“You deserve it,” is all he says before handing the bag over.
My fingers shake as I open it and see the beautiful white telescope inside. “Nathaniel…”
“I wanted to. It’s a good one. I did research on them before I bought it and this one is—”
“Perfect,” he adds. “For you. You’ll love it. I want you to have it.”
I need to feel my arms around him again. I set the bag down and lock my hands behind his neck. He pulls me close, holds me tight and lifts me off the ground.
“I do love it,” I say into his hair. He squeezes me tighter and I wish he would never let me go. “Thank you.”
I feel his lips on the side of my head before he pulls away and looks at me. “It’s different with you. You know that, right? You said I flirt more now, but I’m never playing games when I’m with you.”
He touches my hair. Pushes it behind my ears and I love the fact that he can hold me up with only one arm. “I know.” It sucks so bad to know that. To know he does care about me, and that he does see me as a best friend, but can still be with other girls and have a life separate from me, the way I have to with him. He talks to me about everything and wants to know every piece of my world. That doesn’t come around often. My parents were together since they were in high school and they didn’t have that. It should be freeing and make me float, but it doesn’t change anything. That’s what makes it harder and that’s what sucks.
It’s not that I think Nathaniel loves me. I know no matter what he’ll be happy and he’ll live his life and do whatever it is he wants to do, but…I think he could love me. Actually, I know he could. I think we could be happy together. Even if we stayed just friends, there will always be this bond between us that no one can ever replace, but it doesn’t count when I know I’ll be so far away. That I’ll never have as much of him as I have during our summers ever again. Why would he come back when he isn’t with his family?
“Good,” he whispers. “I really want to kiss you right now, Star Girl, but I don’t know if I should…I don’t want you to think I’m using you. I dated those other girls, but the second I see you, it’s like there’s no one else in the world, like there never has been anyone else.”
I don’t think I will ever in my life hear words that fill me up so much. Pump me full of happiness the way what he just said does. It doesn’t make sense that I, Charlie Rae, could mean so much to someone like Nathaniel, but I trust him and know he always means what he says.
So I don’t answer him. I don’t wait for him to kiss me. I kiss him instead.
We move together quickly. This frenzied, messy kiss is filled with passion, bridging last summer and this summer and trying to wipe all the distance and time from between us. Our lips fight to make it disappear. Our tongues tasting and exploring to remember, so it feels like yesterday when our lips last met instead of nine months ago.
He pulls me tighter against him as his mouth leaves mine. It trails down my neck, his rough voice saying, “Put your legs around me.”
So I do and it feels bad and good at the same time. No, not bad, naughty, but then I remember he’s seen me without my shirt on and this is nothing compared to that. This is Nathaniel so it doesn’t matter. I’d trust anything with him.
He walks, backing me up and I wonder where he’s going or why we’re not laying down, or standing still when he presses my body between a tree and him.
“I don’t want to drop you.” His breath on my neck. “Not that you’re heavy.”
And then we’re laughing before he says, “I should have known you wouldn’t take it that way. Not you.” And then he’s kissing my throat and behind my ear and it’s crazy how one set of lips can feel so different than another. Lance’s touches didn’t affect me like this. If I was blind and deaf I would still know the difference between Nathaniel’s mouth and anyone else’s.
“Why didn’t you just lie down on the blanket?” I drop my head back and then he’s laughing against my skin again.
“Because I’m stupid and anxious and didn’t think about it.”
He kisses me again and it’s a little slower this time. Still all passion and wonderful, but like we have a little more time. I play with the hair at the nape of his neck, and savor how he tastes and wish that I’d never kissed another guy since him and that he’d never touched any other girls.
All too soon, the kisses stop, but he doesn’t pull away. “Does it make me an a**hole if I say I hate Lance, even though I’ve never met him? Because I do.”
“No, because I can’t stand Monica or Hailey.”
I wonder how many people have this kind of honesty. If it’s normal to be able to just say what’s on your mind to the person you care about. Even though I’m not sure if he loves me, I know I could tell Nathaniel that I love him. Even if he didn’t feel the same, it wouldn’t change things and I think that’s kind of a miracle. Still, those are words I won’t let myself say. Not when I know I won’t leave The Village.
“Do you wanna try your telescope?” he asks.
I can’t stop the grin that pulls at my lips. I really, really don’t want to let go of him, but I want to look into infinity with him too.
“I take that as a yes.”
I unravel my legs from around him. Before he steps away, I touch the star at his throat. “Do they know anything about me?” It’s a stupid question to ask, but one I’m curious about. “I know they wouldn’t know details…but just that there is a girl name Charlotte out there, who knows you too?”
I wonder if that question makes me sound weak, but I don’t think being honest makes people weak. It’s lies that do that.
He touches my hair again and I like that it’s starting to be his thing with me. “Everyone knows about Charlotte from the lake. I wouldn’t hide you.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” I tell him. He answers with a swift kiss to my lips before leading me to the blanket, where we explore the sky together.
Dad has to take more breaks than he used to. He struggles with some of the same work, but we don’t talk about it. All of us pretend it’s not the case.
For the next week I spend my days with Dad and Alec and my nights with Nathaniel. We don’t stay out late because we both need sleep and morning comes too quickly, but we have our time and there’s always kissing and there’s always talking which are two of my favorite things to do with him. He asks questions and makes jokes and he feels more like the Nathaniel from our first summer than our second. Not that I don’t love them both.
It sucks that so much of my time is now spent working, but then I think about Alec and how much freedom he’s sacrificing and I feel guilty. All that guilt is wiped away when I remember he, at least, gets paid to do it.
My cell vibrates against my hip and without looking, I know its Nathaniel. I gave him my number and we spend a lot of our time texting. His parents seem to have realized Brandon’s out of the house next year, on a football scholarship, and have been out spending family time with them every day that they’ve been here so far.
Pulling my cell out, I take a quick peek at it.
FYI, I’m coming to talk to your dad.
He’s coming to talk to my dad? I type out a quick question mark, but my reply is their car pulling up to their cabin. All four Chases climb out and Nathaniel looks toward me, the sun shining from behind him, and smiles.
“Hey, Mr. Gates. Hey, Charlotte.” Nathaniel holds out his hand and my dad grudgingly shakes it.
“How’s your summer going so far, Nathaniel?” Dad’s question surprises me. I’ve never really understood why he is so standoffish with Nathaniel, but we all know he is.
“It’s going well. I go by Nate now, though.”
The shovel falls out of my hand at that. I know last year his family started calling him Nate, but he didn’t like it. My mind flashes back to our Skype sessions, when Brandon or one of his friends would walk in. They all called him Nate.
Bending over, I pick up the shovel, suddenly a little annoyed that he didn’t tell me. That maybe he’s wishing I called him something other than what I do.
Nathaniel’s eyes dart toward mine, but then settle on my dad again. “I wanted to talk to you about helping Charlotte out around here sometimes. When I’m not out with my family, I’m always looking for something to do. I—”
“That’s okay. I appreciate the offer, but it wouldn’t be right.” Dad’s voice sounds different. Not the annoyance he usually shows where Nathaniel (or Nate?) is concerned, almost regret.
“With all due respect sir, I don’t see how it’s any different than Alec working. I’ve been around enough. I love it out here. A little extra money never hurts.”
Dad sighs, making me turn to study him. See the beads of sweat on his forehead and the tiredness in his features. Suddenly, I want to cry. I didn’t cry when he was diagnosed or when Mom and Sadie left, but my eyes beg for release right now.
“I can’t pay very much.”
Those words mean so much more than anything else he’s said or done because last summer, he never would have said them. He never would have considered letting Nathaniel help out. He would have been too proud. What does it mean that he’s not too proud anymore?
“I don’t need much. It really just gives me something to do and a little spending money.”
That we both know he doesn’t need.
“Your parents okay with it?”
Dad nods, and the expression on his face almost looks like it says, thank you. I wipe my eyes, realizing a tear broke free. I need it gone, not wanting him to know that I see what’s going on. That already he worries about how much he can handle. Are things progressing faster than we thought? Is he having a harder time then he admits?
Is he going to need me even more?
“We’ll fill out some papers later, okay? If you want to help Charlie out now, I’d really appreciate it.”
Just like that, Dad is gone and Nathaniel starts working with us.
“Do you want me to call you Nate?” I ask Nathaniel as we sit by the old fort. I’m not sure why we came out here tonight. It’s much easier to stick to the lake, but I didn’t bring my scope, and I always feel like we’re more alone out here.
We’re lying on the blanket. I’m on my back, Nathaniel on his side, leaning on his elbow, his other hand on my stomach. I love how we just fell into this easy closeness. Both last year and the year before we had this awkward time where neither of us could get it together. It’s part of being older I guess.
“Why do you ask that? Because of what I told your dad today?”
“I want you to call me whatever you want to. Whatever comes naturally. It really doesn’t matter either way.” Leaning forward, he kisses my forehead. “Nate and Nathaniel are the same person.”