Authors: Gae Polisner
To my extraordinary parents, Stu and Ginger.
To David and my boys, Sam and Holden.
And, to the two best friends a teenage girl could have had: my sister, Paige, who is still my best friend, and Jennifer Hamlet, who is still my heart.
It's not even noon in not even July, yet already the sun bakes down hot and steady, making the air waffle like an oily mirage.
Lisette walks ahead of me, her blond ponytail bobbing happily, the stray strands lit gold by the sunshine that spills down through the fresh green canopy of leaves. Bradley holds tight to her hand, ducks to avoid the low-hanging branches. Prickles of sweat appear between his shoulder bladesâdark gray spots against the pale blue cotton of his T-shirt that mesmerize me.
I shift my gaze to my spring green, no-lace Converse sneakers, wondering for the millionth time what it would feel like to have my hand in his.
As if he reads my thoughts, he turns for a second and smiles. My heart somersaults. I shouldn't feel this way about Lisette's boyfriend.
I duck my head and keep walking.
The path winds to the right. Lisette leans against Bradley into the curve, her shoulder bumping his, and he wraps his arm around her. I slow my pace and stare up through the sunny trees.
I hate summer to begin with, and it looks like I'm going to spend this one being a third wheel.
We reach the clearing that opens to Damson Ridge. Less than a minute from here to Lisette's house. Another five minutes to mine.
Lisette and I have made this trek from high school to home hundreds of times together, but today it feels different, at this hour, with Bradley Stephenson along.
We're out early for lunch in between final exams, this afternoon's test our last ever of tenth grade. Bradley's a junior, so he finished a few days ago. He's just being chivalrous walking Lisette home.
“Come on, Frankie!” She turns, still walking. “We need to hurry. We have, like, what, an hour?” But Bradley stops, sidetracked, at the edge of the path. “Are you kidding, Nature Boy?” she says. “You are so totally goofy.”
I stop, too, so I don't catch up to them.
“What?” He holds out a leafy stalk he's pulled up by the roots. “It's sassafras.” Lisette shakes her head and rolls her eyes, even as my heart melts. I love sassafras. My dad and I used to pick it from the fields by the elementary school, back when we did that sort of thing. “Suit yourself,” he says, wiping the stem with the inside corner of his T-shirt and slipping it in his mouth. “Tastes like root beer.”
“Ew, come on.” Lisette pulls his arm. “I kiss those lips, you know. And, anyway, you may be done, but Frankie and I really need to eat something and get back to school. I hear Shaw's final is crazy. We need sustenance. And I don't mean root beer sticks.” She veers off the path toward her street and walks backward to face me. “You coming to my house, Francesca?”
“Nah, it's hot. I think I'll go home and change.”
“You sure? It's fine by me.” It's Bradley who says this, not Lisette.
“Yes, but thanks.” I flip a wave and keep walking.
“Okay, see you back at school,” Lisette calls. “Just one more to go, Frankie, and then we're free as birds for the summer!” She blows me a kiss before skipping away with Bradley.
I watch them disappear, my heart filled with longing, my life feeling anything but free.
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When I'm about to turn onto our street, I perk up. Dad's car heads toward me. His silver-gray Jeep Grand Cherokee with the sunroof and the tinted windows. He shouldn't be home. He should be at work selling houses. I guess he had no clients this afternoon.
I smile and hold up my hand to wave, but the car turns right at the prior block instead of making the left onto ours.
I figure he spaced or something, so I wait, but his car never comes back around.
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When I reach home, our driveway's empty. I must have been mistaken. Dad's still at work then, and Mom's where she always is: at her desk at the Drowning Foundation.
Fine. The Simon A. Schnell Foundation for the Prevention of Blah, Blah, Blah and Whatever.
After nearly four years, I still don't get how she spends her life there. I know she thinks it somehow “gives it all purpose,” but the place only makes me feel worse about things.
I stop on the stoop, kiss my fingers, and touch them to Simon's stone frog. Inside, I make a lame cheese and mayo sandwich and stand at the kitchen window, eating.
As I'm about to head upstairs to change, Mrs. Merrill appears in her window across the street through the slats of her venetian blinds. They're parted just enough to make her out, though not clearly or completely. She moves to the center of the room, seems to talk on a phone, then walks to the window, presses a few slats down, and peers out.
I duck from view. I know I'm nosy, but I'm fascinated by the little I've seen of Mrs. Merrill since she moved in the summer that Simon died.
Dad was actually the broker who sold her the house, but Mom and I were never formally introduced. It's not like we were feeling too neighborly those days, and over the years, I guess, not that much had changed. Still, I've watched her working in her garden, taken by how pretty she is, but in a sophisticated, confident way like Angelina Jolie, not a pale, fragile way, like my mother.
Mrs. Merrill lets the blinds slip back and leaves the room, so I rinse my dish and turn to go upstairs, but she reappears a second later, walking quickly past the window. This time, she's not alone, but with a manâtall, dark hair, broad shouldersâwho looks awfully like my father.
My heart stops, but in fairness, it's hard to make out much through the blinds.
I tell myself to chill, but my eyes dart back to our empty driveway, and my mind to the car I saw go by a few minutes ago. Did Dad park on the next street over and sneak in through her backyard?
I look at the window again, but Mrs. Merrill and the man are gone.
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As I walk back to school, I try to shrug it off. Why would it be my father? If it was my father, and he needed something from Mrs. Merrill, he would have parked in our driveway and walked across the street. Plus, he barely knows her. Why would he park somewhere else and sneak into her house in the middle of a weekday afternoon?
I know the obvious answer even if I don't want to, and all through Mrs. Shaw's English Honors final, questions circulate in my brain.
Dad has been acting funny lately, hasn't he? Too cheerful. But, of course, he's like that anywayâthe only person in our family who is. But this is more than that. He seems unusually happy.
I try to keep my focus on my one remaining essay question about Homer and his poems, but it drifts to the poster on Mrs. Shaw's far wall. It's a scene from The Odyssey, which we read with The Iliad midyear.
The poster shows an old-fashioned illustration of Odysseus tied high on his ship's mast, a dark-haired siren trying to lure him with her song. In the poem, the sirens live on a magical island. Their song is enchanting but deadly, because the sailors who follow the music are led to dangerous, raging waters, where they die upon jagged rocks. Odysseus knows this, but he wants to hear them sing, so he orders his sailors to bind him there, while filling their own ears with wax.
On the poster, Odysseus strains against the ropes as the dark-haired siren reaches for him. A siren who looks uncannily like Mrs. Merrill.
What if it was my father in Mrs. Merrill's house? If it was him, don't I need to know?
If it was him, and I don't put a stop to it, there will be no hope left for my parents. I'm not naive. My parents' marriage has been teetering on the verge of destruction for years. They fight or, worse, they don't talk at all. It's not Dad's fault. Mom isn't herself anymore, and hasn't been one bit since Simon died.
Still, she's my mother, and she needs him.
She can't take more destruction.
She can't take one more person she loves being swept out to sea.
I sit up and adjust my bikini top, trying to stretch it across the spots it barely covers. It's snug only because it's one of Lisette's old hand-me-downs, and not for better reasons. She lent it to me last spring for a school car wash, and I grabbed what I could this morning. It's not like I own a fresh supply of bathing suits.
I yank the strings around my neck for maximum boost and retie them, my eyes shifting to where Peter Pintero towers like King of Summer atop his Hamlet Dunes Country Club lifeguard throne.
We're not members, at least not anymore, but I bribed my way in through Peter. He's in Bradley's grade, and I've seen him around, but other than that, I don't know much about him.
His eyes catch mine, and he squints at me funny, like he wants to know what the heck I'm doing here.
Well, it's none of his business what I'm doing here.
Besides, I'm not sure I even know.
I flip onto my stomach, with my head at the bottom and my feet where my head was before. Like this, I have a better view of Mrs. Merrill.
Lured by a siren to the pool.
She lies on a corner chaise on the far side of the deck, a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over her face. She hasn't moved in nearly a half hour. It was stupid to come here in the first place. I'd raced over without thinking after what had happened this morning with Dad.
I'd slept late again. I didn't have much on my agenda. With Lisette constantly busy with Bradley, I had no good reason to get up. For her, summer would clearly be fun, but for me, this summer would be what they always were: long, hot days that bore down, a constant reminder of the pure white absence of my brother.
An absence I am responsible for.
I went down to the kitchen before eleven. Mom was long gone to the Foundation. Surprisingly, though, Dad was still home, standing at the counter drinking coffee. Dressed not for work in slacks and a button-down, but for a day of leisure, in khaki shorts, an orange polo shirt, and deck shoes. He should have left hours ago.
“No work today?”
“Yes, work.” He sipped his coffee thoughtfully. “But no showings, so I thought I'd take it easy today.” He ruffled my hair like I was twelve, then stared plainly across to Mrs. Merrill's house. Panic tightened my chest. “How about you?” he finally asked. “Any plans today?”
I mumbled something about hanging out with Lisette, even though I knew it wasn't true. I guessed I wasn't the only one lying. My dad never went in late, and never in deck shoes and shorts.
Dad put his mug in the sink and gave me a kiss good-bye. I watched him go. Other than Lisette, he was the only good thing I had left. If I lost him, if he left Momâusâlife would be unbearable.
As he backed his Jeep down the driveway, the knot that had taken up residence in the pit of my stomach last week when I thought I saw him with Mrs. Merrill twisted tighter. Something was definitely off.
I was about to call Lisette so she could tell me I was being ridiculous, but before I could, I saw Mrs. Merrill rush out her front door in a macramÃ© cover-up, high-heeled sandals, and a straw sun hat, carrying a tote bag. She got in her car and sped off in the same direction as my father.
Odysseus's siren raced through my brain, which then went immediately to the country club. I mean, she wouldn't wear heels to the beach.
I ran upstairs, pulled on Lisette's old bikini, a pair of shorts, and a T-shirt, and shoved a five-dollar bill in my pocket. Of course, even if I was right and Mrs. Merrill was headed there, that didn't mean Dad was, too. Still, he had left, and she had left right after him, both of them dressed for a country club.
I had race-walked all the way to the club, the whole time telling myself how dumb I was being, even when I saw Mrs. Merrill's car parked up front in the lot. I scanned frantically for Dad's Jeep but didn't see it. Then again, he could have parked elsewhere.
I walked around the side of the club toward the back gate, my hands squeezing the sweaty bill I had grabbed before I left.
If my dad was doing what I was worried he was doing, would he really dare to do it here in broad daylight?
Still, I needed to be sure.
And, at the gate, for a mere five dollars, Peter Pintero had let me in.
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Across the pool, Mrs. Merrill sits up. I put my head down fast, my nose pressed against the warm plastic of the chaise, but I'm pretty sure I'm mostly hidden by the tables and umbrellas. I breathe for a moment before lifting up a little to see.
She slides the straw bag from under her chair, the dim chime of her cell phone growing louder as she fishes it out and holds it to her ear. She nods and talks, all the while glancing over at the big, round clock on the clubhouse wall.
Eleven forty-five a.m.
She puts the phone away and stares off at the row of cabanas across from the back entrance to the club.
Is she waiting for someone?
After another minute, she lies back down and pulls her hat over her face again.
I look back up to where Peter sits. From this angle, I can't see past the white, crisscross rungs of his chair. Just as well. He's a jerk. We both know if Lisette had been with me, he'd have let me in for free.
I let my gaze fall to the pool, to its calm, deceptive surface. I feel oddly drawn to it. It's been four years since I've stepped foot in a pool or the ocean. Why do I suddenly long to go in?
I bolt upright in time to see Peter's feet, then legs, then whole self come skittering off the lifeguard chair toward the ground.
“What? I . . . ” But he's not yelling at me, rather at a small blond boyânot much more than three years oldâwho runs, arms raised, toward the deep end of the pool.
“Frankie, don't you dare! Do not do it, you hear?” But it's too late. The boy laughs and dives, disappearing headfirst under the water.
I jump up from my seat and race to the pool's edge, pulse pounding.
For a few seconds, I watch dumbfounded as the boy glides gracefully near the surface. Then he gasps, drawing a mouthful of water, and sinks promptly toward the bottom like a stone.