Authors: Carly Syms
"I've been, uh, busy."
She narrows her eyes. "You have no idea who I am, do you?"
I bite my lip. "Um, no, sorry. It's been a long time since I've been in town."
"It's Natasha." When I don't react, she sighs. "Peterson. Natasha Peterson."
"Natasha...Peterson," I mutter, trying to place the name. It isn't unfamiliar to me, but I can't quite get my memory to reach it, either. I let out a breath. "Sorry. It's just not ringing that bell, you know?"
"From elementary school," she insists. "Mrs. Brewer's class." I squint, trying to take myself back to third grade. I remember Mrs. Brewer and the blow-up beach ball we used to play Around the World with on Friday afternoons if we behaved during the week. I stare at Natasha and her blonde hair and can vaguely picture a little girl with the same curls and big blue eyes whispering to Tina McElroy when Mrs. Brewer wasn't looking.
"Oh," I say, not sure if the memory is actually real or if it's only coming back to me because Natasha expects it to. "Yeah, I think I remember."
She breaks out into a smile. "I knew you would. What are you doing back in town? Summer break?"
"Oh, ah...something like that," I say nonchalantly.
"We should totally hang out sometime!"
I'm not expecting her to say this. "Okay," I hear myself replying without even thinking about it. "I guess we can do that."
I'm not wild about the idea, really, but at least it's something that'll get me out of Dad's house for a couple of hours.
"Really? Great, give me your phone!'
I dig my cell phone out of the back pocket of my jeans and pass it to her. She fiddles with it for a few seconds, then hands it back to me with a wide smile.
"Perfect!" she says. "This'll be so great."
I try to plaster a smile of my own on my face, but it's hard to fake the kind of enthusiasm Natasha has right now. Luckily for me, she doesn't seem to notice.
"Anyway," she goes on. "I have to jet. Great seeing you, Holly!" She leans in and air kisses both of my cheeks. "Talk soon!"
Natasha swings out of the cafe, her expensive shoes clicking against the tile floor as she goes, leaving me standing there with a dirty rag in my hand, wondering if I made a huge mistake by coming here.
"You're friends with her?" Natalie calls to me after her customer leaves.
I stop wiping down the counter and sigh. "Not really."
"Probably should keep it that way."
I go back to cleaning and as I get closer to the tables by the door, I catch sight of the musical posters hanging in the windows once more.
"You guys do live music?" I ask without looking at her.
"We try to," she says. "But it's not that easy to find acts."
I'm surprised. I would've thought they'd have so many applications that they could hold auditions or something.
"Why?" she continues. "Know somebody?"
I bite down on my bottom lip and think about the guitar laying next to my bed, the song notebook beside on the floor.
"No," I say after a minute. "I was just curious."
"You sure?" Natalie asks. I glance up at her and she's looking back at me with raised eyebrows. "You play something, don't you?"
I finish wiping the table, grab the rag and spray bottle, and head back through the employee door. I put them away, then walk out behind the counter to join her.
"Guitar," I say. "And sometimes I sing."
She smiles. "Knew it. Why don't you play here sometime?"
I shake my head. "Nope. No way."
"I've never done it."
"I don't know if I can."
Natalie waves me off. "Please. It'll always be 'don't know' until you actually try it, right?"
"So find out for sure."
"I don't know...."
She shrugs. "Fine. Just think about it, okay? We're open all next week."
"Okay," I say. "I will."
I think about the guitar resting safely in my bedroom back at Dad's, and wonder if I'll consider it at all.
I'm lying on my bed, staring up at the boring beige ceiling, trying to work up the motivation to practice something on the guitar, when a knock on the door rattles me out of my daze. I pick myself up and shuffle over, peeking my head out.
Justin's standing in the hall in his swim trunks and flip-flops.
"Come down to the pool," he says.
"Oh, no, I can't."
He raises an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"I don't want to intrude."
He sighs. "Holly, come on, I told you."
"I know, I know. But I would just feel weird."
"Well, don't," he says. "Get your suit on and come downstairs. I have some friends coming over, too."
"Oh, then I'd definitely rather not -- "
"I'm not gonna take no for an answer," he says, leaning against the door frame and crossing his arms over his chest. "Just so you know."
I let out a sigh. "I'm not going to win, am I?"
He shakes his head. "Nope. Never. Just like when we were little."
I tense up at the thought of some trip down memory lane with him. There's something I definitely don't want to explore. "Okay, okay. I'll meet you down there."
He gives me a big self-satisfied grin before he turns and walks away, whistling to himself, and leaving me to find a bathing suit and gather my thoughts.
I root through my suitcases since I haven't bothered unpacking yet -- I don't know when I'll be ready to do that and really move in -- but I can only come up with two bikinis from back home, and I don't really want to wear either, considering it's been months since I've let the sun really touch my skin.
I lay both of them out on my bed and stare down at them -- one is purple with big white polka dots, the other red and stringy -- before remembering that I'm just going downstairs to meet my brother and I don't care about impressing his friends, especially if they're all like that girl from yesterday, so it doesn't really matter what I wear.
I grab the red one after examining the pulls on the butt of the purple bottoms and change into it quickly. I toss a short blue cotton dress over my head as a makeshift cover-up and jam my feet into a pair of jeweled sandals. A quick head-to-toe application of sunscreen, lip balm and a messy ponytail later, and I grab my headphones and book, and head down to the pool I'm supposed to consider my own.
I walk out onto the deck and see Justin coming out of the pool house with a stack of dry towels in his arms as I walk over to an empty lawn chair.
"Here." Justin tosses two burnt orange towels down onto the lounger. "Use these."
I spread out my towels, lower the back of the chair to a sleeping position and flop down, pulling my sunglasses over my eyes, and let the hot desert sun soak into my pale Pennsylvania skin.
My feet bop in time to the beat of the song playing over my headphones, but I barely hear it. I'm slowly losing track of this world as the heat warms my bones. It's perfect right here and now, with the slight breeze rustling through the palm trees. All my cares, as they say, are slipping away, and it's getting easier and easier to forget the craziness of the last year of my life.
And that's when I hear the shouts distant through the headphones. My eyelids flutter a few times before popping wide open at the shrill scream of a girl.
Four guys and two girls stand on the deck on the other side of the pool with Justin, all of them talking at once, and all of them ruining my peaceful state.
I'm grateful right now for the privacy my sunglasses offer; I can be a total creep on them without having them realize I'm staring.
I don't recognize anyone, not that I would even if I had known them when I was little and lived out here. Justin's girl from the other day isn't with them, and two of the guys have their tanned, shirtless backs to me. The ones that I can see aren't particularly cute, either. I shrug and hope they aren't going to be too loud, or else me coming down the pool was a bad idea like I'd originally thought it was.
I close my eyes, hoping to get back to that happy place I'd found just a few minutes ago.
But it isn't long before the shouts and splashes and cries of excitement seep into my ears and filter in even with the headphones. I let out a sigh and prop myself up on my elbows.
Two of the guys, both girls and my brother are treading water in the deep end of the pool near the mouth of the rock slide. I'm not sure why they're hanging out in the eight-foot waters or what happened to the others, but I don't want to get caught staring or roped into joining them.
I flip over onto my back so I'm forced to look away and can focus on tuning out the rest of the currently very obnoxious world.
The next thing I know, I feel a light mist covering my back and I whip my head around and almost scream.
Standing above me with a spray bottle of sunscreen is none other than the complete and total jackass from the black pick-up truck my first night in town.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I demand, flipping over, ripping the earbuds out of my ears and instinctively wrapping the towel around my exposed body as tightly as I can.
He blinks twice. "Do I know you?"
"Yeah, you know me," I snap. "You're the asshole who likes to race your car down heavily trafficked roads in the middle of the day."
"Heavily trafficked roads?" He grins and shakes his head. "It's too nice of a summer day for such big words."
I glare at him. "What are you doing in my yard?"
"My dad's yard, whatever," I say, surprising myself at how willing I am to take ownership of this place -- and my father -- right now. "Doesn't change the question."
"I hang out here from time to time when Justin invites me," he says.
"You know him?"
He looks at me like I'm dumb. "Uh, yeah. I'm here all the time, but I've never seen you around. What's up with that?"
"I'm new in town."
He raises an eyebrow.
"And you're here to stay?"
"Something like that."
"Wait," he says, squinting like his mind is working in overdrive. It probably is. "And how do you know Justin again?"
"He's my brother."
The guy blinks rapidly. "You're Justin's sister?"
"She's my little sister," Justin pipes up. He's sitting on the edge of the pool not far from us, legs dangling in the water, clearly listening in to the conversation.
"Dude, I didn't know you had a sister."
I refuse to meet Justin's eyes but I can feel his on me now. "Well, I do. Always have."
"Sweet." The guy turns his attention back to me. "I'm Doan Riley."
I glare at him. "You're still an asshole."
Justin laughs. "You know him?"
"Yeah," I say, keeping my eyes firmly planted on Doan. "Do you?"
It's a pointed question and I'm not sure Justin will pick up on it, but he shoots me a knowing grin.
"That's why I keep him around."
"Interesting judge of character, big bro."
"I didn't say I want to be him, Holls."
"Holls?" Doan looks at me. "That your name?"
"It's Holly," Justin says, and I shoot him a dirty look.
"Anyway," I say. "What the heck is up with the sunscreen?"
Doan glances down at the bottle of lotion in his hand. "Oh, I'm big on sunblock," he says. "My brother got deployed to Iraq and all he ever talked about was how important SPF was out there. I didn't know if you were sleeping and had lotion on your back. It's just a spray bottle. I didn't touch you."
I stare at him for a second, surprised by the softness in his voice. "Oh," I say, taken aback. "Okay. Um, thanks."
"He's not kidding," Justin adds. "Dude's constantly after us to wear sunblock. Katie hates him for it."
Doan looks at me, nods and smiles. "Nothing devious here, I promise."
It still doesn't change what I think about him, but even I have to admit it's nice.
"Got it." I don't know what else to say.
"Okay," Doan says, and I don't miss how awkward this conversation has become since I brought up the sunscreen thing. "You coming swimming with us?"
"Not right now."
"Come on, you should."
I shake my head. "I'm good out here."
He shrugs. "Suit yourself."
I lean against the back of the lawn chair as Doan tosses the sunscreen bottle onto the table and runs for the stairs to the water slide. My sunglasses are back in place and I'm comfortable taking in the scene in front of me again.