It was the last time that night she and Zach were alone together until he walked her up to the front door of the mobile home, and even then, Mia was in the car, watching them.
At her door, Lexi had no idea what to say to him. Everything felt off balance; she was like some prey animal, frozen with fear, her senses acute. The kiss had rocked her world, but had it even made a ripple in his?
He stared down at her, his golden hair turned silver by the moonlight.
She wanted to scream say something but managed only a shaky smile. “Thanks for letting me be your sympathy date, Zach.”
“Don’t say that,” he said.
“Curfew,” Mia yelled from the car. “Mom will have a cow if we’re late.”
Zach leaned down, kissed Lexi’s cheek. It took all her effort not to respond, not to put her arms around him, but she just stood there, feeling his lips on her skin like a branding iron.
She stood there a long time, long after they’d left. Then, finally, she went into her house and turned off the lights.
* * *
Lexi didn’t go to school on Monday. How could she face either Zach or Mia after what had happened?
By Monday night, though (and he hadn’t called, of course he hadn’t, why would she think he would?), Eva had threatened to make a doctor’s appointment—something they definitely couldn’t afford.
So, on Tuesday, Lexi went back to school. Out at the bus stop, she huddled under the narrow shelter’s overhang, watching rain turn the world into a blue and green kaleidoscope.
She would just be cool.
She’d smile casually at Zach and keep walking, as if the kiss meant nothing. She wasn’t a complete idiot. It had just been a kiss from a boy who kissed girls all the time. Lexi couldn’t let it mean anything to her.
At school, she easily avoided Zach—they hardly moved in the same social circles—but there was no way to avoid Mia. Their lives were too braided together. After the last bell, Mia walked Lexi to work.
All the way downtown, Lexi kept a smile on her face as she listened to Mia’s dance play-by-play. Again. But the word liar screamed through her mind over and over, and every time she looked at her best friend, she felt sick to her stomach.
“We made out. Did I tell you that?” Mia said.
“Only about a million times.” Lexi stopped in front of Amoré, where a sweet, vanilla-scented air enveloped them. She meant to just say later and go inside, but instead she paused. “What was it like?”
“At first I thought his tongue was kinda slippery and gross, but I got used to it.”
“Did you cry?”
“Cry?” Mia looked confused, then nervous. “Should I have cried?”
Lexi shrugged. “What do I know about kissing?”
Mia frowned at Lexi. “You’re acting weird. Did something happen at the dance?”
“Wh-what could have happened?”
“I don’t know. Something with Zach, maybe?”
Lexi hated herself; she wanted to tell the truth, but the thought of losing Mia’s friendship terrified her. And what would be the point, really? It had just been a single kiss, not the start of anything. “No, of course not. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Okay,” Mia said, believing her. And that just made Lexi feel worse. “Later.”
Lexi walked into the ice cream shop. It was brightly lit, with a long glass and chrome ice cream counter and a small area that contained a few tables and chairs. In the warmer months, this place was hopping busy, but now, in mid-October, business was pretty slow.
Her boss, Mrs. Solter, was standing at the register when Lexi walked in. A bell tinkled over the door at her entrance.
“Hey, Lexi,” Mrs. Solter said brightly. “How was your dance?”
Lexi forced a smile. “Great. Here. I brought you some necklaces.” She held out the Mardi Gras beads from the dance. Mrs. Solter lit up at the sight of them and swooped in like a magpie for the shiny necklaces.
“Thank you, Lexi. That was thoughtful of you.” Mrs. Solter immediately put all the necklaces around her neck.
Lexi spent the rest of the day and into the evening waiting on customers. At nine o’clock, when business had slowed down to almost nothing, she set about cleaning the counters and getting ready to close up. She was coming out of the back room, carrying a container of Windex and a soggy rag, when Zach walked into the shop.
The bell tinkled gaily above him; she could barely hear it over the sudden acceleration of her heartbeat.
He never came here alone. Amanda was always with him, hanging on to him like that Louisiana moss you saw in horror flicks. Lexi slipped behind the counter so there was something between them.
“Hi,” he said, moving toward her.
“Hi. You … want ice cream?”
He looked at her intently. “Meet me at LaRiviere Park tonight.”
Before she could answer, the bell tinkled again and the door flew open. Amanda rushed into the shop and sidled up to Zach, putting her tentacle-arm around him. “Hey, Lexi. Thanks for keeping an eye on Zach for me. At the dance, I mean.”
Lexi couldn’t smile, even though she wanted to. “You want ice cream?”
“No way. It’s too fattening,” Amanda said. “Come on, Zach. Let’s go.” She moved toward the door.
Zach stayed where he was. Ten o’clock, he mouthed. Please.
Lexi’s heart was pounding as she watched him follow his girlfriend out of the shop.
She would be an idiot to think he really meant for her to meet him at the beach. He was dating Amanda, the human Post-it note. They were the most popular couple in school.
And it would hurt Mia if she found out. A kiss at the dance was one thing, almost understandable even, ordinary. This—sneaking out to be with him—would be something else. A bigger lie.
Lexi couldn’t do it. Shouldn’t do it.
She glanced over at her boss. Don’t do it, Lexi. “Uh, Mrs. Solter? I was wondering if I could leave a few minutes early. Maybe nine-fifty?”
“I’m sure I can handle closing up by myself,” she said. “Hot date?”
Lexi hoped her laughter didn’t sound as nervous as it felt. “When have you ever known me to have a hot date?”
“Those boys at your school must be blind, that’s all I’m saying.”
For the remainder of her shift, Lexi refused to think about the decision she’d made. She focused on her job and did it to the best of her ability. It wasn’t until later, when she left the shop, that nerves got the best of her.
She was an idiot to do this, but she kept walking.
Main Street was quiet on this chilly autumn night. Lights glowed through restaurant windows, but there were few patrons at this hour.
She passed the brightly lit Island Center grocery store and kept going, past the ferry terminal, past the Windermere Real Estate office and the Lil Ones Nursery School. In less than five minutes, she was out of town. Here, black stained the sky; a bright blue moon glowed above the towering treetops. There weren’t many houses out this way, and the few that were here were mostly summer homes for Seattleites, and their windows were dark.
At the entrance to LaRiviere Beach Park, she paused.
He wouldn’t be here.
Still, she followed the winding asphalt road down to the sandy stretch of beach. Moonlight shone on the tangle of giant driftwood piled up on the coarse gray sand.
There were no cars in the parking area.
Of course there weren’t.
She walked out to the beach. The pile of giant driftwood—whole trees washed up onto the shore and tangled together—lay like giant toothpicks on the sand. A brightly lit ferry chugged through the Sound, looking like a Chinese lantern against the black water. Behind it, the Seattle skyline was a tiara of colored lights.
She heard Zach’s voice and turned. “I didn’t see your car,” was all she could think to say.
“It’s at the end of the other lot.”
He took her by the hand and led her to a place where he had a blanket spread out on the sand.
“I guess you’ve brought a few girls here,” she said nervously. She needed to remember that. What was special for her was ordinary for him.
He sat down and pulled her gently down beside him. She immediately took her hand back. She couldn’t be smart when he was touching her, and she needed to be smart. This was her best friend’s brother.
He said, “Look at me, Lexi. Please,” and she was helpless to resist. He tucked a curly strand of hair behind her ear. It was the gentlest touch she’d ever felt, and it made her want to cry. “I know we shouldn’t be together. Do you want to be, though?”
“I shouldn’t,” she said quietly. She closed her eyes, unable to look at him. In the darkness, she heard his breath, felt it against her lips, and all she could think about was how often she’d been hurt. Lexi thought about her druggo mom, who’d told her all the time how much she loved her. She’d hold Lexi so tightly Lexi couldn’t breathe, and then suddenly it would be over. Her mom would get pissed and storm off and forget she even had a daughter. The only time Lexi remembered ever being happy before Pine Island was when her mother went to prison. Lexi had been with a nice family then, the Rexlers, and they’d tried to make her feel as if she belonged. Then her mother had come back.
Usually Lexi tried not to remember those last days with her mother, when Momma had been high all the time and pissed off and mean. Lexi had learned the truth about love then, how close it could be to hate, and how it could empty you out.
“Mia’s friendship means everything to me,” she said, finally looking at him. She saw how her words hurt him, and she understood at last. All that hostility of his, all that looking away; it had been an act. “You pretended not to like me because of Mia.”
“From the start,” he said with a sigh. “I wanted to ask you out, but you were already her friend. So I stayed away … or I tried to. I never could, though, not really. And then, when you tried to kiss me…”
Lexi’s heart felt like taking flight. How was it possible that she could be so happy and so sad at the same time? “We shouldn’t talk about this anymore. We should just forget about it. I couldn’t lose Mia or your family. I couldn’t. I’ve already been hurt enough, you know?”
“You think I haven’t already thought all of that?”
“I can’t stop it anymore, Lex. I’ve been thinking about you for three years. Maybe if you hadn’t kissed me back…”
“I shouldn’t have.”
“But you did.”
“I had to,” she said quietly. It was impossible to lie to him. How could she? She had loved him from the second she first saw him. She started to smile and thought about her teeth and bit her lip.
“I love your smile,” he said, leaning toward her. She felt the distance between them closing, smelled the peppermint of his breath.
The kiss started slowly, gently. She felt his tongue touch hers, and her heart seemed to take flight. When he took her in his arms, she gave up, gave in. The kiss went on and on, deepening until she thought she couldn’t stand for it to end. Behind them, the waves whooshed along the shore, and it became a song. Their song. Their sound.