rest of us outside the court. We were sitting on the picnic tables by the parking lot, drinking sodas and listening to rain beat down on a tarp above our heads.

“Definitely,” said Jeff. “I can’t wait to come back.”

His eyes were on me right up until the last word.

Chapter Text


So what is there to do on a rainy day in Sea City?” Jessi asked me when I came by the Ramsey beach house Tuesday morning. She and Becca were cleaning up after breakfast, and I picked up a rag so Aunt Cecelia wouldn’t start talking about idle hands and the devil’s workshop. In the next room, Squirt giggled while Mr. Ramsey pretended to teach him how to wrestle.

“Nothing, unless you like mini-golf,” I said. “Dollars to donuts my mom’s trying to convince everyone to go right now.”

“We could always stay in,” Jessi suggested. “I haven’t had a real, true, lie-in-bed-and-read day off in forever.”

“Ugh, boring!” said Becca.

“Nobody asked you,” Jessi nudged her sister with the broom.

“We could go down to the boardwalk, if we bring an umbrella,” I suggested. “The shops and arcade are indoors, and they put up a tarp over the midway so people can still play carnival games. It’s kiddie, but...”

“I could go for that,” said Jessi. “How about it, Becca?”

“You want me to come?”

“Sure,” I said. “We’d look pretty silly playing Ring Toss without a kid.”

“I’m not a kid. I’m a baby-sitter,” said Becca haughtily, but she was obviously pleased to be invited. She rinsed off her hands and went to check her purse for the big-sister-outing necessities: lip gloss, compact, tiny wad of money, Bubble Yum...

The phone rang, and Jessi picked it up. “Hello?” She grinned and covered the mouthpiece. “It’s your mom. She wants to know if we want to go mini-golfing.”

I laughed and shook my head, but Becca said, “I might.” She bit her lip, looking indecisive.

“Might you? And what might your highness need to make up your mind?” Jessi asked, sounding like Aunt Cecelia.

“I don’t know. Who all is going?”

Jessi relayed the question to my mother and replied, “Everyone but Jordan.”

Becca nodded. “Okay, that sounds good. I’ll go.”

“You’ve got something against Jordan?” I joked.

Becca grinned. “Oh yeah. Huge rivalry. Where he goes, I don’t.”

Becca can be funny sometimes. I assumed her real motive was making sure Vanessa would be there. She and Vanessa are old friends, but Vanessa has her moods. She often begs out of wholesome family fun to work on her Art. I was glad the two girls were getting to do something together.

Besides, it was nice to have Jessi to myself. We walked into town under one umbrella, making dumb jokes and giggling like kids.

Most of the rides were shut down due to rain, so the arcade and midway were extra crowded. Kids screamed and ran around, working off their excess rainy-day energy. Harried parents hovered in clumps. Jessi and I didn’t belong to either group.

Jessi smiled and shrugged, “We’re here to indulge the inner child, right?” We linked arms and joined the Skee-Ball line.

Jessi showed off on her turn, doing trick shots. Kids clapped. On my turn, though, I felt more awkward than ever. I was taller than everyone around me by several heads. Even though I’d waited fairly, I couldn’t help but feel that I was taking a place in line away from a child. I tossed the three balls in rapid succession, hitting the 100-point hole each time. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a sportswoman, but this wasn’t as much of a challenge as I remembered from childhood. I smiled at the kid behind me and stepped aside as quickly as possible.

“You forgot your tickets,” he said politely, pointing at the slot which was spitting out a long string of prize tickets.

“Keep them,” I said.

“Really? Wow! Thank you, ma’am!”

Ma’am. Ouch.

“We’re too old for this, aren’t we?” said Jessi when I joined her in front of the old Frogger machine.

“I’ve never felt so out of place,” I said dramatically, even though I could probably come up with fifty counterexamples if I tried even a little. “Maybe if we stand here and look out benevolently, people will assume we’re here taking care of a child.”

“Maybe we are.” Jessi nudged me and nodded toward the opposite corner. A little girl was sitting beneath the broken Addams Family pinball machine, crying.

You never saw two girls go into baby-sitter mode so fast. We made for the pinball table, quickly, but cautiously, not wanting to scare the girl or to make her think she was in trouble. We crouched down and smiled at her.

“Hi,” said Jessi. “Are you lost?”

The girl just looked at us, petrified. She was about five, a pretty brunette with a wide forehead and big, tearful gray eyes. She wore a simple but stylish green dress, striped leggings, and large pink sneakers. Everything was clean and new and fit her perfectly, which probably only seemed remarkable to me because I grew up with seven kids in hand-me-downs.

“It’s okay,” I said soothingly. “Can we help you find your mom or dad? We’re good finders.”

“Mommy and Daddy aren’t here,” said the girl. “I’m with Carly.”

“Okay. Let’s help you find Carly, then,” said Jessi. “What does she look like?”

“Tall. Pretty.”

Not helpful. But as Jessi coaxed the girl out from under the table, I stood and scanned the room for anyone who looked like she’d lost a kid. I didn’t see anyone obviously looking for a child, but I did see a young woman, maybe in her early twenties, with a pretty face like an older version of the girl’s. She was watching two boys play air hockey. She didn’t look panicked; either she wasn’t Carly, or she hadn’t noticed the child was gone, too caught up with her other baby-sitting charges or siblings or children (was she old enough to have school-age children?)

“We’ll walk around,” said Jessi, offering the girl her hand, “and you tell us if you see Carly.”

I nodded and led the way directly for the young woman. My hunch was correct. As we pushed through the crowd, she took one look at us, jumped, and then looked down, as if expecting to see a duplicate of the child at her feet. The little girl let go of Jessi’s hand and ran to hug the young woman’s legs.

“I take it you’re Carly,” I said.

“I am!” said Carly. “Liza, when did you wander off and bother these nice ladies?”

“She just got lost,” said Jessi. “We weren’t bothered.”

“Thank you so much for bringing her back! I can’t believe I didn’t know she was gone. I’m the worst sister ever!”

“It happens,” I said. “I have seven siblings, so imagine keeping track of that zoo.”

“Wow!” said Carly. “I have a hard enough time with one.”

“You’re not with these boys?” I said in surprise, nodding toward the air hockey table.

Carly shook her head quickly and put a finger to her lips. She took a step closer to us, pulling Liza along by a firm grip on the hand, and murmured, “They don’t know I’m watching them.”

I looked back at the boys, who seemed wrapped up in their game.

“Why are you?” Jessi asked.

Carly smiled. “It’s a little wrong...”

Jessi and I exchanged glances.

“I’m sort of betting on them,” Carly explained. “Oh, crap!”

The table’s digital scoreboard lit up, and one of the little boys threw his arms into the air, while the other one sighed dejectedly.

“Ha-ha!” a male voice rang out. A good-looking guy materialized from the crowd. He looked a little like Carly and Liza, pale-skinned with dark hair and a full, lippy mouth quirked into a smile. “I told you that kid had fire in his eyes. Pay up.”

Carly reached into her pocket and unfolded a wad of bills. The only denomination I saw was a fifty. I was careful not to betray any surprise--Riverbend reflex--but Jessi’s eyes widened.

“Cool game,” I said carelessly.

“Glad to hear you approve,” the guy smirked. “Carly, where did you find these lovely temptresses?”

“They helped me with Liza. Their names are, uh...”

“Mallory,” I said.

“And Jessi,” said Jessi.

“I’m Carly, and this is Ashton,” said Carly. “My cousin and betting partner.”  

Ashton took Jessi’s hand and kissed it. “Enchante.” Jessi gave him a world-weary eye-roll.

He was cute, I had to give him that. He had that natural charm which allows certain guys to get away with a lot of douchiness. But I don’t like presumptuous guys. When he turned to me, I took his hand firmly in mine and shook it. “Good to know you, Ashton.”

“A woman who takes charge! I like it,” said Ashton. “So you’ve told them about our little system? Do you ladies want in on the action?”

“You guys bet on all the games?” I said.

“How else are we supposed to handle spending hours and hours doing kid stuff?” said Carly. “It’s the only way to keep it interesting. Ashton will bet on anything. He has a gambling problem.”

“It’s not a problem if you win,” said Ashton.

“Too rich for my blood,” said Jessi.

“I think we could work something out to all budgets,” said Carly. “That is, if you’re interested.”

“Sure,” I said. “We’re interested.”

Jessi gave me a skeptical look, but she didn’t say anything.

“Great!” Carly grinned. “Then you’ll want to see Ducky Dive.”

“Ducky Dive!” said Liza excitedly.

“Ducky Dive!” Ashton echoed. “The main event.”

I knew Ducky Dive, of course. It was always popular with the younger Pikes, since it was the easiest way to get a lot of tickets, although older kids preferred longer games with more skill. Ducky Dive was a round wheel, partially submerged in water, and decorated with plastic ducks. The edge of the tub was lit up with moving bands of neon color. Kids leaned forward and spun the wheel and received a number of tickets corresponding to the number they landed on. It was basically Showcase Showdown with a duck theme. Liza immediately ran and joined the line of children waiting for a spin.

“Of course you can always spin it so it will land on the jackpot, it just takes a few hundred hours of practice. That’s why we don’t spin it ourselves anymore,” Carly explained. “The children add an element of randomness.”

Ashton shook his head. “Don’t let her fool you. Choosing your champion is a matter of skill. Pure skill. This child, for example, is definitely going to land on three.”

“Seventeen!” said Carly.

The little boy spun the wheel and it landed square on 17.

“Wow,” I said.

Carly beamed. Ashton grumbled and handed back the wad of bills.

“Why don’t you try one?” said Carly.

“I don’t know,” said Jessi. “We don’t have your experience. Or your disposable income.”

I shot her a glare.

“Ten to one odds,” said Ashton. “You lose, you pay the bank a twenty. You win, we fork over two hundred. Can’t say fairer than that.”

“Four,” I said with sudden inspiration.

“We fork over four?” said Carly, confused.

“No, four.” I nodded toward the little girl in line. She looked just like Margo at seven or eight, and Margo almost always landed on four, one disappointing peg before the “big money” payout of twenty.

Bingbingbingbingbing...bong...bong...boop! The wheel landed squarely on four.

“Whoa,” said Carly.

“A natural!” Ashton beamed and pulled out his wallet.

And that’s how I won two hundred dollars.

Chapter Text

Practice Log
Tuesday
5:15 start 6:55 end
15 min Warm-up/Stretch
5 mile Run (Partner continued stretching.)
1 hr Batting
43 min Pitching
No cool-down


Three things that made Shea a great practice partner:

1. He never slept, so it wasn’t hard to get him going early in the morning.

2. He had a twitchy, nervous energy which made his pitches impossible to predict.

3. He was an all-around amazing ball player.

Three things that made Shea suck as a practice partner:

1. If you caught him in the wrong mood, and it was always the wrong mood, he was silent and surly. It wasn’t fun to practice with him.

2. He got winded after about three minutes of running, so you couldn’t race him. You just had to challenge yourself against your own times.

3. He had no attention span. He got distracted by any kind of movement, birds, bugs, the wind through the grass. Tuesday morning, he stared at the clouds moving through the sky.

“D’you think the rain will come back?” he asked.

At least he was talking to me. “Focus,” I said, tossing the ball in my hand and making the universal “I’m about to pitch to you” stance.

He kept gazing the sky. I was tempted to hurl the ball right at his stupid face.

He’d have probably still hit it. His head was never in the game and he always did good anyway. He’d stand there looking off into the distance and you’d be sure he was a million miles away, and then his catching arm would just shoot out and grab the ball in mid-air. Batting, he made effortless-looking hits that sent me running deep into the brush, and I’d find him stretched out on the ground when I got back, like he got sleepy waiting so long for me to return. It pissed me off, frankly. If you’re going to be as good or better than me at what I , you should at least have the decency to care a lot and work at it a hundred hours a day.

“What time is it?” said Shea.

I checked my watch. Shea wasn’t allowed to wear one during our practice sessions because he looked at it too much. “Five to seven.”

“Want to call it? The lifeguards will be coming on duty.”

“So?” I said angrily.

“So everyone will want to hit the beach,” he said innocently, like the girl lifeguard was the furthest thing from his mind. I saw through him. Third day at Sea City, and he already had a sixth sense about the changing of the guard. Yesterday he was lying in a lifeless heap, half buried in sand as Claire and Margo sculpted a mermaid body around him, when he sat up suddenly like a pointer seeing a bird, spattering the girls with wet mud. I looked, and sure enough, there was Adela crossing the beach toward the chair.

It wasn’t like he did anything different once she got there. He just sat there boring holes in the back of her head with his eyes.

I don’t know what he saw in her. She was pretty, I guess. To tell the truth, she just looked like a girl to me. Average figure, average face. There must have been something about her, though, because it wasn’t just Shea. “Be still, my heart,” Adam said yesterday, watching her stretch under the lifeguard chair. “If I weren’t already taken...”

“She’s way hot,” I agreed. I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t get it. I seemed gay enough already for bringing Shea in the first place.

It would almost be easier if I were just gay. At least then I’d know, one way or the other. But I didn’t see anything in any of the guy lifeguards, either, and I don’t think it was just that they were a batch of uggos. Before Adela came on duty, this one super built guy was up there in the chair, and Byron and Jeff just sat there side-by-side on the beach towel lathering themselves up with sunscreen and staring. Ugh.

I don’t get it. Jeff used to be cool. Shea used to be cool. Adam used to be cool. Even Byron used to be cool-ish. We used to do stuff--play games, run around, get up to crazy adventures. You reach a certain age and something happens to guys. They stop thinking with their brains and start thinking with their dicks. I’m the only sane one left.

Shea and I headed right for the beach, bringing the bat and gloves along. There was no point in trying to get the others up yet. We came down the ridge to the parking strip just in time to see the Sea City Coastal Patrol jeep coast into the reserved lifeguard space, and Adela climbed out. She saw us and waved. “Hi, Shea and Jordan!”

Shea froze, obviously unprepared to be remembered--by name!--by the golden goddess.

“Hi,” I took over, because somebody needed to say something. “Nice morning, huh?”

“Beautiful, although they say it’s just a break in the storm. I’ll be surprised if I make it through this shift before the rain comes back. You guys are right to get here early.”

“Oh, we’re always here early,” I said. “We’re up at five playing ball.” And Shea has apparently memorized your schedule, I didn’t add.

“That’s great! I’m an early bird myself.” Adela and I fell into step walking down the beach, Shea a half-step behind us. “So you two are ball players? Are you on a team?”

“I am, yeah. Back home. I have to practice every day to keep up. We’re all-stars for the region.”  

“That’s amazing! You must be really good.” I gave a modest shrug, and Adela glanced back. “Are you on the team, too?”

Shea cleared his throat like he was going to speak, but then he just shook his head.

“Shea’s a natural athlete,” I said. “He doesn’t have to practice.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Natural talent is nice, but it’s nothing to hard work. Just my opinion. Speaking of work, I better get to it.” We’d reached the lifeguard stand. Adela nodded at us. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“Sure. Thanks.” I grabbed Shea by the arm and dragged him away, past a mom and toddler and a woman walking her dog. There was hardly anyone else on the beach this early.

“You wanna throw the ball around or what?” I said.

“I dunno.” Shea collapsed onto the sand and just gazed at the lifeguard stand.

“Wonderful,” I sighed. “I’m going for a swim.”

I swam a few laps out to a big rock and back. It started to drizzle, but Adela stayed on her perch, and more kids and families appeared on the beach. I was just about to hit the rock again when there was a flash of lightning and the rain kicked into high gear. Adela blew her whistle. I turned and began stroking back, but I was pretty far out. By the time I reached the shore, she’d evacuated everyone except for Shea, who was standing huddled by the boardwalk. Adela was standing at the shoreline under an umbrella. She held it out to me as I waded up out of the water.

“I was about to go in after you,” she said. “What did I tell you about the rain? You couldn’t have stayed a little closer to shore during a storm warning?”

“Aw. Afraid for my safety?” I said.

“Don’t get too cocky. It’s my job.” She nudged me and began walking me back toward the boardwalk, holding the umbrella over both of us. “Though it looks like I’m done for the day.”

Shea could have used an umbrella. He wasn’t standing under the boardwalk like a normal person but just beside it, and the rain was just pouring down on him. He didn’t seem to notice. He was staring at us.

In another flash of lightning, I realized why. I was flirting with his girl. And she was flirting back.

Well, why shouldn’t she? It felt like justice. Shea didn’t care about baseball, but he kicked my ass. I didn’t care about girls, but I flirted as effortlessly as Shea hit homers.

“So what you’re saying is,” I said, flashing my most winning grin, “you’re free for lunch.”

Adela laughed. “Are you asking me out?”

“Any reason I shouldn’t?”

She looked me up and down. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.” Okay, I was just barely sixteen, but what’s a year or so between friends? I made a mental note to tell the other triplets their new age. “Why, how old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“Well, then,” I said. “I take back the invitation. How would it look? People would think I was out with my grandma.”

She gave me a look, then turned and waved at Shea. “Hey! What are you doing there in the rain? Get under this umbrella, now.”

I figured that was that. I went too far with my grandma remark and blew it. Oh well, I gave it a shot. No harm, no foul. It wasn’t like I really liked her all that much anyway.

But then she turned to me and said, “Okay, Jordan. If it’s still this bad at noon, I’ll meet you at Garibaldi’s.”

“Great,” I grinned, avoiding Shea’s hurt puppy eyes. “See you then.”

 

I don’t know why Shea gets so tongue-tied. I thought Adela was really easy to talk to. Within ten minutes of conversation over clams and French fries drenched in vinegar, I learned she was from Westchester, she was going into her senior year, and she wanted to be a doctor.

“Cool,” I said. “I guess lifeguarding is a pretty good stepping stone for you. First aid and all that. Working with people. You get your CPR license.”

“Definitely. Though I’ve had my CPR license since I was fourteen, from a Y baby-sitting class.”

“Oh yeah? I’m a baby-sitter too,” I said.

“I’ve seen you with all your brothers and sisters. You’re great with them.”

“Yeah, we baby-sit a lot in town, too. All of us. Adam and Byron--my triplets--and Shea too. Adam actually runs this baby-sitting business. I help out a lot.” Sort of true. I help out sometimes. When nobody else can. “I love kids,” I added. Girls love that, when a guy likes kids.

Adela nodded enthusiastically. “Aren’t they wonderful? I think my specialty will be pediatrics. That or obstetrics. I love babies.”

“O.M.G. Babies. So great,” I said, channeling Byron. “I could just smell their sweet heads all day long.”

Adela laughed. “Wow, you’re one in a million, aren’t you?”

“Aren’t I though?” I said. “So what brings you to Sea City? You’ve got closer beaches.”

“Definitely. In Rye, the beach is right outside my door. I guess I just wanted to get away from home for awhile. It’s a long story.”

“Bad breakup?” I guessed. “Crazy ex?”

“Interesting choice of words. You don’t know the half of it. Oh, well. Let’s not talk about him.” She smiled. “So you’re into baseball? Is that what you want to do for a career?”

“I don’t know. I love it pretty much more than anything else, but not many people get to play pro. Mom says I need a fallback. Maybe bein’ a doctor,” I grinned. “I hear that’s pretty easy.”

“Oh, sure,” said Adela. “That’s really what I’m drawn to, the easiness.”

Adela didn’t want dessert--she wasn’t on a diet, she said, she just didn’t like sweets--so I asked for the check. Adela dug in her purse.

“You better be taking out gum, not a wallet,” I said. “This is on me.”

“Let’s just split it.”

“No way! Is this a date or isn’t it?”

She just looked at me, and I said, “Oh.”

“No, it’s not that I don’t--I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “This was really fun, but I really shouldn’t get involved with any beach guys.”

That sounded like an excuse to me, especially since she’d basically asked me out. Was it something I said or did? Maybe I did too good a job channelling Byron. She thought I was gay. Or maybe it was only a matter of time. She could only spend so much time with me before she picked up on the girl-repellent I apparently give off. “Sure. Whatever,” I mumbled.

Shea would be happy, anyway.

We split the check. It was still pouring when we got outside.

“I love rain!” Adela said brightly. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to smooth over the awkwardness or if she really didn’t feel any. She stuck a hand out from under the awning, catching raindrops in her hand.

“Sure, you get time off,” I said. If she wasn’t going to let it get awkward, I wouldn’t either. Easy come, easy go, and I didn’t know what I would have done if she really liked me anyway. In a way, it was easier now, knowing she just wanted to be friends. I felt myself relax.

“It’s not just that. I just love it. It’s so cool and fresh. I wish it had been raining this morning when I went for my run. I love running in the rain.”

“Yeah? You’re it!” I tapped her shoulder and took off down the boardwalk. Since it wasn’t a date, I could be free to be me: a big, overgrown kid.

I heard Adela screech with laughter behind me, and she shouted, “I’ll get you!”

We raced down the street, dodging families with umbrellas. I let her tag me near the parking lot, but instead of running on ahead, she raced down the wooden steps to the beach.

Have you ever tried running on wet sand? It’s like trying to run through oatmeal. Our feet sank with every step. We were totally drenched and must have looked like crazy people. We were both laughing.

Finally she grabbed one of the posts of the wooden underpass, whirled around it, and looked at me.

“Tag!” I shouted, grabbing her by both shoulders.

She grinned, brushing wet hair from her face. Her blue eyes were sparkling, her face was flushed pink. All of a sudden, I could see it, I could almost see it, what Shea saw in her.

Her face went serious all of a sudden. “Jordan...”

“I know, I know.” I dropped her shoulders and ran a hand over my head fuzz. “Fuck. It’s not fair.”

“What, that I won’t go out with you?”

“No. That’s cool. That’s your call.” She looked surprised by that answer. I waved dejectedly. “Obviously nobody should have to go out with anyone they don’t want to. It’s just my bad luck, that’s all. I don’t understand it. Adam’s had a girlfriend forever, and even Byron, what are his odds, and he’s got this grand romance, and I--I’ve never...”

She bit her lip, looking at me with big, sympathetic eyes.

I was flying apart, but what did it matter? She didn’t like me anyway. Might as well get her medical opinion. I stared at the sand between us and begged, “What do you think’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing!” She touched my wrist. “Nothing’s wrong with you, Jordan, and if it makes you feel any better, I--well, I’ve seen you with your brothers, and you’re by far the cute one.”

“Thanks,” I said dully. “That’s great to hear from someone who’s already rejected me.”

“For the record, what I said was, it would be a bad idea. I didn’t say I didn’t...”

I glanced at her sharply. She was staring down, now, blushing. She looked up, and she looked serious, maybe a little afraid. She swallowed.

I’d seen this moment in the movies a hundred times. For the first time, I had the sense to feel nervous.

I leaned toward her just a little. She didn’t move away. She leaned closer, too, and tilted her head up toward mine. Now or never. I leaned forward the rest of the way and closed the gap.

Her mouth was cold and wet with just a hint of garlic sauce. I couldn’t help but think of the clams from the restaurant. I don’t know what I was expecting. Fireworks, maybe. You see people putting their mouths on each other and you think, “It must feel better than it looks,” only it doesn’t. It’s just what it looks like. You put your mouth on another human being.

I pulled back. Her eyelids fluttered open. She looked at me with wide, serious eyes, and I thought, I did it wrong. How embarrassing. But at least that explained why I didn’t feel anything.

Then she broke into a slow smile that just kept getting wider and wider. And I realized I didn’t do it wrong. At least, she didn’t think so.

“You’re one in a million, Jordan Pike,” she breathed.

“I know,” I said.

I was one in a million, all right. A mutation. A mistake. The Incredible Heartless Boy.

Chapter Text

Dear Sasha,

Having a great time! Wish

 

Dear Sasha,

It rained today. Life is misery when you’re not

 

Dear Sasha,

You’re really missing out. The beach is beautiful. Shimmering water, sparkling sand, hot lifeguards (Jordan and Shea have a crush on the same girl! She IS pretty cute.) Actually, there are a lot of cute girls here. Maybe you should have

 

Dear Sasha,

It’s beautiful here, but not as beautiful as you, my sugar crumpet of love. Prithee how dost thou keepest thy shiny treacle tresses so shiny and treacle-like


I sighed and threw another postcard in the trash. I should really start writing out what I want to say on scrap paper instead of wasting so many postcards. Or at least using a pencil. But that would be admitting I have nothing to say to my girlfriend.

The gooey love letter approach was no good. It all came out sounding like parody of Vanessa, because that’s what it was. Anyway, Sasha hates sentimental crap. I once told her she had eyes like limpid pools (I read it in a book), and she said, “Well, you have a face like a frying pan, but you don’t see me complaining.”

It shouldn’t be this hard. When we’re together, we have no trouble thinking of things to say. But none of the things we usually talk about seemed right for a postcard: weekend plans, club business, and arguing. We’d still be in different towns over the weekend. The club seemed to be humming along nicely, from what I could tell reading the blog, and I didn’t want to undermine her authority by being a butting-in Kristy Thomas. That left arguing. Don’t think I didn’t consider picking a postal fight.

I guess I was still a teeny bit mad at her for not even trying to come. Why was I sitting here agonizing over a postcard for someone who didn’t give crap? She hadn’t written to me, either.

(Okay, so I was the one on vacation. What was she going to do, send me a postcard? “Greetings from Beautiful Stoneybrook?” But should could have at least dashed off a quick “bored, missing you” email.)

Mad as I was, I didn’t really want to pick a fight and make things worse. The truth was, things had been... off between us lately. Arguing used to be good fun. We’re both loud, opinionated assholes, and we (used to) like that about each other. But then we got in a monster fight when Shea was accused of stealing from a client. We made up after he was proved innocent (yay!), but we’re still guarded around each other. Arguing isn’t as fun now that we know how nasty it can turn.

Laughter erupted from downstairs. I sighed, flipped my pencil over my finger, and spun in my chair. Everyone was somewhere else having fun without me. As usual. I’m always the mature one stuck doing some chore. Baby-sitting, cruise directing, maintaining a long-distance relationship.

Time for plan F: just list things that have happened, like a “What I Did Last Summer” composition. Boring, but it would fill space. I grabbed the last blank postcard and dashed off,

Dear Sasha,

Greetings from SCNJ! It’s great here, as always. Yesterday, Becca and I taught Squirt how to make witch castles, and I taught some random kids  a biology lesson about tide pools. Becca thinks I should take pictures and make a book for the kids back home. Today it rained, but there’s an old Pike tradition for rainy days at Sea City... mini-golf! Lame, but fun. My sisters manage to still suck after all these years, but Becca and I kicked ass.

How are you liking office, Madame Acting President? Looking forward to hearing everything when I get home!

xo
Adam

I stamped it, shoved it in my pocket, and ran downstairs.

It was still raining, but the gang had brought a beach party into the dining room. Becca and Vanessa were dancing and singing “Hollaback Girl” along with the staticky portable radio. Claire and Margo, optimistically dressed in their bathing suits, were building a house of cards. At the other end of the dining table, Byron had laid out every cold cut in the house and was lovingly constructing an enormous sandwich.  Jeff was leaning on the windowsill, chomping on a peach. Shea was tipped back to the wall in a chair, reading a crumpled paperback, earbuds in his ears. There was a beach ball floating around, food wrappers and random towels everywhere.

I pulled up a chair at the table stole some of Byron’s cheese. “What were you guys all laughing so hard about just now?”

“Huh?” said Byron. “Oh. I forget. Vanessa and Becca were clowning around.”

Becca had really let her hair down here at the beach. If she wasn’t pretending to be a dinosaur with her own brother, she was good-naturedly yelling at one of mine. She seems timid when you see her at school and stuff, but she was holding her own in this zoo. I was impressed.

“Where’ve you been?” Jeff asked me.

I made a face. “I hate writing postcards.”

Byron smiled. “I bet Sasha likes getting them every day, though.”

Ha! Should I tell him that I had yet to actually send one? If I’d mailed all the postcards I’d started, Sasha would be up to her ears. “I guess. I think I’m running out of things to say. What would you write if it were you guys?”

Jeff’s face clouded.

“Ask us again in a month,” said Byron with a wry smile.

“Oh. Right. Sorry.” The two of them would probably never have any trouble, anyway. They always seemed to have plenty to say to each other. I dug in my pocket and pulled out the card, already creased at the corners. “Here. Tell me if this is okay.”

Byron wiped his hands on his jeans, took the card, and read it incredibly slowly. When he was done he handed it to Jeff. Shea tipped forward in his chair, put down his book, and read over Jeff’s shoulder.

“Well?” I said.

“It’s good,” said Byron in a careful voice. “A little BSC blog-y...”

“Dude,” said Shea, pulling out his earbuds. “This is all about Becca.”

“And there’s that,” said Byron.

“What? No it’s not. What are you talking about?” I took back the postcard.

“It’s true, man,” said Jeff. “You say ‘Becca’ more than you say ‘the.’”

I glanced over my writing, frowning. “Well... okay. So she comes up. I hang out with her a lot.”

“You can’t write to your girlfriend all about another girl,” said Shea.

“She’s not another girl! She’s just Becca.”

“Did I hear my name?” called Becca over the music.

“We’re talking about David Beckham,” Jeff replied.

“He’s a great soccer player, granted,” I said, as the girls lost interest, “but he’s just a kid. And a co-worker. It’s not like that.”

“Does Sasha know that?” said Byron.

“Of course. She’s not the jealous type. She knows I have to hang out with my vice-president a lot. It’s business.”

“Even on the beach?” said Shea.

“In your sexy-sexy swimwear?” said Jeff.

“Yeah, on the beach! We’re the only ones who actually step up and do any baby-sitting, if you haven’t noticed. Lord knows the rest of you fools can’t be counted on. How do you even think of her like that? She’s thir-friggin’-teen.”

Shea shrugged. “She’s gettin’ pretty hot.”

We all glanced at her surreptitiously, even the gays. Okay, she had a pretty nice shape, even though it made me feel like a perv to admit it. She was wearing a clingy pink dress, tight across the hips, narrow at the waist, and with a sweet little bow beneath the swell of her bosom. I shook my head. Becca Ramsey + nice rack = does not compute.

“That’s all fine and good for you to say, Shea. That’s age-appropriate,” I said. “You’re both going to be freshmen, right?”

“Freshmen can go out with juniors,” said Shea. “It happens.”

“I went out with a senior when I was a freshman,” said Jeff. “And when I said ‘went’ I mean ‘made.’”

“You’re precocious,” said Byron fondly.

“Well, I’m not that kind of guy, I happen to like girls my age, and anyway, I don’t see why this is even a topic of conversation, because I have a girlfriend and I always will, and I’m sending this postcard, and I don’t care,” I declared, shoving the postcard back into my pocket.

“Whatever,” said Shea.

“Jeff! It’s your jam!” Becca called over the music.

“Oh, sweet. Excuse me, gentlemen.” Jeff jumped up and joined the girls’ dance party along to the Pussycat Dolls. Jeff and Becca must have worked out a dance routine ahead of time. They had all these weird moves, snapping their fingers in unison and sucking in their cheeks, making duck lips at each other. Sometimes Jeff takes his tongue out of my brother’s mouth long enough to prove just how gay he really is.

At the same time, it was weird to see Becca flirting and dirty-dancing with a boy, even Jeff. Their faces were close, easy kissing distance, and they stared into each other’s eyes with dramatic smoldering looks. Becca leaned back with her chest thrust out, Jeff hunched forward, swaying his arms, and as they moved, they somehow kept a paper-thin sliver of space between them. The slightest miscalculation, and she’d fall into him boobs-first.

“Okay, I’m here! The party can start!” Jordan bounded into the doorway and shook his head like a dog, splattering raindrops on the girls, who giggle-shrieked. He did the obligatory pretend-to-knock-down-the-house-of-cards thing, working Claire and Margo into a panic. Drawing up a backwards chair between Byron and me, he reached over the table and grabbed a handful of olives.

“What’s wrong with Byron and Jeff?” he asked with his mouth full.

“Where do you want me to start?” I said.

He swallowed and gestured. “They’re at opposite sides of the room! Is that even allowed? Who filed the handcuffs?”

“How was your date?” Shea asked in scratchy voice.

“We never went on any date!” said Byron, adding quickly, “Which you obviously know because you were talking to Jordan.”

“Fine.” Jordan poked through the pile searching for the perfect turkey slice.

“Just fine?” said Byron.

“Yeah, just absolutely fine,” Jordan confirmed.

“She didn’t like him,” I translated.

“She liked me fine.”

“Did you kiss her?” asked Claire.

Jordan glanced sharply at her, and then at Shea. “It’s not important.”

“That means no,” said Becca. The girls had turned down the volume to eavesdrop on us. Their gossip sense must have kicked in. Becca looked at me. “That means no, right?”

“’Scuse me.” Shea got up, his chair chalkboard-scratching on the floor, and headed for the stairs.

“Nice going, Jordan.” I hit him.

“What?” said Jordan around a mouthful of popcorn. “What did I do?”

“You upset Shea. You know he’s in a weird place,” said Byron. “What if he starts smoking again?”

“What if he slits his wrists in a warm bath?” said Vanessa. “That’s what it looked like he was going to do. What? Too soon?”

“It hasn’t happened yet, so, yeah,” said Becca.

“How would any of that be my fault?” said Jordan. “He’s emo. Blame God.”

“You didn’t have to go out with Adela. You know he likes her,” I scolded.

“I like her!” said Jordan. “Who says I don’t like her? She likes me, I like her. It’s not like I did it on purpose to be an asshole.”

“Jordan’s right,” said Becca. “He had to follow his heart. If Adela likes him best, maybe that’s how it’s supposed to go. Nobody’s fault.”

“Maybe,” said Byron slowly. “Poor Shea, though.”

Jeff and Byron looked at each other, then Jeff nodded like they’d had a whole other conversation. “I’ll go check on him.”

On his way out, Jeff passed Mom, coming in with a bag of groceries. She looked around, bemused. “Are we having a party? Adam, you’ll make sure this gets cleaned up.”

It didn’t seem fair, considering most of the mess happened before I even came downstairs, but I was the oldest one there, other than Byron, who is a natural force of chaos where food is concerned. I sighed. “Sure, Mom.”

“I’ll help,” said Becca quickly, gathering up empty cups.

“Why bother? We’re all just slaves to entropy,” said Vanessa.

“Auuugh!” Claire yelled, laughing, as the house of cards fluttered down around her.

“See?” Vanessa crowed.

“What’s going on, cards?” Nick wandered in. “Can I play?”

“Party’s over,” I said.

“Of course. Of course!” Nick snapped. “Soon as I walk in! Oh, Nick’s here, fun time’s over. What else did I expect?”

“Attention all Pikes and assorted guests!” I called through my cupped hands. “This is now a mess-free zone! Clean or leave, and take all toys, games, snacks, and personal issues with you.”

You never saw a room full of kids clear out so quickly.

“What can I do to help?” chirped Becca’s voice from behind me. When the dust cleared, she was the only one who’d stayed.

I thought about all the dirty, smelly, sweaty swim trunks and undies that needed washing, and I said, “Nothing. You can go home.”

“Really, I want to help.”

“Um. Well, the thing is, I said I’d watch Squirt today,” I said. This was a lie, but Becca was the kind of girl who’d only stop doing you favors if you convinced her she was doing you a favor. “Can you cover?”

Of course she could.

I didn’t see anyone else until I went up to Jeff and Shea’s room ninety minutes later to drop off their clothes from the dryer. The moment I opened the door, I was enveloped in a skunky cloud of smoke. Jeff and Shea were draped crosswise on Jeff’s bed like ragdolls. Byron was sitting up straight against the wall, his hands behind his back. “Adam! Hi! Look! Adam’s here!”

Jeff leaned up on his elbows and gave me a slow, dopey grin.

I sighed. “Are you guys sure you want to be doing that?”

“Doing what?” said Shea, all wide-eyed innocence, a puff of smoke escaping his mouth.

“It’s cool,” said Jeff earnestly. “It’s not nicotine. It’s not addicting. We’re helping Shea.”

“Shh-hhh!” Byron hissed, like he thought there was still a chance I still might not know what was going on.

“It’s like that thing,” Jeff explained, ignoring or not understanding Byron’s panic. “You know that thing.”

“Where they get people off heroin by getting them on methadone?” I suggested.

“No,” said Jeff with a faraway look. “The thing. The thing thing.”

Shea rolled over, silently laughing into Jeff’s knee.

“Get off my back, Adam!” said Byron suddenly. “I’m allowed to cut loose every once in awhile. I’m good all the time.”

“Christ. Whatever.” I set down the laundry basket on the floor near the door, hoping the smoke would rise away from it. “Just don’t let Mom and Dad catch you.”

Becca may be thirteen, but she’s more mature than the rest of these clowns.

 

You’d think, with seven baby-sitters, five adults, and only one actual kid, it would be a snap to cover childcare every hour of the day with plenty of time off for everyone. What happens in practice is that nobody ever thinks it’s their turn.

The next morning was fresh, clear, and sunny, and most of us kids got up early, anxious to hit the water. (Mom, Dad, and night owl Vanessa slept in.) No sooner had we arrived on the beach and met up with the Ramseys than Jordan and Shea realized they needed to do more baseball practice (Adela in the lifeguard chair might have had something to do with that), Mal and Jessi ran off to say hi to some friends they met on the boardwalk, and Byron and Jeff decided they wanted to go mini-golfing. Nobody in their right mind would go mini-golfing when they could be swimming, so they didn’t get any company.

It wasn’t until the two of them were running off up to the boardwalk that I realized Mom and Dad wouldn’t like it. They could be going anywhere--a no-tell motel, a Turkish bathhouse. Not that I knew of any of those in walking distance.

Oh, well, it wasn’t my job to police the grown-up kids. It was my job to let Squirt climb all over me in the water.

Squirt’s not as small as he used to be, so we don’t do a lot of pick-you-up-and-throw-you-around roughhousing anymore, but the water makes it a lot easier to go back to those old games. Becca joined us, pretending to draw an invisible sword and fight the sea monster that was Squirt and me. Some kids like non-sibling baby-sitters better, but not Squirt. He has a great relationship with both his sisters, and it’s clear they adore him. Becca and Squirt’s fantasy world was full of old in-jokes and references to books I hadn’t read, and it was all I could do to keep up, following Squirt’s orders: “Go, legs, go! Chase the human! Stomp, legs! Jump. Jump higher! Jump onto that rock! Jump to the moon!”

“Okay, I don’t know about the sea monster, but the princess is getting tired,” Becca broke in finally. “What do you think, snack time?”

“Plums!” said Squirt joyfully, jamming a hand into my eye.

We waded back to the shallow surf, Squirt squirming on my shoulders until I knelt and let him climb down into the surf. He went splash-running off toward the beach blanket.

“Thanks,” I said, rubbing my neck. “I’m about ready to collapse. How’d you know I needed a break?”

Becca smiled. “Intuition. You know you can always just put him down. He’ll never voluntarily stop a game where he’s giving the orders. He goes mad with power.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t mind being ridden around like a pony.”

“That’s good. You’re good at it,” said Becca. “It’s a marketable skill in today’s economy.”

I laughed. Becca gets quiet in groups sometimes, and you forget she’s funny. “Maybe I’ll rent myself out for parties.”

“I’d hire you,” said Becca.

Sometimes I end up knee-deep in a conversation with no idea how I got there. There was nothing in her voice to suggest she was making a double entendre. I smiled blandly as if I didn’t even notice the possibility.

Nick was where we’d left him--sitting under the umbrella with his notebook of secret thoughts and feelings--but instead of writing dark thoughts about the rest of us, he was sitting with a little girl. They were drawing pictures.

“Who’s this?” I said.

“Liza,” said Nick, not looking up from his crayon drawing of a boy in a long back trench coat, surrounded by pink bunnies with razor sharp teeth. “Carly’s sister.”

“Who’s Carly?”

Nick sighed, aggrieved. “Mallory’s friend. Do I have to spell everything out?”

I knelt down. “Hi there, Liza! I’m Adam.”

The little girl looked at me with big, frightened eyes and moved closer to Nick.

“Those,” said Squirt, “are my crayons. Why is she using my crayons?”

Liza put down her crayon like it burned her.

“It’s okay,” said Nick, handing it back to her. “Relax, Squirt.”

“You never even color anymore, Squirt. I was going to throw those old crayons out,” said Becca. “Here. Have your plum.”

“Where’s Mallory?” I asked Nick, pulling napkins and juice boxes out of the cooler.

“Her and Jessi and Carly went off to the boardwalk.”

“And they just left her sister?” said Becca, surprised.

“Why not? I was here,” said Nick. “Me and Liza are having a good time. Right, Liza?”

Liza nodded solemnly. She didn’t look like she was having an especially good time.

“You want a snack, Liza?” I asked.

She didn’t answer.

“Well, I’ll have something,” said Nick, breaking open a bag of trail mix and handing some to Liza. “You guys like my drawing?” He indicated his disturbing nightmarescape.

“That’s really great, Nick. We’re just going to go ahead and make an appointment for you with the nice head doctor,” said Becca.

“I don’t like other people messing with my things and I don’t want to wipe my mouth right now!” said Squirt, shoving away Becca’s napkin.

Liza said the first sentence I heard her say, in a cold, arrogant tone that sounded weird coming from a four-year-old: “I didn’t want to use your stinky crayons anyway.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Squirt,” Nick snapped, shifting instantly from the gentle baby-sitter to the whiny baby-sat.

“Language! Do I have to turn this car around?” I demanded. I turned to Becca. “Why did we ever have so many kids?”

She handed me a bag of plum pits. “Take out the trash, dear.”

Things got better after the snack. The half-hour wait to get back in the water can be torture, but Nick started showing the kids magic tricks, pulling quarters out of their ears, and they were so fascinated they momentarily forgot their feud. I took advantage of the calm to take a private swim, stretching my arms and legs before the next session of horseplay.

I was making my third lap from the dock to the big rock when I saw Becca breast-stroking toward the same destination, neatly arcing her arms out of the water. She’s more bookish than athletic, but now, she looked like she was born in the water. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jessi’s won awards for her swimming, and Becca has the same long, lean arms and legs.

We reached the rock at the same time. She grabbed hold of it, panting. It was nice to see that at least swimming as fast as me wore her out a little.

“Hi,” I said, treading water. “Did Mal and Jessi come back?”

“No. The kids are still with Nick. I just needed to get out and clear my head, you know?”

“Boy, do I. Guess I should be getting back, then. Nick’s not technically a baby-sitter.”

“He’s doing a great job,” Becca assured me. “He said he could handle it. The kids are having fun, and it seems like he is, too.”

“Fun? Nick? Our Nick?” I laughed. “Fun isn’t in his vocabulary.”

Becca shook her head. “He’s really great with them, Adam. Maybe it’s time we asked him to join the club.”

“He’s just a kid,” I said instantly, and immediately regretted it. Becca wouldn’t see it that way.

She didn’t look offended, though. She replied thoughtfully, “You think that because he’s your little brother, but he’s older than Jessi was when she joined the club. He’s even older than Kristy was when she started it. Don’t you remember thinking thirteen was practically grown-up?”

“I see your point,” I conceded. “I guess it’s not always easy to tell when people have grown up.”

“Especially if they’ve been growing up in front of you,” said Becca wisely.

I looked at her for a moment. Was that comment supposed to be extra meaningful? Or was it just me, seeing extra meaning in it?

“Anyway,” she said lightly, stretching a slender arm out over the rock. “It’s something to talk about at the next meeting.”

“What’s to talk about? President aye, vice president aye, motion carried.”

She beamed. “So you think it’s a good idea?”

“All your ideas are good,” I said. “How many times do I have to tell you before you believe it? You shouldn’t be shy about sharing your thoughts.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “You don’t know the ones I don’t say.”

“Try me,” I said.

She just turned her head and looked at me steadily. There was a daring look in her eyes. A look which said, “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?” I felt my hands go freezing cold in the water. What went on in Becca’s head, anyway?

“Well, here’s an example,” she said, and I was relieved by her normal tone of voice. “You know that buddy system you keep trying to enforce? Each older kid buddies up with a younger kid?”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. I shouldn’t have made Nicky a younger kid. I got an earful from him about that. I guess thirteen-and-a-half is a weird place for the cutoff.”

“A buddy system is a good idea, especially near the water, but you should let everyone choose their own buddies. Claire and Margo are fine together, and everyone else can take turns baby-sitting Squirt in pairs. Byron wouldn’t try to get out of taking his shift if he could hang out with Jeff at the same time.”

“I really shouldn’t have to bribe Byron,” I grumbled, “but I know you’re right.”

“We’re really already basically in pairs anyway. Jessi and Mallory, Jordan and Shea, Nick and Vanessa, Byron and Jeff... you and me.”

It was weird. Up until then, I wasn’t sure, but the way she said it, “you and me,” even in a mundane work conversation, I knew she felt it. Whatever it was. That thing between us. She felt it, too, which meant it was a real thing, and not just something in my head.

She was looking away, down at the warm swirling water. She was still breathing quickly, her mouth slightly parted, and the little shadow of cleavage at the top of her suit changing shape as her chest moved. The outline of her nipples was faintly visible beneath her wet clinging top. There was a droplet of water on her bottom lip.

She looked up at me with dark, serious eyes.

“Or how about you and Vanessa, and me and Nick?” I said a little too loud and too fast. “That’s much better, I think. I mean, we’re both official sitters, and neither one of them really is, so, you know, spread the wealth, right? If you think about it, it just doesn’t make any sense for us to be together. We don’t belong together at all. Well, I’m gonna head back. Gotta check on the kids. Enjoy the rest of your swim. Buh-bye!”

 

That afternoon I went down to the general store with the post box. I pulled out my crumpled message to Sasha, reread it, turned right around, and bought a fresh new postcard.

Dear Sasha,

Greetings from SCNJ! It’s great here, as always. I taught Squirt how to make witch castles. Later, I taught some random kids a biology lesson about tide pools. Yesterday it rained, but there’s an old Pike tradition for rainy days at Sea City... mini-golf! Lame, but fun. My sisters manage to still suck after all these years, but I kicked ass.

How are you liking office, Madame President? Really looking forward to hearing everything when I get home. I think I’m going a little loopy from Sasha withdrawal.

xoxoxo
Adam

I stamped it and dropped it in the slot.

Chapter Text

I am a stellar student in science. Speaking of stars, astronomy is one of my primary areas of scholastic achievement. I am the vice president of the Astronomy Club at Stoneybrook Middle School. That is not my only leadership position. As the one of eight children, I


I crossed out the last line before I was even finished writing it. “Oldest of eight children” might count for something. Sixth of eight, not so much. Anyway, wasn’t I applying to Riverbend to get away from that label? Nick “Six of Eight” Pike?

Shouts of laughter pealed around me, and Margo ran by, kicking sand onto my notebook as she passed. I brushed it off and continued writing.

Nobody knew what I was doing. Technically the deadline to apply to Riverbend had passed, but they recently decided to go co-ed, so they extended the application due date in order to allow male applicants a chance to start in the fall. There’s three essays plus a bunch of scholarship stuff to get through, so I’m working round the clock.

I haven’t told my family yet that I’m applying to boarding school. They freaked out when Mallory went, so I’m afraid they’ll make an equally big fuss about me.

Or maybe I’m afraid they won’t.

A lot of people claim to be the black sheep in their family. I’ve heard it from Buddy Barrett, David Michael Thomas, Jeff Schafer, Claudia Kishi, Laura Perkins, and about a million other people. Here’s the thing: you don’t know what “black sheep” means until you’ve been smack in the middle of a ten-person family, and the only boy who’s not a triplet, and the only non-triplet who’s not a girl, which you’d think would be two ways of saying the same thing but which are really two separate problems. My family divides neatly into two clubs and I’m not a member of either one.

I used to bang my head against the wall trying to get included in the triplets’ reindeer games, but in the last couple of years, I’ve just kept to myself. That works better. I joined an extracurricular for every day of the week, and I schedule my summers with school trips, volunteer work, and camp. Lots and lots of camp. I wish I could have stayed at camp during this trip.

I used to love Sea City--we all did--but it’s a kiddie place. The older you get, the less fun it is. Now the older kids make their own fun by having secret dance parties and toking up, and every time I walk into a room, they stop or hide what they’re doing and wait for me to leave. It’s just so obvious that nobody wants me around, it would be kind of funny if it weren’t so horrible. You know that old Groucho Marx joke, “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that had me for a member”? Well, the Pike kids don’t want to be part of any club that has Nick for a member.

I always used to think it was something about me, that I smelled funny or I was just terrible, but other people--camp friends, people at school, especially ones who don’t know my family too well--seem to think I’m perfectly friendly, smart, interesting and worth listening to. At Riverbend, maybe, it would be like that.

As I brainstormed notes for the rest of my essay, I began to feel that I was being watched. I looked up and found a pair of solemn gray eyes staring at me. They were attached to a little dark-haired girl about five years old. She was just sitting quietly on the edge of the beach blanket, wearing a neat sundress. She reminded me of Andrea Prezzioso, this ridiculously angelic kid in Stoneybrook whose parents are always dressing her in fancy doll clothes.

One beach blanket over, Mallory and Jessi were laughing and chatting with an older girl and boy. I guessed from the family resemblance that the little girl belonged to them.

“Hi,” I said. “You want to draw?”

She didn’t say anything. I flipped my notebook to a blank page and set it down between us. Next to our cooler, I found a beach bag of the Ramseys’ that looked like just the kind of bag where you’d find an old pencil box of crayon stubs. I checked, and I was right. I opened the pencil box, selected a crayon, and began drawing.

I sort of got wrapped up in my drawing, so I was a little surprised when a voice at my elbow said, “Nice work, you two.”

I jerked my head up from the notebook. Mallory and Jessi had turned to watch us. The older kids were walking down to the refreshment stand. I realized the little girl was drawing, too. She was even more wrapped up than me, and she didn’t even look up.

“Thanks for entertaining Liza,” said Mallory. “She’s so quiet, we kind of lost track.”

“No problem.” I guess it’s easy for me to identify with the kid that everyone loses track of. “I like kids.”

“Must be in the genes,” said Jessi. “You should join the Baby-sitters Club.”

“Yeah, right.” I rolled my eyes. “Like Adam would ever ask me.”

“You don’t have to wait for an invitation,” said Mallory. “Just say you want to join. It’s not like it was under Kristy’s iron rule.”

Jessi nodded. “I don’t think Adam invited anyone. They just sort of volunteered.”

“He asked Byron. He asked Jordan.”

“Well, you know how they are,” said Mallory. “Adam thought they had to join, or God would smite them for having different interests.”

“The club will need help in the fall,” Jessi pointed out. “It’s always busy in September, and Mal and Jeff and the college girls won’t be around to pick up the slack. I’m sure Adam and Becca and everyone will be happy to take you.”

I just shrugged and went back to my drawing. Jessi didn’t understand how it worked. Mallory didn’t even really seem to get it. Asking Adam to join his club--showing interest in anything he had the power to give or take away--would be the best way to guarantee I never got a chance at it. It might even be the kiss of death for the Baby-sitters Club. Growing up, any toy or game the triplets were forced to share with me quickly got “mysteriously” destroyed.

A shadow fell over the notebook. “Well, ladies?” The older kids, Liza’s family, were standing at the edge of the beach blanket. “You want to hit the boardwalk?”

“Sure. Ready to go, Liza?”

“No!” said the little girl. “I want to draw.”

“It’s okay. I’ll keep an eye on her,” I said.

“Nick’s a good baby-sitter,” said Mallory.

“Oh, would you, sweetie?” said the older girl. “That’d be kind of perfect, actually. My parents are useless--they think I should take her around everywhere with me. Can you imagine? Stopping to tie shoes or clean up sticky fingers in the middle of a bar or club or while trying to talk up a cute guy? Are you sure you really don’t mind?”

“Not at all.” I glanced at Liza, but she was back to coloring, and if she was paying attention to her sister, she didn’t let on. I felt bad on her behalf, having her sister talk about her like she was a nuisance. It was no worse than the shit the triplets used to say to and about me before they became super-responsible baby-sitter hypocrites, but I still felt for her, this kid nobody wanted around.

“Here you go, my good man,” said the guy, tucking a bill into my collar before the four of them turned to leave.

I pulled it out. A fifty! Feeling only slightly whorish, I pocketed the money. I’m not stupid.

Poor Liza. As soon as Carly started walking away, she burst into tears.

“Baby!” taunted Squirt.

“Squirt!” I love Squirt--we all do--but I’d never seen him act so bratty. I found myself seriously saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” like my mom used to say to me when I made fun of Margo.

I’d comforted Liza down to a low moan when Squirt spoke again. “Nick? Nick? Nicky?” I realized he’d been silent for a few minutes, so I guess he was taking my advice, and just thinking mean things.

“Yeah, buddy?”

“I’m going over there, okay? I’m going to go play ball with those kids. Okay?”

I looked where he was pointing. A couple of kids, eight or nine, were kicking around a beach ball.

“Do you know those kids?” I said.

“No, but I’ll make friends. They’re right there. You can watch the whole time.”

He had a good point, but I had a bad feeling about it. “Why don’t you just stay here and color with us?”

“Color! How old do you think I am? Do you think I’m a baby?”

“You don’t have to be a baby to like coloring. I like coloring.”

“You have to. You’re a baby-sitter. Pleeeeeeeease can I go play? Pleasepleasepleaseplease--”

I cannot stand that Claire bullshit. I was worn down immediately. I waved my hands. “Fine, fine, whatever. Stay in view.”

The kids didn’t let him play, of course. I knew it would happen. Poor Squirt stood there at the edge of the game, cheering on the other kids, fetching the ball when it went out bounds, but they never tossed to him. It was hard to keep up a cheerful voice playing  pat-a-cake with Liza while I watched. It was heartbreakingly familiar. I could just see my little self pulling the exact same pathetic moves with triplet games.

The thing was, I didn’t really blame the kids for not wanting to include a six-year-old in their games. For the same reason, I couldn’t really blame Squirt for not wanting to play with Liza. It was just like me not wanting to play with baby Claire and Margo. When you’re old enough to be secure about it--like if you’re a parent or a baby-sitter--you can go ahead and enjoy too-young stuff, and it’s all good fun and nostalgic. When you’re just a little older, though, any whiff of “babyishness” is way threatening. You don’t want to be associated with younger kids because there’s a very real possibility people will mistake you for younger than you are. And because you’re so ashamed of what a dope you were just a few years ago, you don’t want to be reminded. Kids were always going to look down on those just a little younger, and desperately but futilely want to fit in with those just a little older. It was hard to live and hard to watch, but it was a natural part of the growing-up process, it was nothing personal.

I knew, deep down, that even the triplets’ horribleness to me was part of that. Natural. Not personal.

“Done!” said Liza.

“Beautiful!” I tore out the page to give to her, revealing an old attempt at an essay question on the previous page.

My desire to go to Riverbend is motivated by its my awe of its national reputation as a first-rate school institution for college preparation and educational achievement, as well as my own firsthand knowledge of its wonderfulness many benefits from the joy and love of learning it inspires in my older sister, Mallory.

Yeah, right. My desire to go to Riverbend was motivated by wanting to get the hell away from my family.

But maybe it wasn’t really anyone’s fault that we didn’t get along. It was all age and birth order. We might even grow out of it someday. Grow up, be adults, treat each other with respect--well, I could dream, couldn’t I? Maybe in the retirement home.

Liza was playing in the sand now.

“You building a castle?” I set the notebook aside and moved over to her. “Hey, Squirt!” I called. “You want to come help?”

Squirt looked at the boys, then looked at us. He nodded and came trotting over.

 

Close to sunset, Carly came back for her sister, and Mal and Jessi rounded up Squirt, Claire and Margo for an ice cream run, so I was free and clear. I took a quick swim and when I got back to the beach blanket to find a towel, Adam was sitting there, drinking a soda. “Hey, bro. I was looking for you.”

“Oh?” Casually but carefully, I slid my closed notebook under a bag of sandals. It was mostly instinct, but there was no need for him to be reading about my hopes and dreams. “What’s up?”

“You did a great job with the kids today.”

“I know.” It was a compliment, but he was so condescending, I didn’t feel the need to be polite.

“Becca pointed something out to me. She thinks I just haven’t noticed how great a sitter you are because you’re my little brother. I think she’s right, and that it’s not fair. How would you like to join the Baby-sitters Club this September?”

Holy shit. This was for real. I’d been daydreaming about the day we’d all grow up, but could that day be today?

I suddenly got a really clear picture in my head. September. Up until now I’d been daydreaming about venerable old ivy-covered buildings, small classes where kids can speak up with answers and not get made fun of, cheerful community service, hot cocoa at dorm meetings, and, most important, brand-new friends who didn’t know or care who I was at home or what people thought of me or what family I came from.

Now I had a new picture. Sitting for kids in the neighborhood. Getting paid tons of money. BSC meetings. Adam listening thoughtfully as I described a problem with a child. Byron saying, “Nick brings up a good point.” Working together side by side, like adults. Wasn’t that what I really wanted? Not to run away from the old hurts of childhood, but to heal those wounds? Start a new relationship with my brothers based on respect?

As suddenly as the picture formed, it dissipated. Who was I kidding? It would never happen like that. This was just Lucy setting up Charlie Brown to kick the football again. Even if Adam meant it, for now, how soon until our relationship was back to normal, petty squabbling and power-tripping and resentment? That was no way to run a business. It was lose-lose-lose--for me, for him, for the BSC. Just because our problems weren’t personal, it didn’t mean they weren’t permanent.

“No thanks,” I said coolly.

“I’m serious. It’s a real offer.”

“And it’s a real ‘no.’ I’m not interested in your dumb club.”

Adam bristled. “Suit yourself. Can’t say I didn’t try.”

He got up and ran off to meet Jordan in the ocean. I picked up my notebook and resumed my editing.

Chapter Text


Byron and I arrived at Fred’s Putt-Putt at 9:09 AM. We didn’t want to seem too eager.

We were the first ones on the entire course. It was a bright, clear, sunny, perfect beach day. The Pike clan thought we were nuts for choosing mini-golf instead. Chuck, the manager on duty, tended to agree. “If I could be on the beach right now, I would, no offense!” He leaned against a fake palm tree, chatting with us as we played, because, of course, we were the only people there. This was going to be more difficult than we thought.

“We’re gearing up for a mini-golf tournament back home. We kind of have to practice nonstop if we’re going to keep our game,” I explained, taking a page from Jordan’s book.

“Yeah?” Chuck looked interested. “You boys must be pretty good.”

“You’d be surprised,” said Byron nervously. He was lining up a shot, and I think I gave him performance anxiety. His hand slipped on the grip of the club at the last moment and the ball sort of glanced off the end and wobbled slowly into a rock. He looked up sheepishly. “To be honest, it’s not really a very good tournament.”

“He’s being modest. The thing is, we’re sort of deconstructing our game. You know. Trying some experimental stuff,” I said. I shot my ball into the wall. “See? That doesn’t work. Now we know.”

We fooled around the first few holes, just marking time, pretending to experiment with different kinds of swings, until some more customers arrived and Chuck got distracted. We made a half-assed show of playing through quickly to hole seventeen. When nobody was looking, we slipped back into the bushes and rounded the windmill. The board was still propped lightly against the hole where we’d left it the day before. We grinned at each other. Byron climbed in first, and I followed, replacing the board as neatly as possible behind us.

As soon as I straightened up and turned around, Byron was shoving me back against the wall, pushing my mouth open with his, thrusting his tongue into my mouth. Every hair on my body stood on end. Byron kissed like a drowning man finding water. He kissed like he might never be able to kiss again. Which was maybe true. The windmill was special magic, like Narnia. It might disappear at any time. We had to make the most of it while it was here. I slid my hands down Byron’s sides and fumbled with his fly.

“Mmm...” His voice was high in the back of his throat.

“Okay?” I asked in a whisper near his ear.

“Probably a really bad idea, but, yes,” Byron nodded quickly. “Yes, please.”

I grinned. “Good. Shut your eyes.” I’d been fantasizing about this all night. I had plans.

I carefully lowered his jeans, then the waistband of his boxers, and took a moment to look at every part of him. His closed eyes with his long, dark lashes. His red, kiss-swollen mouth, open and panting in anticipation. The wrinkles of his T-shirt against his flat stomach. The open fly of his jeans. The jutting waistbone. The beautiful cock, straight-out and erect and just a little bigger than you’d expect. This is how you know a guy trusts you: he stands there flat against the rotten wood of a tiny, spider-infested carnival attraction wearing his T-shirt and sneakers, jeans and boxers around his thighs, eyes closed, patiently waiting for you to do anything you want.

I knelt down, the soles of my shoes jammed against the wall behind me. His eyes were still closed, and he had no idea what I was doing. I reached out, cupping his balls with one hand, supporting the base of cock with the other, leaned forward, and took an experimental lick.

He made a strangled noise, and I glanced up, mouth still on his cock. He was looking at me now, his blue eyes wide, his face pink and flushed. I leaned forward, widening my mouth and taking more of him inside. He tasted sweaty and just a little salty, already starting to drip for me.

He lifted his head and gazed away, looking pained. I knew just how he felt--so turned on by a sight that you can’t even look. I loved having that effect on him. I looked back down at what I was doing. I slipped one hand around the curve of his ass while I wrapped my other hand tight around the base of his cock, jerking rhythmically along with the sucking of my mouth. I could hear him panting in the same rhythm. His hand landed on my head in that awkward way where you know the guy’s still not really looking. I could hear him exhale in rough, ragged breaths. His hand tightened painfully in my hair, and I could feel his cock swell in that danger-zone kind of way, and he managed to choke out, “I, um,” before that bitter-salty taste flooded my mouth. I kept my hand tight on his ass, holding him in my mouth as he spurted again, twice more, and then relaxed.

He let himself slide down onto the floor, weak-kneed. I crawled over and wrapped my arms around him. He pressed his face into my shoulder. I liked holding him while he breathed and shuddered. He was warm and damp all over and had that great, sweaty but clean, I-just-had-a-real-good-time scent.

He snuggled against me, making a happy little noise, and next thing I knew, his hand was pressed tight around my hard-on through my cargo shorts. I heard myself gasp. I gripped his arms, squeezed my eyes shut. Under the best of circumstances it doesn’t take much to set me off, and I was already totally buzzed from getting him off. I was nearly there from the pressure of his hand through two layers of fabric. So when he suddenly reached in and touched me directly, hot skin against skin, it was like, whoa, and I was done.

I lay there in a heap, leaning my cheek against his, just quietly melting. I was dimly aware that he was tucking me back into my shorts. His arms came up round me, and we just clung to each other there on the floor for I don’t know how long.

He jumped up suddenly, leaving behind a cool, painful tingle where he peeled his wet skin from mine. He was rubbing the seat of his jeans and looking around. The end of a putter was poking in from the hole. Byron had been jabbed in the ass by a golf club.

“I think I hit something! Mabel, there’s an obstacle in the obstacle!”

Crap. We got so wrapped up in each other, we totally forgot about leaving a path for play-through. These people must have been looking for their ball for ages. Why hadn’t we heard them complaining? We’d blocked out the outside world.

“Well, that’s just irresponsible... what are they doing, using it for storage? They should know... I’m going to complain to the manager...”

Byron’s eyes widened. I whirled around and found the ball jammed in the corner behind me. I grabbed it and shot it out the other side of the windmill. We heard the telltale sounds of a ball landing in a cup.

“Oh... here it is, John... You must have gotten a hole in one!”

“Well, I’ll be! I could have sworn I looked there first...”

Byron exhaled.

We got up and took our safety positions and kissed a little while we waited for the couple to play on, but it wasn’t the same. I could tell Byron was anxious. We crept out a few minutes later, repositioning the board behind us.

“Wow, you guys took your time,” said Chuck when we came to return our clubs.

“Practice makes perfect!” I chirped.

 

We hop-skip-ran our way back down the boardwalk. We were basically prancing.

Byron grabbed my wrist, then let it go, then grabbed it again. “Jeff, did we just... I mean, was that officially... did we have...” He released my wrist again and glanced warily at a passing family of small children.

“Cupcakes?” I finished innocently.

He nodded. “Right. Yeah. I mean, what exactly counts as a cupcake? Where’s the line between a cupcake and a muffin, for example? How do we know when we’ve really had a cupcake?”

“I’d say that was it,” I said. “The judges are nodding yes. We had a certain kind of cupcake, let’s call it vanilla, but it’s still a cupcake, I mean, ‘cupcake’ is right in the name.”

Byron nodded, grinning. “Good. I’m glad. I wanted it to be you. You, um... you’re a really amazing baker. A-plus baking skills.”

“Thanks!” I beamed proudly. It’s actually one of the skills I’m most proud of. On my tombstone I want it to say, “Jeff Schafer: Told great jokes, tamed great waves, gave great head.” I nudged him with my arm. “You’re amazing, too.”

He shook his head. “Nah, I didn’t even, you know, give back. Sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking. Sugar coma.”

“Totally okay. I was about to... uh... something to do with icing.” Byron laughed. I admitted, “I’m better at giving cupcakes than receiving.”

“Oh. Right.” His smile faded just a little bit. “You’ve done that before.”

“Well. Yeah.” At first I felt a little insulted, like his A+ was only based on the curve of assuming I was new at this, and then I wondered Who else has he been with that was so great?, and then I realized, Oh. Right. I’m an idiot. Nobody. I was his first.

Suddenly “I wanted it to be you” made a lot more sense. And here he’d been thinking he was my first, too. He knew I’d gone out with other guys, but I guess I never did tell him exactly what I got up to with Chip Ransom.

I ran a hand over the back of my hair. “I’m sorry, man. Did you think...?”

He shook his head, pasting on a smile. “I didn’t think anything. It doesn’t matter. There they are.” He waved down at his family and made his way down the steps to the beach.

Funny how you can be on top of the world one moment, then crash, you’re back down to Planet Earth.

Everyone seemed to have gotten along fine without us. Becca and Adam were swimming. Nick was playing on the beach with Squirt and a small girl. Mr. and Mrs. Pike were reading under a beach umbrella. Byron waved at her to let her know we were home. She nodded back.

“Guys!” Squirt came running toward us.

“Heya, buddy!” I said, slapping him high-five. “What’s up?”

“Nick says you guys want me to show you how to build a sand castle.”

“Absolutely we do,” said Byron.

“Okay, well, you have to start with a good foundation.” Squirt dropped down into the sand and began digging with his hand. “Help me build a moat.”

We got to digging.

“Hey,” said Byron, “you know how to make a witch castle, right?”

Squirt rolled his eyes. “Adam showed me. I don’t like it. I’m making a real castle.” He pushed Byron’s hand away from his pile of sand. “Watch how I do it.”

Message received: don’t help me. Byron and I kept digging the moat while Squirt worked on the foundation for the castle.

“I wanted it to be you,” Byron had said. That was sweet, like he couldn’t imagine liking anyone better than me, even an imaginary future guy who, by definition, he’d like enough to sex up. I felt exactly the same way about him--he was the yardstick, and all other guys would be measured in Percents Byron. He was easily #1 if you rank the guys I’ve dated in order of prettiness, sexiness, sweetness, niceness, smartness, funniness, or general amazingness, but there was one list where he’d never be #1, and that was chronological.

Until now, I’d never bought that parental line about how you should wait to have sex with someone you really, really care about, or even want to marry. I wasn’t in love with Chip or anything, and he definitely didn’t have any kind of gooey feelings about me, but the sexy stuff was fun, and it satisfied some pretty furiously burning curiosity. B.C., Before Chip, I felt like a clueless, confused dope. A.C., I felt experienced, sexy, wanted. I knew what to do in the bedroom--well, the back of the Buick. I was 100% sure of my love of cock. You can’t buy that kind of confidence.

I still didn’t regret it, exactly. But I was weirdly jealous of Byron. His how-I-lost-my-virginity story got to be our story, this awesome romance. My story was so practical. “I wanted to try sex, so I located the first available and interested guy.” They say you never forget your first time. I don’t plan on forgetting any of my times, but I’d forget Chip a hundred times before I’d forget Byron.

“Maybe I was wrong,” I said. “Maybe vanilla cupcakes isn’t real cupcakes.”

“There’s cupcakes?” Squirt asked hopefully.

“Sorry, no such luck. We’re talking about a birthday party we went to earlier,” said Byron.

“Oh,” he said, immediately losing interest. “I’m building the walls right now,” he informed us.

“It’s okay, you know,” Byron told me. “I know you have a past. It’s allowed to mean something.”

“Yeah, but I’m saying it didn’t.”

Byron frowned. “So, what, then? Cupcakes don't mean anything to you?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I whined. Codedly arguing about sex in front of a child: I was recreating my parents’ marriage. But Squirt seemed to have forgotten we were there. He was totally engrossed in his castle, singing a little song to himself. “I’m just saying, maybe you’ve never really had a real cupcake and neither have I.”

“Oh,” said Byron. “Are you sure?”

I shrugged. “You said yourself it’s a judgment call.”

“I don’t know. You made a pretty good argument before.” He gave me a sheepish sidelong smile. “And I don’t want to take my V-card back.”

“Don’t worry.” I promised him. “You won’t have it for long.”

Chapter Text

Dear Kristy,

How’s the internship? Are you learning lots? Are you still getting orders for your T-shirt business? You’re the most successful person I know. Whenever I start to think, “Money is the root of all evil,” I remember you and how you know how to handle it. So here’s a question. When you’re making lots of money with a new business or something, how do you step back and say, “Enough, there are more important things?” Or do you? Just some things I’ve been thinking about... write back soon.

Love,
Jessi


Yesss!” Mallory cheered, pumping her fist in the air. The kid at the Ducky Dive wheel turned and stared at her. The poor little girl had just lost big-time, but Mal predicted her number. Mal gave a sheepish shrug and then turned to Ashton. “Hand it over, please.”

“All right, all right.” Ashton glanced around furtively, then dug his hand in his pocket for his wallet.

“You’re a natural,” Carly remarked.

“Beginners’ luck,” said Ashton. “See if you can guess this one... want to join in, Jessi?”

I glanced up from my corner of the floor where I was sitting against the side of a car racing game, stretching my legs out in front of me. “That’s okay. I’m not much good at this game.” I looked at my watch. “When do you want to get on home, Mal?”

“Twelve,” said Mal.

“What? It’s way after noon,” I said, confused.

“Whoo!” Mal and Carly burst out in cheers as the pudgy boy at the front of the Ducky Dive line landed on twelve exactly.

“You’re going to ruin me!” complained Ashton.

“Did you want something, Jessi?” Mal asked, her eyes still trained on the line. “This kid’ll get eight... no, nine. Eight or nine.”

“You have to pick one,” said Ashton.

“Eight. Definitely eight.”

The wheel slowed, six, seven, eight, pause, nine.

Mal groaned.

“Pay up, please,” said Ashton primly.

Obviously, this fascinating game wasn’t ending anytime soon. I was disappointed. I’d wanted to spend some time with Mallory one-on-one this trip. We’d managed to get away from the families, but she was more interested in her new games and new friends.

I’d had such high hopes for this trip. Mal seemed so normal at the beginning, just like her old, down-to-earth, slightly sarcastic self. Now she was dressing up again--this morning she’d put on lipstick for the first time all vacation--and she was schmoozing with the snooty rich white folks. Riverbend was rubbing off on her.

Suddenly, she winced. “Awww!”

Ashton smirked. “Beginners’ luck is running out, eh?”

“Just a slight rough patch. I’m in it for the long haul, baby!” Mal declared.

I sighed and got to my feet. “Hey, Mal.”

“One sec, Jessi. Three for this kid.”

“It’s okay, Mal. You can keep playing. I’m just gonna head back and see what Becca’s up to, okay?”

Mal didn’t answer, her eyes transfixed on the spinning wheel. Suddenly her face broke out into a grin. “Yes! I am a living legend!”

“Are you sure you don’t have this game rigged?” Ashton grumbled.

Whatever. I trudged off in the direction of the boardwalk.

I was ten minutes down the road when I heard my name. “Jessi! Jess! Wait up!”

Mallory was running toward me.

I grinned. I should have known she wouldn’t let me down. “Mal! You gave up your game? No more Ducky Dive?”

“Well... Not exactly. Um. You know that credit card you have?”

I eyed her warily. “Mal...”

“Hear me out,” she said quickly. “I know it sounds bad. I’m not asking to borrow money. I’m asking if you want me to win you those lessons with that fancypants instructor. It’s a thousand, right?”

My eyes widened. “How are you going to get a thousand dollars?”

“Ashton offered me five-to-one odds to keep me playing. You should see him try to bargain me into it. I think he might have a gambling problem. It makes me feel bad, but, well, you need the money more than he does, don’t you? We could get a cash advance against your credit limit--he explained how to do it.”

I only half-heard her. I was daydreaming. I could see it now. A huge room with polished wooden floors and mirrors on every wall. Me jeteing. Ms. Winters--would she let me call her Karen?--stops me, corrects my moves, demonstrates, giving me my own private, front-row-center professional performance...

I shook myself out of my reverie. “I don’t know, Mal. What if you lose? I’ll owe two hundred dollars to the bank. It’s not like that money is mine.”

“I won’t lose,” Mal promised.

“You do lose sometimes,” I reminded her.

She waved her hand. “I was bluffing those times. Who wants to play with someone who wins every time? I just wanted to keep them interested.”

“Seriously?” I yelped. Not even I had known she was lying. “You’re a ringer?”

Mal grinned. “What do you say? Should we take these jerks for all they’re worth?”

“Don’t be mean,” I chided. Then I grinned. “But yeah. Yeah we should.”

Mal texted Ashton as we walked back toward town, telling him to wait for us. I was nervous waiting in line at the bank, but Mal was cool as a cucumber. She just explained what we wanted, and I showed the teller my card and my ID. It was amazing how easy it was to get cash in hand. I felt even more nervous holding ten twenty-dollar bills in my hands. I was afraid I’d lose them or something. I made Mal carry them.

Ashton was waiting alone at Ducky Dive. I don’t know where Carly went.

“Ready?” he said.

Mal nodded and showed him the two hundred dollars. Ashton showed us his cash. He was just carrying ten hundred-dollar bills around. He didn’t even have to go to the ATM!

“One spin. Winner take all,” said Ashton.

Mal nodded smoothly, but as her best friend, I could see her swallow nervously, just a little bit.

“We’ll let fate choose our champion, shall we?” said Ashton. “Whoever steps up at the strike of five.”

It was 4:57. We watched the clock for three nervous minutes.

The girl at the head of the line at 4:59:59 was a dead ringer for Margo. Mal sent me a private little nod. This was a good omen. What was more, Mal knew exactly how to predict her spin.

“Three,” said Mal confidently. “She’ll shoot for 100, but she’ll overshoot by exactly three.”

“I’ll be generous,” said Ashton lazily. “Let her get her perfect score.”

The girl spun the wheel with gusto. Round and round it went. Ninety-eight--ninety-nine--

Lights flashed all over the place. The girl jumped up and down as tickets poured out of the slot.

Perfect hundred.

My throat was dry. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. Mallory’s face was ashen. She kept staring at the machine, as if it might do something different if she looked long enough.

“Tough luck,” said Ashton, making a sympathetic face. “Oh well, easy come, easy go, eh? I’ll be taking my earnings now.”

“One more!” Mallory demanded, her eyes suddenly coming alive. “Just one more spin. That was a fluke.”

“All games are won or lost by well-timed flukes,” said Ashton. “Come on, now. Don’t be a poor loser.”

“Please. Just one more,” Mallory repeated. She grabbed Ashton by the lapels. “Just one!”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I yanked her hand and pulled her away. “Come on, Mal. It’s over.”

“No!”

“You’re starting to scare me,” I hissed in her ear.

“Jessi, please,” she said urgently. “You know you don’t have that money. Give me a chance to win it back. All I need is one chance.”

“But we don’t have anything else to put up.”

“It’s all right. I’ll give you your pity spin,” said Ashton lazily. “You don’t even have to put anything else up. Double or nothing. You can owe me.”

Before I could say anything else, Mallory had seemingly teleported away from me. She was shaking Ashton’s hand. “You have a deal.”

“This young fellow--I give him twenty.”

“Twenty-one!” Mal shouted hurriedly, getting in her bet before the boy started to spin.

Five minutes later, I was trying to lift Mallory from her shocked huddle on the floor, while Ashton walked whistling out of the arcade with $1200 and an I.O.U. for $200 more.

Chapter Text

Friday
Dear Charlotte,

I hope u like this post card. It was the nicest one in the store. Do u like teh sparkles? Thanks for the pep talk. I guess I just needed to hear that I am ok and it will be ok. Thanks for saying if she dosn’t like me its her loss. u r rihgt, summer romanses don’t work out anyway so no big deal. I’m over it. Bye the time u read this i will probaly be home! CYa Soon

ur freind,
Shea


I wasn’t over it.

I don’t know what made me pour my heart out to Charlotte, of all people. Not long after we arrived, I got her little joke postcard (“Greetings from Stoneybrook!” I didn’t even know our boring-ass town made those). Unlucky her, I must have been in the middle of one of my hourly Adela crises when I got it, because I just sat down and wrote back all the hurt and pain I was feeling on the back of the first postcard I could grab, which happened to show a bunch of happy smiling fat-cheeked little children holding hands and skipping in a circle on the beach.

Turns out, talking to a girl about your girl trouble is a really good idea. Charlotte stepped the hell up. Way better than I would have done if some friend I didn’t know all that well started complaining to me out of the blue about his love life. She wrote back a long, smart letter. There were some nice lies, like about how any girl would be lucky to go out with me, and a lot truths I didn’t want to hear, like how maybe it was an okay thing that she didn’t like me because even if it worked out, best case scenario, it would be long-distance. She was right, but that didn’t make it any easier.

Friday was the worst. After Jordan and I practiced ball, I went into town and mailed my postcard to Charlotte. Then I just walked around. The streets were bustling with kids, vendors, laughing happy people. It just made me feel more blue. I felt like a stranger, an alien, disconnected from everything. Then I saw it.

Somebody had left an old Marlboro package lying on a park bench. Nothing special, right? Just trash. I feel like cigarette boxes are the most common kind of litter there is, but maybe it’s just that I’m looking out for them. I always used to check to see if anyone might have left behind a cigarette or two by mistake, but nobody ever did, because that would be like accidentally throwing out the wrapper your GOLD BARS came in with some GOLD BARS still inside. Crazy. Still, out of habit, I sat down and picked it up and peered inside.

There it was. One clean, white, new, perfect cigarette.

Why, why, why would someone leave this little guy behind? All by his lonesome? Had someone decided to quit with one still left? Who would do that?! Some kind of inhuman super-self-control monster? Or did some poor fool just not see it in the corner there?

I took it out and enjoyed the feel of it in my hand. So natural. Ahhh. I could feel the weight of my lighter in my pocket. I knew for a certainty that I was going to smoke this cigarette. There was not even a doubt in my mind. I was just savoring the moment, drawing it out.

The thing was that my whole life these days was wanting. Wanting Adela. Wanting a smoke. Wanting what I couldn’t have. There is only so much wanting you can do before you snap. There was nothing I could do about Adela. Lost cause, untouchable, out of my league, no interest in me, done, gone, forget it. But the cigarette? It was clear what the universe wanted me to do.

“Hi.”

Holy shit, Adela right in front of me. Right there, all real and solid and in the flesh and whatnot, hoodie, no makeup, hair up in a messy ponytail. Beautiful. I was not prepared. I yelped like a little puppy.

She glanced at the cigarette in my hand and then at me. Did her smile fade a little? “You smoke?”

“Uh... I’m tryin’a quit.”

Yeah, she definitely looked disappointed. Like that was a line she’d heard before.

“Really,” I said. “I been doing really good. Actually this was going to be my first cigarette in more than two weeks.”

“Oh, no! Why ruin your two weeks? Come on, now.” She was reaching out, she was touching me, her hand on my hand. Her soft skin, her warmth. My hand went slack immediately. She gently removed the cigarette and put it in her pocket.

I made a strangled noise in the back of my throat. I just couldn’t deal with it, with any of it.

She sat down next to me on the bench and, oh my god, her arm was around me. She was squeezing my shoulder. I was so close to her. I could smell her lavender soap. Her sweat. She’d been jogging. It was wonderful. I was high on her.

“It’s okay. It’ll be okay,” she was saying, rocking me slightly. “Good thing I came along when I did, huh?”

I couldn’t speak. It was warm and snuggly in her arms. I could live there forever.

She pulled back and smiled at me. “Sorry, I guess I don’t have the right to tell you what to do.”

“It’s okay,” I assured her.

“It’s just that smoking is so bad for you in so many ways. Of course you know that, but when you want to be a doctor, you find out just how bad. Quitting smoking is like the number one best way to drastically improve overall health, reduce the chance of bronchitis, pneumonia, heart disease, cancer... Non-smokers live longer. We want you around for a long time!”

I know she didn’t even hardly know me and it was part of her anti-smoking PSA, but I opted to take that shit seriously. She wanted me around. She wanted me around!

“I guess I know all that,” I told her. “It’s just hard sometimes...”

“I know,” she said gently, like maybe she did know.

She looked at me like she was about to say goodbye, so I blurted out, “You want to hang out?”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, if you want.” I looked off into the distance and said, “I kinda need a distraction.” Okay, I was milking it, but wouldn’t you?

She looked thoughtful, then said, “Have you had lunch?”

 

We went to the diner. I couldn’t believe I was really spending time with her. Like, social friend time. I ordered coffee, too nervous to even consider eating. She ordered a grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato soup. I changed my mind and ordered the same.

“Addiction sucks,” she announced after the waiter left us our coffee and iced tea.

“You know from experience?” I asked.

“Not mine. My ex. Alcohol.”

“Oh.”

“It was pretty messy for a while there, but... I don’t know, I kept going back. I think I sort of liked cleaning up after him. Taking care of him, you know?”

I nodded. Was it wrong that this kind of made me hopeful? She liked guys she had to take care of? I mean, that was one thing I had on Jordan. I was much more of screw-up.

“But, well, that’s all in the past now. Hopefully, anyway. Sorry, I’m talking too much about this.”

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I’m interested.” I was very interested in her love life. “What happened?”

“He went to rehab. Thank goodness. He’s doing a lot better now... We tried to get back together, but it didn’t work out.”

“You didn’t like him anymore?” I asked. I was hoping she’d say, “Yeah, I couldn’t stand him anymore once he was all self-sufficient and in control of his life and shit. I much prefer guys who need my help.”

Instead she said, “No, I wanted to make it work, but I wasn’t good for him.”

You weren’t good for him?” I repeated. “I don’t believe that. You’re so nice...”

She smiled. “Thanks. But I reminded him of an earlier time. He slipped into old habits around me. He said he needed to get a fresh start. He changed schools and got a new girlfriend. I guess that’s fair.”

“It’s totally unfair,” I said. “Forget that jerk. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. You’ll find someone new. Like that.” I snapped my fingers. I guess I was coming on a little strong.

“I suppose.” She smiled ruefully, swirling her straw around in her juice. “For a little while there, I thought maybe I had.”

My heart skipped a beat. Did she, could she, mean me? But then I remembered Jordan, and sighed. I was hoping the whole Jordan thing was over. He hadn’t gone out on another date with her, as far as I knew, and I’d been glad about that. But she looked so sad that I almost wished he’d call her. Almost.

“Honestly, you dodged a bullet,” I babbled. “Jordan is sort of a tool sometimes, I mean, I love him, but it’s true, and you’d have had to say goodbye on Sunday anyway, so... I mean, long-distance is hard.”

“I know.”

I was glad that the food came then, distracting both of us. We chowed down, talked, laughed, and didn’t say anything else about Jordan for the rest of the meal.

In fact, we kept it up as we paid and walked outside into the sunshine. Adela was easy to talk to and really interesting. She had lots of good stories about school and life, and she was funny. We’d read the same bullshit stories in English class. We found ourselves back at the Pikes’ cottage before we even realized she was walking me home.

“We’re here!” I said. “You want to come in?”

She looked uneasy all of a sudden. “I better get going. I have stuff to do,” she told me. She hadn’t looked at her watch, and I was pretty sure she just didn’t want to run into Jordan. I didn’t know if that was a good sign or not. “But listen, what are you doing tonight? Some rich kids invited me to a party on their houseboat, and they said I could bring people. You want in?”

“Me?” I couldn’t believe my luck. She was inviting me somewhere? Me? Was it a...

“Good, clean, smoke-free fun,” she smiled. “At least I hope so.”

“Oh. Yeah, okay,” I said. “Sure, whatever. Sounds cool.”

 

I was a wreck for the rest of the day. I sat at the beach staring at the waves but thinking about the party. Was it a date, or just a distraction? Did she like me or just feel sorry for me? I hadn’t brought anything good to wear. Even at home, I don’t own anything that would qualify as “nice.” I have no class whatsoever. Would it be too weird to try to borrow something off Jordan? Maybe one of the other triplets. Byron was too preppy, but Adam dressed okay. Jeff was probably more my size, but he wore super-tight clothing, not my style at all. I can’t pull off that look. I’m somehow too skinny and too pudgy at the same time.

An hour before the party, I turned my room upside down. I rummaged through all my clothes and half of Jeff’s. All I found in his drawers were some XXS T-shirts, a ratty old hemp hoodie (at least I think it was hemp; it might have just been rough cotton exposed to shit-tons of pot smoke), rainbow-colored Y-fronts, and a box of condoms. I didn’t take anything. I wasn’t optimistic enough to think I’d need the condoms. Besides, the box was shrink-wrapped. He’d know if I took one.

That left my bullshit clothing. I laid out every one of my clean(ish) shirts on the bed. I was already wearing the one and only pair of jeans I’d brought. They were torn at the cuffs, but they’d have to do, because society dictates you must wear pants. There were no good options among the shirts. Eliminate the stained ones, and you were left with the baggy, the faded, and the hopelessly wrinkled.

I wandered downstairs to ask Mrs. Pike if the cottage had an iron. She gave me a weird look and asked if I was feeling all right. I told her to forget it. I took a hot shower with my least stained T-shirt hanging from the mirror, but it didn’t have much effect.

I wiped the vapor from the mirror and stared at myself. My hair was hopeless. The more I tried to slick it back and pat it down, the stupider it looked, with random bits popping up and sticking out. On top of that, I had five zits. My nose was too big. My teeth were too yellow. My eyes were too pink, or veiny, or something. The closer I got to the mirror, the worse I looked.

Bang! Bang! “Hey, who’s in there?” Vanessa’s voice demanded. “Claire, are you hogging the bathroom again?”

“Just a second!”

I ran a couple hands violently through my hair, returning it to its normal mess. At least I didn’t want a cigarette. I mean, I did, but I wasn’t sure I would have smoked one even if I had one. I was trying to seem clean and nice, and I didn’t need ash and tobacco smell to cover up on top of all my other five million problems.

Hair? Check. Clothes? Check. Panic attack? Check. I was ready to head out.

 

Adela had given me directions, but I could tell right away which boat was the party boat. Music and shouts wafted down the dock. People were dancing on deck. It was mostly college-age men and women, dressed nicely in dockers and sweaters and dresses. I was impressed and ashamed. I looked like a scrub.

I shuffled in behind a couple of yuppie kids, trying to look inconspicuous as I climbed the gangplank. Luckily, everyone on board seemed to be having too much fun to notice me. I wove my way through dancing, laughing, drinking, shouting, trying to look like I knew where I was going. I didn’t see anybody I knew. Why had I come here again?

A girl with a red plastic cup in her hand stumbled into my arms, laughed, ruffled my hair like a puppy, got up, and ambled away. She’d been coming down off this incredibly narrow little plastic staircase and if I hadn’t have been there, I bet she would have tipped into the ocean. Drunk people should not have parties on boats. I had no other plan, so I climbed the stairs.

The upper deck was much quieter. The air was chilly and the night sky looked weirdly close. Pairs of make-out partners stood against the rail, re-enacting Titanic. I spotted Adela right away in the far corner, her hair a golden halo in the moonlight. She wasn’t alone. Staring into her eyes was Jordan Pike.

Chapter Text

Char,

You’ll never believe it. Guess who got invited to a party TONIGHT!!! The lifeguard asked Jordan and he asked Adam and Adam asked me! So glad I packed a HOT PARTY DRESS! Honestly, I know what you’re going to ask, am I excited because of the party or because Adam asked me... the answer is... I don’t know. Augh. Auuuuuuuugh, Charlotte. I wish you were here.

Love,
Becca


Spritz. Smack. Flutter. That was my perfume, my lips, and my eyelashes as I put the finishing touches on my outfit. I shot myself a sultry look in the mirror over my shoulder, and then I couldn’t help but break into a grin. I looked hot. I looked at least eighteen. Adam wasn’t going to know what hit him!

Okay, so I lied a little in my letter to Char. I was excited because of Adam. Sue me! He was cute. It wasn’t like I was going to do anything. He didn’t see me that way at all. But it was still fun to flirt.

I waited until I heard Aunt Cecelia’s slippers shuffle past the bathroom and her door close behind her, then I slipped out and padded down the narrow staircase with my shoes in one hand. Mom and Dad were putting Squirt to bed, and Jessi had already gone over to Mal’s, so there was no one downstairs to see me. “I’m going over the Pikes’!” I called. “Back later!”

“Okay, honey! Have fun!” my mom’s voice called back.

They didn’t worry about us too much here in Sea City. We were always wandering between cottages, staying up late and playing cards. Nobody had put it into my parents’ head to worry about late-night yacht parties.

The party wasn’t hard to find. Most of the pleasure boats along the dock were dark. Only one was lit up, music blaring from within. The gangplank was lined with friendly paper lanterns. As soon as I stepped up onto the main deck, into the warmth and energy of the party, a familiar face appeared before me. Mallory.

“Ack!” I yelped. Mallory could be cool sometimes, but sometimes she was more like an adult, or, well, a baby-sitter. What was she now?

“Becca!” she admonished. “You can’t be here. Turn right around and go home! There’s drinking here!”

Narc mode. Damn.

It was then that I noticed what she was wearing. She had on a short black dress with a frilly apron and she was holding a tray of empty glasses.

“What’s with the outfit?” I asked.

“Oh...” Her face was as red as her hair. “I’m helping out. Catering. Um... you didn’t see me here.”

“Ditto!” I said.

“Touche,” she said wearily. “Okay, you can stay, but don’t drink anything. Or eat anything. Or touch anything, or talk to anyone. Okay?”

I nodded like a good child.

“Oh, Lisette! French maid!” someone called from deep in the crowd.

Mallory glanced over her shoulder. “I’ve gotta go.”

“Okay.” I edged away along the side of the boat. “See you around. Tell the triplets I’m here!” I called merrily as she walked off.

She whirled around “What?!”

I slipped into the crowd. Soon I was on the other side of the boat.

“Becca!”

I whirled around and there he was. Adam.

I wasn’t nervous around him all weekend, but now, seeing him at a party, surrounded by older kids with drinks, it was different. He was dressed casually but nicely, jeans and a button-down shirt open over a black T-shirt. He looked like a stranger.

He gave me a quick up-and-down glance and said, “You look great.” Yeah, right. I felt silly and childish and overdressed in my tight, low-cut dress and crazy makeup.

“Hiiii, Adammmmm,” I said in a goofy, too-high voice. “You said to come by, so...”

“Yeah, I’m glad you did. You look great!”

The second time he said it, I thought maybe he meant it. I caught him struggling not to look down at my boobs. Hey, wow! I wasn’t sure if he knew it was Sasha’s dress or if he just liked it for some unknown, subconscious reason.

“All the guys are gonna hit on you,” he informed me.

“Maybe I want them to,” I said boldly. Was that really me? “Maybe I want one to, anyway.”

“Oh yeah?” He grinned at me, his eyes sparkling. “Any one in particular?”

Were we flirting? This was flirting! Why was Adam flirting with me? Adam?! Little old me! I had to make sure. “Oh, just any guy who’s good-looking... dark hair...”

“Tall, dark, and handsome?” he guessed.

“Yeah, well, not too tall,” I said, because Adam’s only a little taller than me. He’s also by no means darker than me--he’s white--but I didn’t bother going into race relations and telling him I liked white guys. “Someone smart. A leader.”

“Hmm. President of a club, maybe?”

Oh my lord! He knew! He knew! He was leaning close, ever so slightly, and I don’t know if I was imagining it, or if it was the salt sea air, but I thought I could feel the moisture of his breath against my face, and I just couldn’t handle it. I broke down in uncontrollable giggles.

I giggled so long and so hard that Adam looked bemused. “Um... Should I get you something to drink?

“It’s okay,” I managed to gasp out. “I’ll get something!” I turned and pushed into the mob at the bar and fought through the crowd. Any excuse to get out of there.

I shouldn’t have been so bold. Should I? I wouldn’t have been if I’d had any idea he’d flirt back. I thought I was desperately throwing myself at an unattainable guy. I was comfortable in that role. He wasn’t supposed to flirt back! What if I actually attained him? What would I do with him?

The bar was in a sort of inside area. I don’t know the names of parts of the boat. On the other side of the crowd, there was a small staircase leading down into the... inner... boat... area. I didn’t know if I was allowed to go down there, but nobody stopped me. I thought maybe I could be alone there.

The downstairs held a cramped hallway and three small doorways. (Hatches?) Two were shut. The third led into a tiny living area, with little bookshelf cubes build into the walls and a narrow padded bench in front of a window looking out to sea. It would have been a great place to sit and hyperventilate and regroup, but it was occupied. Shea was sitting there, alone, his armed crossed. He looked miserable.

“Hi,” I said, gripping the doorframe. The boat wasn’t rocking, but I still felt seasick. “Are you okay? What are you doing down here alone?”

He shrugged, took out his lighter, and began spinning it rapidly around his finger. “Nobody wants me around.”

“That can’t be true.” He didn’t answer, so I tentatively asked, “Do you want to talk about it?” I felt strange playing like I had any life advice for a high school guy, but I couldn’t leave him alone looking like this. Anyway, even if I was younger, I could be a friend. “Is it about the lifeguard girl?”

“Yes... no... maybe.”

I sat down next to him on the bench.

“I like someone too,” I blurted out. “Like him a lot... but I don’t know. He’s older, and I’m so little and goofy.”

“It’s the same way with me and Adela, I guess,” said Shea. “Jordan doesn’t have that problem, for some reason. Damn it, why does Jordan have to take her when he knows I like her?”

“Maybe he likes her too,” I said. “You can’t always help what you do when you like somebody a lot.”

“All’s fair in love and war, huh?”

“Not exactly, but... I don’t know. Maybe she likes him back. If you liked somebody and she liked you back, and you were all into each other and everything was great, you would probably go for it, wouldn’t you, even if you knew someone else liked her? Especially if you knew she liked you more than him. Like, it’s sad for that other person, but... you know... true love is, like, destiny.”

Shea’s lip trembled. Suddenly he didn’t look like grown-up Shea to me. He looked like a lost little boy.

“I’m sorry, Shea,” I squeaked. “I shouldn’t have said that stuff.”

“No, it’s true.”

“I don’t really think Jordan and Adela are destiny. They don’t even live near each other.”

“Me and her aren’t either, I guess,” said Shea glumly. “I just thought I was making progress with her, you know? We spent all today together... but I guess she didn’t see it like that. I’m friend-zoned.”

“I don’t believe in the friend zone,” I said. “Sometimes, if a girl is friends with a guy, and never thinks of him as anything else, one day she just wakes up and realizes, ‘Oh, wow, I liked him all along, maybe.’”

“You really think that can happen?”

“My word as a girl,” I promised.

He looked at me for a long moment. “Becca, um... that guy you like... I don’t want to sound conceited, but like, it isn’t me, or anything, is it?”

“You? I--well---” Is that how it had come across? I didn’t know what to say without sounding like a jerk.

“It’s not. It’s okay,” said Shea quickly, cutting me off. “I didn’t really think it is was. But, um, you know, if that guy doesn’t come around, we could always go out, I guess.”

“You and me?” I repeated. I still couldn’t really believe what he was saying. “You don’t really mean that, do you?”

“I don’t know. I mean, yeah, if you want to.”

I’ll admit that I was flattered. Instantly I was daydreaming about a ready-made high school boyfriend, not somebody I had to chase, just somebody I had to say yes to. Homecoming, letterman jackets, prom, double dates: me and Shea, Charlotte and...

Charlotte.

“Shea, I--I can’t!” I sputtered. “I mean, you’re really nice, but I know a girl who likes you way more.”

“You do?” His eyebrows flew up. “Who?”

“She’d die if I told you who it was, but it’s a really good friend of mine, and I just couldn’t do that to her.”

Shea nodded slowly. “The code. I get it.”

“You’ll do okay. You’ll meet someone,” I promised him.

“Thanks,” said Shea. “So will you. Just go on and ask that guy. He’ll say yes.”

I sort of believed him. Heading back up to the main deck, I felt a spring in my step and a swing in my hips. Even if he really liked somebody else, even if really liked somebody else, even if both of us were tragic victims of Cupid’s cruel arrows, I just got asked out by a high school guy! This dress was really working for me.

I pushed through the crowd at the bar and out into the sea air. Adam was standing against the rail with his back to me, looking out to sea. The wind was ruffling his hair, and he looked solid and handsome. I paused a few steps behind him to take a breath and gather myself. No more giggles this time. I was going for it.

Smoothing my dress, my hand slipped into the pocket. There was a little slip of paper in there. Curiously I pulled it out. Thanks to club documents, Adam’s large, boyish handwriting was instantly recognizable to me.

Te amo corazón
xoxoxox

I swallowed hard. Even though I take French, I knew enough Spanish to translate this short message. And even though it was what I wanted Adam to say to me, it wasn’t a message meant for me. Somehow I’d managed to forget I was wearing Sasha’s dress. Wearing a woman’s dress to try to snag her man--my God, who was I? My body felt hot with shame, everywhere the cloth touched. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

I’m not sure if Adam turned around later and went looking for me. I wasn’t there. Half an hour later found me back at my cabin with PJ’s and a fresh-scrubbed face, digging in the fridge for a midnight snack for Squirt.

Chapter Text

Dear Stacey,

Remember when you had to work for that awful client who made you do all that housework? But the money was amazing, and you needed it, so you felt you couldn’t quit? What’s her number? Also, do you have any stocks or bonds

 

Dear Mary Anne,

When you worked for the mall as a Christmas elf to pay back your credit card, did you keep the credit card? What was the interest rate?

 

Dear Headmistress,

I am afraid I will be unable to take my place in the fall class, as I am short of funds. Please refund my deposit to the following post office box:

 

Dear Grandma,

Hope all is well with you. I know my birthday isn’t for awhile, but


I didn’t send any of those letters. I didn’t even write them out. I composed them in my head while I was painstakingly scrubbing the tile floor of the head (that’s the word for a bathroom on a boat). It was hard work being Ashton’s maid.

It was amazing how much harder it was to earn money than to lose it. Losing all of Jessi’s worldly wealth, two times over, took five minutes. Earning it back was going to take forty hours. Ashton had offered me a “generous” rate of ten dollars an hour to do any and all household tasks he requested. I didn’t argue. I’d gotten myself into this mess, and I was going to get myself out of it. Call it idiot tax. Call it introduction to adulthood. I’d learned my lesson, big time.

I thought I understood hard work. After all, I’d racked up hundreds of hours baby-sitting. And Riverbend had a mandatory community service requirement, so I’d done my fair share of menial labor on and off campus--serving food, pulling weeds, picking up litter. Working for Ashton was way more demoralizing than any of that. It wasn’t just because he was a mean boss (although he kind of was--I’d had to polish the champagne flutes three times before he was satisfied.) It was the money.

Doing community service, you didn’t get any money, but you got to work with friends, you felt like you were really helping the needy or doing your part for the school you loved. Baby-sitting could also give you that feeling, especially if you helped the kid learn to read or something, but even when you were marking time with some obnoxious family or doing smelly housework, you got to daydream about the money you were earning and the fun things you might do with it.

Now, I’d already “spent” the money--and, losing it the way I did, I hadn’t even spent it on anything. I wasn’t working toward anything. I was just trying to do damage control. Best case scenario, I ended up at zero.

Debt sucks.

I wasn’t even sure it was possible to dig myself out. I’m no Stacey, but I’m decent at math, and as I calculated in my head while passing out cocktail weenies on the boat, I had to admit that the numbers just didn’t add up. I wasn’t even going to try to earn that $1000 Ashton had put up; I just wanted to work off my $200 IOU and get Jessi’s $200 back. $400 divided by ten dollars an hour is forty hours. So far, so good, but I only had two days in which to cram it all in, and I could hardly work for Ashton when he was asleep. Today, Friday, I’d been working since eleven in the morning (when Ashton got up). Supposing the party went until one in the morning. I’d have worked thirteen hours. (My half-hour lunch and dinner breaks, Ashton had taken pains to assure me, were unpaid.)

Even if I worked another thirteen hours on Saturday--and I hardly saw how I could work more, since Carly and Ashton needed a lot of beauty sleep--I’d only have worked twenty-six of my forty hours’ sentence. We were leaving Sunday morning. We’d probably be gone before they got up. I’d have paid down the I.O.U., but I’d only have $60 of Jessi’s money to give back.

How was Jessi supposed to live for an entire semester on $60? Even scrimping and saving as she did now, she needed every penny of her $200. I could scrub until my knuckles were raw, greet guests until my smile muscles ached, cook and clean and serve glasses of lemonade until I couldn’t stand it, but there was still no way to earn back my debt before we went home. Unless Ashton raised my wages (ha!), forgave my debt (ha! ha!), or came up with some way for me to serve him by correspondence (possibly?), I’d ruined my best friend’s life.

I guess I should have given up right there, but $60 was better than nothing, and I had to keep going even to get that much. I was still working on my I.O.U. now.  

My duties during the party were simple. I wandered from clump of strangers to clump of strangers, offering hors d’oeuvres and collecting empty glasses. Every time I ran out of food and filled up on dishes, I fought my way back to the kitchenette behind the bar, put my dishes in the bin, and restocked on snacks. If the bar was running short on glassware, I took a short break from serving and washed glasses. A couple of times the bartender barked orders at me, and I duly poured Coke or handed out cups while I was there, but I tried to escape as soon as I could, because the bar was a mob and I’d have gotten stuck there all night if I didn’t watch out. Ashton told me he wanted to see me “circulating.” He was very clear about it. I think he wanted all the guests to see he’d hired a maid. Or maybe he liked being served himself.

I’d made sure to look the part in a short black dress and a small frilly apron. The apron was from a large toy housewife kangaroo that’s been in the girls’ room at the cabin every year since we started renting it. The dress was mine, a clingy little thing I’d brought in case of a fun night out or a surprise formal event. I guess this qualified.

Ashton liked my outfit. Every time I ran into him on my rounds, offering him something to eat or drink, he grinned broadly and gave me a wink or a sparkly look through his long eyelashes and murmured something like, “There’s my good girl.” Or even just a simple, “Thank you, darling.” It was condescending, but it made me glow a little inside. I don’t know if it was a dutiful employee’s satisfaction in a job well done, or if it because he was so handsome.

With infinite time to reflect on my bad fortune, I figured that was at least partly why I’d gotten into this mess: I wanted to keep playing casino with the cute boy. Damn my hormones. At least he was giving me attention now, even if it was as a prince condescending to beam his royal sunshine on the humble serving girl.

On one trip back to the bar, Ashton emerged from the mob and took my elbow in his warm hand. I stumbled, nearly spilling a half-drunk glass of wine all over my apron. “Come with me. I need your help.”

It’s nice to be needed.

He led me down a short staircase to a little room behind a hatch. It was a shipboard bedroom--cabins, I think they’re called. It certainly was a mess. The blankets on the little bed had been tossed aside, and someone had spilled red wine on the white sheets.

“What happened here?” I asked, picking up the pillows from the floor.

“I’m guessing a couple thought they’d get romantic,” he explained. “It happens at every party. Can you tidy up? I don’t want anyone thinking we’re slobs.”

“Sure. No problem.” It was actually kind of a relief to get a task that took me out of the excitement of the main party. I’d been “circulating” for hours and the crowd was only getting more dense. It was after midnight, and I was getting sleepy. I guess I’m a nerd, but I’d always assumed that most parties ended shortly after I went home, around ten.

I bunched up the stained topsheet and bent down to inspect the fitted sheet. It seemed clean enough, but maybe I should strip the bed anyway, especially if the couple had engaged in any...

I felt something brush against the back of my knee. Surprised, I straightened up suddenly, and felt warm arms encircle me from behind. Ashton lay his blond head on my shoulder and murmured indistinctly. I could feel his breath on my arm.

My heart was racing. I’d assumed he left when I turned my back, but he’d been standing right behind me. And now... and now... was he hugging me? What was this? Did he like me? Did that excite me? Had I showed any panties when I bent down?

“Ummmm,” I said. Brilliant repartee.

“Mmm,” Ashton seemed to agree, letting his arms drift apart until his hands were on my hips. “You’ve been teasing me all night.”

I shivered as he ran his hands up over the tight material of my dress and encircled my hips. My heart was pounding. Equal parts of my brain were screaming, “Yes, yes! Let the handsome guy touch you!” and “What are you thinking? This guy took your money; this guy made you do dishes. Dishes, Mallory!” I heard my voice ask, stupidly, “Don’t you want me to clean?”

Ashton tilted my head up to his. His eyes twinkled roguishly. “Yes, you live to serve me, you naughty wench, and you love it, don’t you?”

Jeez, what do you say to that? Was that dirty talk? Didn’t he know how inexperienced, virginal, and nerdy I was? Maybe not! I couldn’t believe I’d managed to come across as cosmopolitan and sophisticated, not like the kind of person who wouldn’t get trapped as scullery made, but instead the kind who would choose to playact a French maid as some sort of weird sexy power play.

“Some parts are better than others,” I said, which was honest enough.

He laughed. Placing his hands on my shoulder, he turned me around to face him. Then he gently removed the sheet from my hands and tossed it back on the bed. He took my hand in his, pulled me close, and nuzzled my hair. I did nothing, like a deer in the headlights. Anyway, he seemed to know what he was doing. His face still buried in my hair, he squeezed my hand and maneuvered it between us. He pressed my fingertips against something warm and hard--his penis I realized, encased in the rapidly tightening confines of his thin suit pants.

I jerked my hand away as if it burned and jumped back. It was a totally automatic reaction. My face must have been as red as my hair. I had never gotten so close to a guy’s stuff. Especially that, um, engorged. I had no idea what to do. My knees were jelly, and my underwear was soaked.

Ashton was gazing at me through half-closed eyes. His parted lips formed a sort of half-smile. He looked yearning and mischievous at the same time, as if to say, “I want you, but I respect your decision to play hard to get.” I swallowed. I wondered if it was too forward to reach out and touch him again. Now that my initial shock was wearing off, I was curious. Okay, I was horny.

Trying desperately to cover my virginal freakout, I put on my most flippant voice and attempted to banter. “The kind of ‘service’ you want, you’d need to spend more than ten dollars an hour.”

And he said, “That can be arranged.”

Oh, my lord!

He was crushing me against him before I finished processing what he meant. His face was in my hair again, his lips forming little kisses against my temple, around the shell of my ear. I blinked and pushed his chest, disentangling myself. “What--I mean--are you really offering to pay me?”

He shot a melting grin and abruptly flopped back onto the bed. He lolled on the stripped mattress, one arm hanging lazily off into the air. “Let’s see. You’re--how far into your debt?”

“One-twenty,” I answered promptly.

“So you have eighty to go.”

“Two-eighty. I need to earn my friend’s cash back.”

“Right. Tsk, tsk. At your current rate, I don’t see how you’re going to squeeze it in.”

I didn’t, either.

“Tell you what,” he said, his hand idly straying toward his crotch. “Let’s see how much you can make in an hour. One dollar per minute of your fair caress upon my manliest parts--that’s six times your current rate, if you’re keeping track. A hundred dollar bonus if I come, and I promise I can last long enough to earn you the full one-sixty--that’s sixteen hours you’d earn in one.”

“I’m not listening to this,” I insisted, even though I’d been doing the math along with him. Maybe--just a moment ago I wanted to do it for free--and I really needed the money--

“Of course not! You’re a lady. Now, let’s see. Five a minute for your sweet mouth,” he went on. “And that brings you well over your goal, although, of course, if you’re skillful, I can’t guarantee a full hour of work. What would you say is your skill level?”

“Zero!” I said. “I’m a virgin!”

“Is that so!” He seemed amused. “I don’t believe that for a second, but the thought is a delicious one, so you’ve earned your raise. We’ll double it, shall we? And let’s say your bonus is two-hundred for that, bringing you to four hundred, easy--why, you’re making money! Imagine giving your friend a hundred-and-twenty-dollar bonus, for interest. Now, if you want to make a thousand dollars--oh, right, you’re a virgin, call it twelve hundred--right now, this minute, for just a few minutes’ work, all you need to do is lie down,” he sat up and patted the bed.

I opened my mouth and closed it again, and suddenly, my pocket was buzzing. My phone.

“Excuse me,” I said curtly. I didn’t know who was calling me at two in the morning. My guardian angel, probably. I didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?”

“Yes, hello, Mrs. Pike. I’m so sorry to be calling so late,” said an unfamiliar woman’s voice. “My name is Wanda Carver, and I’m a night security guard for the Sea City Commercial Neighborhood Association. I’m sorry to have to inform you that your son was caught trespassing tonight.”

“Oh--h?” I said in a high voice. I hadn’t even had sex yet, and I had a son?

“Yes, this is Mrs. Pike, isn’t it? You have a son Byron? And you have one Jeff Schafer staying with you?”

“I’ll be right down,” I said, and clicked off the phone. “I have to go.”

I flew out of the bedroom and up the narrow staircase to the main floor. I couldn’t believe I’d actually been considering it--any of it. I may be a gambler, an idiot, and a scullery maid, but I have to draw the line at prostitute. I have friends and family, responsibilities, brothers and sisters who are counting on me, hopes, dreams, self-respect. Amazing how quickly servitude can make you forget all that.

I dropped my apron on the bar as I passed by, pushed my way through the crowd, crossed the deck, and stalked down the gangplank to solid ground.

I sure hoped Byron didn’t need any money, because I was still in debt. Ruling out prostitution, how on earth was I going to make two hundred and eighty dollars in twenty-four hours?

Chapter Text

Dear Haley,

OMG, I can’t believe we’re both in the middle of Summers of Romance. I hope everything is going well with Katie. She sounds really cool. I’ve got to learn another language.

It’s been SO FANTASTIC with Jeff I can’t even handle it. Things are happening really fast. I don’t want to put more in a letter. I wish you had phones at ASL camp. I need to talk to someone nonjudgmental. I guess I have to muddle through on my own. I’ll fill you in when we’re both back in Stoneybrook and you can headdesk over all the mistakes I’m about to make.

Love and kisses (lol)
Byron


Lying on the beach, half-dozing in the sunlight, I daydreamed about one day buying the windmill from Fred, unscrewing the bolts that held it to the green, and using it as a focal design element in me and Jeff’s future married condo. Or maybe, if Fred retired and put his Putt-Putt up for sale, we could buy the land itself and build a house on it, retaining as many of the original mini-golf obstacles as possible on the ground floor. How convenient to live so close to the beach and Burger Garden and...

Oh, who was I kidding? Jeff would never live in New Jersey. Not even in a town as magical as Sea City.

I had to live in the moment. Opening my eyes, I saw Jeff’s face silhouetted against the sky.

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” he said. He grabbed my shoulder reassuringly. His hand was warm and solid. He was here, with me, in the here and now. “Come on. Let’s go down the pier.”

Going down the pier was usually as close as we could get to privacy in the real world. We’d walk far out on the shaky wooden planks that always frightened me as a kid. Everyone could see us, so we didn’t kiss or cuddle, but surrounded by open ocean on three sides, we felt safe to murmur secrets to each other.

“We leave Sunday morning, right? Your parents said early,” said Jeff as strolled down to the end, where the motorboats were tied up. “So we only have tonight, tomorrow, and the night after. You know, to get done... everything we want to get done.”

I nodded, feeling a chill down my spine. “Yeah.”

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot. You know...” He dropped his voice. “Sex.”  

“Me, too,” I murmured.

“Straight people--you know, they know when they’ve done it. It’s clear. With us it’s not so clear...”

I nodded.

“But we do have one thing, you know, that’s definitely sex. No doubt about it.”

I swallowed. My whole body tingled with excitement, but my butt clenched in fear. “Yes?” I squeaked.

He leaned in so close I could feel the warmth from his tan face and whispered, “Will you fuck me tonight?”

Jesus. For some reason I’d been expecting it the other way around. My butt relaxed. I was turned on, but I was terrified. Tonight? I had to be the, you know, pitcher? What if I couldn’t perform? What if I wasn’t any good? Was I ready? What did that even mean, “ready?” How do you know if you’re ready? Do you just know? Is that a real thing that happens to people, or just a thing adults say to keep you from having sex?

“Y-yes. Yes,” I whispered back. “Absolutely.”

He grinned, a broad half-moon that pushed his cheeks out. God, he was beautiful. What was I afraid of again? I was bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball, terror, desire, terror, desire. Either way, I was sweating.

“Here’s what I think we should do,” he said, all business. “We’ll try for tonight. If it doesn’t work out--we can’t get away, or whatever--we have another chance. We’ll meet up at midnight at Fred’s.”

“The windmill?” I said, surprised.

“Where else? We can’t do it at home. Too many people.”

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t think Fred’s is open at night.”

“That’s sort of what I’m counting on. We can hop the fence. We’ll try, anyway. If we can’t get in, we can just pay our fare and go in during the day tomorrow. It won’t be as nice as nighttime, with everyone around, but it’s better than nothing. Let’s meet there at midnight tonight, okay? It’ll be easier to sneak out separately. Stand by the gate and duck behind the ticket booth if anyone comes by.”

“You have this all planned out,” I said.

He grinned bashfully. “It’s kind of all I think about.”

I nodded, feeling warm and chilled at the same time. “What about... um... supplies?” I asked. “Do we need--I mean, do you have anything? Condoms... et cetera?”

He shook his head. “Not here. Back home. California, I mean. I didn’t bring any to my mom’s. Richard would flip if he found condoms in my room. You?”

I shook my head. I’ve never even seen a condom, except in health class. I never dreamed I would need one so soon. Until Jeff came along, I’d never even liked anybody. I was pretty sure I was going to be one of those late bloomers who’s a virgin until he’s twenty-five.

“We’ll have to buy some. I can stash them in my room. Shea won’t notice.”

“Buy some how?”

“At the drugstore, I guess.”

“I know, but I mean, when? We can’t break away for five minutes.”

He frowned, turned, and started to walk down the pier, back toward the beach. I was pretty sure he didn’t have a plan, but he strode briskly, all business. I followed, hop-skipping like his little puppy. Marching through the sand toward the boardwalk, we passed Margo lying on a beach towel with a novel. Without breaking his stride, Jeff asked, “Margo, you want some ice cream?”

“Sure!” She jumped up and waved at Mom, who was lying a little ways away under an umbrella. “Mom, we’re heading for ice cream!”

Mom looked up. Her brows furrowed over her sunglasses. “Well--okay. Don’t let her out of your sight, you two.” I knew she really meant, “Margo, don’t let either of them out of your sight.”

“Mo-om. I’m almost thirteen. God,” Margo complained.

We headed up the steps to the boardwalk and padded down the brick walkway in our flip-flops. Margo skipped along happily next to us, humming to herself. “Gosh, I’m glad you guys asked me. I was just wishing for some Rocky Road. Wow, that cloud looks kind of like an ice cream cone, don’t you think? If I have an extra quarter, I’m going to buy a gumball for later.”

Jeff had chosen Margo because she was in the right place at the right time, but we couldn’t have picked a better chaperone. She was off in her own little world. She didn’t blink when I said, “Well, I’m going to stop in the drugstore. Meet you guys at the ice cream place.”

“Okay. What flavor are you getting, Jeff? I wanted Rocky Road before, but I might get Berry Twist...”

Jeff winked at me over his shoulder and walked on a step behind Margo.

There are two drugstores in Sea City. One is as quaint as the rest of the town, with an old-fashioned soda bar and penny candy up front. We’ve been so often over the years that the elderly couple that runs the place knows each one of us Pikes by name. Naturally, I went to the other one: a purely utilitarian Rite-Aid.

The harsh fluorescent lights really brought out the dirt on the beige linoleum floors. (Or were they supposed to be white?) A bored check-out lady thumbed through a magazine. The music on the speaker system was quiet, tinny, and barely recognizable as Hanson’s “Mmmbop.” I wandered through the first aid aisle, where a bright red man was examining sunburn creams. Aisle 7 was my goal, “feminine care, incontinence, family planning,” but when I got there, a girl was looking at tampons, and I was too embarrassed to stand across from her examining the condoms. I pretended to comparison shop day-of-the-week pill organizers until she left.

The array of condoms was dizzying. Thin or ultra thin. Large or extra large. Ribbed. Spermicide. Hypoallergenic. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I wished Jeff were here. He knew so much more than me. The condoms were for my cock, but they were for his ass. How was I supposed to do this alone?

A man turned into the aisle. I jumped to the next display so he wouldn’t think I was looking at condoms. Instead he thought I was in the market for pregnancy tests. Kind of a lateral move, I guess.

The man walked on through to the pharmacy counter. I took a deep breath. Okay. One option at a time. Normal thinness was probably fine; I wouldn’t have minded going for thick, actually, since I didn’t want to blow too soon. I’m not conceited enough to think I need extra large. I didn’t know what ribbed meant, so I skipped it. Spermicide is to prevent women from getting pregnant, I think, so I didn’t bother with that. I was pretty sure Jeff would have mentioned it if he had a latex allergy. Lubricated, though, now that sounded like a good idea. I got those, and also grabbed a small bottle of “personal lubricant.” There were options there, too, but my mind was swimming. I just grabbed the closest one.

Walking to the counter with condoms and lube in my hands, I must have looked as red as the sunburned man. I ducked into the magazine aisle and grabbed two random magazines to wrap my purchases in.

Too soon, I was at the front desk. I dropped Elle, Motorcycle Weekly, a box of condoms, and a bottle of K-Y down in front of the cashier and stared resolutely at the candy display, not meeting her gaze. I could feel her eyeballing me.

“Will this be all?”

“Um, and some gum.” I didn’t want her to think I was all about sex.

I was afraid she’d ask for ID or something, but she just rang up my stuff, running the condom box over an anti-theft scanner that gave a startlingly loud “beep.” It rang up as $11.99. I gulped. I hadn’t checked the prices. I only had a twenty. I wondered if condoms were available in singles. Then again, what if we needed more than one? What if one broke or we wanted to do it twice? How many times would we reasonably...

“That’ll be twenty sixty-nine,” said the cashier, interrupting my line of thought.

“Um...” I reached into my pocket and thrust the crumpled twenty at the cashier. “Cancel the gum, I guess,” I said in a small voice.

“Here you go.” The cashier put my receipt in the bag and pushed it across to me. Just when I was beginning to relax, figuring the worst was over, the cashier met my eye, a stern expression on her face. “Hey, kid. You respect her, now.”

“Okay,” I squeaked, grabbed my bag, and ran out of the store.

On the sidewalk, I examined my plastic bag. It was hopelessly thin material. You could see right through it. I carefully arranged the magazines so that they were the only things that showed. Satisfied, I headed on to the ice cream shop.

Jeff and Margo were sitting at a picnic table on the outdoor patio. Jeff was carefully spooning chocolate-coated chocolate ice cream out of a cup. Margo had already flattened her Rocky Road over the top of her cone. A cup of maple walnut sat in front of the third place, melting and untouched.

“You got me something!” I said.

“We’re even,” said Jeff, glancing quickly at the bag as I laid it on the bench between us.

I figured he couldn’t have that much experience after all, if he thought condoms and ice cream cost the same.

“Ooh, you got Elle!” said Margo. “Can I look?”

Anyone else would have asked me why, Byron, why did you pick up a girls’ fashion magazine? Not Margo. I slid the magazine carefully out of the bag, glad I’d grabbed two. Motorcycle Weekly was now all that stood between me and my condoms. Margo didn’t seem to notice that, either. She just gave a contented sigh and settled in to read about lipstick colors as she licked her ice cream. Next to her, Jeff was silently laughing into his ice cream. I kicked him under the table.

 

The one thing Jeff and I hadn’t figured out was how on earth I was going to get out of my room that night. It was one thing for him. His roommate was Shea, who slept at random hours, sometimes napped on the living room couch the whole night long, and wouldn’t give a damn even if he was awake and Jeff said, “I’m going to go fuck Byron.” Shea would probably say, “Have fun.” My brothers were another story.

At quarter to twelve, everyone was wide awake in the Pike boys’ room. Adam was bouncing a ball against the wall. Nick was scribbling away in his notebook. Jordan went to take a shower, at least, but instead of coming back ready for bed, he returned even more fully dressed in a button-down shirt and khakis. I don’t know why I thought my brothers would be sleeping peacefully by midnight, ready for me to slip off unnoticed. Maybe I could say I was going for a midnight snack, then not come back. They’d notice in a few minutes, though. Half an hour, tops. Someone would say, “Where’s Byron?” Eventually someone would go looking for me.

“All set?” said Adam as Jordan dropped his sweats on the bed, toweling off his head.

“Yep. You ready to head out, Byron?” said Jordan.

“Head out? Where?” I yelped.

“The party,” said Adam.

I gaped like a fish.

“Some party on some rich kids’ houseboat,” said Jordan. “Sorry, forgot I didn’t tell you. Adela invited me, but she said I could bring people. You in?”

“Uhhhhhhhh,” I moaned like a broken refrigerator.

“Forget it, don’t make him go. He hates parties,” said Adam.

“Suit yourself. Hey, goober,” said Jordan, tapping Nick on the head. “If Mom asks, we were here all night.”

“Like I care,” said Nick.

The two of them walked out, and I sat there on the bed.

“Not going out?” I asked Nick.

“Nah,” he said, turning a page in his book.

I looked at my watch. 11:55. Shit. Jeff would be waiting, and I was still stuck here like a chump when, somehow, my brothers had slipped out. How did they do it? What made them so confident? How was I also supposed to make up some pretext for going? I should have said I would go with them. Then, halfway to the party, I could say I changed my mind.

“I changed my mind,” I announced abruptly, standing up. “I think I will go to that party.”

“Whatever,” said Nick.

 

I ran the long way down to the golf course, avoiding the beach. I didn’t want to pass my brothers.

It was colder out than I expected, and I shivered as I slowed to a walk in front of the chain-link fence. Fred’s was so friendly and cheerful in the daytime, but at night it was creepy and forbidding. The “Come in and play!” sign creaked eerily in the ocean breeze. There was no other sound. The gate was shut tight with a heavy padlock.

My heart sped up when I caught the glimpse of motion from the side of my eye, but it was only Jeff, beautiful Jeff, slipping out from behind the ticket booth. His white-blond hair looked silver in the moonlight. He grinned like a woodland sylph, swinging the telltale drugstore bag, and beckoned for me to follow.

In a bound, he’d hopped up on the gate, and a moment later, he was over it. I followed with much less grace and athleticism. It took me two tries to get a foothold. At the top of the fence, I scratched my arm, and I scraped my knees falling like a sack of potatoes on the other side. You could say I was nervous.

Jeff paused at the entrance to our little windmill. “After you,” he murmured.

I pulled him into the windmill after me, pushed him against the wall, and we were kissing and holding each other close, knees between legs, faces buried in necks, hands clasped, hands on backs, hands on asses, hands under waistbands. Outside was dark and gray and cold but somehow, in our windmill, though it was technically darker than outside, it felt bright and warm and loving and sexy and intimate.

“God,” I moaned. “I want you so bad.”

“It’s your lucky night, then, ’cause you got me.”

I shuddered and slipped my hand further down his back, over the warm, smooth curve of his ass under his boxers.

“Okay,” he said suddenly, straightening up.

I moved my hand away, unsure what was happening. Had I gone too fast?

But he just slipped off his shirt, revealing his perfect sculpted chest. “Get ready,” he told me.

Right. Okay. Go time. My palms were sweating so much, it took me three tries to get the box of condoms open. Suddenly self-conscious, I turned away before I unzipped my jeans. He’d seen it all before, but I’d always been hard. I didn’t want him to see my limp dick and think it was a commentary on him.

It was a good thing I turned away, because I turned into a huge, dopey butterfingers with the little condom packet.  He must have wondered what I was doing, but I was terrified I was going to rip the condom. I held the packet in the one pool of moonlight, struggling to find a good place to open it. Finally the foil tore, and I was left with a little slippery disc. It smelled like balloons. You can tell a total virgin because his past experience with latex is all in a birthday party context.

Still turned away from Jeff, I jerked furtively and rapidly with my free hand. The packet had said I needed an erection to put on the condom. (You can also tell a total virgin because he reads the directions on the condom packet.) The fine print seemed so official, all about serious problems like STIs and unwanted pregnancy, not that that was one of our worries. How did straight people do it?

Up to a medium hardness, I declared it good enough. I hastily unrolled the sides of the condom down my shaft, squirted some lube into my hand, slicked up. I turned back around, knowing one look at Jeff’s perfect mouth would get me back in the right mood.

But he was turned away, his hands braced against the wall. His shorts were pooled around his ankles. His brown, bare back was curved in a J shape, ending in his perfect ass, thrust toward me.

I felt the weirdest contradictions.

On the one hand, boing, yeah, I was hard; it was hot, seeing him there all spread out for me, waiting for me. It was pornographic. Jesus.

On the other hand, it was wrong, all wrong. Unromantic, or something. I’d pictured us facing each other, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Come on,” he said gruffly. “I’m ready.”

“Are you sure?” I said. I’d always thought you were supposed to, you know, work up to these things. But maybe that was just with girls.

“Yeah,” he said impatiently. “C’mon. Put it in me.”

Well, you know, you don’t need to ask me twice. I stepped up and put my hands on his waist. He took in a sharp breath and pushed his ass out even further to meet me. I tightened my hands around his cheeks, opening him up slightly, and pressed the head of my cock against his tight asshole.

He jerked forward, away from me. I let him go.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sorry. The lube was cold. Go ahead.”

I put my hands up on his shoulders and leaned over to look in his eyes. His expression was grim, his mouth set and his eyes fixed on the wall in front of him.

I took in a deep breath. I knew I was crazy, but I had to say something. “Jeff... I don’t know if we should be...”

He turned his head to look at me, suddenly looking so lost and afraid that I was sure I was doing the right thing.

“But we have to,” he said in a quiet little whine. “It’s perfect.”

“No, it’s not. You know it’s not,” I said. “I don’t want it to be like this.”

He bit his lip. He didn’t look convinced. But after a moment, he nodded. His eyes were uncertain, and very, very blue. “Okay,” he said glumly.

He sighed and knelt down to put his pants back on. I pulled off the condom, shoved it in my pocket, and zipped my jeans back up.

Then I put my arms around Jeff and pulled him to me. His sad expression didn’t change, but he let himself be pulled into my embrace. His bare skin was warm against mine. Warm and comfortable. He hugged me back.

I knew he was cheering up when he began nuzzling my shoulder and nibbling at my neck, and I turned his head toward mine and kissed him, cupping the back of his neck. His hands were tight on the small of my back.

Thump! came a sudden noise from outside. Our first reaction was to cling tighter to each other, and before we made it to our second reaction, a light was shining in our eyes and a sharp voice demanded, “What are you boys doing in there?”

Chapter Text

Dear Dawn,

Awesome vacation. Seeing new sides of Sea City. Did you know there’s a vast underground network of offices beneath Fred’s Putt-Putt? Also, Fred is actually a real guy, and he’s kind of a dick. Hey, you know when you got arrested for that demonstration outside the power plant? Is that on your permanent record now? Just curious.

Love, Jeff


There were eight dead flies in the fluorescent lights. I knew because I spent the whole time they were questioning Byron staring at the ceiling tiles, just trying to keep it together. The security guard was sitting at the desk a few feet away. She was reading, but really she was watching to make sure I didn’t flee, or crash the interrogation, or start turning over tables, like I wanted to.

It’s crazy how quickly a night can turn around. Talk about an emotional roller coaster. First, I was going to have sex--well, anal, which, for whatever reason, counts as official sex--for the first time. I was equal parts excited and fucking terrified. Next, Byron didn’t want to. I was equal parts relieved and disappointed. Next, I was cuddling with him, and I felt one hundred percent warm and safe and wonderful. Next, we were being dragged out by the security guards, and I felt confused and frightened. Now we were trapped like rats down here in this stale-coffee-smelling office, and I felt angry and hot and panicky and vengeful and just about ready to set the whole thing in flames.

Byron walked out of the inner office, the interrogation room, followed by Mr. MacMillan (Fred). Byron looked shaken. I jumped to my feet and took a step toward him. Mr. MacMillan shot out his arm, pushing me back. I shook him off, ready to fight, but Byron just gave me a weary look, and I stood down. Byron took a seat at the end of the line of plastic chairs, two away from mine.

“Well, young man? Are you ready to talk?” Mr. MacMillan asked.

He’d tried to interrogate me first, but I wouldn’t say anything. I crossed my arms and gave him a hard, cold look. I knew my rights.

“You know you can’t leave until I have a parents’ contact information. I can’t release you except into the custody of a parent.”

Yeah, right. Even if that were true, good luck to him waiting for my mom to drive up from Stoneybrook or Dad to fly from Palo City.

“I don’t think you realize the severity of your situation,” said Mr. MacMillan. “You were caught trespassing on private property. That’s a serious offense in itself, but when you add public lewdness on top of that...”

“It can’t be public and private at the same time,” I snapped.

“Oh, so you can talk!”

I scowled and lapsed back into silence.

Fred shook his head. “So much anger. When I think about today’s youth. Tsk, tsk. How must your mother feel? Children shouting at their elders, engaging in homosexuality and probably drugs. You’re going to Hell, you know.”

“I’ll see you there!” I shouted.

“Jeff,” said Byron softly.

“Who are you to tell us who’s going to Hell and who isn’t? Some kind of priest? You’re the mini-golf guy. Excuse me if I’m not shaking in my boots,” I went on. “Jesus. I regret giving you my money, even if it was only so I could spend time with my boyfriend, who I love, something you’ll never experience because you’re so full of hate!”

“I don’t need to listen to this,” said Fred. “I assume you can take care of this from here on out, Wanda. Call this number.” I watched, wide-eyed, as Fred handed a piece of paper to the security guard. Shit. Oh, shit. Of course Byron had snapped. I looked over at him. He was staring ahead, worried.

As soon as Fred had bustled out and Wanda picked up the phone, I moved over to the chair next to Byron. He reached over on the armrest grabbed my hand. I squeezed his hand tight. “It’s going to be okay,” I promised.

“Yes, hello, Mrs. Pike. I’m so sorry to be calling so late,” said Wanda pleasantly into the phone. “My name is Wanda Carver, and I’m a night security guard for the Sea City Commercial Neighborhood Association. I’m sorry to have to inform you that your son was caught trespassing tonight...”

Byron was white as a ghost.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, stroking his knuckles with my thumb. Wanda, doing paperwork across the room, didn’t seem too interested in us, but it still seemed like a good idea to keep our voices low. “This was all my fault.”

“No, it’s not,” he murmured back. “It was both of ours.”

“I was the one who wanted to... I mean, without me, you wouldn’t have...”

“Without you, I wouldn’t have a lot of things I’m glad I did.”

He looked at me from under his long lashes and half-smiled, and I felt all gooshy inside again.

“I’m sorry I stopped it,” he said. “It’s not because... I mean, you’re...”

I nodded. Even with Wanda seemingly paying no attention to us, it didn’t seem safe to finish our sentences. I knew what he meant anyway. Stopping the sex didn’t mean he didn’t like me. “You were right.”

“They’d have found us.”

We sat there for a moment, thinking about that. It was bad enough they’d caught us hugging and kissing in the dark. Byron had managed to kick the condoms into a corner and I don’t think they found them. Even so, we were in maximum trouble, with Fred telling us we were going to Hell and God knows what the Pikes were going to do to us. Imagine if we’d actually been fucking. Christ.

Even without that, though, if we’d gone through with it, it would have been cold and strange, in that stupid mildewy windmill on a chilly night. I knew it didn’t feel right when I was standing there, biting down on my lip and waiting to be penetrated. Expecting pain. It was like a visit to an incredibly shady doctor. It wasn’t like the kissing or the jerking or the sucking, stuff I did because I wanted to in the moment and because it was hot and spontaneous and felt like the natural, right thing to do. I just wanted to do anal because it was the next thing on the list. That’s no way to live your life.

And yet if I didn’t do this with him, get this life milestone out of the way now, who would I do it with? I hoped it wouldn’t be just some dude, whoever I happened to be chilling with when I got the urge. I didn’t want a Chip or a Pablo to go down in my personal history as my virginity-taker. And I couldn’t imagine another Byron. This might not have been the right time, but Byron was the right guy. Damn it. Why couldn’t they match up?

I didn’t know how to express any of that, any of that, especially now, under the fluorescent lights and drop ceiling, with Wanda a few feet away.

I just said, “You were right about all of it. I want it to be nice, too. Something to remember.” He smiled, nodding. “I just wanted, you know, before we have to split up...”

“Something special,” he suggested.

“Something like that,” I muttered.

“Jeff?”

“Hm?”

“I want to tell you... well, in case I don’t get another chance... I want you to know...”

“Spit it out,” I said anxiously.

He glanced down shyly at our joined hands. “I love you, too.”

My breath caught in my throat. He loved me? Too?

“Earlier you said, ‘my boyfriend, who I love,’” he explained. “I don’t know if you remember. Well, I mean, it was just something you said without thinking, trying to prove a point. You don’t have to say it back like--”

“I love you,” I interrupted him. I was grinning like a fool, sitting there in the basement of Fred’s Putt-Putt with Hurricane Parents bearing down on us. “I love you, Byron Pike. You’re my first love.”

“You’re my first love,” he echoed, smiling back and blushing, looking just as wildly pleased and content and happy and adoring as I felt.

The door flew open. There stood... Mallory Pike, in a French maid costume.

I stared at her, then at Byron. My jaw was scraping the floor.

“I thought it would be better,” Byron said apologetically.

I laughed and hugged him.

Chapter Text


I dragged myself out of bed at 5 A.M. as usual, even though I hadn’t gotten to bed until after midnight the night before. Shea was asleep, and I didn’t wake him. I guess I could have taken Saturday off instead of my usual Sunday, but I felt guilty sleeping in after telling Adela I had to get up early. As in, “Welp, I gotta get up early tomorrow, sooo...” I never felt so relieved as when I walked home from that dumb houseboat. I was starting to feel seasick, and I never get seasick.

Adela was getting intense. She lingered on my lips, moving her head while she kissed, panting between kisses. I didn’t know what to do. So I bailed.

I’m a real gentleman.

I went through my practice routines like a robot. I need some new ones. I’m too good at all the ones I know. I didn’t feel all stretched out and sore and drained and terrible at baseball like when I play with Shea.

Thinking about Shea made me feel depressed. I knew he was upset about the whole Adela thing. It wasn’t my fault she didn’t like him like he liked her. It wasn’t my fault she liked me instead. But I felt guilty anyway, like when you eat someone’s favorite cookie and you don’t even like it that much. You feel like you just reduced the amount of happiness in the world.

I got back to the house around ten, ten-thirty. There were breakfast dishes lying out, but nobody was around. I drank out of the faucet, grabbed a handful of Wheaties, and headed upstairs. In our room, Byron was lying in his bottom bunk, still in his pajamas, gazing out the window and humming a jaunty little tune.

“Where is everyone?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I just woke up,” he said. “Beach, probably. It’s our last day.”

I nodded. “And it’s beautiful out.”

“What are we doing hanging around here, then?” He jumped out of bed and rifled through the toothbrushes and combs on the bureau.

I picked up my swim trunks from the ground, but then I sat down on my bunk. What did I think was going to happen once I got down to the beach? Adela and I hadn’t planned to meet up, but I could hardly avoid her there. I had to see her again before we left, right? I mean, it would be a jerk move to just disappear. And yet...

Byron passed by me on his way to the door, but then stopped. “What’s wrong?”

“Hm?”

“You sort of lost steam there.”

“Just thinking,” I replied. “I dunno, maybe I don’t feel like the beach today.”

“Don’t feel like the beach?” Byron demanded incredulously. “On our last day here? Are you sick or something?”

“No. Maybe. Adela’s working...”

“Oh. Oh.” Byron’s eyebrows shot up into one of his stupidly exaggerated sympathetic expressions. “I understand.”

“You do?”

“I’m sorry, man,” said Byron gently. “I keep harping on it’s the last day. That’s the last thing you want to hear. You’re sad about leaving her, huh?”

I laughed. I didn’t mean to. It just burst out of me.

“Or... not?” Byron looked confused.

“I’m awful,” I said, quickly regaining my composure. “I’m just the worst. She’s really great. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Oh, wow. I thought you were really into her,” said Byron. “Good news for Shea, I guess. Becca was sure wrong. I heard you guys were getting hot and heavy.”

“We were, sort of. We are. I don’t know. We kissed a lot, but...”

“Maybe it’s moving too fast for you?” Byron suggested.

It wasn’t that it was moving too fast so much as it was moving at all. I shrugged. “I think she likes me way more than I like her.”

“That sucks,” said Byron. “It really does. Remember when I went out with Haley for about two seconds? That was the worst feeling--when I thought she liked me more than I liked her. I was sure I was going to hurt her big time. It turned out okay, though. She only liked me as a friend, too.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not the case here,” I said grimly. “Well, it’s only one day. I just have to suck it up.”

“What, you’re just going to play along? Let her think you like her back?” Byron’s brows knit, and I could tell he didn’t approve.

“What else can I do? We leave tomorrow. It ends then one way or another.”

“Not if she writes to you and calls you and promises to stay true.”

“She wouldn’t,” I said, frightened. “Would she?”

Byron raised his palms in the air. “It happens. You know her better than I do.”

“Well,” I said thoughtfully, “maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I mean, having a long-distance girlfriend. I’d have an excuse not to do anything with anyone else. She’d never be around. Writing a few e-mails? That’s nothing. It’d be like having no girlfriend at all!”

Byron frowned.

“Kidding,” I added quickly. If he was considering doing the long-distance thing with Jeff, he didn’t need to hear me say it was worthless.

He shook his head. “All I know is, I’d hate to find out I was going nuts over someone who didn’t feel the same way about me.”

“I’ll never feel that way about anyone.” I kicked the leg of the bed with my heel. “I don’t know, maybe I am gay.” I was trying my hardest to speak casually, like it was just some ordinary thing, but I couldn’t look Byron in the face. I stared at a pile of clothes in the corner.

“Really?” Byron sounded surprised, although I wasn’t sure if he was surprised that I thought I was gay, or that it had taken me so long to figure it out. “Do you like a boy?”

“No, but I don’t like Adela. I mean I like her, but not like that. I don’t like any girl like that. I never have.”

“Um, so?” said Byron. “Being gay isn’t just not being straight. You actually do have to like guys.”

“Ugh, so I’m even more of a freak, then,” I moaned. “What if I never like anyone?”

“What if you don’t? What would be wrong with that?” I hated how upbeat he sounded, like he was trying to make the best of it. “But here’s a crazy thought, maybe, just maybe, you don’t like this particular girl.”

“What straight guy wouldn’t? She’s perfect.”

“Not every straight guy likes her. If they did, she’d have a lineup of guys following her around everywhere she went, and I don’t see that, do you? Only Shea, and one person isn’t exactly a lineup. I don’t think Adam’s ever noticed her.”

“He doesn’t count. He’s spoken for.”

“Being spoken for doesn’t mean you don’t notice anybody else. I notice other guys.”

“Do not want to hear it!” I stuck my hands over my ears.

I took them down when Jeff appeared in the doorway, grinning. “What doesn’t Jordan want to hear?”

“How I notice other guys besides you.”

“Oh, yeah. Sure. So do I. I mean, we’re human.”

“Not me,” I muttered.

They didn’t notice. They leaned in toward each other and gave each other little pecks. “You weren’t at the beach, so I came over with the girls to wake you up,” Jeff explained. “They’re all getting ready to go into town, if you want to hit the boardwalk one last time.”

“I probably just want to spend the day soaking up rays at the beach.”

“Really? You don’t want to go through the Tunnel of Luv?” Jeff waggled his eyebrows.

Byron laughed. “Maybe after the sun goes down.”

“How about you and Adela?” Jeff asked me.

“Don’t, that’s a sore subject,” Byron warned. “Oh, hey, we’ll ask the expert. Jeff, is Jordan gay?”

“Byron!” I groaned.

“What?” laughed Jeff. “No. Why? Who thinks that?”

“Jordan.”

“What, really?”

“Just forget it,” I said.

Jeff looked thoughtful. “Look, obviously anybody could be gay, but if my gaydar is any good, and it hasn’t failed me yet, then no, you’re not gay. Why do you think you might be?”

“He’s not into Adela,” Byron explained.

“I give up,” I said. “I just have absolutely none of my own business.”

“Good news for Shea!” said Jeff.

“That’s what I said, but he might not tell her. Give her one last day of happiness, you know.”

Jeff frowned, looking exactly like Byron. “Let her out, man.”

“No, look at it this way,” I said. “We’re already breaking up because I’m leaving, so why should I tell her, ‘Oh, by the way, also I’m not into you?’ That’s just... rude.”

“Not as long as it’s honest and authentic,” said Jeff.

“Ugh, hippies!” I yelled. “Forget it. I’m going to the beach.”

 

I could have left the house sooner. Adela wasn’t even at the lifeguard post. Adam and I helped Squirt build a sand fort. We worked on it for about an hour, until Squirt looked up over my shoulder and giggled. Two small, cold hands covered my eyes from behind. “Guess who!”

“Who is it? Squirt, tell me. Is it a monster?”

He just laughed.

Adela dropped her hands from my face and straightened up. Jeez. She looked nice. She was wearing a sundress and she’d done something with her hair. I felt bad.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey,” I gritted, my mouth suddenly dry. “You want to, uh, help with this fort, or...?”

“Squirt and I have it under control,” Adam said cheerfully. “You guys take a walk.”

I nodded and stood up, dusting the sand from my legs. Stiffly, I started walking away from the shore, toward the stairs up to the parking lot and the boardwalk. Adela walked beside me. It was super awkward. I felt like I was supposed to hold her hand, or put my arm around her, or at least look at her, but doing any of that, trying to look happy like everything was fine, felt wrong. It would have led her on. We passed Byron and Jeff sunning themselves on a beach blanket. Jeff lowered his sunglasses and nodded slowly. Byron made a “stand strong” fist.

“Um... Adela... we should talk,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “It’s your last day here. Hold on. Let’s get up a little further. There’s a nice little lookout.”

We walked on in silence for about thirty years.

Finally, we reached her lookout. The balcony on the edge of the wooden walkway jutted out and some benches overlooked the ocean. We were pretty far above the beach now, and the view was clear over the sparkling water. It was really a beautiful spot. Not the sort of place you’d go if you knew you were going to be broken up with.

But the first thing she did was give me an opening. She leaned back against the rail, her hair blowing lightly in the breeze. “So... do we write, or just leave it be as a summer romance?”

I did not stand strong. I looked down and murmured, “I don’t know.”

“I know if we say we’ll write, we probably won’t,” she said. “Still... it just feels like the beginning of something, doesn’t it? We hardly got started.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. Then I felt self-conscious about saying nothing. If I was going to break up with her, I should have done it by now, right? But if I wasn’t, if I was going with the whole playacting thing, shouldn’t I at least look sad? She was looking at me, waiting for my response. I covered, “Uh... shit. I’m no good at goodbyes.”

“Me neither,” she said. “Well, we still have tonight.” She put on a smile. “I’ve always wanted to try out the Tunnel of Luv.”

Fffffff.

She noticed my expression and frowned. “You can get away, can’t you? You were only here a week. You can’t have that much packing to do.”

“You’d be surprised. It’s a big family,” I said, grateful for the out. “I have a lot of responsibilities.”

She looked hurt. “Oh.”

Shit. The girl really wanted one goddamn ride in the Tunnel of Luv. Who was I to deny her that? How bad would it be, really?

But would she even be satisfied, if I did go? She didn’t just want a slow boat ride in a smelly, shallow water in a dark tunnel filled with cheesy plastic cupids or whatever bullshit was in there. She wanted a romantic moment with the boy who adored her. The boy she thought I was. I wasn’t a good enough actor even to put on the right facial expressions here. How was I supposed to act like I was in love, an emotion I’d never had?

“Listen,” I said. “I’ll try, okay?” And I really meant it. I wanted to, for her sake. “I’ll try to get away, but if I can’t... well... you’re not missing anything. I really do suck at goodbyes.”

“Oh. Okay,” she said, still looking hurt.

I reached out and gave her a stiff hug. And then I walked away with long, quick strides, not looking back behind me to see any more of her sweet, disappointed face.

 

I couldn’t just go back to fun times on the beach after that. My brothers and sisters were all around me laughing and frolicking and shit, but I couldn’t relax. What a waste of a last day. I tried to help Adam mind Squirt, but when I accidentally stepped on their sand castle, I decided I was just making everyone’s life harder. I decided to go catch up on some extra practice, since I probably wouldn’t get a chance the next day. I’d be sitting in a car all day.

I stopped back at the house to pick up my gear. It took a moment to get used to the change, coming from the blinding sun and fresh sea air into the dusty old front parlor. The lights were off and the shades were drawn. Lying on the sofa was the only other person in the world as unhappy as me. Shea Rodowsky.

“Hey,” I said cautiously.

He grunted in a way that indicated it was all right to keep talking to him.

“What are you doing in here in the dark?” I said. He didn’t answer, because there was no answer. It was obvious he was doing nothing. Stewing. “Everyone’s outside. It’s a beautiful day. Last chance for the beach.”

“Whatever,” he said dully. “I’m sick of the beach. I’m sick of getting sunburn.”

“What’s the matter? Cravings?” I asked hopefully.

“Nah. I haven’t really thought about cigarettes in a few days.”

“Hey, that’s great!” I said with false cheerfulness.

He pushed himself up on his elbows and glared at me. It was look that said, You insensitive bastard, you really don’t know what I’m upset about? Okay, enough playing dumb.

“Listen, I’m really sorry about the whole Adela thing,” I said.

“It’s not your fault.” He shrugged and lay back down on among the throw pillows. “I’m not mad at you. You can’t control who she likes.”

He really didn’t seem mad, either. Just tired. Tired and sad. Ugh, that was so much worse. At least if he was mad, he’d yell and I’d apologize and he’d yell some more and I’d get annoyed and yell back and we’d have a fight, get it out there, and be done with it. I didn’t know what to do about someone who wasn’t mad, just sad about how the situation worked itself out.

“I didn’t have to go after her, though,” I insisted. I knew he was right, and I couldn’t control who she liked, but I had to be at least partially to blame, didn’t I? If not, why did I feel so guilty? “I distracted her for the whole time we were here and she didn’t really get a chance to get to know you.”

“She did, enough. You’re more her type.”

“Well, I don’t think she’s really my type.”

Shea pulled himself up again and peered at me with a disbelieving look. “What, perfect is not your type?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I guess I’m just sick of her or something.”

“What?” He sat all the way up, alert now. “It’s been a week!”

“I know, right? A whole week. I don’t want to be tied down.”

“You’re crazy!” he cried.

I could see I was getting him worked up and I liked that a lot better than his sad sack act. “Well, whatever. I’m supposed to meet her at the Tunnel of Luv tonight, but I don’t think I’m even going to go.”

“You have to go!” Shea jumped to his feet. “You can’t just stand her up!”

“You can go if you want,” I said carelessly. “You can have her. I’m done with her.”

Aaaand that’s when I got punched.

The end table behind me clattered to the floor as I took an involuntary step back. I grabbed onto the wall for support. My face stung where Shea’s fist had connected. I rubbed my thumb against the corner of my mouth and came away with a bright red smear of blood. I hear Shea’s sneakers pounding on the stairs up to his room.

Attaboy, I thought, ignoring the little shoots of pain when I smiled. I’d done my good deed for the day.

Chapter Text


Okay. Okay. Here’s what I’ll do. I can apply for a job as soon as I get back to school. Lots of girls have them. You just have to have good time management skills,” Mallory declared, nodding brusquely behind her sunglasses. I’ve never seen someone in a bikini sit with such straight, businesslike posture.

“Um... Mal...” I began.

“The bookstore would be ideal, obviously, but it’s impossible to get,” she went on.  “But there are other places in town that will take students. I could be a barista at the coffee shop. I could make beds at the nursing home.”

“Mal, it’s really not necessary,” I cut in.

“Of course it is. That was your grocery money. I have to pay it back. No matter how long it takes!”

“If it takes longer than a semester, then I won’t need it anymore,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, but your parents can front you the money if they know we have a plan to pay it back. Work with me here, Jessi.”

“Mallory Pike,” I said sharply in my best Aunt Cecelia voice. “Look around you. It’s a beautiful day. We’re on the beach. The sun is shining. We have nothing to do today--”

“Because I lost my job,” Mallory cut in sulkily.

“Whatever, who cares why? We’re free. It’s our last day here. Can we please, please, puh-lease leave any and all worrying until the first rain?”

That got through to her, sort of. Mallory sent me a sidelong look, but she lay back down on her towel. We listened to the peaceful sounds of the surf rolling against the shore, seagulls’ distant cries, children’s shouts of delight... for about ten seconds.

Then she said, “The problem isn’t going to just go away on its own, you know. It’s your money.”

“Then let me worry about it,” I snapped. Okay, I was running out patience. I was just sick of thinking about it. I was sick of this whole situation. I was sick of gambling, of work, of worry. We’d been foolish to blow the money, but we were going to months to suffer the consequences. I didn’t want to be robbed of our last day of vacation on top of that.

“But,” said Mallory in a very small voice, “I’m the one who lost it.”

With that, my heart melted. Mallory wasn’t trying to rob me of my vacation day; she felt guilty. In her mind, it was her who had lost the money, not us. Spontaneously, I turned and hugged her. She hugged me back.

“I hate money,” I declared.

Out of nowhere, Claire torpedoed up to our umbrella, giggling. Margo, Vanessa, and Becca were right behind her. They were clearly fresh out of the water, hair slicked back like seals. They started putting sandals on over their sandy feet and gathering up their purses.

“Going somewhere?” Mallory asked.

“The main drag!” said Claire. “Can you believe it’s the last day already? We have to do everything one last time. We did all our beach stuff. Now we have lots to do in town!”

“I’m going to photo-document the journey,” said Vanessa, retrieving her camera from the top of the cooler where she’d left it.

“I thought you were only photographing gross things,” said Mallory.

“It’s more postmodern to take ironic vacation photos,” she explained. “Anyway, it’s more fun. Say cheeeeese!” She snapped two quick photos of Claire and Margo, posing with silly faces and peace signs.

“You ladies want to tag along?” Becca asked.

“Yes!” I cried. I jumped to my feet.

“I think I’d rather just chill out here,” said Mallory.

I knew that by “chill out,” she meant, “worry and worry.” I pleaded, “Come on, Mal. It’s exactly what we need. A distraction.”

“Oh, all right,” Mallory sighed, reaching for her sandals. “But no arcade.”

“Speak for yourself!” Claire shouted. She was already halfway to the stairs.

The girls were in silly moods. We bopped down the bustling main drag in a group, one of us peeling off every so often to run up to a store window and squeal at something cute.

“Look at this!” Claire shouted, pointing out an elaborate chocolate model of a desert island, complete with chocolate palm trees, chocolate coconuts, and a little chocolate toucan.

“Look at these!” Vanessa called, panting over a mannequin wearing sandals with black ribbons that laced all the way up her thigh.

“PUPPIES!” yelled Becca, waving us over to a display of plush dogs in tie-dye T-shirts stamped “SEA CITY.”

We decided to go inside that shop. It was a small but cluttered souvenir stand, and we immediately dispersed to different corners. Claire and Becca exclaimed over the toy cart. Vanessa rifled through postcards. Margo tried on sunglasses. I put on a floppy sun hat.

“How do I look?” I asked, striking a dramatic pose.

Mallory gave me a distant, amused, yes-honey-I-see-you smile.

“Cute!” Becca waved a toy shark in the air. “I want this so bad... for my Kid-Kit.”

Mal grinned at me. “Sure, I believe that. For her...” She trailed off, focusing on something behind me. “Oh, Jessi, look.”

I turned around. In the display case behind me was a ribbon necklace--stamped Sea City, naturally--with an oversized pendant of a pink, sparkly, semi-translucent horse.

“You like?” asked the woman behind the counter. Before Mallory could say anything, she was removing the necklace from the case and placing it on the glass.

“Of course, horses have nothing to do with Sea City,” said Mallory, but she hadn’t taken her eyes off the necklace.

“So what?” I said. “It’s wonderful. If I could give that to nine-year-old me, I would make myself the happiest girl in the world.”

“So would I,” said Mallory.

“Too bad it’s too late now,” I said. “We’re grown-ups.”

“Yeah. Can you imagine wearing that now? Trying to be taken seriously? And anyway, I don’t have a money for anything I don’t need, especially now,” Mallory argued with herself.

“I can make you a special price,” said the clerk eagerly.

If you think we left that store without that necklace around Mallory’s neck, you have another think coming.

“What’s next?” Becca asked, cradling her new shark as we stepped back out onto the busy street.

“GURBER GARDEN!” Mallory and Claire shouted together.

The Pikes have a lot of rituals connected with the goofy family restaurant Burger Garden. First of all, it’s always called Gurber Garden. Always. You must sit outside, at one of the mushroom tables. You must called the waiter “Mr. Fox,” or “Ms. Squirrel,” or whatever woodland creature she happens to be dressed as. And you must order a burger with “special sauce.” I was practically shunned when I ordered a salad.

I didn’t care. It was wonderful to see Mallory letting go and acting like a kid again, pink horsey dangling from her neck. Even though I still had no idea what I was going to do about the money, I couldn’t help but believe that this day of fun and laughter was better for all of us than a day of anxiety and worry. Neither one was going to solve our problems, but at least this way, we spent our short time in Sea City happy.  

After lunch, the girls wanted to hit the arcade. Mallory turned pale, so I suggested she and I split off and take a Ferris wheel ride. We stopped for cotton candy first, and we were leaning against a railing and eating it when something grabbed my legs from behind. I yelped, recognized Liza, managed to right my cotton candy a half-second before the fatal moment of spillage.

“Liza! Hi, honey,” I said, offering her a piece of my candy.

She took it happily. Mallory ruffled Liza’s head affectionately, but she looked more serious than she had since the beach. Carly was walking toward us, looking immaculate in a black and white striped maxi dress and perfect red lipstick. Mal and I, well... We were wearing grimy cutoffs over damp bathing suits, we had sand in our frizzy, sun-baked hair, our mouths were sticky, Mallory was wearing a sparkly horse necklace, and both of us were holding ludicrously large pink clouds of candy. We did not look our most chic.

“Hello, girls,” said Carly, her voice friendly, but maybe a little condescending.

“Hi,” I said, making the best of it. I put forward my less-sticky hand to shake.

“Hi,” Mallory echoed, rubbing her leg self-consciously.

“Mallory, I see you quit Ashton’s little master-slave game,” Carly said. “Good for you.”

“Yeah, well...” Mallory was red. “Tell him I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to make back all the money. I can send it to him...”

“What money?” said Carly. “You mean your little bet? Oh, that wasn’t real money, I mean, we know you don’t have any.”

Mallory opened her mouth and closed it again. She was speechless.

So I spoke for her. “What?” I demanded. “Ashton certainly seemed to think it was real money! He made us get it out of the bank!”

“Jesus, what a bore,” Carly yawned. “Honestly, he can be so mean. What’s the point of nickel-and-diming some poor kids like you? Don’t worry, I’ll get it out of him.”

“You will?” I glanced at Mallory, who still looked thunderstruck. “That’s really great. Thanks, Carly. But you’ll have to do it quick. We leave tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll never remember to do it that fast. How much was it?”

“Two hundred,” Mallory replied promptly.

Carly reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of cash. She held it lazily out to us without counting. I glanced at Mallory, who seemed conflicted. I wasn’t! I took the money.

“Pleasure meeting you girls. Don’t let Ashton get you down,” she said. “And don’t let anyone else hustle you like that.”

“I won’t,” Mallory promised.

“Thank you!” I added. “You’re like a fairy godmother.”

Carly laughed. “I do what I can. See you around.”

She took Liza’s hand and led her off, disppearing into the crowded midway.

“Okay,” said Mallory. Her face broke into a grin. She did a little dance. “Okay. Okay! Ferris wheel time.”

Chapter Text

Sunday
Dear Charlotte,

Well this will be my last post card from sea city.  This one isn’t even from sea city its from the car! I’ll try to rememember to mail it from the rest stop but I’ll definetly see you before you read this haha. I’m sitting here between Adam and Jorban. Yes I made up with him. It’s hard to believe I was so mad yesterday. What u said about adela is probaly true. Romance is overated. Sometimes it’s just better to be freinds.

Yours,
Shea


What if it’s scary in there?” Jeff asked in a girlish voice. “Will you hold me?”

“It’s not a haunted house, it’s the Tunnel of Luv,” Byron pointed out.

“Well, love is sorta scary,” said Jeff. “Up ahead--the First Date Alligator Pit!”

“Commitment Cove,” Byron suggested.

“Rough Patch Rapids.”

“Unrequited Gulch.”

“You guys can go on ahead any time,” I said, gesturing at the line to the ride.

“And miss all the drama?” said Jeff.

“We’re behind you every step of the way,” said Byron.

“So we can spy on you,” Jeff added.

“She might not even come,” I said. “And if she does, I just have to tell her Jordan’s not here, and she’ll leave. I hope she doesn’t come, because that means she really wanted to see Jordan.”

“Too bad,” said Jeff, nodding over my shoulder. “Here she is.”

I swallowed the gigantic tumbleweed that had suddenly formed in my throat. Taking a deep breath, I turned around.

She walked toward us, smiling. Ack, she looked so happy, and I was going to break her heart. She looked amazing in a casual army green dress and a little jean jacket. She waved at us. “What are you guys up to today?”

“We were just deciding,” said Jeff casually. “Why, what are you up to?”

“Shea and I are going on the Tunnel of Luv,” Adela explained.

It took me a moment. Then I blinked and jumped as if someone had just stepped on my foot. “Huh?”

“Jordan texted me and said you’d meet me here,” said Adela. “Sorry, did I misunderstand?”

“No. Sure. I mean. Yes,” I babbled, confused.

“Jordan knew I wanted to check out the Tunnel of Luv, but we broke up,” Adela explained to Jeff and Byron. “I guess he figures it would be awkward now, which is fair. I just sort of wanted to go on the ride one time and make fun of it, but it seemed weird to go alone. I’m glad you were free, Shea.”

She was? Glad? For my company?

You’d think this would be a dream come true for me, right? I should have been bouncing with joy. Wrong. I was too confused. Actually, I was more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life. If she did like me, that meant this was a date, and if this was a date--oh, God. I was dressed all wrong, for one thing. And, it turned out, I couldn’t speak. I opened my mouth, but then I just closed it again.

I glanced over at Byron and Jeff for help, but they’d melted away. They were standing in front of the ride now, making small talk with the boat operator.

“Soooooo,” said Adela. “Why don’t we join the line?”

“Line” was an overstatement. It was just Byron and Jeff now. In a moment, two boats arrived, one with a smiling couple, one empty.

I looked down at my hands. They were completely soaked with sweat. I wiped them on my pants. Adela glanced over at me sidelong. Oh, great. Smooth.

“Ready?” asked Adela.

“Yeah. Yeah,” I muttered.

The attendant helped Adela into the boat and then turned away without asking if I wanted help. I’d forgotten to pay attention and see how he handled it with Byron and Jeff. I stepped into the boat too hard and it tipped back and forth. I jumped back onto dry land.

Snickering from the peanut gallery. Adela giggled, too. “Here!” She held out her hand, and I took it. Oh, god, we were holding hands, sort of. It was only for a moment while she pulled me into the boat, so I didn’t know if it really counted. I hope she didn’t notice how slimy and clammy my hand was.

Ahead of us, Jeff and Byron slid close, sitting side-by-side in the middle of the plastic bench. In our boat, Adela sat on her side, and I sat on mine. She placed her purse between us and folded her hands in her lap.

The attendant pulled a lever. Gears groaned and kachunked to life somewhere below us. It sounded like the ride was on its last legs. The tinny canned harp music did not soothe me.

The boat began to jerk forward in a totally unboatlike way. I felt dumb. I’d never been in danger of tipping the boat. It was attached to a track. The water was just for show. I sank on my bench. On top of everything else, it had been minutes and minutes since either of us said anything, and my mind was totally empty of anything useful or interesting to say.

The boat moved forward toward the yawning black mouth of the tunnel. A pink pointy boat entering a dark wet tunnel: nice symbolism, guys. Hey, there was a clever remark I could make. I opened my mouth, but then I closed it again. I was not about to talk about sex.

Inside the tunnel it was pitch dark. I know, right, it’s a tunnel. There were neon hearts and flowers and shit every so often on the walls, but they didn’t shed much light. The little red lights along the side of the track were set under the water, which was pretty, I guess, but the water dulled the light. I wondered how often they cleaned it. It smelled pretty rank.

“I wonder if this is the same water they put in when the ride was built in 1967,” said Adela.

I burst out laughing. “I was just thinking that.”

“Really?”

“We, um, think alike,” I offered, my voice sounding scratchy and high.

“Hm,” she said. There was absolutely no emotion in her voice. Okay. This was not going well.

“We should bottle this water and sell it as perfume,” I added. “Eau de Dead Rat.”

She laughed. Okay, keep making fun of the ride. That’s going well.

“You’re so funny, Shea,” she giggled. “When Jordan said you wanted to take me on the ride, I wasn’t sure what to think, but I’m glad you can have fun with a girl as just friends. A lot of guys can’t.”

Okay, ouch. That was a knife wound to the throat. I didn’t know if she was knocking me down a peg on purpose because she could tell I was crushed out, or if she thought we were on the same page, but either way, the message was clear. “Just friends.” Abandon all romantic hope ye who enter here. They should print that above the entrance to the Tunnel of Luv.

“Oh look, another neon heart,” she said lightly. “Not seeing a lot of variety here.”

“We’re not supposed to notice, I guess,” I said. “We’re supposed to be making out.”

Was this pause hella awkward, or was she just out of jokes? You couldn’t tell in the dark. I wished I’d kept my dumb mouth shut. I wasn’t really mad at her for not liking me. I mean, really, I always knew she didn’t. Actually, part of me was relieved. For those brief moments when I thought she might like me back, I was a basket case.

Look at it this way. Even if, by some crazy accident, this classy, beautiful lifeguard and future doctor liked me, Shea "Resource Room" Rodowsky, an asthmatic dyslexic best suited for a career as a "coin, vending, or amusement machine servicer," according to the aptitude test, well--that would just be the beginning of my problems. I’d have to keep her. I’d have to be interesting and smart and mature. I’d have to become the guy she thought I was. If we were just friends, I could just relax and be my own idiot self.

I realized Charlotte had said something like that in a letter--minus the insults. Silly me. I should always listen to Charlotte.

“See, now, that’s just phoning it in,” I said as we passed a neon sign that said “LOVE.”

Adela laughed. “I know, right? It might as well just say ‘TUNNEL.’”

“‘YOU ARE IN A TUNNEL RIGHT NOW,’” I suggested.

“‘TRUE IS TRUE,’” said Adela.

We went on like that.

Light at the end of the tunnel. The boat slowed gracefully, then came to a sudden and jerky full stop behind the empty boat in front of us. The attendant was busy with the next couple of victims, so I hopped out and held out my hand like a gentleman. Adela took it, smiling, and let me “help” her out of the non-dangerous boatlike thing.

“That was fun,” I said.

“Yeah!” she said. “Well, no, it was terrible, but that was exactly what I wanted. Thanks for coming.”

“No problem, pal,” I said.  

Someone tapped my shoulder, and I turned around. Byron was standing there, looking apologetic. “We’re going to meet the girls for ice cream, but you guys could slip away if you wanted...”

“Hell no,” I said. “Ice cream sounds great. You want to join me and my other friends?”

“Delighted,” said Adela.

As we headed for Ice Cream Palace, a guy leaning against the wall of the Tunnel of Luv nodded at us and gestured with his unlit cigarette. “Got a light?”

“Sorry,” I said, patting my empty pockets. When was it I’d stopped carrying my lighter? “I don’t smoke.”

Chapter Text


Sarah Newton has a cold
Posted by: Jeff
Visible to: BSC-Active

Sarah has a cold, so she’s cranky. Lucy was being a pill because we couldn’t go to the pool. Jamie went off on his bike and got back covered in blood just in time for his mom to come home. Tough? Nah. All in a day’s work for Super Babysitter Man.

Tags: Newtons


Here’s what you want to see when you get back home after a loooong drive to Stoneybrook with half a dozen carsick Pikes: all your friends and family, surrounding you with love, offering you food and comfortable chairs. Richard grilling up veggie burgers, Mary Anne and Dawn picking berries from the bushes in the yard, Mom handing you lemonade in some weird receptacle like a measuring cup or a sugar bowl, sitting you down all, “Take a load off, honey, tell me everything! Dawn, grab Jeff’s bags, will you, and do his laundry.” Here’s what you don’t want to come back to: a dark, hot, stale, empty house.

“Hello?” I called, slinging my back down on the floor and dropping my keys on the table. No answer. No lights, no sounds. The air was stagnant and smelled musty, like old hay, which makes sense, since our house is basically a barn with electricity. I walked around turning on lights and fans until I found the note on the kitchen table in Richard’s tiny, neat handwriting: Jeff, we are in New York City for a weekend jaunt. For dinner, you may have the leftover casserole in the fridge. Please wash any dishes you use and run the vacuum if you have time. Sincerely, Richard + Mom. Stuck to that note was a kitty-shaped Post-it, in Mary Anne’s even tinier and neater handwriting: I signed you up for the Newtons’ 7:30am tomorrow (Monday). If you can’t make it, call me @ Kristy’s IMMEDIATELY for emergency rescheduling. -M.A.S. (oh - & welcome home!)

I ate some casserole cold out of the Tupperware, feeling sorry for myself. Nice of Mom and Richard to go off on vacation without me! What if I wanted to go to New York? Not that I really wanted to go with Richard. When we went to Boston, he only wanted to go to museums and historical sites. He even ruined the park by guidebooking at us about who designed it and what kind of tree everything was. Anyway, if I’d gone, who would have taken that seven-fucking-thirty AM job at the Newtons’? Of course, when the club got a last-minute call for job at the asscrack of dawn, they immediately thought of me. Work, work, work, I though grouchily. I’m so underappreciated. Don’t they think I might be a little tired? Deserve a little time off?

Then I realized, wait, I was just on vacation. So, no, I guess. Harrumph.

I’m actually kind of a morning person, and I love the Newtons, but, I have to tell you, there wasn’t enough coffee in the world for that job. It’s Mrs. Newton I feel sorry for. She comes home from her root canal, tired and in pain, and finds Sarah covered in snot in front of the TV, Lucy stealing cookies, and a trail of blood on the hall carpet leading to the bathroom where I’m trying to patch up Jamie. Needless to say, I stayed late to help clean up and get everyone settled down.

When I was finally out of there, I just took some time to lean against a tree, taking deep cleansing breaths, in, out. It was gray and overcast and the air was thick, like breathing in a scarf. I couldn’t believe just yesterday, I’d woken up to sunshine pouring in the window of the yellow room in the gingerbread cottage on the beach. It felt like I’d been back to the old grind for years.

I pushed off the tree and ran down the block. I swerved when I reached Ms. Spencer’s house, cutting diagonally across the yard to the Pikes’. I saw Byron’s head right away. He had his back to me, reading in a lounge chair. Just seeing the circle of light on his hair made my heart speed up and my face break into a grin.

I crept up behind him and grabbed his shoulders from behind “Yar!”

“Augh!” He jumped, then when he recognized me, he turned on his thousand-watt smile. “Jeff.” I could hear a sigh of relief in his voice. Man. What were the two of us going to do when we were separated?

I didn’t have time to think any more about it. We were kissing.

“Whoa!”

“Whoa!”

“Whoa, hey!”

We looked up. Adam, Sasha, Vanessa, and Claire were coming down the porch steps, loaded with beach towels, books, and snacks. Byron and I let go of each other.

“Back to reality, huh?” Byron murmured as the others settled down on the lawn. I shot him a rueful look and leaned back against him on the deck chair.

“Kind of a cloudy day for sunbathing,” I said, squinting up into the white sky.

“We’ll have to use our imaaaaginaaaations!” said Claire.

“This meeting of the--” Adam began, but Sasha stuffed grapes in his mouth.

“Let’s not start that yet! The meeting’s not until five-thirty, and don’t you forget it,” said Sasha.

“Oh, yeah, how was your presidency?” I asked.

“Long,” she reported curtly.

“Glad I’m back?” Adam asked.

They smiled at each other in a doofy way and sort of nuzzled. I’ve never understood how they can keep from making out. Do they want to put their hands on each other as much as me and Byron do, but they’re so mature they can hold themselves back? Or is it just different after you’ve been together eight months? Things kind of level off? In a way, maybe it was a good thing Byron and I wouldn’t get the chance to last that long. I didn’t want to level off.

“I haven’t given up on usurping you or anything,” Sasha warned. “It was just a tough week.”

“Tell me about it,” said Adam.

“Yeah, right!” Sasha shoved him gently. “Fun in the sun is soooo hard.”

“Hey, you try getting twelve teenagers to consistently have fun,” said Adam. “Everyone’s always having some kind of drama.”

“Maybe we’re just getting too old for Sea City,” Claire remarked.

We all stared at her. Claire was saying this?

“What?” said Claire. “You think it’s easy being the baby? I have to keep everyone’s energy up! It’s hard work pretending Sea City is as fun as it used to be.”

“It is objectively lame,” Vanessa agreed. “If we just started going now, without this weird history where we’ve built Burger Garden into the fucking mecca of civilization, we’d all be like, ‘What is this shitty, faux-retro, commercial, plastic town?’ We only like it now for nostalgia value.”

“Nostalgia can be good,” Byron argued. “Sometimes you go back to things you liked when you were a kid, and you like them even better now, for different reasons.” Between us, his warm hand found mine. I turned my head and smiled.

“You guys should just tell your parents you want to go somewhere else next year,” said Sasha.

Byron shook his head. “It’d break Mom’s heart.”

“Yeah,” Adam agreed. “When we’re grown up and out of the house and married and have our own kids, then, maybe, we can decide where to go on vacation.”

“I,” said Vanessa, “cannot wait.”

“That’s kind of sad to think about, though,” said Claire. “We won’t all be together. Ooh, Jeffy, look! The sun is coming out from behind his cloud. Hello, Mr. Sun!” You never can tell when she’ll get in one of her silly moods.

“Maybe we will,” said Byron. “Maybe we’ll all take giant family vacations together.”

“Yeah, Adam and Sasha and their twelve kids,” said Vanessa.

“Wearing matching outfits--” said Claire.

“--uniforms,” corrected Vanessa.

“--and lined up by height,” Claire finished.

Adam and Sasha grinned.

“And Vanessa with her creepy goth boyfriend and their zero kids,” said Byron.

“To be fair, they do have a broken porcelain doll with one eye that they call their baby, and nobody can tell if they’re serious,” Adam added.

“And Claire,” said Vanessa, “with her bunny rabbits, Mr. Spinkles, Mr. Toes, Fluffernutter, Buffernutter, and Glompf.”

“And Byron and Jeff with their adopted babies from Africa,” said Claire.

“Sure. Just call me Angelina Jolie,” I said. I glanced at Byron, grinning, but my smile turned to a frown when I saw his expression. His brows were knit, and his mouth was tight. I knew that look. He was thinking, That will never be.

“You know what? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I said. “Right now, I’m happy with right now. Let’s just enjoy the moment.”

I stroked Byron’s hand with my thumb. He looked at me shyly from under his lashes, the corners of his mouth curving into a sweet, grateful, loving smile. The man I loved leaned his head on my shoulder, and we turned our faces to the sky.

Chapter Text

 


Secret for Sasha
Posted by: Adam
Visible to: Sasha

Is this private enough for you? ;) Mwah mwah mwah. Love you forever baby. <3 <3

 

Hey Jackie,

Don’t want to wake anyone up (I’m writing this at 5AM!), so I’m just leaving this stuff on your doorstep. Hope nobody steals it. Just some old equipment I don’t need anymore. Shea says you’re a baseball star in the making, so maybe you can use it. Say hi to him for me.

-Jordan

 

Dear Ms. Carver,

I am writing in support of my brother, Nicholas Pike, an applicant for admission to Riverbend’s fall 2005 ninth grade class. Nicholas would be a strong addition to Riverbend’s co-ed pilot program.

Although I was initially surprised to learn that Nicholas wished to join me at Riverbend, I quickly realized that he is an ideal candidate. Nicholas is intellectually curious and throws himself into whatever he chooses to do. He excels academically and has pursued his interest in science through numerous school projects, fairs, and summer camps. With two younger sisters and two older sisters, including myself, Nicholas relates well to girls and women and has been brought up with a strong understanding of feminism and women’s issues. He is sensitive to and interested in issues of discrimination, privilege, and social injustice.

I would be proud and honored to stand by my brother’s side as a future successful alum of Riverbend Academy.

Sincerely,
Mallory Pike ‘07

 


Secret for Adam
Posted by: Sasha
Visible to: Adam

Get on over here you dirty bitch.

 

 

Dear Jordan,

My mom is making me write this even though I said thank you in person. THANK YOU!!!! Do you feel thanked now?

Shea says to tell you we’re all cool. He says you’ll know what that means. Archie wants to know if you have any old leftie gloves you don’t want any more. Ok I’m sealing this before my mom asks to read it.

Seriously, your stuff is really awesome. I am so siked to get started. Maybe I will try out for the team in the fall.

C-YA LATER ALIGATOR
Jackie

 


Guys
Posted by: Milo
Visible to: BSC-All

yall need to stop abusing the privacy settings to send secret messages to each other. remember, admin can see all of them. u know who u are

 

 

Dear Haley,

Well, we’re back home, so it’s back to my regular address and boring old notebook paper and no more postcards. I’m enclosing a picture of a kitten to make up for it. I have a lot of stories to tell you, but it’s probably best to wait until you get back. Who knows who’s reading the mail. Suffice it to say, I will never play mini-golf again (seriously: I’m banned for life from Fred’s Putt-Putt.)

Even though some REALLY EMBARRASSING things happened, I’m glad they did, because it only made things better between me and Jeff. I didn’t know that was possible. I’m glad things are going well with Katie too. She sounds so awesome.

Sometimes I think about all the little things that needed to happen for us to be where we are, and I’m amazed. Take you. You learned ASL because of your brother, and if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have met Katie. And think of all the things that had to happen for me and Jeff to fall in love--he had to like guys, I had to like guys, he had come back at just the right time where I was ready to stop denying it, he had to have a mom in Stoneybrook to begin with, his parents had to split up ten years ago, his mom had to be from here. Don’t get me started on the Sharon/Richard love story. I mean, who knows? Maybe something like that will happen for me and Jeff, or for you and Katie. Or something else will happen that we haven’t even thought of, and everything we’re worried about now will seem so silly. I don’t know if there’s some spirit driving the universe and some kind of cosmic plan for us, or if it’s all coincidental, but either way, it blows your mind when you think about it.

Listen to me, I sound like Jeff. But that’s the way I think you should think about things with you and Katie. It really helps me when I start freaking out about the future. Like Jeff says, live in the moment. For now, things are good. Rack up some great memories to look back on.

See you in September.

Love,
Byron