The Initiation (Chapter One)
Except, the guidebook added absently, for the poison ivy, and ticks, and green flies, and toxic shellfish, and undercurrents in seemingly peaceful water.
The book had also warned against hiking out on narrow peninsulas because high tide could come along and strand you. But just at this moment Cassie would have given anything to be stranded on some peninsula jutting far out into the Atlantic Ocean – as long as Portia Bain-bridge was on the other side.
Cassie had never been so miserable in her life.
"… and my other brother, the one on the MIT debate team, the one who went to the World Debate Tournament in Scotland two years ago…" Portia was saying. Cassie felt her eyes glaze over again and slipped back into her wretched trance. Both of Portia's brothers went to MIT and were frighteningly accomplished, not only at intellectual pursuits but also at athletics. Portia was frighteningly accomplished herself, even though she was only going to be a junior in high school this year, like Cassie. And since Portia's favorite subject was Portia, she'd spent most of the last month telling Cassie all about it.
"… and then after I placed fifth in extemporaneous speaking at the National Forensic League Championship last year, my boyfriend said, 'Well, of course you'll go All-American…"
Just one more week, Cassie told herself. Just one more week and I can go home. The very thought filled her with a longing so sharp that tears came to her eyes. Home, where her friends were. Where she didn't feel like a stranger, and unaccomplished, and boring, and stupid just because she didn't know what a quahog was. Where she could laugh about all this: her wonderful vacation on the eastern seaboard.
"… so my father said, 'Why don't I just buy it for you?' But I said, 'No – well, maybe…' "
Cassie stared out at the sea.
It wasn't that the Cape wasn't beautiful. The little cedar-shingled cottages, with white picket fences covered with roses and wicker rocking chairs on the porch and geraniums hanging from the rafters, were pretty as picture postcards. And the village greens and tall-steepled churches and old-fashioned schoolhouses made Cassie feel as if she'd stepped into a different time.
But every day there was Portia to deal with. And even though every night Cassie thought of some devastatingly witty remark to make to Portia, somehow she never got around to actually making any of them. And far worse than anything Portia could do was the plain raw feeling of not belonging. Of being a stranger here, stranded on the wrong coast, completely out of her own element. The tiny duplex back in California had started to seem like heaven to Cassie.
One more week, she thought. You've just got to stand it for one more week.
And then there was Mom, so pale lately and so quiet… A worried twinge went through Cassie, and she quickly pushed it away. Mom is fine, she told herself fiercely. She's probably just miserable here, the same way you are, even though this is her native state. She's probably counting the days until we can go home, just like you are.
Of course that was it, and that was why her mother looked so unhappy when Cassie talked about being homesick. Her mother felt guilty for bringing Cassie here, for making this place sound like a vacation paradise. Everything would be all right when they got back home, for both of them.
"Cassie! Are you listening to me? Or are you daydreaming again?"
"Oh, listening," Cassie said quickly.
"What did I just say?"
Cassie floundered. Boyfriends, she thought desperately, the debate team, college, the National Forensic League… People had sometimes called her a dreamer, but never as much as around here.
"I was saying they shouldn't let people like that on the beach," Portia said. "Especially not with dogs. I mean, I know this isn't Oyster Harbors, but at least it's clean. And now look." Cassie looked, following the direction of Portia's gaze. All she could see was some guy walking down the beach. She looked back at Portia uncertainly.
"He works on a fishing boat," Portia said, her nostrils flared as if she smelled something bad. "I saw him this morning on the fish pier, unload-ing. I don't think he's even changed his clothes. How unutterably scuzzy and vomitous."
He didn't look all that scuzzy to Cassie. He had dark red hair, and he was tall, and even at this distance she could see that he was smiling. There was a dog at his heels.
"We never talk to guys from the fishing boats. We don't even look at them," Portia said. And Cassie could see it was true. There were maybe a dozen other girls on the beach, in groups of two or three, a few with guys, most not. As the tall boy passed, the girls would look away, turning their heads to stare in the opposite direction. It wasn't a flirtatious sort of looking-away-and-then-back-and-giggling. It was disdainful rejection. As the guy got closer to her, Cassie could see that his smile was turning grim.
The two girls closest to Cassie and Portia were looking away now, almost sniffing. Cassie saw the boy shrug slightly, as if it were no more than he expected. She still didn't see anything so disgusting about him. He was wearing ragged cutoff shorts and a T-shirt that had seen better days, but lots of guys looked like that. And his dog trotted right behind him, tail waving, friendly and alert. It wasn't bothering anybody. Cassie glanced up at the boy's face, curious to see his eyes.
"Look down," Portia whispered. The guy was passing right in front of them. Cassie hastily looked down, obeying automatically, although she felt a surge of rebellion in her heart. It seemed cheap and nasty and unnecessary and cruel. She was ashamed to be a part of it, but she couldn't help doing what Portia said.
She stared at her fingers trailing into the sand. She could see every granule in the bright sunlight. From far away the sand looked white, but up close it was shimmering with colors: specks of black-and-green mica, pastel shell fragments, chips of red quartz like tiny garnets. Unfair, she thought to the boy, who of course couldn't hear her. I'm sorry; this just isn't fair. I wish I could do something, but I can't.
A wet nose thrust under her hand.
The suddenness of it made her gasp, and a giggle caught in her throat. The dog pushed at her hand again, not asking; demanding. Cassie petted it, scratching at the short, silky-bristly hairs on its nose. It was a German shepherd, or mostly, a big, handsome dog with liquid, intelligent brown eyes and a laughing mouth. Cassie felt the stiff, embarrassed mask she'd been wearing break, and she laughed back at it.
Then she glanced up at the dog's owner, quickly, unable to help herself. She met his eyes directly.
Later, Cassie would think of that moment, the moment when she looked up at him and he looked down at her. His eyes were blue-gray, like the sea at its most mysterious. His face was odd; not conventionally handsome, but arresting and intriguing, with high cheekbones and a determined mouth. Proud and independent and humorous and sensitive all at once. As he looked down at her his grim smile lightened and something sparkled in those blue-gray eyes, like sun glinting off the waves.
Normally Cassie was shy around guys, especially guys she didn't know, but this was only some poor worker from the fishing boats, and she felt sorry for him, and she wanted to be nice, and besides she couldn't help it. And so when she felt herself start to sparkle back at him, her laughter bubbling up in response to his smile, she let it happen. In that instant it was as if they were sharing a secret, something nobody else on the beach could understand. The dog wiggled ecstatically, as if he were in on it too.
"Cassie," came Portia's fuming hiss.
Cassie felt herself turn red, and she tore her eyes away from the guy's face. Portia was looking apoplectic.
"Raj!" the boy said, not laughing anymore. "Heel!"
With apparent reluctance, the dog backed away from Cassie, tail still wagging. Then, in a spray of sand, he bounded toward his master. It isn't fair, Cassie thought again. The boy's voice startled her.
"Life isn't fair," he said.
Shocked, her eyes flew up to his face.
His own eyes were as dark as the sea in a storm. She saw that clearly, and for a moment she was almost frightened, as if she had glimpsed something forbidden, something beyond her comprehension. But powerful. Something powerful and strange.
And then he was walking away, the dog frisking behind him. He didn't look back.
Cassie stared after him, astounded. She hadn't spoken aloud; she was sure she hadn't spoken aloud. But then how could he have heard her?
Her thoughts were shattered by a hiss at her side. Cassie cringed, knowing exactly what Portia was going to say. That dog probably had mange and fleas and worms and scrofula. Cassie's towel was probably crawling with parasites right this minute.
But Portia didn't say it. She too was staring after the retreating figures of the boy and dog. as they went up a dune, then turned along a little path in the beach grass. And although she was clearly disgusted, there was something in her face – a sort of dark speculation and suspicion that Cassie had never seen before.
"What's the matter, Portia?"
Portia's eyes had narrowed. "I think," she said slowly, through tight lips, "that I've seen him before."
"You already said so. You saw him on the fish pier."
Portia shook her head impatiently. "Not that. Shut up and let me think."
Stunned, Cassie shut up.
Portia continued to stare, and after a few moments she began nodding, little nods to confirm something to herself. Her face was flushed blotchily, and not with sunburn.
Abruptly, still nodding, she muttered something and stood up. She was breathing quickly now.
"I've got to do something," Portia said, waving a hand at Cassie without looking at her. "You stay here."
"What's going on?"
"Nothing!" Portia glanced at her sharply. "Nothing's going on. Just forget all about it. I'll see you later." She walked off, moving quickly, heading up the dunes toward the cottage her family owned.
Ten minutes ago, Cassie would have said she'd be deliriously happy just to have Portia leave her alone, for any reason. But now she found she couldn't enjoy it. Her mind was all churned up, like the choppy blue-gray water before a gale. She felt agitated and distressed and almost frightened.
The strangest thing was what Portia had muttered before getting up. It had been under her breath, and Cassie didn't think she could have heard it right. It must have been something else, like "snitch," or "bitch," or "rich."
She must have heard it wrong. You couldn't call a guy a witch, for God's sake.
Calm down, she told herself. Don't worry, be happy. You're alone at last.
But for some reason she couldn't relax. She stood and picked up her towel. Then, wrapping it around her, she started down the beach the way the guy had gone.