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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Small Town Hearts

Lillie Vale

Swoon Reads

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

one


An hour before closing time, a stranger walked into the Busy Bean.

Next to me, Lucy dumped coffee grounds in the compost bin. She bent over, flicking wet grounds off her fingers. “Hey, Babe, can you—”

“I’ve got it,” I said, grabbing my notepad from the counter, already on my way. The guy was cute. If our new seasonal waitress had been out here, she would have tried to get to him first.

The boy hovered awkwardly near one of the corner tables. He was tall and lithe, with mussed brown hair that was on the side of gold, and a blue polo that brought out his eyes.

“Is anywhere fine?”

“Yeah,” I said, gesturing to the available seating. “I can take your order here if you’re ready or you can just come up later, if you need a few minutes.”

Mystery Boy chose a table that came from a home and garden center, chipped stones in the mosaic face of a woman on the circular surface. The chair he sat on was wrought-iron and from a different patio set, the green seat plump and gleaming with the sheen of new leather.

He glanced at the chalk menu on the wall behind the counter. A smile bloomed over his face. “Nice art.”

I followed his gaze. Lucy alternated between neat capitals and loopy lettering to advertise the regular items and the day’s specials. Her daisy-chain border was in neon yellow, and some of the flowers had faces.

“Yeah, my friend’s a regular Matisse,” I joked.

The boy laughed, a rich, velvety sound, like the decadent filling inside a chocolate truffle.

I sensed eyes on the back of my neck, and I reached to rub the tingling patch of skin. I could practically feel Lucy’s interest.

I pulled a blunt-tipped pencil and notepad from my apron pocket. “What can I get for you?”

Lucy’s voice in my head went through a litany of the things I could give him. I squashed that voice. None of that was on our menu.

Since Elodie and I had broken up last year—since she’d broken my heart—I had gone on a handful of dates that never led anywhere beyond awkward “See ya arounds” and fended-off kisses at the end of the night. Most of them had been nice, cute and witty. Local boys who were salt of the earth, sunny girls who collected kisses like seashells. The first few dates, the butterflies had been flapping in full force, producing gale-force winds. I’d convinced myself I was crushing. I didn’t want to always be Penny and Chad’s third wheel. But when my dates’ faces swooped close, eyes closing in anticipation … I couldn’t go through with it.

It wasn’t the act or intimacy of the kiss itself. I just had no interest in them. The other dates were middling at best, butterflies keeping quiet and still. Just nervousness, I’d figured. And then, one day, those butterflies were gone, too. It was just me left.

One corner of Mystery Boy’s mouth crooked upward. I realized too late that he was looking at me with expectation. Jerked out of my reverie, I stared at him. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that,” I said, shooting him a sheepish smile.

“One of those days, huh?” he asked understandingly. After repeating his coffee order, he jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the glass-enclosed cake stand on the counter next to the register. “What kind of cake is that?”

“German chocolate. There’s some delicious coconut-caramel frosting on it.” Unable to resist, I added, “I made it myself.”

He looked tempted for a second. “Just the coffee.” His palm stretched across the large sketch pad he’d brought with him, the cover smudged with charcoal pencil.

I gave it a curious look, then smiled an easy grin. “Sure. You got it.”

“Thanks,” he said while opening the sketchbook. He poised his pencil over the blank page, already looking down.

At this angle, I could see half-moon smudges under each eye, like he hadn’t been sleeping well. I didn’t realize that my feet weren’t moving until he glanced up, his golden eyebrows scrunched in surprise. Feeling heat creep into my cheeks, I turned and fled, retreating to the safety of the counter before I could do anything else to embarrass myself.

“Don’t think I didn’t notice you lingering over there with the summer boy, Babe Vogel,” Lucy said. Her voice was low, but her smirk was at full volume.

“That? That was just good customer service.” Cheeks still hot, I moved to the stainless-steel carafe, and in wordless unison, Lucy slid a white ceramic mug across the counter for me to fill.

“Uh-huh,” she teased, fluttering her eyelashes at me. “Better get this over there. Along with some of that exemplary customer service.”

I huffed, resisting the impulse to roll my eyes. “You know I’ve never gotten involved with a summer boy,” I said, shimmying out of the way of the grimy dishcloth she swatted at me.

Despite what Lucy thought, I wasn’t crushing on tall, blond, and gorgeous sitting in the corner table. Sure, he was aesthetic. And mysterious. And new to Oar’s Rest, the sleepy little Maine seaside village that spilled over with tourists during the summer and turned into a ghost town the rest of the year.

Nestled on the coast, Oar’s Rest attracted all kinds of people, but mostly the artistic kind. The kind of girls who tucked flowers into their hair and rode shiny new bicycles. The kind of boys who had paint and cigarette stains on their fingertips, battling for flesh. Writers who secreted themselves away from the real world and then slipped away from their rented houses and emerged in the fall with a bestseller.

Mystery Boy thanked me when I delivered his coffee, returning his attention to the sketchbook.

Lucy was waiting for me when I returned to the counter.

“Don’t even say it,” I warned.

“I wasn’t going to say anything!” She threw up her hands. She let a beat pass. “Did you see his face? Go say something!”

I pursed my lips, eyeing him from across the room. “What? That’s so weird. I’m not going to do that. He could have a girlfriend. And anyway, I hate when guys walk in and start to creep on me. It goes both ways. I’m not going to hit on him out of the blue.”

“It’s not that weird. Someone has to make the first move.”

“Lucy,” I said, lifting an eyebrow, “the cardinal rule of every beach town is that locals do not get involved with tourists. They always leave.”

“I can’t even remember the last time you went on a date,” said Lucy. “And those girls and guys were cute.”

I picked up a mug that didn’t even need cleaning and began to rewash it just to have something to do. When I was nervous, I had the telltale habit of wringing the bottom of my shirt, and the last thing I wanted was for Lucy to know she’d hit a nerve.

She was right. I hadn’t been serious about anyone in a few years because I’d been dating Elodie Hawkins on the sly. El had graduated a year ahead of me and gone off to art school in California. Going out of state wasn’t enough—she seemed to want to get as far from Maine as she could without crossing an ocean.

A memory blurred into my mind’s autofocus, sharpening until I could count the freckles spattered across El’s nose and cheeks, her hair thrashing in the wind, the wisps of the cotton candy body spray she loved. If I closed my eyes, I could almost smell it. I could almost see the gray of the sky, the birds circling overhead. The sorrow in her eyes as she said she wasn’t ready to tell people about us—about her.

“Excuse me.”

I turned, facing Mystery Boy. “Hey, what else can I get for you?” I flicked my eyes toward the German chocolate cake.

His eyes followed mine and his grin widened. “Just wanted to settle my bill.” He flopped down a five-dollar bill on the counter.

Counting out his change, I placed it into his open palm, intensely aware of my fingertips grazing his warm hand.

“Thanks.” He turned to leave, then paused, seeming to wrestle with a decision. “I’ll take you up on that cake some other time.” With a final nod to me and Lucy, he headed for the door.

When he left, I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Did that sound like he was planning on coming back, or like that’s the last time we’ll ever see him?” I wondered aloud. Though I’d been working at the Busy Bean for almost three years, this was the first time I’d hoped a tourist would be a repeat customer.

My curiosity wasn’t lost on Lucy. “So you are interested in a summer boy.” Lucy’s voice held a grin. “And he’s cute. Hint, hint.”

“Maybe he’s here for classes at the art center.” I stared through the window at his retreating back, wondering where he was heading. “He had a sketchbook with him.”

She shrugged. “Wouldn’t surprise me. I think they’re starting their summer program this week.” She paused. “I heard Elodie Hawkins is coming back to be a mentor. Weren’t you two friends?”

What? The wind was taken right out of my sails. El was coming back? She hadn’t said anything. She could have texted, she could have emailed …

Elodie had left town, left me. I shouldn’t care if she was coming back. I’d gotten over her. But there were some things I couldn’t tuck away as easily. She was like a second beating heart inside me—tingling, magnifying, terrifying. This heart was carnivorous. It hoped and hurt at the same time. Hearing her name again filled me with a savage rush of life, something I couldn’t hold back any more than I could keep the memory of us at bay.

Being the one left behind never got easier. After Mom, maybe I should have wised up. Nothing stayed the same forever, but when I remembered the soft, dazed look El wore right after I kissed her, I had thought that this could. We could. In possibly the biggest plot twist of my life, though, I’d discovered we couldn’t. And just like that, everything I’d cherished for so long became a bitter enemy. Elodie left town, but the ghost of her was still here, haunting.

As I opened my mouth to ask Lucy where she’d heard about Elodie’s return, I was interrupted by the storeroom door creaking open. Ariel, our new waitress, had volunteered to unpack some of our new inventory at the start of her shift, but instead of the sounds of moving coffee cans and creaking aluminum shelves, there had been silence all afternoon. I’d forgotten she was even there. It hadn’t taken Lucy and me long to figure out that organizing the inventory was code for texting her friends in the privacy of the storeroom.

Ariel breezed out, already pulling her apron off her head. Her brown hair lifted with static. “So I’ve just about wrapped up in there—”

I blinked at the pile of boxes behind her before the door swung shut. “Really? It doesn’t look like you’ve made any headway.”

“—so I think I’m going to take off.” She reached for the tip jar with an apologetic smile. “Mind if I bum a few bucks?”

Lucy made a strangled noise.

“No way,” I said. “We divide the tips up at the end of the week. And there’s still twenty minutes before we close.”

Ariel’s face turned red. “Right. Sorry.” She withdrew her hand, cradling it against her chest. Her expression turned wounded. “It’s just … something came up and I’d really appreciate it if—”

I wasn’t in the mood to listen to one of her half-baked excuses. “Yeah, whatever.” I frowned. “Go.”

As she left, Lucy and I exchanged matching looks. Lucy sighed noisily. “How has she not been fired yet? She’s the worst.”

I took a peek into the storeroom. Nothing had been done, except some creative shuffling that might have fooled a manager who didn’t know Ariel and her distinct lack of work ethic. With a sigh, I let the storeroom door close. “I’ll talk to Tom when he comes in tomorrow.”

“Good,” Lucy said with vehemence. “I don’t care if I have to work overtime. I’d rather make the extra cash than pull her weight for free.”

She was absolutely right. I nodded in agreement.

We worked in silence to clear everything away before closing up. “See you tomorrow,” I said as I locked Busy’s door.

“See ya!” Lucy called over her shoulder as she jogged toward her boyfriend, waiting on the beach for her with his dogs. He took off his cap and waved it at me.

As the warm sunlight outside enveloped me, I almost—almost—forgot the cold dread that had gone through me when I heard of Elodie’s return. My eyes sought out my lighthouse, small and distant above me. The place where we’d met most often, the one place in town no one would see us. And so, of course, it was the place where El felt the most comfortable. It was the only place she could be herself. The only place we could be a we.

What would I say to her if she really was coming back? Would she even want to see me? Did I even want to see her?

A boat coming back to shore blew its horn, a sharp, trumpeting sound that rattled me out of my thoughts. I felt like a girl overboard.

But it turned out there was no mayday call for returning ex-girlfriends.

* * *

It was at the most beautiful moment of firefly twilight, when the sun had dipped just beyond the water, that I reached my best friend Penny Wang’s houseboat. It was far enough from the beach that we were away from everyone’s prying eyes, so Penny probably didn’t think twice before waving me onto the deck with a bottle of beer in one hand and her phone in the other.

“Hey,” I said, flip-flops thwacking against the pier.

“You took your sweet time getting here,” she said in response, tipping the bottle to her lips. She sat cross-legged on the deck, phone balanced on one thigh. “I was just about to text you.”

I joined her, sinking down and letting my back rest against the wall. “Everyone we know is out on the beach. Hard not to stop when everyone wanted to talk. Isn’t it weird how all the people we didn’t talk to in high school are suddenly acting like they’re going to miss us?”

Penny snorted. “Graduation messed with their brains.” She twirled her finger in circles next to her ear. “They’re living in some parallel universe where we give a shit.”

“Maybe in some universe we do,” I said, laughing.

She typed something furiously on her phone before turning it facedown on her thigh. “All the me’s in all the universes hate them unequivocally.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “Then all the me’s do, too.”

“That’s why you’re my best friend,” she said, bumping her arm against mine.

We stared out across the water, letting the silence last. I hoped she felt just as warm and squishy inside as I did. “So you won’t believe this,” I said.

“Hmm?”

“Elodie’s coming back home.” I let the bombshell drop, satisfied to see the surprise on Penny’s face.

She leaned closer toward me, clutching the neck of the bottle tight. “Really? She told you that?”

“Hell no. You know she didn’t want to keep in touch.” She’d snipped me out of her life so easily. Even a year later, the bitterness and hurt rankled.

Penny’s lips twisted into a scowl. “Ugh. Are you going to try talking with her again?”

I shook my head. “That ship has sailed.”

“Good,” she said. “I’d have kicked your ass if you got back with her after what she put you through.”

“That’s why you’re my best friend.”

“I mean, it was fine if she just wanted to break up,” said Penny. “But she didn’t have to be such a bitch about it. Cutting you out of her life like that was super shitty. She didn’t have the balls to date you while she was here, but she managed to break your heart with no problem.” She made an aggravated sound of disgust.

“I’m over it,” I said. “But thanks for the ex bashing.”

Penny smirked. “Any time.” She held the beer out with her right hand. “To summer. And graduation. And to never talking to any of those fuckwads again.”

I grinned and took a sip before handing it back to her. “And lying out on the beach and eating tacos and ice cream every day.”

This was what I loved about summer, the free pass to be totally lazy and do things only if we wanted to do them. And nobody could say boo about it. It was like the rest of the year was an impostor somehow, and summer was the only time that everything moved back into place.

“God, yes. The tacos. Now I’m craving some bulgogi,” said Penny. “I want pickled cucumbers so bad. And sriracha mayo.”

The Korean steak tacos were her favorite, while I preferred the fish. Jeju BBQ was the only place in town that served street-style Asian tacos, and everything on their menu was pure rapture.

“Let’s go get some.” I bumped her shoulder. “Tacos are always a good idea.”

“I wish. We have something to do first, though.”

“If it’s more important than tacos, it must be serious.”

“Not kidding, B.” She paused. “Hey, so this is kind of awkward, but I was wondering if you could you do me a favor?”

I scrunched my forehead. Penny didn’t often ask for favors, at least not so obviously. So whatever this was, it had to be A Big Deal. “Sure. What’s up?”

“Would you go talk to Chad for me and, um, tell him I don’t want to see him?”

“What? Why?”

She didn’t meet my eyes. “Because I broke up with him.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, sure,” I said, swiping the bottle of beer out of her hands. Penny’s houseboat swayed beneath us, gently bobbing with the tide. “Ha ha.”

“I’m not kidding. I told Chad we were through yesterday, but I didn’t really handle it that great. He wants to come over, and I just know that if I see him so soon, I’m going to feel crappy and then—” Penny let her hair spill out of its bun and wound the elastic around her wrist. She waited for me to take a swallow before snagging the bottle back. “Please, Babe?”

Our shoulders brushed as I turned to look at her in disbelief. “What? You dumped him yesterday?”

She pursed her lips.

“You … you didn’t tell me.” I was in the deep end. I was always the first one she went to when it came to Chad, when it came to anyone. Loss took hold in my stomach, filling my limbs with cold. “Why—why did you break up?”

“I didn’t know that I was going to,” said Penny. “It kind of happened out of nowhere. I wasn’t planning it.”

“So you broke up with him … just because?” They had been together for years. Since we were fourteen. Was this a joke? Was there something I wasn’t getting? A minute ago, everything had been okay.

She looked back at me, stare for stare. There wasn’t a hint of a joke in her eyes. I’d always thought her brown was much more beautiful than my blue—warm and friendly and all-encompassing. She didn’t look that way now. Still, I waited for her face to break into a smile, for her to cry Gotcha! and tease me about how I’d fallen for it.

I felt sick, my stomach thrashing. Queasy, I looked away. I had this writhing thing inside me, something terrified and angry and wholly new. Something that Penny had birthed. Something that, worst of all, wanted to go along with what she wanted just so I could stop feeling this way. This sick, petrified way that told me that everything had just changed.

I wanted to heave. I wanted to scream. This was our summer—Chad’s and Penny’s and mine. The very last summer we’d have before college.

From where we sat, cross-legged on her deck, I could see the wooden slats of the pier where we’d used chalk to draw a yin-yang sun and moon. The fiery sunburst orange and the calm blue melded together to form one shape that represented wholeness and harmony.

That was us, Penny and me.

“It just all feels so same-y,” said Penny. Her voice sounded like it was coming from very far away. “Like we’ve been the same people our entire lives and nothing’s changed. College is my chance—his chance, too—to start again.”

I didn’t like the way she said that. Like she’d been paused for the last few years. It hadn’t been that way for me. These were the best years of our lives. How could she not see that?

She stretched her legs out and let her head loll back. Her voice softened. “Babe, I just … I think this is what’s best for me.”

I wouldn’t argue with her. And anyway, it was done. It was already over. My opinion seemed unnecessary now.

“Could you just run some interference and make sure he doesn’t drop by?” asked Penny. The edge of desperation in her voice didn’t sound right, not on her.

I startled out of my fog. It was one thing to accept her decision; it was another to actually involve myself in the fallout. “How do you expect me to do that?”

“He texted me. Said he’s going to come over.” She dropped her eyes to her lap. “I didn’t really give him a reason yesterday. Could you … could you do, like, a Breakup 2.0?”

This was too much, even for her. I gaped. “No way. He’s your boyfriend. I’m not going to just—it’s not my place, Penny. Oh my God. It needs to come from you. Properly, this time.”

Her lips scrunched. “Just tell him I haven’t changed my mind.”

Crazy to think that if I hadn’t started school a year late, we wouldn’t have ended up in the same grade. The three of us had been friends since elementary school. Didn’t she care that he was my friend, too? I wanted to scrunch in on myself, ball myself up like a wad of paper. I didn’t have a lot of constants in my life, but Chad and Penny? I thought I could count on them always being there, all of us always being together. The three of us were a team. Without our friendship, I would have fallen apart the past year. Between my ex-girlfriend leaving for college and my mom spending less and less time at home, I’d clung to my friends like the lifelines they were.

She must have read the conflict on my face, because she sighed and handed back the bottle. “I don’t think I can face him, B. It’s just … it’s Chad. It’s not easy.”

I laughed. “And it is for me?”

“We’re starting college in September. People are supposed to break up before they go to college.”

My arms flushed hot. We weren’t starting college—they were. Penny had the habit of saying it like I’d be right there on their first day, but I wouldn’t be.

“That’s because most people go to different colleges,” I said. “You two are staying right here in Oar’s Rest. You don’t need to break up.”

“What if I just want to?” asked Penny. “What if I want to start fresh with someone new? What if I want to be different? Don’t I have that right?”

The cold hand of dread felt its way down my spine as Penny’s words echoed over and over in my head. With a little snip snip, could I be cut out of her life just as easily? When she talked about starting over, it was hard not to feel like she was shedding our friendship like a snake that had outgrown its skin.

Penny put the bottle to her mouth and took a deep swallow, buying me the time to collect my racing thoughts. Her silence made me feel paper-thin. It was just summer, but she was already thinking about fall. About being someone else in fall, someone who wasn’t recognizable as my best friend or Chad’s girlfriend. In that moment, she reminded me so much of one of the paper dolls we’d played with as children. Her mom had bought a book of them for us, sweet-faced dolls punched out of pages, who could be altered with just a change of outfit into someone new.

In the distance I heard the dull thuds of stroller wheels bumping over the pier. A seagull’s caw as it swooped over the water and landed with nimble grace on a support beam. The sound of water cresting at the bow of a boat slicing through the stillness.

Penny touched the cold bottle to my knee. “So? Will you? Please?”

I couldn’t say yes to her. There was no way. I ignored the thing in my stomach. Chad was our friend. Having this incredibly awkward discussion with him on her behalf would feel too much like us versus him. It was fine if Penny wanted to start college single, but I didn’t want to choose sides.

It wasn’t like when we were kids. It had been easy to be the mediator then, to fix whatever had cracked before it actually broke. When you had two best friends, it was just something you had to do if you didn’t want to be torn between them. I didn’t want to feel the pressure of having to choose. We’d never really had this conversation, but I couldn’t help but feel a little betrayed anyway. I had never wanted to pick one of my best friends over the other. And yet here I was.

“Chicks over dicks,” said Penny.

In this situation, it wasn’t him who was the dick.

I rubbed the side of my nose, resenting her easy assumption that I was on her side. It wasn’t that I wasn’t, exactly, but I wasn’t her henchwoman, either. It felt dirty and grubby to do her work for her. Not looking at her, I mumbled, “Right. Yeah. I know.” I felt like it was expected of me.

A memory floated from the deepest recesses of my mind, softly blurred at the edges. When we were little kids, Chad had been chubby. He wasn’t one of the boys who had made fun of Penny’s lunches, but he’d joined in the laughter. So when he’d started hanging around us more often, making it clear he wanted to be our friend, Penny made him do all kinds of stupid things to earn our forgiveness.

It was her favorite game to make him ring someone’s doorbell and run away as fast as he could, only we were always faster, so we were already giggling behind a hedge while he was huffing and puffing his way down the driveway. He was the one who got in trouble, not us. A decade later and it still made my mouth taste sour.

But she was my first real friend. The first friend who had chosen me back, not someone who was forced to play with me because our moms set up a playdate. The way we’d treated Chad was mean, and even back then, I’d known it was wrong, but Penny had the kind of charisma that made us want to pass her test of friendship.

Penny was like that. If someone said something to her, it wasn’t just hers to deal with. It was mine and Chad’s, too. And Penny was always willing to show up for a fight and have our backs. It made me proud that she unfailingly thought of us as a team, but for the first time, I didn’t want it to be us against the world. Not if the world was Chad.

“Babe,” snapped Penny, impatient now. She frowned at me.

She wanted me to tell her I’d do it. She was waiting for me to do what she wanted. The hard edge in her voice couldn’t be softened even by the glow of alcohol.

Would I be the next to go if I failed her now? My vision swam. All I wanted was for things to go on like they always had. There was safety in things staying the same. A year from now, five years from now, all I wanted was for us to be the same, doing things together, being the people we’d always been. I didn’t want to be the kind of friends who drifted apart after high school, the kind who could live in the same town and still be strangers. I didn’t want to think about fall and college and uncertainties. I wanted what was certain. I wanted what was right now. Was that so wrong? Was it so unreasonable?

“Babe,” said Penny. “I really need you. Please, will you talk to him for me?” She reached out to twine her fingers between mine. She squeezed. I understood. She needed me to be her strength.

The thing in my stomach was roaring at me. I squeezed my eyes shut. My friends were my everything. They meant more to me than any of my exes ever had. The only way this summer would be saved was if I saved it. I knew my role well. I could be the captain and get us through these rough waves.

“All right,” I said. My shoulders hunched, defeated. “If you really want me to.”

The tension lifted with her smile. “Oh my God, thank you, thank you, thank you! I just know if I do it, it’ll turn into this whole big thing. Chad and I need a better reason to stay together than habit.” She rolled her eyes. “We’re not Rory and Logan.”

She loved Gilmore Girls. I wasn’t such a fan, but I watched it for her. “If you were Rory, though, then I’m Jess,” I said. “Because I’m always there for you.” It was hard not to say it with a little resentment, but she didn’t appear to notice.

“You are,” said Penny, pale skin shimmering in the hazy glow of twilight. Her smile was luminous as she leaned forward to lay her head on my shoulder. “You’re the best, B.”

The guilt that churned in an angry whorl dissipated when she pressed her cool lips to my curve of my shoulder. We stayed like that for a minute, or maybe it was more than that. The beer lay between us, forgotten, and the outside waves and chatter dulled to nothing.

The stillness was broken only when Penny’s phone beeped. She tore herself away to look at the screen. “It’s Chad,” she said, holding the phone up as proof. “He just left his house.” She typed something back, face inscrutable. “Feels too weird to have him back in my house after yesterday. I told him to wait on the beach. You can meet him there.”

“The beach?” Guilt stabbed at me again. “Penny, I don’t know—”

“It’s not a big deal.” She placed her phone on the deck and leaned against the wall. She cast a sidelong glance at me, lips pursed. “You said you’d do it.”

It needled that she felt she had to give me a reminder. I’d played the go-between to smooth over many of their little tiffs, but this was a big deal. It wasn’t like when they argued about how to spend Friday night or when Chad caught Penny returning someone’s flirtations at her parties. Those times had been different. “But—”

“Go!” she said, her voice sharp with urgency. “He’s going to just come over if you take too long to show.”

“But I don’t know what to say to—”

Penny shoved at my shoulder. “You promised.”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Babe, I just don’t want to see him right now. I don’t want to feel bad about doing what I need to do. If I don’t do this now, then … everything will always be the same. We’ll always be the same. I can see it all stretching in front of me. College, engagement, marriage, children, just … all of it! I can’t deal with love like this. Not right now. We just graduated. I want to be free. I want to feel like I’m growing up, like I’m doing real things. I don’t feel like that when I’m with—” She paused. “With him.”

But I’d heard that little crack in her voice. She hadn’t been about to say with him. She’d meant to say with you two. Both me and Chad. Tingles shot up my spine. If this was my test, I would make sure to pass. I would do what she wanted.

The thing in my stomach calmed. I was doing what it wanted, too.

I stood up. “Okay, okay!” I flashed my palms at her. “I’m going.”

As I scrambled onto the pier, I almost lost my balance. Dotting the boards in front of her boat like a welcome mat were her yacht and sailboat doodles. Chad always encouraged her to pursue art—even when we were little kids, he’d been the first to buy her arts and crafts.

My breath caught as I looked down. Something uncomfortable stole across my heart. My foot had severed the yin-yang chalk drawing.


Copyright © 2019 by Lillie Vale