My smile is so huge I know I’ll look like the biggest loser in the world if I turn around, so I don’t. “Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I do.”
That was how it began, our summers of sneaking out and watching the stars. Where we shared our secrets with each other and the night. We’d meet in secret and sometimes sit in my favorite spot. Other times, we’d head down the lakeside and I would pretend we could walk forever. I think I was really the one pretending and Nathaniel just listened. I wanted those summer walks with that summer boy to be my way out of The Village forever. But, really, I knew that couldn’t happen. Nathaniel would leave and I would be the one who stayed.
“Thanks for helping me wash the boats,” I tell Alec as we work on the second to last one.
“Don’t I always help? Plus, it’s my job,” he replies. At that I give him a small laugh.
“Most of the time you help, but you’ve been super busy this summer. I think Brandon has replaced me as your best friend.”
“Shut up. You know you’ll always be my best friend, Charlie. Brandon just likes ball as much as I do. He’s cool.” Alec looks away and starts scrubbing the boat again, his blond hair hanging in his face. He’s still been working at The Village and if I’m being honest, I guess it’s not that he hangs out with Brandon all the time, but it’s different. Alec has never ditched me for a guest before, though I guess he’s right. They are both obsessed with football and we don’t get a lot of people close to our age that would want to hang out and play as much as Brandon does.
Still, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to tease him. “He’s cool. You sound like you’re in awe of him!” Which in a way makes sense considering Brandon is supposed to be really good. Nathaniel says there’s no doubt he’ll play college ball.
As soon as the words leave my mouth, I regret them. Alec grabs the hose and turns it my way.
“No! Alec you better not!” I’m wearing a plain tank top and cut off shorts like I always am, and a pair of flip-flops. None of these articles will hold up well against a hose assault.
Alec steps closer.
“I said no, Alec Andrews!”
It really gets him when I add in his last name like that. Alec pulls the trigger to douse me in water. I scream and stick my hand in the bucket, ridiculously trying to fling water at him with a soppy sponge. Alec laughs when I give up and try to take cover. I turn to run and don’t make it very far before I’m crashing into someone. I bounce off of whoever it is, assuming it’s Dad who is going to freak out because Alec and I are playing around instead of working, but as soon as a pair of hands come out to catch me, I know it’s not Dad.
Alec stops spraying and I stand there with Nathaniel’s hands on my arms. I shiver and hope he thinks it’s from being wet when really it’s because he could totally be letting me go by now and he’s not.
“What are you guys doing?” Nathaniel asks. I’m a total sucker for the backward way he wears his hat.
“Workin’,” I say, which is sort of silly because it’s obvious we’re not. My eyes take him in and I realize his t-shirt is all wet. “You’re all wet. Crap. I’m sorry.”
At that, he laughs. “I’m pretty sure you’re the one who’s all wet.”
His eyes trace down my body and I can’t help but look down, too. Oh my God! My white tank top is sticking to my embarrassingly small boobs. You can see my bra through it. I pull away from him and bump into Alec, who I totally forgot was there.
“Chill, Charlie,” Alec says.
Pulling away from him, I cross my arms over my chest.
Nathaniel looks at me, then Alec, and back to me again. I can’t help but wonder what he’s thinking, wishing his eyes or his face would tell me something.
“I came to see if you guys want to do something,” Nathaniel says.
“Yes,” I say at the same time Alec says, “We’re working.”
“Didn’t look like it to me.” Nathaniel raises his eyebrows. There isn’t a chance to reply because Brandon and Sadie Ann walk up. They’ve been hanging out a lot over the past month. She brags about it all the time. It’s so hard for me not to tell her about my nights spent with Nathaniel, but I don’t.
And it’s obvious she doesn’t like how much time he spends doing guy stuff with Alec.
Brandon is the one who speaks. “Sadie said there’s a spot everyone goes to watch the movies at the drive-in? Maybe we can get a big group together to go.”
“I’ll call some people,” Alec says, right as Sadie replies, “I didn’t know we were inviting other people, too.” She crosses her arms in the way she does when she’s trying to get what she wants. It usually works.
“Aw, come on, beautiful. It’ll be fun.” Brandon pulls her to him and wraps his arms around her. He nuzzles her neck and I’m pretty sure, for the first time, someone other than Sadie is going to get his or her way.
I’m shocked when Alec steps closer to me and wraps an arm around my shoulders. It’s something we’ve done before, but it feels different this time. My heart races and not in the way you want it to when a boy touches you. Oh, God. What if he tries to get all close to me like Brandon’s doing with Sadie? I’ve never kissed a boy, and I’m not like scared to or anything, but I don’t want to kiss Alec.
I look over at Nathaniel, hoping to see something from him that says he cares, but he’s screwing around with his iPod. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Why would Nathaniel care? I should feel lucky if Alec wants me. I’m not exactly a real hot commodity around The Village like Sadie Ann.
“I’m going to get ready if we’re all going out tonight.” Sadie pulls away and when she does, there’s a huge smile on her face. Behind Brandon’s back she gives me a thumbs up as though it was ever any question that she would get Brandon.
“Cool.” Brandon glances at Alec and grins, looking an awful lot like Nathaniel. “You calling people up, Andrews?”
When did Brandon start calling Alec by his last name? It’s this strange guy thing that I’ll never really understand.
“Yeah. Sure,” Alec replies. “I forgot my phone though.”
“You can use mine.” Alec and Brandon walk away as though Alec wasn’t just helping me wash the boats. Sadie is already halfway back to the house by now and I know there’s no way I’m getting her out here to help me.
“Looks like your boyfriend left, Gates,” Nathaniel says. Since when did he start calling me by my last name?
“I told you he’s not my boyfriend,” I snap.
“He wants to be.”
“You don’t get it. You don’t understand us.”
His blue eyes see right through me. He has a little dimple in his cheek when he smiles, which he does a lot. There’s a kind of rope necklace around his neck that he always wears. It’s tucked away under his shirt, and I don’t know what’s on it.
“Then why don’t you explain it to me while we clean the boat?”
I look at the very light, few freckles on his face. The smile curling his lips. The necklace that keeps me up at night. I don’t know what it is about this boy. Why he makes my heart dance and my stomach flip. Why he makes me wish I painted my toenails, but also makes me nervous to try.
He cocks his head and stares at me. I want to turn away, should turn away, but I can’t make myself.
Then, Nathaniel says, “Sometimes when you look at me like that…I don’t know…I wonder what you’re seeing.”
My cheeks burn with an embarrassed heat. My eyes dart away from him as my mind starts going at Mach speed. I am so stupid! Why do I stare at him? He knows.
I take a step away, and then another. My feet move faster each time. It’s so ridiculous, but I feel like I’m going to cry. He’s probably going to want to stop sneaking out with me and stop talking to me because he knows I like him.
“Hey. Where are you going?” Nathaniel asks.
I keep going until I’m on the other side of the last boat where no one can see me.
He follows. “What are you doing, Charlotte?”
“Washing the boat.”
“Why are you pissed at me?”
“Why are you following me?” I try to walk away again. It’s stupid that I’m mad. It’s not his fault I can’t hide the fact that I like him, but it is his fault for basically calling me out on it. Doesn’t he see I want to be alone?
Nathaniel grabs my arm. Not hard, but enough to make me stop. We’re still hidden around the back of the last boat. My chest is heaving up and down I’m breathing so hard and I try to forget about my wet shirt and tiny boobs and unpainted toenails.
“Why are you running from me?”
I let out a deep breath and close my eyes. His hand is still on my arm, and I’m shaking. I don’t look at him yet. Can’t, but I’m also not a runner. Dad taught me to be strong, not just physically but mentally too. There’s no reason to run because it’s not going to change anything, so even though I kind of feel like I’m going to puke right now, I open my eyes.
“You know why I’m running and why I’m embarrassed.” Because I like you. I like you and I know you don’t like me the same way. Because even if you did, you’d be leaving at the end of the summer and it wouldn’t matter.
I want Nathaniel to let go of me. To walk away or laugh or something like that, but instead he just looks at me the way I looked at him. Not that I think he likes me, too, but I think maybe he sees something there no one else does. Or at least that he’s searching for it.
His right hand still has my arm, as his left moves toward me. I can’t help but think, this is it! I’m going to get my first kiss and it’s going to be perfect because it’s with this summer boy who gets lost in the night with me.
But instead he touches my hair. Lets it fall through his finger tips and I know it’s not silky and pretty like Sadie’s but it looks beautiful when my brown strands wrap around his fingers. You can see the highlights from the sun.
“I’ve never met anyone like you,” he finally says.
I don’t know what that means, so I say, “I’m just Charlie.” It’s a stupid thing to say.
“Charlotte. You told me to call you Charlotte.”
It’s the perfect thing he can say. I’m not Charlie Rae, the girl who plays football with the boys or the one who has no future but to stay here and take over The Village. With him I’m Charlotte and that feels entirely different.
“You going to let me help you clean the boats?” he asks. A nod is all I can manage.
Nathaniel lets go of me and we walk over to the hose and buckets. Right before he gets started his voice stops me.
I turn to look at him. “Yeah?”
“I’m glad we came this summer. I’m glad we’re friends.”
I chew my bottom lip, not sure how to reply. His words pump my heart up, because I want that. To be his friend, but then it gets so big it shatters, too, because I know that’s his way of telling me that’s all we’ll ever be.