Seventeen

After ten minutes, I had once again soundly thrashed Seth at DDR. And the best part was, it wasn't even that hard to do.

The crowd began to chatter about how good I was, but I didn't even react to them. I was on too much of a high. I stumbled off of the platform to retrieve my cardigan and shoes from Christine.

"Why didn't you tell me you were so good?" she cried. "How did you become good, anyways?"

I smiled nervously. "Well, you know, I have a little brother, and he likes video games…"

Surprisingly, my strapless dress had stayed on just fine. Nevertheless, I smoothed the skirt down as I slipped my cardigan and shoes back on. I knew I should hurry and catch Seth before he left. He had a way of appearing and disappearing without warning, and I wasn't about to let that happen.

But I didn't even need to make an effort. He was standing there waiting for me when I turned around. And I won't lie, he looked good. He was wearing a blue button down shirt, a tie, and nicely ironed khakis. His usually unkempt brown hair was brushed back neatly from his face. I suspected his mother's involvement.

"I need to talk to you," I blurted out.

He grinned. "Well, that's good, since I need to talk to you, too. We can kill two birds with one stone."

"Christine and I are going back upstairs," Gen said loudly.

"No, wait!" Christine cried. "Carrie, do you want us to stay? Because we can."

She glared at Seth. He seemed unperturbed.

"It's okay," I said. "I'll come find you later."

"Promise?"

"I promise."

Gen gave Christine some sort of meaningful look. Christine still seemed unconvinced, but she let Gen drag her away. The crowd was already distracted by a new pair of DDR players, so we were free to go.

"Want to go somewhere quieter?" Seth asked.

"Is there anywhere quieter?" I wondered.

He laughed. "Yeah, I think I know a place. Mike's family owns this yacht, so I've been on it before. Let's go."

Then, a thought occurred to me.

"What about Anika?"

"What about her?"

I turned to see the tall girl in blue completely immersed in a conversation with another guy. She was giggling and smiling – obviously flirting. She'd already forgotten all about Seth. I guess Christine hadn't been kidding when she'd said Anika was a serial dater.

"Never mind," I said.

I followed him back to the upper deck. Things were still chaotic. The crowd had only grown since we'd gone downstairs. People were talking, dancing, eating… I could already guess that some of the guests were going to get a little drunk, from the huge line at the bar.

I did a double take when I discovered that the yacht was actually moving, albeit slowly. "Where's the yacht going?"

Seth shrugged. "Just around, I guess. They waited a half an hour for all of the latecomers and then took off. That's part of the whole yacht party thing – taking everyone out on the water."

I just hoped I wasn't going to get seasick. I'd had enough throwing up at parties for one summer.

Seth led me towards the navigation tower, from where the boat was being driven. It turned out there was a door there, which we promptly went through. There was a small staircase inside leading up. I could see several men driving and controlling the boat using a whole array of buttons and wheels.

"Down here."

I turned to see Seth pointed a hidden staircase in the corner. I followed him down to discover a brightly lit room with entirely glass walls. All I could see, left, and right, was sparkling greenish-blue water. Sadly, we were not in the ocean, so there weren't any exotic sea creatures or anything. But it was still way cool.

"Wow," I marveled. "This is amazing."

"I know, right?" Seth said, moving closer to the window. "I came on the yacht last summer for a day with a bunch of the guys. I got lost looking for the bathroom and found this. I ended up staying for an hour. Mike's mom freaked out when I didn't show up to lunch and set off the fire alarm. So I came back out and pretended like nothing had happened. I don't even know if anyone else knows about it."

Only Seth would know weird secrets about other peoples' boats.

"Well, Mike wouldn't be able to appreciate it anyways," I blurted out.

Seth's smile became sort of sad. "Yeah, I know. It's a little depressing how much everyone has changed in the past year, right before we're about to split up and go to college."

I bit my lip. "Well, from what I've seen, Mike's always been like this. But I guess I'm biased."

"No, you're right," Seth replied. "Mike hasn't changed at all. I have."

I gulped. Changed, meaning, I no longer find enjoyment in hitting on you for no reason, Carrie, especially after you rejected me and got a 'boyfriend,' so I'm going to leave you alone forever?

"I used to think Mike being filthy rich was cool," he explained. "When we were kids, all that mattered was that he had the best toys to play with. Or the best video games. But I started to realize that we never actually talked about anything serious. When I wanted to tell someone something – that I was mad, happy, whatever – I wouldn't tell Mike. He wouldn't care. He just wanted people to hang out with. I used to not mind having that sort of friend, but now... Why bother?"

Oh. Completely unrelated to me. I was so self-centered sometimes.

"I always hated going to Mike's house," I admitted. "He never even tried to be friendly to me. He always had friends over during our supposed 'family' events."

"Yeah, I thought it was kind of weird," agreed Seth. "I usually didn't go to those things. But Mike mentioned his cousins would be there that one time, so I thought maybe… I could talk to you again. See if you'd figured out who I was yet."

Seth had come to Mike's house just for me? My cheeks flushed. "Um, about that… Did you really come into Angelo's on a dare?"

"Yeah," he admitted. "But that wasn't the only reason. I was thinking about going for a long time – ever since I found out you worked there – just to see you. I wanted to know how you'd turned out. The dare gave me a good excuse – and the nerve – to go through with it. But that still doesn't excuse anything I did.I am really, truly sorry, Carrie. I never wanted to make you upset. Ever. I'm just an idiot who doesn't know how to handle these things."

I turned an even deeper shade of red. "Well, it isn't totally your fault. Even after you tried to apologize, I ignored you. I didn't want to give in. I don't know why. I guess I was tired of everyone thinking I was some stupid, spineless girl who didn't even think for herself. I didn't want to be manipulated into forgiving you."

An evil smile spread across Seth's face. "Is that where your fake boyfriend came from?"

My blush deepened even further, if that was possible. "You knew he was fake?"

Seth raised his eyebrows. "What, you doubt my great intelligence? When Christine first mentioned him, I was surprised, but later, I concluded he had to be part of some elaborate plot cooked up by her and Gen in order to make me jealous."

I looked at the floor. "Well, it wasn't her idea. It was mine. But it wasn't to make you jealous! I just wanted you and your friends to see that I wasn't a loser who couldn't get any guys. But then Christine told me you were upset, and I thought about everything you'd said before and all of the stuff you'd sent me, and I felt bad. You didn't deserve me lying to you. I knew you really must have been sorry, especially if you read Ella Enchanted for me."

"Well, my sister had a copy," he said nonchalantly. "I didn't think she would miss it for a couple of days."

I took a deep breath. "So I guess what I really wanted to say to you was… I'm really sorry. For lying to you after you tried to apologize. I know you aren't lying anymore. Um. I understand if you're mad at me. But I thought you should know."

Seth laughed. "You think I'm mad at you? Even after I let you beat me at DDR in front of a crowd of people I know from high school, showed you my secret hiding spot on Mike's yacht, and apologized to you profusely in hopes that you wouldn't hate me for the rest of your life?"

I felt like an idiot. Well, of course he wasn't mad at me. I had already sensed that from the moment I'd seen him.

"Well, I didn't mean mad!" I cried suddenly, unable to prevent my word vomit. "I meant… I wasn't sure if you still liked me. Because I think I changed me mind about you."

No, Carrie. No. You did NOT just say that.

Seth's face visibly brightened. "Really?"

"Maybe," I stammered, my face resembling a severely sunburned lobster. "Yeah."

"Well, you know what?" he said, taking a step closer to me. "I forgive you. And I still really, really like you. And right now, I actually really want to kiss you. If that's okay."

"Um…"

I mean, what do you say to that? If you're a loser hoping that the guy you likes will forgive you and show that he still likes you, what more could you ask for? Even if you were sweating buckets and about to have a heart attack-slash-seizure?

"Okay. I mean, it's okay."

I immediately went into totally freak out mode. I thought my heart might explode from pounding so hard. My brain went into some weird, dream-like mode where nothing seemed like it was actually happening. I was in some alternate dimension. But as Seth put his hands around my waist and moved closer to me, I realized it was totally real.

He was about to give me my first real kiss, ever.

"Attention, guests! We will now have a special ceremony on deck. Everyone should report there immediately, especially relatives of Michael."

"Ack!" I cried and involuntarily fell backwards.

The blaring loudspeaker had nearly sent my out-of-control heart over the edge, and now I was sitting on my butt with an equally shocked Seth standing over me. So much for that kiss.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I mumbled. "Sorry."

"Well, I couldn't even catch you," Seth said. "I feel kind of worthless."

"It's not your fault," I said. "I'm just a klutz."

Seth smiled and offered me a hand. "Well, I'm not going to let Michael ruin this moment."

He was still going to kiss me. But now, I had completely lost my nerve. I wasn't ready yet! And everyone would be expecting to see me at the ceremony.

"Um, I have to go upstairs!" I cried in a panic, stumbling to my feet. "My mom will freak out if she doesn't see me."

"Oh, right," Seth said, his face falling. "Mine, too. I guess we don't have a choice. We should go."

I rushed up the stairs before Seth could try and pull anything else. It wasn't like I didn't want to kiss him. Part of me did. But another part of me was absolutely terrified. Maybe Seth's friends were right. I wasn't ready for him. Or for anyone.

We arrived on deck to find that all of the guests had formed a semicircle around the dancing area. Uncle John and Aunt Cheryl stood in the center along with Michael and the rest of my cousins.

"As is a tradition with each Saunders who graduates from high school and heads off to college," Uncle John began melodramatically, "we will send Michael off into his journey to adulthood by symbolically taking a journey on this yacht. And because we all dance through the journey of life, we will now start a new Saunders family tradition – a waltz, first led by Michael and his date, and then involving the rest of his extended family. After several minutes, everyone can join in! All of our children know how to waltz, having gone through etiquette school at a young age, so if you don't know how to, you can just watch them!"

…The heck did all of that mean?

"Michael?" Uncle John said expectantly.

The DJ put on some slow classical music – a waltz, of course. It seemed kind of stupid that an actual orchestra was absent for this moment. Michael reluctantly nodded in response to his father and motioned to someone in the crowd. As his family members dispersed, none other than Laurel emerged from the crowd, covered in makeup, wearing a dress so short it could be a shirt, and glaring at Mike.

Seth snickered next to me.

But lo and behold, Mike and Laurel started waltzing. I was shocked to discover that Mike was actually a reasonably good dancer. Since he was leading, Laurel didn't have to do much. But it was still way weird to watch this. I could sense that a lot of Mike's friends were laughing at him. Well, served him right.

Uncle John and Aunt Cheryl joined in, followed by Lauren and Frank. Elliot had some random girl to dance with, too, and Keely managed to convince her grinding partner of earlier to go in with her. Once he went, everyone else seemed to stop laughing. Even middle schooler Nate found some girl to take with him.

Then, I realized I was expected to join the dancing, too. Like, now. Especially after my Uncle Tom and Aunt Karen started dancing, shortly followed by my own parents. My mom spotted me and gave me a gesture using her head to indicate I should join. Out of familial respect, she would say. Shoot me.

Random aunts, cousins, uncles, and grandparents were joining in. They must have been from Cheryl's side of the family. My paternal grandparents had retired to Aruba a long time ago and had never come back, so they weren't even there. It was supposed to be my turn, right before all of the friends joined in.

I figured it was no big deal if I passed on the whole thing. But then my aunt and uncle whizzed right by me and my aunt mouthed an enthusiastic, 'Come on!'

"Crap," I muttered.

"Shall we dance?" Seth asked dramatically.

"I'm not very good," I warned him.

"And you think I am? I've never danced in my life. Except for the Macarena and the electric slide. And DDR, of course."

Fortunately, I knew how to waltz from my days as a member of the Ballroom Dancing Club in middle school. Hayley and I had been so obsessed with Disney then that we'd sworn to learn to do the same kind of dance they always did in movies like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

I never, ever, thought I would end up doing one of those dances with Seth, of all people.

"Oh, fine," I gave in. "If you don't care about being absolutely humiliated."

"If my reputation-obsessed sister can do it, I can too," he replied.

He led me onto the floor. I tried to get into the rhythm, although this proved difficult since Seth had no idea what he was doing. I took on the 'man' dancing role so I wouldn't have to deal with getting my toes crushed by Seth. In this situation, leading was way easier than following.

At least I was so distracted by helping Seth that I didn't even see if anyone was watching or laughing at me. Ignorance is bliss, as they always say. And I guess focusing on the steps helped me get used to the fact that I was holding one of Seth's hands and was touching his shoulder with the other, not to mention that he was holding me around the waist.

When we finally got into the swing of things, I realized that everyone had joined in. And after the initial jitters, I got so used to being this close to Seth that I didn't even really mind it any more. At least, not too much.

"Am I getting any better?" he asked.

"No," I said. "But, uh, I guess you're making a good effort."

"Carrie!"

Christine had somehow managed to find me in the crowd. She was partners with Evan, who looked like he wanted to throw himself off of the side of the boat.

"How's it going?" she asked me eagerly, shooting a curious glance at Seth.

"Good," I answered. "Uh… How are you?"

"Not very good," she answered. "Evan's a sucky dancer."

"Look who's talking!" Evan cried. "You're not too great either."

"Well, you could've gotten a better partner if you wanted one!" she retorted.

They were a complete and utter mess. They had no idea what they were doing. But heck, half the people in the room were the same way.

"I'm going to watch Carrie so I can get the hang of it!" Christine declared. "I mean, look at Seth! He can't dance, and he's doing way better than us."

"I'm a fast learner," Seth said mysteriously.

"Where's Gen?" I asked.

"She's partners with Sam, and not Jack," Christine said loudly, narrowing her eyes at Evan.

"We have a bet going about Genevieve and Jack," Evan explained tiredly. "I say they'll get back together by the end of the party. Chris thinks they're done for good."

"Loser pays winner twenty five bucks," Christine added. "I'm winning so far. Gen hasn't so much as looked at Jack."

I had to agree with Christine on this one. Gen didn't seem like she was even pining for Jack. Maybe they were really just all wrong for each other. It dawned on me that most of Seth's friends were already growing apart – Mike was more interested in companions than friends, Gen and Jack had broken up, Christine and Gen were mad at most of the boys about what had happened, and then there was Anika, whom Christine had referred to as a 'ditcher.'

I realized a lot of the separation was my fault. Before I'd come into the picture, they'd been one big happy group. At least, on the surface. On the other hand, at least Christine and Gen liked each other now.

"What's wrong?"

Seth's voice pulled me back into the real world.

"Nothing," I said. "Just thinking."

Surprisingly, he didn't ask any more questions. Shortly thereafter, the waltz ended, and we moved to the yacht's side to get out of the crowd. I pushed away from Seth, feeling guilty. Even if his friends were different from him, they were his friends. I didn't want to be the one to take them away from him. The summer before senior year was supposed to be about spending your last moments with your old friends before making some new ones, not about getting a new long distance boyfriend or girlfriend.

And truthfully, I had liked some of Seth's friends, at least during water war and before the whole camping incident. Maybe I had just completely overreacted to that.

"Oh, there you are, Seth!"

Anika had suddenly materialized before us, with an unhappy Tyler in tow. In fact, Seth was the only guy around who didn't seem like he was unhappily being tortured by some woman. I guess Tyler and Anika had been dance partners. Christine had mentioned that Anika had dated both Evan and Tyler before, so it made sense.

"Hey, Anika," Seth said.

"They're putting the normal music back on," she said. "Wanna dance with me?"

"No thanks," said Seth, giving me a knowing look. "I've had enough dancing for one night."

"True that, brother," said Tyler.

Anika looked from Seth to me, and it finally seemed to dawn on her that Seth didn't like her at all. I felt a little bad. I knew how it felt to think someone you liked didn't like you.

"Oh," she said. "Well, that's okay. Can you still give me a ride home later?"

Seth's smile disappeared. "Uh, well, I don't know. I might have to take Laurel, and you know how she is…"

"Yeah, you should take care of your little sis," Tyler piped up suddenly. "I can give you a ride if you need one, An. Or Evan could do it. His mom made him take the minivan, so he has plenty of room!"

It dawned on me that Tyler was helping Seth out. Just like friends should. My guilt only worsened.

Anika's face was frozen and emotionless. But I knew on the inside she must've been upset. I hoped Christine had been right about her serial dating ways; hopefully, she'd become occupied with a new guy soon enough.

"Okay," she said finally. "Thanks. I'm going to get a drink. See you guys later."

When she was gone, Tyler shook his head. "Seth Dunaway, heartbreaker extraordinaire. You're lucky you got one of your heartbreakees to forgive you. Otherwise, you would be all alone right now."

"I didn't mean to make her upset," said a baffled Seth. "Do you think I should go talk to her? I never thought she was serious about me."

"Don't bother, man," said Tyler. "She'll recover. You were just another conquest to her anyways. See, she's already chatting up her next victim."

But it was nice that Seth was worried about Anika. I mean, they had been friends. Friends should be sensitive to each other's feelings. Okay, I was starting to sound like a self-help book. Ew.

"I totally misjudged you, Carrie," Tyler said suddenly. "I only said that stuff at the campfire because I thought you'd never want this big lug here, and clearly, I was wrong. So I apologize for that. I obviously don't know anything and should not be listened to. Are we cool?"

"Um, yeah," I said. "Of course."

It was the second apology of the night. It further confirmed in my mind that Seth's friends weren't all that bad.

"Great," he said. "Well, I'm hungry. I'm going to scope out the buffet. And hide from my mom."

"What do you want to do now?" Seth asked as Tyler wandered off.

I shrugged. "I don't know."

He tilted his head to the side. "You know, I can tell something's wrong, Carrie. You can tell me what it is. I won't get mad or anything."

I didn't say anything at first. I didn't really know how to tell Seth that I felt like he was being forced to choose between me and his friends. It meant that I had already decided that we were going steady or something, and we really hadn't even gotten that far.

"Is it because I tried to kiss you? Because you could have just said no."

"No!" I cried, once again as red as a beet. "I just… I feel like I'm making all of your friends grow apart. Like with me around, you guys can't all hang out together and have fun like you used to. I don't want it to be like that."

"It's not like that at all!" he retorted. "Evan and Tyler like you. They told me so. Tyler just apologized to you."

"But what about Jack, and Gen breaking up with him over me, and Anika?" I cried suddenly, the floodgates known as my eyes bursting open. "Everything happened because of me. I don't want to be one of those annoying girls who forces you to get rid of all of your friends. I mean, you've known them for years, right?"

Then, Seth laughed at me. Yes, simply laughed at me.

"Any issues I had with them had nothing to do with you," he said. "Jack mostly hung out with us because he was friends with Christine; I don't know if she told you, but she used to have a huge thing for him. He befriended us by default, I guess. Then Gen came along and he put all of her attention towards her. They'd been fighting before the trip, and so I think the whole thing with you was just the final straw for her. Now that they're over, he hasn't talked to any of us."

I looked at him skeptically.

"Anika was Chris's friend too," he said. "She's gone out with half the guys in our group, which is why I even know her. We're hardly even real friends. I don't think she and Christine are even real friends anymore. Nothing really changed because of what you did. Some people just change over time. In fact, I'd say everything became more normal."

I sniffled. "Really?"

"Yeah, really," he said, smiling down at me. "I mean, Gen and Christine stopped hating each other, Jack stopped hogging the girls' attention, and Anika's finally gone through all of us guys, so there's no reason for her to stalk us anymore."

I wiped a tear away. "Oh."

"Hey, stop crying. The last thing I want is for you to be upset."

"Sorry," I said, attempting to dry my face. "I know you hate criers, but I did warn you that I'm overly sensitive."

"I hate criers? Since when?"

"Since you said so. At Mike's house. I dropped my book, and you said…"

"You remember that?"

"Yeah," I said. "And then I beat you at DDR."

He nodded slowly. "Oh, yeah. Well, I was probably kidding. I can be a jerk like that sometimes. But you know what? You can cry in front of me as much as you want to, on two conditions."

"Two conditions?" I asked. "What two conditions?"

"One," he began. "I can't be the reason you're crying. And two, I get to make you feel better. Deal?"

I overreacted to everything. I always created problems when there were none. I guess I just wasn't used to things going right.

"Okay," I said, giving a small smile. "Deal."

Seth and I spent the rest of the night going around and talking to everyone else, which made me feel a lot better. Gen and Christine were ecstatic to see that everything had worked out. Evan and Tyler were actually genuinely nice to me, in their own sort of weird boy way. Neither Jack nor Anika appeared distraught for any reason. Seth convinced me to do the electric slide and the Macarena with him. Gen took stalkerish pictures. My scary relatives stayed far away from me. Even my parents gave me some space.

Time flew by, and soon, the yacht was docking. The party was over. My feet ached from wearing high heels, so I was glad to go. But at the same time, it had been a strangely fun night, and I didn't want it to end too quickly.

Seth had to go check in with his parents, so I went to see mine.

"Are you getting a ride with your friends?" my mom asked.

"Yeah," I said, although I evilly let her assume 'friends' meant 'female friends.' Although if she hadn't seen my hanging around with Seth all right, she was kind of an idiot. It had kind of been an unspoken thing that Seth was going to take me home.

"We were invited back to John and Cheryl's house for coffee," my dad said. "It's a family only thing, so we have to put in an appearance. But you don't have to come; it seems like a 'college-age and older' sort of thing."

I sighed with relief. "Okay."

I realized I'd forgotten to congratulate Mike. Oh well. I was sure he wasn't going to lose any sleep over it. My parents left, and soon, Christine and Gen had drifted over.

"I won the bet!" cried an excited Christine, waving twenty-five dollars in my face.

"What she really meant to say was, do you need a ride?" Gen added.

"I think I'm good," I said. "But thanks."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" Christine called as they disembarked.

I waited for Seth by the exit. I saw his parents leaving with his sister.

"I convinced Laurel that she could survive in a car for half an hour with my parents," he informed me, doing one of his 'popping out of nowhere' things. "Ready to go?"

We left the yacht and got into Seth's little blue car – the same site as my unfortunate allergic reaction to garlic, and my journey to the Adirondacks. Yes, that brought back some unpleasant memories.

"So," I said, "you really read Ella Enchanted?"

We proceeded to have an in-depth conversation about the book. Seth didn't like the gnomes because he said they creeped him out. We had a debate about this. I won, being the more experienced reader of the book.

All too soon, we had arrived at my house. There was one car parked in front – the babysitter's. But most of the lights were off; Sammy and Alex were probably asleep. The babysitter was probably watching TV or something.

"Walk you to the door?" Seth offered.

"Okay."

And then we were at the door. I suddenly had déjà vu. This had happened before, almost exactly like this, except I'd been covered in splotches.

"I guess I should go inside so the sitter can leave," I said.

"Yeah," he said. "I'll call you some time this week. We should do something. I'm going to school in a couple of weeks, but not too far away."

School. The very word made me shudder.

"Okay," I said.

"Then I'll see you soon!" he said. "Have a good night."

"You too," I said.

And then he began to walk away.

That was it? I was kind of disappointed. I guess I'd scared Seth out of kissing me when I'd freaked out earlier. But I realized, on the spur of the moment, that I didn't want the night to end like this.

"Hey, Seth! Wait!"

I ran after him, as fast I could in those stupid high heels. I was never wearing them again.

He turned around, concerned. "Yeah?"

I thought to myself, Carrie Saunders, you are an idiot. But there was no backing down now.

"You forgot something."

"What, did I drop my keys?" he asked.

"No," I said, my face burning. "You didn't kiss me goodnight."

Then he smiled that stupidly cute dimply smile of his. "I thought you didn't want me to."

"Well, I changed my mind," I said defensively.

He looked at me incredulously.

"What, I'm not allowed to change my mind?"

"No, that's not it," he said. "I just wish you'd said something earlier."

And then he kissed me.

I won't lie. I was totally freaked out despite also being totally thrilled and ecstatic and happy. I mean, it wasn't one of those epic movie kisses where everything was perfect and fireworks went off and dramatic music sounded from the heavens. I didn't know what I was doing, and it was kind of awkward, and the whole thing was probably less than ten seconds long.

But it was still amazing.

"You know," Seth said when it was over, "I'm glad you changed your mind."

I smiled shyly. "I'm glad you didn't change yours."