Authors: Suzanne Young
A Need So Beautiful
A Want So Wicked
About the Author
About the Publisher
’m standing at the edge of the world, staring out at the ocean. The beach is rocky beneath my bare feet, grit between my toes with broken seashells, sharp and jagged. I take in a deep breath, filling my lungs with salty air. It feels so good to be alive. To be back.
“I thought you left me again,” he says from behind me. “Was sure of it, actually.” His voice is on the wind, blowing over me and breaking my heart. “But we’re together now. We’ll restart. We’ll—” He pauses as I turn to him slowly, my long red braid slipping over my shoulder. Harlin’s eyes weaken, unable to disguise his pain. He reaches to run his finger over the ribbon tied to the end of my hair. “You’re different,” he whispers. “How will I find you?”
My eyes well up, and I step forward into his arms, hugging myself close to him. “I don’t know,” I say. “Guess you’ll just have to look harder.”
Harlin’s breath is warm against my skin, even as the air surrounding us quickly chills. I don’t want to let him go—because the minute I do, he’ll be gone forever. But the cold is starting to burn the bare skin of my forearms, the backs of my legs; the icy breeze burrows into my clothing, searching out my soul.
I close my eyes, holding tighter to Harlin. The edges of the scene begin to fray, and I pull back to take a final look at Harlin. His hazel eyes search my face—trying to memorize me before we both evaporate. “I love you,” he says miserably. “No matter who you are, I’ll always love you.”
I lean forward to kiss him one last time, but it’s too late—I’m falling. Ocean waves climb to catch me and pull me under, burying me before dragging me out, away from Harlin. I try to scream to him, but the salty water fills my mouth and chokes me.
And then I’m gone, alone again in a vast nothing.
he waves chase me as I crawl away on the hardened sand of the beach. When I pause to choke up a little more of the Pacific Ocean, my red surfboard floats beside me, knocking hard into my knee. I was so close. I drag the back of my hand across my mouth and then fall on my side, heart pounding beneath my gray wet suit. I unzip it at the neck and try to catch my breath.
“Claire?” Ezra yells, dropping to his knees and sending a spray of sand over my cheek. The morning sun is blinding, and I blink against it until my boyfriend comes into focus. When I smile, he exhales loudly and then collapses into the sand next to me.
“I’ve gotta tell you, Becks,” he says after a second, “that was a pretty major wipeout. I thought you were a goner.”
The sun is radiating heat strong enough to evaporate the water off my skin. The sound of the waves laps in the distance. “Almost got on the board this time,” I murmur, running my fingers up Ezra’s arm and over his chest as I hug myself closer to him. “Did you see?”
“Sure did. But I also saw you face-plant. You’re completely fearless, you know that, right?” When I smile against his shirt, he chuckles. “No, Claire. Not in a good way.”
I start laughing, and Ezra leans in to kiss my forehead. He’s right. Surfing is not getting easier, and I really bit it hard this time. My neck is killing me.
“Give up the bet,” he says. “At least for my sake. You belong on land, where you can’t get washed away with the current.”
“You and Soleil already know how to surf, so maybe I feel left out,” I tease. “You like being able to do something I can’t.”
“Not even close to true.”
“You like it a little.”
He watches me for a moment, squinting from the brightness surrounding us. “I like
“Yeah. A whole hell of a lot.” He lifts his head to kiss me. I can still taste the saltiness of the water, and the mix of beach and Ezra is enough to make me forget all about where I’m supposed to be right now. At least until I feel the buzz of Ezra’s cell phone in the pocket of his khaki shorts.
Ezra fishes out his phone, still kissing me, and holds it up to glance at the screen. He tries to slide the phone back into his pocket, but I quickly grab it away. Before nine a.m., chances are the call is for me. None of Ezra’s friends would be up this early, and my cell phone took a bath in the ocean last week.
My best friend’s name shows up on the caller ID, and I give Ezra a little shove before pressing the receiver to my ear. “Hey, Soleil,” I tell her, climbing to my knees and brushing the sand from my suit.
“Just checking on your progress,” she says, and I can hear the smile in her voice. In the background there’s the murmur of conversation.
“It’s going great,” I lie. “Are you in class already?”
“Yeah, I had to finish up the study guide, so I’m here early. Are you on your way?”
“Uh-huh,” I say, even though I’m still on the sand. “But you’re not copying my homework.”
Soleil laughs like she wouldn’t dream of asking. “I’m almost done anyway, so hurry up. There’s something here you have to see. Talk soon,” she sings, and hangs up.
Although it’s almost September, it feels like my class at Deseo Community College has cut my summer short. My boyfriend and his friends still have another week to sleep in and stay up late before the start of their senior year of high school. Wish I was still a senior.
“Time to go,” I tell Ezra, grabbing his hand as I get to my feet.
“Or . . .” he says, stepping in to wrap his arms around my waist, “you could ditch, and we’ll lie around on the beach all day.”
I brush his blond hair to the side, gazing into his eyes as I consider his offer. A splash of cold water covers my bare feet, snapping me out of my trance. I look down and see the surfboard hovering in the water a moment, half-covered in sand. “I can’t stomach any more failure,” I say, glancing back at Ezra. “I’m leaving this on the beach.”
Ezra bends to grab the surfboard anyway, ignoring the same empty threat I’ve been making for weeks. He tucks the board under his arm. It looks short next to his tall frame, even though I nearly killed myself dragging it down here from the car.
Ezra’s sandals scrape along the concrete as we start toward my mom’s Jeep. The parking lot is still deserted, which was why I chose this beach in the first place. The real waves (and the real surfers) are on the other side of town.
Ezra tosses the board through the open back window and slaps his hands together to shake off the sand. Although I need to get going, I’m not quite ready to tear myself away from him, so I rest against the car, and he makes his way over. He grins, effortlessly handsome in that sun-kissed California way. When he stops in front of me, I lean into him.
He smells like soap and ocean, and I kiss him slowly, drawing out the moment as long as I can. But eventually I feel the buzz of his phone once again and pull back. I have to go.
“I’ll see you tonight?” Ezra asks, kissing me quickly before backing away. I hear a bus pull up behind us, a loud
of air breaking through the otherwise quiet morning. Ezra holds up his hand, and I watch as he turns to head in the direction of his house a few blocks away.
Startled, I turn to find a girl standing next to me. She’s model tall (at least compared to me), with porcelain skin and black hair in a sideswept pixie cut. Her long black dress and eyebrow ring make her look completely out of place in our laid-back beach town.
“Sorry if I scared you,” she says, looking around helplessly. “I’m pretty lost.”
“Are you sure you’re in the right town?” I ask with a smile. A stranger in Deseo is pretty rare; this isn’t Southern California—or even northern. The last person to move here was Francesca Roberts in the third grade, and we still call her the new girl.
The stranger looks me over, chewing on her bottom lip. “Yep,” she says, returning my smile. “Middle of nowhere, California, right?”
“Officially. It’s on our welcome sign. So where are you headed?”
The girl glances down at a crumpled piece of paper in her hand. “The Cordova Apartments? I don’t think I got off at the right stop.”
“It’s across town but too far to walk. Do you want a ride? I’m headed in that direction anyway.”
“Seriously? That would be awesome. I didn’t think it would be so hot near the ocean. I’m Lucy, by the way.” I notice her glance at my wet suit.
“I’m Claire,” I say, starting around the Jeep. “And in case you’re wondering, I’m not actually a surfer.”
She laughs. “Interesting choice in apparel, then.”
I like Lucy already. To be honest, I’m surprised by our instant rapport, but then again, it’s not like I’ve had a lot of experience meeting new people. I’ve had the same best friend since kindergarten.
“I’m trying to win a bet,” I explain to Lucy as we climb into the car. “Last year my friend and I wagered a latte on whether I could get up on the board for one full ride. Haven’t gotten there yet, but I will. The fact that we’ve bought each other coffee a . . . a million times since the bet was made isn’t the point. I hate to lose.”
“That reminds me of something my little sister would do”—she smiles to herself—“although most of her bets are wagered on pizza.” Lucy turns to me. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“I do,” I say, starting the car and then crossing the parking lot to the street. “Three brothers—although two of them are away at college. Now it’s just me and River.”
Lucy’s eyes are a cloudy shade of midnight blue, but as the corner of her mouth lifts in a grin, the color seems to deepen. “There’s nothing like family,” she says softly. “Blood’s thicker than water and all that.”
“My mom likes to say that blood is thicker than cream cheese because, although inaccurate, that expression fits in better with our lifestyle. My parents own a bakery.”
She laughs. “Nice. Free pastries for life, right?”
“Almost. We earn the free food. All the Becks kids have to work at the Costas Bakery for a while. My dad says it builds character.” I look over at Lucy. “You should come by one morning. I’ll hook you up with a latte. No bet required.”
Lucy smiles broadly. “That sounds great.”
I hit the blinker with my thumb, turning into the roundabout of the apartment complex. When I stop in front of the adobe-style office, I glance at the time, and my leg begins to bob with impatience. I hate being late for class.
“Thanks so much for this, Claire,” Lucy says, unbuckling her seat belt. Her voice is velvety and deep, endearing. I feel a sudden burst of nostalgia, although I can’t quite place why. Either way, I’m honest when I tell Lucy it was my pleasure and that I hope to see her later.
She climbs out of the Jeep, pausing to look around at the buildings. The Cordova Apartments are a bit run-down, and Lucy hesitates a moment before pulling open the office door and walking inside.
When she’s gone, I drive through the roundabout, struck again by a sense of familiarity—and maybe a bit of loss. It’s so odd. I check my rearview mirror, watching the yellow building get smaller, and it isn’t until it’s out of my view altogether that the feelings fade.
“Ah, Miss Becks,” Professor Roth says when I walk into the small lecture hall. “I’m sorry if my class interrupted your . . . surfing?”
The room erupts in giggles, and I hold up my hand in acknowledgment before slipping into my seat in the back of the room next to Soleil. I’m still in my wet suit, and it squeaks against the hard plastic of my chair. Although there’s a duffel bag of clothes in the Jeep, I didn’t want to change and risk being even later for class. In hindsight, I’m not sure five more minutes would have made a difference.
My professor is barely out of college himself, and his suit and tie make him look like he’s playing dress-up. He’s easily my and Soleil’s favorite teacher. “We’re on page ninety-four,” he calls, pointing to the text on his podium. I nod, pulling the philosophy book from my backpack, and glance sideways at Soleil.
Her brown hair is braided and woven into a bun, her dark skin slightly pink on her cheekbones and nose. Soleil spends half her life surfing, and even now her red bathing suit strings are tied behind her neck, hidden beneath an oversize T-shirt. She bites on the end of her pen, hiding her smile, and Professor Roth continues his discussion on metaphysics—a subject I normally find riveting—but my attention falters when I notice a new student sitting across the room. The second stranger I’ve seen today.
There’s a small spike in my heart rate, and I have to admit, I’m a fan of the disheveled look he’s got going on. His brown hair is too long, tucked behind his ears; his chin scruffy and unshaven; his jaw sharp and strong. His Nirvana T-shirt looks worn and soft, stretched over his impressive biceps. I could probably stare at him all morning, but I’m interrupted by Soleil bumping her shoulder into mine.
“Told you there was something you had to see,” she whispered. “He’s just my type, isn’t he? Looks like a real troublemaker. I talked to him earlier.” She shoots a cautious glance at our teacher before going on. “I’ll tell you the rest after class.”
“You better,” I murmur, continuing to watch the guy, my curiosity piqued in a way I’m sure my boyfriend wouldn’t appreciate. Still . . . I can’t look away. I’m fascinated by him.
As if sensing me, the guy casually glances in my direction. But when he pauses to look at me, I hold my breath. His eyes, almond-shaped and green hazel, are beautiful. The corners of his mouth pull up slightly, and I think that if he smiles at me I’ll be lost completely.
My teacher clears his throat, and I force myself to give him my attention—even if I feel slightly dazed. Roth is explaining natural theology, and I’m fighting hard to keep from looking at the stranger again. When class is dismissed forty minutes later, I finally give in and turn.
The guy’s already up and grabbing his backpack from the floor, a black leather jacket gripped in his hand. He casts one more curious look in my direction and then heads out the door.
arlin?” I repeat, looking at Soleil. “What kind of stupid-hot name is that?”
Soleil laughs, clicking the remote to unlock her car as we cross the school parking lot. “I know, right? I nearly died when he told me. He was pretty quiet, though. Doesn’t strike me as a big talker.” She pauses next to her driver’s door. “Still, I got his name and a basic rundown: originally from Oceanside, lived in Portland and Arizona. I was about to ask if he had a girlfriend, but then Roth came in and wanted to teach.”
“Totally. Okay, sunshine, are you off to work?” she asks. When I nod, she opens her door. “Cool. Then I’ll see you at the bonfire tonight. I have a date with the ocean in about ten minutes.”
I hold up my hand in a wave as Soleil gets in her car and leaves for the beach. Although I know it’s kind of wrong, I think about Harlin. And then I wonder what he would have said if Soleil asked him if he had a girlfriend.
There are several customers sitting at the outdoor tables of the Costas Bakery when I show up for my shift. I don’t normally work during the week, but after my phone took a dip, I asked my parents for a new one. My request was met with laughter, and then extra shifts so I could afford to buy one myself. Which will hopefully be by next paycheck.
I park the Jeep on the side of the building and then take a minute to look in the rearview mirror and tie up my long red hair, which is stringy and salty-dry. I brush sand from my temples and then close my eyes for a second, still feeling the sway of the waves. When the sensation threatens to rock me to sleep, I blow out an exhausted breath and then smile as hard as I can for ten seconds.
“Six, seven . . .”
By the time I get to eight the smile turns real, and I’m ready to serve up some cinnamon lattes. My parents have owned this bakery since I was a toddler, naming it after my mother’s family in Mexico. Our place is a hit; then again, we’re the only bakery in Deseo other than the donut case in Safeway. I don’t mind working here; it’s not like the job doesn’t have its perks. I get free coffee.
I approach the back door and see Tanner—our busboy—sitting on a milk crate, smoking a cigarette. Tanner’s in his early twenties, with long black hair he wears in a ponytail. He used to be a riot, but lately he’s been calling in sick. Distracted. Cranky. Today, he’s staring off across the parking lot, pulling a long drag from his smoke.
“Hey,” I say as I pass him. He turns slowly, his dark eyes rimmed in red. I’m about to ask if he’s okay, but then I feel a wind blow through me, although it doesn’t brush against my skin or move my hair. A tingling inches up my veins until my entire body tingles. I take in a sharp breath, and suddenly knowledge floods me—knowledge I could never have had on my own.
Panic starts to bubble up, but then a vision materializes and I’m immersed in it, as if I am there. It’s months ago, and I see Tanner sitting at a bar, talking to a woman who’s not his girlfriend. I know everything then—what he’s thinking, feeling. Tanner thinks this woman is everything his girlfriend is not. The scene fast-forwards and I watch their affair, watch how Tanner becomes obsessed. His mind twists around the thought of being with her, only her. And he doesn’t want her with anyone else.
I try to pull myself from the vision, terrified of what’s happening to me. How can I see this? How can I know? But it’s like I’ve lost control of my body, and I’m submerged once again.
Tanner watches as the woman, Kira, flirts with other men at the bar. He begs her to stop, tells her he’ll leave his girlfriend. But Kira says it’s too late—she’s moved on. Tanner won’t accept it. His passion brightens into anger—murderous anger that turns my stomach and makes my body shake.
I stagger back a step, cutting off the vision. “What’s happening?” I ask as Tanner stares at me, wide-eyed. I realize then that he saw it too—we shared the memories.
“How are you doing that?” he demands, jumping up from the crate. He drops his cigarette on the ground and stomps on it. Tears begin to sting my eyes. I’m scared, but I don’t answer Tanner because I can still see his plan; the gun in the glove compartment of his car. He’s going to use it to kill Kira and then himself. He’s going to ruin everything.
How do I know all of this? How can I possibly have this much information? I press my hands to my temples, afraid I’m having a nervous breakdown. But then . . . comfort rushes over me. Peace. Words form in my head, as if whispered in my ear from beyond me, beyond here. They are compassionate, but firm.
“You won’t be able to take it back,” I say, lifting my eyes to Tanner’s. My bones ache, but with each word I speak, I find a little relief. “You’ll never find peace. You need to let this go. You need help.”
“Go to hell!” Tanner snaps, and kicks over the crate he was sitting on. His cheeks have grown red with anger—he doesn’t want me to know; he doesn’t want me to stop him. His desire has made him desperate.
Tanner’s posture grows impatient, and he moves quickly to push past me. But the minute he touches me, his body convulses, stopping him. I moan, a sudden rush of light pouring from me, draining me. Tanner sways on his feet.
My arm heats up, my hand, my fingers. I can feel my skin burning Tanner. He gasps but doesn’t pull away; instead tears race down his cheeks. In my mind, in our shared vision, we watch Tanner commit the crime—murder Kira and himself. But then the scene is overwritten. A new future is offered, one in which Tanner leaves town without hurting anybody. He heads back to his home in Texas, with his mom and dad. The medication that will even him out—control the rage that has built up. The therapy and eventual calm.
The rush stops, but Tanner stands rooted in place. His mouth opens, but no words come out. His eyes glaze over, and I know then that he’s listening. He’s going to take the other path. He plans to leave town, head back to Texas. He won’t hurt anybody—but even so . . . I’ll know how close he came. I’ll know what he’s capable of.
“I have to go,” Tanner says as he looks around, broken from the spell. I expect to see more of the anger, but he’s distracted. “Claire, will you tell your mother I quit?”
“What?” I can’t even process his words as I try to figure out what happened. I think I am having a breakdown. Tanner shakes his head and then starts for his truck, half-dazed. I’m about to call out to him, demand that he explain to
what just happened, when I’m struck with a sense of euphoria—an airy sense of completion, comfort, love. I sway, falling back into the cement wall. I’ve never felt so peaceful. I still, closing my eyes, and let the fear evaporate.
When I open my eyes again, Tanner’s truck is gone. For a moment, I wonder if I imagined the entire exchange, but I see the crushed cigarette still on the ground. My stomach is twisted in knots, my body trembling. I rush inside to the bathroom, afraid I might throw up. Bursting through the door, I slam it shut behind me before locking it. At the white pedestal sink, I rest my hands on either side, my head hanging as I try to gather myself.
Tanner almost killed somebody. Should I call the police? I should. But say what? I saw inside his head, knew his intentions? I helped him; I saved someone’s life today.
Holy hell. I turn the cold water on high and splash a handful over my face. As it runs over my lips, I taste the salt water wash off my skin. I do this over and over until I start to feel more like myself. I look at my reflection, trying to discern if I’ve changed, if anything is different. But I’m exactly the same.
“Keep it together, Claire,” I murmur, and grab a handful of paper towels from the dispenser. I pat my face dry, studying it one more time. There is a murmur of voices outside the bathroom door, and I know I have to go to work.
Tanner quit. All the rest could have been some weird hallucination—could be from my colossal wipeout this morning while surfing. After my shift, I’ll talk to my mom, maybe stop by the urgent care. But my head doesn’t hurt now. I don’t feel sleepy.
I’m fine. I have to be fine. I scrape back the stray hairs into my ponytail. I repeat my mantra until I’m calmed, until I’m together. I change into my Costas T-shirt, and swipe on lip gloss and wash my hands. I’ll just work and see how I feel in a couple of hours. If things get weird again, I’ll leave. Ready. Go.
I walk out into the packed store. The tables are littered with leftover plates and cups; there’s the hum of conversation, and the smell of coffee beans and confectioners’ sugar hanging in the air.
My brother River glances up from where he’s stacking coffee cups at a table, teetering ceramics in his hand. He lifts his arm in acknowledgment, and the movement causes the stack of cups to waver. He quickly steadies them before smiling at me. The moment is so filled with normal, I return his smile and then cross the room to where my mother is making a latte.
“Um . . . so Tanner just quit,” I say to her back, dreading the follow-up questions. I can tell her about everything that happened, but I’m not sure she’ll believe that Tanner planned to kill someone. And she probably won’t believe how I found that out either.
My mother turns, setting down the metal container. “Are you kidding?” she asks. “When did Tanner quit?”
I lower my eyes, taking the end of my ponytail to twist the bright red strands. “Just now. He told me when I was walking in. I don’t think he’s coming back.” I know he’s not coming back.
My mother shakes her head and wipes down the machine with her rag. “I should have figured. He’s been unreliable lately.” She shrugs. “Well, looks like you and River will have to stay late to cover Tanner’s shift.” She flashes me a smile, but pauses. “Hey, you all right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Just hasn’t been a great morning.”
The customer waiting at the counter is watching us, but the crease of concern between my mother’s eyebrows doesn’t fade. Now isn’t the time for me to worry her like this.
“I’m okay, Mom,” I tell her, and force a smile.
She runs her gaze over me, taking motherly inventory to make sure I’m really fine, and then nods. “Take it easy today, then,” she says. “I’ll have River pick up the later shift.”
“Lucky guy,” I say, and reach behind the register to grab an apron. My mother smiles at my sarcasm, a sure sign that I’m stable, and then she goes back to her customer.
I meet my brother at a corner table near the front, opting to help him bus so that I have something to do. I start to stack plates, but then feel tiny pinpricks spread over the back of my neck, sort of like I’m being watched. I roll a careful gaze across the room but don’t notice anything strange. Well, besides me, I guess.
River sets the gray tub on the chair, and then reaches to grab my pile of plates and puts them inside it. With one more uncomfortable check around, I turn to him.
“Today’s weird,” I tell him. He lifts one eyebrow. “Okay, yes, most days are weird. But this is weirder than usual.”
“I’m sorry doing nothing all morning was so strange for you,” River says, brushing his dark hair behind his ears. “I, on the other hand, was busting my ass here. I assume you were out with your life-sized Ken doll?”
I smile and toss a rogue chocolate chip from the table in his direction. My brother doesn’t
Ezra, but he seems to feel it’s his personal mission to trivialize our relationship at every turn. He says it’s an older-brother thing.
“I had class, dipshit,” I say. “And yes, Ezra’s fine. I’ll let him know you asked about him.”
“Oh, please do. Tell him he’ll have to show me around Barbie’s Dreamhouse sometime.”
“And you’re dating a
. I win.”
I move past River to the next table, but I’ve barely started before he takes the plates from my hand to restack them. “If you’re always going to be late for your shift,” he says, “you can at least learn how to bus properly.”
“Good thing I work with the bussing master. By the way, Mom said you have to pick up the later shift too. Tanner quit.”
“Damn, Tanner quit? I’ll be bussing all week.” He tosses a look at our mother. “Mom won’t make me stay,” he says when he thinks it over. “Listen, I need a break from the monotony of cleaning coffee cups. Are you going to the bonfire tonight? Because I could be persuaded to join you.”
Although I’m not in the mood to socialize, I know I should keep doing normal things. And nothing is more normal than a bonfire on a Friday night. “Yeah,” I tell him. “Soleil mentioned it in class.”
“I’ll bring chips.”
I laugh. River’s made no secret of his crush on my best friend, and they hang out all the time. But Soleil’s not into him that way. She likes her guys a little higher on the delinquent scale.
We finish cleaning the room just as the rush starts to die down. My mother sends me behind the register to work. My neck is sore from today’s wipeout, and I’m reminded of my exchange with Tanner. I could really be hurt. I could really be crazy.
I shake my head to try to clear it, and in the quiet that follows I let myself dwell on other things—like Harlin. His haunting hazel eyes, the grin that teased at his lips. What I’d give to see him smile. It strikes me then that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so attracted to someone. It’s a scary thought because I’m not sure what it means. What it means for me and Ezra.
The sun has turned the sky a fading gold as I take the right up the long gravel hill of my driveway. My muscles ache, and I predict a nap and hot shower are in my immediate future. My conversation with Tanner feels more like an out-of-body experience, and I’m starting to believe it was more hallucination than reality.
I park behind my brother’s car—and he was right: Our mother didn’t make him stay late. The blinds are drawn as I approach our white ranch-style home, palm trees swaying on the side of the house. They’re in desperate need of a trim, and the black paint on our window shutters is peeling off in big chunks. My mom calls it shabby chic, but really that’s code for home improvements my dad hasn’t gotten around to yet.
My father is the typical California surfer, and I’ve often wondered how he got paired up with my mother in the first place. He’s rarely out of beachwear, and his skin is deeply tanned from years on the ocean. He’s easygoing, slightly distracted—basically the opposite of my mother, who is high-strung and fully capable of running the world. They’re happy, truly happy, so I guess sometimes opposites really do attract.
The screen door slams shut behind me when I walk inside. I slip off my sandals and drop my bag near the front door. The house is a mess—as usual—but it’s a comfortable kind of mess that makes it feel like home. I collapse onto one of the rattan sofas and let my head fall back against the cushion.
“There you are.” My brother’s voice carries through the room. “Ezra called my phone. Said he’d be here at nine to pick you up. Please let him know I’m not your personal assistant.”
I slowly lift my head, finding River in the entryway, leaning against the doorframe. He’s wearing a different Costas Bakery T-shirt, this one faded with old splatters of paint on the sleeve.
“You could have told him yourself.”
River shrugs. “Naw. I like to keep up the pleasantries. Soleil asked for a ride, so we’ll catch you guys there. We might grab some tacos first.” My brother notices my goofy grin and shakes his head. “Shut up.”
“Didn’t say a word.”
River picks at his fingernails like he’s bored, and I feel the weight of the day crashing down on me. “I’m going to shower and nap,” I say, and stand up. “Let me know before you leave to get Soleil.” I grab a towel from the linen closet and head off for a shower.
he water is cold and dark and suffocating. I lift my face to the surface, watching the light disappear as I sink. I’m holding my breath, my arms flailing out as I try to swim, but it’s like I’m weighed down with stones. Fear crawls up my throat, and I have my first convulsion as I try not to breathe in water. I’m going to die here. I’m going to die.
In the distance, I see a small glowing light. It’s so far—but I stretch my hand in that direction and instinctively call for help. Water slips inside my mouth. I try to cough but end up breathing in icy ocean water. It burns my nose, squeezes my throat. I claw at my skin, feeling like there’s an invisible rope strangling me. I try to get the water out, but with each try, I only bring more in.
he light is glowing brighter, but black dots of suffocation crowd my vision as I move toward unconsciousness. My eyes slip closed, and I force them open, wishing for someone to save me. Wishing to save myself.
“That’s it?” a voice whispers near my ear. Even though I know it’s not possible for her to talk underwater, I can feel her icy breath drift across my shoulder. “You’ll give up that easily? I must say, what a disappointment.”
I convulse weakly, and turn to find the source of the voice. But it’s too late—I’ve drowned. All at once a shadow drapes over me like a dark blanket, blotting out all light, all hope.
And I die.
I jolt awake in my bed. I cough, frantically trying to choke up the water. It takes a minute for me to realize where I am. I’m home. My skin is damp with sweat, not ocean water, and I’m shaking.
“Claire,” River says. I look around my room and find him in the doorway. Night has fallen outside of my window, and I’m overwhelmed with relief to see my brother. It was just a dream. I’m not dead. Holy shit, that was intense.
“Sorry to wake you up,” River says, flipping on my light. “You said to let you know when I was leaving. I’ll see you there?”
I glance sideways at the alarm clock on my side table. Ezra will be here soon to take me to the bonfire, so I should get up. Get ready. Even though River’s here and my parents are probably just outside in the living room, I’m too frightened to set my feet on the floor, afraid of being swept away by an unseen apparition under my bed. I wait, up to my neck in blankets, until River leaves. And it isn’t until the nightmare has faded completely that I peel back my sheets and get ready for the bonfire.
Ezra and I pull up to our spot at the beach. The fire isn’t visible from the road, hidden behind a series of boulders jutting out of the sand. It isn’t illegal to be here at night, but we don’t want it advertised either.
“I hate that you don’t have a phone,” Ezra says, looking over as he yanks up the emergency brake. “Your brother doesn’t sound quite as sexy.”
“I’m sure your bromance will work itself out eventually.”
Ezra laughs, reaching over to take my hand, tugging me closer. “I missed you today,” he says. “We can always skip the party and hang out at my house.”
“Oh?” I raise an eyebrow. “Will we watch Lifetime movies with your mom?”
Ezra leans forward to kiss me, his arm wrapping around my waist to pull me tighter against him. “We can stay here,” he whispers against my mouth, his touch beginning to blot out any other plans I had tonight. We’re thoroughly exploring our options when the lights of another car flood the front seat, and I pull back. The car parks, but the moment has passed.
“You’re such a tease,” I say, and then check my reflection, swiping away any smeared lip gloss before turning back to smile at him. Normally I would find this car make-out kind of hot, but the day is still off. Besides my morning meltdown, I might be feeling a little guilty for my straying thoughts of Harlin.
“We should go,” I say, nodding toward the beach. “I’m sure your fans would like to see you.” My boyfriend is the reigning king of all things handsome at Deseo High School. Homecoming king, prom king, and he’ll probably win them both this year too.
Ezra blows out a frustrated breath and then watches the couple climb out of the car that just parked in front of us. “You know you’re the only one I’m here to impress, Claire.”
“I am impressed,” I say, giving him a long stare-down. Ezra laughs loudly, leaning in to give me one more quick kiss before opening the driver’s door. Everything seems to have snapped back to normal, and I smile as I grab my beach bag from the floor and get out.
Ezra locks the car and then appears next to me, taking my hand as we head across the sand. Every other Friday is like this—a bonfire on the beach, all our friends with the occasional new face of someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend.
As we round the rocks, Ezra lifts his hand in a wave when his friends call out to him. I wasn’t joking about fans; they really do idolize him. They’re all a year younger than me, but luckily my brother has moved on from the cradle-robber jokes to the Ken-and-Barbie ones. I’m glad—they’re less embarrassing.
Ezra gives me a squeeze before going to join his friends on the other side of the fire, and I maneuver through the people to where Soleil has taken up residence on a sun-bleached log. She hands me a red plastic cup when I sit down next to her.
“Your brother’s playing glow-in-the-dark Frisbee with the girls’ soccer team,” she says, sipping from her drink. “Why is he such a social butterfly today?”
I glance sideways, noting that her usual playful expression has slipped. She may have had too many drinks. Although Soleil may not like River, she definitely likes when he likes her. Clearly they have issues.
“Maybe he’s looking for attention,” I offer. The last thing I want to do is talk about my brother’s love life, and I start to scan the faces by the fire, hoping to find a new topic. I take a drink from my plastic cup and wince at its sugary sweetness. I set it aside.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” Soleil asks. “This party’s a bust. I need something pretty to stare at.”
I laugh. “You know Ezra. He’s probably making plans for an after-party already.”
“Always liked that guy.”
Across the sand, I notice a darkened figure coming toward the fire. I lean forward to see who it is. The silhouette is long and tall, and I don’t recognize her at first. When the amber light hits her face, I’m surprised to see the girl I gave a ride to this morning. But I’m even more surprised when Ezra walks up to her and starts talking like they’ve known each other forever.
“Who’s she?” Soleil asks, tipping her cup toward Lucy.
“A new girl in town. I gave her a lift to the Cordova Apartments today. I’ll be right back.” I start toward Ezra and Lucy, the cold sand sifting through my sandals. The air is crisper the farther from the fire I get. Neither seems to notice me, but then Lucy turns suddenly like she expected me to be there. I stop. A chill runs over my skin.
“Hey, Claire,” she says. At the sound of my name, Ezra looks over, all smiles. “This is a really cool spot,” Lucy continues. “Hope you don’t mind if I crash.”
“Of course not,” I say. “I’m sorry I didn’t mention it earlier. Surfing concussion.” I look between her and Ezra. “Do you guys know each other already?”
Ezra grins. “Nope. I like meeting new people, though.” Ezra has always been kind of flirtatious, but not in a way that makes me jealous. He really is just friendly.
“Lucy, this is my boyfriend, Ezra. Ezra, this is Lucy—she moved here from . . .” I pause, forgetting what we’d talked about earlier.
“Thistle, Arizona,” she says. “Shitty little town. But it’s full of some great people. Anyway”—she shoves her hands in her pockets—“mind if I grab a drink?”
“I’ll walk you over,” I reply. Ezra says he’ll catch up with us later and returns to his buddies, who immediately eye and whisper about Lucy. I can tell Ezra’s proud to return with information. He and Soleil are similar in that way.
“Your boyfriend seems nice,” Lucy says as we head to the Gatorade cooler filled with juice and vodka. “Been together long?”
“About eight months.” I pull a plastic cup from the sleeve and hand it to her. I don’t feel like drinking tonight. “My friend Soleil and I were at the beach one day, and Ezra hit me with a Frisbee.” I smile, watching as Lucy fills her cup. “He came over to get it, and once we started talking . . . I don’t know; we clicked. Became inseparable.”
“You’re lucky,” she says, taking a sip and wincing at the taste. “I haven’t met a decent guy in ages. Just think, if that Frisbee had been a little off course, he might have ended up with your friend.”
I furrow my brow, never having thought of it that way. I glance back at Soleil, who’s staring at the ocean, looking bored to tears. “Hey, want to meet her?” I ask Lucy.
“Maybe in a few? I think I’m going to have Ezra introduce me to a couple of his guys.” She pauses. “If you don’t mind.”
I laugh. “I’ve never been the possessive type,” I tell her. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
Lucy bites on her lip like she’s nervous and then turns to walk over to where Ezra is standing. It’s only a minute before Luke and Kevin are laughing at something she said, clearly impressed with Lucy. I’ll admit I am too. I expect Ezra to look over at me, but he doesn’t. He seems content in playing matchmaker.
“Friend of yours?” a soft voice asks. I spin, startled, and see the new guy from my philosophy class standing a few feet away. He nods in Lucy’s direction.
“Uh.” I glance at Lucy but then shake my head. “Not really. Just met her today, actually. You?” It hadn’t occurred to me that they may know each other, but now I have a sudden dread that she’s his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend). Two strangers in one day is pretty odd.
Harlin brushes a strand of hair behind his ear, studying my reaction. “Nope,” he replies.
His voice is tender, like a song whispered in my ear. His black leather jacket is worn, a bright white T-shirt underneath. When he runs his hazel stare over me, I think he might be the hottest guy I’ve ever seen. I dare to take a step closer. “How—” I clear my throat, anxious in a way I didn’t expect. “How did you know about the bonfire?”
“Your friend Sarah told me.”
Harlin pauses, then chuckles quietly to himself. “Sorry. I meant Soleil. She invited me before class.”
I can’t believe Soleil asked him and didn’t tell me. She obviously left out some important details from our chat. I wonder what else they talked about. Lucy’s laugh echoes, and I turn to watch her. Harlin comes to stand next to me, his shoulder nearly against mine. I have a sudden and irrational wish to touch him, and my stomach flutters at the thought. He smells like leather, like comfort, and I can barely catch my breath as I look at him.
“I’m Claire,” I say. Harlin offers his hand, polite and genuine. I slide my palm into his, and when we touch, a shock of electricity shoots up my arm, making me jerk back.
Harlin freezes, staring down at his still-outstretched hand, his lips slightly parted. Even in the firelight, I can see the blush rising on his cheeks. He doesn’t say anything at first, but then he lifts his gaze. He smiles, slow and sexy, and in that instant, I come to life. My entire body warms.
“Hi, Claire,” he says softly. “I’m Harlin.” I can still feel the tingling in my fingers, and I have to wonder if anyone has ever felt this way after first meeting someone. It’s like I’ve just dropped from the top of a roller coaster. Harlin motions to my hair. “That shade of red is really pretty on you.”
I inspect the ends of my hair, mostly to fidget. After thinking about him all day, it’s surreal that the new guy is hitting on me. I should tell him I have a boyfriend, should go back to Soleil. Instead I thank him, opting to stay a little longer.
Near the fire, Kyle Rampert takes out his guitar and starts strumming, and I know that it’s only a matter of minutes before Ebony Campolla will join him, singing in her raspy voice. When she does, the entire night takes on a romantic quality. I’ve lost track of Ezra, who’s walking around the party with Lucy like he’s her tour guide. But in this moment, I don’t feel like I’m here with Ezra. Not anymore.
“Why did you really come here?” I ask Harlin, braver with each passing moment. “This doesn’t seem like your scene.”
“It’s not,” he replies. “Will it embarrass you if I’m honest?”
I laugh. “Probably.”
“I hoped you’d be here.” A shiver races down my back. “I wanted to meet you.”
“Oh.” I look down, putting my fingers on my lips to disguise the smile I can’t hold back. “Well . . . that is embarrassing.” We both laugh, awkward even though the flirting is exhilarating at the same time.
I’m about to ask him if he wants a drink when I hear a splash from the water. At first I think it’s a fish, but there’s a nagging in the back of my mind. Ebony is still singing, but underneath that is a hum I can’t seem to make out. I turn, facing the dark water and studying it, waiting for something to surface. Anxiety begins to twist around my gut. It’s not right—the feeling in the air is not right.
“Someone’s in the water,” I say to myself at first. And then louder: “Someone’s in the water!” I can’t see anything, but I know. I know that someone’s drowning right now.
I rush past Harlin toward the water, my sandals flipping off as I dig my toes in the sand to get traction. I hear the pounding of footsteps behind me and then Ezra is crashing into the waves with River right behind him. They’ve both been lifeguards, and I clasp my hands in front of me as they bob in and out of the water, calling to each other.
The party has stopped, everyone looking on in confused curiosity. But I feel dread winding through me, much like earlier with Tanner. Oh no. Is it happening again? A splash of cold water runs between my toes and startles me. Suddenly my anxiety is replaced with a steady calm.
“What’s going on?” Lucy appears next to me and loops her arm through mine like we’ve been friends forever. “Is someone in the water?”
“I think so,” I murmur, and lean into Lucy as we watch River and Ezra search the ocean.
“It’s dark out there,” Lucy says. “We should grab flashlights for them.”