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“It’s beautiful,” Bea says.
“When are we going to bake cookies?” Heather asks. “Your cookies are better than Momma’s. No offense, Momma.”
“None taken. The student has surpassed the teacher.” Mrs. Frazier puts down her basil lemonade and wraps Bea in a warm hug. She’s the kind of mom Bea hopes she’ll be someday, patient and loving: knitting mittens and scarves for her kids, baking delicious pies, refereeing the twins’ squabbles, cheering Erik on at all his debate meets and tennis matches.
It hits Bea all over again: she isn’t just breaking up with Erik. She’s breaking up with his family too. This wonderful, kind, welcoming family that she loves. She will miss them so much.
Bea sinks into the hug, blinking back tears. “How have you been, honey? The girls are right. We’ve hardly seen you since the graduation party.”
Erik’s family threw a joint graduation party for him and Bea. Mrs. Frazier gave her earrings made from pen nibs and a new cookbook.
“I’m fine.” Bea is on the verge of sobbing. “I’m sorry. I’ve been so busy with my internship and the raft and…” And Gabe.
“You eat yet?” Mr. Frazier pulls a twenty out of his wallet and hands it to Erik. He has Erik’s kind blue eyes. “Go get your girl some lunch.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Erik grins. “What are you in the mood for, Bea? Mama’s or Captain Dan’s?”
Bea doesn’t deserve this. She can’t let them buy her lunch and smile at her. She does not deserve their love.
The panic rises up, choking her. The sun feels too hot on the crown of her head, on her ears, on her bare arms and legs, on the part of her chest exposed by the round neck of her sundress. Her pulse starts to race. She feels sick and dizzy, and she can taste the sweet–tart strawberry lemonade she drank earlier.
“Bea? Are you okay?” Erik looks at her with concern.
She is not okay.
She can’t lie to him anymore. Not even one more day. This is unacceptable.
Bea shakes her head. Her chest hurts. Maybe she’s having a heart attack.
“Is it the heat? Here, sit down. John, get her some water,” Mrs. Frazier says. “Did you eat breakfast?”
“No, I—” Bea wets her lips and tries to speak around the knot in her throat. “I need to go home.”
“Now?” Erik’s face falls.
“You can’t go home yet!” Heather complains.
“Are you going to throw up?” Hailey asks, interested. Mrs. Frazier swats at her shoulder.
“Walk me home?” Bea asks Erik. “Please?”
Eric takes her hand. “Of course.”
“I’m sorry,” she says to his family. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart. Feel better,” Mrs. Frazier says. “We’ll see you soon.”
Erik threads his warm fingers through hers. The gesture makes the knot in her throat pull tight. She’s been taking this for granted the past few months. Maybe it was easier that way, to try to convince herself she wouldn’t miss him. That he was too clingy, too insufferably patient. The truth is, he’s kinder than she deserves, and she will miss this. Miss him.
They’re quiet as they retrace their steps back to her house. Does he know? Does he suspect?
Bea pauses on the front porch. No one else is home. Kat is at the café for the grand reopening. Des and Vi and Gram are at Arden. The whole street is quiet, nothing but sunshine and insects buzzing and red rosebushes blooming in the drowsy July heat.
“What’s going on, Bea?” Erik asks.
He’s still holding her hand. He hasn’t let go. That’s who he is. He won’t let go, no matter how snappish or standoffish or selfish she is.
She has to be the one to do this.
Gently, Bea lets go of his hand. She looks up at him and he takes a step back. His spiky brown eyelashes, darker than his hair, are already wet with tears.
Maybe he’s known all along but hasn’t wanted to see it, to say it out loud, to make it true.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t go to Georgetown with you,” she says.
It’s the wrong way to start. He looks confused, his forehead rumpled. Then hopeful.
“I’m breaking up with you,” she clarifies, and the hope drains out of him. His shoulders, strong from all that tennis, strong from five years of being her rock, bow.
“Why?” Erik bites his lip. “Is it that guy? The one in the truck?”
Bea shakes her head. She’s crying now, quiet tears slipping down her freckled cheeks. “It’s me. I’m a mess. I’m such a mess. I don’t know what I want, but it’s not Georgetown. It’s not any of the things we planned.” It’s not you.
“That’s okay.” Erik reaches for her even as he’s blinking back his own tears. “We can figure it out. You can defer for a year. I can come home on weekends. It’s not that far; we can—”
“No.” She collapses into one of the porch chairs. “We can’t.”
“Bea.” Her name is a plea.
“I love you; I will always love you, but I need to figure this out on my own,” she says.
Erik shakes his head. “I don’t understand. I’ve been giving you space. I’ve been giving you a lot of space.”
“I know,” she says. “You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re amazing. It’s not about you.”
“How can it not be about me? I’m the other person in this relationship. We’re a team.”
“I haven’t been a very good team player lately,” she says. “It’s not fair to you.”
“Don’t do that. Let me decide what’s fair to me.” Erik sits next to her and puts his hand on her knee. “We can fix this.”
“You can’t fix it,” Bea says. “You’re not listening.”
She feels like she is doing this terribly. Would there be any way to do it well?
She covers his hand with hers. She doesn’t want to hurt him, but she has to be absolutely clear. “Erik, I don’t want to fix it. I’m sorry.”
His hand slips out from beneath hers. He shifts away, and despite the July heat, the air feels cold and new without him right next to her. His blond head bows.
“Why?” he says again. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
She nods and then realizes he isn’t looking at her. He’s staring at his own sandaled feet, at the warped gray floorboards of the porch. “I am. I really am.”
“What are you going to do? If you’re not—” His voice breaks, and her heart catches on the jagged edges of it. “If you’re not going to Georgetown?”
“I don’t know,” she confesses. “But I have to figure that out myself.”
“I don’t understand. Georgetown, the Hoya, DC—it’s what you wanted. I never pressured you. We decided together. What about our five-year plan, and our ten-year plan, and… You’re supposed to be my whole future, Bea.” He leans forward, propping his elbows on his knees, and buries his face in his hands. “We had it all planned out.”
“I’m sorry.” She doesn’t know what else to say. She starts to reach out, to rub his back, to comfort him, and then lets her hand fall into the empty space between them.
That isn’t her job anymore.
She isn’t his girlfriend anymore.
His shoulders are shaking, and she realizes with horror that he’s crying. She’s only seen him cry once, two summers ago, when his grandfather died. She went to the funeral with him and held his hand.
“What can I do?” she asks.
“Just go,” he mumbles.
She stands and then hesitates. She doesn’t want this to be their last memory. It’s so awful.
He raises his head and looks at her with red-rimmed eyes. She wonders if he’ll resent her for seeing him like this. “You don’t know what you want, but you know it’s not me, right? So just go, Bea.”
“Okay,” she says
quietly. “If that’s what you want.”
“None of this is what I want,” he snaps.
She fumbles with her keys, unlocks the front door, and slips inside. She can see him through the living room windows, still sitting on the porch, his shoulders bowed. If he turned, he would see her. Bea stumbles into the kitchen and slides down the striped wallpaper to the floor.
It’s over. She’s not Bea-and-Erik anymore, only Bea.
She thought maybe she’d feel relieved, like some weight had been lifted. But she doesn’t. She feels sad.
She thinks she’ll stay on the kitchen floor for a while.
• • •
Bea stares at the blue-and-white-striped wallpaper and then at the cookbooks across the room. She presses her hot, teary face against the cold tile floor. She cries.
Ultimately, she is not very good at wallowing. She gets antsy. But she’s not sure how much time has passed, and she’s afraid to go into the hall, to peek out the window and see if Erik is still crying on the porch. She listens, half waiting for him to knock on the front door with some new plan, determined to fix everything. He’s such a fixer.
He doesn’t knock.
Eventually, she climbs to her feet and goes to the refrigerator. She pours herself some iced tea and gets out the strawberries and blueberries. She retrieves sugar and baking soda and flour from the cupboard. Tomorrow’s the Fourth of July. She has to make a flag cake.
She’s finished combining all the rest of the ingredients in the chipped green mixing bowl when she realizes she doesn’t have enough vanilla. Only a trickle. A frustrated breath hisses out between her teeth, and she throws the empty glass bottle across the room. It misses the trashcan and breaks on the tiled white floor.
She’s so stupid. She should have put it on the grocery list. She can’t make a vanilla cake without vanilla. And it has to be a vanilla cake, with vanilla buttercream frosting, with strawberries and blueberries arranged like a flag across the top. It started off as a Frazier family tradition, but it’s become hers too.
Why can’t she do anything right?
Why can’t she want what she’s supposed to want?
She dumps the entire mess into the trash and sinks back onto the kitchen floor, crying.
• • •
“Bea? Honey, what are you doing?”
Bea blinks awake. The kitchen is dark and shadowy around her till Gram flips on the overhead light. Bea can’t believe she fell asleep on the kitchen floor. The berries are still out on the counter. She gets up and puts them in the fridge.
“I fell asleep,” she says. For a minute, she can’t remember why. Then it comes rushing back to her—what she did, Erik’s face afterward—and it’s awful. She’s awful. She inhales, sharp, and turns away from Gram.
“Were you waiting for your flag cake? How did it turn out?”
“It didn’t. I threw it away.” Bea turns to the sink and washes out the green mixing bowl. The batter has clumped to the sides. She gives it a vicious scrub with the sponge.
Gram comes closer, her cane thudding against the tiled floor. “Were you crying?”
“I ran out of vanilla and I broke up with Erik.” She says it fast, as though they are somehow connected. She concentrates very hard on wiping down the flour-dusted counter with a wet paper towel.
“Oh, Bea.” Gram puts a hand on her arm. “Come here.”
Bea keeps attacking the counter. “Don’t hug me. I don’t deserve for you to be nice to me.”
Gram wraps an arm around her. “Nonsense. You always deserve for me to be nice to you.”
Gram smells like violets and lilies and roses and whatever else is in her fancy Estée Lauder perfume. Bea is stiff in her arms for a long minute.
“Do you hate me?” she asks around the knot in her throat. “Everyone is going to hate me.”
“I could never hate you,” Gram says.
The knot tightens. “I hurt him.”
“That doesn’t mean you aren’t hurting too,” Gram says.
Then Bea is crying again, sinking into Gram, trusting that, Gram will hold her up despite her new knee. And Gram does. She holds on to Bea, and she lets her cry, rubbing her back in slow, soothing circles. Bea remembers sitting on her bed, sobbing, on her ninth birthday—her first birthday without her parents—while Gram rubbed her back just like this.
“I love you, sweet Bea,” Gram says. “I will always love you, no matter what. I will always be on your side.”
• • •
When Bea stops crying, it’s twilight. The fireworks will be starting soon. Everyone in town will be making their way down to Bishop Park to ooh and aah.
Bea might not have a long-term plan anymore, but she knows where she wants to be when the first fireworks explode over the river.
She tells Gram she’s going out and hurries toward the marina. She slinks through alleys and side streets like a skittish cat—not because she has anything to hide, but because she doesn’t want to stop and explain her swollen face and red-rimmed eyes to a dozen concerned neighbors.
She breathes a sigh of relief when she reaches the Stella Anne. Gabe’s on the front porch, stretched out in an Adirondack chair, lifting a tumbler of whiskey to his lips. He stands when he sees her.
“It’s not Sunday, Bea,” he says, wary.
“I couldn’t wait till Sunday,” she says. “I’m sorry I lied to you. It was wrong to start something with you before I ended things with him. But I did. I broke up with him.”
Gabe looks at her evenly. What is he thinking?
“Are you okay?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “But it had to be done.”
“Do you want to come inside?”
Bea shakes her head again. She doesn’t have anything to hide. “Can I watch the fireworks out here with you?”
Gabe offers her a hand and helps her onto the boat. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
Everything is perfect.
The Tabby Cat Café has been packed since they opened at ten o’clock this morning. Maybe the free cupcakes with cat toppers (Kat’s suggestion) have something to do with it, but customers are sticking around to order drinks. Mase suggested that, in addition to iced coffee and iced tea, they should offer strawberry, chocolate, two-percent, skim, soy, coconut, and almond milk and serve it in mason jars with Krazy Straws. And people love it. Everything is adorable and stylish and selfie-worthy.
People are taking tons of selfies: in front of the chalkboard wall, playing with the cats, eating cupcakes, and drinking chocolate milk through Krazy Straws. Their new Instagram account—which Kat started last week with Miss Lydia’s approval—is getting tagged a lot, and they have a hundred new followers. Pen is here, snapping Polaroids and hanging them on a clothesline to dry so each person gets one when they leave, along with a ten-percent-off coupon for their next visit.
Kat is working the door, greeting people as they arrive, thanking them as they leave, making sure they collect their Polaroids, and preventing any wayward cats from escaping. She’s good at this. In the lulls, she answers questions about the individual cats and the animal rescue they partner with. Three different people have already filled out cat adoption paperwork today, and a few more have taken applications home.
Outside, people cluster on the brick sidewalk, peering through the picture window at the cats and the crowd. Miss Lydia wanders around, offering everyone cupcakes and gossiping. Mase and his friend Maxwell—who’s helping out for the day—trade off working the register and pouring drinks.
Mase rushes out from behind the counter. “Did you see that blond woman with the little girl who just left?” he asks Kat. “She’s interested in Shadow!”
“Oh my God, really?” Without thinking, Kat hugs him. His arms come around her in r
esponse, his hand resting on the bare skin of her lower back. She’s wearing her white tank with her red maxi skirt and her hair pulled up in a high, flirty ponytail. She worried maybe it wasn’t work appropriate, but when she showed up this morning, Miss Lydia just smiled and said she wished she were sixteen again.
Mase lets go, and Kat steps back. He stares down at his wingtips. Is she imagining things, or is he blushing? He clears his throat.
“You look amazing,” he says, his dark eyes colliding with hers. “The whole place looks amazing, thanks to you.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” She takes it all in. “You helped a lot.”
He knocks his shoulder against hers. “We make a pretty good team, huh?”
Kat nods, biting her lip. Is it her imagination, or is he looking at her mouth? She’s wearing new lipstick. It’s very red. Maybe it’s too red? Maybe it’s on her teeth? She sweeps her tongue over them just in case.
“Yeah, we do,” she says, too late. She wants to ask him about Brandon: When is he coming? How does Mase feel about it? What does he think Brandon wants to talk about? She wants to know, and she doesn’t. Once he and Brandon get back together—assuming that’s what Brandon wants, and he’d have to be silly not to want to be with Mase, because Mase is basically the best—Mase won’t be her boyfriend anymore. Not even for pretend.
“Mase!” Maxwell hollers. Mase hurries back behind the counter.
A little while later, Hannah and Jillian and Adam come in. Adam pretends to be bored, checking his phone, but he gets an iced coffee and poses with Jillian in front of the chalkboard. He doesn’t get on the floor to play with the cats, but the girls do.
“This place is totally different. Did you and Mase do this? You both have such amazing style,” Hannah says as she twitches a feather toy that Luna is trying to catch.
“It’s so cool now,” Jillian gushes, darting a laser pointer across the floor for Sassy. Or is that Shadow? “You guys did a really good job.”
“Thank you.” Kat had promised Pen she would be nice. She looks at Jillian’s khaki skirt and her black T-shirt. She is boring and bland and blond, but maybe she’s not totally evil. “I like your sandals,” she says, which she thinks is very magnanimous of her.
Back to The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls book
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