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“I led the mystery book club. We had a really great discussion on—”
“That’s work,” Em interrupts, tapping her nails impatiently against the counter. “What else?”
“I took a hand-lettering class at the arts center. I learned a new style I’m going to use for the sign for tomorrow’s story time—here, let me show you.” Des fumbles beneath a stack of books for her planner. “I made this weekly layout that I really like too. I used—”
“What do you even need a weekly layout for?” Em sneers. “You don’t do anything but work!”
Des closes the planner without showing her—without explaining that she uses it to keep track of the books she reads, quotes she likes, upcoming programs at Arden, grocery lists, and dinner recipes, now that she does most of the cooking at home. Em used to have a planner too. They’d hang out on Sunday afternoons and make their weekly layouts, share stickers and pens and washi tape. Des wonders if Em still uses the bullet journal she gave her for Christmas. If it’s full of reading assignments and exam dates and frat parties. Em hasn’t posted a layout on her Instagram in months.
“I do too,” Des says. But she honestly can’t think of anything else that’s fun. With her extra hours at the store, with everything she’s been doing at home, she hasn’t been illustrating any new quotes. Her high school friends are back in Remington Hollow for the summer, but she hasn’t met up with any of them for coffee. She hasn’t had time—or maybe she hasn’t wanted to feel as small and stupid as Em is making her feel right now.
“Des.” Em is rolling her dark eyes. “Would you seriously rather stay home next weekend and practice your handwriting? You can do that anytime.”
Des shrinks. Her illustrated quotes are more than practicing her handwriting, and Em knows it. Or used to. “Why do you even want me to come if I’m so boring?”
Em sighs. “I want you to meet my new friends. It would mean a lot to me.”
But she doesn’t contradict Des. Doesn’t say, Shut up; you’re not boring. Or, If you’re boring, so am I, like she used to when Kat teased them about staying in on Saturday nights to marathon Miss Marple instead of going to parties.
Des doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t want to spend the weekend with strangers, with the Em who feels more and more like a stranger. She won’t know the people and places Em and her new friends talk about; she won’t understand their inside jokes. They’ll all drink and talk about hooking up, and she’ll feel lonely and confused, because she doesn’t want what they want, what it feels like people her age should want.
“Wait a minute. You don’t want to come,” Em realizes. Maybe she’s changed, but Des hasn’t. Em can still read her like a book. “Oh my God. Des, did you actually have the flu on my birthday?”
Des stares at the counter in front of her. At the torn cover of Murder on the Orient Express.
“You lied to me.” Em sounds so hurt. “You pretended to be sick so you didn’t have to visit me. We talked about it for months, Des! I had the whole weekend all planned out!”
Including a frat party. The old Em wouldn’t have wanted to go to a frat party, much less expected Des to go with her. The new Em insisted it would be super fun, that they had to go because Hunter was pledging. She said it would be okay if Des didn’t want to drink; she could still dance, and maybe she would meet a cute pledge like Hunter.
It had been easier to text Em, fake having the flu, and apologize profusely than to explain all the ways that Em’s plan sounded like a nightmare.
But they never used to lie to each other.
The bell above the door chimes again, and Paige breezes in.
“Hey, Desdemona,” she says, ignoring—or maybe oblivious to—the tension in the room.
Em gives Des a WTF look behind Paige’s back and mouths, “Desdemona?”
Des ignores her. She can reinvent herself too. She puts on a big smile. “Hey, Paige. What’s up?”
Paige sashays past Em, right up to the counter, and props her elbows on it. “I heard there’s a party tomorrow night at the Penningtons’ farm. Do you know where that is? Are you going?”
Em laughs, harsh, like gears grinding. “Des doesn’t do parties.”
“Is that right?” Paige gives Des a conspiratorial, purple-lipsticked smile. “The parties here are so boring, you don’t even bother?”
“It’s not the parties that are boring,” Em mutters.
The blush starts on Des’s chest and works its way up her freckled throat. She can’t believe Em is acting like this in front of Paige. “I don’t drink.”
“Great, then you can be the designated driver.” Paige grins.
She could. It hits her again: she could be anybody with Paige. She could have new friends and new hair and new ways of having fun too.
“Come on, Desdemona. I need a wingwoman, and I don’t know anybody else in this hick town who’s under forty,” Paige pleads.
“Okay?” Em echoes, disbelieving. “You never go to Dylan’s parties.”
Des throws her hands up in the air. “You said that I need to have more fun!”
“With me!” Em shouts. Then, quieter, “I meant with me.” She looks from Paige to Des. “Whatever,” she snaps as she storms out, slamming the door behind her.
“That girl needs to chill,” Paige says over the jangling of the bell. She gives Des a frank look. “I don’t know what I walked in on here, Desdemona. Are you coming to this party with me, or were you just trying to piss her off?”
It’s not the parties that are boring.
You don’t do anything but work.
You’re nineteen, not ninety.
“They aren’t mutually exclusive,” Des decides. “I’m definitely coming to the party.”
“You’ll have to add that to your list,” Erik says.
“Right. My list.” Bea’s voice is flat. She isn’t sure what she’s supposed to be adding, because she wasn’t paying attention while Erik was rhapsodizing about all the touristy Washington, DC, things they can do on the weekends. Like she’s going to have copious free time between papers and reading assignments and her work-study job to check out the Tidal Basin and the Library of Congress with him.
“Hiking boots,” Erik says. She isn’t sure if he’s repeating himself or prompting her to write that down too. She doesn’t know why she would need hiking boots in the city, but Erik’s been really into geocaching with his dad lately. He keeps telling Bea how relaxing it is to be out in nature.
“Hiking boots. Got it,” she says.
Erik hesitates. “You’ve started making a list of things to pack for Georgetown, right?”
“Of course I have,” she lies. Bea makes lists for everything. She should have started a list for her dorm room. Actually, she might need a few lists: items to pack, items to buy, and items to discuss with her roommate when she gets her assignment in August, so they don’t end up with two mini fridges and four lamps and no microwave.
Why hasn’t she started those lists?
It’s still eight weeks away, Bea reminds herself. Eight weeks is a long time. Two whole months. Normal people wouldn’t start making lists yet.
But Bea would. And Erik knows her so well. He’s going to figure out that she’s lying, that she hasn’t made any lists yet—that she doesn’t want to make any lists, that she hasn’t looked at the guidebooks or the course catalog or dorm room Pinterest boards. He’s going to know, and then he’s going to ask her what’s wrong, and she doesn’t know how to answer that.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Bea looks around the crowded coffee shop. A family of tanned blond tourists in polo shirts and khaki shorts sits on the weathered leather couch: a mom and dad and two pigtailed girls fighting over who gets the last chocolate chip muffin. Her retired fifth-grade te
acher, Mrs. Emerson, sits in the blue armchair, doing crossword puzzles and drinking a giant mug of tea. Madison Ross, a rising senior and the girls’ tennis champ, holds court at the back table with her friends Amira and Kaitlyn. The music rises, and Justin Bieber croons over the speakers. Erik is watching her, his blue eyes full of concern.
He deserves better than Bea. Better than the way she’s been avoiding him lately, better than her lies and half-truths. She has to tell him.
But tell him what? That the idea of going to Georgetown with him in eight weeks makes her physically ill? They’ve worked so hard for this. They decided Georgetown was their goal when they were fifteen. And it was always their goal—not Bea’s, not Erik’s—theirs, together.
I can’t do this.
The fear sweeps over her, threatens to pull her under and drown her. Bea feels flushed and hot despite the roaring air conditioner. She tugs at the top button of her cardigan, then remembers the coffee stain on the white shirt beneath. It’s too warm in here, too noisy. She feels sick. Like she can’t get enough air to breathe.
“I forgot,” she blurts out, heart racing. “I have to stop at Carl’s and grab some vanilla. I’m making cupcakes for family dinner.” She’s being too specific. That’s how people can tell when someone’s lying; the liar gives more details than if she were telling the truth.
Bea did make dessert for family dinner. She’s a stress baker, and lately, she is always stressed. Last night when she couldn’t sleep, she made a big strawberry crumble with the rest of the strawberries Des got from the farmer’s market.
Erik doesn’t know that, though.
“Want me to come with you?” he asks.
“No!” She says it too quickly, too forcefully, and smiles to soften the rejection. “I mean…that’s okay. You stay here and find more fun things for us to do in DC.”
Saying it makes her feel even more sick and panicky.
“I’ll make a list.” He smiles back. Waits. His smile fades. “So…I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess?”
“Yep. See you tomorrow.” Bea toys with one of the buttons on her cardigan. Shit. He was expecting her to invite him to family dinner.
On Friday nights, after Arden Books closes at eight—because everything in Remington Hollow closes at eight—Des and Bea and Kat and Vi and Gram have dinner together. It’s a tradition from before the accident, when Gram used to take them for sleepovers on Friday nights to give their parents a break. It’s sacrosanct now. Only people who are practically family get invited: Des’s best friend Em, Kat’s best friend Penelope, and Erik. Bea doesn’t ask him every week but often enough that he looks disappointed now.
“I’ll text you later.” He leans down to kiss her, but Bea turns her head, and his lips brush her cheek instead. Hurt flashes across his face.
She is hurting him. She hates that she is hurting him, but she can’t seem to stop.
She can’t get out of the Daily Grind fast enough. Miss Maryanne and Miss Lydia aren’t sitting out front anymore, thank goodness. But instead of heading home or to Carl’s Pharmacy, Bea makes a left turn and heads down to the marina, pulling off her cardigan as she goes. Her footsteps speed up, and her pulse slows down as she gets closer, as she hears the lapping of waves against the wooden pilings. She takes a deep breath—inhales the scent of briny river water and fish and salt and mud—and then lets it go.
It’s a sunny Friday evening in mid-June, and lots of familiar boats are missing from their slips, but there’s a houseboat she hasn’t seen before. She makes her way down the adjacent dock to get a better look at it. The boat is a little floating blue bungalow, maybe thirty feet long. It looks newly painted, not too weathered yet, with white trim around the windows and roof. There’s a porch on the front with two blue plastic Adirondack chairs. Bea peers curiously through the windows along the dock. Beneath the first window is a gray futon, and along the opposite wall, she spots a built-in wooden table with benches on either side. Beneath the next window is a double bed with a rumpled plaid duvet. She wonders what’s on the other side of the bedroom wall—a tiny kitchen? A little bathroom with a marine toilet and shower?
Maybe it belongs to the family from the coffee shop. It seems awfully small for four people, but the futon might fold out. How amazing would it be to live on a houseboat? All the minimalism and efficiency of a tiny house—Bea is secretly obsessed with Tiny House Hunters—but with the added bonus of living on the water.
She plops down at the end of the dock, slipping off her black flats so that her bare feet dangle over the water. She leans her shoulder against the wooden piling—making sure that she’s not inadvertently adding bird crap to the coffee stain—and sighs. Above her, gulls wheel and scream. The sun bakes the crown of her head. She wishes she could sit here forever. Or better yet, climb onboard that houseboat and drift away from everything. Erik. Georgetown. She pictures herself in the middle of the river and then the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, alone in the blue expanse of water and waves and sky, and she feels light as the meringue on a lemon meringue pie.
A staccato clicking interrupts her daydream. Bea startles and looks over her shoulder.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” It’s the hipster from the coffee shop. The guy she literally ran into. He’s wearing a fancy camera draped around his neck.
“I was startled,” she corrects. “You didn’t scare me.”
He grins as he recognizes her. “Coffee girl. I thought that was you. Sorry, I usually ask before I take someone’s picture, but that was a great shot.”
“Of me?” Bea stands and steps back into her shoes.
“Yeah. You looked…pensive. Sad.”
“I’m not sad.” It’s reflexive.
“All right.” He shrugs. “Maybe more pensive. Thoughtful, you know? If I’d asked to take your picture, you’d have just smiled.”
“If I said yes,” she mutters. The guy grins again, a little cocky, like of course she would have said yes. Bea bets that most girls do say yes to him. “I’m not sad. And I know what pensive means. I’m going to Georgetown.”
“Yeah?” He looks amused, and Bea flushes. Why does she always have to try to prove how smart she is? “Well, whatever you were thinking, I got some great pictures. The red hair and the white shirt against the blue water. And those freckles. Your freckles are great.”
Bea puts a hand to her cheek. She’s always liked her freckles.
Still. Her shoulders are tight again, when a minute ago, she felt so dreamy and relaxed. He ruined that. This is supposed to be her place. Her refuge right in the middle of town. “You should have asked first.”
He squints at her. “Yeah. Sorry. I’ll delete them if you want.”
She was expecting more of an argument. Something about his easy apology drains the fight right out of her.
“You don’t have to delete them. Maybe I am a little sad,” she admits. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”
“All right.” He peers down at her. He’s really tall. Of course, she’s really short. Five two. “You have a boat down here?”
Bea shakes her head. “I wish. I love the water. There’s something about the sound of waves… It’s so calming. Centering, you know?” Lately, sitting down here at the marina is the only thing that makes her less anxious.
“I feel the same way.” He points at the blue houseboat. “That’s why I bought the Stella Anne.”
Bea’s eyes go wide with surprise. “Wait. That’s your boat?”
He grins and steps down onto its deck. “Yeah. I bought it dirt cheap last summer, and my buddy Jefferson and I gutted it. Took out pretty much everything but the engine. New paint job, new wood flooring, new kitchen, new furniture. Want to come aboard?”
Bea does want to, but she hesitates. “No offense, but I don’t even know your name. You could be a serial killer.”
He reaches out a hand. “Gabriel St
ewart Beauford. Gabe.” He’s got a firm grip.
“Nice to meet you, Bea. I’m in town for the summer helping fix up my grandmother’s house. It’s the purple Victorian over on Azalea Avenue.”
Bea knows exactly which house he means. “Miss Amelia’s old place?”
His handsome face lights up. “You knew Memaw?”
Bea laughs. Remington Hollow is so small. “Everybody knew Miss Amelia! She was my parents’ second-grade teacher.”
“That’s her. Man, she was great. I didn’t get to see her much the last couple of years, but she came down to Nashville every Christmas. She passed back in March, and my uncle’s fixing the place up so he and my moms can sell it. He’s a carpenter, but it needs a shit ton—excuse me—a whole lot of work, so I came up to help out.”
Sweet old Miss Amelia’s grandson can’t be a serial killer, can he? Bea is tempted to check out the houseboat. Really, really tempted. But then she checks her rose-gold watch—a graduation present from Erik—and realizes that it really is time for her to get home.
“I have to go, actually. Family dinner.” She looks with envious eyes at the Stella Anne.
Gabe gives her another easy grin. “Rain check? I hang out here pretty much every night after we finish up at the house. Come on by sometime.”
Is he hitting on her? Bea is utterly unpracticed at flirting. She’s been with Erik forever; everybody in Remington Hollow knows she’s with Erik. But Gabe seems sincere, not like he has an agenda. And he’s so chill. He emanates chill. Like he has this innate calm that is totally foreign to Bea. Does it come from living on the water? Is it something he was born with or something he cultivated? She squints at him. Does he meditate? Does he smoke a lot of weed?
She is curious. About the boat, and about the boy on it.
“Okay.” She gives him a smile that feels more genuine than anything she’s said in weeks. “Rain check.”
Back to The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls book
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