BY KATIE GEORGE
Published by Katie George at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Katie George
Dedicated to none other than my baby sister.
THE CAR RATTLED down the road like a half-dead serpent. It sputtered like the sound of a wheezing man, the chipped red paint on its body the color of American blood. The make and model did not matter, but what did matter was the fact that after eight months at college in California, Sarah Towson was back, riding home with her crazy grandpa in a car from the ’50s, heading straight to Breezewater, Georgia, from the airport in Savannah. Sarah was as happy as a baby getting its ears pierced, but her emotions only stirred in the inside. On the surface, a broad smile painted Sarah’s lips as she allowed the wind to stir her light brown hair.
Breezewater only reminded her of how much she hated growing up. She had been the typical loner, albeit with a few close friends, but she preferred Friday nights hunkered under starlight rather than parties with kegs, or even hanging out with friends in general. She was not a tea or coffee drinker; she hated shopping, but adored politics. Sarah liked God, but hated theology. She was not your typical nineteen-year-old college kid, but her parents loved her, and she didn’t mind herself, either.
In fact Sarah Towson was the apple of her parents’ sea-blue eyes. They had always wanted to leave their Podunk world for a bigger bite at America, but their attempts left them with nothing but Breezewater. It was like a leech, the town of Breezewater; it sucked and sucked until it took all the blood from its victim. There was something about it that some people adored, but for people like Sarah, even the mention of her hometown brought suffering and smothering.
It was on this day, the day of return, that they would see their daughter, for whom they had dutifully pooled their money so she could attend school far, far away. They understood her reasoning for the complete opposite side of the country, because if they weren’t so scared, they would leave too. But it was not that simple. Scott Towson’s dad lived in town, and he had given the company to his son, which offered a reasonable living, even opulent for Breezewater standings. Therefore, they lived in Breezewater, which was close enough to Savannah and Tybee Island.
It was a beautiful little town, not far from Savannah or a few other bigger coastal towns. It was on the gold beaches of the Atlantic, with gutsy swamps and more drama than a college play. Verdant, colorful gardens shaded large, ancient Southern homes. Low-hanging trees and Spanish moss provided a canopy over old fountains denoting a heyday most had never seen. Only a mile away, the deep waters of the Atlantic touched the Earth. Most people never left, because it was one of those towns; it was peculiarly Southern and peculiarly conservative, but this was to be expected.
Her thoughts drifted to high school, back to the friends she’d accrued there. She had made the thirty-minute drive every morning and afternoon to and from the private school in Savannah she had attended. It was small, with seventy or so in a class, but she’d hated it and wished for something more populated, which explained California’s allure, but also its venom.
Grandpa Rob scratchily yelled above the roar of the wind, “Your momma is just so excited to see you!”
Which explains why neither she nor Dad were at the airport to pick me up, Sarah thought. She knew her parents loved her, and they were absent by no means—they did pay for her college. But the relationship had become strained since Sarah left, which only added to the nerves pounding her core. She was nervous to see her family, which was weird. She should be excited.
“Yeah, it’ll be interesting,” she offered, her voice straining to be heard.
“And your sister, too. She’s thrilled.”
Somehow I doubt that. Sarah was not a pessimist, but she felt like one. Her sister Alison was six years older and already married by now, with a baby on the way. Their relationship was never great, but after a year separated, they had barely spoken. Sarah knew they were blood kin, but at times she doubted this fact.
She also knew her Grandpa Rob would not mention Zach. He never did.
“You know, Grandpa, how’s Dad been doing?”
Her grandpa asked, “What? My hearing’s gotten even worse, sugar.”
“Is Dad okay?” Sarah screamed this time.
Grandpa Rob nodded in a flashy manner. “Oh, yeah, yeah! He’s perfect. He’s been going to therapy, with your mom and not, and their relationship is going really well.”
Sarah bit her tongue. She doubted the truth in this, which caused even more downcast shadows to fill her mind. Though the sun brightly shone above them, tinging the tree leaves, it seemed sepia-toned, gray and brown.
Sarah stopped talking, but her grandfather continued singing like there was nothing wrong in the world. In a few minutes, Sarah knew, they’d see the hint of ocean after this long drive through the forest. Grandpa Rob had taken the scenic route, which added ten minutes to the trek, but Sarah appreciated this. She did not necessarily want to arrive home yet.
The air was salty like California, but a hint of difference was noted by her nostrils. Her eyes had become accustomed to the ocean, so when it appeared before her like a blanket of blue, she did not necessarily care. It was the norm, and always had been, while for others it might be considered a miracle. She only saw drowning when she looked at it. She fingered the pearl necklace dangling around her neck.
Then they were cruising past beach houses, so close together in perfect little rows. It reminded her of Malibu, except these houses cost a fortune less, and mountains did not jut out along the coast like a heavenly specter. Instead, the greenery behind was like a head of thick, emerald hair.
When they entered town proper, a flicker of enthusiasm drained into a bucket of nerves. Sarah shifted in her seat before pulling her long, thick hair into a ponytail. She breathed through her teeth, not exactly sure if she was ready for this next step or not. She had been able to handle life in Southern California all by herself, so how could Breezewater be more challenging than that?
They curtailed the little town itself, instead taking the coastal road to the south, before turning westward in anticipation of the small, affluent subdivision the Towsons claimed home. The subdivision contained about twenty or so homes near the million-dollar mark, most of the owners working in Savannah, of course. The real selling point of the subdivision was the five-minute drive to the beach, along with private access to a lake filled with bass fish.
They entered the drive for June Villa Estates, passing four homes before the Towson property. Every lawn was perfectly manicured and the brightest shade of green, just like Sarah remembered. The landscaping was magnificent, like something out of a gardener’s dream, the scent of honeysuckle demanding Sarah’s utmost attention. The large magnolia in front of the Towson mansion was bigger than she’d remembered, and she noted the large white blossoms, some brown from an abundance of rainfall.
Grandpa Rob parked the convertible into the driveway with ease. Sarah did not see any cars home, nor did she expect her father to be home yet. She grabbed her two suitcases from the back, those containing her most prized possessions. She’d mailed other things home already, and the rest of her stuff was in a storage cubicle she was sharing with some other college friends from out-of-state.
She opened the side door to the Tudor-style mansion, entering the house that had always felt homey, but was not exactly home to her. Her mother had been intent on keeping the house prim-and-proper all the time, and it had been photographed in an Atlanta-based magazine a few years back, especially for the infinity pool out back surrounded by hundred-year-old oaks. It was a haven for animals, this property was; but with only an acre of land, Sarah wasn’t sure how open it really was. Though she was used to clumped and a lack of privacy, she did not feel accepted or comfortable in her childhood home. Eerily, the place smelled like a combination of roses and lemons, which Sarah associated with hotels. She wondered if this house had been reduced to a fleeting hotel for her, and she was saddened.
When they entered the spacious kitchen, complete with golden granite countertops and the latest appliances, Grandpa Rob called out, “Helena? Anyone home?” When no one responded, he shook his head and scrunched his lips. “Well, I don’t know what to tell ya. Maybe they thought we’d get here later than we did. I can help take your stuff upstairs, dearie.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about it. I’ll just make myself at home. Are you going to stay for a little while?”
Grandpa Rob was a retiree and had nothing more to do except socialize with anyone he deemed fit. In fact, he’d had enough of his granddaughter and was ready to hit the coffee shop two miles away, in the new shopping district, where an elderly woman named Joan Richards frequented. Grandpa Rob was known as a womanizer to the elderly female crowd, and Joan Richards had been shy around him, but he wanted to change that perception. If Joan wasn’t around, he’d strike a conversation with a local, or even an out-of-towner.
“Honey, I’m going to go out. I’ll catch up with you and the gang a little later. Call me if you need anything, okay?” He reached up to kiss the beautiful girl he called his kin. He bragged about her to all his friends and rivals. My granddaughter is in California, and she’s even dating a millionaire’s son, he’d say, though he was known to over exaggerate everything anyone told him. Plus, he did not necessarily enjoy the fact that Sarah was nearly an inch taller than his five-foot-seven stature. He’d shrunk in the past few years, a symptom of aging.
Sarah nodded, relieved. She would head upstairs, unpack, and pretend to make this place her home again. This time, though, her childhood guinea pig was buried in the ground, her best friends were far away, and her favorite person in the world was locked up in a schoolroom or wherever he was.
She struggled to carry the bags up the sweeping staircase in the foyer, but managed, and found her room—used to capacity only a year ago—to have been completely revamped into a sewing and design room. Sketches littered the walls, along with fabrics of all colors and types. Tulles and laces were draped over a settee, while a few examples of finished dresses were strewn around the room. Sarah suppressed the tears, because it was as if she had been erased, but this was to be expected. She had been home for Christmas, and that time, she’d cried. Not today.
She gently walked to the guest suite nearby, setting her luggage on the ground before turning to see Zach’s messy room. Clothes were balled on the floor, a site reminiscent of his sister’s dorm room, and the bed was not made. Pictures lined his wall, drawings he’d created in art class, of the ocean, the ultimate dog he’d been asking for years, and even a drawing of Sarah herself. Her eyes widened at the photo of the two of them on his wall. They stood together in front of a ride at Disneyworld, and it was quite grainy and old. Sarah still had braces in the shot, and Zach looked to be about seven or eight. Sarah couldn’t help crying then.
JOEL SEALET WAS known to all as a respectable young man, but he knew it was not a true assessment. He was a good Christian boy on Sunday mornings and even delivered Wednesday night youth sermons, but he partied on Friday nights and had a different girl every few months, if not weeks. He knew it was because he was self-conscious at times, and because he was absolutely confident during others.
He hated Breezewater but loved it at the same time. He had just moved there from the bigger town of Roseland in the distant outskirts of Savannah—which housed about ten thousand people as opposed to Breezewater’s three thousand. It was in Roseland where his entire life had been spun, until college began the past year. He attended a state school that was affordable and had plenty of pretty girls. His best friend Manny also went there, and a few of their other friends from high school, so it was the perfect situation. He never thought about anywhere else but Georgia, even though he enjoyed visiting other places. He loved Texas.
Yet Joel Sealet knew what was keeping him tied to this region was his status as one of the most popular people his age. Most of the locals knew his name, his age, and the gritty details of his ascendancy to state basketball champ only a year before. He was celebrated in many homes as a young man who would be perfect as a husband. But the people who knew him intimately thought quite the opposite, because he was a hypocrite, and he was also a kind hypocrite at the same time.
He had begun working at the small aquarium nestled between Harrisville Lake and the little inlet the locals called Paradiso Bay. It was a steady job, about six or seven hours Monday through Thursday, which gave him something to do and a way to pay for the alcohol he stashed in his closet at home. If his parents ever found out about that, there would be hell to pay, but until then, he was not worried. The job also paid for his gas and other random expenses, like flowers for the current girlfriend, Brie. He loved her per se, but was not really in love with her. Really, he liked to keep pretenses that he was in love with her. He knew she knew this, but she also used him for ulterior motives.
Brie was a year older and a Breezewater local. She was attending cosmetology school and had been a cheerleader in high school. Plus, she knew the big weekend parties he loved. She went to the same church he and his parents had begun attending after the big move from Savannah to Breezewater, and her mom had gone to grade school with his dad back in the day. Brie’s mother occasionally made jokes that her daughter would become Mrs. Sealet, which was a position coveted by many daughters in the town.
There was one girl who couldn’t care less, but she was not home yet.
Joel was thinking about dumping Brie. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, but he wasn’t sure he didn’t want to. He liked the idea of going stag for the summer, in case someone else piqued his interest, but at the same time, Brie offered some stability.
He was curled up under a blanket watching a TV special on architectural and engineering feats when his mother walked into the room, a bag of microwaveable popcorn in her hands. She placed the bag on her son’s lap before sitting beside him.
He muted it, awaiting her casual speech. “What’s up?”
His mother was a beautiful woman, with brown hair and brown eyes, just like him. Even though some might consider brown to be mundane, he considered the color to be rich and beautiful, and a perfect contrast to the blue of the sea. There was an abundance of blue in Breezewater, but not necessarily an abundance of cocoa.
Juliet Sealet was not what one might expect of Joel’s mother. She was not a sorority sister, nor was she a backstabber, or afraid of commitment. She was in love with her husband of twenty-two years and had dutifully borne two children, her world. Joel was the eldest, and he had a younger sister, who was in seventh grade, a little angel. Unfortunately, Juliet did not realize that her daughter was a carbon copy of her son. This was not positive.
“So, Chloe got an invitation to a summer dance at the church. She needs a date, and I thought you would be the perfect guy. Not many girls get to take their big brother with them, you know?”
Joel sat straight, his back aching as it stretched. “Chlo probably would not want me going with her. She’s old enough to find a guy…”
“Joel, I’m asking because I want you to go with her. You two don’t spend much time together as it is.”
Joel sighed, wondering how impossible a church dance could be. He hadn’t remembered doing anything like that back in the day, but this was a new church that played by other rules. He considered his younger sister, little Chloe, whom he knew, but didn’t know at the same time. Maybe it would be something to break up the monotony of his summer break. It was only the middle of May, and he had two whole months before he had to consider heading back to his apartment in Savannah.
“When is it?”
“July fourth weekend. I think it would be a cool surprise for her, you know?”
He nodded. It would be nice to be a knight-in-shining armor for the kid.
Juliet Sealet stood, satisfied with the answer, and she returned to the kitchen. “So, what’s on schedule for the rest of the week?”
“Well, today’s Saturday, so it’s the end of the week,” he pointed out.
“You know what I mean, Joel.”
“Work, work, and more work.”
“You should invite Brie over for dinner again sometime. We loved having her.”
Joel did not respond, because he felt guilty for his diminishing feelings toward Brie. He was not at the point of ignoring her yet, but they were nearing that point in the relationship. She would understand, he hoped, if they broke things off. “Hey, Mom, I think I’m going to go out and get some things from the store. Do you need anything?”
“We do need more milk, honey. Thanks.”
He grabbed his keys and wallet, suddenly interested in leaving the pressures of his household, though there weren’t many. As he pulled out of the driveway, he contemplated driving straight to New York City, far away, just so he could see something new.
But as soon as he swerved onto the prettiest coastal road in Breezewater, he knew he was not brave enough. He didn’t bother flashing his blinker as he switched lanes. He stopped at a light on the edge of Edmonton and Arizona, and watched as an old, rickety convertible bisected his point of view. He noted the old man, whom he recognized as Rob Fielder, a guy who sometimes went to his new church, a womanizer. Sometimes, Rob hit on his mom. But the girl beside Rob seemed utterly familiar, with her brown hair swirling around in the breeze. He did not catch a long glimpse of the girl, and instead he sped straight down the road again, forgetting about this encounter a few minutes later.
NEAR FOUR O’CLOCK, a car pulled into the driveway, a sleek silver Mercedes Sarah did not recognize. Unfortunately, she recognized the man who hopped out. He was Scott Towson, her father. He seemed a decade older, but he was all smiles when he took in the young woman awaiting him on the doorstep. She’d been sitting there for thirty minutes now, just waiting for anyone in her family to show up, to act like they cared about her wellbeing.
“If it isn’t my little Sarah-bedera.” He’d called her that since she was a little girl, and she’d hated it all her life.
She stood, letting him hug her, though she tensed when they touched. “Hi, Dad.”
He kissed the top of her head. “Ah, my beautiful grown daughter. Is your mother home?” He broke away, heading inside.
Sarah subserviently followed. “No, no sign of her, either.”
“Well, Zach’s at school, you know, and they get out at three, but the drive home takes a bit.”
“Yeah, who’s picking him up?” She had attended the same private Savannah school as her little brother, and last year, she’d been in charge of picking him up and taking him there.
Scott smiled. “Allison is, obviously. She’s really stepped up to the plate this year, but Zach still misses your taking him to school. That was a highlight for him, it really was.” Scott’s face had gone even more wrinkly, with skin sagging under his chin. He was a man of forty-two, but only a few years—maybe even months—ago, he’d looked like a man in his late twenties.
“When will Mom be home?”
“You know your mother. She’s constantly working, and when’s she’s not working, she’s up in that sewing room. Probably around six. How about you and I work up supper for the others?”
“Actually,” Sarah said, her lips dripping with moldy lies, but she had a need to get out of the house already, “I was going to meet up with Karli, you know, my old best friend?”
“How could I forget Karli Kirkpatrick? Of course, go see her.” Her dad pulled out his iPhone, ready to pounce on his emails. When he looked up, he noted the bewilderment painted on his daughter’s face. He tossed his keys at her, not giving this act a second thought. “Be home by seven for dinner, okay?”
She accepted this with a smile, which was rather becoming on her. She was prettier when she smiled. She needed to smile more.
Sarah was at a loss when she sat in the luxury vehicle. Even the wheel seemed to feel like gold to her touch, and she was afraid of backing it out of the driveway. Eventually, she gathered the gumption to reverse the car, and then she was on the road, her eyes spinning at the ease to which the car drove.
Plus, the late afternoon sun was beginning to dim, which cast a myriad of colors on her windshield. She rolled down the windows, remembering the memorized drive to Karli’s house, hoping her friend wasn’t home. She would go the house, knock on the door, and chances were, Karli would be off with someone else. Then Sarah would head to the gas station, or something cheap, and buy a drink and a snack. If that was not an option, Sarah would go to the library. Anywhere but that suffocating sepulcher called home.
It was a twenty minute drive to Karli’s house. The girl lived in a town nearer to Savannah, and the two friends were far enough away from each other as not to do everything together, but close enough to keep their friendship intact. At least, that was how it had been during grade school through high school. Now, though, Sarah had to admit to herself that she’d ignored the old crowd in favor of the new world she lived in. Karli was not in the sphere of normalcy anymore.
Sarah entered the subdivision and parked the car in front of the small house Karli shared with her mom and stepdad. There was a car in the driveway, but not Karli’s. Sarah would check anyway, and she knocked on the door, awaiting to see a familiar face.
Karli’s mom appeared, her eyes golden brown, and she said, “Why, Sarah Towson! How are you?” Her accent was thick, like the dense swamplands nearby. Karli’s entire family was encroached in the Southern culture, much more so than most. “Earl, come see Sarah Towson!”
Sarah hugged the kind woman, though this place did not feel like home either. She did not expect it to feel like home, but she hoped it would. Anything had to be better than the Towson mansion, she bitterly reflected, but guiltily changed her mind. There were worse places than Breezewater, Georgia. There were many worse places.
For example, children starved in the poor parts of Savannah, where women also doubled as prostitutes, a lucrative and secret system. That would be worse.
Earl appeared behind Karli’s mom, Stacy. He was a formidable man, built like a brick wall, and his hearty roar of a laugh filled the air. “California’s back!” He hurried over, hugging her from the side.
“Well, if you’re looking for Karli,” Stacy said, pulling out a cigarette, “she’s not here. She’s been living with a man down in the south side, near the river. They’re really playing house, Sarah. Let me tell you. I’m surprised she hasn’t come home with a baby on her hip.”
Earl shook his head. “We don’t approve, but the girl’s making her own choices. It would be good for the two of you to get to see each other, though.”
“I do agree,” Stacy seconded. She took a drag on the cigarette, the smell of ash something Sarah was not accustomed to. “Karli misses you so much, Sare. After you left, and a bunch of your friends headed off to college, Karli was at a loss. She wanted so badly to be like you, always like Sarah Towson. But she wasn’t meant to be like you.”
“We’re so proud of you,” added Earl, wrapping an arm around his wife. “People like you are going to change the world.”
Sarah smiled, nodding appreciatively in response to their kindness. “Thanks. You know, I don’t know if I can change the world, but some people sure can. Who is Karli living with now?”
“John Cruston. Do you remember him? He graduated a few years before y’all did.”
“How could I forget Cruston?” She sucked in air between her teeth. “He was the best football player our little private school has ever had.”
“That is true. I remember that boy’s throwing arm.” Earl looked into the yard, his memory taking hold. “He was destined for greatness. Until he threw it all away, of course.”
John Cruston was the typical bad boy. He grew up in the private school Sarah and Karli graduated from, as both his parents were coaches and teachers there, too. Cruston began to hang out with the wrong crowd—or maybe he even formed the wrong crowd—in tenth grade, when he started selling marijuana on campus. He got away with the practice for the most part, especially due to his impeccable stats on the football field, until one of the last games of senior year. Cruston had piqued the interest of a few college scouts, but he always blew it with them, never showing an interest in return. He was caught dealing with a few underclassmen, and he was suspended. Eventually, Cruston was expelled.
And now he was living with Karli Kirkpatrick?
Karli was not an academic powerhouse, and she did not have athletic prowess. She was a country girl who loved to fish, hunt, and play with her muddy truck. She wore cowgirl boots to prom, church, and school, ignoring teachers when they called out her shoes as against school policy. Karli did not cuss, nor did she smoke weed.
Yet when her dad died sophomore year, Karli began to unravel. She was not crazy, by any means, but she became lonely, especially when her mother married an old high school flame, Earl Hall, Karli’s senior year. Earl was a good man, a churched man, who helped Stacy Kirkpatrick combat the issues with the loss of the love of her life. Yet Karli was angry, and the anger eventually turned into rebellious behavior.
Karli and Sarah had been close friends since childhood, because they both were on the outskirts of the group. Sarah could have easily been popular but chose not to be, while Karli was always ignored, even in the South, for being true to herself. In their senior year of high school, however, they began to drift apart, with Sarah’s dreams of escape opening, and Karli’s forced realization that she would stay in Savannah, probably for the rest of her life. Karli was not one to leave, and never had been.
This development—that Cruston and Karli were a thing, a live-in thing—shocked Sarah. She listened to the peculiars of how the two had met, because Cruston was four years older than they. He had been working as a construction worker in downtown and had stopped by a local bar which Karli tended. The rest was history.
Sarah did not even know Karli was a bartender. This shocked her, because Karli had sworn off drinking, but of course, Karli was not exactly one to keep promises. The two became a serious item around three months together, which was only a month before Sarah’s return from southern California, and now they were living together in a poor neighborhood in Savannah.
After saying her farewells to Stacy and Earl, Sarah hopped in her car, intent on grabbing junk food from the gas station. This was hard to force down.
Karli Kirkpatrick had fallen off an edge into a world Sarah had no knowledge about.
Sarah could not help but cry, because this was her friend, and while some were probably accepting of this, she could not. Not when she knew of Cruston’s past.
BRIE WAS FAR from Joel Sealet’s mind when he parked in the lot of the only Methodist church in town. Baptists were the prominent denomination here, and Joel called himself one of these. But he did not come to pray. He came to smoke a joint in a parking lot where no one lurked, especially not on a bright, clear Saturday afternoon.
The green leafy plant was intoxicating, Joel gave it that. It was the only real drug he frequently used, and somehow, his parents had never found out. He bought from the same dealer Brie used, up in the outskirts of Savannah itself. He’d started smoking weed around his last few months as a senior, and now he smoked whenever some block of his brain was about to collapse.
In this scenario, it was just the fact that Brie existed in his life.
After he finished the joint, he drove in the direction of the clear blue sea, that vacuum of space with its venomous snakes, massive whales, and killer sharks. He had never liked the ocean much, especially during hurricane season.
After passing the coastal road, he headed back into town, to the small mini-mart. It was almost five by then, and having some weird desire for fast food, he changed paths and went to grab some dinner. He was not sure if his mom was cooking or not; he simply wanted to clear his head with a burger, or something like it.
He chose one of the local hangouts, where a long line waited for the drive-thru. If he had been lucid, he would have taken the initiative to actually head inside, but in a hazy, blanked out mindset, he chose to wait, and found himself thinking for the first time in a long time. He watched as a few pretty teenage girls left the restaurant, before noting an elderly couple—probably married for fifty years—walk in. A young black woman leaned on the shoulder of her boyfriend, who wore a firefighter’s jacket. The two seemed in love, and Joel wondered if he and Brie looked anything like that. He highly doubted it.
The sun began to sink lower in the sky. When he finally reached the window to pay for his meal, a young man swiped his card. In the background, Joel recognized Alex McFarland, an old friend of his. They occasionally hung out on weekends with the group, but Alex was usually too mild-mannered for partying. Joel saw a sheen of sweat cover his friend’s dark eyebrow as he hurriedly worked on a cheeseburger. Joel wanted to call out to him, but something in him decided against it, and he went to the next window to collect his food.
Joel thought about Alex on the way to the store. Alex was a good guy, and he was also a churched guy. He did not smoke or drink, and he never seemed to enjoy hanging out with girls. Joel knew it made him nervous, which was why teasing him had been somewhat enjoyable. Alex attended the University of Georgia now, but he came back quite a bit and did frequent some of the same places Joel did. He did not know that Alex was working in Breezewater, however, which spooked him. Breezewater had become unique to his interests, because most of his friends lived back in Savannah. And luckily his exes did too.
Joel drove the five minutes to the grocery store where he planned to buy the items his mother needed. As soon as he stepped out of his old Jeep, a voice greeted him. A familiar voice, one he knew intimately, and one he wished to avoid. Joel turned, watching as a beautiful girl approached him. She had light brown hair, sun-kissed skin, bright brown eyes, and a killer smile. She had a perfect body, in Joel’s opinion, yet he wondered if something was wrong with him for already wanting to break it off with her.
“Hey,” he whispered as he wrapped an arm around her waist.
She kissed him quickly. “I saw you at the drive-thru, and I waved like a madwoman, but you were distracted. So I followed you here.”
“Brie, why’re you in town?” If it had been another girl, he might have reacted differently. Yet Brie was kindhearted and always thought the best of everyone.
She leafed a hand through her long, straight hair. “I was visiting my aunt. I was going to stop by your place before I took off, but I noticed you at the drive-thru.” She laid her head on his shoulder. It was hard to mistake the sweetness that oozed from kind Brie’s lips. She never said a bad thing about anyone, and took it upon herself to refrain from overdoing it on booze, sex, and drugs, though she did partake.
“Brie, I’ve missed you,” Joel said, breathing in her scent. “You’re so beautiful, you know.”
She blinked up at him, her eyes like stars. “Joel, why don’t you and I get away this weekend? Why don’t we just take off, spend the weekend at a little motel on the beach? It’s been a while since we’ve done something sporadic like that.”
He nodded, kissing her, the weightlessness addicting. He knew some people were beginning to stare, but he liked the attention. “Anything you say sounds ideal.”
“Joel, I see Mrs. Trantridge.”
He turned around, seeing the old lady, cursing underneath his breath. Mrs. Trantridge was as vocal as a bird, always speaking her mind, and sometimes in the rudest way possible. She had been alive for the majority of the twentieth century, and she made it her mission to drag the townspeople along the straight and narrow path. She was not a religious kook, but rather an utmost traditionalist, and some of her favorite experiments included Joel Sealet and Brie Fraser.
“Hello, Mr. Sealet, Miss Fraser,” Mrs. Trantridge began, clutching her purse closer to her small frame. She had a head full of snow-white hair, and her physical strength had been diminishing over the past few years, but her mind was as sharp as a whip. She took pride in that, along with her impeccable driving record, even at the age of eighty-four.
“Hi, Mrs. Trantridge,” nervously said Brie. She was scared of the old woman’s influence, but Joel was more sarcastic in that department. Brie was a nice girl and hated to disappoint anyone.
The old woman scowled at Joel. “What were you doing in that church parking lot, young man?”
“Excuse me?” Joel asked, innocent-like. Leave it to Mrs. Trantridge, a longtime Baptist, to have seen him at the Methodist church parking lot. Mrs. Trantridge had been a Baptist longer than she had been married to her husband of sixty-six years. Unfortunately, he had passed in the previous January, but it had been a long time coming. In all reality, the old woman had been somewhat pleased. Her whole life, she’d only wanted one thing: a house full of cats. Her husband had been uber allergic to all pets with fur—horses, dogs, cats, even guinea pigs—and there was no room for a pet. So as soon as he was buried in the ground, Mrs. Trantridge went to his grave and placed a photo of her new cat on the freshly dug earth.
Mrs. Trantridge wished she had a cane in this moment, so she could hit Joel upside the head. In these days, however, that act would be illegal. She had a reminiscent moment, dreaming back to her youth in the fifties. “Ah,” she moaned, before looking back up at her victim. “Your car—that unmistakable hunk of Jeep metal—was sitting in the parking lot of the Methodist church. I want to know why.”
Joel’s face flared. “Well, I needed a moment out of the house, Mrs. T.”
“So you went to the house of the Methodists? If you need God, seek your Bible anywhere. But the Methodist church?”
“I am sorry,” Joel lied, feeling Brie squeeze his hand, away from the vantage point of Mrs. Trantridge’s good eyesight.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to the two of you, to hear about what’s going on in your relationship.” Mrs. Trantridge leaned against the SUV behind her, though it wasn’t hers. She had achy knees.
“We’ve been dating for five months now,” Brie happily declared. She looked up at Joel with energetic and pleased eyes.
“Yup,” he half-heartedly seconded.
“Well,” Mrs. Trantridge said, “that’s long enough for me. Why don’t you pop the question, Mr. Sealet?”
Joel’s jaw dropped open. “I’m only nineteen, Mrs. T. That’s far too young to get hitched.”
The old wise sensei shook her head. “I got married at eighteen, and let me tell you, that was too old.”
“Too old? That cannot possibly be too old,” argued Joel.
Mrs. Trantridge shook her head. “I’m telling you, it is the perfect age. You two make quite the charming couple, and if you want to do the deed, it is best within the confines of marriage.”
Brie turned pink with embarrassment and dropped Joel’s hand. “You know, I’ve got to make it back to Savannah soon, to meet with my parents. It’s nice seeing you, Mrs. Trantridge. Bye Joel,” she said, without even kissing him.
Joel had been distracted until he watched a Mercedes whip into a parking spot a few seconds before. He pretended to be deep in conversation with Mrs. Trantridge, Brie remaining a few moments longer, as the young woman exited the car. He recognized her as the one he’d seen in the sports car only moments before. California, he realized. She was the girl who’d gone to California.
Shocked, he looked at Mrs. Trantridge and muttered, “Would you like to accompany me into the store? See you, Brie!”
THE GAS STATION with the best polar pops in town proper had closed, only recently, due to the owner’s filing for bankruptcy. There were three other stations in town, but they were all crummy and filled with scary men, so Sarah decided she would appease herself with a trip to the grocery store. She could buy a whole two-liter of Coke and a box of sugary treats for pretty darn cheap. Or if she was hungrier, she would simply purchase a bag of popcorn.
She slowly drove over to the store, taking in the memories Breezewater gave to her. It was a town like many others, yet it had left a large indentation in her brain, because it had been a curse in her formative years, not because of its location, but because her family lived there.
She pulled into the parking lot, across the lane from an old car on spinners. She was about to jump out of the Mercedes when she noticed a familiar form behind her, along with a pretty woman on his arm, and old Mrs. Trantridge, the town do-gooder.
Sarah watched as the young man angrily deflected questions. He was still handsome, even a year after she’d last seen him, and the girl beside him matched his beauty. No doubt Mrs. Trantridge was commenting on their love life, because that woman prided herself in being the utmost matchmaker in the entire county.
Sarah finally stepped out of the car, refusing to look back, and headed inside the store. She thought of the young man for a few moments, before pushing all thoughts of him aside. He was probably the exact same arrogant kid now as he had been before.
Joel Sealet was a hypocrite. Sarah could not stand him, although he was unarguably good-looking.
Now, though, Sarah decided not to give him another thought, or she’d risk being dragged back to memory lane of her high school days. She entered the store, passing by a few familiar faces, before heading to the chip aisle. Sarah should have eaten healthier, and she did around her vegan best friend Tiffany back in Los Angeles, but away from that regimen, Sarah would assuredly crack. She appreciated chips, dip, and Mexican food, while also treasuring cheese in all its forms. Sarah was not a big Chinese food connoisseur, instead preferring the Italians in this match.
She decided on a bag of popcorn before hurrying to purchase a few liters of Coke, which was illegal in her household. Her parents had banned caffeinated drinks a few years ago, so now, Sarah was forced to sneak them inside. She walked back to the self-checkout and hurriedly scanned her items. She felt someone’s eyes staring at her back, but she ignored the burning sensation of being watched and scurried outside.
The drive home seemed incredibly long, but Sarah enjoyed the feel of the Mercedes. When she finally entered the driveway of the Towson house, she stared at it with trepidation. Her mom’s silver Lexus was parked just up ahead, along with Alison’s pearly Jeep Cherokee.
Sarah grabbed the keys and her purchases, opening the front door, hoping it was unlocked, and it was. A beep emitted from the home security system, but Sarah rushed upstairs to hide the junk food from her parents, and finally walked downstairs to the kitchen, where she was met with the familiarity of her family.
Her mother, Helena Towson, was busy setting out paper plates with a few boxes of warm pizza sizzling beside her. Helena was still a beautiful woman, but her aging lines were deepening, which caused her to wear even more makeup. She was a skinny woman, too skinny, but Sarah would not say anything about it. It would strain their relationship even more.
To her left, Alison placed a hand lovingly on her pregnant belly. She had bright blue eyes and blonde hair—like their mother—and was a striking image of the woman beside her. She was the prime opposite of Sarah, and their relationship was borderline antagonistic/non-existent. While Sarah had convinced her parents to send her away to LA for college, Alison had attended SCAD and married a young filmmaker from there. Now, they lived in Savannah and were “eagerly” expecting their first child.
Their father, Scott Towson, was already munching on a slice of pizza as he analyzed the news. He was a big news buff, always preferring nightly news programs to action films, and newspapers to legal thriller paperbacks. Scott was, in a lot of ways, like his middle child. They both preferred the outside rather that inside. The only difference was the color of the eye: Scott’s was a fierce cornflower, while Sarah’s was a darker hue.
Meanwhile, Zach, young Zachary, was sitting on a barstool, his head in a book. He literally had laid his little skull on top of the book he was dissecting, and in the present, he was staring outside, looking at the backyard, which was as plush as a Brazilian jungle. Sarah felt her eyes sting as she observed him. His hair was the color of brown earth, his eyes a pure blue, and his body taller and leaner than she had remembered since seeing him last. He was the one regret she had for leaving Breezewater, and the only reason she ever wanted to come back.
He was the reason she’d declined an impeccable, life-changing summer internship in San Jose. He was the reason she had not accepted two months of mountain backpacking in South America with her best friends, who were leaving California in two days for Peru. Her somewhat boyfriend Kyle had also invited her to Phoenix with him for a few weeks, and she respectfully told him no. She could have worked, taken summer classes, or even seen the world; instead, her heart hammered in her chest because of one little boy, who was not that little anymore.
As she observed their family dynamic, she remembered being part of it. She was once in this scenario—for real. Now she could see the steady depression in Zach’s eyes and their parents’ adoration for their careers. It had happened to Sarah, too.
Sarah did not know what to say or do until Zach looked up, like a deer caught in the gaze of human life, and she started crying. Actual tears plummeted down her cheeks as Zach rushed over, knocking over a chair, to hug her as tightly as he could. As they clutched each other, Helena turned her back and observed her two younger children with a smile. Alison snarled, while Scott turned off the TV, joining in the hug. This triggered Helena’s reaction, and she hurried to the group hug.
Scott yelled, “Alison, come join!”
The woman shook her head, holding the ball of her stomach. “It’ll hurt the baby.”
“I like it better like this, anyway,” Zach whispered, though no one heard it. He was the happiest man alive, he thought, now that Sarah was back for the summer. Life had been unbearable without her, because she was his real mom in a lot of ways. She took him a lot of places, and she was a cool sister. They hiked together and she threw footballs with him. They worked on his batting average somedays and swam at the pool on others. They both loved the library and spent a lot of Saturdays there, before—always—heading to the gas station for big gulps and snacks that were forbidden at the Towson household.
But Zach loved his sister not because of her giving heart for him, but because she stood up for him when times got rough. She was incredibly intelligent and his role model, because she had left town when everyone else was too afraid.
When everyone drifted away, Zach held onto his sister, long enough so that he could clutch her hand and drag her to where his book sat, open, on the counter. He began to explain the complexities of the novel, which Sarah noted was an adult book, and his sister nodded in appreciation. He was a complete and utter book fanatic, and Sarah was proud of this fact, even though she wasn’t a big reader herself. No one else in their household read for fun. Rather, reading was associated as a dim, boring chore.
As Zach rambled on and on, Helena muted the TV, peeving off Scott, so she could say, “If it isn’t Miss California, back in one piece. Oh, gosh, I’m so proud of you, honey!”
Sarah smiled, though it did not reach her eyes. “Thanks, Mom.” She felt Alison’s hot stare.
Scott finally took in the fact his news broadcast would have to wait a few moments, and then he smiled brightly. “How’d you like the Mercedes?”
His daughter tossed him his keys. “It was a sweet ride. Nice set of wheels, Dad.”
“You let her drive your hot rod?” Helena asked, arching a brow.
Scott nodded. “I thought it would sweeten her arrival. How was Grandpa Rob? Is he planning on stopping by tonight?”
“He was informative,” Sarah offered as Zach stared up at her, his idol. “He definitely kept me in the loop. He said he would come back tonight… But who knows.”
Helena sighed, knowing her dad was a handful. “Well, he missed you, sweetie. He really did. He’s always bragging about his granddaughter, the one who went to college in Los Angeles.”
Alison was scowling at this. She believed that Sarah was the apple of her parents’ eyes. They’d always shared a vitriolic relationship, one marred by their parents’ marital problems, but Alison was and would never be like her intelligent, perfect little sister. She had never once thought of moving away from her parents—at least not far, far away—and now the only thing anyone ever talked about was Sarah. Her accomplishments, her life in LA, her chance at stardom. Yet Alison knew deep down that they did not necessarily love Sarah more than any of the other kids, because their parents—the Towsons—were a selfish set of people.
They wanted to act like they had it all together.
Sarah hated the limelight and steered the conversation back to Zach. “So, how’ve you been, little rascal?”
“Well, I made the principal’s straight A’s list again,” he blushed.
Helena tousled his hair. “We’re very proud of you, Zach.”
Zach tensed at the physical contact. “Thanks.”
“Also, Zach won third in the local region at his wrestling championship, didn’t you?” Scott said proudly. That was one thing he and his son shared a bond in: sports. Sometimes Scott took Zach away for the weekend to Atlanta, so they could watch a Falcons game away from the presence of the family women, who hated the sport with a burning passion.
“That’s right,” Zach seconded. “I really like wrestling, but I also love reading.” He lifted up the book to cover his face and whispered to his sister, “I started writing stories, too. My teacher sent one off to a statewide contest.”
“Seriously? That’s incredible, Zach. You want to show me this story?”
He shrugged, but Sarah knew deep down that, of course, he wanted his story to be shared with his favorite family member. “Yeah, maybe.”
Sarah looked up to Alison, who absent-mindedly scrolled through her phone. “And Ali, how are you?”
Alison looked up, her eyes bloodshot, but her beauty still effervescent. “Pregnant.”
Helena and Scott felt the tension, so they steered the conversation along a river of ease. “Alison can’t wait for the big day.”
“And how’s Jerry?” Jerry was Alison’s husband, a computer technician who made steady pay. He and Alison had wed the previous summer after five long years of dating, so Jerry had become a staple at the house. Sarah was surprised Jerry wasn’t around at that precise moment, just because he and Alison were usually inseparable and had been that way since their first month of dating.
“Jerry’s fine,” Alison sharply responded.
Helena jumped in. “He’s doing really well. He’s so excited for the baby. He placed a bet with us that she’s going to have a little boy, but I have this gut feeling it will be a little girl. My first grandbaby! And I’m only forty-six. Much too young to be a grandmother.”
“Not in ancient times, sweetie,” Scott said, kissing her cheekbone.
Zach tugged on Sarah’s shirt. “Want to go outside and play?”
“Not right now, Zach,” answered Helena. “We all want to see Sarah.”
“Later?” Sarah asked, to which her brother nodded.
“Well,” intervened Helena, “let’s eat. Like we used to.”
If someone was listening carefully, the tone of Scott’s voice would conjure dread. “A family dinner.”
JOEL UNDERSTOOD THE basics of a family dinner. They were hard to come-by in his house, because someone was always doing something. For example, Tuesday nights were designated as game night for his dad. That meant poker and a few beers, away at some other location, while his mom, sister, and he foraged for themselves. Wednesday was church night, and though Ethan Sealet never went—and Joel had been slipping in attendance himself—Juliet and Chloe always attended. That left Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Well, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were immediately canceled because the weekend rush was always filled with Joel and Chloe’s leaving to be with friends and church. Monday was the day Chloe had intensive dance practice, from four-thirty to seven o’clock, and the day that Juliet worked her longest hours. Thursday was the best option, but sometimes Ethan worked overtime, other days Juliet was not in the mood to cook, and others, Joel had previous engagements.
Family dinners were as rare as a blue moon.
That is why, when he returned home, on this almost-summer afternoon—a Saturday—he blankly stared at the heavenly smorgasbord on the dining room table.
He took care of his putting away the purchases as Juliet hurriedly placed turquoise plates of warm spaghetti, green beans, and Italian bread on the dining table. She was doing the homemaking thing all by herself, like usual. Normally, Joel’s father Ethan would at least ask Chloe to help with the entire food process, while Joel was required to wash the dishes. It was a good balance, but today, Joel saw that his father was nowhere to be found, and neither was Chloe.
“Mom, you need help,” Joel said, filling the sink with soapy water. Then he started placing the dirty dishes inside.
Juliet pulled a wisp of sandy hair behind her ear. “Chloe is upstairs, and I did not want to argue with her tonight. Your dad’s in his room, doing work-related stuff. Did you bring the milk? And the waffle syrup?”
“Syrup? You said nothing about syrup?”
“You smell funny,” Juliet pointed out.
“What do you mean?”
“Smoky, almost. But hey, I’ve been dreaming a lot today. Can you go get your sister?”
Joel went upstairs, passing the collection of family photos that he’d assessed from various points in his life. Yet on this Saturday he did not feel like looking at more photos.
He went to Chloe’s bedroom, finding the girl perched on her bed and on her phone, of course. Her brown eyes surprised him as they, in a split-second, focused in on him. “So, Mom told me you’re taking me to the dance.”
“Are you up for it?”
Chloe sat up with a sigh. “I mean, I guess it’s cool. It’ll make me stand out.”
“That’s always your mission,” Joel snapped. “Mom wants us downstairs for food.”
Chloe grabbed his arm and said, “You know, she and Dad were screaming. Bigtime. While you were away, they started arguing about stuff I did not understand.”
“They were arguing?” Usually, his parents were so scattered they did not have time to fight.
Chloe nodded. “It was bad, Joel.” She winked at him. “We could use this to our advantage.”
He shook his head. “Cut it out, and come on downstairs. You’re the next contestant on the Price is Spaghetti.”
“Spaghetti?” Chloe made a choking sound.
The two headed downstairs, casually hearing their mother humming to herself as she sat down at the table. This was not unheard of: Their mother loved to sing.
“Chlo,” Juliet said as her kids entered their cramped kitchen, “can you go get your dad?”
She disappeared from view, leaving Juliet and Joel by themselves. His mother looked stressed out as she lifted a hand through her hair. Joel wanted to say something to comfort her, but he did not know what the proper thing to say would even be. He sat beside his mother at their dining room table in silence, wanting to fill her in on what all had happened with Brie and Mrs. Trantridge, but Juliet did not look like she wanted to talk.
Eventually, Chloe and their father entered. Ethan looked tired, too, and he bitterly scowled at his wife, which angered Joel. He did not want to come home to find his parents fighting, and he knew this would be an interesting mealtime conversation.
“How was dance?” Joel asked as he took a bite of spaghetti into his mouth.
His mother silently prayed over her food before looking up. Chloe watched this in confusion. Finally, she answered, “Fine, I guess. I have a competition in Atlanta two weeks from now.”
“Atlanta,” Joel said. He was trying to be the mediator, but he was failing at it. “Atlanta’s a nice, big city.”
“Did you tell them what happened?” Ethan suddenly snapped.
Juliet looked up. “Why would I tell them?”
“Because don’t they deserve the right to know?”
“What’s going on?” Chloe mumbled. In this moment, she was not the usual carefree girl who ruled the middle school hallways. She looked like a kid again, even past the makeup caked on her face, the highlights in her hair, and the piercings in her ears.
Juliet put her head in her weathered hands. “Your father and I are getting a divorce.”
It took a moment to compute. This was not what Joel and Chloe were expecting in the slightest. Their parents were known to sometimes bicker, but make up a few minutes later. Joel had expected her to say she had lost her job, or she wanted to try the Methodist church this Sunday, but instead, she had bitterly told them her marriage was over. That was pretty horrendous.
Chloe started crying, without hesitation, while Ethan angrily stared at Juliet.
Joel did not know what to do, so he stood up and bumbled outside, into the summer night air. It was still light outside, but fading, and he moved out of the backyard into the front yard, before breaking out into a sprint. His long legs urged him on, pumping oxygen throughout his long body. He was not a sprinter; he was a long distance runner. He’d been a runner in high school, but even now he knew his leg muscles were rusty and his lungs would blister with a mixture of exhilaration and disuse at faster speeds.
He did not have a destination pinpointed on the map, a place where he could go in this time of desperation, but he knew he did not want to break down in front of his parents, especially when he did not even know why they were separating.
His childhood had not been a painful one. His parents loved each other, even through the normal stresses and day-to-day management of two kids while working their grueling jobs. He got pretty much everything he wanted, including their help in his paying for college.
A lightning bug jumped out before him, spraying the approaching darkness with yellow, and he stopped in his tracks. With a quick assessment, he knew he had run nearly a mile away from his house, so that he was near Lanceling Creek, where most of the locals swam in the spring and summer months, including him and Brie.
He thought of Brie. Would she be like Juliet when he broke up with her? Would he become Ethan? Maybe there was not a reason why his parents were calling off their marriage. Maybe they were simply tired of each other. He could understand that, especially after twenty years of long marriage. He could not even handle one girl for a few months.
It was mid-May, one of his favorite times of the year, especially since he had just completed his freshman year of college. He had a few months off to celebrate, and he was not sure how he was going to celebrate. But now with his parents’ union in demise, he was not sure if he wanted to stay at the house.
But the dark corners of his mind reminded him that he could not leave. So he started the long walk back.
THE NEXT MORNING was a bright Sunday morning with no clouds in sight. The blue of the sky seemed ethereal, like a baby blue blanket, and Joel was eager to get to church. The atmosphere in his house had been suffocating, and he still did not understand what was going on between Ethan and Juliet. They had not spoken a word to him about his nightmare, and when he returned home after his jog, the table had been cleared, Chloe had gone over to a friend’s house, and there was bitter silence.
Sunday mornings meant church. Usually, Juliet, Chloe, and Joel left at eight o’clock sharp so they could stop for donuts on the way to the Baptist church, where they congregated with others for an arduous three-hour time interval. Joel did not mind spending three hours there, but Chloe hated it, and it was always a struggle to convince her not to run out of the church doors without screaming her head off.
Juliet was a Sunday school teacher, while Joel went to the young adult class, and his sister had recently started to come with him. There were only nine other kids in their youth group, and Joel was the oldest. There were a few high school and some middle school students interspersed, with their teacher, the pastor’s twenty-four-year-old son Tom, leading worship. After Sunday school, everyone joined together in the sanctuary, which was nearly fifty years old with the classic look to it: stained-glass windows, old, crotchety pews, and a large, white cross in the center of the pulpit.
That morning, though, Juliet called in sick to church. She urged Joel and Chloe to go anyway, so she and Ethan could have some “alone time” to discuss important things. Joel understood his mother’s meaning, so he and Chloe dressed themselves in their best Sunday attire, before they got into his deathtrap of steel, the old Jeep. The thing had lasted nearly twenty years, and it was nearly dead. In the small town of Breezewater, there was no considerable issue with driving the automobile around town; in Savannah, there was a completely other story to be told.
“How was your friend?” Joel asked.
“I went to Claire’s. We had some fun. Claire keeps me sane.”
Joel glanced at his sister from the corner of his eye. She was getting older, and he knew it; but he did not have to like that she was approaching some of the hardest years of her life.
“Why are they breaking up?” she asked, her voice barely a squeak. “Why now?”
“I don’t know. They’ve gotta tell us eventually, right?”
They stopped for doughnuts on the edge of town, at their favorite shop, before taking a scenic detour through the young day to the Baptist church. Joel and Chloe were used to the white steeple, the traditional aura oozing from the doors. They had not grown up here, but in the past year of living in Breezewater, it felt like more of a home than they realized.
They entered to find a group of well-dressed individuals congregating in the lobby. They were mostly the elders in the church, but a few young people also laughed and chattered too. Joel steered his younger sister in the direction of the youth room on the edge of the building, past the sanctuary and other classrooms. When they entered the somewhat large but old youth room, they saw the normal crowd. Joel noticed one familiar mop of hair, and he tensed.
“Why doesn’t Brie come to these things?” Chloe whispered. Chloe did not like to go to church by herself, even if some of her friends went too. Her best friends were all non-denominational, not Baptists.
Joel shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
He was distracted by a young man in the center of the room, who was swarmed by middle and high schoolers, all staring up at him. Joel walked over, his hands in his pockets. “Alex?”
Alex McFarland looked up at him, shame covering his face. “Hey, Joel.”
“I’ve never seen you go to church here! How’re you doing, buddy?”
Alex’s face twisted into a painful look. “I’m okay. You?”
“I’m fine. Hey, I saw you working at Johnny J’s yesterday. I wanted to call out…”
“I saw you too.”
“You did?” This time Joel was surprised.
Alex shook his head. His hair was growing out more, just like a mop. He was wearing nice slacks and a matching dressy shirt, but the sleepiness in his eyes was apparent, and his lips were stained pink. He did not look miserable, just a bit sad, and this even surprised Joel.
“Hey, want to go out to lunch after church?”
“I can’t,” he curtly said. “I’ve gotta do stuff with my dad.”
“Oh,” Joel replied. He nodded in understanding. “Another time?”
Joel turned back to look for Chloe, who was already engaged in a deep conversation with another middle school girl who wore way too much makeup for a girl her age. At the same time, a familiar form glided in, one he could not help but stare at, even in the awkwardness of his conversation with Alex.
It was California again. Sarah Towson, the girl he’d seen twice yesterday, the girl now from California. Her long brown hair glittered down her back, and her bright blue eyes were lined with charcoal. She wore a conservative dress, one that barely showed any skin, but she did not look anything but beautiful. Joel stared at her, and so did Alex. He resisted the urge to catcall.
Sarah knew they were staring at her, so she shyly looked away. She headed for the youth pastor—Tom Boomington—and when he saw her, he yanked her into a tight hug. “Sarah Towson!”
She was choked to death as he hugged her, but she was used to his big hugs. Her mother secretly desired for Sarah to be a pastor’s wife. That was the only request she’d ever given Sarah. You’re qualified to be a pastor’s wife. Why don’t you be a pastor’s wife?
Sarah gulped every time she had that thought. It was something her mother would say over and over again, just in passing, but it always stung. Sarah did not want to be a pastor’s wife. As she passed Alex and Joel, she wanted to talk to them, deep down. She wanted to be popular for once in her life. As she reconnected with Tom, Alex and Joel stared at each other.
“Is that Sarah? As in the old maid Sarah from high school?” Alex observed, shocked. Most people would have been angered with his statement, but not Joel. He had thought the same thing.
In high school, Sarah Towson was infamous for not wearing an ounce of makeup, or letting her brown hair loose from its ponytail. She was gorgeous but never let anyone see her beauty, and this kept her somewhat low-key at school. She did not want to be known for her looks; she wanted to be known for her intelligence, and it worked out in her favor. Plus, in reality, Sarah did not think she was that pretty, and this affected how others viewed her too.
“Yeah, I think it is,” Joel responded. He was used to being cool around girls, but he had a different response to Sarah. He did not want to be a jerk toward her. He did not want to conquer her, either.
“How?” Alex whispered, moving some of his shaggy hair to the side. “Just how?”
“Did California change her?” Joel asked.
“No,” Alex muttered. “I think the people in California changed her.”
“I don’t even think that’s what happened,” added in a high schooler who was overhearing their conversation. “I think Sarah changed herself.”
Alex and Joel turned to each other, their eyes alit. Not only had they just seen a girl, but she had been a pretty girl. And suddenly she was walking up to them, her long hair fanned down her shoulders, perfect.
“Sarah Towson, how are you doing?” Joel asked, stealing the limelight from Alex.
“Fine,” interjected Alex, rolling his eyes at Joel. “You’re back from California.”
Sarah’s eyebrows raised a few millimeters at Alex’s attempt at conversation, but it was endearing. She smiled a bit, which relaxed the two young men before her. Alex was just as serious as she remembered, and Joel was just as arrogant. He practically stood like he thought he was big stuff, big man. “I am.”
“California was nice to you,” said Joel, hoping the comment did not offend her.
She looked at him, and this time Alex was the one to smile. “Well, thanks, I guess. It’s different than life here, that’s for sure. Anyway, I was going to ask you guys if…”
Suddenly a scream emitted from a teenager at the door. “Old Mother Elsie Brandon’s dying! Does anyone know CPR?”
Joel rushed off after the teenager, not giving it a second thought. The rest of the room quickly followed suit, because Mrs. Elsie Brandon was their favorite woman in the universe, and she was about as ancient as the universe. Mrs. Elsie Brandon was eighty-nine-years-old, but that did not stop her from being the most popular foster parent ever, well into her seventies. She housed what seemed like hundreds of children, all of whom called her Mother Elsie, instead of Mother Teresa, of course. Mrs. Elsie was an upstanding citizen, environmental activist, and a vocal Blue Dog Democrat who vowed never to vote Republican until she gave up voting altogether, finding no satisfaction in governmental principles.
Mrs. Elsie Brandon had been a grandmother figure longer than the teenagers of the youth group could remember, and she was the golden apple of their eyes. Of course, if Mrs. Elsie was dying, they were going to save her life. Eighty-nine was far too young to die, at least by her standards. Mrs. Elsie’s mother had lived to be one hundred and six and her sister one hundred and four. Unfortunately, while Mrs. Elsie had hundreds of relatives, they all lived in the Atlanta area, so the Breezewater citizens, along with her flock of children, could not rely on the genetic, amazing ability of Mrs. Elsie Brandon’s longevity.
Sarah and Alex rushed together to the sanctuary, where hundreds of eyeballs stared at the elderly woman lying on a pew, her arms outstretched. “Jesus, why not now!” she screamed, before falling limp.
Even in the church atmosphere, people pushed and shoved, left and right, trying to get to Mother Elsie. Sarah and Alex stayed in the back, with a bunch of the middle schoolers, who were standing on their tiptoes trying to see anything.
“So, how has Mother Elsie been since I’ve been gone?”
Alex shrugged. “Well, I spent the year in Athens, and I rarely came back to Breezewater. This is my first Sunday this year here, actually.”
“Seriously?” she asked. “I would think that if you’re reasonably close to your family, you’d want to come back more often.” Her heart soared at the thought of seeing Zach more.
“No, not really. I came back to Savannah, not Breezewater.”
She smiled at Alex’s honesty, because he was known to put things bluntly. It was his shtick. She wanted to know if he knew anything about Karli’s life, but Alex had never been an extreme social butterfly, even if he was included in social events. Joel was the one to ask, but Sarah did not like him, and as a result did not want to be alone with him if she had to ask him anything.
Eventually, an ambulance appeared in the old parking lot. EMTs, like gilded angels, appeared with a stretcher. The Baptist churchgoers parted the sea of humans like it was the Red Sea, and Mother Elsie was resuscitated. She opened her eyes and said, “I still didn’t die? Come on, God!” Then she fell asleep, and the Baptist congregation broke out into cheers.
“Mother Elsie’s still alive!” they shrieked.
Above the furry heads, tall Sarah saw her parents, standing by the pastor. Even pregnant Alison and Jerry were nearby. The children were still cramped in the daycare section, but then a loud squeak, like a trumpet, entered the sanctuary, and various teachers and babies appeared. Zach, ever the pleasant sixth grader, appeared, standing like Goliath over the pre-schoolers.
“Mother Elsie!” the young children cried.
Mrs. Elsie woke up again and waved like a princess waving to her people. When they left, the craziness of the past few minutes died down as the pastor led a widespread prayer with a thousand utterances of hallelujah and amen. When the prayer ended, everyone filed out, heading back to their respective zones.
Sarah’s question was forgotten, and Joel forgot about Sarah.
IT WAS A Sunday tradition for the Towson family, plus Grandpa Rob, to have Sunday supper at the seaside steak shop at Paradiso Bay, located on the southern side of Breezewater. No matter how dangerously packed the restaurant was, the Towson family made it a mission to go every Sunday as fellowship time, with no distractions, no confusions, and no anger. Of course, did that really ever happen?
Today, the line was especially long, since it was close to school letting out and a beautiful, cloudless day. The sun sparkled against the reflecting sea, and a rainbow was illuminated in various flowers: indigo hydrangeas, bubblegum tulips, lime geraniums. The list could go on and on, and it really was a feast on the eyes. But to the nose, it was a pollen-littered respite from the stench of a thousand churchgoers at one cramped cottage that claimed to be the best restaurant in the county.
Of course, most restaurants claimed this, because the majority of them were local family-operated businesses that had been around for several generations. However, Sarah was inclined to agree that the Steakshop was as good as it was going to get on the edge of a small cliff in Breezewater, even if she had to wait eons to walk inside the place.
Sarah’s family was not big into seafood, although it was a staple for every Breezewater resident to eat all types of sea-dwellers, but they were not alone. The Watsons, Jeffersons, Masons, Winstons, Williamses, and, strangely enough, McFarlands were all waiting outside in the fresh salty spray. Sarah spotted Alex fairly quickly, standing with his dad, Jake, who was a cop. Jake’s wife died a few years back, around the same time Karli’s dad went out of the picture. That was back when Alex and Karli had a mini-fling, and desperate to glean any knowledge on her friend’s whereabouts, Sarah scurried over to him. Zach stared at his sister like she was wild.
The townspeople’s eyes landed on the couple before them: Sarah in her cotton summer dress, Alex with his mop of unruly hair. Alex was a good-looking enough guy, but no one knew that Sarah was only talking to him because of another girl. In all reality, Sarah had no interest in making friends, because that was all she did in Los Angeles County. Connections were a thing of the school year for her—not summer months—but she did want to track down Karli Kirkpatrick, via wherever John Cruston’s address was at the moment.
“Hey,” Alex said, waving a flickering hand. His dad was engaging the Jeffersons with a story about an old man he’d had to arrest a few weeks before. Alex looked lonely as usual, but deep down, he was okay with it. He hated being social, but his father encouraged it all the time.
“Hi. Hey, I’ll make this quick, but I have a question for you.”
“I hope I have the answer.”
The serenity of the sea behind Alex caught her attention. Even though she’d lived by the ocean all her life, and had spent the past year on the other coast, she would never lose her attraction to each breaker and wave. “Sorry, I got distracted by the ocean.”
“You mean, my stellar hair blowing in the wind?”
She smiled. “Have you talked to Karli Kirkpatrick at all recently?”
Alex’s eyes went downcast, the color in them draining. “Karli… I forgot you guys were best friends.”
“I haven’t talked to her in a while, and…”
“Listen, Sarah, you may want to stay away from Karli.”
“Why? I know she lives with John Cruston, but…”
“John Cruston’s locked up right now. I don’t even know if he ever paid his bail or not, but he got arrested for beating his girlfriend.”
“What?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t know the specifics.”
“When I talked to her parents yesterday, they made no mention of this.”
Alex nodded, his hair glinting in the sun. “Karli’s a different person now, Sarah. She’s not her mom’s pet anymore, and she sure as heck isn’t going to want to see you.”
IN THE RESTAURANT, Sarah silently gulped her water. She was busy in thought, dissecting her conversation with Alex, who had told her Joel would know more about the specifics of Karli’s situation, especially since his girlfriend Brie ran in the same circle as some of Karli’s close friends.
“So, we’re thinking about taking a Memorial Day trip to Destin once Zach gets out of school,” said Helena, taking a swig of sweet tea. Her bright blue eyes were the color of the sea in sunset. “Would you like to go to Destin, Sare?”
Sarah was thankful Alison and her husband hadn’t joined them for dinner. For once, she felt at peace with her parents and Zach, who was absently looking out into the splash of the sea. No matter how old they grew, the sea would always run through their blood. “That’s fine with me,” she answered. “Hey, Mom?”
“Yes?” A few wrinkles had etched out on her mother’s forehead. The woman was still beautiful, but her age was beginning to show.
“Have you talked to the Kirkpatricks at all by chance?”
“You know, honey, I haven’t. Are you looking for Karli? You’ve got her number, don’t you?”
“Karli used to be such a fixture at our house,” Scott inserted, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
Zach gagged as Sarah said, “I’ve been asking around for her. She’s living with John Cruston.”
“That good football star from your school a few years back?” Scott asked.
“Yup, that’s the one.”
Their faces grew downcast. “That’s not good.”
“You can say that again. I need to find her, but I doubt she’ll want to see me.”
“Honey, stop beating yourself up for that. The past is in the past, they say.”
A pretty girl entered the dining area, leaning on her beautiful, maiden aunt. Sarah recognized the pretty girl to be Brie Fraser, Joel Sealet’s girlfriend, and Miss Taya Gunney, the highlight of the town. Miss Taya was always loved on, and this was especially so when she entered the restaurant to a hullabaloo of chirps and greetings. Sarah scooted down in her chair a few inches, sneaking a few glances in Brie’s direction. She wasn’t just pretty; she was gorgeous. Yet somehow even in this moment, Sarah knew Brie deserved no wrongdoing. She was kind, naïve, and attractive, and this was a vitriolic potion.
Helena looked up, watching the aunt and niece duo, and her eyes gleamed as she assessed the young, beautiful Brie. Sarah knew she could never live up to her mother’s standards. It had always been night and day between them, from bitter fights over clothes to boys and makeup and more clothes. Sarah could only guess when the same thing would happen with Zach, but unlike her little brother, Sarah had always possessed a thick skin.
They continued their lunch, with Sarah recounting stories of the Sunset Strip and the Pacific Coast Highway, along with those of her friends, one of whom was the daughter of a famous actor. Zach told them about his best friend Joey, whom he wanted Sarah to see after school the next day when she picked him up. Of course, Sarah was babysitting for free, but she did not mind.
Scott and Helena talked about business and the normalcy of the family. Sarah listened, or, rather pretended to listen. She was used to this, and she did not mind the typicality of the lunch.
THE DIVORCE WAS not a joke. It was not make-believe.
When Joel and Chloe returned home, Juliet was seated on the back porch, a cigarette dangling between her red lips. Joel hadn’t seen his mother smoke in years, so this was dangerous, and he sent Chloe over to her friend’s house. He took a seat by her side and said, “Where’s Dad? Get that thing out of your mouth, Mom.”
“I’ve been working overtime for years, Joel, and if I want to smoke one damn cigarette, I’m going to smoke it.”
He shook his head, wiping his face with his palms. There had been warning signs, of course, but now the thunderhead was near. He wondered what the trigger had been, the first clap of thunder. His dad was too busy to cheat, and his mom was too haggard to do anything but what his dad wanted. Maybe they had grown apart.
Maybe they wanted to be cut loose, like his relationship with Brie.
Maybe there did not have to be a reason.
“Your father and I aren’t happy anymore, Joel,” she said, throwing the cigarette into the grass. Joel said nothing. “It’s been years since we’ve had any sort of happiness. We’re sick of each other.” Then her head was in her hands, the sobbing stabbing Joel in the heart.
Not able to say anything else about his parents’ relationship’s demise, Joel blurted, “Mother Elsie went to the hospital.”
“What?” Juliet screeched. “Is she okay? What happened? Oh, dear Lord, I’m going to have to go to the hospital!”
“No, Mom, don’t panic. She’s alive and well. Supposedly she’ll be out of the hospital in a day or two. It’s okay.”
“I’m sure that was distracting from Pastor Boom’s message.”
Well, that, and something else. Joel nodded.
Juliet crossed her arms. “How’s Chlo?”
“She’s handling it. We’re both just confused.”
His mother nodded, her hair looking fried in the glint of the afternoon sun. “I’m confused too, honey. This isn’t what I planned, but things have been tough on us for the past year or so.”
“Is Dad going to move out?”
“For right now, no. We don’t have the finances for it. We have to think of you guys before we make any rush decisions. But maybe soon.”
“If he really cared about the finances, he wouldn’t gamble every Tuesday night with his friends.”
“That’s true. Okay, I’ve been crying all morning, and I want to stop. Tell me about church. More. I just want to hear anything about it, so it will distract me from my personal horror story.”
Joel leaned back in his chair, his long legs stretched out before him. Sometimes in the mornings, deer would poke out from the brush of the woods behind their house. Joel loved mornings, at least mornings in which he was not dead to the world. He hated getting up but adored the rise of the exploding sun.
“Do you remember Sarah Towson?”
“Your class valedictorian, Miss California, daughter of Helena Towson. She goes to our church. Of course I remember her,” Juliet said, her voice laced in a fit of annoyance. Helena Towson was the town’s queen bee, the prime example of modern-day housewife, supermom, and excellent attorney. Helena Towson, thought Joel, was nothing like her daughter.
“Yes. Well, she’s back in town, and I haven’t seen her since graduation last year. She’s changed a lot.”
“What do you mean?” Juliet asked.
“She’s definitely more outgoing. The Sarah I saw never once spoke up about anything, and she sure wasn’t going to start a conversation. Then this morning, she sashays in like she owns the church, and she’s just like her mom!”
Juliet tried to decipher what Joel meant by “just like her mom.” A liar? A vitriolic, spiteful person? Beautiful? A go-getter? Does anything to get what she wants? But Juliet tried to reconcile this description with the meek Sarah she’d remembered. Was it possible a person could change that quickly, over a year’s time? She thought back to her life one year ago, when Joel had graduated from high school, and Ethan had surprised her with a getaway to Hilton Head for their twentieth anniversary. Things had changed in a year for her, and she was—probably—a completely different person.
“Are you interested in Sarah?” Juliet asked, her voice rising an octave. She thought of the sweet girl, Brie.
“Do you mean, like, interested interested?” Joel asked, blushing a profuse and burning red. “No, no. I just meant… I just meant she’s a lot different now.”
“In a good or bad way?”
“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” Joel said, imagining a cigarette on his lips at the moment. He’d tried them and hated them, but he still believed they oozed an aura of cool, kind of like the ever impressionable James Dean. Joel wondered if he would ever make a good James Dean.
Juliet stood up, wrapping her robe closer to her chest. She looked even more fatigued now, the stress painting her face like makeup. “Honey, I’m going to run over to Grandma’s, okay? I’ll text Chloe to let her know.”
Just like that—like normal—he was left alone, with nothing to do.
WHENEVER THIS HAPPENED—which was a lot—Joel headed over to his best friend’s house. Manuel “Manny” Dominguez was the only Hispanic kid who’d ever attended the Christian private school where they graduated, and now he was the first person in his family to attend college. Manny was a devout Catholic who abstained from sex and booze, but occasionally partied. Like Alex, Manny was not a social creature by choice, but rather, his friendship with Joel caused him to attend some parties, and this made his parents proud.
“Mira a nuestro hijo, Manuel! Es muy popular, es un Americano perfecto.” Look at our son. He is very popular, he is a perfect American.
Manny, on the other hand, was not worried about popularity, but rather his internship at the hospital under Dr. Jennifer Reinhardt’s jurisdiction. Manny wanted to be a doctor, which heightened his popularity even more, but eventually Manny moved out from his parent’s tiny beach condo into an apartment in the western outskirts of Savannah, which was a long drive from Joel’s.
Joel entered the apartment, finding the door unlocked. Manny sat on the edge of his sofa under a blanket. “Why’re you here?”
“Why am I here? This is my apartment, Joela.”
“Why do you always call me that? Shouldn’t you be at mass?”
“If you looked at me, you’d see I am sick. Ailing is more of a proper term, actually. What are you doing for me? Oh, I don’t know, wasting my voice! Giving me a heart attack! I thought a spirit was opening my door.”
“Manny, you’re absolutely loco.”
“Stop stereotyping me and bring me the leftovers from the fridge.”
After Joel obeyed, he returned to sit at the edge of Manny’s feet. A program on the nearby TV advertised a special nose hair picker utensil. “Why are you sick? Aren’t you trying to help people from getting sick?”
“I don’t know. Actually, I am kinda hiding out from my parents. I went to mass, but not the traditional dinner. I’m not that sick. Just acting sick in case my tías show up with garlic.”
Joel stared at his friend. “You are so weird, you know that?” He handed him the leftovers.
“Why’re you over here?” Manny asked. “Something musta happened.”
“Yes, but I didn’t come here to talk about it. I came here to relax before work for a whole week.”
“Ah, the aquarium.” Manny had worked there part-time in the summer last year. “You’d think that would be the place to think, but it just isn’t.”
“Amen to that, brother,” Joel said.
ZACH AND SARAH were as close as siblings could be, especially in the midst of the circumstances of Sarah’s college departure and Zach’s status at the age of hating/adoring his older sister. Plus, Alison was so old to him she seemed to be another mom, or a distant aunt. He loved Sarah. Mostly, he just loved her.
A week after Sarah’s return, Zach and Sarah decided to give the aquarium a shot. Sarah did not mind babysitting her younger brother, because it gave them much needed time together, and also because their mom had handed her a handful of bills to explore the town together. She was in desperate need of new tennis shoes, and she’d promised Zach they’d go to the yogurt store at the border of town proper.
The pavement was peeling in the baking parking lot of the aquarium, and the hint of swamp beyond added a Lousiana-esque feel to the locale. The sky was overcast, but the aquarium building was coated by murals of indigo dolphins, stingrays, and pufferfish. Sarah had not been here in years, but she knew that inside laid many mysteries of the dark water, and Zach loved marine biology. He loved anything that moved, really, which was why Sarah believed he would make a nice doctor. Zach was definitely smart like a doctor, and he preferred science to English, which was Sarah’s strongpoint, though she had learned to hate it like most other humans.
“Oh my gosh, I haven’t been here in so long!” he squealed as he undid his seatbelt. The boy was twelve, at the cusp of losing his boyhood and still at the barrier of childhood.
Sarah unbuckled and hopped out of the car, glad she had brought a sweatshirt, because the day was becoming chilly with the threat of an impending summer shower. She locked the old van and followed Zach into the lobby, which housed an incredible fish tank beneath the welcome desk, which surprised her. The place had undergone renovations since she’d last been, as the inside was painted in new, vibrant colors, with similar sketches of mermaids and whales covering wall space. As the transaction processed, Sarah and Zach bent down to see what a placard described as spotted gar and turquoise-colored bird wrasse swim around together in the bright tank. It’s crazy how something so ordinary can seem so extraordinary.
She paid for their entrance, which included a special meet-and-greet with the dolphins at one o’clock. They could peruse the place, grab some lunch from the little restaurant, and be at the dolphins by the right time, before heading out to grab yogurt and do some shopping. Heck, Sarah had an entire summer to shop. Her motto for the summer was languid living, because college hadn’t exactly been as easy as she’d been told.
They followed a path etched out on the floors resembling dolphin fins. Various fish tanks greeted them with fish from beyond: red lionfish, which happened to be venomous, and though from the Indo-Pacific, it had become an illegal immigrant to the East Coast; moon wrasse, which had a colorful tail but buried itself deep in the sand to sleep; blue green chromis, an iridescent fish that changes colors depending on the sunlight; and the diamondback terrapin, a turtle whose habitat ranged from the Florida Keys to Cape Cod.
Sarah was intently watching a clownfish, which supposedly had an ability to withstand the sting of anemone, as Zach blabbed beside her about a shark series he’d watched on TV. A male voice resonated behind her, a voice she recognized immediately. She refused to turn around, knowing that he wasn’t calling for her, or even knew who she was, probably, although it would be hard to forget a person from a high school class of seventy when they’d graduated only a year ago. Plus, they’d just seen each other at church.
The clownfish darted between the anemone, its movements jagged like Sarah’s breathing. She hated to see people she knew in public, which her mother had called antisocial, but Sarah knew was insecurity. Eventually, Zach tugged on her arm, and she was pleased to see the voice and its speaker had vanished.
However, Zach hissed, “Sarah. Sarah.”
She looked up, tucking a globule of brown hair behind her right ear, the one she’d recently pierced at the top. She touched it often to make sure it was still there. Sarah did not put two and two together immediately, because her heart hammered so hard that she became nervous and quite scared.
A young man, a handsome young man, stood before her, with a big, goofy smile draped across his lips. He had a shock of brown, curly hair, and chocolate eyes that had enlightened many people. He was so tall, and he seemed more mature than when they’d graduated only a year before. Joel Sealet was still lanky, but not as gangly as he had been, and Sarah felt her heart swoon, even though her steely mind halted her from saying anything. She knew he was a good-looking guy, but he was not anywhere good enough for her. Not with his history.
“Sarah Towson,” he said, his voice seductive. Sarah felt Zach tense against her arm. “What’re you doing here?”
Sarah did not smile. Instead, she offered, “It’s summer break. For me at least. Thought I’d show my brother the… Big nose unicorn fish.” Right on cue, the little specimen floated near them.
“Did you know that they can change colors—from pale to bright blue—depending on their moods? Anyway, wow, Sarah, I didn’t say this before, but you… You look different.”
“Excuse me?” Zach butted in, his voice cracking.
Sarah clenched Zach’s hand in her own. “The same goes for you, Joel.”
Joel smiled, knowing full well of the little pit bull inside Zachary Towson. He was known to be one of the best wrestlers for his age in the area. Plus, they went to church together now, and Zachary always ran away when Chloe or some of the other girls tried to chase him. He was an eerily candid snapshot of the male version of his sister.
“It’s weird seeing you here,” Joel admitted, not wanting to leave. He was intrigued by Sarah Towson. Not many people ever left Breezewater, and when somebody did, it was the talk of the town. For months after Sarah’s departure, she was the biggest news for miles. No one could stop talking about Sarah’s big shot in Hollywood. Of course, no one knew that Sarah had only gone to a specific college that had captured her heart because she wanted to major in anthropology, not acting or music or writing. She hadn’t gone to California because of that. She’d gone because it was far, far away from the Hollywood dramatics her own family displayed.
“Why is it weird?” She refused to let down her guard. She knew how much of a scoundrel Joel Sealet could be.
“I wasn’t sure you’d ever come back.” He said it like they had been intimately acquainted. Yet they had been on the verge of strangers. They’d only shared a few hellos and greetings over the four years they’d gone to high school together, even in a class as small as theirs. Sarah had been an academic, and Joel had been in some honors courses, but Sarah was a loner, and Joel was part of the in-crowd.
“I did,” Sarah whispered, looking away from him. “And you didn’t leave?”
“I came back for the summer, to work. I go to college in Savannah.”
“How’s that working out?”
Joel cocked his head, fascinated. “Good, I guess. I enjoy working in an aquarium more, though.”
“Sarah,” Zach said, “can we go see the dolphins now?”
“I can walk you guys over to the dolphin tank. I’m heading that way anyway.”
Zach gagged, loud enough that Sarah heard it and smiled, but even though she did not like being in Joel’s presence and she had an antisocial streak, she nodded. “Sure. Zach, run ahead, okay?”
Zach nodded, rushing off to observe chocolate chip starfish nearby. Sarah turned to Joel. “So?”
“So what?” Joel asked, proferring a cocksure smile. “I mean, I’m not exactly your best friend or anything, but I do like seeing people I once knew.”
“That’s the thing, though. We never knew each other.”
Joel crossed his arms, deep in thought. “I guess not, which was a shame. Do you keep in contact with any of your old friends? I remember you hung out with Destiny Tridell, and Karli Kirkpatrick, and Sophie Morrisburg…”
“Actually, you might be able to help me with this.” She licked her lips, eager to figure out this issue, because her luck had dwindled. “I was going to ask you this at church a week ago, but then…”
Joel shifted his standing position so he was just a little bit taller. “Then we had to rescue Elsie Brandon.”
“To answer your question, I don’t keep contact with any of them, and that is a huge failing on my part. These people used to be the people I saw every single day. Sorry, I don’t mean to burden you with this…”
Joel smiled, because she was finally beginning to open up around him. “If you apologize again to me, I will become extremely offended. Don’t apologize. I can handle it.”
“I’m sure you can,” Sarah said, the hint of a smile appearing on her lips. “I lost all contact with the three of them, and I went to see Karli’s parents a week ago or so. Do you know anything about her?”
“Karli Kirkpatrick.” Joel licked his lips, his brown eyes deep in thought again. He stroked his chin—the chin where a hint of stubble poked through—and Sarah tried not to stare at the motion. “She attended classes at college for a few weeks. I even had an Intro to Econ class with her, but she stopped coming around September. I heard she’s dating John Cruston. Remember him?”
“That’s what her parents said. And they’re living together.”
“Cruston’s not the best influence,” Joel admitted, though he felt guilty for saying it. Cruston was his primary weed source. Cruston was a bigtime dealer around the area, and Joel had used his services quite often, but Karli never was involved in that aspect, as least not to Joel’s knowledge. Then Joel got a weird feeling in his stomach. He could not imagine living with a girl at nineteen. Sharing a dorm with another guy was hard enough.
He continued: “Well, but I think I know where Cruston lives.”
“Yeah. I could show you sometime.” Sarah’s eyes flashed, and Joel knew he had caused discomfort. He immediately backtracked and said, “Or, you know, I could get in touch with you. I can find his address and send it to you.”
She appreciated this, and she nodded. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“Hey, Joel, can I ask you another question?”
“Is it true Cruston beat her?”
Joel frowned. “Yes. It was bad. You know, I can ask Brie more about Karli. She would know…” Suddenly, he remembered he had a girlfriend, and he felt guilty for the first time in ages. He definitely had ulterior motives when it came to helping Sarah, the unattainable good girl who had returned from California like an exotic gem. Something he had known of for years but never really known.
“Brie?” she asked, feigning interest. “Is she your girlfriend?” She cursed herself immediately for asking the last part.
Joel nodded, jamming his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, she’s my girlfriend. Do you remember her at all? Well, Savannah’s smallish, but not that small to know every single person.”
“That’s exciting,” Sarah said. “Girlfriend and all.”
“You looking for one or something? Lame joke.”
“I would say so.” She stared at him, knowing he was flirting with her, or at least attempting. She was not entirely blind, but she still would not consider him an ally. She would have to be careful of her dealings with Joel Sealet. “You know, I think Alex McFarland turned out really cool.” She knew it was a low blow, but the moment the statement peaked over her tongue, she felt justified in saying it.
“You want me to set y’all up?”
“Nah, I don’t date.”
“Is there a reason why?”
She shrugged, her brown hair cascading down her back in rivulets. Unlike Brie’s hair, Sarah’s curls were au naturel. “I’ve never met a person I want to date.”
“Really?” he asked, not believing it for a moment. “Not one person? Someone may need to change her standards then.”
“No one is perfect, not one,” she said back, her tone sarcastic. “I don’t believe it’s my standards. Just the fact I prefer solitude.”
“Do you want children?”
“No,” she said quickly.
“Do you want to ever get married?”
“Do you want to be human?”
She smiled at him. “Frankly, not really.”
“Cold, very cold, Miss Hollywood.”
A heavyset black man appeared, the logo of the aquarium planted on his shirt. “Hey, Sealet, what’re you doing flirting with a customer? Come do what I pay you for.” Then he winked.
In response Joel winked at his new friend, a girl whom he’d just exchanged more words with in a few minutes than in the entire past few years. “See you?”
“How’re you going to send me what you find out?”
“It’s a small town,” Joel said, rushing off.
HE WAS SICK of coming home to a quiet house. It had been a week since their parents announced their divorce, and now no one talked at home. Silence, except the dripping faucet, or the meows of their fat kitten, or the hum of the microwave when somebody needed food. It was toxic, and Joel wanted to slip away forever, but he had responsibilities and no spare cash with which to rent a place. He did not want to crash at Manny’s either, and so the result was the same every time he thought of different outcomes: He, unfortunately, would continue to live at the Sealet household.
The darkness was splashing down on their typical American household subdivision in its glorious display, but Joel felt like the gray clouds covering the moon. He took his microwaveable dinner upstairs and dialed Brie’s number.
“Hey,” she purred over the phone. “You want to do something after church tomorrow?”
He bit his lip. Last week she had missed going to church with him because a friend had invited her to another place. He forgot his girlfriend went to the same Baptist sanctuary as he did (sometimes, at least), which was the place he was looking forward to seeing Sarah again.
“Yeah, sure, that would be fine.” Joel bit his tongue and blood oozed from the cut. He tasted the iron and spat it on his palm.
“Joel, you okay?”
“What the heck? Are you time traveling? Hey, I have this really amazing thing to show you…”
As Brie went on about an interior deisgn pattern she’d sketched, Joel thought of someone else, the girl with the long hair and minty eyes. Had she flirted with him? Joel tended to think Sarah had, and this increased in his interest in her, because she had always been unattainable. Always.
“Hey, baby, I’ve gotta run. I just got home…”
“Oh, sure, sure. Mom’s walking in the door anyway. Pick me up at six? Or I can get you.”
“Yeah, get me.”
Joel was a cockroach that needed to be squashed by a large foot.
The foot was closer than it seemed.
DINNER WITH BRIE. As in a nice, sit-down place at the Cove, where a lot of the locals swam in a little bay during the summer. It was not a steak or fish place, but rather an all-American mom-and-pop that was partly hidden by tree cover and partly open so its guests could view the blueness of the bay.
Joel had been there countless times, even before he and his family had moved to Breezewater. Actually, one of his first dates—right after gaining his driver’s license—had gone down at the Cove. It had been an awful date, but Joel was losing his memory with all the girls he’d serenaded over the past few years.
And a new face was appearing in his mind.
Brie looked gorgeous, just like normal, when she appeared in her old Honda Accord, its front bumper slightly indented from a car wreck seven or so years ago. She did not even hop out to go get the door because Joel was sitting on his front porch, in khakis and a polo, his go-to prep look. She smiled at him but could tell he was in a speculative mood, and offered, “So…?”
He turned over, acting flabbergasted. “Oh, Brie, you look good.” He reached over to kiss her, but she backed away from him a few inches, causing his lips to kiss dead air.
“Sorry. I… I just want to know if you’re okay.” She shrugged, staring at a hangnail before looking up at him again. Her liquid amber eyes shone like a beacon of light. “You okay?”
This was one of the qualities Joel did not like about his girlfriend. She was too inquisitive. She claimed it was because she was a naturally curious Sagittarius, but Joel was not a superstitious type. He liked reason.
Joel reached over to stroke Brie’s chin, feeling her soft skin against his fingertips. In the fading light she looked like a goddess, and Joel wished he could fall in love with her. She was more than a pretty face, and he felt a bit guilty for where this was headed. “Hey, I’m sorry, Brie. I’ve just been preoccupied with my parents.”
Her eyes widened in comfort. She always liked to offer a shoulder for him to cry on but this usually aggravated him. Instead, she pushed the car into drive and said, “Well, let’s get your mind off that whole situation then, shall we?”
She goosed the gas pedal, and Joel slid on his seatbelt, wondering if it would be best to recite a few Hail Marys he’d learned from Manny’s family.
In the driver’s seat, Brie wondered what was up with Joel. She was not stupid, and she wondered if he was growing tired of her, which frazzled her thoughts. She liked being a couple, and she felt she and Joel were a success story for Breezewater. Was he a guy she’d marry? Never in a million years. But until she found someone worth her utter devotion, she liked to think a guy like Joel would fill that void.
She uncurled her toes as she increased the speed to the Cove. Joel had been shifty lately, not answering her questions, or ignoring her for a time before halfheartedly answering her. She had seen him do this with his ex-girlfriend, her pal Elisa, but Elisa and Joel did not have the same chemistry. Elisa was an illusory vision, and Brie was anything but fleeting.
As she turned onto the tree-lined gravel path to the Cove, she anxiously bit her thumbnail when Joel stared at his phone, checking something. Somehow, Brie needed to gain his interest again, because he was falling away from her, like a piece of space metal floating away from the ISS.
She pulled into a spot under a weeping willow that swayed in tune to her heart, back and forth, forth and back. Brie stepped out of the car, smoothed her long skirt, and fiddled a hand through her long hair. Her heart flopped as Joel stood, stretching his long limbs as his bright eyes glinted in the light. Brie was sure she was not in love with him, but she wondered when she would actually fall for him. He was handsome, funny, and outgoing, and he had a heart of gold.
“Joel, did I tell you what Ben said?”
Joel strode over to her, wrapping his arms around her waist, pulling her closer to him so he could inhale the strawberry scent of her amber hair. “Did I tell you what Joel said? You’re absolutely beautiful.”
She swooned, resting her head on his shoulder. She stood up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his lips, the sweetness of her petal-shaped lips mixing in with Joel’s dishonesty. He opened his eyes from the kiss to catch a glimpse of his old nemesis Robert Quickmond, who nodded in his direction. Joel was a territorial guy, and as soon as Rob got into his truck, Joel pulled away from Brie and wiped his lips. “Hungry, Brie?”
They walked together into the crowded restaurant, its ambience flowing into every aspect of the architecture, food, and crowd. The lights dimly glowed over little dock-shaped tables, the fading sunset glowing its tendrils across the blueness of the cove, and the bustle of the restaurant tensing against Joel’s mind. He wanted to be far away from people right now, especially after receiving a loaded text from Ethan minutes before.
He and Brie took a table in the corner of the restaurant, far from the mayday in the middle of the place. Joel analyzed the menu, though he had his order memorized from heart, and Brie leaned closer to him from across the table, her hair dangerously close to the lit candle decorating their table. “We haven’t been here in a while.”
Joel looked up at her, finding it difficult to stare into eyes without feeling some sort of guilt for leading her on. As she blabbed about their mutual friend Ben, Joel nodded and took a sip from the water he ordered. He wanted a joint, and he felt a bit woozy from the unwanted stress in his life. Brie flicked her hair over her shoulder and licked her lips, trying her hardest to gather his interest. Joel did not pay attention.
Eventually, their food was placed before them. Brie took small bites through wide smiles as she asked about him, and he politely asked about her. When Brie gathered the gumption to ask, she whispered across the table, “What’s going on, Joel?”
He sighed. “What do you mean?”
“Why are you acting different?” The smile was still painted on her face, but it held just a little too long. “There’s something up.”
“It’s personal, Brie.” He wanted to drown in the glass of water before him. Would it be rude to order a single table now? His phone buzzed in his pocket, the messages no doubt from Ethan. Where are you, you no-good son of a… Typical. It must be a night at the bar. The number of those nights was increasing.
“We share personal things, Joel. We’re close, right?”
“We don’t share everything. For example, we don’t share makeup.” Joel was agitated now. He glanced down at his phone. It was lit up with messages from his father. He needed to ask Brie about John Cruston, but his heart was too heavy.
Brie cocked her head, hurt dangling in her irises. “What’s up, Joel? Just tell me. I’m here for you. Or I can stop asking you questions. That’s fine too.”
Joel stabbed a piece of bread before him, slopping it in butter. He took a bite and stared at his girlfriend, watching as disbelief spread across her face.
“Why are you shutting me out?”
“Brie, you’re clinging to me, and I need my space. Okay? I freaking need space.”
Brie reacted like she’d been zapped by lightning. She froze and then her eyes watered. She was dainty and fragile in this moment, but Joel wondered if it was all a façade. Girls did this to him. They wanted more from him, and never did he give them what they wanted or deserved. He wondered if doing what his dad had done to his mom was the right thing to do.
“You need space?”
“Yes, I need space, Brie.”
She threw her napkin on the table. “What does that mean?”
“It means… I’d like to sever our umbilical cord.”
“Screw you, Joel.”
He narrowed his eyes as the waitress brought a Southern smile and the check to the table. He practically tossed his debit card in her hand while keeping his angry scowl on Brie. “Are we married? No, I don’t think so. Ever since we started dating, I have felt smothered by you.” Untrue.
“Smothered? How could you?” A tear threatened to spill down her cheek.
“Smothered by how much you wanted me, and not vice versa.” False.
“You wanted me, Joel!”
“Stop, you’re going to cause a scene.”
Brie looked across the room, recognizing a few people from church. She wanted to crawl into a hole and lick her wounds. She stood up and brushed off her skirt, tossing her hair over her shoulder. She stared into Joel’s eyes and then grabbed her purse, rushing off without a word, hoping he would chase her down.
But Joel sat in his place, waiting for lightning bolts from God to sizzle his brain.
Instead, He sent Sarah Towson into the restaurant, and the pretty girl took a table two rows down from him.
Joel felt dizzy. In a matter of thirty seconds, he’d banished his girlfriend and instead found himself in close proximity to Sarah, who had not seen him yet. She was dressed in a comfortable shirt and shorts, but she looked even more attractive tonight than last Sunday. He sullenly remembered her absence from church this morning—or had he missed? Sarah was with a friend, Destiny, if Joel remembered correctly. Destiny was a precocious and annoying person, Joel knew. She had been the most annoying person he’d ever met in his entire life.
Joel’s phone buzzed in his pocket. His thoughts returned to his father’s coarse words only moments earlier. The waitress returned with his receipt and said, “You two sure make a cute couple.”
“Thanks,” Joel halfheartedly said. “Can I have one more water, please?”
While waiting for the glass, Joel found the gumption to stand without toppling over like a fallen chess piece. He was not queasy anymore; rather, he was anxiously anticipating how he would find a ride home.
He stood up and took off in the direction of the door. As he fumbled outside, he dialed Alex’s number, praying the guy would answer. When Alex did, Joel mumbled, “Can you do me a favor?”
“What?” Alex said, his tone full of distaste.
“I need you to pick me up at the Cove.”
“What’d you do, man? Can your parents not give you a ride?”
“I just need help. I’ll pay you.”
“Fine. I want ten bucks and the chance to be off your go-to guy list. Got it?”
Joel rocked back on his heels, the clamor of the homey restaurant contrasting the natural atmosphere of the lonely outside. He walked to the bay itself, observing the ripples on the water as he skipped stones. As he waited for Alex’s appearance, Joel contemplated jumping into the water. He was tired, spontaneous, and anxious.
The gulls cried out in the night, kind of like how Joel felt internally. Minutes turned into an hour, in which Joel sat by the bay, staring up at the twinkling sky as cars appeared and disappeared, none of them Alex’s. Finally, Joel stood up and stretched, walking down the beaten path, deciding to walk the six miles to his house. It would take hours to get home—and he had work in the morning—but maybe he deserved it from how he had reacted to Brie.
The forest paralleling his amble was alive with croaking insects and animals. Joel hummed to himself.
Then a car whipped down the road, going about twenty miles over the speed limit. He watched as it passed him by, and somehow he knew it was the car in which Destiny and Sarah sat. He called out to them, waving his hands above his head. He did not expect them to notice him, especially at their high velocity.
Then bam. The car sputtered to a stop, reversed its course, and returned to his position. He glowed in the path of the headlights. Destiny appeared from the seat and called out, “Joel Sealet?”
Then Sarah Towson appeared, her eyes confused. She clutched the door in front of her like it was a guard of protection between her and Joel. The initial confusion meshed with her pity for his situation, and she called out, “You need a ride?”
Destiny turned to her and cocked her head. “Sarah.”
“He’s walking by himself, Destiny.”
“Well, actually…” Joel said, moving closer to Sarah’s side. He made sure to play off his desperation, but since this was Destiny’s car, he had to appease both women. He pulled out his phone and contemplated texting Alex to let him know he found another way home, but if Alex was this late, oh well.
Joel took a seat in the beat-up car as Destiny maneuvered her vehicle to follow the way out of the Cove. He leaned in and said, “Thanks. I live in Elizabeth.”
“Got you,” Destiny said, cocking a special eyebrow roll in her friend’s direction.
“Why were you walking by yourself?” Sarah asked, not waiting another moment for the suspense. She turned around from the front seat to face him, noting he was drenched in sweat from the May humidity, which would only grow even thicker in the coming months.
He shrugged. “I broke up with my girlfriend, and my ride never showed up.”
Destiny slammed on the brakes, almost colliding her deathtrap of a car into a tree. Sarah and Joel screamed, “Destiny!” to which the girl resumed driving at a slower speed.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “But, Joel? What? You broke up with Brie? Why?”
Joel bit his tongue. This would be the talk of the young adult (and older generations) crowd for the next few weeks. There was not a lot of courting, dating, or even hooking up in Breezewater, because it was too small of a town. Savannah had a different feel to it, but Joel did not live in broad scope of Savannah anymore.
“We broke up because it was the right thing to do,” he said.
“When you say ‘we,’ do you really mean you?” Destiny asked. Her eyes were big with skepticism and confusion. “Because I know you really mean you broke up with her; it wasn’t a ‘we.’”
“Destiny, let him talk.” Sarah stared at her friend as the girl made a quick left turn onto the highway in front of a tractor-trailer. Sarah gripped the seat beside her until it made her fingers turn white.
Joel did not even care anymore, not even when the honk of the trailer sounded behind them. “Yes, to answer your question, I broke up with her.”
“Why do I have to tell you, Destiny? I’m sure this will be popular knowledge by one a.m. this morning.”
Destiny turned around to glare at him, but Sarah shouted, “Pay attention to the road!” This caused Destiny to swerve yet again.
Sarah unbuckled her seatbelt and crawled to the backseat, much to the confusion of the other passengers. Even Sarah herself was confused. She rushed back and buckled back up, right beside Joel, close enough for him to see her smudged mascara, and for her to see the hint of stubble crawling up his chin. She stared at him before elbowing him.
“What the heck was that for?” he yelped.
“Why would you break up with Brie? She’s a sweet human being, and you’ve already done this to enough girls. Why Brie? And why on this green Earth are you smoking weed in church parking lots?” She elbowed him again, right into his gut.
“How did you know about that?”
“Small town. Everybody talks,” Destiny interjected. “There’s a fee for riding in my car. What’s your tidbit of juicy gossip?”
“Sarah… Are you drunk?” Joel asked, leaning a bit closer to her so their eyes were blinking in unison.
She shook her head. “At night, I get loopy, and it’s way past my bedtime.”
“It’s only ten o’clock.”
Destiny pulled into Elizabeth, Joel’s subdivision in the woodsy part of town. Lightning bugs flew around them. “You see, Sarah won’t remember a thing in the morning. She really does get weird at night.”
“It’s true,” Sarah said.
In the flicker of the streetlights, Joel was able to see the line of her purple eyeliner. Her brown hair was curled into perfect rivulets, and a few moments later, she was fast asleep, her fingers limp at his side. He lifted one finger to her open palm, touching it. She startled awake a few seconds later as Joel directed Destiny through the maze of his subdivision.
“What are you doing?” Sarah screamed, backing away from him like a caged animal. She hit her head against the window and proceeded to yelp.
“Oh, Lord. This is crazy,” Destiny shouted before parking in front of Joel’s old house. Even in the darkness, the house was falling apart. His clean Jeep sat in the driveway.
“You okay, Sarah?”
“She’s fine, in my hands at least. Hey, Joel?” Destiny asked as the young man left her car. He looked at her. “Why did you break up with Brie?”
A thousand words flashed through his mind, but he settled on five. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
“Yup. Thanks, Destiny.”
“I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
“Damn. Thanks for reminding me, bearer of great news.”
The car rambled down the road, leaving Joel staring after it for a few seconds, the unbearable bugs swarming him in their grasp. Eventually, he turned around and headed inside, intrigued at what all had just happened.
NO MATTER WHAT happened to her, Sarah always woke around seven-thirty in the morning. It was a habit that had begun around her junior year of high school, after the late noon mornings of sleeping in ceased as her body matured. Overnight it seemed, Sarah had become an early bird, the only one in her family.
The next morning—the morning after the mysterious shroud Sarah possessed of last night—was no exception. So Sarah fumbled downstairs in her pajamas, intent on making a good, homemade breakfast, when she saw her family staring at her at the kitchen table.
“What happened last night, Sarah?” asked Helena, her eyes narrowed. “We got a call from Amy Brooks, who said she saw you, Destiny, and Joel Sealet at his house.”
Oh, dear Dios. Sarah fell into a barstool as her parents blinked at her. It was a surprise they’d sent her off to California. “No worries, I’m still one hundred percent virginal.”
Zach walked in, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “Hey, sleepyhead. You look rough.”
“Thanks, idiot.” Sarah wrapped an arm around him. “How about I pick you up after school?”
“No Alison or Mom? Are you kidding? Of course.”
“Sarah,” yelled Helena. She shot a look to her husband, who was half-heartedly watching the situation unfold. Like usual, the news channel possessed his real attention.
“Destiny and I went out for food. We gave Joel a ride home. That was it.”
“I want you to stay away from that family.”
“This is not Romeo and Juliet, Mom. I’m not a Capulet, and he’s not a Montague.”
“He’s a bad influence. But also the Sealet family is in a torrential downpour right now.”
“We go to the same church as them.”
Scott finally chimed in. “The Sealets have been causing a lot of drama.”
“Well… Isn’t it wrong to gossip?”
“I just want you to stay away from that boy. He’s trouble.” Helena took a swig of her coffee, but Sarah felt a laugh tickle her throat.
She did not promise anything.
Instead, after they left, she took a nice, cool shower, wiping the dirt and grime from her back, and drove the few miles to the aquarium.
She pounced on Joel at the first sight of him. He was taking a group of first graders around, teaching them about the lifespans of stingrays as a little boy called out, “I want to see the sharks!”
The teacher, an elderly woman who looked like Mother Elsie, called out, “Josiah, you calm down, okay? Let Mr. Joel speak.”
When Joel looked up to see Sarah standing beyond the group, he felt his throat constrict. “How about we go see the dolphins?”
“Yay!” shouted a group of girls, and he led them to the holding tank where a few other workers, including a trainer, Erika, and Destiny Tridell were busy prepping the dolphins for the next show. It was a few minutes early, but Joel stole away a few feet as the teacher tried to wrangle her students into a makeshift line.
As Erika began her spiel, Destiny observed Joel’s inching toward Sarah in wonderment. Casually, she snapped a picture with her phone and disappeared to the other side of the tank. This would be brilliant.
“Sarah! What’re you doing here?”
She shook her head. “I’m not exactly sure. I just… Well, this may sound incredibly stupid.”
She was nervous all of the sudden, by his height and her feeling smaller than him, and how he was good-looking, and she had a bump of acne forming below her lower lip. Then she remembered he had dumped his girlfriend last night, and he was not exactly one to be trusted.
But the anger and vitriol towards her mom pushed her forward.
“I… My mom wants me to stay away from you.” Sarah blushed red.
He stared at her as a hint of a smirk appeared on his lips. “How did she know we even saw each other?”
“And so you, out of the goodness of your own heart, did the opposite of what she asked, and you came. You’re obviously bad to the bone.”
“Obviously,” she seconded. She tugged on a strand of a hair that had escaped her long ponytail. Sometimes she had the urge to chop off all her hair.
Joel looked back to his first-grade class. The kids were busy chirping as a dolphin splashed around; Mrs. Hastings, their teacher, ran around them, asking them to calm down. There was no possible way the children could calm down in the presence of blue dolphins.
“So, you’re visiting me to go against your strait-laced parents? Well, I can help with that. You wanted to find Karli.”
She nodded. “It’s been a week, and I do want to find her.”
“Well, let’s find her.”
“But you just broke up with Brie, and…”
Joel’s eyes glinted. “Yeah, and your point is?”
“My point is…” Joel turned to Sarah, who nodded. “Your duty calls.”
“I have work every day this week, but on Saturday, I can pick you up at ten, and we will find Karli.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Are you sure?”
“Yes, but I may change my mind.”
ZACH WAS NOT a popular student at the small private school from which his siblings had graduated. Everyone knew his name, but he still preferred shadows to people. He liked books, science, and airplanes, but he hated social events, the ocean, and Breezewater. Even at his age, he knew the town was a brutal little speck in the grand scheme of his life. He planned to join the military someday and fly all around the world. Did his parents know this? Well, they didn’t even care for one, and for two, he hadn’t told anyone. Except Joey.
Zach and Joey had been inseparable since the boy moved into the old Victorian house in September. God had taken away Sarah but replaced her with Joey Raspoli, who, like him, loved to run around outside but also played Minecraft and the like. So their friendship began, under a fall sun, and all shyness evaporated by October. Joey went to the public school nearby, but Zach was certain their friendship was even stronger by separating it for a time. If two people were together constantly, it was inevitable there would be some tension.
Joey was a heartbreaker. He already had his first kiss and had broken up with six girls, according to his storytelling. Zach didn’t exactly believe it until Joey asked Kirsten Lowes, a girl who lived in their neighborhood, to go with him to the church dance, before saying curtly, “Never mind. I already asked Jenna Newton.”
This offended Zach, but he said nothing. He saw Kirsten’s look of dejection, and almost asked her to the dance himself, but Kirsten was not a nice girl. She did not deserve Joey’s mean spiritedness, but she was not one Zach would call a flower in a garden. She was more of the snake lurking around the weeds.
However, Joey broke it off with Jenna too. Instead, Joey saw that a certain young woman named Sarah Towson was in town. He had never met her, but he felt like he knew her based on what Zach had told him and through photographs. Joey was set on asking Sarah on a date, and he was certain he could do it.
Joey was a thinker. He needed to meet Sarah, assess her likes and dislikes, and then he would serenade her and prove he was worthy of her attention. Plus, he would enjoy the boost of popularity that would come from asking a college girl to be his girlfriend.
Zach was not completely cut off from Joey’s diabolical schemes. His best friend had been like this in their entire year of friendship, but nothing had really happened between them. It was mostly Joey telling Zach what he’d done to other people.
Zach stood at the edge of the curb, his backpack light on his back, except for a book he’d checked out on Bernoulli’s principle. He was tempted to pull the book out—because if his parents ever picked him up, it was always thirty minutes late—but he decided to take in the fresh May air. School would let out in two weeks, and after, he planned on a long, relaxing three months with nothing on schedule except reading, hanging out with Joey, and reconnecting with Sarah.
Sarah appeared a minute late. She was driving their dad’s suped-up Mercedes for the afternoon, which added to Zach’s pride at his cool older sister. She smiled as she opened the door for him. Behind him, middle schoolers oohed and aahed, some recognizing Sarah, others not.
“Nice ride, right?” Sarah asked as she lowered the top. She leaned into him. “Let’s make every girl jealous right now.”
“Oh, Zeus no. I’m not into girls. Yet, at least.”
“It’s okay. I’m still not really into guys.”
Sarah and Zach sped off—well, only at the speed the school signs permitted. They turned the channel from oldies hits to current pop songs, to Christian, then off to a spicy, sultry Mexican-themed station. Surprisingly, Zach understood some of the Spanish in the songs, and he repeated to Sarah that the lyrics denoted a missing bird looking for its owner.
“Interesante,” Sarah said as they cruised down the road, the scent of lilac fresh in the air. The wind stirred their hair in unison, and finally, a long strip of beach appeared before them, along with the endless mirage of the ocean, like a large blue abyss beyond. Sarah was driving just to drive, and she felt something giddy in her soul. She was back with her brother, and the Atlantic was calling their names like sirens.
She pulled off to the side of the road, and she and Zach ran across the sand until their legs gave out.
SARAH SAT ON the sidewalk, pollen starting to cover her in yellow dots. Spring was still blooming, as evidenced by the glow of flowers beside her, along with each distinct odor, which offered a spectral knowledge of botany. Sarah remembered gardening with Alison, back when they were younger, and how much fun it had been.
She checked her watch. It was 10:07. She was not sure if Joel was punctual or not, but she was starting to get peeved, especially since Zach had asked to spend the day with her, and she told him she couldn’t. She hadn’t lied to her brother, but it still felt like a lie, which hurt her.
She continued to glance at the watch. By 10:30, Sarah doubted he was coming, so she stood up and hurried back across the dewy, green grass to the dreariness of her house. She opened the door and was tempted to slam it, but instead found herself in the kitchen, gobbling down a piece of pie on the stove. Her parents were already incognito, off together at a couples event in downtown Savannah for the day, while Zach had run off to his best friend Joey’s six houses down from theirs.
Sarah took her piece of pecan pie with her to observe the street from the large bay windows in the office room. A Lexus passed by, and then a GMC Sierra, and nothing else. By the time it was eleven, Sarah wiped the icing from her hands onto her bare skin, feeling its touch. Eventually, she stood up and went to the coolness of the guest room to read a book she’d checked out from the public library.
She fell asleep and did not recognize Joel’s rapping on the door only feet away. Instead, her dreams swirled around a sea, a large, vast, glassy sea, and in its depths, a young woman drowned, her amber hair swirling in circles around her.
When she did wake, around twelve, she headed downstairs and took a large gulp of Coke from the fridge, not caring she would poison her family members with her own germs. She pulled her long hair into a frizzy bun, with tufts of hair poking this way and that, before she walked into the dining room, spotting a familiar Jeep in the driveway.
Sarah angrily walked to the door, finding Joel lying on the brick porch, a trail of ants only inches away from his scalp. He had fallen asleep like this, somehow. His lips were parted, a light snore drifting upward, and in this moment, Sarah forgave him. Why did he have to be such a jerk, the opposite of any person she ever wanted to hang around? He was heartless, he was conniving, he was Joel Sealet.
She was tempted to dump a bucket of cold water on his head, but instead, she tapped on his shoulder. He awoke with a start, his eyelids opening speedy quick, his mobility momentarily plagued by the fuzziness of waking up. He breathed and said, “Sarah!” She laughed at his weirdness and he said, “You decide to scare the living daylights out of me?”
“It’s the least you deserve. Or did you just now remember we were supposed to meet at ten, not twelve?”
“Isn’t sleeping on your porch punishment enough? I knocked over and over, and no one ever showed up.”
“I waited outside in this heat for thirty minutes. For you!”
“Oh, cut the complaints,” he said, his cocksure grin back. He stood up, wiping his shorts before shaking out his hair, so that any bugs lodged within the curls would fall to the ground. He lifted his palms and said, “How about we go now?”
She stared at him. “Are you out of your mind? I should reward your lateness with my presence? Give me a minute to flop on my shoes.”
“Flop on your shoes? Are you even speaking English? Oh, sh… Shamrock.”
Joel’s cheeks reddened with embarrassment. “Are your folks home?”
“No. They’re out of town for the day. Now leave me alone, and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
As he waited, Joel found himself transported to a day long, long ago, when he had come to this same subdivision for prom pictures. He’d been a senior then, living in Savannah, but Manny’s date, Catherine, had lived here. Her house was large and brand-new, like a castle or palace, with beautiful greenery and waterfalls adding an ambience of ethereality. That day had been a dream. His date, Alicia Allsbrook, and he had the best time in the universe.
Now, looking back on it, he doubted the authenticity of his memory. Why had it been so fun, he wondered, especially now that he remembered only snippets of this, and snippets of that? He remembered Alicia leaving him to dance with Alex McFarland; he remembered Sarah Towson not being there; he remembered making out with Karli Kirkpatrick in his Jeep.
Joel guiltily bit his lip. He wanted to tell Sarah, to be honest and up-front with her before this process started. Yet it was tough getting on her good side, and his interest was piqued by her. Longtime interest, no, probably not; but he wanted to hang out with her, especially since he had broken up with Brie.
It had been a simple fling with Karli: No one else knew about it, either, and Joel planned to keep it that way.
He hadn’t meant it to happen, obviously. Joel and Karli were on very different stratums of all different sorts: social, physical, emotional, and spiritual. She liked to fish, sleep, and longtime date; he liked to run, party, and sleep around. Karli and Joel had smoked weed together only once before their rendezvous, which embarrassed Joel to the core now. When a woman like Sarah Towson stood before him, he doubted his questionable thoughts of his previous moments.
After Alicia had left him for Alex, Joel had gone to the bathroom to smoke a joint when he ran into Karli, who looked sleazy and pretty, and he hit on her, she took interest, and then they walked outdoors together. Before going to the actual prom and after-party, they’d been breathalyzed, but Karli mentioned she knew the perfect spot to do some things later.
He had asked her about her date; she told him no one. Assuming Alicia would be fine with Alex, Joel drove to Paradiso Bay, on its easterly edge, where a popular lookout was housed. On this particular Saturday night, no one was around, not even the typical stoners or weirdos, and so Joel, Karli, his stashed bottles of alcohol, and a few packs of cigarettes walked to the beach, where they’d talked and gotten drunk. They’d talked about stupid things until their brains were fried and the serious stuff came out. Joel talked about his aspirations and the first time he’d smoked weed while Karli mentioned her dad before talking about her failed friendships. If Joel remembered correctly, she’d even uttered underneath her breath—underneath that crystal clear midnight—“I wish I was Sarah Towson.”
Of course, from there had led to them lazily falling over each other back to his old Jeep, where they’d been so drunk and riled up that they’d made-out for thirty minutes. Nothing sexual had happened, because Karli touted, “I’m still a virgin, Joel.” If she hadn’t been so adamant about this fact, Joel probably would have succumbed to her. She was a pretty and sweet girl, but very vulnerable.
Joel started when Sarah appeared, covering her long arms with sunscreen. Her long hair was pulled up on her head, her eyes bluer now they were rimmed with black eyeliner. She smiled at him before saying, “We can’t be out long. I am somewhat responsible for Zach’s wellbeing.”
Joel nodded. “I know your little brother. He was part of one of my Sunday school groups over Christmas break. The church had this idea to pair up older kids with younger, and it just so happens I got your little brother. Then I got to teach him for a few weeks when…”
“You were a Sunday school teacher?”
“You can’t even hide your shock. Wow, Sarah. Yes, I go to church. You saw me at church.”
Sarah shook her head. “I’m sorry, I know that was rude. It’s just…”
“You didn’t think I was a churched guy? It’s okay. I’m working on my spiritual life.” Joel winked at her, jumping into the front seat of his jeep. No guilt in this moment, as all thoughts of Karli’s tongue had evaporated.
Sarah hopped into his car, the openness of it troubling her. What if someone saw her riding around town with Joel Sealet? She decided not to worry, but it was a little impossible not to worry. As he drove off, wearing sunglasses now, she noted he had draped his arm over the steering wheel. He is not flirting with me, her mind whispered.
She turned to him, her neck straining. Luckily she’d put her hair up, or it would be flying all into her mouth. The wind from the speed chilled her body, but she said nothing about her discomfort. Instead, she asked over the thrum of wind and the car and the radio, “So, do you know where to go?”
“Yup!” Joel shouted. I know him because he’s my dealer.
“Awesome,” Sarah said, turning.
Joel could tell she was a bit uncomfortable. He couldn’t blame her, since they did not know each other well, and she was taking a serious leap of faith with him. If she knew anything about him at all, she would know he was not exactly the most responsible, well-respected guy in the universe. Maybe there was something Joel didn’t know. Why would Sarah want to hang out with him, especially when she had other friends who could have found Karli? Why Joel of all people?
Unless she had baggage of her own.
Joel looked at Sarah. She was observing the outdoors like she had never been to this town in her entire life. She was intelligent, obviously, and beautiful; what would she have to hide? He wondered sublimely if she was a murderer intending to kill him. Then he smiled. Sarah was a wholesome, honest, upright girl. She had never smoked weed or slept with a guy.
Sarah, meanwhile, thought about what she had gotten herself into. Joel was not someone she should be trusting, but her old friends were not ones to trust either, especially after what had happened with Karli, even if that whole drama had been a year ago.
Who was she kidding? Even if Joel did lead her to Karli, her old best friend would never want to see her again anyway. No matter how many apologies Sarah delivered would cure the disease quarantining them. Karli had made that much clear.
What had happened to her clearheaded thinking? When had running away with a boy, and a boy like Joel Sealet, ever helped anything?
Sarah was having doubts when Joel lowered the radio volume and said, “So, do you like California?”
“Would you stay there after school?”
“Even if you had to leave Zach behind?”
“Don’t give me hypothetical situations. I hate them.”
He pulled onto a country strip of road on which wildflowers grew in spurts along the edges. The beauty of the verdant atmosphere intoxicated Sarah for a moment, before she chided herself for ignoring her younger brother to hang out with Joel.
“So, would you ever move back to Breezewater?”
She looked at him. “You’re trying really hard.”
“Can you blame me?”
“No.” She lifted her hand into the breeze, feeling the air crush her skin cells. “To answer your question, never in a million years would I move back here, unless something terrible happened to Zach.”
“You really hate it then.”
“I don’t hate the town. I dislike its inhabitants.”
He stared at her for a moment and in the process almost ran off the edge of the road. “That’s terrible.”
“I wish it weren’t like that, but it is.”
Eventually, they gave up on talking again, allowing the air to speak for them. When they pulled into Savannah itself, they began chitchatting again, but Joel could tell Sarah was nervous just by the lilt of her voice. She definitely had something to hide.
He acted confused for a few moments before turning into the subdivision his primary dealer called home. Joel needed to refill his stash, but obviously he could not do that in front of Sarah. When he braked in front of the house, Sarah breathed, and he caught a glimpse of her collarbone, which intrigued him. Sarah was a beautiful girl, but he wondered lazily if anyone had thought of her collarbone like he just had. He wanted to touch the dust of the bone, to feel it under the pad of his thumb, to taste the sweetness of her lips.
But Sarah did not have these thoughts. She was trying her hardest not to faint and vomit all at the same time. It shouldn’t have to be this way, her tracking down Karli like a hunter on the prowl. She jumped out of the Jeep, the sweltering sun beating down on her neck. The subdivision was lousy, and every house—save for one that touted a large American flag—was overgrown to the utmost degree. Bermuda grass was as permanent a fixture as the cracks in the pavement that desperately needed to be patched-up.
On Karli’s house, individual slivers of shingles dangled off the roof. The front door was open a crack, the steps leading up to the 1950s little ranch home dangerously in need of repair. Sarah was nervous for her safety if she was honest with herself, and she felt even worse when Joel’s height towered above her.
“Let me check it out first, Sarah. You wait here.”
She complied, not knowing Joel’s ulterior motives, to alert Cruston—if he was home—to keep the drug issue on the down-low, and for Karli to keep her mouth shut about their one-night romance. He knew someone was home due to the presence of an old, ratty car in the driveway.
He opened the door even further and called out, “Anyone home?”
“Come in,” called a dopey voice. Karli’s.
This was like Karli, to allow anyone to come into her house without checking. Joel entered, the smell intoxicating in every wrong way, and he found her on a chair painting broken nails bright red. Fire engine red. Red like the burning sun. She sat before him at her dining room table, the light above her head casting a yellow glow to her white blonde hair. She was a pretty girl, even beautiful, and when her big, sad blue eyes locked with his, Joel felt a pang of guilt. Karli should not have been here.
“What’s up, Joel?” she asked, closing the container of nail polish. Her belly protruded more than he’d remembered, and a large welt appeared on her neck. She was normal Karli, languid and lethargic. She’d been like this since she had moved in with Cruston.
“Is John home?”
“He’ll be home soon enough. He’s out. He wouldn’t mind if I sold to you.”
“I’m not here for that, for once.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “How can I believe that?”
“I brought something for you.”
“That don’t sound good.”
“Her name is Sarah Towson, and she’s been looking all over the map for you.”
At the mere mention of Sarah’s name, Karli’s eyes turned ill with venom. She tensed and stared at Joel like he was the antichrist. “Joel, I like you. But if you utter that girl’s name one more time, I swear I’ll ruin you. Don’t let her in my house.”
“Karli, she really wants to see you…”
“What about what I want, huh? I don’t want to see that privileged liar for the rest of my life. Get out, Joel, before I lose my mind with you.”
Without any inkling of what to do next, Joel turned on his heel and exited, almost tripping down the broken steps. He prayed Sarah hadn’t seen this misstep but upon examination, he found her intently observing the driver of a lifted-up truck rushing past the Jeep. When they made eye contact, she knew immediately what the answer was, and instead of giving up, she pushed past him, past his shouts, and hurried inside, her heart pounding in her chest, her sizzled brain yelling against the decision, but it happened anyway.
She barged into Karli’s house and found her friend standing in the dining room, a gun dangling from her hand. “Why the hell are you here, Sarah Towson?”
Sarah was terrified. Karli looked like a trainwreck, her veins bursting just beneath her skin, the blue eyes void of the happiness from a year ago. Her skin was sallow, her hair grimy, her skin pocked with acne scars. Karli had lost a tremendous amount of weight, but her belly was big. She twisted the gun around her finger like it was a piece of scrap, not a killing machine.
Sarah lifted her arms, like she’d seen people do in movies. Joel stood behind her now before he muttered, “Holy…”
“Shut up, Joel,” Sarah hissed. “Karli, put it down.”
Karli fiddled the gun for a few more seconds before placing it on the table. Then she looked at Sarah, her eyes widening with globular tears, and her high-pitched voice croaked, “Why are you here?”
“Joel, please give us space,” Sarah said, the bravery in each word part of an act. Joel nodded, not about to go against Sarah’s wishes, and honestly he did not feel safe now, which was somewhat ironic. Karli always had been like a bomb ready to detonate.
After he left, Sarah sat down a few chairs away from Karli’s housed spot, where the gun lay on the table like a piece of pie might be for Christmas dinner. Bits and pieces of food rested on the wood, and a few red stains painted a strip here and there. It was like a quilt, this table, made of irregular parts to form a large, varied object. It smelled like rotten fish, but Karli’s pleading eyes said something that captured Sarah’s attention away from the squalor and filth to the blueness of two irises before her.
“Thank you for letting me in,” Sarah began, rubbing the socket below her eye. Sometimes, streams of mascara fell into the little crevice. Her mom always yelled at her about it. It was a typical thing to do nowadays, to rub away what was not even there. It was like a nervous tic that possessed her in times of troubling need.
“What do you want, Sarah? Why are you even here?” Karli’s voice strained at this moment, like it had been stretched thin.
“I’m here to check up on you, obviously. I heard you’re expecting, and some other things…”
“No, the real reason you’re here is because you feel guilty, and you don’t know how to cope with your guilt.”
Sarah was quiet then. Her voice had been taken from her after Karli’s harsh comments. “Yes, I feel guilty. I do feel guilty, Karli, but I’m not exactly here to apologize again. I’m here to reconnect with you. We haven’t seen each other in nearly a year.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Sarah.”
“Well, how does it work, then?”
“I see you’ve gotten more direct since you left, which is not you in the slightest. Sarah Towson, class wallflower, not the stubborn, hardy person you are now.”
Sarah sighed, knowing this would go nowhere if this conversation continued in this direction. Instead, she needed to shift it in the direction of Karli, who, once she heard the talking drift to herself, would instantly jump up at the chance to give her point of view. At least, this was what Sarah hoped would happen. It would be better to steer the direction away from herself and their falling-out back to Karli. Maybe even to Karli’s baby.
“And you have a house at nineteen. Things change,” Sarah said, forgetting how to strike up a conversation. Usually it was not this hard for her, but in this moment, it was. And for once, there was a reason why.
“It’s not technically my house,” said Karli. “It’s actually my boyfriend’s. John Cruston. Do you remember him?” The poison in her voice had evaporated a few drips, but it was still at the surface, ready to pop up at any moment.
“Yes. I’ve heard a lot about John Cruston.”
Behind the wall stood Joel. He had almost run off to the car, but he found something in the way Sarah and Karli barked at each other. It was entertaining to say the least, and now he wanted to be on the outskirts of the drama that ensued. Plus, if he needed to make a dramatic entry to save Sarah’s life, he would be nearby, ready to strike.
“Yes. The old football star?” Karli asked, her voice raising at the question in her voice.
“Of course. How can anyone forget anybody else in this town?” In reality, she was referring to Breezewater, a municipality Karli had visited but never truly understood. No one could understand it unless he or she had fully lived in a house in the vicinity, had gone to church there, had cried and pulled on hair there. But for Sarah and Sarah only was the factor of her entire being, her entire purpose, but a purpose that could not keep her tied to the town of her youth. Zach, the one person for whom she would die, the person who possessed integrity and goodness. He lived his life as a kind person even when life did not favor him. When his parents did not favor him. When Alison ignored him. And when Sarah left him.
“John’s a dream, Sarah. He takes care of me, and he’s going to be the proudest dad. We’ve gone on a few vacations together too. When I first told him I loved him, he told me, ‘We’re going to have a family, Karli.’ Isn’t that enough to fulfill everything you’ve ever wanted?” Karli had a far-away look in her eyes, as she looked at a place above Sarah’s head, but that place was possessed by dreams of yellow-haired children with American blue eyes. A dream Sarah had never dreamt, a dream she never really wanted. Her dream was something else, maybe even something she did not know yet.
“I’m happy for you, then,” Sarah said, for once meaning what she said, forgetting Cruston’s drug dealer ties and their poor living conditions. Maybe John would make a great father to his child. There was always a maybe in Karli’s life, because her life had been surrounded by the word.
There were too many maybes in Sarah’s opinion. Maybe she would die tomorrow; maybe she would find her husband tomorrow. No, it didn’t even matter. It was all up to her to find a path to success. It was all up to her to protect Zach from the issues of the Towson family name. And it was up to her, right now, to care, for once in her life, about someone else besides herself.
“So, you know about the baby, obviously,” Karli said. She looked outside, at the green outdoors, where a neighbor splashed her garden with water.
“Yes, I do.”
“I’m four months along. We’re going to wait until delivery to see the sex.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Sarah said, although she would never do that herself. She was a pragmatic person, one who based her entire life around planning, although plans never really went the way she planned.
At the pause in their conversation, Sarah whispered, “Can I come back to visit you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, can we gradually resume our friendship?”
Karli had a steely resolve. “I don’t know, Sarah. I honestly don’t know.”
“Why are you trying so hard? Do you really feel that guilty?” Karli asked, picking up a nearby lighter so she could nervously flick the flame on and off.
“Well, let’s get even on something, okay? This will make me feel better.”
“You’re into Joel, hmm?”
“No, not exactly. He just offered to help me find you.”
“I’m sure that’s what all his girls say,” Karli whispered, gently stroking an abnormally long fingernail against the table. “We slept together, Sarah.”
It didn’t register for a good minute. Then when it did, Sarah’s shoulders slumped. “What?”
“Me and Joel. Yup. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but this was on prom night. The year he took that girl Alicia. Well, he left with me.”
“You lost your virginity to Joel Sealet?” Sarah asked, bewildered. She felt like she had just dropped into a pit of snakes.
“No. I lost my virginity to Alex McFarland freshman year. I just never told you that.”
“Karli!” Sarah screamed.
Karli snickered. “I told you this would act as payback. You have a crush on Joel, and let me tell you, your heart will be crushed. The crush always crushes you. He’s John’s customer, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sarah, Sarah, so naïve.”
“Just tell me, darn it, Karli.”
Karli was enjoying this, the spook of her words. Joel, meanwhile, stood behind the door, paralyzed. He had a few options: He could drive away and abandon Sarah, or stick up for himself. But Karli was only telling the truth—except about their sleeping together. How could he defend himself?
“Cruston’s a dealer. As in drug dealer, if you catch my drift. Joel loves cannabis, don’t you, honey?”
Sarah looked above her shoulder to see Joel standing tall. His visage was cloudy and unreadable. Anyone could tell he was an angry person now, and he shouted, “Are you serious?”
Sarah’s gut wrenched. How would she get home? She could call a taxi. She could walk. She…
“Karli, you’re a…”
“Stop it, Joel,” Sarah said, her voice harder than she had anticipated. “This is ridiculous. Karli’s telling me things you weren’t supposed to hear.”
“Well, I heard them, and…”
“And what? You’re going to deny them? So my opinion of you can lower even more? Just shut up.”
Joel flinched like he’d been hit. His reputation was damaged, but the physicality of the situation was troubling him even more. Karli poked her hand against a lighter, while Sarah stared at the table. Karli was not to be trusted, and here she was causing more drama between Joel and Sarah.
“Sarah, let’s go.”
“I said no!” Sarah screamed. The scream rocked the house.
Karli said, “You should go. I’ve caused enough drama for one day.”
Sarah stood up and raced to the Jeep. She had a can of pepper spray in her purse in case Joel did anything funny on the way home, but he was as quiet as silence and said nothing on the drive back.
WHEN JOEL DROPPED Sarah off at her house, he left in a hurry and she found a bouquet of flowers on the doorstep, a collection of rich-smelling jasmine, the scent intoxicating. She lifted them up, thinking somehow Joel must have dropped them off, and then she discovered the card. She did not know Joel’s handwriting and the script on the little sliver of paper was unusually neat for a guy.
Girls like you are one in a million,
Boys like me are a billion in a billion.
You’ve captured my heart,
Like a poison dart.
Dance with me?
Sarah shrugged. The card housed a poem written in the tone of a middle schooler, but she didn’t exactly remember Joel being an English bard. She walked inside the house to the guest bedroom and sniffed the jasmine for five minutes before throwing it across the room. Joel was a liar, and the only poison dart Sarah had was the one she would stab into his neck.
Had he lied to her? He had kept certain truths from her, yes, and she knew his character was now tarnished by what she discovered. She would not want to be within ten feet of him anymore. He smoked weed, okay, but sleeping with Karli? That was too weird for her to handle. Especially when he acted like nothing was amiss. Plus, she knew he liked girls, and lots of them, and as a monogamous individual, Sarah cringed.
She sat in her bedroom until Zach skipped up the stairs like a herd of bison. She was crumpled in a heap beneath her sheets when her brother entered with a collection of buttercups in his little palms. He placed them on her comforter, and she smiled.
“Bad day, huh?” he asked.
“Want to go for a walk? I want to introduce you to Joey, you know, my best friend.”
“I promise I’ll meet him sometime, but not now, okay? I just want to sleep.”
“Get up,” Zach protested.
“Get up! You are not going to cry like a big baby, and do nothing but sleep! You came home, remember? So, you’re going to enjoy it! And you’re going to live a little, for once in your forsaken life! People are dying, and they would kill to have a perfectly heathy body in which one can…”
Sarah sat up and smiled. It was endearing. “Okay, fine. What do you want to do?”
“Why are you even like this?”
“I found my old friend Karli. And a lot of things are messed up.”
“Well, want to go someplace?”
“Anywhere but the aquarium, okay?”
“Well, okay. But here’s the deal. I want Los Ranchos Toros, and I still want you to meet Joey sometime today, but I’ve found that food heals the heart quicker than boys, so…”
“Well, are we going to go?”
“Let me at least brush my stinky teeth.”
Ten minutes later the brother and sister were on their way, in their mother’s car this time, to the legendary Mexican restaurant where Zach went at least once a week. It was within biking distance of the subdivision, so occasionally he and Joey would go there together. He even knew Eduardo personally now, as the guy was a twenty-six-year-old father of three, husband of one, and religious Catholic man who attended the parish nearby. Eduardo also liked to read, and he always gave more titles for Zach to check out.
Sarah followed her brother into the restaurant. Bright colors highlighting the Aztec culture were displayed in all sectors of the place Sarah had not seen in nearly a year. She used to come here often as well, but she had never been on a first-name basis like Zach had been with Eduardo.
When they arrived, Zach waved at the hostess, Esmeralda, who said, “Eduardo is not well today, I’m afraid.”
“Eduardo’s never sick!” protested Zach as the friendly woman pulled him into a hug.
“Well, today he is. He actually hasn’t been to work in three days.”
“Esmeralda, do you think something happened?”
“No, I just think sometimes a man needs a break from his work, you know? Now, I’m sure Eliana will be thrilled to take your order. Who is this, cariño?”
“Hi,” Sarah said, sticking out a hand. “I am Sarah Towson, Zach’s sister.”
“I see, I see.” Esmeralda had thick lashes and the eyeballs within had a green hue to them. Green irises, Sarah wondered, under the layers of makeup. Esmeralda was in her mid-forties probably, a little plump, but she oozed a personality of happiness. Happiness that was hard to come by. “Well, Sarah,” at this, she pronounced Sarah’s name in Spanish, “it is a pleasure to meet you. I recently moved to Breezewater, so that may be why we have not been acquainted yet.”
“Nice to meet you as well, Esmeralda.”
“Your brother loves Los Ranchos so much. Okay, well, let me show you to your table, disculpame.”
They followed the bustling woman to a rainbow-colored table, where she handed them menus. Zach already had his order memorized, but he watched as Sarah assessed each line like this was a life-or-death decision. It was a pretty big choice, he thought so himself.
Eliana appeared a few moments later. She was a young, pretty girl who was at the most fourteen. She had a splash of freckles across her nose and bright brown eyes. She appeared before them like a ghost. “What would y’all like to drink?”
Sarah said, “Water with lemon, please,” and watched as her brother stared at the girl, his eyes big.
“Diet Coke for me. Thanks.”
Eliana disappeared., and Sarah had bait.
“So, what happened to you? Why were you depressed?” Zach poked a chip into the salsa.
Sarah frowned. “Well, Karli’s having a baby, and she’s living with a moron, and do you remember Joel Sealet?”
“How could I forget Joel Sealet? That guy is everywhere.”
“Well, he was hiding stuff from me.”
“Wait, he was the person you were hanging out with?”
“I know. Please don’t lecture me. It was stupid, but he knew Karli, and I thought that through him, I could find her.”
“You’re still beating yourself up over Karli Kirkpatrick? Come on, Sarah, liven up.” His voice was still a boy’s, but the words sounded eerily like a man’s.
She nodded, dipping her chip, savoring the cilantro. “How do I liven up, dear Zach?”
“Well, first, you hang out with your amazing, one-of-a-kind brother. Then, you come with us to Destin. Also, then, you go to church and ignore Joel! Also, we could practice football, and then there is the library… Oh, come on, you’ve got that faraway look in your eye.”
“I’m sorry. I was just thinking… There’s a little girl over there who looks familiar.”
“Oh! I recognize her from the Steakshop at Paradiso Bay. She’s really adorable.”
Zach looked over his shoulder at the little girl whose curly brown hair splayed down her back like tendrils of a vine. She was pretty adorable sitting with her mom. She had bright eyes.
“Do you recognize them?”
“Well, that’s Ms. Temprend. She’s a kindergarten teacher at the elementary school down the road. She used to teach at my school, but then she left and came to Breezewater.”
“Really? That’s interesting. I’ve just never seen them before, at least not until last week.”
“Yeah. There’s something fishy about them, but I’m not sure what it is.”
“You think? They seem pretty normal to me.”
“Sometimes she drives by our house. Ms. Temprend, I mean. She has a blue Jeep, and I know this because I’ve seen her.”
“Do Mom and Dad know? That’s extremely creepy, Zach.”
He nodded but did not seem stressed by this revelation. “Mom’s talked to her before, and Ms. Temprend just sped away. That was only two weeks ago.”
Sarah looked across the room. Ms. Temprend had her back to her, and Sarah was thankful. Why would this woman have anything to do with the Towsons? There was no viable reason, and instead of thinking too much on the subject, Sarah asked Zach, “So, when are we going to meet Joey?”
“Soon. Very, very soon.” Zach winked, and Sarah wondered why.
WHEN JOEL LEFT Sarah’s house, the spectrum of emotions hit him with antigravitational force. He felt like he had floated to space, where everything was numb and made logical sense even through the amazing chaos. Joel wanted to punch something, or smoke weed, or do something stupid. Heck, he even wanted Brie’s comforting hand on his back. Yet none of these things were what he did.
He found himself at Paradiso Bay, where he parked his car and joined the beach-goers in the afternoon sun. The water was a perfect azure, and the sky matched its authenticity, but Joel’s heart was a roar like the ocean. He sat on the tan sand, dripping a few granules from a dune, feeling as they returned downward.
Nothing happened for a few minutes. He sat observing the lazy folks camped under bright pink umbrellas, children running about, a cluster of teenagers sculpting a sand castle. Usually he came here with a group of friends. This was the first time he had come here alone.
It was a remedy.
He questioned his actions. He had become someone who hid the truth. His father hated his guts, and his mother questioned his judgment. His sister was turning out like him, an arrogant jerk, and a fool. He strung both girls and guys along, like he could buy them with his presence. It hurt him that he enjoyed this behavior. It made him cringe, and it created a fiery pit of disgust deep within his soul.
But did he even want to change?
The truth was he did like who he was. He liked the popularity. But he hated his actions.
Joel stretched out on the beach, lying his head in the sand, rays of sun beating into his forehead. Sweat trickled down his face. When he fell asleep, life didn’t seem as bad.
Two hours later, when he woke with a sunburn on his nose and a massive headache, he started fumbling for his keys. He hadn’t meant to take a nap, and with a quick look around the beach, he found the place empty. He strained his eyes, looking all around, and was spooked by finding absolutely no one.
He stood up, fumbling for his keys, and found them right on the chain. He rushed up the side of beach to where he’d parked his car and heard the whir of a helicopter above him. Upon further examination, the twinkling of blaring sirens entered his ear canals, and Joel began to freak. What happened? Why?
He rushed to his car, his hands feeling shaky. A few stray cars littered in the lot, but the people seemed confused and spellbound by the chopper in the sky. He drove to a clump of people on the very edge of the lot and rolled down the window. “What’s going on?”
A woman holding a sleeping toddler shook her head. “We don’t know. A group of ten squad cars passed by not ten minutes ago. We all raced up from the beach, and since then, there’s been a few ambulances and fire trucks, and now the helicopter.”
“This must be big,” Joel swore, feeling his heart rate intensify. “Thanks.”
He sped off, terrified for whatever happened. He went through a checklist. Had someone went on a shooting rampage? A terrorist? Suicide? He wasn’t sure if any of these things were possible in a place like Breezewater, where everyone only oozed illusory happiness.
Joel sped to his neighborhood, finding nothing amiss. No one was home. Part of him screamed, Go inside your house and lock the doors. Instead, he sped off in the direction of Sarah’s neighborhood, hoping—and even praying—nothing had happened since.
When he made it to the rich area, where the hint of sweet quince flew up his nostrils, he envied the flowers, and how they had no human emotion of terror and confusion. He wasn’t thinking properly; the sound of sirens was nowhere near Sarah’s house.
He found his mind again and drove to the whir. His heart fell in his chest when he saw where it was. Then he started crying.
It was his father’s Breezewater cobbler’s shop. And even from a hundred yards away, Joel saw that his mother’s blue Honda Accord was the only car parked in the lot.
EMOTIONS ROILED WITHIN Joel as he rushed to the yellow crime scene tape. He heard his screams like they were someone else’s as the cops yanked him from the premises, even when he cried, “They’re my parents!” He felt his heart lurch when a group of women from church hugged him and squeezed him like a rag doll. He heard his own sobs like he was a foreign invader, between intermittent realizations that his parents might be dead.
Through the wails, he finally was dragged away by a man with a uniform. Maybe he was a cop, Joel wasn’t sure. Everything was a blur, foggy like a camera in an ocean, dragged underneath, no clarity. Joel’s thoughts were groggy too.
“Your father… Shot your mother… He shot himself, too… About a divorce…”
Through the consolations and frowns, Joel felt his body shake as he slumped to the ground. His father had shot his mother. Impossible. That didn’t happen to people like him. His parents loved each other. Yes, they were getting a divorce, but they were not violent. They loved each other. Two people in love didn’t kill each other. They were getting divorced, but there was always a chance they’d reconcile, patch up the family again…
Dad’s porn addiction was done. Mom’s stealing Chloe’s medications was done, too. They loved each other.
Joel’s shredded heart had taken a pounding through the blender. He wanted to hammer his brain into little gray pieces. When they took him away, he couldn’t breathe properly, and eventually, the fog got so bad he didn’t remember anything. Not even Chloe’s shrill, wrenching screams. Not even Alex holding a handful of wildflowers nearby, trying to wake Joel up from this dream. Not even Manny’s punches. Not even Brie, who stood over him and cried, yelling that she loved him.
The only person he wanted was miles away, not in distance, but in actions.
Joel woke with a start, his body dripping with rough sweat, his heart rate erratic and his blood pressure rising. He started screaming, “Mom! Dad!” but found his only companions were seagulls, the ocean, and Alex McFarland, who stood above him with a copy of Bleak House in his hands.
“Alex! Is it true?”
“Is what true? Man, you’re tripping. I found you asleep on the beach, burnt red as Sebastian the crab, and you’re delirious. What the heck, Joel?”
Joel shook his head, standing up, his head dizzy. “I had the worst nightmare of my life. It was so vivid. My parents murdered each other.”
“That sucks.” Alex tossed him a Fanta from his backpack. He was like that, always carrying things around. He fell down at the spot where Joel’s indentation etched the sand into a human form. Then he pulled out his book and began reading, resting his head on his pack, dangling his toes into the sand. He wore his fast food uniform but didn’t seem to mind.
Joel sat back down, not sure if he was allowed to discuss anything with Alex or not. He settled on, “Why didn’t you pick me up at the cove?” Joel was still shaking from his dream, the perspiration reminding him of his humanity. And how much he hated his actions.
“When I got there, you were gone.”
“I waited for an hour at the least.”
“Did you forget I don’t live here? I just work here. You look terrible. Shaken up. Obviously, you want to tell me about your dream, so just tell it.”
Joel whistled through his teeth. “You were in it, eventually. I woke up and found Breezewater in a state of panic. Then I found out it was over the murder and suicide of Juliet and Ethan Sealet. It was awful.”
“I can imagine. But it’s not real.”
“It felt like it.”
“What’s going on? Something prodded that to seep into your subconscious.”
“Don’t go all New Age on me, Alexei.”
“I hate that nickname.”
“My parents are getting divorced.”
Alex stared out into the sea foam, his fingers closing the book. He sat up. “That blows.”
“I know. It’s stressing me out.”
“You know, it’s not the worst thing ever. If two people don’t love each other anymore, then maybe it’s best they separate.”
“You don’t believe love conquers and all that ideology?”
“Simply put, it’s propaganda.”
“I want to hear you say that, someday, when you’re walking down the aisle to the woman of your dreams.”
Alex shook his head. “I don’t want to get married. It’s never been in my plan.”
“You know what, it’s never really been in my plan, either.”
“Okay, we’re ending this conversation. Guys like us don’t talk about marriage. We’re freaking nineteen-years-old.”
“Right. Practically grandparents,” Alex said, seconding his friend. He looked up into the dazzling mirage of sky. “I don’t want kids, either, Joel.”
“You’re the one bringing all this seriousness now.”
“I’m serious. I just want to be me. That’s it.”
“But it’s better than lying to lots of people and stringing them on.”
“I think it’s time we have this conversation, Joel. You’re a complete idiot, and quite frankly, I hate you. You’re crass, you’re cocky, you’re the guy every other guy thinks he wants to be—but in reality, you’re the guy everybody truly hates. You have serious issues.”
Joel felt like he’d been punched in the gut twenty times. He coughed and responded, “Thanks. Thanks.” He knew it all as truth, but combined with the dream, he felt like he’d been flattened like a pancake.
“I’m saying this because though I hate you, I like you. At times. When you’re being honest to yourself. When you’ve been given a lesson, so to speak.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m saying that I like you, and think of me as your angel, because no one else is going to tell you this. You’re going to have a miserable, dismal life if you keep up what you do for fun.”
“I do what everybody else does.”
Alex shook his head, finally looking Joel in the eye. His stern visage was dark and foreboding. “No, I don’t think you do. Joel, running around with a girl like Sarah Towson is not going to heal you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know what I mean.”
“Okay, first grader. You look at Sarah and see what you could have been, if you had been daring enough to be yourself. If you had chosen to follow your own path instead of what others mark out for you.”
“Just because I’m popular doesn’t mean I…”
Alex’s eyes grew dim. “I know, I know. But I know you, Joel. You’re popular, yes, but you aren’t a leader. You never have been. And that’s why you’re attracted to Sarah. She’s a leader.”
JOEY’S HOUSE WAS spectacularly impeccable. It was more refined than the Towson mansion, and the inside felt more sterile than anything Sarah had ever seen before. It was like a prison. A beautiful, luxury prison.
However, Sarah and Zach weren’t inside for very long, enough time to meet Rosie the housekeeper while they awaited Joey’s presence.
When he did appear, Sarah stifled a laugh in her throat. She had to cough from making the laughter too obvious, because Joey was taking each step down the spiral staircase like he was a king. He had slicked his jet-black hair back and wore the ultimate preppy boy style. His loafers squeaked against the steps. Sarah smiled at the boy, who was smirking at her like he was a god.
He lifted a hand in her direction, and she shook it, surprised at how comfortable the shake had been. Then he reached down and pressed his child’s lips to her skin, and leaned upward, his left eye catching hers in a fanciful wink. Beside his sister, Zach coughed.
“You must be the one I’ve been long awaiting for, Miss Sarah Towson.”
“And you are Joey,” said Sarah, placing her hands at her side.
“Follow me outside to the cupola, where Rosie has prepared us rosewater and tea sandwiches. I hope you do not mind if we don’t drink tea. Currently, we are out.”
“No problem whatsoever.”
As they followed Joey through the intricacy of his home to the backporch, Sarah stared at Zach and started speaking to him in murmurs, but Zach shrugged and followed his buddy. Sarah knew it already: Joey was romancing her.
They went to the cupola, which overlooked a verdant garden and koi pond, plus an infinity pool. The backyard was atop a mini-hill, which offered a glimpse of sparkling sea in beyond. Sarah stared at it with awe, wondering if she could walk through the trees and be at the ocean by nightfall.
“We want your stay to be as lovely as possible,” chirped Joey, as he poured some water into a windblown glass at Sarah’s fingertips. He handed her the glass and brushed his fingers against hers. “Don’t we, Zach?”
Zach nodded. “Joey loves parties. He’s always raving about them.”
“Is he now?” Sarah said, though it sounded very grown-up of her to say something like that. She took a sip and responded, “This is really good. Thanks, Joey.” Rosie was already gone, per the instructions of Mr. Twelve-year-old Prep.
Joey sat down, crossing his leg, on a patio chair. The cicadas’ chirping in the underbrush added to the soundful breeze of the evening summer sunset, which eclipsed itself on the plentiful abundance of growth beyond. Flowers of every color were stroked like brushes on a masterpiece, and it was all at the trio’s fingertips.
Joey, however, had his eyes on one thing, and one thing only. She was more beautiful than he had supposed she would be. She was like a dainty summer sun, and he wanted to touch his lips to the pink ones she possessed. Her thick hair was parted like a lion’s mane, but hers was groomed and respectable. Her eyes were the blue he had imagined for his wife, and she even had a refined, classic touch to her personality, like Zach.
Joey should have known that by judging Zach’s characteristics, Sarah would be similar, and Joey approved of Zachary Towson. Even though they were best friends, Joey respected Zach, and deep down, he knew Zach would make the better man.
However, Sarah was the one who captured his attention at this moment. Beautiful, musey Sarah. The girl he would take to the church dance. The girl he would woo for the rest of his life if he had to. And he could, he could. He’d won a few contests at summer camp. He was known as the kid with gills, although he hated swimming, and in reality, he hated water. It was just a matter of winning the competition, so he could prove to everyone around, I am the person of your dreams.
Now, as he sipped on his rosewater and acted ten years older, he felt a stirrup clomp on his heart when Sarah asked, “Now, what do you like to do?”
This is the question he had been preparing for. He could tell her lies, like how he’d been in some movies when his family lived in Hollywood (and they had lived in Escondido, just a few miles down the road). He could say his dad was a retired astronaut and he’d spent his childhood summers studying abroad on the Greek island Myknos; instead, he decided Sarah was an honest person, like Zach, and therefore would appreciate the truth.
“Well, I enjoy sunbathing on golden strips of beach. I like traveling, collecting baseball cards, and playing croquet with my Aunt Emma, who happens to be the only specialized doctor in her field in all Georgia. Also, I really enjoy…” At this, he smiled, sifting a hand through his inky hair. “I enjoy romance. It is my forte, I have to add.”
“Romance?” Sarah cocked an eyebrow. “You enjoy romance?”
“I’m quite a romantic at heart. I love the ladies, what can I say?”
“Joey, you are twelve.”
“And a half.”
“Isn’t that a little young for ‘the ladies?’”
“Sarah!” Zach hissed.
Joey leaned forward, sticking out a tan hand, inching it closer to Sarah’s. He loved a challenge. If Sarah made it harder for him, so be it. He would pursue recklessly, no matter the cost. “Is anybody too young for love?”
“I think so, yes,” Sarah said, crossing her legs now. She was pondering running away or listening to the little sage. But with a quick glance in her brother’s direction, she understood it was best to sit here and listen to Joey’s mania. He was only twelve, and he obviously had a little crush.
“You do? Well, I am living proof that youth and love can coexist.”
“Joey,” Zach inserted himself, “I thought when I brought Sarah over, we’d play baseball or something. Not whatever this is.”
“Baseball sounds fun,” Sarah added, desperate for anything except this impromptu date, or whatever it happened to be.
Joey narrowed his eyes at Zach, before saying with a beat short of enthusiasm, “Well, let’s play baseball, then. I will need to change into the appropriate attire, however. I will be back, Miss Sarah.” Then he rushed away.
“What the heck!” Sarah hissed as soon as Joey was safely inside.
Her brother lifted his palms in similar confusion. “Honestly, I’ve got no clue. Do you think he likes you?”
“Somehow, I believe he does.”
THAT NIGHT, UNDERNEATH the canopy of the guest bed, Sarah flopped on her side, staring out at the dark night coursing in through the window. A lightning bug glowed outside as the sound of crickets buzzed in the darkness. It was close to twelve o’clock, and she’d been in bed for thirty minutes. Of course she thought of Zach and his friend Joey, who was flirtatious but fun while playing baseball, but really, the person who stole her thoughts was a tall guy with longish brown hair, lying brown eyes, and a pierced heart. Too bad she found herself already falling for him, without the slightest reason why.
JULIET WOKE HIM up around seven o’clock so he could shower and dress in time. She was taking him and Chloe to the donut shop, and she was ready to make her debut at the church as the recently separated wife of Ethan Sealet. She looked better than she had a week ago, the color returning to her cheeks; yet her eyes had drooped and her lips seemed thinner. As she observed her son as he slept, she cursed herself for ignoring him. She had always loved him and thought she did everything in her power to protect him, but it wasn’t always that easy. He had always been needy for attention, and she was not the person to give him what he needed. She had to be a mother to Chloe as well, and Joel had always preferred other teenagers to his family. He had always been like that, or at least she thought.
Joel rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and instead of complaining, he nodded responsibly and stood up, pulling her into his arms. His eyes were laced with water and he said—in a voice that reminded Juliet of his young childhood, when he’d enjoyed baking with her and allowing her to scratch his back—“I had a nightmare. You and Dad…”
“Nothing’s wrong, Joel. Nothing’s wrong, and you know that.”
“I know,” he said, smelling lilac perfume. He felt young again, too, like when he depended on his mother for everything. “I know.”
“Joel, I found something in your pockets a couple days ago. I’ve been too drained to ask you about it, but… Have you been buying drugs?” She hadn’t meant to ask during a poignant moment like this, but she felt he would be honest in this moment; at least, she hoped he would be honest.
He stood straight, his eyes accepting. “What did you find?”
“I have smoked for the past few years, but I’ll give it up. I promise you, I’ll give it up.”
Instead of saying anything about it, she nodded, and said through a gulp of air slamming into her throat, “Get ready for church, okay?”
An hour later, they gathered in the kitchen. Scott had been living with them on and off, so the house was even more quiet than normal. Chloe had spent the past week mostly at her best friend’s house, and Joel had busied himself with the aquarium and his thoughts of a girl who probably hated his guts.
It was Chloe’s last week of school, the last week of May, and he wanted to surprise her with something. But as he analyzed her, from the spirals of her normally straight hair, and the wedges plastered onto the soles of her feet, he understood some things were changing.
“What are you looking at?” she said, though a smile appeared on the curve of her glossed lips.
“How beautiful my baby sis is.”
Juliet smiled, grabbing her purse, and they walked to the car. Eventually, they made it to Soon-Yi’s donut shop on the edge of town, where they sat in a table by the window, overlooking a creek that usually went bone dry in the heat of summer; now, however, a few droplets of water continued down the bed.
“So, how’s work, Joel?” asked Juliet as she splurged on a donut hole. She popped it into her mouth, sucking on the little pieces of sweetness in the recesses of her mouth.
“It’s good. I’m making steady cash.” He wondered if he should give a portion to his mom, since she would be needing it now, especially with the impending separation. He could help as best he could. Plus, it would give him a goal that would keep him on the straight and narrow, away from the sadness that would come from steering clear from his addiction. He knew it was not a dangerous addiction, but enough to distract him from his normal life, and it was something truly damaging, at least to his checking account.
Plus, he did not want to be anywhere near Karli and John anymore, not with what had happened recently.
“That’s good. I’m proud of you, honey,” Juliet said casually. She meant it.
“Is Dad going to keep ignoring us?” Chloe asked, taking a sip of chocolate milk through a blue straw. “It’s ridiculous. He at least should tell us he’s done with us, rather than stringing us along.”
“I bet he’s been playing a lot of poker,” Joel seconded, before regretting the comment based on how much it hurt his mother.
Juliet breathed and sighed. “You know, he loves you both. He may have a funny way of showing it, but he loves you. When he’s ready, he’ll come for you.”
Joel wanted to show her the messages he’d been receiving from an obviously-drunk Scott. The scathing insults, the sadness of their fractured relationship. “I love Dad, but it’s okay. I don’t need him in my life that much.”
“No, please. Don’t say that to me,” Juliet said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. Then she stood up and said, “We’re going to be late if we don’t leave soon. Come on, guys.” She didn’t want them to see her cry, so she turned her back and looked out to see a few people from church among the other customers. This saddened her even further.
MOTHER ELSIE SAT in the sixth row pew, her body aching from strain, but her spiritual mind on a high as the congregation joined together in praise led by Traiah Spikes, a local Missionary Baptist music director. Occasionally, the Baptist forces joined together in worship, but today was like joining two chemicals to create a fiery passion for the Lord, and Mother Elsie was no exception as she jumped, her bad hips swinging to the beat of the music.
The lady to her right, a visitor, was no doubt terrified by the aliveness of the moment, but to her left sat Sarah Towson, the young lady who’d gone to California. When Sarah had first told her where she was going to college, Mother Elsie did not judge or even say anything in the dark pit of her mind: What do you mean, those bozos! Instead, she allowed a rich spirit to guide her, and she had said, “If the Good Lord is leading you to California, you better go.”
Now she was back, Mother Elsie could see she’d changed. The girl had filled out more, and she oozed a greater confidence, but she also saw hurt and shame coating the rims of her icy blue eyes. There was something at play in Sarah’s life, and Mother Elsie was going to see what it was. If she had to do some digging herself, she would.
As Traiah Spikes sat down, the congregation did as well, affording their pastor the opportunity to stand and pray for the flock. The interspersion of diversity added a new element for both churches, where strife had driven them crazy only years before. Healing came from God, Mother Elsie knew; and this healing could be awarded to Sarah, if she only looked for it.
“I pray for the souls hurting here today,” Pastor Randy Boomington began, as women fanned themselves in the heat of late May. Unfortunately, even with the air conditioning circulating, the abundance of souls in the room was stifling, at least physically. Emotionally, it was a joyride. “Because even in this moment right now, God, we are searching for you, there are some who are searching for guidance, and how to harness pain into Your goodness.”
Mother Elsie sinfully opened an eye, and guiltily realized she’d unlocked Sarah’s pain. The girl was shyly staring at the back of Joel Sealet’s head.
WHEN CHURCH LET out, Mother Elsie took Sarah by the arm, using her for support. She and Sarah talked to countless individuals, which wore the girl out, but Mother Elsie knew it would be good for her muse to meet some of the M.B. churchgoers. Finally, around one o’clock, Sarah and Mother Elsie pooled out onto the street, where Zach and Sarah’s parents waited holding Bibles. “Mrs. Elsie!” called out Helena, who pulled the old woman into a wide hug.
Sarah was socially drained and was forced to grin when Tom Boomington, the youth pastor, draped an arm around her neck. She hugged him back, feeling the stares from her family and Mother Elsie, but eventually, the old woman swatted Tom and shrieked, “What are you doing!”
Tom turned red with embarrassment. “Mother Elsie?”
“Inappropriate touching on God’s holy ground! Some people might do this in the city, but we’re from Breezewater, Georgia. What do you think your daddy would say?”
Tom smiled, pulling Mother Elsie into a hug. “Whatever you’re up to, I still love you, Mama Elsie.”
She shrugged and hugged him back. This offered a momentary respite for Sarah, who glanced down at the rugged sidewalk near the ancient sign reading FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH BREEZEWATER, EST. 1837. Joel passed by the church then in his eclectic Jeep, his sunglasses plastered on the bridge of his nose, and the rush of wind playing with his hair. He glanced over just in perfect time to see Sarah staring at him, and he stared back.
Sarah turned, feeling something stir inside her. Mother Elsie watched it all, and she grabbed onto the girl’s arm at the next available opportunity as the group made their way to the parking lot. “You, dear, have it bad, I think.”
“What do you mean?” Sarah asked, watching as Tom and her father had a deep conversation on a crisis in Eritrea. Helena was watching enthusiastically, because she took this as a sign Scott would accept Tom as a great son-in-law.
Mother Elsie leaned in, whispering in Sarah’s right ear canal. “Joel Sealet. Who would’ve thought… You and that boy.”
Sarah straightened and was about to deny any of those facts when the old woman smiled. “My husband was a character too, Sarah, and when he finally straightened out, I was fifty-six years old. But I knew he was the one for me, and for the first time in my life, I had done something of my own volition by marrying Aaron Brandon. He was crazy, and you know what, so was I.”
“No, Sarah. Hear me out. Something’s happening in his life. I can sniff it. He’s changing, and I wonder if that’s because of you. Are you two twiddling around together?”
“Not really. Just once, and it ended badly.”
Mother Elsie was huffing and puffing, but she croaked, “Do me one favor. One favor is all I ask: Give that boy another chance.”
WHEN SARAH ARRIVED home, she found a bundle of orchids on her nightstand, the window slightly opened. No note this time.
THE FAMILY ARRIVED in Destin, Florida, the first weekend of June. The sea-green ethereality of ocean met the Towsons with the embodiment of dazzling wonder where the rich sea met the white, sandy beaches of the Florida Panhandle. The only thing missing from the display, at least to Sarah, was orange soda, which she drank tons of while at the beach. It was a tradition between her and Helena.
They spent the first afternoon sunbathing at the point where ocean meets earth as the rich sun sprinkled its rays on thousands of visitors flocking to the crystal clear beaches. The Towson family brought blankets and a few peach-colored beach umbrellas, along with ham sandwiches and bottled waters. Sunscreen had dripped into their pores, protecting them from the deadly crisp of the sun, but heat was on the forefront as the villain to their limited reserves of energy.
By four o’clock, Sarah had tanned for an hour with her mother, listening to the woman’s accounts of town gossip, including a lecture about Karli, whose mother Sarah decided to tell about her journey with Joel. It was time for Stacy to hear what Sarah had experienced: John’s absence, and his presence causing problematic strife; the drug dealing; Karli’s mental and physical health. The list could go on and on about that day in Savannah.
Sarah stood up and took a boogie board out to the waves, playing with it at the crest of a few miniscule whitecaps. Her best friend in California had taught her the basic principles of surfing, but Sarah was still an extreme novice, even being from the coast herself. Surfing was never her shtick, no matter how many times she tried, but judging from Zach’s attempts nearby, he would learn quickly how to succeed in the Pacific tides.
She paddled around on the board for a few minutes, allowing the coolness of the water to mesh with her hot skin. She looked around at the beach, at the countless individuals from their same resort, and wondered what their lives were like. Did they worry about stuff from their past, or even the boy who worked at the aquarium?
She tried to stick thoughts of Joel out the window, but he came back in her dreams, revealing her intense subconscious view of him. She liked him, a lot, and she knew she shouldn’t. They hadn’t seen each other since church the previous weekend, and now, she wasn’t sure if they would ever talk again. Maybe she reacted the wrong way, without giving him a chance to explain, but her stubbornness had set in, her unforgiving spirit. It was a flaw in her character, the inability to forgive, even when she expected others to forgive her.
Joel was not a bad person, Sarah thought. He needed guidance, but he was handsome and playful. He worked at church sometimes, for heaven’s sake, and seeing his ability to connect with students at the aquarium had heightened his appeal to her. Of course, Sarah was still expected to stay away from the Sealet family. He was off-limits.
She glanced over her shoulder at Scott and Zach pushing each other at the face of the ocean, the mirth between them radiant. When Scott put down his phone and news apps, he was a generous, fun-loving guy. Helena was soaking up the sun nearby, lying on her back, allowing individual rays to paint her skin. She looked much younger than she really was, but Sarah wondered if this was a bad thing.
A school of fish darted around her toes, tickling her. Eventually, she gave up swimming, and headed back to the sand, feeling the grainy individual pieces stick to her. And try as she might, she couldn’t help but think of a guy back home.
HE KEPT HIS days busy. There was always something to do, whether fiddling around with little problems in the house, or taking Karli to dance practice, or work four days a week. When he got time off, he visited Manny, and they played video games sometimes, and checked out movies at other times. Eventually, Joel left his state of the doldrums, and began thinking of a girl he’d recently met at a party the weekend before. Her name was Eleanor, a very traditional name, and she had strawberry blonde hair and pearly green eyes. She was outgoing, outspoken, and adventurous, a combination of toxicity, but a combination that would definitely help Joel forget somebody else.
Joel made arrangements to take Eleanor on a date the next weekend, at the crab shack on Spruceling Road, and he was downright excited. He needed to get out of the house (or Manny’s apartment), and enjoy what life had to offer.
Yet on a blistering hot Monday afternoon—the first week in June—Joel found himself preoccupied in thought as he passed his father’s shoe shop. He languidly allowed his mind to drift, imagining the dream of his parents’ murder at the place. Anxiously, Joel pulled over and entered the shop.
The familiar smell drifted into his nostrils. His father stood at the counter, placing an order for an old gentleman Joel recognized as Kip Rinsten, and Ethan Sealet didn’t even look up at the tower of his son behind Kip. Instead, Ethan engaged in a lively banter with old Kip, who happened to be Mrs. Elsie’s cousin, and the devilish Mrs. Trantridge’s younger brother.
Eventually, Kip moved to the side, and Ethan was forced to size up his one and only son. Ethan didn’t smile, but rather said, “Hiya. Looking for some cash?”
Kip took the hint and left.
“Dad,” Joel said, his voice shaky as the door closed, “I just wanted to talk.”
“What is there to talk about, Joel?”
“You haven’t seen Chlo or me in nearly two weeks, and then you text me angry, ravenous messages about the end of the world. I’m sorry, Dad, but needing my help to arrange a free birthday party at the aquarium is non-negotiable. What are you thinking?”
Ethan shrugged. “I thought you could help me.”
“Why do you need a free birthday party? There’s the ocean, anyway. Is it a customer?”
“Look, Joel, there are some things I’d rather you not know, and this is one of them.” For the first time since his parents’ divorce announcement, Ethan looked guilty.
“Chloe’s birthday isn’t until July 6th. I can bet you don’t know mine. So, who’s the birthday party for? All our family lives in Atlanta. Only Aunt Cindi lives in Savannah, and she has no kids.”
“Joel, stop it,” complained his father. He looked over his shoulder, where, through a partition, his hired friend Thomas helped.
“Why did you and Mom decide to divorce, huh? Is there something you want to tell me?”
“Joel, you’re being extremely inappropriate. There are some things you just don’t need to know, and this is one of them.”
Joel ran a hand through his thick hair. He wanted to take the old man’s shoes, still sitting on the counter, and slap them across his father’s face. Instead, he found himself at a loss, and he breathed, “Okay. You know, okay. There are certain things I don’t understand in this life, and you’re one of them.”
Immediately, Joel knew this was a better response than the physical violence associated with attacking someone using the disgusting filth of the bottom of a shoe. Ethan winced in pain before abruptly turning and rushing to the space where Joel could not see him. Unfortunately, Joel was used to his father’s running away to a place unseen, and he turned around and walked out.
ALEX WAS WORKING at Jimmy J’s when Joel stepped inside, stuffed a wad of bills onto the counter, and anxiously said, “Get me anything that has meat.”
Tonight Alex had the cashier, and luckily, no one else was around, except two other attendants who usually were so into each other (the romances of a fast food diner in Breezewater) they could care less what Alex did in his spare time. He had seen Joel drive in like there were no speed limits, or rather, he heard obnoxious rap music blasting from the speakers. When Joel entered, tall and angry, Alex supposed he would have to be a shrink again, and that was okay. He was bored to death, as it was a slow hour, and talking to Joel did beat listening to the sweet nothings behind him.
Joel waited at the nearby counter as Alex prepped the food, sticking it on a tray while doling out a large sweet tea. Then, making sure no one was about to enter the restaurant, he jumped over the counter and seated himself by Joel at a Formica tabletop in the smack-dab center of the restaurant. The sky was laced with puffy, gray clouds, hinting a summer shower, yet Alex had seen nothing on the radar suggesting any rain. Typical weather forecasts, never accurate.
“I hate my freaking life,” Joel said, taking a large bite from a double patty cheeseburger. Through the gulps of smothered food, he began to recount what had happened with his dad. The strained relationship, now blown to bits; the lies, the questioning. Joel even brought up Eleanor.
As Alex listened, judging completely but saying nothing, steam seemed to seep from Joel’s brain. He felt much better with one person listening to his regaling of his daily life, the strife attached to the divorce, the bitterness following right after. Alex barely blinked, and his casual utterance of, “Yeah, yeah,” somehow propelled Joel to reveal even more about himself, more than he’d ever revealed to anyone, including Manny.
“Alex, can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah.” He looked around, making sure no customers were entering the restaurant. Aimee had promised she would take care of the drive-thru, but he hadn’t seen any cars enter the parking lot anyway. Some beeps sounded behind them.
Joel sighed. “Do you think my dad has a lovechild?”
“A lovechild? Come on, Joel.”
“I’m just sayin’. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was a cheater. In fact, I’m pretty sure I caught him once, but… I got over it. He and Mom got over some of their issues, and everything went back to normal. But, come on, he asked me if the aquarium would give him a free birthday party for someone he knows? Doesn’t that seem quite far-fetched and also a little desperate? Like, why would he need that?”
Alex shrugged. “Joel, you’ve got a lot going on.”
“Yup, I would agree. Now diagnose me.” He stuck a fry in his mouth.
Alex crossed his arms. “I’m definitely not a shrink, but I think I can spot a lot of ick when I see it. You know, maybe you should just move away. Get out of here, because this is just going to drag you down.”
“You can say that again. But where would I go?”
“I’m not sure. How about Portugal? Senegal? Madagascar?”
“I would prefer to stay in the United States of America.”
“Join the military.”
“Go to graduate school early?”
“Well, the way I see it, your dad’s got a lot of issues, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a carbon copy of him. You’ve been acting like him for a long time, but that doesn’t have to be you. Do you get what I’m trying to say?”
Joel shrugged. “Yes. But maybe…”
A customer entered, and Alex stood up. “You know, Joel, you’ve got a choice. Make something good of yourself in the middle of this fray. Or succumb to its disease.”
Realizing Alex was done, Joel stood, threw away his trash into the receptacle, and disappeared outside. When Eleanor called him minutes later, he told her he needed a break, and before he knew what he was doing, he was lighting another blunt.
THE SUN WAS setting, casting a rainbow across the skyline. The Towsons were at a restaurant cabana on the edge of town, near a wooden pier where children rushed down with parents sprinting behind them. Gulls cawed above, while the hint of a dolphin poking above the waves caused many oohs and aahs from the diners. It was almost eight, and the dazzling sea beyond was turning a darker color with the setting of the sun. Soon everything would be eclipsed in natural darkness.
Zach was in the midst of a comedic retelling of something he’d done with Joey. Their parents acted quite pleased with him and this friendship, laughing at all the necessary intervals, but Sarah’s mind was racing.
It had returned to Zach’s revelation of the woman who drove past their house every so often, and how Helena would ask her to leave. She wondered about the biracial girl involved, as she was only five or so, and very beautiful. The question still remained: Who were they? Sarah wasn’t sure, and she didn’t exactly want to know, but something deep in her was awaiting answers.
She listened to the chatter around the restaurant—some of it fake chatter—and the intoxicating sound of laughter. The truth was a lot of the joyous expressions emoted were not true to the ones bearing them, including Sarah, whose smiles did not match her eyes.
Eventually, when the family had finished their food and went outside to walk along the pier, Sarah discovered the gumption to interrogate Helena about this mystery. The twinkle of stars was dimmed by the bright lights at the cabana, but the night was still a magical one, and down the pier, it looked like a man had just proposed to his girlfriend.
Zach and Scott broke away, walking much faster, so they could check out a large German shepherd puppy down the way. Helena, on the other hand, walked without intensity, and in their aloneness, Sarah found comfort in asking her question.
“Who is Ms. Temprend?” The question came out like a hot flash from Sarah’s throat. She waited.
Helena gulped. She paused, leaning over the left brink of the pier, so she could stare at the string of resorts blocking the coastal edge. She looked older then, a few wrinkles sprouting underneath her eyelids. “Sarah…”
“Just tell me.”
“Did she bother you when we weren’t home?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“You’ve always been intuitive.”
“Always,” Sarah agreed.
Helena shrugged, finally recommitting their eye contact. “Ms. Temprend is a family friend. She has made mistakes, but she is a family friend.”
“What does that mean, Mom?”
Helena shrugged again. “I’m not at liberty to discuss her appearances at the house.”
“I’m not one of your clients, Mom. Why can’t you just tell me why she’s been stalking our house?”
The woman rubbed the bridge of her nose. “It’s none of your business, Sarah. It’s really not, and since I follow rules of propriety, I won’t tell you anything more. Now, excuse me. I’m going to find your brother and father.” Then the slap of her sandals on the wood angered her daughter so much that Sarah gripped the wooden posts, and her hands filled with little icicle-like splinters.
THE SUN WAS bright over the next few days of their trip. It streamed down on them in blankets of yellow, coating their skin in darker hues of tan, and lightened golden streaks in their brown hair. Zach and Scott had an incredible time on a nighttime dolphin cruise, while Helena paraded around the outdoor outlet mall for fun in the afternoons. Sarah attended all events with her family, savoring each moment, because she’d been without them for the greater portion of the past year. Florida was definitely different than California, but every time she looked out into the cerulean of the Gulf, she felt a burst of emotional withdrawal from her friends back in Los Angeles, including her on-again, off-again boyfriend Mateo.
She thought of them for a few minutes at a time, before something came back to her about how much she had missed Zach when she had been away from him. No matter what, Sarah now belonged to two distinct worlds, and it was hard being apart from either of them.
On the second to last day of their trip, they took a shoreline drive to a small beach community with pink, green, and yellow summerhouses. They walked along the beaches with ice cream cones and touristy shirts, and eventually, Scott sidled up next to his daughter while Helena and Zach skipped along the watery sand ahead of them.
“Mom mentioned you had questions about Misty Temprend.”
Sarah felt like she’d been scolded. She looked up at her dad’s friendly blue eyes. She wondered if he was going to admit something big to her, like infidelity, or even something weirder, but she nodded her head and smoothed out her shorts. Her left hand fiddled with the fishtail braid in which her chocolate strands were placed.
Scott smiled. “Misty Temprend is a family friend, sweetie.”
Sarah shook her head. “Please don’t lie to me, Dad. She and her daughter passed us at the restaurant in Paradiso Bay. You guys said nothing to each other. Don’t lie to me, please.” Memories resurfaced of the pain she’d experienced in her family. When it came down to it, her parents were good. But they repeatedly lied to her, kept things from her, and even things were strained between themselves.
Her father sighed again, stopping. His feet were underneath countless granules of sand. “Misty, your mother, and I are old friends. We went to high school together. Anyway, she has a child named Sofia, who is adorable. We didn’t see Misty or Sofia at all until they moved to Breezewater this past fall, so she could be a teacher at the elementary school. You see, neither your mother nor I even remembered Misty until we saw her at a restaurant. Well, Misty started driving by our house, informing us she knew no one around town, and she needed a friend.
“Eventually, she revealed the reason why she moved here. And she’s been harassing us because she wanted explicit details into the life of Sofia’s father, who lives in Breezewater too.”
“Well, who’s the girl’s dad?” Sarah had a hard time believing any of this. It seemed too random, like this was all another big joke. Another lie.
Her dad paused. “You have to promise to keep it locked low, and I mean it, Sarah. I seriously mean this.”
“Well, the girl’s father is Joel Sealet’s father, Ethan Sealet.”
Sarah’s world careened to a stop. It was like a light had blown out inside her soul. Did Joel know? Did he care? He had a younger sister? Ethan had cheated on his wife? He had another child? And the child’s mother was harassing her parents? But why?
“Sarah, I mean it, you have to keep this quiet. This is not public knowledge. I doubt Joel and Chloe know anything about this, and you have to promise me…”
Little pinpricks dotted her skin. The heat emanating was building like a wildfire, uncontrollable. “Dad, you know I can’t do that.”
“Why can’t you?”
“He’s not your friend, or anything like that. You guys went to high school together. That’s it. This is not your thing to get involved in, do you understand me?” His tone was stern now. He expected her to obey orders, when all she wanted to do was rush to Joel and scream at him, “Sofia Temprend is your sister!”
Instead, she stood rooted to the spot as her father pulled her into a cold hug. He whispered things to her, about how proud he was, and how there would be a good time for Joel to find out, but now was not the time. And it surely wasn’t Sarah Towson—who had nothing to do with a boy like Joel Sealet—who had the place to say anything about this illegitimate child. All Sarah could think that the child was absolutely legitimate and calling her anything less was like a blow to the stomach.
She felt numb for twenty minutes. The ocean lost its luster, the sky lost its ethereality, and Sarah lost her ability to reason.
When she found her phone in the car, she desperately wanted to text him. She wanted to tell him everything in the world. But then with a look at her parents’ calm demeanor, she shuddered. She saw Zach, who smiled that wide, Zachary Towson smile, and she remembered how she had destroyed them with the betrayal involving Karli. Could she risk it all again? Her parents were forgiving people, but they might lose all faith in her if she told Joel.
But unlike her parents, truth was rooted deep in her core.
THE BLUE PAINTED walls of the aquarium dulled Joel’s interest in the world, at least for the time being. He stood at the base of a tank of stingrays mopping the floors. It was Thursday afternoon, a day in June he couldn’t identify, and he was so bored he could have clawed his eyes out and still remained passive. Even the fish couldn’t keep his interest, and he was about to fall over and fall asleep in the little cove when an elderly man and a young boy came up to him and asked him where the restroom was. After answering, he found himself in a ten-minute-long conversation about Vietnam. Eventually, in the midst of the long tête-à-tête, he saw a flash of chocolate hair, and he innately knew who the hair belonged to. He silenced the thud in his heart and continued to speak with the old man, who tried to convince him to serve his country. When he finally toddled away, Sarah appeared, standing before him like a princess. There was no way he could have fallen for Eleanor with Sarah before him, radiating like diamonds.
“Sarah,” he said, finding the mop in his hands. His entire focus had sharpened with the approach of the beautiful girl. “Sarah, what are you doing?”
“When do you get off work?”
He looked down at his watch. “An hour. Why?”
“I’m going to wait for you outside. My bike’s nearby.”
“You biked all the way out here? That must’ve taken an hour.”
“It’s okay. I need to talk to you. And in private.”
“Sure, sure. I’ll try to leave a few minutes early.”
“No need,” she said, throwing her long hair over her shoulder. How attractive could one girl be? This attraction was something different, Joel thought, than his previous experiments. He didn’t believe she could change him, but he did believe she was different than everybody else. And this worried him.
He spent the next hour sluggishly mopping the floor, before leaving as soon as possible, running out back to his Jeep, so he could drive around front where the large mural of dolphins welcoming all to the aquarium seemed spectacular in the setting sun. Sarah sat at a bench, reading a novel, her bike lying at her feet. In the moments before she noticed him staring at her, he understood something was beating in his heart besides the regular rhythm, where blood pumped and ventricles lived. Instead, something overtook his spirit, and he wanted nothing less than to impress her.
“Hey, Sarah!” he called out. He jumped out of the front seat and lifted the bike, motioning to stuff it in the backseat.
“Are you sure?” she called out, tossing her book in the front seat.
“Don’t even start with me. I’m driving you home. Deal with it, okay?”
“Okay.” She smiled.
He stopped in front of her, careful not to touch her, but close enough so he could feel nervous. Her eyes were intense, and her body language was still somewhat standoffish, which he appreciated. She would never be the one to throw herself at him. “Can we start over? Yes, I admit, John Cruston was my drug dealer. Also, Karli and I once had a fling. I am freaking sorry about that, and I promise, those were mistakes. Complete, foolish mistakes. I’m not perfect, Sarah Towson, and I guarantee you I will never be on your level. But I want to try.”
She smiled, and it met her eyes. “Joel, I forgive you. You didn’t do anything wrong—to me at least.” She held out her hand. “I appreciate your helping me.”
He shook back. “Friends? Plus, I never slept with Karli, by the way.”
She nodded. “Friends.”
“What do you need to tell me?”
“Come on. Let’s go someplace. Are you hungry? Or if you aren’t, we could head to the beach?”
“Sarah, this isn’t like you. Should I be worried?”
She sighed a nervous sigh, like something was beating her up on the inside. “Yes, you should, and I’m worried too. But you need to trust me.”
“Okay. We can go to Jimmy J’s, take the food to the trails at Fordham Point. By chance, did you bring bug spray?”
She pulled a canister from her hipster bag, along with pepper spray. “I’m always prepared.” She winked.
“Sarah, what is up with you? You’re not going to roast me for dinner, right?”
She laughed. “Yes, that’s definitely on the agenda.”
He turned left at the next intersection and sped down the road to Jimmy J’s, hoping Alex would not be at work. A few minutes later, they went through the drive-thru and ordered, before collecting their burgers and heading down to Fordham Point.
Fordham Point was a little park on the edge of town, with tons of hiking trails snaking into the natural swamplands and greenery. Birdwatchers loved Fordham because hundreds of types of birds called the park home, but mostly, people liked to jog there. Away from the coast, but not too far away, it offered a relaxing aura most people would not dream about in the city. Plus, it was never crowded. Never.
Joel pulled into the park, passing a group of women with their children at the playsets. He whipped his car into a spot near a collection of benches at the beginning touch of the verdant forest, where a sign cautioned all who wished to use the trails.
He and Sarah walked to a nearby picnic table, their bags of fast food in tow, Sarah slurping on a Coke. Eventually, they were positioned across from each other and Joel said, “Well, what do you need to tell me?”
She took a bite from her cheeseburger. “Nah. Let’s wait for that, okay? Right now, let’s just sit and watch nature.”
Joel cocked an eyebrow. “You mean the little kids screaming their lungs out behind me?” It was true; the noise was like a cacophony. Since they were behind him, Sarah was able to see a little boy running around with his palms in the air, screaming for dear life. Then his mother panned into view, running after him as best she could.
“Do you want any?”
Sarah shrugged. “I guess.”
“We’re too kidlike to think about kids.”
She smiled, the blue in her eyes dazzling him. Then she looked down at the table. “You see, we still have a lot of life left, and kids can come later. I’m nineteen. I’m too busy thinking about how I’m going to survive in the real world one day.”
“You already are.”
Sarah shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“You live three thousand miles away from your family. I would consider that living in the real world.”
“You guess? C’mon, Sarah.”
There was a moment of silence. A piece of lettuce hung from Joel’s upper lip before he licked it away. Sarah smiled. “You see, I would never have pictured you to be like this.”
He shrugged, wiping a napkin across his lips. “What do you mean?”
“Back when we sat in the same classroom, before I knew you like now, I thought you were…”
“A jerk?” He finished for her, nodding with a semblance of lackadaisical mannerism. “And I thought you were uppity and persnickety.”
She ignored the hurt associated with his comment, because she knew—deep down—it was true. “Fair assessment. You can’t judge a book by its cover, right?”
The fading light cast a glow across Joel’s frame, lighting him up like a candle. He was so handsome, Sarah thought, and even in the midst of their trek to find Karli, she hadn’t been as attracted to him as she felt now. Something inside her wanted to dive deeper into this relationship and discover if there was something there. Of course she couldn’t tell how Joel would take her news, but she hoped he would not hold it against her. She believed she was doing the right thing—in his case at least.
“Sarah Towson,” Joel said, throwing his trash into the bag, before slamming his wrists against the table. He stared at her with his warm, intense eyes, and said, “You are unlike anybody I’ve ever met. Don’t forget that, okay?”
“No one is identical,” she pointed out.
He rolled his eyes. “C’mon. You know what I mean. Anyway, we’re done with dinner. Tell me your news. It must be sorta juicy, if you’d bike an hour to visit a jerk like me.”
“Stop. I don’t think you’re a jerk,” she said as they stood. She had to stare up into his eyes. Ignoring the steady thrum inside her, she pulled on her shirt and said, “I really don’t think you’re a jerk. You’re a good person. Now, come on. Let’s go for a walk, okay?”
Joel and Sarah found themselves on the boardwalk, passing by little placards explaining the flora and fauna of the area. The humidity mingled with their nerves at being around each other, and they cared nothing for the natural atmosphere around them, because they were—in all reality—focused on each other.
Eventually, Sarah said, “I need you to trust me—and to be honest with me.”
She paused as a jogger rushed past them. She recognized the woman as the owner of a boutique on the southeastern edge of town proper. They sat down at a bench on the brim of swampland, and as the cicadas bleated, Sarah began.
She told him everything in its entirety. How she’d had her suspicions, and when she’d discovered the truth, she’d talked to Mother Elsie about how to proceed, and of course, the old woman told her to be honest with Joel.
“So, I think you have a sister,” was all Sarah could say when she finished the speech.
Joel was mortified, sitting rooted in place like a thousand-year-old tree. He didn’t look at her, nor did he feel anything for a while, except the trauma from numbness, and when he finally found his voice, it was to say, “Wow.”
“You know why I told you this, right?” Sarah asked, terrified she’d alienated him and their friendship, when he was all she had at the moment.
Joel nodded. “Thanks, Sarah.” The lilt of his voice had lost some of its playfulness, but he turned, and under veiled eyelashes, she saw his eyes held no malice toward her. “Thanks for telling me when no one else would. Am I the only person who doesn’t know?”
“Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe we’re totally wrong, and I don’t want to stir the pot…”
“You know, it doesn’t even matter anymore. If I have a sister, okay. It would explain my parents’ divorce right now. Dad’s living on his own, and Mom’s freaking all the time.”
Sarah breathed. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, so am I. But seriously, does the whole town know, and I’m late to the party?”
“No. It’s rather complicated how I found out. The woman and her child are living in town, and my parents happened to know her from high school.”
Joel brought his long legs up underneath his chin.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Please don’t. Leave your propriety. The last thing I want to be is alone right now.”
Sarah nodded and sat by him, the flash of lightning bugs dim against the backdrop of the falling sun. She occasionally glanced at him, finding his sitting position childlike, but he had to cope somehow. She flicked a piece of dirt from her upper arm and found herself humming. Which inevitably drifted her thoughts to Karli, her best friend from childhood to eighteen. Now a mother. Maybe even a wife.
Their lives had always been set on different tracks, but now, it felt even farther apart than ever. Karli’s words resounded in her head, from that summer night a year ago: You’ll never see me again anyway, so why do you care? You always have to get the upper hand over everybody, and no one even likes you, except me. So why do you think you can…
“Sarah,” Joel whispered, breaking her from this reverie. He pointed to a gorgeous blue butterfly that landed on his tennis shoe.
Sarah reached out to touch it, but it flew away, flapping its wings like turning pages in a book. She jumped up and started to chase it, down the boardwalk, past a man walking his dogs, through the humidity and Joel’s presence, and found herself letting loose for the first time in a long time.
Suddenly she heard him behind her, and he screamed, “Seriously?”
“Yes!” She jumped off the boardwalk and found herself in a little grove of large wisteria trees. The butterfly landed on a large boulder sitting underneath a baby shrub. She reached out to touch it, but it flew away again. Instead of chasing it again, Sarah turned and found Joel staring around the little cluster of trees, before intently looking up into the approaching night sky.
When their eyes locked again, Sarah shyly looked away first and jumped back on the boardwalk. They still had a half-mile walk back to his Jeep, and she needed to get home at a reasonable hour to not set off her parents, who thought she was at Destiny’s. They knew Sarah did not stay out late, so they would expect her home around nine, ten at the latest.
Joel and Sarah moseyed down the path in quiet understanding. Eventually, they came across a woman with two children: a little girl in a stroller, and the other a boy of four or five. It was like a maternal instinct, deep within Sarah’s bones, that made her sprint as fast as she could to collect the boy in her arms. She saw his little chubby hands reaching out in front of him as he fell from the wood platform, his mother looking at the little girl. When she turned her back, it was too late; but then a young woman appeared, jumping to grab the boy, and then the two toppled over into the muddy earth. The boy was safe.
“Oh my gosh!” the woman cried, jumping down, Joel right behind her.
“Mommy!” the boy screamed.
Sarah knew her ankle was hurt, but her heart was palpitating because she had done the right thing. Then, as she analyzed her surroundings, she found herself being lifted up into Joel’s sturdy arms, and she was staring directly into his eyes. He was holding her, like some knight in shining armor, and Sarah realized she had been lost in him for a lot longer than she previously imagined.
He placed her on the boardwalk, ending their physical contact far too soon, but the woman appeared and profusely thanked her. “You saved my son! How can I repay you? Please, let me…”
“It was nothing,” Sarah said. I already got my payment.
“But your ankle,” the woman protested. “You’re hurt.”
Sarah’s ankle was throbbing, but something else was pumping harder, and she was distracted by a mixture of adrenaline and attraction. She shook her head. “No problem. I’ll be okay. Just needed to make sure he was okay.”
“Thanks! God exists!” the woman called out.
Joel and Sarah continued their walk down the boardwalk, and when they finally made it out of the woman’s viewpoint, Sarah clutched her foot and said, “Dear goodness, it hurts. I’m going to need ice. And the other thing is, how am I going to lie about this?”
“What do you mean?” Joel asked, his grin annoyingly cocky. “First of all, I’m going to carry you to the Jeep, and don’t even think about rebutting. Also, what do you have to lie about?”
Sarah gulped. “You’re not serious, are you? About carrying me?”
“You’re light as a feather.” I’m just not that strong, his arms protested. Joel shook it off. He was lanky and not exactly a man of muscle, but he could handle carrying a pretty and skinny girl like Sarah a few feet. It would be exercise anyway.
“About the lying, I told my parents I was at Destiny’s. I’m not supposed to be around you. I guess I figured out why now.”
“Because they knew your honesty only applies to me, right?” He winked at her. “Get it?”
She nodded. It was a double standard, but then she was in his arms again, wrapping her wrists around his neck like they were in love, and she rested her head on his shoulder after a few awkward seconds. A few minutes into their walk, Joel was perspiring and turning red, and Sarah insisted on walking again.
“I’ll carry you on my back,” Joel responded.
“It’s not like I lost a foot.”
So they managed to walk slower than molasses until they found the Jeep again. It was almost nine-thirty by this point, and they concocted a reasonable story to get themselves out of the doghouse of lies. Simply Sarah and Destiny had gone to Fordham Point, and she’d saved a child from falling but crunched her ankle as a response.
Joel was quiet on the drive home, thinking about all Sarah had told him. For a moment he wondered if she was mistaken, but at the same time, her parents were always part of the news crew around town. They had been rooted in Breezewater for generations. He wasn’t sure how to proceed, until he pulled into Sarah’s subdivision, but far enough away from her house not to arouse suspicion. She pulled out her bike and began hobbling again.
Joel smiled at her and said, “Thanks for telling me. I mean it.”
“And remember what I said. You can’t tell anyone I told you—not yet.”
ZACH AND SARAH spent Sunday at home. Zach was puking up a storm, while Sarah was his caretaker; their parents insisted on going to church for a congregation crawdad cookout, but Sarah and Zach weren’t into that way of life anyway. Sarah had once tried a crawfish, and one girl had chased her around with its broken skull; therefore, Sarah had become an anti-crawfish killing activist and could not bear the sight of a mudbug.
Zach had eaten bad chicken the previous night while Sarah and Joel were flitting about. Of course, Sarah had obliged to staying home, because she had found a book she could not put down, and this gave her ample time to finish it, as she nursed her brother back to health.
Between the puke and moans, Zach finally managed to say, “So, you got another bouquet of flowers yesterday while you were out.”
Sarah straightened. Joel? Again?
“Mom threw placed them in a vase on the kitchen counter. She was so excited. She thinks you have a secret admirer, but then she started screaming that if it is Joel Sealet, she’s going to have a cow.”
Sarah pulled her long hair into a messy bun on the top of her skull. “Well, it’s not any of her business who got them for me, is it?”
“Do you like Joel Sealet?” Zach asked the question with innocence, but Sarah could see through the innocent façade. Zach had his suspicions, and he was known for being dead-on in his observations.
“Do I like him? Well…”
“Because he’s standing on our doorstep.”
Sarah whipped around to look outside, noting his crystal blue Jeep in the driveway. She rushed down the stairs as fast as she could, hoping her fluffy pajama pants and ratty old T-shirt wouldn’t change his perception of their friendship. She looked like a disaster, and now her ankle hurt even more, but the pain was dulled by his visage through the window. She unbolted the door and smiled as he said, “I wanted to check up on your ankle. I left church early when I saw you weren’t there, but your family is.”
“Scandalous,” she said. “You really left early to see me?”
“Of course I did. When I left, your ankle was in a precarious state.”
“This is really dangerous. What if my parents magically come home right now?”
He shook his head. “They’re not going to. There’s a special guest speaker from the parish. All I know is I wanted to see you… And to tell you this: Mom, Chloe, and I are leaving for Savannah for the next week. We’re going to stay with my grandma. It may be longer, but we won’t see each other, okay? And it’s not because I don’t want to see you, but because I can’t see you.”
She nodded respectfully. “Of course. Well, I’ll work on my ankle, and you can work on your…”
“Arrogant behavior,” he answered.
Just then, Sarah noticed a pair of binoculars above the rosebushes on the edge of the property. She scowled and found herself limping over to the spy, and upon discovery, instinctively knew Joey had been watching them. Joel followed and a few seconds later screamed, “We know who you are if you try to run.”
Joey placed his binoculars off and narrowed his eyes. “Who are you, big talker?”
Joel laughed. “Joel Sealet. And you?”
“Only Sarah deserves to know who I am. Listen, bud, why’re you hanging around the Towson house? This is my turf.”
Zach shuffled out onto the lawn, a string of puke behind him, as he shouted, “Joey! What’re you doing?”
This caused both Joel and Joey to disappear like hunted wild turkeys, and Sarah couldn’t help but laugh. A few moments later, Joey toppled over a large rock Helena always complained needed to be moved. He stood up, wide-eyed, and rushed off again.
A few minutes later, Joel appeared on the back porch. He pressed his face to the glass and looked inside the kitchen area, hoping Sarah would still be around to see him. She walked into the kitchen a few minutes later and grabbed a box of cookies before stuffing a few into her mouth. When she finally saw him, she jumped in fright and hurried to open the door.
“How’s Zach?” he questioned.
She shook her head at him. “He’s up in bed now, with a trashcan. I’m not the best one around vomit. Why’re you still here? This is a little scary, Joel.”
He nodded and waited. “I just wanted to officially say goodbye. A pukey goodbye is not good enough, at least in my opinion.”
“I’m sorry about that,” she said, backing away a few feet. “Well, goodbye then.”
Joel straightened, wanting more; somehow, though, he found the ability to turn around, jump the fence again, and leave.
Meanwhile, Sarah plopped a cookie into her mouth, and wondered what she was getting herself into.
THE SKY WAS gray as the clouds rolled in from the coast. A thick layer of fog started to cover the highways and roads, including Ruby Nolafez’s little house underneath a row of cherry trees whose fallen blossoms began to tumble to the green grass. Deep inside the house, in the pits of the basement, an old woman flipped through a portfolio of ancient, yellowed photographs showcasing her young adult life, back in the far-off 1960s, and the man she fell in love with, Rick Nolafez, an immigrant who proved to be quite an obnoxious man, but someone with whom Ruby spent nearly forty years of her life.
Of course, by the time Juliet needed her father most, Rick died from stomach cancer, and Ruby was not a big fan of her children. There were three of them: Jonson, Libby, and Juliet. Jonson had moved to Oregon in the ’90s, Libby was in Atlanta, and Juliet was the only one who remained behind. Juliet liked to be around her mom, but the feeling was not mutual, and though they spent a good deal of time together, that time was usually brimmed with fights and tension. Ruby liked fighting; it was in her DNA.
She claimed Joel’s full attention on this Wednesday morning, placing him under a barrage of historical facts, as Chloe was “busy” at a neighbor’s house, and Juliet had left to shop at the grocery. So that left Joel completely catapulted into Ruby’s storytelling fad, and he wanted to jump off a ledge. He’d rather stub a toe than listen to this, but he acted interested, and anyway, Manny was going to pick him up in thirty minutes. Maybe Manny would enjoy a few hours of American culture in 1964.
As she pushed a yellow nail across a letter dear old Rick had written, Joel felt like had entered the true twilight zone. He ignored her as she chatted about everything, contemplating how everything had turned so wacky in such a short amount of time.
Finally, he gave up and went upstairs to take a bite of lemon meringue pie. Ruby’s house was very old, from the 1920s or so, and it smelled like it. Like an old, friendly grandma’s, which was partially accurate. Partially.
Then he heard several raps on the door, and he hurried off to the door. A light dusting of rain spread across Manny’s spiked brown hair, and he walked in, shaking off. “Hey, man!”
Joel had a random memory then, back in high school, in the dim lights of a hallway. Lightning cracked a white line through the window, and beside that window, a girl stood, with a gathering of her friends, staring outside. While they all laughed at some corny joke, the girl was intently observing, watching, analyzing.
That girl, of course, was Sarah Towson, and with the hint of water droplets falling from the tips of her hair, she dazzled.
“Man, are you listening?” Manny shouted. He took a large portion of cake from the dish and smiled. “Where’s Grandma?”
“She’s downstairs. I don’t know if she’ll ever come up. I’ve been drowning in photo albums, and I’m about to lose it. Go speak Spanish to her or something. Serenade her underneath that blanket of your sultry accent.”
Manny smiled. “Well, I don’t know. I guess I’d do it for you. What’s the payment? I’m already driving you over to my apartment. That’s brotherly love if I’ve ever heard it in my life.”
“I’d do it for you if you were in my place.” Joel took a gulp of water from a nearby pitcher. He was just glad it wasn’t tea. Joel could not stand tea.
As Manny ambled around the kitchen, looking at pictures and trinkets, Joel debated telling him what he’d discovered, how he possibly had a little sister named Sofia Temprend, a young child whose mother was a schoolteacher. How his little sister was mixed. How angry he got when he heard that word, because he knew it offended his cousin Emily. He wondered if Manny would even be a good person in whom to confide, because Manny was known for taking things in a joking manner, and this was nothing but serious.
In the end, it was his grandmother who distracted him. The old woman appeared at the top of the stairs, wielding a cane, which she used to swat Manny across the head when the guy touched a nearby figurine.
“That’s older than your parents, and you’re going to get your germs all over it! What’s wrong with you?”
Manny grabbed his head and backed away. He began quickly, “No hablo ingles, señora.” He hurried away, scurrying behind his friend.
Joel nodded. “Manny only speaks Spanish.”
Ruby straightened a bit, placing her cane on the ground to steady herself. “Is that so? Somehow, I doubt that.”
When he feigned confusion and slurred a line of Spanish words, Joel shrugged. “We speak via hand movements.”
“Do you mean sign language, young man?” Ruby asked, lifting her cane into the air, pointing it like a bow at his chest. “Are you punking me?”
“Grandma, c’mon. Why’re you being mean to me in front of our guest?”
“If he don’t understand what I’m saying, why’d you care?”
A bubble of laughter emitted from Manny’s throat as Ruby hurried to him and patted him on the shoulder, even though he stood a good few inches above her. She leaned into him and whispered, “Your friend here is the stupidest goofball I’ve ever seen. Want food? That’s definitely a way of breaking cultural differences.”
Joel signed some random phrase, and his friend nodded with a large, goofy smile on his lips. “Yes, Grandma. Food is always welcomed.”
“Good, Joely, because God knows you need more of it. Look at your skinny legs.”
Joel smiled, sticking a strawberry onto his tongue. “Thanks, Grandma.”
She began talking to Manny about the most random things, and he mostly nodded with little interruptions of nods or shakes of the head, just because he had to keep the façade going.
Just like Joel had to keep his façade going. He had a sister.
SARAH SAT AT the dinner table, a pasta spoon dropping from her fingers. She was blankly staring at her sister, Alison, who had revealed a magnanimous secret to the table. Her husband, like usual, was away on a business trip, and her added presence put a damper on the entire meal. Even Zach frowned as he took a bite of spaghetti.
“Yes. Isn’t it crazy? Karli Kirkpatrick was crying at Planned Parenthood.”
“Why were you there?” Sarah angrily hissed.
“If you listened to me in the first place,” Alison interrupted, as a bird flew by the window, “you would have heard I was passing by on my way to my favorite seamstress. I knew it was Karli because you can’t miss that shade of white blond hair.”
Sarah gritted her teeth.
“Sarah, have you talked to Karli lately?” asked Helena as she sipped on her water glass.
“Actually, I have,” she said, though it was laced with guilt and sadness. She shook her head, on the verge of tears. “She was so happy about her baby. At least, I thought. She couldn’t have aborted her child, right?”
“Oh, Sarah,” tsked her mother, who wrapped her arms around her, choking her. She hugged her daughter with a loving intensity, but it fell short of the warming effect.
Sarah pushed away and shook her head. “Karli wouldn’t do that.”
“Why was she there, Sarah?” Alison said, lifting a piece of Caesar salad to her lips. “Come on. Put the pieces together.”
“Alison,” hissed Scott. “This is ridiculous. You of all people should understand the ramifications of gossiping. It’s inexcusable behavior, Alison, at least at this table.”
“Hypocrites,” Alison gasped under her breath, twisting her diamond ring around her finger. “I always knew Karli was destined for that kind of life.”
“Alison, that’s enough,” growled Scott again.
Alison was quiet, but Sarah felt the burning sting of tears. “She just doesn’t get it.”
“What don’t I get?” her sister screamed back. “Don’t you understand what I want you to get: You left this place, Sarah, and you come back and think everything’s just as perfect as always. You think you can come back and pick right back up. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Did I ever say that?” Sarah gasped, feeling ravaged by more emotions than she’d felt in a while: guilt, anger, shame, defensiveness.
“No, but it’s pretty clear,” Alison said, scraping her fork across the glass bowl.
Scott and Helena looked at each other before shaking their heads. Mute, Zach stood up and disappeared into the kitchen, away from the dreary suffocation of the dining room, where Alison glared fiery darts in her defenseless sister’s direction. Sarah didn’t look up.
“I think we need to have this talk,” Scott said, clearing his throat.
Alison shook her head. “This isn’t the time, Dad.”
“What do you mean?” Sarah glumly said, breathing out a few puffs of air. The resounding tone of utter secrecy and life-changing catharsis pounded her ears. She wanted to hide, to run, to cry.
“I don’t know how else to say it.”
“Sofia is really my sister?” She closed her eyes, imagining her parents exchanging a knowing look. Then she imagined Joel, smiling when she told him what her parents admitted, releasing him from the chains of a forgotten sibling. Even for a split millisecond, she imagined pushing her sister on a swing, feeling what it meant to have a sister for the first time in her life.
Instead, she opened her eyelids and her mother was shaking her head. Alison even snickered.
“No, Sarah. Sofia is Ethan Sealet’s daughter.”
She shook in fear. “What—what is it then? What…”
“You have another sister,” said Helena, without emotion. Her expression was completely deadpan.
“Another sister? What do you mean?”
Scott looked at the table. Zach should be here to lighten the mood, he thought, but Zach was probably already eavesdropping anyway. They had to be serious in this moment.
“We had another child, between you and Alison.”
“Her name was Olivia. She was three years older than you, so, now, she’d be around twenty-two.”
“Olivia?” Sarah croaked. “I have another sister?” She was hyperventilating in the next moment, unable to breathe. Alison’s eyes narrowed in response.
Helena blankly nodded, no emotions still. “We lost her when you were six months old.”
“How is it possible I didn’t know about her? How could you keep this a secret from me? I had another sister? How! This isn’t humanly possible!” Sarah shot up, throwing her pasta spoon at her father. “You all have only lied to me. That’s been the mantra of my existence! With all due respect, I freaking hate you!”
She rushed away, the sweat, tears, and anger comingling into a desperate claw of maddening rage. How could they keep so much information away from her? As she fell onto her mattress upstairs, she questioned her reaction. Had she overreacted, or had her reaction been spot-on? How could her parents have kept a hidden sibling locked away from her, even if the child had passed away at such a tender age? Why would they have kept it from her?
She lazily pulled out her phone but realized she had no one with whom to communicate, so she flung the piece of metal across the room, and buried her head into a collection of fuzzy pillows. She had a sister—kept hidden away—just like Joel.
She rummaged through her backpack in the nearby corner and pulled out a wad of bills. She had close to two hundred hidden in this backpack, just for the sake of necessary cash. Her debit and credit cards were safe in her purse in the crystal vase in the library. She could easily run down the road, buy some food at Jimmy J’s, and take a taxi to Savannah.
Spurred by this brash idea, she quickly gathered some of the cash and padded down the stairs, feeling like a spy on a deadly mission. She was able to curtail the hushed whispers of her family members and made it to the back door, where Zach stood waiting, his shoes already on. “Where are we going?” he whispered.
“You’re not leaving. You’re still sick.”
“Take me with you.”
She shook her head. “I can’t, but I’ll come back for you, okay?” She bent down and kissed him on the top of his head, a mannerism he usually hated with all his being. Now, however, he knew his sister was about to do something moronic, and if she didn’t come back, he wanted to treasure this moment.
“What are you about to do!” he hissed.
She rushed out into the lateness of day, the sunset spellbinding. She rushed as fast as she could to the door outside, plugging in the key code before her exit. She ran off into the night, all the way down to Freed Park on the edge of a bayou and Fordham Point, and found herself calling a cab from the city.
When the cabbie picked her up, she revealed the address she needed to go to, and through the casual small talk, Sarah realized how stupid she was being. She had run away from home, to do what? To preach? To get away from it all? She hadn’t even brought a toothbrush or her contact lens keepers. Instead, she was trusting no one else—except a cabdriver who would charge her a ridiculous amount of money—so she could flock to a place of dread.
She felt hot tears sting the bases of her eyes. She wanted to dive deep into a Mexican cenote and never float upwards, because this was the result of a major loss of faith in the humans she knew, the humans who paid for her college, the humans who had gifted her with life.
He pulled up to the old, forgotten house, and Sarah quickly paid him. She pulled out her phone and dialed Joel’s number, just in case she would need him. She guessed she probably would.
He didn’t answer.
“Hey, it’s Sarah. I…I left my house and took a cab to Savannah. I’m at Karli’s house. I just wanted to let someone know—if, by chance, I go in there and die. Anyway, okay, bye.” Nervously, Sarah walked up the old concrete steps, and in the now dark night, regretted coming here. She should have stayed in the suffocation of her parents’ mansion.
She knocked on the door and waited, her heart rate galloping like a horse against the wind.
Her phone buzzed beside her, but Sarah put it on silent.
The door flew open to reveal a rugged, skinny face with a protruding nose and leathery brown eyes. John Cruston looked like a ravaged drug dealer, and he was downright scary. He held a knife in his hand and said, “Who are you?” His words were venomous, just by the tone, and Sarah regretted silencing her phone.
“My name’s Sarah…”
A female’s face appeared atop John Cruston’s shoulder, and Karli’s mouth fell open. “John, let me have a moment with this girl.”
John continued to block the way. “Oh, why, Karli? Maybe she’s visiting me.” His laughter sent Sarah straight into a wall of self-loathing for what she had just done.
Karli pushed him out of the way and shut the front door, so she and Sarah stood on the little porch together, mere inches away. “What are you doing, Sarah?”
“I came to see if it is true.”
“If what is true?”
“Did you abort your baby?”
Karli’s body went slack, and then she grew incredibly angry. “If I did, why would it be your business? What are you going to do, yell at me like last time? ‘Selfish, no-good Karli Kirkpatrick!’ I’m pretty sure that’s what you said, and now, now of all times, you show up at my door to judge me? Get out, Sarah, two-shoes Sarah. This neighborhood is a dark, haunted place, and you’re going to get eaten alive.”
Sarah shook her head. “Already I’m being eaten. Karli!” she screamed as her friend slammed the door behind her.
Sarah fell over, sitting on the concrete steps, imagining goblins and voodoo witches appearing from each of the ransacked houses. Gently, she glanced at her phone. A thousand little texts from her parents, each delivering a line of GET BACK HERE NOW! One even promised to call the police, but Sarah knew they were too pristine in society to call the cops. That was for lower class people.
Everything always delt with the fallout. If there was a nuclear fight between two upstanding citizens, usually it amounted to nothing, really, because the fallout from such an action would be terribly daunting to not only the individuals involved, but their families and friends.
Sarah locked her knees and pushed them closer to her chest. She wasn’t sure what she had just done in the slightest, but there was no stopping herself now. The usual levelheadedness had been replaced with an ache for the sister she never knew, the girl who had been hidden from her while she rushed around the country. It was unbearable.
Sarah flicked open her phone again. A few texts from her mother, urging her to come home. They were looking for her, but she wondered if they really were. In all reality, they could be driving around a culdesac, but she doubted it. They did not want to arouse any suspicions from any friends, because this would show weakness. Their weakness at parenting.
With the hazy glow of streetlights, it was impossible to make out any stars in the large void of black sky. Sarah felt lonely, and maybe even tired. It was nearing eleven o’clock, and still nothing happened.
Eventually, Sarah stood up and began the long, arduous walk home. She’d spent most of her cash on the cabbie, and with thirty bucks to her name, she knew she couldn’t afford a ride back. She wouldn’t call anyone either, because—like her parents—she didn’t want anyone to see her in such a state of peril.
With each foot in front of her, Sarah Towson got one step closer to home. Karli’s house was on the southern edge of the city, a ten mile’s journey across the swampy mud land, and Sarah made the journey for a rampant four hours. She would alternate between running and walking (and mostly walking) due to her lack of energy and lethargy, and somehow made it home by four in the morning.
Her parents were asleep on the sofa and did not stir when she entered via the porch, where she climbed the stairs in complete silence, and fell into her bed moments later. She was dirty, aching, and exhausted, but somehow—on this walk—she had found peace.
An unmistakable peace.
And a desire to finish the race.
JOEL DIDN’T LOOK at his phone until the next morning, because it had been forgotten in Manny’s old pick-up. He and his best pal had spent the night playing video games at Abuelita’s house in Thunderbolt before retracing their steps home to Manny’s two-bedroom apartment in a ball of tiredness around midnight.
So it was not until Manny drove Joel back to his grandmother’s around ten in the morning when Joel finally looked at his phone and at the cryptic messages from Sarah. He did not understand what they meant exactly, but he inferred something about a sister and Karli. He debated what to do next, but Chloe appeared on the porch, and she called out, “Hey, Joel!”
Joel waved bye to his buddy, whose ancient truck sputtered down the road, a piece of metal dangling from its rear bumper. He rushed up the concrete steps to where his sister sat swinging.
He fell into the swing, his long legs hitting the floor as Chloe’s languidly drifted in the air. “So, you missed a lot.”
“I’m sure I did. I always miss everything important.” He looked out into the golden morning, where the birds chirped nearby, and wished he could go fall into his bed at the house in Breezewater. For a split second, he imagined a bright Saturday morning in which both his parents were downstairs, maybe sipping coffee together, and Chloe was there too. However, he knew these mornings were like one finding diamonds in a glass of water. Impossible.
Chloe nodded her head. “Mom and Grandma got into a giant fight, mostly about Dad, but about other stuff too. Mom ran off, and Grandma was accusing her of all these horrible things.”
“Where’d Mom go?”
Chloe shrugged. “Dunno. But she left in a hurry late last night, and she hasn’t been back. She hasn’t texted me at all.”
“And obviously, you’re hiding out on the porch swing so you don’t have to be around Ruby Nolafez.”
Chloe clenched her teeth. “It’s absolutely unbearable, Joel. Like nails across a chalkboard—or slicing a fork with a knife.”
“What kind of metaphorical analysis was that, Chlo?”
“I wish you brought your Jeep, because this is so crazy. We need to go back home. I don’t know why we’re even here.”
“Because something big happened, and we’re going to be collateral damage, so we had to be taken out of the picture.”
“Well, what do you think happened?”
He guiltily looked at his feet, before choking out, “You know, I don’t know.”
He prayed Chloe would ignore him, or not even see his reaction to her inquiry. He could not bear to lie to her, but he couldn’t bear to inform her of a truth he’d sworn to keep to himself, per the request of Sarah, who’d begged him for this form of privacy.
Instead of doing anything, Chloe sat in silence, until she could bear the silence no more. She jumped up and did a cartwheel across the grass, the dew mixing with her skin. “Joel, let’s do something today.”
“You want to be seen with your older brother? Doesn’t that violate everything about our relationship?”
Chloe laughed. “I don’t care. Anything’s better than Grandma Ruby.”
“Well, where are we supposed to go, with no car and no mom? Plus, it’s not like I have money.”
“Call a friend or something. We could go somewhere. Anywhere.”
Joel thought for a moment. The one person he desperately wanted to see, just for the sake of seeing, had no car. However, he could ask her to bike over to his subdivision and drive the Jeep over. In fact, he realized he hadn’t checked back with her, and so he whipped his phone out and dialed her number quickly.
Her voice was harsh. “Hey. How are you?”
“You sound beat.”
“Yup. Last night was pretty rough. Anyway, what’s up?”
Something rattled nearby, like an object had careened to the floor. Joel waited patiently, hoping she was okay, because she was acting completely weird, as if something catastrophic had happened. Chloe was still twirling around in the grass, her long hair pinned at her scalp. She looked much older than thirteen, which scared him. She was already starting to bloom into something beautiful.
“No, you know what, you tell me what happened.”
She breathed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m still a little shocked that the first person to check up on me was you.”
Something stirred deep inside him.
She paused before continuing. “That sounded ridiculous, didn’t it?”
“And never in a million years would I have thought I’d be talking to you either. You were always untouchable.”
She chuckled, but he knew it was out of propriety. He wanted her to open up more, show her true honesty, but that required time. Time which, unfortunately, was already a fast mover. Even if he and Sarah did pursue something over this summer soiree, she had to return to California. She would leave, and he would stay. But for whatever reason, this thought had no power over him.
“You’ve gotta stop saying that, Joel. Anyway, I meant that I’m shocked we’re talking like we are. Like real friends. You know, Coach Brendenburg’s words are coming back to me.”
“How could I forget Coach B?” He thought back to last year, his senior year of high school, in which he’d endured Coach Brendenburg’s prosyletizing for two entire semesters. Coach B was infamous for his aphorisms and catchphrases.
“How he said, ‘Girls, you’ve gotta be on your guard. You’ve gotta watch out for boys, because they’ll lie to you. They only want one thing.’”
Joel gulped, wondering where this was going.
Then he heard something raw in her voice, something passionate. For the first time, like he’d wanted, she was opening up. “But he never said the same thing about parents.”
Joel waited, knowing this was a delicate topic and it would be best for him to give her space. Eventually, fanning the flame deep inside him, his voice cracked, “Sarah, I want you to bike to my house. Grab the key under the yellow geranium pot on the porch, and get inside the house. There’s no security code. Go to the kitchen, and in the drawer above the toaster, my keys are sitting. Pick them up, get in my Jeep, and come get me. 3676 Roselina Guard Road.”
She said nothing for a while, and thinking she’d hung up, Joel bit his lip. Eventually, she breathed, “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I think you’re going to need this more than I do.”
SARAH ARRIVED AT Grandma Ruby’s in less than an hour. She looked exhausted, with black under her eyes and the tiredness in her pupils lacing over. When she pulled up to the curb, Joel smiled and hooted, and hurried over to her. “Why, if this isn’t a sight, I don’t know what is!”
She smiled, but it took a while for it to reach her eyes. “Here’s the deal. I’m supposed to be under house arrest, but I took off again to do this. I may be Rapunzel for the rest of my life when I get back.”
“You ran away? Again? What did you do?” Joel was in shock.
She shrugged. “What can I say?”
“Okay. Well, do you mind if Chloe comes too?”
“Absolutely not. This is your car, and your time.”
“Okay. Well, let me go get her, and tell Grandma we’re leaving.”
A few minutes later, the three of them were buckled up and on the road, heading down to the coast. None of them had swimsuits on, or suntan lotion, or food to feed them. They had close to no money, but the thing going for them was spirit.
Chloe liked Sarah immediately, and Joel was thankful for this. Chloe usually met his girlfriends early on, but she seemed to really enjoy Sarah’s presence, and the two of them were busy dissecting the reality of California as Joel found a parking spot near a littering of dunes overlooking Cape Violet. They found themselves seated on the sandy floor, overlooking a few swimming beyond in the summer sun, just chatting away about nothing really. At first, Sarah had been sort of shy around them, but she had grown out of her shell. Even Joel wasn’t nervous to be around her anymore, and Chloe was never nervous around anybody.
Eventually, Chloe saw one of her friends from school and rushed over. Plus, if Joel knew his sister in the slightest, it was to give them privacy to hang out, even for a few minutes. Under the baking sun, Joel glimpsed golden streaks throughout Sarah’s brown waves. She had flopped over on her stomach, so her long legs were poised behind her, and her pretty face was rested on her hands. She looked out at the ocean and thought of Olivia.
He looked out at the ocean and thought of her.
Finally, Joel found the courage he’d been seeking. “So, do you want to tell me?”
“Not yet,” she said, blinking up at him. She wasn’t one for many words, and he appreciated this. He chatted enough for everyone in the world. But around Sarah, words didn’t matter as much as emotions and actions. Words meant nothing if he could prove himself to her in other ways. She rolled over on her back, so she was underneath his gaze. She looked up at his brown eyes and said, “Okay, I’ll tell you.”
“Please don’t rush it. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready.”
“Chloe will come back eventually, and I can’t say any of this in front of her.”
Joel shrugged. “You know, you don’t have to tell me. I could just say I’m on your side.”
“Without knowing the story? That’s biased, don’t you think?”
“There are a lot more things that are biased than my freedom to choose.”
“It’s just my parents.”
“Just? C’mon. Parents can be great, but they can also be disappointing.”
“Just like their children, I suppose.”
Joel nodded. “Yes. That’s accurate.”
“Well, you’re not the only one who will spend this summer in complete confusion. It turns out I too have a hidden sister.”
“What do you mean?”
She breathed. After returning home to the bleak, sad house of her youth, she’d slipped into bed. Her mother had entered moments later and started slapping her legs with her manicured fists. She’d broken a nail but didn’t complain. When Scott came in, there was a bit more violence, but only verbal violence, in which Sarah was given strict curfews and rules to abide by. They asked if anyone had influence over her decision making. They accused her of hanging out with boys, and that inevitably led to Joel’s presence. She’d denied all allegations, but felt extremely guilty, as a large cross hung nearby, watching.
In the morning, she’d been hassled awake by the smell of bacon and eggs. She’d walked downstairs to find her mother cooking for the first time in ages, a giant feast. They acted like nothing was amiss. They said nothing except, “Remember the new rules.” Then a plate was placed before her. They left for work. Zach went to Joey’s. Sarah did nothing until she got Joel’s call.
She told him the full, naïve, and ridiculous story of the previous night’s adventure, and he stared at her, agape, unbelieving.
“Impossible,” he breathed.
“Actually, totally possible.”
Joel looked at his fingertips that held little granules of sand. He tossed the goldness away. “You…”
“Yes. I walked miles to get home, from the worst part of town to Breezewater. I didn’t die, but I wasn’t really living either.”
“Do your parents know? What about your ankle?”
“It’s a little sore but not too bad. It never was bad. You just decided to carry me for fun. Also, not a clue. They think I went over to a boy’s house.” She winked, but Joel knew it was a wink of hurt. Her parents had caused her a lot of pain in the past, when all he’d ever thought was how perfect the Towson family name—unblemished—truly was.
Chloe returned a few minutes later, and the three of them decided to go back to Grandma Ruby’s area and eat food there.
On the way back, Sarah asked, “You’re just allowed to leave the aquarium for a week?”
“I explained the situation to my supervisor, and he let me have the week off. I’ve gotta be back in Breezewater by Monday, though.”
“Monday is June 18th,” Chloe shouted from the back of the Jeep. “Please tell me you know what that means, Joel!”
“Yes, yes, I do.”
“What is it?” Sarah asked.
“Two weeks and four days until the church-wide dance!”
“Church dance?” Sarah thought briefly of prom, something she’d refused to partake in. She remembered Karli drooling over a beautiful turquoise dress painted with sequins, and how she’d scooped her hair into a white blonde up-do. And she remembered bitterly, how she’d sadly went back home to her bed and watched random, cheesy 1990s movies all night.
Joel had been at prom, she thought. She could have imagined him, dapper in a suit and tie, or even a tux. She wasn’t sure which was which. She wanted to see him dressed up, but she also knew that he would never have asked her to prom. Back then, they had no communication in the slightest. She wondered if, even now, he would ask her to a dance.
Joel breathed and smiled. “Yes. Our church is hosting a thing on July 6th. It’s a tie-in with July 4th activities, but I’m sure you can come. I’m taking Chloe. Has Zach mentioned anything about it?”
“Not a peep. That’s so strange. Well, that sounds fun.”
Chloe butted in. “Hey, you really should come, Sarah! It would be really cool if you showed up.”
Sarah cocked her head. “Well, I’ll have to ask Zach about it, but it sounds interesting.”
They ate at a low-key sub restaurant overlooking a beautiful garden. As they finished, Chloe kept them entertained with stories of her youth. She was definitely a firecracker, and Sarah appreciated her unabashed approach to people she didn’t even know.
After they ate, Joel drove them back to Breezewater so he could drop Sarah off near the entrance of the subdivision. As they waited in the Jeep, the three of them, Joel said, “I come back in a few days. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” For one slight moment, she hoped he would lean in closer to her, so she could inhale his scent, but she took the silence as a cue to leave. She jumped out of the car and found herself approaching the somber Towson residence.
A GROUP OF individuals awaited Sarah as she entered the kitchen. At least, she thought they were waiting for her, but upon further inspection, she realized the people were surrounding her mother. Balloons floated into space and a large cake was plastered on the rustic dining room table.
“Is this some sort of party?” Sarah asked as she entered.
“Darn it!” Helena screamed, standing up. Then, as if all of these random people hadn’t already seen her, they sang in a chorus, “Surprise!”
“Oh, Sarah! You came home too early.” Her mother rushed over and pulled her into her chest.
As she was suffocated, Sarah breathed, “What? What is this?”
When they drew apart, Sarah realized that these random people were actually past teachers, or fellow church members, or whatever. It was a gaggle of older women, mostly in their middle years, who held little party favors and hats that read WELCOME HOME!
“What is this?” Sarah asked, flabbergasted. This was nothing like she expected.
Her mother pulled her into the center of the crowd, so all these random ladies could fawn over her and reach out to touch her briny hair. “We’re throwing you a party, Sarah! Obviously. To celebrate your return from California.”
“I got back a month ago.”
“Any party is better than no party at all,” drawled Mrs. Abbigail Spruce, who was the epitome of a party girl turned devout Christian housewife. Legend had it that her yearbook quote was THIS MAY HAVE BEEN THE HIVE, BUT I’M THE ONE AND ONLY QUEEN BEE. Of course, if interrogated now, Mrs. Abbigail Spruce would dismiss all notions of those words. “Impossible!”
The overwhelming scent of perfume and licorice filled Sarah’s nostrils so she was drowning in womanly smell, and she stood as various women hugged her and reintroduced themselves. Sarah didn’t know a handful, and the others—well, she had left Breezewater for a reason.
“We’re celebrating your return!” called out Sarah’s old, crippled Grandma Esther, the first wife of Grandpa Rob. Rob Fielder had a history with women longer than the Jews.
Sarah smiled as the woman pulled her into a hug, as always smelling of an unknown candle scent. Esther Shaw was known to all as the town’s own chandler who operated a very lucrative business coupled with customers from Savannah and the surrounding counties.
The thing about Esther Shaw was that she and her daughter Helena had a tumultuous relationship. Esther was as liberal as the sky was blue, and Helena had a strict social code to follow. Everyone excused dear Helena Towson’s crazy mother, but Sarah knew from experience that Esther Shaw was one of the most honest people in the entire world, and even if they might disagree on certain topics, they loved each other—and that’s what mattered.
Mother Elsie popped up in the crowd of middle aged individuals like a sore thumb. She was closer to Sarah than most of the people in the gaggle combined, so Sarah reached out to pull the old lady into an embrace. “So, did you heed my advice?”
“Advice?” asked popular Miss Taya Gunney, who was surrounded by her social circle of single, fortysomething divorcees. Miss Taya, however, had never married and many assumed she was either a spinster or asexual. Sarah didn’t think any of these were true, because Miss Taya simply devoted her life to volunteerism and her job as a sixth grade teacher/softball coach.
Sarah felt a stab of guilt. Miss Taya was Brie’s aunt, and the two were thicker than thieves. “Oh, nothing…”
“Nothing! Sarah Towson’s got a lover, you all!” Mother Elsie called out, her skin sallower than usual.
“A lover?” screeched Helena.
“No, I don’t!” Sarah cried out, turning red.
“Does this explain your glow?” called out a woman from church, Mrs. Elizabeth Keeper.
“Absolutely not,” Sarah said, though she knew her voice lacked truth. Anyone who knew her well could read through her like she was an open book. She glanced at Mother Elsie in frustration, and the old woman shrugged. Of course she didn’t know that Helena had placed restrictions on any relationships, or maybe she didn’t remember Miss Taya Gunney was also Joel’s ex-girlfriend’s aunt.
Gosh, how much Sarah hated small towns.
“So, can we take a wild guess as to who your little loverboy is?” Erica Pritcher, a buxom woman who stuck a strawberry into her mouth, was infamous for gossiping.
Another woman—one Sarah didn’t even recognize—chorused this opinion. “I bet Sarah here would go after a guy like Jake Lewis!”
This elicited a united laugh from the women, except for Helena’s pained expression, as if Sarah had included her in wedding plans. Sarah was tempted to run away, back across town again, but she knew this would ruin her relationship with Helena even more.
She stood rooted in place, awaiting the gossip storm that would knock her down.
Where was Zach when she needed him most?
“Nah, give Sarah some credit. She’s from California now, and I bet she’s super picky with who she chooses.”
“Well, what about Tom Boomington? Wouldn’t you like a pastor’s wife for a daughter?”
“No, I think she’d like a guy like Alex McFarland. You know, that church boy?”
“Well, if we’re going to talk about boys at church…”
They started repeating each other, salt and pepper, bickering back and forth, until a few yipped, “Joel Sealet!” and then all of them started to call out his name, so that it came to sharp focus, and Sarah felt she would faint, like some stereotypical damsel in distress. She felt like one in this moment though.
“Joel Sealet?” called out one lone opposition. Of course Hinsley Newton would disagree. “Joel Sealet’s dating your niece, right, Taya?”
Miss Taya shook her head, unusually silent for these social events. Of course she would be. “He broke up with her in the most senseless way possible. Went for another girl even.” At this, she stared at her feet, and Sarah innately knew that Miss Taya knew. And fortunately, she was keeping it a secret.
“Enough,” Mother Elsie cried out, her voice straining. “I started this, and I should be the one to apologize. Sarah, I’m sorry. It’ll be on your time to tell anybody who wants to know, but if she doesn’t want anyone to know, don’t bug her. She’s only nineteen-years-old, and by golly, she’s going to make her choice whether we like it or not.”
“So, it is Joel Sealet?” chirped brave Abbigail Spruce.
Sarah buried her head in her hands and when she looked up, a lot of eyes stared unblinkingly back at her. She felt like she was in some kind of an inescapable horror dream. Thankfully, at that precise moment, Juliet Sealet entered, holding a large balloon that read WELCOME HOME.
Beautiful Juliet looked at the crowd and knew something was wrong. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing at all,” chirped the chorus.
Twenty minutes later, Sarah slipped out to the backyard and found her way down to Lanceling Creek.
HIS FIRST DAY back at work was monotonous, but he would much rather have mopped floors and directed children to see jellyfish than sit another day at Grandma Ruby’s. He spent the first few hours thinking of Manny’s recent proposition to head to Myrtle Beach the week after Chloe’s church dance. Did he want to go to South Carolina? Manny had argued there would be plenty of beach babes and beer. Manny had a distant cousin who could hook them up with anything they wanted or needed. Manny sounded thrilled.
Pleased his best friend asked, Joel wasn’t sure if he really wanted to go. Plus, his family could use the money he’d make in a full week at the aquarium. If he went to Myrtle Beach, the truth was that he’d probably blow a lot of his funds. But then again, the truth remained that he could leave town for a week, and get away from the volatile household he’d leave in his wake. Juliet was wearing thin, like paper, between her job and the social stigmas surrounding Breezewater women. She had to be at every event while working a full schedule and finding time to raise two children and teach a Sunday school class. Joel had seen his father once since their last run-in, in which the tension was so palpable Joel almost felt the truth simmer from his lips. However, he kept his promise to keep it rammed down. Plus, he still hoped Sarah’s information was faulty, and that in reality, Sofia was not related to him in any way. But why else would Sarah have known after being told by her parents? Why had her parents restricted them from seeing one another?
He was in the midst of a spiel on pufferfish when a familiar face appeared, her tawny hair spilling down her back, her eyes livid. She was as hot as ever, this woman; Brie Fraser was like a dream. A real life dream.
But she wasn’t Joel’s dream.
Brie flashed him a killer smile that didn’t reach her eyes. She was gorgeous, but her normal sweetness was replaced by something Joel hadn’t seen her wear: jealousy. She fiddled with a string hanging from her blouse as she stood at the edge of the daycare crowd. Reminiscent of when Sarah had first visited that day weeks ago, looking like his dream, Joel and Brie stared each other down. Memories pained them both: for Brie, there was love involved; for Joel, embarrassment and guilt.
A few moments later, much like weeks ago, Joel handed the crowd to his coworker and diligently walked to his ex-girlfriend. For the first time, he saw the sorrow of heartbreak in her eyes, and this saddened him.
“Is it true you’re dating Sarah Towson?”
Joel stiffened. “Excuse me?”
“You left me for Sarah Towson?”
“Who’s spreading this rumor?”
“Rumors sometimes prove to be true. I wanted to hear it from you. That you didn’t leave me for Sarah Towson.”
“Why does it matter?”
A few tears splattered down her cheeks. Joel regretted his brash tone. “I’m sorry. I just… I liked you, Joel. A lot. And you broke up with me over dinner. Do I need to remind you what you said? ‘We need to sever our umbilical cord.’ That’s the coldest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
“Brie, I’m sorry.”
Brie shook her head so that her lemon-scented hair touched him. He didn’t realize she was standing so close, and he backed a few inches away. This troubled her, and she croaked, “Why are you doing this, Joel?”
“What am I doing?”
“You give me the world, and then you leave me for another girl.”
Joel shrugged, but the aphorism struck him in the dark part of his mind. He closed his eyes and imagined a strip of beach, somewhere hot and languid. He laid on a towel, soaking up the sun. No one was around, no one to give him hell. He had a surfboard and a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
“Brie, I’m sorry.”
“Well, sorry doesn’t cut it. My aunt went to your girlfriend’s house. She said they were talking about you, and Sarah was embarrassed when they mentioned your name. So there. I feel terrible about saying it, but if she’s embarrassed to even hear your name, what do you think she really thinks about you?”
SARAH FOUND HERSELF at Joey Raspoli’s house three days of the following week. He was annoying, but Zach insisted she come with him to play video games and get to know his best friend, and she complied. They did grow closer, the trio, and Sarah practiced her Spanish with the housekeeper, Rosie, who happened to be related to Zach’s favorite waiter Eduardo’s cousin. Rosie had been a somewhat successful poet who moved in with the Raspolis when they arrived in town, primarily because she needed extra cash to support her son’s dreams of attending college in Tennessee.
By the end of the week, Sarah and Zach began spending more time at the Raspoli household than their own house. Sometimes Sarah lounged in the turquoise pool while reading a book, and her brother and his best friend played video games upstairs. Other times, the position switched, and Rosie joined them. Always, by seven o’clock, though, they left, so that they would never run into Joey’s parents, whom the boy claimed to be “straight as rails.” Sarah did not know what this meant.
By that Friday night, on their walk home to their house, the birds chirped in chorus nearby, humming a familiar tune. Zach blurted, “Joey wants to ask you to the church dance.”
“I was afraid you’d be terribly mad, but I’m going to tell you anyway. He’s been sending you flowers. He spends his own cash on them, which is pretty nice.”
“Joey has been sending me flowers?”
“Well, who did you think was sending them? I mean, it was anonymous…”
Sarah covered her mouth with her hand. She remembered the poem on the first batch of flowers.
Girls like you are one in a million,
Boys like me are a billion in a billion.
You’ve captured my heart,
Like a poison dart.
Dance with me?
She slammed her eyes shut and bit her lip.
“So, anyway, he’s super in love with you, Sarah, and I told him he would scare you away. But he was too scared to ask you in person, so he was going to invite a mariachi band with Rosie’s help and all, but…”
“A mariachi band? How old is this kid? Twelve, or twenty-eight?”
“But… I’m the lousiest friend ever for telling you. I just couldn’t keep it hidden any longer.”
“Joey’s going to ask me to the dance?” Immediately, she bit her lip, drawing a little sliver of blood. She swallowed it and gagged, although her mind was still wrapping itself around the fact that if she accepted Joey’s invitation, she would be at an event where Joel was also present. How could they hide in the middle of church?
Zach nodded. “I’m going to ask Eliana from the Mexican restaurant. I think she’ll say yes.”
“She’s older than you, Zach!”
He shrugged. “Like Joey’s asking you out doesn’t prove how old you are? C’mon! This is a church thing. The whole ‘Leave room for Jesus’ shtick. Don’t worry. We’ll keep it PG rated.”
As they entered the house, Sarah coughed. “Are you twelve, or twenty-eight?”
“Just working on my game.”
He disappeared, and Sarah discovered a bouquet of orchids on the front porch. As she opened the seal to a little gold envelope, she hummed, and clutched the invitation to her chest, thinking about how she’d want to look nice for someone.
Joey popped out from a bush, his green eyes piercing. “So, my dear Sarah.”
Sarah jumped. “Gosh, Joey!”
“I just need your answer now, my dear Sarah.”
“Your answer is yes. I will take you to the dance.”
Joey’s eyes widened and a hint of youthful innocence appeared on his usually mature mien. “Yes! I knew you loved me too.”
“Let’s not take this too far, Raspoli.”
“Of course not, Lady Sarah. You see, I will show you the most class of any man you’ve ever met.” He approached her and kissed her hand, stroking it gently. Then he was gone, like a thief in the night.
Sarah rolled her eyes and smiled.
WHEN HELENA GATHERED word that her daughter had accepted a twelve-year-old’s hand at a church dance centered around middle school and high school-aged individuals, she cried out. She’d spent the past week walking on eggshells around her daughter. Not once had anyone mentioned Olivia since that fateful night, and Alison did not come to dinner either. Instead, life chugged on like normal. Helena and Scott doted over their daughter and sang her praises.
But now, Helena was speechless. “Joey Raspoli? As in Joey, Zach’s best friend? Sarah, don’t you think that’s a little weird? Shouldn’t you take your own brother?”
Sarah shook her head. “You see, Mom, Zach’s asking someone, and Joey asked me. I would feel terrible to break his little heart. I’m only nineteen. It’s only a seven-year age difference.” She popped a grape into her mouth as she emphasized only.
“So, you’re willing to spend a few hundred dollars on a formal dress, and hours on makeup and hair…”
“It’s not going to be that big a deal.”
“Sarah!” Helena cried out, her voice sharp. “Have you forgotten who is hosting the event? Our kind pastor and his son. Tom will be there…”
Sarah rolled her eyes.
“C’mon, you must see the goodness in Tom, right? He would be a perfect match for you.”
“Except for the fact that I’m not attracted to him in the slightest.”
Now it was Helena’s turn to roll her eyes. “You are the most pigheaded person in this universe, and I feel there is something you aren’t telling me. You’re always running around, and you were never like that before.”
“What can I say? I’m partly a grown-up now.”
“Well, I do have to say I’m excited that this means we’ll get to go shopping together. We don’t do that nearly enough.” Helena’s familiar blue eyes sparkled. “We could invite Alison—but I know how you guys act toward each other. It’s a shame.”
Sarah gulped. It explained why Alison hated her. Alison looked at Sarah as a replacement for a child who could never be replaced. Plus, it was no secret that she was the favorite child. If Alison had pulled a stunt like running away to a drug dealer’s house, she would have been locked in her bedroom for two years without parole.
Sarah nodded. “I guess so. It’s in a week, so we’ve gotta go shopping soon.”
Helena took a sip of her coffee. “Well, I’ll just leave work early tomorrow, okay? We can head to town and get to work. I’m thinking navy would really compliment you. Are you up to it?”
Sarah nodded. “Absolutely.”
For the first time in a while, Helena smiled, because things were looking up. Her baby girl was—for once—acting like a lady.
JOEL COULD NOT lie to himself. He was avoiding Sarah.
Was she ashamed of him? It had to be possible. She wasn’t perfect, but her life always looked like it, and his was nothing less than in shambles. It was more than probable that she would avoid him at all costs in the public eye because of all she knew him to be.
He didn’t answer her texts as quickly as before, even though something in his chest babbled upward like a brook of grief. He liked her so much, but rejection is never easy.
Eventually, he gathered the gumption to ask her out to lunch on the Tuesday before the dance. It was July 2nd, signaling almost half of summer had zapped by, and this solidified his hatred of July. It was nothing more than a lazy, sloth summer month.
They still kept their relationship a secret, hiding so Sarah’s parents would never find out. Joel wondered what their relationship could even be defined as. It was impossible to classify it as just a friendship, because it was not viable for him to only be her friend. There was much more to this than friendship.
He had accepted Manny’s proposal of leaving town the following week for Myrtle Beach, because he needed a break from the grind. His father had come to dinner one night when Juliet had been working, and it was nothing less than horrendous, because Joel knew instinctively that his father was keeping a mammoth-sized secret hidden in the cave of his heart. Chloe had been infatuated, like it was Christmas day, but Joel and Ethan eventually got into it as they cleaned up the dishes. When Juliet came home much later, she tearfully told Joel she had signed divorce papers two days before, and Ethan was still stinging about it.
So when he and Sarah took some fast food to Harrisville Lake, there was some awkwardness, but there always had been. He was in a mood, he knew, partially caused by Brie’s assertions that seemed somewhat accurate, and also because of the entire Sealet name. A lot had transpired over the past month, enough to shake anyone to the core, but he was a private guy, and it would do no good to bring any of this up.
Sarah was quiet too. She was always demure, but this was an exception. She chomped into her cheeseburger and stared at the lake.
“What happened?” he asked as he dug a fry into some catsup.
Sarah sighed. “It’s just my sister. Alison. She’s in her mid-twenties, and she’s married, and she hates me. She hates me so much that she called Mom and told her she saw me running around town with a guy who looked an awful lot like Joel Sealet. Of course, Mom flipped out and interrogated me for an entire hour before I finally convinced her I don’t talk to you.”
A seed of loneliness mushroomed in his gut. Had Sarah admitted to denying his presence in her life? She had.
Sarah turned and a pleading look crossed her eyes. “Why are we hiding our friendship, Joel? People are friends with others. We’re nineteen, and we get to make our own decisions.”
“Not if your parents pay your tuition,” he pointed out, but this didn’t help his case for wanting to be open about this.
She swatted him. “I’m just saying, I like you, Joel, and I’ve never hidden a relationship like this before. It’s downright toxic. But I’m also afraid that we’re going to stir a lot of drama if we…”
A hummingbird drifted by them, the glittering lake beyond sparkling in the afternoon light.
“If we… If we appear in public together.”
“Why don’t we take it as time comes? Sarah, I hate to bring this to your attention, but Harrisville Lake is a very public place.”
“We walked nearly a mile over here so that no one would spot us.”
“But if we want to be open, I’m going to feel even more pressure to spill my father’s secret. Do you know how it is tearing me up inside? I kept your promise, but it’s eating me alive.”
“I’m sorry I did that to you.”
“But I have to continue to wait, at least until we’re open about being together.” Joel couldn’t help but have a mocking tone.
Sarah frowned. “Joel, I’m sorry, okay? But I need you to keep your secret just a little while longer.”
“The secret doesn’t even pertain to you, except that you can’t have your ritzy parents knowing about our friendship.”
Sarah looked at her feet. “It’s just a precaution.”
“It’s not just a precaution,” he said, his voice alleviated by emerging from the shadows. “This is my life, Sarah. This involves me directly. And I’ve honored your secret for a good few weeks now, and I’m sick of hiding. I’m sick of the secret hiding like we’re Romeo and Juliet or something. We’re not star-crossed lovers. We’re not even that close of friends.” The continued anxiety in his voice began to transform into something resonant.
Sarah, however, did not agree. “Joel, I’m asking you for more time.”
“What is more time going to do to anything? Our lives have already been dictated by destiny, and I’m sick of it.” He stood up and cupped his mouth, so that he called over the still waters, “Sarah Towson and Joel Sealet are in a friendship!”
Sarah smiled at this and rolled her eyes. “You have to be so dramatic, don’t you?”
Joel sat back on their bench. “Yes, I do, because unlike you, I want my emotions to be seen, heard, and reflected. You keep everything buried down.”
“Buried down isn’t a bad place to be.”
“Sarah, it is. Let me just tell you: It is.”
JOEL WAS ANNOYED. He picked up his suit and tie, plus the tea rose boutonniere and corsage at the local tux rental, and later went to lunch with a group of his college friends in the midst of Savannah. They’d talked about the normalcies of life, how a lot of them had already been to the hot beaches in Florida and the like. Joel found himself happy to be with them, but his mind was drifting to a place of awareness. Awareness that he was changing, and changing because… Maturity?
He hadn’t smoked any weed in a few weeks, and it was saving him money to break the habit. He wondered if he would have a relapse anytime soon, but the real issue would be returning to college, to the apartment with his friends, where it was the accepted norm. He decided not to worry about those future things, and instead, after the lunch was over, he drove over to his old school.
He did this occasionally for memory’s sake. The building was still intact, just like he knew it would be. It was a private Christian school founded in the 1970s, its beachy feel unique and friendly. He’d made a lot of good friends there, but also had some terrible times, like anyone had, probably. He remembered his first day at the school back in freshman year, how he’d hunted for a spot to eat while everyone else took their positions because they already knew their place.
Something in him stirred. Like a dormant volcano, he remembered Sarah’s friends inviting him to their table for his first lunch. He never sat with them again; they were too vocal and annoying. Yet the fact they’d invited him… That said a lot.
He tried to think back to that time. How he had to make friends and fit in. Wasn’t he still doing that anyway, though? He was nineteen-years-old, hardly old enough to make a sound decision. He couldn’t grasp commitment and the future seemed bigger than a New York City skyscraper.
His head hurt for a few seconds. He pulled into a spot near the playground. His memories enshrined him in a ravine of volatility. He’d met his first girlfriend here. He’d made some close friends, including Alex McFarland. He had witnessed things just short of miracles, and he’d witnessed unimaginable hardships. A few adults sprinkled out of the building, and he decided to drive away.
Oh, sometimes how memories killed the insides of the human body. He felt like his brain had slipped out of its cavity.
Nothing could quench the pain.
THE BRIGHT BLUE sky contrasted the greenery; yet nothing green mattered. All Joel could do was gape, because he knew he was in trouble. Chloe started blabbing at him, pulling on his collar, but he wasn’t focused on her. He, unfortunately, was bewitched.
A BUG LANDED on her daughter’s shoulder, and Helena screamed for dear life.
“Mom! C’mon!” Sarah yelled as she stood in front of the little gazebo at church. The white gazebo had pieces of chipped paint falling off, but purple and white flowers surrounded the area like strokes of paint from an artist’s masterpiece. The air was alive with fresh flavor, and the sky was a pearly shade of blue, so that it seemed to be unreal.
A swarm of young kids, mostly around fifteen, were dressed in formalwear to the nines, as this was their first big dance. For nineteen-year-old Sarah, it was also her first formal dance—at least not on a college campus—and she stood in an awkward throng of Joey and his friends.
Her mother continued to fiddle with her dress and hair, along with spotless makeup that somehow seemed lacking to Helena. Joey stood by smiling and winking at some of his other friends, because even though he didn’t attend the Baptist church, he’d gotten the prettiest girl in Georgia to come with him. Nearby, Zach and his date stood, Eliana standing a good foot taller than him.
Eventually, Helena gave up with her daughter and moved on to prepping Zach, who cried out in embarrassment when she started to fiddle with his inherited cowlick. Sarah smoothed out her dress, a sparkly midnight blue thing that spanned to the floor. It looked like the dress Kate Middleton wore to be married, except in a dark ombré. It was modest and gorgeous at the same time, and had taken nearly four hours to find in the depths of Savannah’s most expensive chichi shops.
After placing the long gown over her shoulders, Sarah endured twenty minutes of perfecting her curled hair, along with another thirty minutes for dramatic makeup. Helena was hell-bent on providing her angel as a beautiful, single woman to whom Tom Boomington could make his advances.
As soon as she arrived on church property, Sarah was hounded by women and men alike, complimenting her outfit and how beautiful she was. These were people she’d known forever, and a lot were over the hill. Mother Elsie was roaming around the kids, complimenting, and nearby, Mrs. Trantridge held a camera, snapping awful photos with a cheap camera from a grocery store. A teenage girl who was known in the local area for her stellar photography had set up a place under bougainvillea for portraits, and Joey tugged on Sarah to follow him there.
During Helena’s distraction, Sarah and Joey walked to the line, where her little date looked up at her in appreciation. “I don’t know if this is the most socially appropriate thing I’ve ever done,” Joey said, snarky, “but I know this is going to be a memory impossible to forget.”
The photographer acted like nothing was amiss as she captured their photos. Nervous, Sarah wondered if Joel and Chloe were actually going to show up for the festivities. Joey pulled Sarah close to him, and her eyes widened in confusion. Eventually, the two were apprehended by a gaggle of mothers, including Joey’s mom Kris Raspoli, who pulled Sarah into a hug, acting as if they were long-lost sisters. “What courage you have to take my Joey to this dance!”
Sarah smiled and took the following compliments in stride until she looked down at her date. He grimaced. She turned around to find Joel standing above her, and she jumped a bit. She grabbed her heart, forgetting just for a moment how nice he looked in formal clothes. She’d seen photos of him at proms from the high school years, but she’d never seen it herself.
“Joel is all right,” Joey mumbled. A girl from his school pulled him aside for a moment, and Joel pulled on her arm.
Sarah turned to see a gaggle of women watching, openmouthed. She almost hesitated, but found her hand slipping into his as the two rushed away. It was obvious, but their hasty exit caused her to laugh like nothing was awry. They said nothing as they passed the church steps leading into the grand sanctuary; they said nothing even as they rushed past Mr. Josh Conrey’s Antebellum house from pre-Civil War days.
It was only until they reached Ransom Park that Joel and Sarah caught their breath and fell down onto a park bench, looking extremely overdressed at a place where little kids were screaming and falling over things.
“Why did we just do that?” Sarah asked, out of breath. “I probably just ruined my makeup.”
“Trust me, you didn’t.”
“But seriously, why did we just do that? We basically admitted—to the entire world—that we’re friends.”
“C’mon, Sarah. We’re always constrained somehow, but not tonight, okay?”
“Did you abandon Chloe?”
“All she cared about was a ride to the dance, and as soon as we got here, she ran off to join her friends. The actual dance dance doesn’t even start until…” He glanced at his watch. “We’ve got twenty minutes.”
“Joey’s going to be confused.”
“Let him be. I may not have asked you, but I am allowed to steal you.” Joel’s eyes sparkled in the afternoon glow. It was almost sunset, but the pair didn’t care about the prettiness of the approaching evening, and how pink the sky would become. Instead, they stared at each other in speculation. “Let me tell you, Sarah Towson, you are the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen in the world.”
“Don’t lie,” Sarah said, shifting. She looked down at some sequins on the bodice of her dress.
An elderly black couple passed them and smiled. They clutched to each other in a welcome embrace, but the old woman said good-heartedly, “Why, look at them! You two are the handsomest couple I ever did see in so long. Don’t you think, Randy?”
Her husband smiled and tipped his hat. “Come on, dear. Let them have their space—just like we had back in the day.”
The two ambled on along the path, and Joel and Sarah broke out into laughter. When they became serious again, Sarah said, “You look good, Joel.”
“Only good? Come on! I worked on my tan for this.”
She nudged him and said, “What do you think they’ll say if we walk back together? My mom’s there. She’ll scalp us as we enter the church.”
“And dispose of the bodies in the baptistery? Sarah, I promise, we will elicit stares and whatnot—just because you look so beautiful—but…”
Joel stood up, looking out into the park. Up ahead, in the fading light, a woman was tending to her little girl. Sarah flinched, knowing immediately that the mother was Misty Temprend, and the child beside her was Sofia, Joel’s half-sister.
Before Sarah could stop him, he was pacing across the grassy earth, dirtying his clean shoes as he lurched forward. Sarah tried to keep up with him, but his strides were too long. She lifted her skirt and rushed around to a nearby gravel path so she could eventually intersect him. Joel was on a mission, a mission Sarah was afraid would crush him to the core.
Misty Temprend did not notice the teenagers approach. She was busy tending to a cut on Sofia’s little knee. She sprayed the affected area with antiseptic and placed a Hello Kitty band-aid on the wound. She reached out and kissed her little girl on the nose, and Sofia wrapped an arm around her mother.
“How about we go for yogurt to make you feel better?”
Sofia nodded, cuddling into her mother’s warm, tawny skin. When the woman looked up, she was face-to-face with an extremely tall teenage boy, who looked down at her with a mixture of hatred, disbelief, and confusion. Then his eyes shifted to the girl in her arms, and those two irises dimmed, filled now with belief and fear. Misty began shaking so bad she had to place Sofia on the ground, and the little girl sensed her mother’s apprehension. She held onto her legs.
“Joel,” Misty said quietly.
His lips parted, as he wanted to say something, but he ended up saying nothing to them.
Misty watched as a beautiful girl who was way overdressed for the park neared. The boy beside her was almost a man. He said something to his date, and the girl turned around and headed away. Recognition dawned in Misty’s mind. She had never seen Sarah Towson in person, and in pictures, Sarah was a Plain Jane. Now, however, she looked stunning. Sarah Towson… And Joel Sealet? She’d told him. Sarah had told him, when her other family members refused.
Misty turned her attention back to Joel, and she gathered more courage to clear her throat. “Hi, Joel.”
“How do you know my name?”
Misty sighed. “Your father talked a lot about you when…”
“When you were together. Please, don’t censor your talk.”
“You know?” asked a hopeful Misty.
“Of course I know. I was skeptical at first, but seeing your daughter now, I see more familiarities between her and me than with my full-blooded sister.”
Misty smiled. “I don’t know what to say, or how to say it.”
“You were my father’s lover, and you two had an illegitimate child.”
Misty shook her head. “Sofia is as legitimate to me as Sarah is to you.”
Joel looked over his shoulder to see Sarah standing by a giant oak, looking at them with trepidation. He turned back to face his sister, who stared at him in fright. He squatted and reached out a hand. “Hi, Sofia.”
“It’s okay, honey,” Misty said, falling to her knees also. “Remember the brother I told you about?”
“Joel?” Sofia asked, her curly hair shining in the light. She looked at Joel and her eyes widened. “You’re Joel? You’re a tall Joel!”
Joel smiled as Sofia’s little hand touched his.
“She knows about me?” Joel asked. “Why didn’t you ever come to our house?”
“Fear. Your father made it very clear there would be repercussions if you or your mother found out prematurely.”
“That doesn’t sound like my dad,” Joel protested, blinking back wetness. “He’s not a terrible person.”
Misty nodded. “Trust me, I know that. Even after all these years, I still love your dad. I’m sorry, that was inappropriate.”
“I wish you told me. I… Things would have been different.”
“That’s true. But like I teach Sofia, we Temprends keep our promises.”
Joel glanced at his watch. He and Sarah needed to make it back to the church soon, although he knew Sofia and Misty Temprend were much more important than a church dance. He stood up and said, “Do you have a piece of paper?”
Misty reached back to grab a slip and a pen from her purse. Joel wrote down his phone number and tried to smile. He hoped it did not look too rehearsed. “Please call me. Not tonight, but please, call me.”
Misty nodded as Sofia waved good-bye.
SARAH HAD HOPED, deep down, that Joel would have spent every moment at the dance near her, but this was not the case. He and Chloe zigzagged across the place, as he talked to various people from church, including a few who never attended actual church—just the dances. Sarah apologized profusely to her date, so much so that Joey promised it was okay. Even he was distracted by a girl named Beth Flowers, who had gold hair and dimples. Sarah was quickly forgotten.
As she made her way to pour herself a glass of tea, Zach and Eliana appeared, both sweaty and red from dancing to what sounded like Kids Bop. Sarah wanted to fall over and die. Inwardly, she was still reeling from Joel’s meeting Ms. Temprend, but when she asked him about the conversation, he kept mum and said nothing on their walk back.
“What’s up?” Sarah asked, doling out a fake smile.
Eliana shrugged. “We needed a break.”
“I can imagine. So did I.”
Zach tugged on his collar. “It’s not very fun dancing in these. I feel like I’m a Corvette with no air conditioning. Expensive but a juxtaposition. Who would buy a sports car with no air conditioning?”
Sarah ignored his nervous chatter and smiled. A popular song started beating down on them from the speakers in the church gym, and Eliana and Zach rushed off to dance. Sarah analyzed them, Zach standing much shorter than her but their adorable relationship funny.
The church had outdone itself. Large papier-mâché flowers in bright colors hung from the rafters above as strobe lights in purples and blues cast everyone a different tint. For a minute or so, all racism was forgotten, and even all sin in general; everyone was the same. Yet a few minutes later, as the music approached, not even lights could hide a lot of the pain in the dancers’ gaits.
Sarah took a seat near the chaperones, who were all giddily gossiping about Mother Elsie. Sarah groaned. A few seconds after sitting, Tom Boomington appeared, loosening his tie as he approached. In the shadows, Tom was more handsome than Sarah had ever seen him. He was a bit heavyset, but the glitter in his eyes was something very illustrious and attractive. Sarah was not attracted to him, per se; but she did understand Tom was the best man in the room. But, as Helena would say, “Tom needs a wife. And you qualify.”
“So, you have a lot of gumption to have gone with Joey Raspoli,” commented Tom.
“It was a favor to Zach. He had the nerve to ask Eliana as long as I accepted Joey as my date.”
Tom turned just a little so Sarah could see the hint of stubble tickling his jaw. He was always the gentleman—because he had to be—but Sarah felt something was different this time. Something bubbling up. “Well, when I heard, I was a little upset. I was planning on asking you, and a twelve-year-old stole my thunder.”
Sarah’s throat constricted. She played this off by nodding, and then she said, “Oh, Tom. Why would you ask me of all people?” She knew this was the stupidest question she’d ever asked in her entire life. She wanted to run to the janitorial closet and barf all over the bleach. Sarah had always been somewhat nervous around guys in general, but this was different, because she was afraid of rejecting someone else. The signs were clear: Tom was showing interest. If Helena knew, she’d be all over ordering the perfect shade of tea rose for the wedding ceremony.
“Why would I ask you?” A sheen of sweat plastered Tom’s face. Sarah knew this was uncomfortable for him too. This calmed Sarah a bit. “Come on, Sarah. You know why I’d ask you.”
They were silent for a moment before Sarah turned toward him. “Do you see Joey out there, dancing with Beth?”
“The good thing about this event is that Joey’s not a churchgoer, but now he’s dancing in a church.”
“It was close to impossible permitting this dance in the first place. We Christians don’t dance, obviously.”
Sarah smiled. She looked out across the floor, her eyes scanning for the one person she really wanted to dance with. She ignored a pang of guilt when she noticed Joel talking to a high school senior girl, Jill Platt. She stood up and extended her hand toward Tom. “Want to dance?”
Tom looked at her as if she was a pregnant alien who’d told him he was the father. “Seriously?”
“Of course, Tom. We’re going to at least dance once.”
Tom reached out to curl his hand around hers, and then they were under a rented disco ball, swaying together as an oldies hit streamed over the speakers. When a slow song came, Tom rested his hands on her hips as she curled hers around his neck. He stared at her in longing, and eventually, unable to stand looking into his handsome eyes, she placed her cheek on his shoulder. Tom Boomington was a kind, loving soul. He would make the perfect man for another woman, but for Sarah, it was not possible. However, she counted him as a dear friend, and their dancing would elicit more gossip from the chaperones, and therefore churchgoers as a whole. Awkwardly, Tom might interpret this dancing as Sarah showing interest. However, she had a month until she returned to California, where her heartbeat thumped.
For a moment, her mind drifted to the rocky beaches of Malibu, and then she was thinking of her best friends there. She imagined being with them again, the people who had been her rock during all the homesickness and bouts of puzzlement as to why she’d abandoned her family for a world where no one knew her.
Nothing else mattered.
“You’re tired, aren’t you?” Tom whispered into her ears.
She looked up at him and straightened her posture. “Just thinking.”
“My life out there.”
Tom knew what she was referring to, and he nodded. “Do you miss that life?”
“Yes. But when I’m there, I think of here, and when I’m here, I think of there.”
“You sound like you need prayer.”
“I’m trying to be content, but I think in the end, I’ll just adapt to wherever I am.”
Tom nodded, his gold hair flickering purple in the flashing lights. The music shifted yet again, this time to a salsa song, but Tom and Sarah continued their sway, back and forth, back and forth. “You’re going to adapt, Sarah. Maybe the question remains: Why did you leave Breezewater in the first place?”
Someone tapped her, and Tom’s eyes widened. A lancet of new anxiety rushed through Sarah’s veins. She expected to see Joey, but instead, Zach stood. “Hey, sis, and hey, Tom! I need your help for a moment.”
Sarah broke away from Tom, apologizing, to which he nodded casually. He walked back to the seats to sit among the throng of gossipers. She followed her brother across the gym to a black hallway, where it was as silent as a ghost.
Zach then motioned back to the dancefloor. “You looked pretty romantic with Tom there. I thought I’d save you.”
“Tom’s a great guy…”
“But you’re not into him. That’s why I saved you.”
Sarah shrugged. “Okay, thanks, then. Where’s Eliana?”
“She’s dancing with some of her friends, and Joey is off with Beth in a closet somewhere.”
“I’m kidding. They’re somewhere, I just don’t know where.”
“Want to dance?”
“Not really. It would ruin my reputation. The whole, ‘Boy dances with his adult sister.’”
“I think I’m pretty cool,” Sarah said, winking.
“Oh, trust me, I know you think you’re pretty cool. Come on, you have to know Joel Sealet was staring at you the entire time you danced with Tom. He was pretty angry, too. He was spinning Chloe around like she was a rag doll, but she was showing off her dance skills anyhow.”
“Please stop lying to me about him. It’s so obvious. You two did run off together before the dance. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Plus, I know your password.”
“And there is no doubt you’ve got some feelings for that guy. I don’t know how, or why… I mean, he is good looking, don’t get me wrong. He’s just…”
“Zach, I swear…”
Zach opened the door back to the dancefloor, pulling his sister behind him. “Your secret is safe with me. Now, go and dance with him. That’s the real reason why I pulled you away from loverboy Tom.”
Sarah cupped her face in her hands, wondering how long this dance would go on for. She wanted to return home, slip into some pajamas, and fall asleep underneath the stars. No, scratch that; she wanted to fall asleep in perfect air conditioning.
Sarah shifted as Zach left her. She scanned the crowds, looking for Joel, knowing he would definitely stand out in a crowd. She spotted Alex McFarland twirling around a girl, and she wondered why he’d showed up. He’d probably been paid.
She jumped when Joel whispered in her ear, “Dance with me?”
Sarah looked back and pointed her finger at him. “Couldn’t you have just asked me like a normal human being instead of a church ghost?”
“Sorry. I will learn.”
“You want to dance?”
“Well, I guess.”
“Come on, that’s not a good enough answer.”
“Well, I’m just surprised you actually are talking to me.”
“Sarah, you’re the one who wants to keep our ‘friendship’ private, locked away like Pandora’s box.”
She had the weirdest urge to lean up and press his lips to hers. Instead, she shrugged and defiantly crossed her arms. Then she took his hand in hers and led him to the floor, where they took a few seconds to grow oriented with each other. They both stood feet above most of the other kids, but finally, they ignored their hesitance and drew in closer together.
As if destiny intervened, a melancholy, slow-paced song dawned through the speakers. Sarah casually glanced over her shoulder to see Zach, Joey, Eliana, and Beth at the helm of the music playlist. Zach nodded toward her, and Sarah rolled her eyes.
As the music grew in intensity and spirit, Sarah found herself too shy to look into Joel’s eyes.
“So, is it possible your brother is intervening in our relationship?” Joel asked quietly.
“You saw him?”
“He also was the one who convinced me to ask you to dance. If I’m being honest, I was a little too scared to ask you.”
“Joel! Aren’t we past that by now?”
“You were dancing with a pastor! What was I supposed to say?”
“I don’t know. Fight for me, I guess. Just kidding—don’t fight the Lord!”
“Why are we always so darn breathless when we’re talking to each other? Is the only thing we use exclamation points? Like, what are we!” His voice cracked as he emphasized his point, and Sarah burst out laughing. The slow song was annoying her now, just because it did not represent her and Joel in the slightest.
“If I had a million dollars last year, do you think I’d have bet we would be together like this? I can guarantee you that would be no.”
Joel grinned. “I would have said yes.”
“Life has been hitting me with such force right now that I really, really have just got to roll along, okay? I’m just going with whatever comes my way. I’m done planning for anything.”
Sarah cocked her head, tilting it to the side as the music faded in and out again. She didn’t notice all the eyes on them, like they were the center of the universe. If everyone else happened to be planets in orbit, Joel and Sarah were the sun. “I wish I could live by that philosophy, but quite frankly, it’s impossible.”
“Thank you for disagreeing with me on everything. I really like that about you, Sarah Towson.” He leaned over her shoulder just the slightest so she could smell the fumes.
She pulled away, looking into the lightheartedness of his brown eyes, a pool of unforgettable instability. They continued to sway, and he turned her in a little circle. “Joel, are you high?”
“What do you mean? Sarah, that’s such a peculiar question.”
“Joel, please be honest with me.”
“Of course I’m high. When am I not?”
Sarah drifted away from him, pained. She closed her eyes, a sudden migraine hitting her. “Joel, you can’t drive Chloe home. Give me your keys. I’ll drive you home.”
“Sarah, why are you breaking away from me? Come back.” His words were so light, so tempting.
Sarah shook her head. “I… I can’t. Not when you’re not yourself.”
“I’m definitely still me. I can promise you that.”
Sarah returned to him, so that she could have a better glimpse into his thoughts. “Even if you’re still you, am I still me? When you’re in that haze?”
“Oh my… Oh, Joel.” She clutched him hard, digging her fingers into his shoulder blades. He’d imagined her saying those words a few times, and he lightly held onto her hips. He’d only been high for a few minutes. The stress had clamped his mind like it was a wine glass, so that it was only a few moments from shattering. His friend Eric had secured him a blunt, and Eric’s younger sister, a senior in high school named Jill, had secured the booty and handed it to him. Getting high was the easy part; the aftermath was much more dangerous.
Joel clutched Sarah into his arms, smelling her intoxicating perfume. He wondered if ichor flowed through her veins, because she was the gold in his dreams. She was the mountain to his rock climber. He loved her, God, he loved her. He wanted to hold her forever, and to tell her everything he’d never told anyone else. He didn’t know why she had come to him. What had been so illustrious about Sarah Towson, to make him fall for her like this. He hadn’t even kissed her yet. He reached his lips down to hers, just for fun, just to see if it was as good as he knew it would be.
Unfortunately, Sarah had pulled away the moment before, and she was running away from him, so that his hands were now curled around air. He whipped around to see Helena Towson, Sarah’s pretty mother, who stood with her hands on her hips like she was a sheriff. Helena Towson was red in the face, and anybody in the world could recognize the vitriol rushing across her mien. Joel was scared straight.
When Sarah rushed to her mother, all kinds of responses brushed her lips. She could lie about Joel. She could pretend he’d just asked her for one dance. She could tell the truth. Instead, even-keeled Helena’s voice approached like a sonic blast. “Let’s go. Now. We can drop Joey off at his house.”
“It’s not close to over,” Sarah protested.
“Yes, it is.”
“Mom. I’m allowed to dance with him. He’s not bad…”
“Sarah, this is not open for discussion. You’ve openly disobeyed, that much is obvious. We’re leaving. Go get your brother, and if you head in that boy’s direction, I swear I will embarrass you for the rest of your life.”
Sarah shrugged. “You know what, no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to live up to your expectations. Literally, you ask me to stay away from one guy. Don’t you think that’s just going to rev up my interest to see him? Here’s the truth. Joel Sealet is not the perfect guy, but neither am I the perfect girl. So listen, Mom, I’m nineteen-years-old. I’m still a kid, I know. But the fact is that, yes, you pay for my college tuition. You love me more than anyone, or at least you act like it. But this is ridiculous, and if you think that I’m leaving with you right now, I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you.”
Sarah closed her eyes, and just for a moment, imagined she was anywhere else. California sands sliced through her veins. Then, when she opened her eyes again, she found her mother’s pleading eyes locked onto hers. Instead of the expected rage, Sarah only saw sadness. Disappointment. Even confusion.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” Sarah whispered.
“Why are you doing this?” Helena asked, her voice harsh. “You’ve got everything in the world.”
“No, no, I don’t.”
“Is this still about Olivia?”
“Of course it’s about Olivia. You hid her from me, like she never existed.”
“Sarah, if you walk away from me, it’s going to do a lot of damage.”
Sarah nodded. The dancefloor continued to produce romance between the teenagers, but a different kind of spectacle played out nearby, in the nearby shadows, across the way from the gossiping chaperones who watched with amusement. They would be spectacularly pleased if they had buckets of popcorn and Cokes. But they could settle for their view.
Sarah breathed. “Alison hates me because Olivia died, because I was Olivia’s replacement, which explains your favoritism toward me. But the thing is, I don’t hate you. I don’t. But you’re going to hate me because I am going to leave now. I’m going to choose something incredibly immature. I’m going to choose this illusory freedom dangling at my fingertips.”
“Sarah Margaret Towson, are you on some kind of drug?” Helena asked, tapping her heels against the gym floor.
“The only drug I’m on is family. And like every drug, it has side effects.”
“I can walk home, but I won’t drive home with you. I need time to think.”
“Mother. I’m going to walk home, and unless you want an even bigger episode right now, it will happen. Hug me now. We can act like nothing’s amiss, because your world will go awry—heaven forbid—if we stir up anymore drama.”
“Sarah… I swear, we forgave you for what happened a few weeks ago, but I don’t know if we can forgive you for this.”
Sarah nodded, a few teardrops landing on her cheeks. “I know. But I can’t choose you. I just can’t.”
“It’s nearly three miles home.”
“I will walk.”
“You’re wearing espadrilles.”
“I will manage.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“To clear my head. To figure out what I’m going to do. Mom, just give me this walk.”
Helena finally nodded, and the two shared an awkward hug. As soon as they moved away from each other, a fake smile appeared on Helena’s lips, and the once-cheerful gossipers now looked with disdain. What a letdown.
Sarah disappeared outside, the darkness intoxicating. It immediately cleared her mind, like an eraser against a chalkboard. She rushed as fast as she could in the tight dress and two-inch wedges, which was practically impossible. She felt somewhat like Cinderella, rushing away from her prince and the ball. Maybe she should kick off her shoes. She did so.
Her bare feet smacked the ground with intensity, but occasionally, a pebble would lodge in her skin, and this did not feel good. Lightning bugs coddled her and urged her on across the dirty pavement of a pale night. The air smelled like a romantic garden.
Sarah would have lied if she said she did not think of Joel. Every moment of the first few minutes of her flight, she thought of his curly hair, his brown eyes, the dimple in his cheeks. The way he talked, the smoothness of each note. How he had been ready to kiss her, and she’d run off to quell her mother’s anger. How he smelled like smoke. How she was probably just a miniscule dot on his radar. How much she wanted to slap him. But how much she appreciated his gentility.
She found her way across the town, her feet aching as the minutes wore on. It was around nine o’clock at night on a Saturday, and town proper was more festive than usual. Probably most of the people were parents with nothing to do as they waited to pick up their babies at the church.
Sarah took a few shortcuts, weaving through old 1940s homes and trees older than all civilization in Breezewater. This night felt like a melody, woven with eccentric, shrill notes. Then the song increased its pace, before clashing to its rushing crescendo. The finale approached, shattering to a resounding, triumphant end.
Sarah lingered before she entered the gates. Tonight would offer the perfect conditions for a haunting, but even in the darkness and the fear rooted in her brain, Sarah only glimpsed an overwhelming conviction to find her.
She had been to the cemetery countless times. A steady stream of individuals died per year, and funerals were a big social event. A lot of the cobblestone pathways had been around for centuries along with eroded tombstones. A fogginess seemed to appear, rolling in from the nearby ocean. Sarah tried not to have fear, because she felt closer to God in this moment, in this moment of necessity to know.
There were hundreds of tombs in the cemetery, and some of them were from Civil War times. There was a division between the Confederate and Union gravestones, but Sarah had been there enough times to orient herself in the direction of the fresher section. She found her way across the dewy grass that tickled the tops of her feet, and when she made it to the edge of a copse of live oak trees, she sighed. There still remained hundreds of stones to see. What if her parents had buried their other daughter at a different cemetery? This was the only one Breezewater used, and it was run by a guy from the Baptist church.
She decided to walk the rows until she found her. There were countless people Sarah recognized just by the name, and others she knew in her childhood. It was eerie, walking through this maze of dead bodies on a foggy night as this, but somehow it distracted her from thoughts of the tumult at her home. She had a mission, and she would complete it.
After an hour or two of searching, row by row, Sarah came to a little marker, the headstone one of the smallest she’d seen in the entire cemetery. The smooth marble engraving read OLIVIA GRACE TOWSON. It listed her birth and death years, plus a cryptic message of, WE HOPE TO BE REUNITED WITH OUR BABY GIRL IN THE FUTURE. WE LOVE YOU.
She noticed the stinging first. How her eyes burned as she rubbed them, the makeup rushing deep inside the skin of her eyeball. She wanted to fall to the grass and diffuse into the soil. But instead Sarah was doomed to remain in human form, weeping at her sister’s gravestone. She mourned for a person she hadn’t known, a person whose death she did not understand, a person who had been hidden from her like a dangerous secret. What could Olivia have done to anybody else? She’d been a child when she passed away.
The fog settled over Sarah so that it chilled her. Sarah stood up, removed the pearl necklace dangling from her neck, and placed it in a makeshift cairn at the edge of the stone. No flowers rested anywhere nearby, so Sarah collected a handful of dandelions and placed them on top of the necklace.
Not once did she notice the form of an old friend behind her, tranced by her silent cries. Manny tried not to weep, but his own trip to the cemetery had already made him emotional. He stood up and walked away, unable to handle it anymore.
SLEEP WAS A miraculous thing. It had the power to cure any danger, at least for a few hours. Sleep took away physical and emotional pain, at least from Joel’s perspective. As he started to awake from slumber, his hazy vision cleared and he remembered he was in a timeshare in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the midst of a week of nothing but beach. Then, like something out of a movie, he was jumping out of bed and rushing to the bathroom, where Manny’s brother Alfonso was brushing his teeth. Joel clutched his stomach as it emptied into the toilet, all the remains of food from the previous night.
“Oh, my gosh!” Alfonso screamed, rushing away. He started gagging.
Manny appeared, his eyes wide as he watched his friend’s retching. “Joel, what…”
“I’m okay,” Joel gurgled between heaves. “Must be a stomach bug.”
“Come on, man! Today was when I was going to set you up with that girl.”
Joel wiped his mouth with a piece of toilet paper. “That’s the furthest thing from my mind, Manny. Can you bring me a water bottle?”
Joel tried to think what had caused his sickness. They’d arrived in Myrtle Beach on Tuesday afternoon, three days after the disastrous prom and the day he’d met his little sister. He skipped out on church that Sunday, packed Monday, and left Tuesday morning in a cramped little junkmobile bound for the beach with Manny’s family members. He’d gleaned a few dirty Spanish phrases, but Manny’s stickler of a brother halted all inappropriate language as he was in a Southern Baptist seminary school.
Tuesday night, Manny, Joel, and Alfonso had skipped out on the others and headed to the beach, where Manny had romanced a high school girl. Joel, displeased, called Sarah, only to receive her voicemail yet again. He tried to quench his thoughts of her, because he wanted to apologize for his indecency at the dance, while also wanting to see what was happening on the family front. Instead, he received silence.
Wednesday, the entire group went to the beach. Manny’s high school girlfriend left town, and he went after a twentysomething college girl who’d invited them to a handful of parties at little sports bars nearby. Joel had gone with Manny, though abstaining from all the festivities, just to have a clear head in case Misty Temprend finally called him. Or Sarah.
By Thursday, with no hope of communicating with either of them, Joel finally broke and partied all night long. He had a wicked hangover the following morning, and even rolling around in the wide, raging Atlantic for the afternoon hadn’t killed the pain in his head. Friday night had been more of the same, but reserved, Joel refrained from drinking and found himself bored. He’d been approached by a few girls, but every time they spoke to him, something in him resonated, asking him to wait. It was hard, but he went with the voice inside.
Now, though, he wondered what he’d eaten to kill his stomach. He stood, queasy, and headed back for the bed which he shared with Manny. All of Manny’s stuff was packed up and away. A bottle of water rested on the bedspread. Joel took a swig and went out onto the porch overlooking the sea. Girls in bikinis walked below him. The timeshare they’d taken was in a poorer section of town, where all the youth hung out like a bunch of heathens. Did Sarah pounce around like that when she was at the beach? Somehow, Joel doubted it.
The briny breeze sluiced through his hair. He checked his phone, ignoring the boring texts from some of his pals back home. He clicked on Sarah’s number again, his heart beating fast as her voicemail rang out again, the lilt of her voice feminine and only something she would do: “Hi, this is Sarah, and please, if it’s important, keep calling me. Eventually, I’ll answer. If not, eventually, I’ll still answer.
Was he important to her? Was he not important to her?
Joel watched the surf. He saw a few dots of tan men running through the waves, knowing it was probably Manny and the crew. They’d included him as their tall, white gringo, but still Joel had alienated himself, just because he’d come into the trip with a heavy heart.
He rushed back to the toilet, praying he wouldn’t puke all over his achy chest.
MANNY RETURNED TWO hours later with a weird bowl of soup and a spoon. He placed it before his friend and made the sign of the cross. “Aleja made sure I would pray over you.”
“The sign of the cross isn’t the same thing as praying,” Joel said, winking.
“Close enough. This is from the tortilla shop next door. It was the cheapest thing on the menu. If you eat this all without exploding, I will buy you the most expensive thing on the menu. Deal?”
“Go have some fun, Man. You’re the man.”
“Nice. I see your double entendre. Joel, we drive home tomorrow. We really need you to feel better before the drive home, because I do not want to sit next to a pukey Joel Sealet. Not when you’re taller than Alfonso and me together, which equals a lot more puke.”
“I’ll work on it.”
“Good. I’m going down to see Priscilla. Feel better, my friend.”
Joel was left alone again, and he tried some of the terrible soup, only to find it comforted the back of his throat. He didn’t vomit as he ate it, even though it smelled like an ancient Roman sandal. After he finished the grizzly meal, he drifted away again, and as a good dream was about to commence, the buzz from his phone startled him.
He almost fell from the bed, and in the process, he stubbed his fingernail, ripping it just a little. Joel cursed and grabbed the device, the pain subsiding at his recognition of Sarah’s contacting him. His stomach gurgled as he answered, though the pain from his bleeding finger was a little distracting.
“Hey,” Sarah said quietly. “I’m so sorry I haven’t responded. I’ve wanted to—trust me.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Very much so. I got my phone taken away for a few days, and a stern talking-to, and supposedly they’re going to monitor who I text and stuff. But I just don’t care anymore. I’m not keeping this a secret. You’re my friend, and I’m not going to hide you like you’re a skeleton.”
“You’re welcome. I think they’re over it. I think they’re accepting that I’m not going to follow their rules, and I am going to continue to meet you. Mom was furious the first day, but she’s okay now, especially since they invited Tom Boomington over for dinner tomorrow night.”
Joel ignored a little pebble of jealousy in his gut. He wanted to vomit, but he forced himself to sit up and listen. “I come back tomorrow. I could drive-by and rescue you.”
“As much as I appreciate the offer, I can’t. I’ve got to respect them. At least a little.” He could see her smile, how she had flecks of brown in the blue of her eyes. He’d noticed that as they danced together in church. He’d realized that through her self-righteous persona, and her shyness, and whatever placed a barrier between them, he didn’t want to say good-bye to her at the end of the summer. But they would have to, and this made him vomit across the floor.
“Joel!” Sarah screamed.
Joel felt lightheaded. He grabbed the water bottle and gulped as much as he could, hoping to dull some of the pain roaring in his brain. The room smelled rotten now, and he stood up and headed into the bathroom. “I’m a little sick.”
“Did you just puke?”
“I’m going to be fine. I’m not dying, I can promise you that. I’m going to come back, and I’m going to rescue you from Tom Boomington, as nice of a guy as he is. You know, Sarah, sickness helps define feelings. I miss you a lot.”
“Joel, should I be worried? You’re slurring your words. Joel, please talk to me. Don’t pass out. Where are your friends?”
“They left me up here. I’m okay, Sarah, I swear. It’s just the stomach bug.”
“Are you sure?”
“What?” he asked. He looked in the mirror, almost puking at the green tinge to his skin. A hint of stubble dotted his cheeks, and he thought he was awful in appearance. He usually thought nice of himself, but not today. He grabbed his stomach.
“I miss you, too.”
“As much as I’d love to talk to you every moment for the next few hours…” He started puking into the toilet.
“Okay,” Sarah croaked from the other line. “I understand. You’ve got some things to work out.”
MANNY AND THE guys arrived back at the apartment a few hours later to the smell of bleach and a long body on the cool floor. For a moment, Manny thought his best friend was dead, and the hint of angered shock tickled his spine. However, Manny’s pastor cousin Aleja rushed over and slapped the guy across the face, and Joel darted up like he’d been slapped—because he had been.
Joel gritted his teeth and screamed, “I was in the middle of a great dream!”
“Apologize, Aleja. You are so dramatic at times,” Alfonso protested, throwing a cigarette away from his mouth.
“How do you feel, Joely?” Manny asked, sitting beside his friend. He reached over and placed his hand on Joel’s damp forehead. “You’re clammy.”
“I wish I were a clam,” Joel protested through a rugged whisper.
“I brought you the most expensive thing on the menu, but obviously your body can’t handle it. So, let’s follow another option. Let’s get you to sleep. I’ll put on a good movie for you to watch. I can stay with you…”
“No. Find your girl.”
“You speak like a man who has found his woman,” Manny said, the joking timbre to his voice infectious. Manny elbowed his friend, and Joel tried to laugh, though it sounded strained and painful.
“No. But I am a kid who has found there are sometimes times when one needs a mother.”
“Amen,” Alfonso seconded.
Joel fell asleep again, and Manny shook his goatee. “Okay, you guys go ahead. I will wait with him.”
Aleja and Alfonso respected his wishes and rushed away.
Manny stood up and began to organize his shared room with Joel, who was the antithesis of OCD. Manny packed his things and sanitized as he went, bleach wipes coating every tile of every fixture. He accidentally stepped on a piece of metal, and in a moment of curiosity, he picked Joel’s phone up.
A person named Sarah had texted him, inquiring about his health. She was repeatedly texting him, and Manny, in a moment of pure friendship, took the phone and hid himself in a dark closet, in case Joel woke to find him. Manny scrolled up on their messages, his eyes widening at the frequency and intensity, but also the lack of anything remotely romantic or sexual. It was like this Sarah person and Joel were the best of friends.
Had someone replaced him? Who was Sarah? Did he have competition in the friend department?
Manny, a nosy individual by principle, clicked on a photograph in their messages and zoomed in. Sarah. When he recognized her, Manny fell against the back of the closet and stubbed his toe. He cursed as it bled, and he shook his head repeatedly.
“What the heck is happening?” Manny screamed, before remembering Joel’s health. He emerged from the closet, pleased to find Joel still asleep on the floor, his mouth slightly open.
He darted across the room and threw the phone where he’d found it. When Joel woke up, it wasn’t like he would remember the locale of his phone in the midst of his illness. Manny thought for a few moments, trying to suppress his surprise. Sarah Towson…
He remembered Sarah. She had been uppity, quiet, and remarkably smart. Manny had never found any physical attraction to her in those days, just because he was as open as a free bird, and she was in a cage of self-internment. Her closest friends, Karli Kirkpatrick and Destiny Tridell, had been like her, except now, Karli was the babymomma of a drug dealer. Manny knew nothing about Destiny’s fate.
Manny fell into a chair on the porch. The salty spray of the ocean lifted his spirits somewhat and dulled the shock. He hated heights, but even now, on the sixteenth floor of the building, he didn’t mind. The steady thrum of the ocean waves pounded against his brain. Joel had been keeping secrets. It made sense now why Joel had been so adamant about dumping Brie: He’d fallen for something exotic. Not many people could say they’d been in a relationship with a Towson, for that family name should be a synonym for reserved, but also, it would be a confidence booster in the fact that Joel, from humble beginnings, would be paired with a girl living in California for college. A girl who probably drove a different sports every day of the week.
Manny sighed. In the few times he’d actually talked to her, he’d seen a sweetness beneath the surface, but he knew it would take a lot of digging to emerge. Obviously, she’d changed since he’d seen her last—up on stage, giving the valedictory speech. She was more beautiful, if that was possible, at least from the photo he’d seen on Joel’s phone. In their text messages, she appeared cordial and friendly. She always asked after Joel before anything else.
A seagull snorted above him. He had to watch his friend. Joel was prone to falling for girls for a short period of time before lapsing into feelings of distrust, which then turned him into a beleaguerer. He carried a sword to girls’ hearts.
Manny stood up and stared over the railing, looking below him. A tingle of fear blossomed in his heart, but he continued to stare, and he continued to develop his plan. This would benefit Sarah as much as it benefited Joel.
He hurried back inside.
THE FOOD SMELLED like a Southern-fried heaven. The table was set, candles lit, and the four Towsons plus Tom Boomington sat together holding hands, as Scott recited a prayer he’d memorized as a child. He usually repeated this prayer every time he prayed but mixed a few of the words to sound original. As he ended the prayer, Tom squeezed Sarah’s hand, and she turned pink and sat perplexed beside their guest.
Since he’d arrived, Sarah understood the price she had to pay for lying to her parents. This was the one massive thing they all agreed to as punishment: Tom would come over for dinner. Sarah prepared the food as well, and as she dug into a handful of mashed potatoes, she hoped it wouldn’t be too terrible. At least she hadn’t spat into it or anything too dirty.
Sarah peeked out of the corner of her eye. Tom was smiling as he said, “Mmm mmm mmm. So good! Thanks again, Sarah.” He’d only uttered that phrase twenty-four times since his arrival.
“You’re welcome,” she replied yet again.
“So, Tom, tell us about your missionary plans this fall. I’m not sure if Sarah has heard about your decision yet,” Helena said with a smile. She winked at her daughter, as if Tom was the love of her daughter’s life. If he was, Sarah would update his wardrobe.
“Oh, yes, tell me,” Sarah mumbled.
Zach kicked her leg under the table, shooting her a look that said, Don’t screw this up.
Tom wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Well, I’m heading to Patagonia in Argentina for a few weeks. I’m going with a missions team from Savannah, and we’ll be gone from October until Christmas. Yet I’ve been called to do this, and I’m really privileged to be able to spread God’s word.”
Sarah genuinely smiled, because no matter what anyone said, Tom Boomington was an honest man. Just not her man. “That’s great. Argentina! I’m going to study abroad in Buenos Aires.”
“That would be amazing.”
“I went to Argentina once,” Scott cut in, before cocking a grin, “but it was only in my dreams.”
“Oh, honey,” Helena said, holding his hand before squeezing it hard in admonishment. She turned her gaze toward Tom. “Well, I think what you’re doing is the greatest thing in the world, Tom. Your parents are so proud of you, I’m sure.”
Sarah wanted to cocoon herself into a hole and never emerge. She was bored by the conversation which Helena continued to spark about nothingness and randomness. Zach said nothing, and Scott said little also. Tom included Sarah in everything, trying his hardest to gain her interest, but she half-heartedly responded to him, unless Zach berated her by kicking her shins. Then she was lively for a few more minutes.
Zach wondered if his sister was depressed. She had not been like herself in a long time, and he knew part of it was the familial drama, including the revelation they had a sister who died. He also wondered if Joel had any part in Sarah’s change in behavior, and this frightened him, because he had never seen Sarah’s response to a boy before. What if Joel had broken her heart? What if he promised her the world, but only gave her the Philippines? What if he promised her a room full of books, but only gave her the Human Manifesto II?
Zach twisted his pinkie finger, the skin curling. “Well, Tom, have you always wanted to be a pastor?” It was the first question he’d asked in a long time. His presence in the conversation was enough to elicit a smile from Sarah, who batted her eyelashes at him in thanksgiving.
“No.” Tom took a heap of corn and stuffed it into his mouth. A speck of green appeared in the brown of his left eye. In the light, he looked somewhat handsome. Attractive even. Sarah tried to suppress any semblance of feeling in her gut. She appreciated his honesty at answering Zach’s question. “I originally wanted to be a doctor, but then I discovered the word of Jesus Christ, and when I got saved, I felt this calling, deep in my core. I didn’t understand at first, but over time, I understood I was meant to go into the ministry. So I’m at my dad’s church while I finish seminary in Savannah, and I will say this. This is a blessing, Mr. and Mrs. Towson,” and he turned his eyes so they landed on the young woman’s, “and Sarah. I’d like to share something with you all. I’ve been offered a job pastoring a small Baptist church in Kalispell, Montana, and another in Pomona, as in Los Angeles.”
“Pomona?” Sarah asked, her spoon dropping with a clack against the dish. “Pomona? And you didn’t tell me! Tom!”
“Yes,” Tom said, grinning. “I applied as a youth leader at the Pomona church, but Kalispell would give me a full opportunity to preach. Both are incredibly far away, so I may need your advice as to coping with leaving all I’ve ever known.” He winked in her direction.
Scott cleared his throat. “You have an interest in California and Montana? How did you even know of the pastor jobs over in those places?”
“My mentor at seminary has a lot of connections. He knows I’m interested in mission work far from home, and we’ve had long talks about how giddy I am to leave. I’ve always been interested in saying aloha to Georgia, even though I love it with all my heart. Breezewater has my mind, but God has the power to move anything.”
“Honey, that is so exciting!” Helena said. She bustled away, leaving them in her wake.
Sarah stared at her friend. “I can’t believe you weren’t going to tell me you might have a job opening in the same area I live. Tom, come on.”
“I found out a few weeks ago, and I’m still trying to comprehend it. I mean, I’ve still got a whole semester before I graduate. The job opens in January of next year. How perfect is that? All I know is God is working in my life.”
“You wouldn’t be on your own. We would be somewhat close to each other,” Sarah said, her eyes sparkling. She hoped she wasn’t coming across as flirty, because everything she spoke came from a place in her heart which could only be defined as friendship. “I mean, Los Angeles is a metropolis, but…”
“You’re so kind, Sarah,” whispered Tom as Helena appeared with a crisp apple pie and vanilla ice cream.
“As a token of our support,” Helena said as she doled out slices onto everyone’s plate. “Who knew! Tom Boomington, world traveler?”
Tom smiled only at Sarah.
SARAH KNOCKED ON the Sealets’ front door, praying for a moment no one would answer. Joel’s Jeep was parked in the driveway, and Juliet’s little coupe was nowhere to be seen. As she waited, Sarah assessed the poor conditions of the gardens and grass. Joel had been gone for a week, and in his absence, sprouts of weeds had pushed up from the earth. The flowerbeds were in need of desperate repair, and little pieces of wood were chipping off the paneling. The house was in major need of TLC.
A few minutes later, a groggy Joel appeared at the front door, his face yellow and his eyes sad. “Joel!” Sarah screamed. “You look terrible.”
“I feel terrible, but not as bad as I did on the trip back.”
Sarah followed him inside the house, where he plopped down on the living room couch. The place smelled uniquely fresh, which surprised her, as she expected to see mountains of dirty clothes and half-eaten boxes of pita pockets lying on the ground. Instead, he curled into a ball on the sofa, cuddled in a fuzzy blanket. The TV hummed nearby, but he quickly muted it and blinked a few times, which made him look much younger and quite adorable.
“I feel terrible. I should have brought you a care package. I think that’s what respectable Southern women usually do, right?”
“I don’t want a care package. All I wanted was to see you, and here you are.”
“Oh, Joel,” Sarah said, sitting on the floor beside him. “You’re losing it. Your illness has made you lose your brain.”
“I promise, I’m feeling better. I haven’t puked in twenty-four hours. I’ve just got a killer headache, and I’m taking pain pills like I used to smoke weed. There, honesty. Do you like my honesty?”
“Joel,” Sarah said, sighing, “I understand why you smoke, and the like, but trust me, I would like you even more if you didn’t.”
“If you didn’t catch what I said, I said, ‘I used to smoke weed.’”
“You were smoking it a week ago.”
“And you were running away from home a week ago.”
“How was the beach? Did you fall in love with some blonde with no clothes?”
“I love your sense of humor,” Joel said, smiling as he coughed. “Unfortunately, that was impossible, because my mind was thinking of someone else. I could try to be indirect, but it just isn’t fun. I was thinking of you every time I saw some other girl.”
“Don’t lie. Lying is ugly.”
“Well, it’s true. The only girl I wanted to see was you.”
Sarah tried to suppress whatever was hurtling across her insides. “Well, I don’t have to believe what you say. Why are you sick? How are you sick?”
“It started Saturday morning. My stomach was in a whirl. Now I’m feeling better, just skinnier. Is that a positive?”
“Honesty is the best policy.”
“Of course it is.”
“Thank you for coming over and lending your support. I really am so thankful,” Joel stated, his tone casually sarcastic. “Want to play a game or something?”
“A game? Are you serious?”
“I need distractions. I’ve been cooped up in this boring little house for two days straight, and unfortunately, I haven’t had many visitors.”
Sarah leaned forward. “It’s not about the quantity of visitors, Joel, but the quality of the visitors.”
“Thank-you, wise sensei. Now, go, get Monopoly, or something that is super long.”
“Great, just great.”
Sarah and Joel proceeded to play the game of Monopoly for the next two hours, although Joel continued to lazily mope around, and Sarah entertained him with stories of California. He questioned her about her friends there, and her field of study, and she even asked him about his life as a college student in Savannah. She revealed a few things about herself she didn’t like discussing about, like her burgeoning interest in anthropology and the fact she had also obtained a special internship at an anthropological institute in San Jose, but she’d declined it to come back home. Joel listened to her stories with actual interest, because Sarah was living a life he could only dream about. The way her nose crinkled as she related the bustle of Los Angeles… The formative sparkle in her eyes as she discussed a trip to ancient Native American dwellings belonging to the Hohokam tribe…
“So, you gave up on one of your dreams to visit Breezewater?” Joel asked as he fiddled with a chance card. He was lying on his stomach, curled under the blanket, as light streamed in through the windows. Already he appeared to have gained more strength, and Sarah fed him all sorts of snacks she rummaged from his pantry.
“It’s obvious. You want to be an anthropologist. You want to study cultures and whatnot.”
Sarah blushed. “My parents want me to be something real.”
“And anthropology isn’t real? Come on.”
Sarah stared away for a minute. She picked at her black nail polish. “Well, they want me to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or anything that makes money. They want me to happy, of course, so I could broaden my interests. Maybe by becoming a nurse, or an accountant.”
“But none of those things interest you.”
“Exactly. I’ve always had a problem with direction.”
“Says the girl who moved three-thousand miles away.”
She smiled as she moved her little dog tchotchke down the board. “Joel, what do you want to be?”
“Precisely, I don’t know.”
“You should be a board game maker.”
Joel pulled his blanket to the top of his curly hair, hiding his face inside, just for a moment. “Sarah, you have direction. I have nothing. You have a compass, I have nothing.”
The doorbell rang.
Joel stood up to get it, stretching in the process, his long limbs outstretched. He headed for the door, knowing that if it were either of his parents, they would’ve entered through the mudroom. Instead, a familiar face belonging to Miss Taya Gunney appeared through the glass. Joel opened the door, the chirp of birds louder than anything he’d heard in a while. A gentle breeze played with the middle aged woman’s hair, so that a piece landed on her lip.
“Hi, Miss Gunney. How can I help you?”
“You… You need to come with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s been…” The woman’s face turned gray, like something out a movie. Joel felt something lodge in his gut, and time seemed to draw out, like an outstretched arm. A thought played at his mind: His dream at that beach. The realness of experiencing his parents’ deaths. If anything happened to either of them, he would be heartbroken and might not be able to forgive himself. He closed his eyes and told himself to breathe. Why was Brie’s aunt here? Why was she slowly mumbling to herself?
Miss Taya Gunney’s lips moved, but Joel heard nothing.
“Excuse me?” Joel asked again. Then he felt Sarah’s presence behind him, and he wanted her to return back into the dark comfort of the house. “I’m sorry, can you please repeat that?”
“Your friend. Manny Dominguez. He was killed this afternoon.”
Joel burst out into laughter. “My friend. Manny Dominguez. That boy’s my favorite person in this entire world.”
Sarah grabbed Joel’s arm, feeling his sinews underneath her fingernails. She tried not to respond to him in this moment, because she felt closer to him now than ever before. He was in disbelief. Maybe even shock. Or perhaps he hadn’t heard Taya Gunney’s words.
“Manny… Manny was killed in a car accident today. Out near your father’s shoe store, actually. Joel, I’m really sorry. Please, I can drive you anywhere you need to go right now…”
“Manny’s fine, Miss Gunney. I was just texting him not two hours ago. He was planning on coming over tonight. He told me, ‘I have a gift for you.’ He was going to give me a gift. We just got back from the beach, too. He’s fine. He’s not dead.”
“Joel,” Sarah whispered, though he didn’t hear.
Joel stood there like a marble statue.
“Sarah,” Miss Taya said, her eyes surprisingly calm. “Can I talk to you privately?”
Joel disappeared into the confines of the house. Sarah heard things shifting around, like he was in a violent rage. She wanted to cry, because she had grown up with Manny in a sense. He hadn’t been her close friend or anything, and he wasn’t even that nice to her, but he was still Manny. He still represented a piece of her childhood, and now it was sliced away. Eaten.
How was this even remotely possible?
Sarah and Miss Taya stepped into the damp grass. A summer thunderstorm loomed over the horizon, but Sarah prayed it would be nothing of significance. Miss Taya’s eyes were blotted and she said, “It was a car wreck. At Massey and Poindexter. A drunk driver tailed him right on, and Manny’s car slammed into an oak.”
“You can’t be serious.”
The woman nodded. “Unfortunately, I am. The women at church are holding a joint prayer right now, but I could take Joel where he needs to be, or anything to help you.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll drive him.”
Taya nodded. She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Sarah, you know how much Manny means to him. Joel’s going through a rough patch, and please let him know there is a prayer circle devoted to helping him through this time.”
Sarah nodded, almost forgetting Taya Gunney was the aunt of Joel’s latest ex-girlfriend. Instead, she decided to place her emotions in check, and she found herself inside the house. She quickly prepared a cup of water, drank it in one gulp, and headed upstairs, finding Joel in his bedroom. She’d never been in the place, but it smelled just like him. She ignored the clothes haphazardly strewn over the floor. She walked over and said, “I can take you anywhere you want to go.”
“I feel like I’m going to puke all over myself.”
“I’ll take you anywhere you need to go, Joel.”
“Please, take me to his mother. They are my second family, and I need them.”
“They need you, too.”
HE COULDN’T FEEL anything for a few good minutes before the pain roared to life. It hit him like a jet crashing into the glassy sea, and shrapnel pierced him everywhere. His bones felt shredded into thin slices of white marrow while his blood was sucked dry. He couldn’t think of anything except Manny’s rambunctious smile on their drive home from the beach, how he’d promised Joel something big would happen once he got better.
“I promise, Joel. You’re going to love me for life,” Manny had proclaimed, his accent coming out as he uttered the words. Through the memory, Joel saw Manny’s hazel eyes and tan skin, and the way his lips curved into a mischievous grin when he played any sort of game. Manny had been crucial in Joel’s first days at their high school, and their friendship had only grown since. Of course, like any friendship, they’d suffered their round of hardships.
But Manny… Dead?
Manny was young. He couldn’t die. Joel didn’t believe in invincibility, but a person like Manny Dominguez did not die, at twenty-years-old, in a town like Breezewater, Georgia. And since his friend was headed into Breezewater, it broke him even more. There was no doubt Manny, who lived in Savannah, was coming to visit Joel. This broke Joel down even more, and he started weeping into his arms, water collecting at the valleys between his knuckles.
Sarah drove him across town to the local Catholic parish, where Manny’s family members attended mass regularly even though most of them lived in Savannah. Cars streamed through the lot. If it was this crowded now, she knew it would be filled-to-the-brim in an hour or so.
He weaved between countless individuals weeping and holding each other in the courtyard. The last place he wanted to be was a church, but instead of going inside, he rocked back and forth, surprised at how many people had shown up within an hour’s time. Manny had been popular. A group of their mutual friends congealed at the edge of the main family, but Joel spotted Manny’s sister Graciela and rushed to her, pulling the woman into a broad hug.
She wept into his arms. “Joel, Joel,” she whispered. “Joel.”
“I’m so sorry,” he breathed, the tears mixing with her hair that had swept into his face. For once, he wasn’t worried about what other people thought of him. He was broken, and this congregation outside proved that Manny had—de facto—died.
“Why is this happening?” Joel asked, though he felt suffocated.
Graciela pulled back so he could see the fullness of her eyes. “I don’t know. A drunk driver hit him. That’s all we know.”
“Isn’t it too early for that?”
“Yes. Dad went to the crime scene, but Mom and I refused. We can’t handle it. My uncle Rony went with Dad. I don’t think it’s set in. This can’t be real, can it?”
“No, it can’t.”
Joel gave his condolences to Manny’s mother and aunts, one of whom owned Zach Towson’s favorite Mexican restaurant in Breezewater, before heading to his group of friends, who huddled together. Alex McFarland was there, but his downcast eyes were focused on something else. Something else, Joel knew, because he looked like he’d seen a ghost. Alex had never been that close to Manny, but he’d come and shown his support. That was something in itself.
“Joel,” said a few of his friends, who pulled him in for a hug. “There’s nothing that can dull the pain, but we’re sorry.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled in response.
The group prayed for a few minutes, led by the priest, who—sensing his flock was too weary to head inside the sanctuary—remained outside. The sky had turned bright again, the thunderstorm diminishing within the confines of wide, open sky. Around six o’clock, with the sun showing no intent of lowering fully, Juliet Sealet appeared, a crying mess, with young Chloe, who was also weeping. They pulled themselves into a familial hug, unable to cease the tears that openly flowed from their eyelids.
A few steps away, a form watched them. He wanted to go over and touch them, and once again join the intimacy of their relationship, but he waited. His son was in pain, and he looked weak. Ethan Sealet threw the bottle in a nearby trash receptacle and left.
SOME KIND SOUL brought a plethora of food choices, including casseroles of all flavors, fruits, and breads. The encampment moved to the parish gymnasium, where the somberness of the night began to really set in. Not many ventured to talk, and when they did, they began crying. Of course a few stragglers who “knew” Manny sat mixed in with his friends and family, but mostly everyone there was genuinely Manny’s comrade in life.
Joel’s friends reminisced about Manny’s failed attempt at asking a girl out on their last day of high school. Thinking of high school drove Joel’s thoughts to Sarah, and he recognized her absence. When he tried to call her, she did not answer until twenty minutes later.
“Joel, I parked your car in the lot, on the very edge of the sycamore trees. I’m sorry I had to leave.”
“Where are you?” he asked, his voice sad. He had walked away from his friends and went outside to the freshness of the late summer night. It was past the middle of July. July 18th, the day Manny Dominguez died.
Sarah was crying then. “Joel, I need time.”
“Are you okay?”
“I left your keys at your Jeep, on the windshield. My parents came to pick me up.”
“Not them again,” he said, his voice forced.
“No, no, nothing like that. My grandpa’s in the hospital, that’s all.”
“Do you want me to visit?”
“No!” she exclaimed.
Joel was taken aback by her tone. “Okay, okay.”
“You need to be with them right now, okay? I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“I’ll call you tonight, okay?”
Juliet Sealet appeared from the shadows. She crossed her arms and watched her son, wondering what was flowing through his mind. He was still sick, his parents were going through a bitter divorce, and his best friend just died. What a wonderful summer. A calendar like this one would inspire anyone to move the heck out of dodge.
“Mom?” he asked as he slipped his phone into his pocket.
“Hey, Joel. How are you doing?”
“Do you want to go home? A lot of people are leaving.” Juliet placed an arm around his shoulder.
“Yes, actually. That would be nice.”
“Okay. Let’s go home.”
“Mom…” Joel reached out, grabbing her shirt as she stepped away.
“Did you know?”
“About Sofia Temprend?”
Juliet gritted her teeth. Her eyes watered over and she balled her fists. “Yes. Yes, Joel, I knew.”
“Why did he keep it a secret from us?”
“At first, lying is always easier than the truth. Then, as time starts to erode your conscience, it’s the opposite.”
“Will you forgive him?”
“I have. I have. Just like someday, you’re going to forgive the person who killed your best friend. Your father is a good man, Joel. He’s going through some rough times, but I was hoping this divorce would knock some sense into his thick-headed skull.”
“So you still love him?”
“More than you know. I’m happier when I’m with him. He still causes my heart to skip a beat.” At this, Juliet sniffled and her body began to quiver. “But he’s hurt me, and when the person you love most hurts you, it’s like a giant ball of TNT explodes in your chest.”
“Joel, I love your father, and I would be willing to work things out with him. We can accept Sofia into our life, because she’s his daughter. But he has to be willing to fix what happened, and at this point, he’s in a downward spiral.”
Joel and his mother embraced, and even when they thought they had no tears left, there were always more.
THE BEEPS AND monitors, the stink of bleach, the antiseptic, and the nurses and doctors. Even sterile and white, like an angel with no personality. This was how Sarah imagined hospitals. Instead, she sat on an uncomfortable chair in the cafeteria, sipping water as Zach sat beside her, his eyes puffy. Across from them, Alison also sat, like a demure little princess observing her engagement ring, how it sparkled in the fluorescents.
“When is Mom coming down?” Zach asked for the umpteenth time.
“She never said,” said Sarah, yet again.
“Can you believe this is happening?” Zach’s eyes widened. “What are the chances?”
“We’re going to be strong.”
“Strength,” said Alison, “is reserved for those who need it most. This is not the end of the world.”
“Alison, please, just for once, don’t be such a brat,” Zach said without a hitch.
Alison rolled her eyes and scrolled through her phone. “I don’t understand you two. You’re always so quick against me, but I guess it’s always been like that.”
“No, what’s always been is that we’ve been guarding ourselves from your projectory. You are like a flung baseball, waiting for the perfect moment before you blind someone right between the eyes.”
“Zach,” Sarah whispered.
Alison frowned, although she was prone to frowning. “Thanks.”
“You’re mighty welcome.”
“Zach,” Sarah hissed.
“You know, I never wanted you two in my life,” Alison said, her eyes slits. “I really only wanted Olivia. Then, when she died, it became, ‘Mom and Dad are bringing home a new baby. A new one, Alison!’ And I was so excited. I prayed it would be Olivia. And they brought home Sarah, this little girl who always seemed to stick her nose up at everyone and everything. Seven years later, it was a boy. Zach. By that point, I was already too old to dream of getting my sister back.”
“Alison, that’s just plain weird.” Now it was Zach’s turn to roll his eyes. “So that’s why you’re so angry at us all the time?”
“She doesn’t have to like us. Siblingship is a relationship just like a friendship,” countered Sarah, who anxiously observed her sister in the falling light from the windows.
“That’s true,” Alison whispered. “I love you guys, and I hope you know that.”
Sarah and Zach blinked, cocking their heads.
“But even though I love you, I’ve still been dealing with who I am and everything. Life isn’t a bunch of roses in my opinion.”
“Because in all reality, it never was a bunch of roses. And it never will be,” Sarah cut in.
“Do you think Grandpa Rob will be okay?”
“I honestly have no clue,” Alison said, for the first time that day her eyes clouding over.
The news had hit them like little poison darts, perfectly aimed at the beating, bleeding target. Grandpa Rob had too many drinks, and his passenger, Joan Richards, was also drunk. It was a Saturday afternoon, but together, they’d spent time out-drinking each other, just to see who could handle themselves better without puking up a storm. Grandpa Rob left in a kerfuffle, along with his gal pal, so he could visit his daughter Helena Towson at the local mall. She had important news for him.
He’d swerved a few times, scared a few citizens who would later testify against Rob. In the afternoon sunshine, his red sports car smashed against Manny Dominguez’s old mobile around four-thirty. Manny had noticed Rob’s haphazard driving as they approached each other, and as they passed Ethan Sealet’s shoe shop, something catastrophic happened. Rob, in a moment of fleeting bliss, had leaned over to plant a kiss on Joan’s lips as she squealed in giddy excitement. Rob had just proposed to her.
Then, moments later, his car was flipping through the air like a tossed pancake. It rolled to a thud in a gully nearby, on the edge of swampland mixed in with green patches of grass and yellow wildflowers. Blood dripped from his forehead in rivulets, and upon further examination, Rob realized he was hanging upside down, like a bat in slumber. Beside him, Joan Richards screamed for dear life. Her wails shot electric signals from the base of Rob’s spine to the tip of his cerebellum.
In this moment, he thought he was going to die. He even prepared a few lines across his brain, begging forgiveness from God, but eventually, he weaseled out of the upturned car. Blood caked his hands, and he realized he had a crater on his head, and blood rushed out. His body felt battered and bruised. He crawled to Joan’s side and helped her out. She fell to the ground in a heap, alive and awake, but obviously traumatized.
A fogginess shepherded his thoughts. Everything seemed garbled, like he was underwater and unable to breathe. He turned a bit and saw smoke. Through the gray fumes, it was apparent a car had smashed into a live oak. Metal shrapnel covered the road, and a few cars stopped nearby, and bystanders approached. He heard more crying.
Then he fell over beside his trashed convertible, asleep.
It wasn’t until Sarah had parked Joel’s Jeep in the parking lot of the Catholic church when her parents finally called. Their tone was laced with fear, anxiety, and confusion, and Sarah had to strain to hear them properly.
“Your grandfather has been in an accident. We need you to come to the hospital in west Savannah right away.”
When she told them she was unavailable to drive herself over there, she waited in her car until Alison came to pick her up, Zach in tow. Alison was okay in appearance, and she didn’t talk much on the way to the hospital. Zach was just as confused as Sarah… Until the first seeds of questioning rooted in her brain.
Grandpa Rob had been in an accident. He was at the hospital. Manny had also been in an accident. He was now dead.
Sarah shivered as she thought these thoughts. Could it be possible that her grandfather ran into Joel’s best friend, killing him?
When they arrived at the hospital, Scott Towson awaited them with open arms. A few wrinkles striated his healthy skin at the forehead. His eyes were downcast and gray, and it took a few minutes for him to say anything after their embrace.
Eventually he led them to a lobby of waiting, where they recognized a few people from town but said nothing. Helena was nowhere to be seen, probably because she was interrogating her way through the place on the hunt to find her father. Scott informed them that Grandma Esther, Rob’s first wife, was also upstairs.
Grandpa Rob had been drunk and caused a major traffic collision, Scott said. He did not know specifics, but when Sarah put these two stories together, the odds seemed highly favorable that it was in fact Rob who killed Manny Dominguez. Vehicular manslaughter.
By around nine o’clock, she, Alison, and Zach still sat in the cafeteria, awaiting any news they could find, which was pretty close to nothing at all. After a few more minutes, the three siblings stood up and went back to the lobby, where a cluster of Helena and Scott’s closest friends greeted them and offered casseroles.
Sarah called Joel for the second time around nine-thirty. She told him her grandpa was in surgery, and she didn’t know his prognosis or how he was. She also told him he’d been in a serious car accident. Joel didn’t take the news well, and he ended the call within a minute of this revelation.
By eleven o’clock, a tall doctor named Santos, Helena, and Grandma Esther hobbled down to their makeshift encampment. The news wasn’t great, but Rob was alive. He’d lacerated his head pretty nicely, said the doctor, and his spleen had taken some serious damage. They would have to remove a busted kidney as well. Joan Richards, his passenger, had been discharged with a few stitched scratches.
When Sarah finally had a private moment with her teary-eyed mom, she asked frankly, “Was he in the same accident as Manny Dominguez?”
Helena pulled her into a side hug. They stood in a little hallway away from the rest of their group. Helena’s shoulders were drooped and her face bare of makeup, probably because she had cried most of it away. Her voice was thin. “Yes.”
Sarah covered her mouth.
“You know it wasn’t intentional.”
“Alcohol is pretty intentional, Mom.”
“Nothing is black and white.”
Sarah shook. She wasn’t sure how to handle herself. The truth of her grandfather’s actions was blinding, like rays of white piercing through her vision. She wanted to fall to the ground, as none of this information seemed real. Over the course of her two months back home—which had passed like a lifetime—she had connected with Joel Sealet (plus his secret sister), discovered she had another sister, and now this. This cumbersome discovery was painful. It stuck to her like darts, and she was their target.
“Honey,” Helena said, rubbing her daughter’s back. The woman was tired and scared for her own dad. They didn’t have the best relationship in the world, but there was something about their shared blood, and Helena loved Robert. She always would. Hopefully this situation would become good, at least somehow. From Manny’s death, good things could follow.
“Mom, why is this happening? Is Grandpa Rob really okay?”
“He’s going to be okay. He’s going to be, I promise.”
“But Manny’s dead.”
Helena pressed her daughter’s sticky skin to her face. Her tall daughter, the girl who never failed to amaze her, had returned to a child who needed her mother. This hadn’t happened in a while, and Helena felt blessed in the moment to reconnect with Sarah in this personal way. “Yes, Sarah, Manny is dead.”
“I have to tell Joel…”
Helena didn’t even care anymore about her daughter’s relationship. “Not now, not now. Shush, Sarah. Everything will work out.”
They stood for a few more minutes, the silent thrum of their heartbeats mixing together. It was the middle of July, and Sarah only had one more month before it would be time, again, for her to leave everything behind.
AROUND ELEVEN O’CLOCK that night, a girl with white-blond hair entered the hospital. She held a pregnant belly, though with her rain jacket she could have passed as slightly overweight. She was a beautiful girl, but very youthful and naïve, and the first nurse she met had to direct her personally to the waiting room on the west wing where a gaggle of Towsons sat. Karli Kirkpatrick was able to outskirt the whole “Only family” rule by simply giving her name as Sarah Towson.
Karli pulled her long hair into an easy ponytail as she spotted the first Towson, whom she recognized with puzzlement as Zachary, who was now taller and had a leaner look to him. She covered her mouth in surprise because he was aging, and she realized she was too. It was just the nature of life, she supposed.
She stared out into the circle of individuals. Their numbers had thinned, and only the closest family members remained. Karli waited for the perfect opportunity to intercept Sarah by herself, but as of now, her old best friend was nowhere to be seen. Alison was there, and Karli cringed. Grandma Esther was flitting about, holding a Southern Living magazine. Scott was watching Fox News on a nearby TV station, something about refugees in Nigeria, and Helena stood with her best friend, Sydney, whom Karli remembered vividly. When Karli went to baseball games with the Towsons, especially when her dad was sick, Sydney came with them a lot. Memories strung along like lights across Karli’s brain, and they were moments from being turned on.
Karli almost lost the gumption to find Sarah when the girl appeared. Her long hair was pulled into a bun, and she wore no makeup. She looked rough, like a train had derailed on top of her. Sarah Towson, who had easily broken her heart a year earlier, still caused Karli to think that happiness existed in the world. Ever since their friendship began, over a decade ago, Karli had kept her jealousies at bay. Then, when Sarah confronted her last year, a week before she left for California, Karli lost it.
How could Sarah, perfect Sarah, berate Karli, who’d struggled her entire life? How could her best friend in the world, the one person she swore would always have her back, betray her?
Simply, it had occurred at Paradiso Bay. The two of them had taken a stroll along a strip of sandy beach. Like usual, it had been Karli’s idea. She drove all the way from Savannah to the ocean, and she knew if she didn’t, Sarah wouldn’t come to Savannah. It had always been that way in their friendship. Sometimes, Karli had an inkling Sarah didn’t care for her, and later, she would later recognize this as truth.
They had a normal conversation. Karli talked about boys, and Sarah offered her advice and support. Their sore muscles ached after a few miles around the bay, where the sun glittered atop the blue sea. Even as coastal girls, they still appreciated the gold sun and blue waves.
Eventually, on their return, Sarah picked up a seashell and twirled it around her fingers. Karli knew her friend was nervous.
Sarah’s words were sharp, like little pierced swords. “I don’t want to tell you this, but I think I should.”
“You’re the most selfish person I know.”
“You only talk about yourself—no one else.”
“You’ve got no clue how long I’ve wanted to say something about this.”
“But I never have been able to.”
“Karli, you’re my best friend, but you’re the most self-centered person in the universe.”
“But this is all truth.”
Karli had immediately broken down into a puddle of tears. When Sarah tried to comfort her after the jabs, Karli had pushed her away and ran full-speed to her truck down at the parking lot. Sarah managed to keep up, but Karli was able to slide into the driver’s seat and take off like a rocket heading into the earth’s orbit.
“Karli!” Sarah had screamed.
The girl stood in a trail of dust accumulated from Karli’s large pick-up, screaming, yelling, and maybe even crying.
THEIR RELATIONSHIP ONLY deteriorated from there. No longer did Karli confide in her best friend, or spend the night at her house in Breezewater, or even go to the latest rom-com playing at the cheap theater across from the Catholic church. There was no more gossip between them, no more searching for guys together, and definitely no more revelations of heart.
Once, Sarah had dropped by Karli’s house where she lived with her mom and stepdad. Karli had proceeded to slam the door in her face.
Since then, they’d exchanged a few tense text messages, until Sarah had shown up willy-nilly at Karli’s doorstep, asking about her friend. It was obvious that she wanted repentance and a second chance, and Karli diligently thought about how it would be good to have her best friend again.
“Karli?” Sarah asked.
Karli jumped and breathed hard. “Oh, you scared me!” Protectively she draped an arm across her pregnant belly.
“Karli, what are you doing here?” Sarah asked, her eyes wide with skepticism.
Karli frowned. “I need to see you.”
“Right now? This is not the best time.”
“I came here to offer my condolences,” Karli said with honesty, her Southern twang bright against the neutrality of Sarah’s voice. “And… I need your help.”
“This is not the time to ask for my help.”
“Come with me, please.” Karli grabbed her friend’s hand and whisked her away to a private room nearby.
“We’re definitely not supposed to be in here.”
“Here.” Karli tossed a photograph in her friend’s direction.
Sarah analyzed the picture of a little fetus. This was Karli’s child, and Sarah spotted a thumb lodged in the little baby’s mouth. When Sarah looked up, she noted Karli lifting a fingernail to her mouth as she waited. Sarah invisibly played with the three stones dangling from her necklace, forgetting she’d donated it to Olivia’s gravesite. It was a mysterious phantom limb.
“She is a little girl.”
“She’s beautiful. She’s going to be a mommy’s girl, I can tell you that.”
“Sarah, I need your help.”
“But why? I don’t understand.”
“Do you mind if I crash at your place for a few weeks? I know this is a stressful time for you. And I’m sorry about your grandfather, I really am. I heard about it from Alex, who’s with Joel now. And that’s a completely different story.”
“I’ll tell you the entire story in due time. I need refuge, and I can’t go to my parents’.”
“Why not? I’m so confused.”
Karli jumped on the nearby examination table, the paper crinkling underneath her. From the position in which she sat, Karli appeared very pregnant as she cradled her stomach. She carefully tapped her feet against the table. “A lot’s changed. Any idiot could see that.”
“But I’m not as selfish as I once was. You may not believe me, Sarah, and that’s okay. But the first thing I’m going to do is save my child. And if I go back to my house with John, I will lose my life, and my baby will lose her life, too. This is why I’m asking for your help.”
A light flickered above them, casting an eldritch glow over the pair. Sarah absorbed the information slowly, and Karli began biting a nail again. She’d accrued the habit in response to giving up cigarettes during her pregnancy. Occasionally, she broke and had a drag, and each time, she felt guiltier than a hanged man.
“Why would John kill you two?” Sarah said, one eye twitching. She couldn’t handle much more of this stress, or she would crack.
Karli stared up, at the ceiling, hoping tears wouldn’t drip from her eyes and ruin her makeup. But so what? Sarah had seen her much worse. “John’s not my baby’s father.”
Karli chewed her fingernail down to the quick. “He’s not the father.”
“Who is then?”
The tears fell now, defying Karli’s wishes that they would reject the laws of gravity. The whisper was too low to hear, and Sarah screamed, “Who is the father?” and Karli was weeping. She was wailing.
“He’s going to kill us! He’s going to kill us.”
“Karli,” Sarah shouted, pulling her friend to her chest. “Karli, listen to me! Who is your baby’s father?”
Karli’s lips quivered. She shook. She grabbed onto Sarah like a child clinging to his or her mother. Sarah tried to ignore the belly poking into her own, and finally heard the person’s name. Alex.
It was like the Holy Ghost had swept over Sarah in this moment. Karli was going to have Alex McFarland’s baby. As in diligent, trustworthy, wise-sensei Alex McFarland, Joel’s pal. Sarah cried out in joy at this news, before realizing why Karli was torn up. John Cruston—if he was the scary, terrifying man she imagined him to be—would kill for blood. If anyone betrayed him, he would lose it in a million places. If Sarah took Karli in, she would be on his list. This would place her family in a precarious situation.
Zach. Alison. Scott. Helena.
A flash of lightning frazzled her brain. She had always been instructed to help her friends, in darkness and in light. She had already soiled Karli’s spirit for a long time, and this was her shot at redemption. But this was not just for personal gain. Karli and her child needed a safe house, a safe place, a safe world. They deserved nothing less.
“I’ll… I’d have to ask my parents first.”
Karli pulled her friend into a massive hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“It’s not official or anything yet,” Sarah pointed out.
“The fact you’re trying is good enough for me.”
“Stay here. I’ll go ask.”
Sarah found herself among a throng of family members. Her father was gently consoling her mother until they saw their middle child appear. When she told them the facts, they both stared at her wide-eyed, but in their moment of worry over Rob’s health, they agreed Karli would stay at their home.
MANNY’S WAKE, VISITATION, and funeral went by in a blur of sorrow and some smiles, because remembering Manny made people feel alive. Manuel Dominguez was loved by many, and it seemed like thousands of visitors made a point to stop in the funeral home, or at the wake at a cousin’s house, or wherever, just to tell Manny’s closest relatives and friends how much he would be missed.
A week after the accident, the pain in Joel’s heart was even worse than when he was first delivered the news of his best friend’s death. Now that the void in his heart expanded, Joel wasn’t sure what to do or how to do it. He bitterly skipped rocks at Harrisville Lake. He worked like normal at the aquarium, touring like nothing was amiss when a gap the size of Mars spoiled his brain cells. He went to church and felt the stare of all those eyes, and he felt their hands on his back. The one person who avoided him like he was the plague was Sarah, whom he talked to briefly. She was keeping something from him, and it was ripping her apart, too.
Two weeks after the accident, as the days approached to August like troops marching forth, Joel appeared at her house.
The sweat of the late, humid summer day dawned on Sarah like she had been in a heated sauna. Her face was red and watery to the touch, but with a few moments indoors, everything would be okay. Her body temperature would return to normal, and she would gather her thoughts into something that made a bit of sense. How could things have become so indubitably insane, like a whirlpool of confusing shrapnel? Some of the debris was positive and some of it not so much.
But Sarah knew one thing, and she knew it well: Somehow, destiny had brought her into the arms of a guy she still had skepticism toward. A guy who had spoken only a slew of words to her in the years of their acquaintance, until now, in which—like some kind of angsty fate—they’d finally connected, clicked, and now…
Sarah was hyperventilating as she rested her back against the wall in the mudroom. Thankfully her family was nowhere around, not to see her like this. To see how she would react in response to one kiss, the thing she desired most in all her life at that precise second. She imagined that, at forty-five, she would look back to this moment and laugh at the stinky girl with sweat pooled in her armpits, although this was a bit of the nervous energy associated with this match.
She didn’t know how long she sat there. The gathering clouds outside were saddening with darkness, their protruding bellies sticking out, pregnant. She picked at a piece of loose skin on her fingernail and wondered if Joel was thinking about her right now.
Rain pelted the door. She stared, terrified, and stood up in fright, grabbing a nearby broom. She picked it up and watched as what seemed to be a torrential storm hit the door. She had seen the forecast, and this was nothing for what it called to be, but then again, predictions had a tendency to be wrong.
She peeked out the glass to see a tall, dripping young man fiddling with a hose. She scratched her nose in confusion and opened the door, before finding herself sprayed through, sopping wet. Joel’s eyes widened in fright and he shouted, “I’m so sorry!”
“What are you doing?” Sarah asked, laughing as a gulp of water entered her mouth. She sipped it and spat it out, before Joel lifted the hose so that globules fell down above their heads.
“Sarah Towson, I’m trying so hard right now to impress you.”
“With a haunted hose? I’m so confused.”
He continued to hold down on the lever so they continued to get wet, though the sun was bright through the gathering clouds. Specks of gold stood out in his brown eyes. She tilted her head and said quite simply, “So, you’re trying to romance me, is that what this is?”
“Quite simply,” Joel whispered, reaching out to her, though letting his hand dangle in the air, “I just want to see you. I’m not a romantic, and I never will be; but I am trying.”
“That’s even better,” Sarah said, waiting for what he had planned next.
There was a moment of awkwardness between them, except the flutter of rain droplets reflecting their faces. A casual onlooker might have supposed this waiting was based out of passion, or their friends might have even assumed something physical was about to happen, and while that was true, there was more to it than met the eye. Sarah was nervous beyond comprehension. Joel was afraid of scaring her. They stared at each other, both waiting for the other to make a move. Sarah shivered in the coolness of the fake rain, and then she felt something twist around her, pulling her against him, so that for the first time in her life, she felt wanted. Wanted by something of major proportions. This feeling, this right now, was more to her than any other moment in her life.
And she knew this was a problem.
Joel, however, did not think. He let his body control, and his mind went to the place where thinking is impossible. He only knew he was making out with Sarah Towson, underneath a fake rainstorm, and that idea belonged to Chloe. Chloe had seen an image like this on Pinterest and showed Joel, so he could surprise the girl he wanted to woo. It was all quite stupid, but somehow it worked.
When they drew apart, moments later, Joel found his hands deep in her long hair. He tried to pull them away, but he found his pinkie stuck in a long tuft, and the two of them shared a nice giggle before withdrawing from each other’s clasp.
“So, I was thinking… This is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” Joel said.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Whatever you just did, it… It was endearing.”
“Never thought I’d hear you say that. Are we dating yet?”
“Will we ever?”
“C’mon, Sarah! I’m reeling this fish in!”
“Have you even baited it though?”
“Stop taunting me.”
The wetness had seeped across the flowerbeds, staining them with miraculous droplets. The sun’s crept toward them, hugging them with its rays.
Then, like a shroud appearing over the gold sun, the pair sighed heavily and remembered their problems. For Joel, it was losing his best friend; for Sarah, it was gaining her best friend. Karli had definitely livened up the Towson house with her eccentric, lively aura, but Sarah understood that her parents didn’t want to be around Karli, because Sarah herself would be leaving in a matter of a few weeks.
Karli’s stomach continued to protrude at a steady increase. Her opening up with Sarah grew even more than her belly.
“So,” Sarah said. “There has been something I haven’t told you, and I need you to accept it, okay?”
Sarah was hesitant. “Well, I’m surprised you haven’t found out already, but my grandpa is still in the hospital. He was the driver of the vehicle that hit Manny.”
Joel stopped. He blinked away a few tears at the utterance of Manny’s name. “If you think, even for a moment, that you are responsible for my best friend’s death, you are so wrong. Sarah, your family’s choices aren’t necessarily your choices. I understand that.”
“I just feel so awful.”
“So do I.”
They sat in silence for a while, and Sarah was appreciative Joel took it the way he did. If he exploded on her, she wouldn’t have been able to handle the pressure. Instead, he was respectful and understanding, at least on the surface. She didn’t want to know what was bubbling up underneath.
A few minutes later, Karli appeared on the back porch, only twenty feet away from them, though they were hidden in some shrubbery with blue buds for flowers. Joel covered in his mouth in shock to see the girl, who anxiously took a sip of water from the bottle as she sat down on a rocking chair overlooking the verdant grass beyond.
“Karli’s living with you?” Joel whispered. He hadn’t told Sarah still about his small hook-up with Karli, even though they hadn’t gone anywhere farther than second base. Even imagining the memory was painful.
“Just for a little while.”
“Well, what happened?”
Sarah bit her tongue but whispered, “You have to promise not to tell.”
“I’m not a six-year-old girl.”
“Okay. Well, the baby is not John’s.”
“What? Whose is it then?”
At this, Joel’s mouth fell open a good few inches and he stared into Sarah’s eyes like she was crazy. “What? No way. Those two together? Impossible. She’s gotta be lying.”
“Joel, why would she leave John if she wasn’t lying?”
“Because he’s a psychopathic drug dealer! And yes, from whom I used to buy drugs!”
Sarah snickered a bit before cocking an eyebrow. “Please, oh please tell me you don’t do that anymore.”
“Not the point. John’s a bad influence, yes, but Alex can’t be the father. Impossible!”
“How would that be impossible? You of all people would know how it is possible for a man and a woman to procreate.”
“I’m sorry. Was that too scientific for you?”
“I’ve never wanted to kiss-slap a woman in all my life like right now.”
Sarah rolled her eyes.
A face appeared above them.
Joel and Sarah clutched each other and screamed for dear life.
“What is going on in these bushes?” Karli asked as she sipped some water from a bottle. “I thought I was going crazy. ‘Are there bees bickering in Sarah’s garden?’ No! Just two teenagers gossiping and making-out like little freshmen. What the heck are you two doing?”
“Can’t you see? There’s beautiful nature in these bushes,” said Sarah, lifting a finger like a The Price is Right model showcasing a beautiful plant leaf.
“Joel Sealet! What do we have here? Why the heck didn’t you tell me? You and Joel Sealet! Wow. That’s pretty interesting.” Karli sat down, which took a few moments as she adjusted her body into a comfortable position.
“Hi again, Karli.”
She waved and picked at a shred of grass simultaneously. “So, how long has this relationship been a thing?”
“A few thousand years,” cut in Joel, before he was elbowed in the gut.
“It’s not a relationship,” Sarah professed.
“Not true. We’re definitely in a relationship.” He wrapped an arm around Sarah, who immediately pushed it away.
Karli crossed her arms as her lips opened into a mischievous, proud smile. “Are you serious? What has happened to my girl here?”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Nothing. Nothing has happened to me.”
“Okay, well, all I have to say is: Wow. Never thought you two would ever end up together. Joel Sealet? Sarah Towson? I’ll just say okay and move on. But seriously, why are you two hiding out in the bushes? It’s not exactly the best spot for love.”
“Gosh. Sorry. I forget how crabby you are.”
“I’m not crabby.”
“Sarah!” called a boy’s voice.
Sarah stood up, brushing off her shorts. Little droplets of water fell from her hair and she shook it out, which caused a new rain shower over her friends. She jogged off, leaving Karli shooting Joel a cocky smile.
“Are you serious?” was all Karli could utter. She shook her head, digging her hand through her long hair. “You and Sarah? I was serious when I said I never would have thought… Out of the billions of humans out there, you two.”
“You have got to keep your mouth shut about us,” Joel hissed.
“Joel, that was a lifetime ago. I forgot myself until you brought it up. Sarah deserves to be happy, and if she’s happy with you, I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that.”
“So, what, you two are best buds now?”
“Far from it. Are you kidding? No. I just needed a place to crash. I can’t go to my parents’ right now. Wait, let me guess, Sarah told you about my baby.”
Joel sheepishly nodded.
“Exactly. I can’t go to my mom’s, because John will look there. He’s dangerous, Joel.”
“He’s a drug dealer, but he’s not a killer.”
“You don’t know him like I do.”
Joel sighed. “Then he’ll find you, Karli. It’s not a big town. And you’re going to bring him right to Sarah and her family.”
She stared down at her muddy feet void of shoes. She liked the touch of dirt against her soles. It felt earthy and natural. “True.”
“But this was the one place you thought of when you needed to escape?”
“Yeah. Pretty pathetic, right? I’m crashing at a person’s house, the same person I fought with for nearly a year. The same person who shouldn’t care a lick about me.”
“I’m sorry, Karli.”
She stood up. “It’s okay, Joel. I’m sorry about Manny. He was a good guy.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, too.”
CHURCH BELLS RANG as church let out for the afternoon. As the congregation poured into golden streams of sun, Mother Elsie clutched Sarah’s arm on one side and Joel’s on the other. They were all unusually quiet, thinking of different things. Sarah thought about Grandpa Rob. After posting bail, he had to await his trial in the upcoming months. Grandpa Rob had become quiet, a polar opposite to his entire being, especially now that he was without his red sports car made by sweat and American blood. He, accompanied by Helena, had apologized profusely at the Dominguez house, but like expected, they simply shut the door in his face, promising forgiveness eventually. Rob promised to attend church for the next few weeks because he felt so rotten of a person. Joan Richards wanted to tag along too.
And in the confines of the church, Joel couldn’t exactly slug the old man who’d taken away his best friend. Yet Grandpa Rob never showed up for church.
“Joel, are you coming with us to the Steakshop?” asked Helena from behind them.
Mother Elsie tightened her grip on the young man, blinking at him. Joel smiled. “If you’ll have me, but my mom and sister…”
“They can come too,” Karli called out from her position by Zach.
“Well, I don’t know…”
“At least invite them,” said Scott.
“Are you sure?”
Joel, Sarah, and Mother Elsie sifted through the exiting churchgoers, on the lookout for Chloe and Juliet. Five minutes later, the two appeared. Juliet pulled the group into a hug and said, “Now, why are you waiting on us?”
“Want to come to lunch?”
“Sure. That sounds fine.”
“With the Towsons.”
Juliet cocked her head. “The Towsons?”
“As in, Sarah Towson’s Towsons?”
“We don’t have to go.”
“You must really be interested in this girl.”
Still Joel hadn’t told his mother about his knowledge of little Sofia, nor had Misty Temprend called him. Instead he’d been left in the dark, in the sadness of Manny’s mortality, and the approaching crunching dead-end of his parents’ relationship.
“You know what?” said Juliet. She wrapped an arm around both children. “Let’s go. Let’s enjoy ourselves.”
So they went.
THIS LUNCH WAS very interesting, from the casual banter between Joel and Sarah to the almost tenseness reflected by Helena and Scott’s knowledge of Sofia. However, Mother Elsie’s presence was much appreciated, as the old woman was not afraid to play both mediator and psychologist to all around.
After they finished their steaks and paid the bill, the group went into the fresh summer sunshine. The waves tickled the inlet and their spirits, so much so that Scott daringly wrapped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders after Joel moved just a few feet closer to Sarah every minute. Scott was protective like most fathers would be, and Joel played the part of respectful young man.
“I just want to thank you for including us,” Juliet began as Chloe smiled beside her. “You guys were very nice to do so.”
“Oh, come on, Juliet,” said Mother Elsie, who pointed her long wood cane in the woman’s direction. “You know how hard we’re playing matchmakers here.”
Joel turned red as Sarah covered her face with her hands. Scott tensed beside his daughter. Helena laughed. Chloe and Zach stared at each other in mutual respect for how embarrassed their siblings were.
“So, I was thinking, we’re going to have an end-of-the-summer soiree at the house. Would you like to come, Juliet?” Helena asked, before taking a sidelong glance beside her to where her daughter still stood, mortified.
“Sure, sure. That would be fun, right?” Juliet nudged her son. “We’ll definitely make it. Thanks for inviting us.”
The two groups made their ways to different cars, but Sarah and Joel waited behind them for a moment, just so they could whisper at the same time, “Oh my gosh.”
“This is what happens when you have churchgoing relatives. They’re so worked-up about matchmaking and whatever, like we’re in some kind of Jane Austen book,” Joel said, shaking his head.
“You read Jane Austen?”
“What guy hasn’t heard of the horrors of that type of romance?”
“Oh, wow. Just wow.”
“I know you were into English, but I was into passing calculus.”
“You were in honors classes.”
“Yes, but I felt like such a peasant sitting behind you in calc.”
“Your dad is staring so hard right now,” Joel whispered as he followed her as they took the road between two cars parked on the crunchy gravel.
Sarah shrugged. “He has his reservations. When you have a little girl, I’m sure you’ll understand.”
“Oh, Sarah Towson. Always planning for the future. What if I only have boys? What if you’re stuck with a bunch of girls?”
“Remember, I don’t want kids? At the very least, I’m not sure if I do.”
“You’ll change your mind.”
“I think yes.”
Sarah shook her head as they approached their last point of intersection. Quickly, Joel reached over and side-hugged her, before rushing after his mom to her blue Honda. “Bye!”
“Okay, bye,” Sarah said through the whistle emitted through Mother Elsie’s rouge lips.
As she strapped into the car, she felt the hot stares from her family and adopted grandma. Eventually, she burst. “What?”
Karli was popping gum already and cocked a primed eyebrow.
“Oh, nothing,” everyone said in unison, though in reality, this was everything to them. Sarah was smitten, and this was the first time they’d been able to see this with the girl who, once, was always too good for everybody else.
DARKNESS INVADED THE rooms of the Towson mansion. The dark was like a veil, covering every Towson face in miraculous slumber. Zach thought his house was haunted, but everyone else assumed it was child’s play. On a night like tonight, though, anything could be thought possible.
A man appeared on the grass, his tennis shoes stroking the dewy grass. He wore a black ski mask and appropriate clothing to melt in with his surroundings. Since he’d been stalking the place for nearly a week, he understood a spare key was hidden underneath a large jew plant on the back porch. He lifted the watery plant and its numerous violet tendrils and took the key into his glove. He quickly sashayed across the stone path to the back door, where, using his good eyes, he had spied on the girl—Sarah—punch in a few numbers on the home security system. Simply, he planned to pray no one heard the beeps. His car was parked on the street by a Japanese magnolia, ready to drive away when he successfully obtained Karli.
He opened the door, the bleeps prickling his skin. He punched the appropriate keys, turned the system off, and then back on. It was louder than he imagined, probably because he was absolutely terrified. He quickly paraded into the kitchen, taking every angle with a cocky stride. He heard no stirrings. He hoped no one was awake. He found the back staircase, the pretty hardwood steps making him cringe. The love of his life had abandoned him for a cookie-cutter friend, a friend she couldn’t stand. She always ranted about Sarah, and he always told her to get over it. He felt bad for his comments now, because he really loved Karli, and she’d hurt him, but he would forgive her. He always forgave her.
He took the steps two at a time and heard the whir of a fan. It was his first stroke of luck. He peeked into the boy’s room, and the kid was out cold. Moonlight streamed into his bedroom, but his tongue hung out of his head. He was unconscious.
Next, he passed the girl Sarah’s room. She slept by a fan on its loudest spin cycle. He smiled. He continued onward, finding Karli easily. She was splayed out on the bed like a princess, her white hair fanned out, her hand resting protectively against her stomach. He missed her so much it hurt to even stare at her form. Somehow she was prettier pregnant than before. A twinge of guilt hit him for how he’d treated her, and how she’d sought Alex McFarland—of all people—instead of him.
He loved her. He wanted to marry her. And he had forgiven her.
He unsealed the baggie containing a cloth doused with chloroform. His buddy had sworn it would do the trick. He gently padded across the room, making little sound, and was proud once again that his girlfriend had always been such a heavy sleeper. He lifted the cloth to her nose and mouth and gently pressed. Karli’s eyes fluttered open and she acted like she would scream, but something kept her against it. He continued to hold the cloth against her. As the chloroform began to seep into her lungs, a sleepy voice called out, “Karli, you okay? I thought I saw you walking around.”
The girl appeared at the door. John cursed himself for not shutting the thing behind him. Anxiously he picked up his girlfriend, who was finally gaining consciousness. “Is this real life?” she whispered.
Sarah retreated, grabbing a lamp from a nearby table. Before she could lose the bravery to do so, she aimed it at the intruder’s head. It crashed to the floor after taking a chunk of skin from the base of his neck. He decided to avoid the pain and rush off as fast as he could. He could still make a decent getaway.
Then Sarah screamed at the top of her lungs and ran into him like a lineman. He fell to the ground and dropped Karli. John Cruston turned and slapped the girl across the face so hard that blood dripped from her nose immediately.
“Stop now. Shut up, or I’ll kill you.”
“Karli! Wake up! Wake up!”
Karli groggily started to yawn. She wasn’t comprehending the terror of her surroundings, nor did she really care at the moment. She tried to stand before she was scooped up again by John, who rushed down the stairs two-at-a-time before running straight into Scott, who held a gun straight into his face.
“Who are you, and why are you in my house?”
John cursed under his breath. “I’d rather not say.”
Scott cocked the gun. “Nothing circumstantial, young man. Who are you?”
“I doubt your gun even has any bullets,” interrupted John.
“John?” Karli asked, and at this, she began to flail around like a tossed rag doll. “Let me go!”
“Men like you wouldn’t have the balls to take the shot.”
“Want to try me?” Scott released the weapon and cursed himself when nothing happened. He had taken the bullets out nearly three weeks ago while he was cleaning his armory.
John lifted his meaty leg and kicked Scott right in the heart. The man threw a punch, but it was nothing near John’s body. John hurriedly fiddled with the front door, tightening his hold around Karli.
He opened it after what felt like a lifetime. This had been an incredibly horrible idea. He’d abducted his girlfriend, trespassed into a random stranger’s house, and broken the terms of his parole within one swift squeeze of the heart. And in the meantime, he’d been higher than the Empire State Building.
He made it to the dewy grass and fell over a large, random stone just haphazardly lying in the grass, like it was always meant to be in the midst of perfect green. He reached for his ankle, which felt like a bursting, live wire and stared at his girlfriend heading back to the house. His mission had failed.
In the midst of his throbbing pain, John Cruston stood, and called out like a dopey Romeo, “Karli Angeline Kirkpatrick, I love you more than anything in this world!”
The woman turned, looking stunning in the glow of the claw-shaped moon. “Oh, really? That’s why you decided to kidnap me?”
“Karli. We’ve got to change. We’ve got to stop our business.”
“Your business, John!” she called out.
The roar of police cars sounded. They were especially nimble tonight. John lifted a hand through his longish hair. “Karli, I’m in love with you. I’ll forgive you for Alex. I’ll do anything to make it up to you. I’m not a good guy, nor have I ever been, but I want to try to make things right.”
“I’ll see it when I believe it, John Cruston,” Karli shouted, her voice thin. The Towson family stood nearby.
Scott called out, “You’re going to prison, homeboy!”
“Dad,” Sarah breathed.
“Karli, I’m serious. I need help. I need to get clean, and when I do, I’m going to make it up to you. I won’t be a thief in the night no more. I promise you that.” He got to his knees and lifted his hands into the night, into the approaching blue radiance that hazed the streets.
“This was your love poem to me? John, you’re so stupid.”
“But baby, I’m in love with you!”
Sarah wanted to gag at the entire scene, but she had some subdued elements to her personality, and she restrained herself. It was nearly one o’clock in the morning, a drug dealer lay on her lawn, promising to become drug free, while a bridge had been built once again with a person she’d hurt terribly. Then there was the whole issue of Joel Sealet.
Sarah wondered how long one summer could possibly be.
JOEL SAT ACROSS from Misty Temprend, her daughter Sofia, and his father Ethan at a shady McDonald’s in the heart of Savannah. A homeless man ogled the coffee cup from which Ethan sipped, and eventually Joel got up and paid for a drink for the guy. Misty was more nervous than anyone Joel had ever seen before, and her daughter seemed anxious, too. Joel had arrived first, thirty minutes beforehand to collect his thoughts. It was only hours after John’s break-in at the Towson homestead, but Joel knew nothing of that event yet.
Then Ethan had showed up, a few minutes early, his eyes surprisingly sober. He’d been kind and offered to buy Joel a large Coke. “I’m really sorry, buddy,” he said, poking Joel in the arm. “I’m sorry for those texts I sent you.”
Joel had forgiven him, but he was on his guard. His dad had a secret history no one else knew about except his ex-wife, a woman, her child, and a random family. Joel still hadn’t exactly put together why Misty had been so touchy-feely at the Towson house to discover Ethan’s whereabouts.
Misty and Sofia came a few minutes early too. Everyone felt the pressure and wanted to expel it.
It was supremely awkward at first, as Ethan shook hands with little Sofia, who seemed to stare at him like he was a god. This angered Joel. Misty’s mien was more subdued, as if she was keeping her true emotions at bay deep within the well of her soul.
Finally, Joel said, “Well, I don’t know how to start this, or even why I’m here, but let’s get this over. Okay?”
“I like your plan,” agreed Ethan. “All I can do is make it up to all three of you—including your mother, Joel, and Chloe—is by working my entire life to earn your real forgiveness. Honestly, I’m not sure how to start.”
“You can start by joining Sofia’s life,” whispered Misty. “She doesn’t have a father, and she needs you. I’m not afraid to admit that I can’t be the sole parent for her. She needs you, Ethan.”
Ethan sighed, reaching his hand out in Sofia’s direction. She gently took his meaty ring finger, where a ring still remained in place. Sofia touched the metal band, feeling the smoothness of the object. “Of course. And I want to be there for you, Joel, and for Chloe also.”
Joel was quiet, introspective. He pondered the past two months, and how much had changed. He was in an acceptance stage in his life. He’d come to terms with his parents’ divorce, and was trying desperately to accept it with arms wide open. His father was taking a step by meeting with him, Misty, and Sofia.
As they sat awkwardly around a McDonald’s table, the four shared a moment not easily forgettable: A new family.
After twenty minutes of awkward banter, the group dispersed, and Joel headed to his old Jeep. As he approached his rickety automobile, he heard someone call out behind him.
He cocked an eyebrow as his father neared. He lifted out his hand and passed him a brochure from Manny’s funeral. Joel took it and choked down the pain. He blinked back the tears. “Dad, what is this?”
“I went, Joel.”
“Well, thanks, but that doesn’t exactly bring him back.”
“Rob Fielder killed your friend, but he deserves forgiveness.”
“I’ve forgiven him. I don’t think Manny’s parents have yet.”
“Rob is a good guy underneath all that baggage. I’m just hoping, son, that if you can forgive Rob Fielder, you can forgive me too.”
Joel took the program and wanted to shred it into a thousand little pieces. “Does Mom know?”
“Of course she knows.”
“Not yet. I want to tell her myself.”
Joel paused, unsure what to say next.
“Joel, I’m serious. I’m sorry for how I treated you. When your mom threw me out, I was straight drunk for three or four weeks straight. It took a while, but I’m sober now. For three weeks, I’ve been sober, and I love your mother so much. I’m going to do everything it takes to win her back, and to reunite this family.”
“It was a one-night thing. Nothing of significance.”
“No, Dad, it was definitely something of significance. Sofia doesn’t deserve this ‘baggage’ at all.”
“And neither do you, your mom, or Chloe.”
“Dad, I had a dream once. That you and mom ended up in this lovers’ quarrel. It terrified the living daylights out of me.”
“Dreams aren’t reality. You know that.”
“But it felt real. What I really mean is that I’m open to forgiving you. It will take time, and nothing will be forgotten. Sofia needs to be part of your life, and she needs your devotion. Dad, I love you, but you didn’t necessarily devote yourself to me.” At this, Joel bit his tongue, desperate not to unfurl before his father. “And if you can, you need to make things right with Mom. The financial everything is in a twirl. I just lost my best friend, and I’m about to lose my parents too. Please, just please try to make things right with her.”
Ethan reached out and brought his son to his chest. “I swear, Joel Sealet, I will try as hard as I was made to try.”
AT WORK THE next Monday, Joel was busy sweeping the dusty floors near the stingrays when a young man lazily approached from the seahorse exhibits. A little longsnout seahorse seemed to gaze into his soul as he passed by. The young man’s lazy gait was further iterated by the glow of the overhead lights, which shined down on the fresh floors in dark purple and blue spectrums like a deep sea abyss, far away from any touch of sunlight. Yet the mop of dark hair on Alex McFarland’s head was like a time machine, bringing Joel back to the beginning of the summer, when he’d attained the guy’s wisdom on girls and his parents’ divorce.
Joel set aside his mop, making sure his manager wasn’t spying from a nearby cranny. He smiled and reached out an arm, ready to welcome his friend, when Alex turned into a primal cobra who lashed out and punched him in the jaw. Joel fell backwards a few steps, clutching the bottom of his face, calling out, “What the hell, man?”
“You knew, and didn’t tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That Karli Kirkpatrick is pregnant with my baby?”
“How long did you know, Sealet? How long were you going to keep this little fun fact from me, when I thought I could trust you?”
“Calm down, Alex. What are you saying to me? Please, slow down, and talk to me. Breathe.”
Alex lashed out again, but Joel ducked and fell against a placard. He wondered how no visitors had managed to see this altercation. It was Monday, but daycares loved to explore on clear days, along with visitors from the city and other local areas.
“Alex, stop it!”
“I’m not going to stop until you tell me how long you knew. How long you kept this a secret from me.”
Joel tried to think without being harassed by a hammerhead Alex. He dodged another punch attack before hissing, “A few weeks, tops. I was sworn to secrecy, and I’m sorry, but I thought you already knew. If I knew you didn’t know, I would have told you. If you haven’t noticed, jerkwad, a lot has happened in the past few weeks, including my best friend’s death. So you can go off and go be a baby daddy all you want, but to come into my place of work and punch me, wow, Alex. Who are you?”
“The person you come to when you need advice. I thought you had my back.”
“And I thought you had mine.”
Alex slammed a hand against the wall, startling a school of little blue fish in a nearby tank. A group of older people appeared and with open mouths, called out, “Hello, young men!”
Joel smiled and waved. He moved away from Alex, glad for the first time in a while he had a job. He was in a desperate need from any sort of respite away from his gutsy friend, and an old man with spaghetti-like hair growing from his nostrils called out, “I’m just so proud to see young men these days working! Look, Ruth, this young man knows about this here aquarium. Do you have any fun facts you could surprise my lady with?”
The woman named Ruth stuck out a hand against her husband’s cotton shirt. A strand of pearls hung from her clavicles. She gently said, “I’m sorry, he loves bothering people.”
“Of course I have some facts for you guys. You have any idea who the oldest sea creature is in the ocean?”
“Well, obviously, a merman born in 1932. That would be me, of course, wouldn’t it, Ruth?”
She rolled her eyes and said, “The sea turtle, right? My grandson always tells me about sea life. He’s from New Jersey. We’re here with some friends for the summer, traveling down to our house in Florida.”
“That’s awesome, ma’am. Sir, good guess, but your lady definitely beat you there. The oldest tortoise researchers ever verified was a radiated tortoise—usually found in Madagascar—named Tu’i Malila, who was about 188-years-old.”
“See, I told you, I’ve got plenty of time left,” said the old man, who elbowed his wife in the side. Their friends stood by, smiling, some with obviously fake dentures. They were an adorable foursome.
“I don’t think you’re going to make 188, Richard,” said the other old man, who wore thick glasses.
“But here’s the kicker,” Joel said, looking over his shoulder, pointing at their sea turtle tank twenty feet away. He began to walk closer to their newest turtle, who was named Skyscraper because of thick, steely patches on his shell which resembled buildings. “Some researchers suggest the oldest terrestrial tortoise lived to be around 255-years-old, based on historical accounts. Now, sea turtles on the other hand, like my guy Skyscraper here, usually live until eighty-years-old. Not too shabby.”
“Wow. I’ve outlived many a sea turtle then,” inserted Richard. “What’s the oldest animal ever found? Do you know?”
Joel nodded, shifting on his feet. He loved answering questions for guests. Alex stood off to the side, but he seemed fascinated by Joel’s spiel, too. “The oldest animal ever found was actually a clam.”
The group burst out laughing.
“A clam?” Alex asked, incredulous.
“Yes. It was named Ming, after the ancient dynasty in China, and using annual growth bands on the shell of this ocean quahog, as it is sometimes referred to, researchers accurately gave Ming’s age as 507. And who knows how long it could have lived if it hadn’t been killed when it was dredged up.”
“Wow. That’s older than the United States by a long shot, as a nation, I mean,” Esther said, shocked. “Wow, Richard, give him a tip. That was amazing, young man. Did you forget, Richard, that we are supposed to be in Brunswick by four o’clock?”
“That sea turtle is mighty pretty,” Richard said, before pulling out a few dollars as a tip. He shook hands with Joel. “You, sir, are a bright young man. Thank you for entertaining my friends and me. It was a pleasure.”
“Thanks,” Joel said, pocketing the cash. His smile disappeared as Alex approached closer. Then he started laughing. “What?”
“You’re such a nerd. You act so cool, and you are cool, don’t get me wrong. You get every girl you want, and you’re like the epitome of church boy who can somehow sneak out and do whatever he wants. Yet deep down, the real you is a guy who enjoys trivia about clams. Wow, Joel.” Joel wasn’t sure how to take Alex, until a genuine smile appeared on his lips.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“I think this whole quahog, or whatever you called it, conversation has made up for it. I just have to be honest. I felt slighted, but it’s going to be okay. I’m going to be a dad. Wow.”
“You need to be tested, Alex. What if it’s not your baby?”
“John was in the slammer for the first time six months ago, just for a few weeks. When he got bailed out, he took off for Florida to resupply, and he was gone for nearly two weeks after that. We had sex a few times during this time period. It was stupid, idiotic, but it makes sense.”
“She wasn’t on the pill? And you…”
Alex lifted a hand. “It’s a fluke, but it’s my fluke, and I want to be in my baby’s life. Karli and I won’t be together, but I want to be there for my child.”
“That’s respectable.” Joel took hold of his nearby mop and began rubbing the floors down again. Even in the hubbub of a Monday afternoon, he always liked to neaten things up. Plus, it was nearing one o’clock, which signified a certain dull period as people ate in the Crab Shack restaurant in the lobby.
“And I want to be a good father. I’m twenty-years-old, and that barely classifies as mature, but you know, I can try.”
“You’re doing the right thing, Alex. Trust me, it’s the right thing.”
“For once, let me just tell you, I can’t verify how old a certain sea turtle is, but I can verify that you are making the right choice, Alex McFarland.”
“If you say so.”
SHE STOOD AT the doorway at her parents’ house. She fiddled with a piece of lent hanging on her gold dress. She had walked outside early, because even though she and Joel had a comfortable relationship now, there was still a bundle of nerves. She had dressed up nicely tonight, at the end-of-the-summer bash her family was hosting, but tonight she was certain Joel and she would have a serious heart-to-heart conversation, and this terrified her.
She was so restless that she sat on a little bench at the edge of the manicured grass. A squirrel bounced beside her sandals, its little tail fluffier than previously imagined upon closer inspection.
A few moments later, Joel pulled up, parking his Jeep on the edge of the clean road. He appeared, dapper in a button-down and slacks. Even though Helena had called for casual clothing, Sarah and Joel were dressed up more than they normally would be, simply because they wanted to be nice for the other. In their limited remainder of time, a lot would be happening, and they only wanted their last few memories together for this summer to be the absolute best. For now, there would be no talk of Karli’s baby, or Manny’s absence, or Rob Fielder, or Sofia, or Ethan.
Joel was early too. He’d promised Sarah he would be, and Juliet and Chloe would arrive later. As he strode to her, Sarah gathered the collection of emotions gathering at the base of her throat. Instead of standing to greet him, she stayed where she sat, watching as he sat beside her and leaned in to kiss her lightly.
“Hi,” he said when he drew away. His brown eyes seemed to glow.
“Hi.” Oh, this was bad, she thought. She was not going to fall for him, not when she was leaving in less than two weeks. She couldn’t do that to herself, or to him.
“So, I was thinking, we could sneak out at the end of this party, and just take a yacht all the way to Bermuda. Like my idea?”
“As tempting as it sounds, you have school, and so do I.”
“School is for people who have no idea what they want to be.”
“False. I know what I want to be.”
“Of course you do. You always know what you want.” He acted like he would kiss her, but then he moved back, gently lifting his arm to drape over her svelte shoulders. She snuggled in closer to him.
“That’s not true.”
“Well, I know what I want.”
“No. We’re not talking about your leaving. It’s not on our agenda for tonight. Tonight is about you and me, because we have a lot to catch up on. We’ve been a little distracted lately.”
“Just a little.”
“Sometimes that yacht idea is so beautiful, but running away from one’s problems isn’t the best idea, either.”
A car whipped into the driveway, and out popped Alison and her husband. They waved, but Joel felt the tension, and eventually, when they were gone, Sarah shivered. “She’s never going to give it up. She’s never going to accept me.”
“Sarah, remember our list? We’re not talking about her tonight. This is about you and me.”
She glanced up at him and felt heat sizzle her core. “Oh… That’s right.”
“You’re spazzing out on me.”
Over the next few minutes, they sat together, just watching the accumulating cloud cover and the tilt of the sun. As Joel said, “We should go say hi to your parents,” another car whizzed in the driveway. This time, though, both Sarah and Joel cocked their heads at the Porsche sitting in their driveway like a beacon of money.
Out popped Joey, a gift in his arms, a bowtie at his neck, and a suit-and-tie covering his lanky body. He hustled over to them, sitting between the two original persons. He wrapped his arm around Sarah’s shoulders as the Porsche backed out of the lot, heading back down the road to the Raspoli household.
“Hi, my love. It’s been a while.”
“You were chasing someone else.”
“I got bored, and came back for the woman I really love.” He turned and assessed Joel, before dismissing him with a tan hand. “Who is this guy, Sarah? He has no chance.”
Joel rolled his eyes. “Joey Raspoli, sometimes I want to slap your white teeth out of your mouth, but then I remember how rich you are, and how much you’d sue me for.”
“Accurate depiction of my life.” Joey turned back to Sarah. “I got this for you.”
“I have to hurry and tell sweet Helena that my mom will be over in a few minutes. Wait for me?”
As the kid ran off, Sarah hissed, “I accept your previous offer. Where’s the yacht?”
“Only a few jail cells away.”
“Come on, I can’t handle that kid right now, Joel.”
“Well, we could skip this place. Totally be rebels.”
“But it would not be politically, ethically, morally, physically, or emotionally correct. Come on, let’s socialize for twenty milliseconds, and then we’ll sizzle into outer space.”
As they walked across the warm grass, Joel whispered into her ear, sending little supersonic messages up to her spine, allowing little fine hairs to stick up on her skin. “Pretend we’re missionaries ready to conquer the non-believers.”
“Or we could pretend we’re about to be harassed by a twelve-year-old who sleeps with gold-infused blankets.”
“Now you’re just being mean.”
The party on the patio was ready to amp up. Helena had invited nearly one hundred locals, including countless family members and random people who happened to be socially acceptable to invite. Sarah was happy as long as she and Joel had a few moments to themselves, but she still prayed their heart-to-heart conversation would not come. She felt rotten to the core, but she was afraid. She didn’t want to lose this.
Zach and Joey stood by the pool, laughing about something, as Helena appeared from the kitchen, ready to straighten out some of the Christmas lights she’d hung across the rafters of the patio. She saw Joel and smiled. “Well, look who’s here!” She walked over and kissed him on the cheek. “Is your mama here yet?”
“She’ll be here later. She’s coming right after her shift ends, and Chloe will come with her. Wow, Mrs. Towson, this place looks pretty neat.”
Helena straightened. “You know how I feel about your calling me that. I am Helena to you!” She hurried off to the kitchen, where the catered food sat in droves. Scott was working inside with her, along with Alison and her husband.
A few guests streamed in from the front door then, and Joel and Sarah went back outside, in the crosshairs of young Joey Raspoli, who held a water gun to his victims.
“What are you doing?” Sarah called out.
“Joey, you’re so stupid,” Zach barked.
“If I have to fight for you, I will,” Joey responded, pressing down on the trigger so that Joel’s shirt was drenched within seconds. Sarah, angry, forcefully strode to Joey and simply pushed him backwards into the pool. He fell in like a snow angel, his arms splayed out beside him. His face, on the other hand, was plastered by shock.
“Sarah!” Joel shouted.
Sarah crossed her arms as Joey bobbed to the top of the water. “How does it feel, Joey?”
“My lady Sarah!”
“I’m not your lady. Why do you keep stalking me, pretentious shrimp? I am nineteen, and you are twelve.”
“Thirteen,” Joey hissed.
“I really don’t care. And I would appreciate it if you stop harassing me, Joel, and everybody else. Got it?”
“No.” Joey reached out and twisted Sarah’s ankle, dragging her with him into the water. Joel reached out and clasped around her waist, pulling with all his might as her legs began to sink beneath the blue. Finally, Joel rescued her and whispered into her ear, “I think we’re about to be sued.”
Joey started pounding his fists against the water. “I fell for you, literally, and this is how you repay me?”
“I didn’t fall for you, Joey,” Sarah said, blinking hard.
Zach was munching on a banana beside them. He dragged up a lounge chair and fell into it, cringing/laughing at the spectacle before him. His best friend had just tried to drag his sister into a pool. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and Zach had been in the first-row audience.
“Come on. Let’s go.” Joel pulled on Sarah’s hand.
But then she was in a flurry of hurtling insults at the young boy in the pool, before transforming her speech into Spanish words of wisdom, which probably included a colorful vocabulary of curse words. Sarah was losing it because she was stressed, was all Joel could think. Eventually, he forcefully pulled her away from the pool party and back to their bench of love.
Sarah was huffing and puffing as she sat.
“Need a moment.”
“Are you okay?”
Car doors slammed beyond. A few people walked over the grass to the front door, and Sarah wanted to hide in the forest behind her house. “I’m just stressed, that’s all.”
“I’m about to leave this all behind. Again.”
“This time you’re upset about leaving? You didn’t seem too mad last year. At graduation, during your valedictorian speech, you seemed so calm and ready to just fly away into the Gulf Stream.”
“The Gulf Stream is west to east.”
“I was trying to be poetic here, Miss Sensei. Anyway, you can always come back. You know that. You will come back.”
“How do you know that? What if I die over Arizona?”
“Sarah, I hate to ask you this, but are intoxicated?” She stabbed him in the side with her elbow. “Okay, I’m taking that as a no, or a drunken yes. You forget, sadly, I do have experience with that kind of stuff.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“Don’t overthink anything here. Should we go join the party? People are coming in now.”
“Honestly, I don’t want to.”
“Then how about we take a quick frolic into the woods?”
She cocked an eyebrow. “A quick frolic? What are you implying, church boy?”
“Nothing inappropriate, unless you would happen to comply to my deepest wishes.”
“Oh my gosh, Joel.” She turned pink with embarrassment.
He shrugged. “I’m trying my hardest to be on my best behavior, but I wasn’t always the good kid.”
“You’re absolutely crazy.”
“I know this.”
“Well, frolicking through the forest, where there are ticks and bees and bears, sounds like the stupidest place to… Well, you know what I’m saying.”
He crossed his arms as he elongated his legs. He glanced down at the crisp grass, noting that Sarah’s toenails were painted teal, like the summer waves of Florida’s panhandle. “Any place with you sounds magical.”
“Stop being one who imagines anything but reality.”
“I think you would be perfect in a jungle. Studying humans and all anthropologists do. You, who hate nature, would suddenly love it. I don’t know, like if you went to Africa and studied the Bantu tribe.”
“And exactly what is your plan for the future?”
“Obviously, professional skydiver.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Exactly why you’re never going to get married.”
“To you, maybe.”
She turned and scowled at him. “Joel Sealet, I have to say, knowing you has been a privilege.”
“But you don’t know me in the biblical sense.”
This time she punched him hard on the bicep, which would definitely culminate in a brackish, blue bruise. She stood up and fiddled with her dress.
He stood up beside her and grabbed her arm. “Okay, I’m sorry for all the innuendo. Please forgive me. I am good, I promise. Don’t be stressed, Sarah, not with me.”
She nodded, following him into the depths of the partygoers heading to Helena Towson’s electric late summer bash, upon which Joey Raspoli was the heightened magician, playing card tricks on a pedestal near the pool. His clothes were already starting to dry, and when he looked at Sarah’s form gliding by, he seductively winked.
Some things were impossible to ignore. Like Joel’s arm wrapped around her waist.
Sarah realized their heart-to-heart had happened, as far as it would go between them, and this saddened her. She didn’t know if she expected a romancing soliloquy from Joel to the world about her, but she had hoped they would have dissected their relationship further.
Instead, as Helena and Scott toasted to the citizens of Breezewater, and Karli flirted around, and Alison smiled with a group of her friends, Sarah felt even more lost than she ever had been before.
A tear slicked her face wet.
THE OCEAN SUNSET was beautiful, but on this particular night, one of Sarah’s last nights home, she and Joel sat on an old couch upstairs in his game room. She sat on one side, dangling her feet precariously close to his nostrils, and the same for her. Underneath a warm blanket, they were pretty comfortable, and the steady thrum of a drama hummed in the background. It was something Sarah was dying to see, and something during which Joel was dying.
Eventually at the climax, Sarah studied the film with the intensity of a professional critic, and Joel intentionally threw a piece of popcorn in her hair. “Stop it!” she yelled.
Joel paused the movie, angering her even further, and he blinked back the sadness ready to overwhelm his soul. In one summer, he’d gained a half-sister, little Sofia, whom he’d seen only a handful of times in his life. He’d lost his best friend. He’d gained Sarah. He wondered if the world ever held any sort of balance, and assumed probably not.
“Why did you pause it?” Sarah screamed, reaching for the remote.
“Get your head out of fiction and remember reality.”
“We’re at the good part.”
“Stop whining and listen to me. I think we should go out for a walk.”
“Right now? Joel, seriously, I’m in the middle of my movie.”
“You’re about to leave me for Hollywood. I think you’ll have plenty of movies over there.”
“Come on. Let’s just finish it, and then we can go do whatever you’re wanting to do.”
“Where’s the spontaneity in that? Come on, you austere quahog!”
“Never mind. Just come on.” He stood, stretched, and unplugged the TV. Sarah watched from her position in the blanket, skepticism a veneer over her irises. “I’m not kidding, Sarah Towson.”
He helped her up and they headed to the garage, where a few old dusty bikes sat in the corner, a few rays of sunlight streaming through a grimy window. He blew some of the dust particles away, sending them into the light, where they scattered like Sarah’s thoughts.
The door opened, and Joel promised the tires had enough air. He hopped on one, and she hopped on the other, and then they were off into the approaching night past the subdivision locals called Elizabeth.
Joel biked quickly as Sarah tried to keep up. She pedaled hard and her muscles quavered, and then she was whistling as Joel tried to show off some clumsy wheelies on his set of wheels. The fading sunlight cast a halo over her boyfriend, so that Sarah had to accept even more that she was going to say good-bye to him soon.
She finally matched his speed and stuck out her tongue at him. A car bounded down the road beside them, but they ignored it and continued on the potholed concrete. A plane flew above them, ready to cross the Atlantic in search of far-off journeys. A few neighbors stood at their lawns, waving at the two kids on their bikes, two kids whom they whispered about nearby. “Is that Joel Sealet with Sarah Towson?”
“Oh, it can’t be!”
“Yeah, how did you not know? They’ve been together the whole summer.”
“No one tells me anything!”
“Well, get your eyes out of those books you read, and your ears into our gossip!”
“Gossips are sinners.”
“Everybody’s a sinner, and everyone’s entitled to forgiveness. Did you forget that part?”
At the end of the subdivision, where a small town road hit another small town road, Joel called out, “The eastern edge of Harrisville Lake is a mile away. Want to go?”
“We’ll be heading back in the pitch black.”
“Oh, ye of little faith. Just follow me, and live your life.”
Wise enough, Sarah supposed, as the wind tossed her hair. They passed an old truck, the driver tipping his hat in their direction. A lady jogged with her dog on the sidewalk, though Sarah had heard it was better for one’s leg muscles to run on the sidewalk.
A few minutes later, they appeared at the blue lake, where Sarah remembered Joel had been dumped by Brie Fraser. At the wide open space where verdant trees met blue water, Sarah and Joel tossed their bikes to stare at not only the beauty of the moment, but at the fact of their impending separation.
Joel wrapped an arm around Sarah’s shoulders, and she leaned into him. So much had changed over these past few months, and they would only continue to striate and form a myopia of vision. She wanted to cry, but instead of tears, she felt somewhat giddy. Joel leaned down and kissed her on the lips, quickly but rushing in intensity. She felt her body respond to him, and she wanted to fall over and allow nature to take its course. However, she was a bit of a control freak, and with the hint of bees and spiders nearby, she only allowed him to kiss her lips, nothing else.
“Sarah,” he said between ravaged breaths.
“What?” she asked as he ran a hand through her hair, pulling a little too tightly.
“How can you go?”
“I take an airplane.”
“No, why do you go?”
She paused for a moment as he left a trail of kisses at the base of her jaw. She stared up into the darkening sky, where the hint of stars twinkled above. “We’ll see the same stars here and there.”
“Sarah, why are you going?”
“If you look up, and you see that reddish star there, you can think of me…”
Joel tensed, breaking away from her a little, before he stared into the marvelous depths of her eyes. “I think I love you.”
“The selfish part of me begs you not to go.”
“And the selfish part of me begs me to go.”
“Sarah,” he said, pulling her into an embrace. “You’re going to make us all so proud out there. You already have.”
That was the end to their conversation. They broke apart, jumped on their bikes, and headed to his house in an eerie, eldritch silence. When they appeared in Elizabeth, and made it to the curb of his house, Joel dropped his bike to the ground and whispered, “I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”
“Let’s not look at it as the last time we’ll see each other, but rather, just a little separation. You’ll be home for Christmas.”
She was quiet.
“Hey, something’s on your door.”
He turned his head and hurried over to the little mat that said in burgundy lettering WELCOME HOME. A little package rested at the threshold, and confused, he said, “It’s from Graciela.”
“Manny’s sister.” A tidal wave of regret flooded over him. He didn’t want to lose his cool in front of Sarah, but his best friend was gone. Time might heal the wound, but the wound would never leave.
Sarah’s presence beside him calmed his nerves. Eventually, he loosened the little yarn holding it together, and underneath silver tissue paper, Sarah’s necklace gleamed. She stared at it with shock. Beside it, a little photograph flashed in the faint glow of the streetlights.
“This is from Graciela?”
Joel pulled out a little note.
[_ Joel, here are some things I think belong to you and your new girlfriend. As you know, Manny was on his way to your house when the accident happened, but here is an attached note from him. Thankfully, he left a note, or I would have had no clue what these objects were. I rang the doorbell, but I don’t think anyone’s home. See you later. -G _]
Their eyes both focused in on Manny’s paper. How weird it could be that a crash destroyed a human life but not a slip of paper.
Hi, Joel. You’re sick right now, and if you are asleep, I will just leave this note on your doorstep and visit you later. Anyway, I feel so old-fashioned, writing you a letter! Weird, huh? Anyway, that necklace is Sarah’s. She left it in the cemetery, but as a little gift, I thought she should keep it. Maybe you could give it back to her or something like that. That was my awful logic. I don’t know. It’s probably me just being my nosy self. Also, this photo was taken back our junior year of high school. I printed it off from some random social media picture, and cut it out so it’s just you and Sarah. Weird, right? You and Sarah, your first picture together. Look at how adorable you two are. See, I can be a romantic when I want to be.
You may be wondering why I did all this. I did it because I felt bad for what happened in Myrtle Beach, but also because I know you’ve had a rough few weeks. You’re my best friend, and I honestly do like Sarah. I just wanted to show you I care, and that you might not think you deserve Sarah. That isn’t true. I wonder if she deserves you.
Sorry. This may be too sentimental, or ridiculous, or whatever. I may not even give you this note.
THE MORNING WAS beautiful, but the day was not.
It was the last day Joel would see Sarah. Joel knew that when she left, he had to let her go, and if that meant not returning her calls, so be it. If she tried to communicate with him, he would not respond. It would only make them both suffer for all the time she remained in California, and neither deserved this. They had to live their lives—apart.
As he stood at her door, holding a bouquet of Easter lilies, he thought what he would do without her and without Manny. His parents had talked about their separation, and were proceeding with the divorce at a snail’s pace now. They even considered holding their papers so they could see if things were on the mend. Sofia had been over to the house a few times to meet Chloe and to see Joel. It was a matter of time before Juliet invited Ethan to move back in—on the couch of course.
Manny’s absence was still painful, like a slice of the gut, where the skin continued to patch up. Joel wondered if he would ever see his friend again, and he realized sadly he was already starting to forget Manny’s little eccentricities, like the way his nose crinkled when he laughed, or the curve of his eyebrows. However, Joel kept that photo in his pocket. The note Manny had written was worth even more.
Rob Fielder’s court date was in early September, and it was assumed he would pay a toll for his crime, a hefty sentence in the slammer. Rob was taking this punishment in stride, and he even promised to tell his noted stories to his fellow inmates.
John Cruston had been bailed out by Karli herself. They were living together again, and John’s own court date was set in late September. John swore off the drugs and found a job as a construction worker at a friend’s company. Karli even dragged him to church once, and Mother Elsie sat by him, scaring him to death as she jived to the hymns.
Karli waited for her baby’s delivery date—late October—like it was Judgment Day (and so did Alex). She began to coddle the child in her stomach, and her time at therapy, paid for by her stepdad, was beneficial to setting her back on track. She planned to begin classes at the community college by the winter semester. Her and Sarah’s relationship was still knitting back together, but they had forgiven one another with humility.
As he thought of his friends in town, the door opened, and Helena’s ageless face appeared. Her bright eyes complemented her tan skin. “Hi, Joel. Come in.”
He followed her inside the spacious entryway. “Is Sarah home?”
“Yes. She’s in a bit of a stupor, I have to say. It’s about leaving. She wasn’t this beat up last year, and I think some of that’s got to do with you.”
Helena turned to him, but looked over her shoulder to make sure her daughter wasn’t listening. She smelled like lemons as she moved closer to him, whispering, “Thank you, Joel. I may not get to say it again, but thank you.”
“For what? I should be thanking you—and Sarah. For setting me straight.”
“You’ve been instrumental in helping Sarah realize that it’s not the place that makes a town home, but the people in it. She’s learned a lot this summer, and I’m sure you know most of it. Obviously, with your sister, and she found out she has another sister, too. It’s been stressful, but you’ve been there to help her.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Helena.”
“Please, dear, at least call me Helena. We’re friends now.”
Sarah appeared at the top of the steps, wearing casual summer clothes. She took the lilies in her arms and smiled, before reaching over to kiss his cheek. “Thank you so much. These are beautiful.”
Helena beamed. “Here, let me take them, so you guys can have a moment to yourselves.” The woman disappeared.
“So, this is it?” Joel asked, pointing to the suitcases at the door. “You leave tomorrow.”
She nodded, pulling on her necklace. It was a nervous habit. “I do. Joel, I’m going to miss you. So much.”
“But this is a transitory good-bye. You’re going to come back, and…”
“What are we kidding? Things will be different.”
“I have something to tell you.”
“I’m not coming home for Christmas.”
Joel tilted his head. “What? Why not?”
“I’m studying abroad. For a full year, from next week until May. I won’t be back until next summer.”
He felt like he’d been railroaded down the tracks. He blinked hard. “Well… A year. We can wait a year.”
Sarah reached out, touching his tan arm, ignoring the way her body quivered. She could see the pain she was inflicting. She’d known the whole time that she wouldn’t be home until next summer, and she felt like she was a traitor. “Joel. We can’t wait. We can’t live in this limbo. We’re nineteen.” Her heart roared. As Joel’s eyes glazed over with something that screamed at her, she tried to ignore the tears threatening to spill out. Here was their heart-to-heart. She had to tell him the truth. She couldn’t lead him on. “Nineteen, Joel. What are we chasing here? A dream?”
He scrubbed his chin. Little hairs had appeared there, a little stubble. “Yes. We are chasing a dream, but sometimes dreams are what people chase. So, therefore, I choose you.”
Sarah almost broke down then and there. Her voice quavered before finding its footing. “Joel. We can’t live in this fantasy. You’re going to find another girl. I’m going to find another guy. That’s okay.”
“What if I wait for you?”
Joel breathed hard. He felt like he was about to keel over. He reached out to touch her, but she rebuffed him, and he felt this was all a ruse. A simple ploy to distract herself from what she really felt. But she wasn’t going to be honest with him, and he decided he wouldn’t be honest with her either.
“Okay. Well, bye, Sarah.” He turned on his heel and left. If she could play this game, so could he.
He drove home with the windows down and the radio blasting. He passed the church where he’d smoked weed at the beginning of the summer before seeing Sarah for the first time. He cringed. He loved her, that much he knew, and here she was breaking his heart. “Too bad,” he whispered to himself, “it’s already been ripped to shreds.”
He made it home and flopped on the couch, his brain on fire. He decided not to think about it. He sat on the couch for five hours straight, doing nothing but watching reality television, shows usually Chloe and his mom watched together. Then he switched over to National Geographic, intent on learning something about Earth, and how no matter what, animals conquered their planet.
When Juliet got home, she fell on the couch beside her son. “Would you mind checking the mail? Chloe’s still at dance. I forgot to get it.”
“Sure. It will give me something to do anyway.”
He ambled to the mailbox as a car sped past. He picked up the random junk ads and a few letters from Juliet’s friends in Texas. On top of the pile, a necklace—with three little bulbs attached to the chain—laid. He picked it up and drove as fast as he could to Sarah’s.
SARAH HEARD THE rocks pelt her window. She had just fallen back into bed, into the puddle of tears that had roared against her. She kept reaching for her neck, where the band usually hung, but it hurt to see it was gone.
Now, she belted over to the window, where Joel was screaming, “Come down here! At least say a proper good-bye.” He smiled, before handing up a necklace.
She slowly walked down the stairs, careful not to fall, and found herself outside on the grass. “I’m sorry for making this so dramatic,” she breathed, and she walked into his arms.
“You’re being honest, but that doesn’t mean I can’t kiss you good-bye.”
HER MOTHER, BROTHER, and sister stood on the hearth, watching from the pretty mansion. In the afternoon glow, Sarah could almost taste the tears ready to seep from her eye sockets. Her mom was growing older, like everyone else, but there would be a day when Sarah would never see any of her family members again, and this terrified her. Young Zach, as carefree and youthful as he liked to be, would begin junior high in a few short weeks, while Alison’s growing belly protruded outward. The woman still had a grim smile, but it was happier than it ever had been before.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah looked over at the rosebushes lining the property, and she called out, “Are you serious?”
Only the hum of birdsong responded.
“Joey! Get out of those darn bushes!”
The kid stood up, binoculars wrapped around his neck, before smiling, waving, and running as fast as he could down the street to his house.
Sarah hopped into the Mercedes, its windows down, her hand dangling from the window. Would she ever see these people again? This life was precarious. Her life was basically like a fish on a string hanging from a precipice. She could fall anytime, and death would follow. Or she could move backward, to safety, toward knowledge.
As the Mercedes, owned by her father, sped down the coastal road, heading to the Savannah airport, Sarah blinked back tears. She blinked back the sting of all she’d leave behind, and she realized bitterly that she wouldn’t be back for another year. Her sophomore year was dedicated to studying abroad at a university in Córdoba, Argentina. This separation, this wad of emotional instability, pulsated underneath her skin.
“Sarah-bedera, are you okay?” Scott asked, turning down the radio.
“Dad, I’m fine. Turn the music up, please.”
He did as he was told.
Sarah stared out into the breakers, at the whitecaps, at the hint what lurked in that deep, wide, dark, blue void. Oh, how she would miss it.
Oh, how she would miss it all.
After all, this was her home.
SHE WAS IN town for a few weeks. Zach had picked her up at the airport, in his new ritzy Mustang, a present from their parents for his graduation and full scholarship to the University of Alabama. It was bright red, the color of American blood, and it sped down the road like a dream. The top was down, and Sarah joked with her brother about how her parents had never considered getting her a convertible.
“You went to California,” he reminded her with a smile.
“Alabama is a ways away.”
“Yeah, and I would also consider the Pantanal a little far away too, Miss Anthropologist. You’re the only person I’ve ever met who has been so brave she left her entire Georgia family for California, and then her entire California family for Brazil. You’re crazy.”
“Not everyone can be a genius, Zach.”
He swatted her.
As they drove home, the place Sarah truly considered home, she thought of her last conversation with her friend Karli. Little Christina was now six-years-old. Time had passed in a blur, just like everyone had always said and always would. Sarah came back every summer to older faces, wiser minds, and new babies.
When Zach pulled into town proper, and the salty air returned in full force, Sarah laughed. “It’s still humid here, but nothing like where I live now.”
“Again, you’re crazy.”
They stopped at a light at Edmonton and Arizona. Sarah dangled a hand into the air. “Oh, Zachary. You’re so old now. Driving around your big sister.”
“I’m old? Look in the mirror.”
A car pulled closer to them. The driver lowered the window of his new, four-door Jeep. The woman beside him was fanning herself with a magazine. For a moment, Joel forgot about his wife, the woman he loved more than anything in the world, and he stared at the red sports car.
“Hey, isn’t that Zach Towson?” asked his wife.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” Joel breathed. He recognized the brown hair blowing in the breeze as the sports car moved forward.
A thousand little memories tingled up his spine. Joel smiled at the girl he knew, and the boy he used to be.
He turned to his wife and squeezed her hand.
“Does he have a new girlfriend? I thought Zach was dating Eliana.”
“He is. That’s his sister. She’s just someone I used to know. Went to high school together. Really nice person.”
“Oh, really?” His wife cocked an eyebrow.
“Yup.” Then the Jeep turned right, and the Mustang headed straight.
Summer has set in the small coastal town of Breezewater, Georgia, and nineteen-year-old Sarah Towson has returned home from college in California. In the midst of her fresh return, she finds her family and friends are much adjusted to life without her. On the other side of town, Joel Sealet, who went to high school with Sarah, uncovers a sad truth about his own family. And unlike the high school valedictorian, Joel stayed close to home, a place he has discovered might be suffocating him. While neither is looking for love, the two meet and discover that the Earth revolves no matter what others do to them. And this one summer... Sadly, they'll have to let it go.