Lexi and Mia followed him through the tall grass. When they reached the front yard, they saw the party. There were probably seventy-five kids in the yard; most were gathered around the fire. The sweet smell of pot filled the air.
Mia grasped Lexi’s hand, yanked her to a stop. “There he is. How do I look?”
Lexi scanned the crowd until she saw Tyler Marshall. He was a tall, gangly kid with skateboarder hair who wore his baggy pants so low on his h*ps he was constantly yanking them up. Mia had had a crush on him since the end of junior year.
“You are beautiful. Go talk to him,” Lexi said.
Mia’s cheeks turned bright red. “I can’t.”
“I’ll go with you,” Lexi said, squeezing Mia’s hand.
“You, too, Zach Attack?” Mia said.
Zach shrugged, and the three of them walked deeper into the party. They made their way past a pair of silver kegs and walked up to Tyler.
“Hey, Mia,” Tyler said, giving her a bright grin. He held out a half-empty bottle. Raspberry vodka.
Mia reached for the bottle and took a drink before Lexi could even react.
“I guess that makes me the designated driver,” Zach said. Then he added, “Be careful, Mia.”
“You wanna walk on the beach?” Tyler asked Mia.
Mia gave Lexi a wow look and followed Tyler toward the beach.
Lexi was acutely aware of Zach beside her. He stood there, saying nothing, and yet she felt something in the quiet between them. Unable to help herself, she turned and looked up at him. “Why don’t you like me?”
“Is that what you think?”
She didn’t know how to answer. There seemed to be something going on she didn’t understand. She wished she’d never asked the stupid question in the first place.
“Lexi—” he started.
Amanda Martin appeared in front of them as if by magic, holding a half-empty pint of Captain Morgan spiced rum. She was a leggy redhead with full lips and eyes that slanted gypsylike. Zach’s latest girlfriend.
“There you are,” she purred. “Took you long enough.” She wrapped her arms around him and melted against him.
Lexi watched them walk away, all tangled together—he was kissing Amanda now—and felt a familiar sense of disappointment. Sighing, she wandered down to the beach. There, she met up with some of the kids from the drama club. For years, Lexi had been hanging out with these kids, watching them all rehearse with Mia. They sat around on the sand, talking. Of course, college came up. It was the big topic these days. From the very start of senior year, they’d been talking about deadlines and applications and admission stats. Every day, another university representative was in the library, talking to any senior who was interested. Weekend campus visits were becoming the norm. And the students from Pine Island didn’t just go to downtown Seattle to check out schools. Oh, no. Their parents flew them all over the country.
“Lexster!” Mia’s voice rose above the noise.
Lexi turned and saw Mia lurching toward her.
“I doan know how I got this drunk,” Mia said, swaying dangerously. “Lexi, how did I get this drunk?”
“Drinking, maybe?” Lexi got up and put a steadying arm around Mia.
“I love you, Lexi,” Mia whispered, but it was a drunk’s whisper, stagey and slurred. She put an arm around Lexi. “You ’n Zach Attack are my bess friends.”
“You’re my best friend, too.”
Mia slumped to a sit on the cold sand. When Lexi joined her, they leaned together. “Tyler said I’m pretty,” Mia said. “Do you think he means it?”
“He’d be a fool not to.”
“We danced,” Mia said, her voice dreamy. She swayed for a moment and then went still. “I can’t feel my lips. Are my lips still there?”
Lexi burst out laughing. “I think we better get you home. Let’s go find Zach.”
Lexi helped Mia to her feet and led her friend through the crowd. They found Zach in the shadows by the side of the house. Amanda was throwing herself at him. At least Lexi thought she was.
“Zach?” Lexi dared. “Mia’s not in good shape. I think she needs to go home.”
At that, Mia doubled over and vomited into the grass.
Zach rushed to Mia’s side. “Are you okay?” he asked, putting an arm around her.
Mia swayed unsteadily, wiping her mouth. “I doan feel so good.”
“Amanda?” Zach said. “Can she stay at your house? I can’t bring her home like this.”
“As if,” Amanda said, making a sour face. “I’m not leaving the party this early. It’s barely midnight.” She gave Zach a long kiss and then walked away, flipping her hair as she headed back toward the keg.
“Mia can spend the night at my house,” Lexi said. “Eva will be asleep by now.”
Zach looked at her. “Really?”
Zach guided Mia back to the Mustang and put her in the backseat. It was like trying to make cooked spaghetti stand, and by the time he was finished, Mia was laughing uproariously and spread out across the seat. Snapping her seatbelt in place took forever.
Lexi got into the passenger seat while Zach started the engine. He backed up slowly and drove out to the main road.
As they sped down the highway toward the bridge, his fingers tapped out a rhythm on the leather-covered steering wheel. The music coming through the stereo was unfamiliar to Lexi, but its beat was strangely addictive. Mia was humming in the backseat, out of tune, as usual.
At the trailer, Lexi got out of the car, and Mia was right behind her, stumbling out, laughing as she fell to her knees in the damp grass. “Less go to our hill,” she said, staggering back to her feet.
Zach rushed to his sister’s side, held her up. “Hey, Mia,” he said gently, “maybe you should go to bed.”
Mia smiled drunkenly. “Yeah. Tha would be good.”
Zach looked at Lexi. “I’ll wait until she’s in bed to leave, okay?”
“You don’t have to do that. I know you want to get back to Amanda.”
“You have no idea what I want.”
Stung, Lexi went to Mia, took her from Zach. “Let’s go, Mia.” She guided her best friend across the damp grass and up into the mobile home. In the living room, Mia collapsed to the floor, giggling and moaning. “Sshh,” Lexi said.
“I’ll jus sleep for a sec…”
Lexi left Mia on the carpeted floor for a minute and went back outside. From the porch, she stared at Zach. Slowly, she moved toward him. He was looking at her now, watching her even, and his attention made something in the pit of her stomach flutter. “S-she’s fine,” she said.
“What’s your hill?” he said.
“Mia and I hang out there. It’s nothing.”
“Can I see it?”
Lexi was aware of his footsteps cracking on twigs and branches as they pushed their way through the heavy salal and brush. The path was so thin you could only find it if you knew where it was. When she emerged into the open again, it was onto a high bluff of untended land that overlooked a busy strip of the highway, the glittering casino, and the black Sound beyond. “I come out here all the time,” she said.
“It’s cool.” Zach sat down on the soft ground.
Lexi reluctantly sat beside him. They were so close she could feel his leg against hers.
She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t.
Silence stretched out, turned uncomfortable. “So you guys are checking out colleges next weekend. That’s cool,” Lexi finally said. It was all she could think of.
He shrugged. “Whatever.”
“You don’t sound very excited about it.”
“Mia says she’ll die if we don’t go to USC together. Don’t get me wrong, I want to go to school with her, too, and I want to be a doctor like the old man, but…” He looked out over the casino and sighed.
He turned to her, caught her looking at him. “What if I can’t cut it?” he said so quietly she barely heard his voice above the distant drone of highway noise.
She had known Zach for more than three years now, adoring him from a distance; she’d studied him like an archaeologist, culling through his words for hidden meaning. And never had he said anything like this to her. He sounded vulnerable and confused.
The night seemed to fall quiet; the buzz of the cars faded. All Lexi could hear was the beating of her heart and the even strains of their breathing. She was reminded of all the times she’d waited for her mother’s return, only to be disappointed, discarded. If there was one emotion she understood profoundly, it was uncertainty. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined that Zach could feel the same way. It made her feel connected to him, in tune. For one split second, he wasn’t Mia’s brother; he was the boy she’d seen on that first day of school, the one who’d made her heart speed up. “I didn’t think you were ever afraid.”
“Oh, I’m afraid of something.” He leaned the slightest bit toward her. Maybe he was just shifting his seat on the hard dirt; she didn’t know—she just knew how it felt to be afraid, and the way he was looking at her made it hard to breathe. Without really thinking, just feeling, she leaned toward him for a kiss.
She was just about to close her eyes when he jerked back. “What are you doing?”
The magnitude of what she’d almost done knocked the breath from her. He didn’t even like her, and, worse than that, he wasn’t available for her. Jude had made that clear; so had Mia. And Mia was what mattered, not some useless, baseless crush on a boy who fell in love with a different girl every week.
Horrified, she mumbled an apology, got to her feet, and started running through the brambles and bushes for the relative safety of her mobile home.
She ran into the mobile home and slammed the door shut behind her. Mia lay at her feet, singing a song from The Little Mermaid.
Lexi stepped over her best friend and peeked out from between the curtains.
Zach stood there a long time, staring at the closed door. Then he finally went back to his car and started it up.
It wasn’t until Lexi had brushed her teeth and put on her pajamas and crawled into bed with Mia that she let herself really think about what she’d almost done.
“You’re an idiot, Lexi Baill,” she said into the quiet.
“No you’re not,” Mia said; then she started to snore.
* * *
The next morning, Lexi stood at her bedroom window, staring out at the falling rain, feeling sick to her stomach. She couldn’t believe that she’d almost kissed Zach last night.
What an idiot.
What should she do now? Tell Mia the truth, throw herself on her best friend’s mercy and apologize for a moment of lunacy? But what if it ruined everything? And Zach would never tell. Or would he? Did he hate Lexi that much?
“I feel like crap.”
Lexi heard the mattress creak against the wood-slatted bed frame. There was a pinging sound as Mia maneuvered to a sit. Lexi turned slowly around, feeling a fresh wave of shame.