I was still in a zombie state the next morning as I ate breakfast. Eric sat across from me at the table, eating his cereal noisily as he flipped through the pages of a magazine. My eyes went to the clock on the stove. 6:54. I couldn't believe I was up this early during summer vacation, but sleep hadn't came easy all night, so once I'd heard Eric up and about, I got up too.
"Ah, the coffee's done." He sprang out of his seat and into the kitchen, too fast for my tired eyes to follow. I swallowed my mouthful of oatmeal and turned to watch him fix himself a cup.
"You drink coffee?" I asked needlessly.
"I'm guessing you have a problem with that."
"It stunts your growth." I sipped from my glass of water, then stirred my oatmeal and took another bite. "No wonder you're so short."
He shrugged and came back to the table. "It gives me less responsibilities."
His eyes narrowed at me from under the brim of his hat. "Don't talk with your mouth full. It's disgusting."
I scrunched my nose at him and he stuck his tongue out at me. It was gross, because he still had bits of cereal stuck to it. I made a face and continued eating.
Through the dining room window, you could see the back deck. Beyond that, there was nothing, and then a stretch of blue that seemed to go on forever. This house overlooked the ocean. I wished someone had told me that before.
"Peter's planning to take you and your mom to the beach," Eric said. I glanced at him, and he raised his eyebrows and began to slurp the milk from his bowl.
"What about you?" I got up to put my empty bowl in the sink. "Aren't you going?"
As I washed out the bowl, I looked at him over my shoulder. "Why not?"
"I've got better things to do." He stepped over to me, his dishes in hand, and nudged me aside. "No, you're doing it wrong. Lemme do it." He tugged the bowl out of my hand.
Okay then. It was his house, after all.
"Thanks," I mumbled after a pause. I lingered a moment, then went over to the window and stared at the horizon. The sun just barely peeked above where the water stopped. It was kind of pretty.
Ginny and I had lived in a tiny apartment, so this was all a pretty big change. But that was fine, because I was up for anything, so long as I had some semblance of control.
"You guys have a really nice place," I said aimlessly, glancing back at Eric, but he wasn't there. The kitchen was empty. His coffee cup was gone, and so was his magazine. He had just ghosted away without telling me.
I shuffled back into my room with a yawn, stretching my arms. I needed to change out of my pajamas and put my face on. My hair straightener was in one of the lost boxes, so I'd have to make do with this god-awful thick hair that must have come from Mr. Mysterious.
I shut my door and tripped over a few things on the floor before reaching my nightstand and switching the light on. What kind of people didn't have overhead lights in their room? It was weird. Peter and Eric were so weird.
Rifling through my clothes that had made the trip, I put together a halfway decent outfit - a graphic T-shirt I'd torn the sleeves off of, and denim cutoffs. I changed into them and then opened the window blinds. They ended up lopsided and I finagled with them for a few minutes before giving up. I settled onto my bed, which quaked, and peered out at the view.
There was water, and rocks, and a seawall far down below. In the distance, there was a house. And that was it. People always talked about how beautiful these kinds of views were, but I just didn't get it. Maybe it just wasn't my aesthetic.
A cool breeze swept through, and I smiled a little. It ruffled my hair and touched my shoulders, caressing bare skin. It was nice for a few moments, and then a shiver rippled through me. I pushed up off the water bed and started looking through the mess I'd made the night before in search of my makeup. After a couple minutes of searching, all I came up with was lip-gloss. It confused me, because I could've sworn I'd packed it all together.
I applied it absently as I scanned my new room for any sign of my eyeliner or foundation. Oh well. Maybe they were folded up in some of my clothes or something.
I quietly opened my door and meandered down the hallway and into the living room, where the television was on. Eric was slouched on the sofa, holding the remote idly in his hands. He regarded me briefly, brow furrowing.
"You're not done, are you?"
I frowned. "What?"
"You're not going out like that."
He sifted air through his teeth and turned his head to the TV again. "No wonder you don't have a boyfriend."
"I had one," I mumbled, straightening the hem of my shirt. I sat down in an overstuffed chair to the side. I'd broken up with my last boyfriend because of the move. I figured it was for the best, because it was pretty casual and I didn't see us being able to maintain anything long distance. We were only in high school, after all.
My eyes hollowly took in whatever was playing on the screen. Some sort of nature program. It was narrated by a man with a deep voice that made the speakers rattle. I pulled up my legs onto the chair and wrapped my arms around them, content on staying there for a while.
A few minutes later, the sound of footsteps floated from the hall, and both Eric and I twisted around to see Ginny emerge.
"Well you're up early," she said to me with a grin. I gave a mild nod. "Do you guys want breakfast?"
Eric didn't answer. His attention was already back on his program, so after a pause, I replied, "We already ate."
"Well, isn't this a sight?" Peter's voice reverberated through the hall, and he appeared at Ginny's side. He looked between Eric and I. "Good morning, you two."
"Morning," I mumbled, forging up a smile to counter Peter's blinding one. It didn't stand a chance.
"Guess what I've got planned for us today." He had his hands clasped in front of him as Ginny slipped into the kitchen.
I chewed on the inside of my lip momentarily. "What?"
"We're going to the beach." He nodded at my lifted brow. "Yes. We're going to spend a nice, relaxing day in the water, soaking up the sun, getting to know one another."
At this, Eric sat up. His arms dangled over the back of the couch. "Yeah, I'm not going."
"Of course you are."
"Yeah, okay." Eric's expression turned blank and he turned around again.
"I don't swim," I said, looking to Peter. He waited intently for me to elaborate, which kind of creeped me out. "I - I just don't," I finished quickly.
"Well that's okay, there's still the beach and the boardwalk."
"You'll find plenty to do, don't your little pretty little head over it," Ginny said from the kitchen. Her voice echoed off the walls.
Peter beamed. "See?"
I wasn't convinced, but I nodded anyway.
It was a little after eight by the time we made it out of the house. Peter insisted that we walked, which was fine with me because after being cramped in the car all the way from the airport last night, the exercise was more than welcomed.
Eric hung a ways back, and I was tempted to do the same, but instead I walked a few steps behind Ginny and Peter. The breeze had calmed since before and the air was warmer. It was nice.
California wasn't so bad. Ginny had lived in LA until a "whim" sent her packing to St. Paul about sixteen years ago. She had been nineteen then, and only days later found out she was pregnant with me.
Needless to say, I'd never met my father. Whenever we talked about him, we referred to him as "Mr. Mysterious". I liked it that way.
"So pretty," Ginny cooed, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the sun as she drank in the scenery. Her other hand was occupied with one of Peter's. They walked hand-in-hand like they'd been doing it forever.
"Just wait until you see the sunset," he said, and I could practically hear the smile on his face. "Now that's something."
"Not as pretty as you, of course."
Oh God, now they were getting cheesy. I snuck a peek at Eric over my shoulder. He was still straggling, listening to his I-pod with his hands shoved into the pockets of his shorts, hat tipped so that I couldn't see much of his face. I scratched my ear and looked ahead again.
It didn't take long to reach the beach area. By then, Ginny and Peter had gone full-blown love-puppies and I was ready to throw up. She began to lay out her huge beach towel as Peter offered to lube her up with sunscreen.
"Take off your sandals, Sadie, the sand's not too hot," she said as she shrugged out of her canary yellow cover-up. She was looking my way, so I gave a vague nod, squinting a little in the sun. After a moment's contemplation, I kicked off my flip-flops and sat at the corner of the towel. I wasn't worried about sunscreen because I already had a good tan from playing soccer all through May and I had the kind of skin that just never seemed to burn.
I glared at the ocean for a bit, as if it would have any effect. The tide came in and washed back out rhythmically. It was kind of annoying, or maybe it was just because I didn't like being so close to the water to begin with. Either way, the sound bothered me some.
Aside from us, there was a handful of people there, with their own beach towels spread and a couple were already in the water. I looked around for Eric once I realized I hadn't seen him in a while, and found him over at one of the little shops further inland at the boardwalk. He was sitting under the shade of an awning, at a picnic table. The thought was appealing, so I started to stand.
"I'm going to go over with Eric," I said, to neither of the goofballs in particular as I gestured aimlessly.
Ginny looked up. Peter was still rubbing the lotion in on her back. "Okay. Have fun, sweetie."
"Yeah." I gave a little wave and slipped back into my sandals and made my way to the row of little stands. Salvation! "You don't like swimming?" I asked as I rounded the table he was at. He was licking the side of his dripping ice cream cone, legs spread into the walkway, ready to trip the unsuspecting.
"Like I said before, I've got something else to do."
I sat down across from him. "Like what?"
"None of your business." He went cross-eyed as he took a bite.
I didn't want to bother him anymore, so we sat in silence for several minutes. I watched people play at the beach; they were just little blurs and shapes of colors from here. Ginny was easy to pick out in her bikini - it matched her wrap.
Eric finished his treat and got up to throw away the trash. When he came back, he decided to talk.
"Why aren't you swimming?" he inquired, brow arched.
I gave a shrug. "Just don't care for it."
"Yeah, but what's the reason?"
"None of your business," I mimicked, in the tone he'd used. He just smirked in return and I propped a hand against my chin as my eyes skimmed over sand and the growing number of figures there. It was getting busy. "So, where are all the cool places here?" I asked, drawing out the word.
"What about here, the beach?" I motioned a bit. "This isn't 'cool'?"
"Not when you're here."
I rolled my eyes. "Then where?"
"No, I don't want to see your mug everywhere I go." His voice had turned from placid to annoyed.
I swiveled around on the bench and sat facing the beach. The water was calmer now, but all the activity in it now made the waves choppy and uneven. The sun was inching its way higher and higher into the sky, and the wind had faded to a whisper. All in all, it was turning into a pretty nice day.
Coming to the beach like this? I could definitely get used to it. So long as I didn't have to go in the water, I'd be fine. Considering this was California, I knew it was a tall order, but I wasn't one to back down.
I continued watching the scene play out for a while until a pot-bellied man wearing a Speedo walked by at a languid pace. He made eye contact with me and offered a quick smile. I tried to return it quickly before snapping around in my seat. My mouth curled a little and I looked to Eric, but... but he wasn't there. He was gone again. Vanished. My fingers absently gripped the edge of the table as I peered around for him.
Okay, that was really annoying.
Five minutes went by and he never showed, so I figured he probably was back at the beach. I slouched back to where we'd set up earlier, only to find Ginny and Peter weren't there. I wandered around a bit before spotting them. They'd moved camp closer to the water.
Ginny was lounging back with her sunglasses on, bathing in the sun. Peter was sprawled beside her on his stomach. His back looked burnt. I considered telling him, but he probably already knew.
"Hey," I said lamely as I reached them.
Ginny looked up at me and smiled. "Having fun?"
"Yeah, I guess." I considered my next words, because I didn't want to freak her out. "I think I lost Eric."
She put a hand to her sunglasses, lingered, and then pushed them up on her head. "You lost him?"
"He does that sometimes," Peter spoke up, his voice muffled again the towel. He turned his head some and smiled at me. "He'll come around sooner or later."
"Have a seat, sweetie." She patted the area on the towel beside her.
"I think I'll sit on the sand," I mumbled, spotting the damp patches on the fabric. She nodded. Sitting down cross-legged, I leaned back a little with my hands propped behind me, letting the sun hit my face, neck, and shoulders.
Sounds of other people chatting and playing floated around my ears, drifting in and out; white noise. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the consequences if it turned out Eric had been kidnapped or something. Instead, I intentionally drove my thoughts to something else. My mind searched. It came up with nothing, so I began to compile a mental list of what I had to do when we got back home. Unpack was the first priority. And then I wanted to call a few friends from back home. Well, the old home. And then... well, then I would probably be dead tired. It'd be late by the time I finished all that, anyway. I kind of hoped Peter didn't have any other plans for the day.
"Are you sure you don't want to swim?" Peter asked suddenly. My eyes snapped open and I sat forward.
"Yeah, that's okay."
"She doesn't have to if she doesn't want to," Ginny said. She shot me a smile and I returned it.
Peter started to sit up. "Well there's a basketball court down the boardwalk, if you're looking for something to do."
Ginny nudged me with her elbow. "That's perfect for you."
"I don't have a ball," I reminded her.
"You don't need one," said Peter. "There's probably a game already going on. Everyone's friendly here. They'll let you join."
His optimistic words piqued my interest a little, although I figured he was probably optimistic about everything.
Ginny gave me another urging nudge. "Go ahead. Have fun."
I picked at a loose thread from the hem of my shirt. "You think?"
"Yes. Now go."
I got to my feet and she slapped me on the butt. I gave her a look but she just smirked and pulled her sunglasses down again, and I set off to find the basketball court. The boardwalk was packed with people now and I worked my way through them slowly. I wondered where Eric had run off to. Weird kid.
After a few minutes, I came to an out of place strip of patchy grass that bordered a large asphalt court with two sets of hoops set up. It was empty. I paced around it for a while for no real reason like an idiot, until I noticed a trash bin with a few basketballs in it. I dug around, curious, and found that it was completely filled with them. They were far from new - their orange was faded and some of the black had worn away. I grabbed one and weighed it in my hands, then dribbled it once and caught it. Well it bounced fine, so... Backing up a few paces, I glanced around. Nobody was coming this way, they were just passing by, caught up in their own worlds. It looked like the balls were for communal use, so why not?
I bounced it a few more times and the sound of it hitting tarmac echoed. I took a couple more steps back and made a jump shot. The ball breezed through the net, clearing it, and I dribbled it half-heartedly as I surveyed the area again to make sure nobody else was waiting to use this space.
The next half hour was spent attempting different shots and chasing after the ball whenever I missed the backboard entirely, which only happened when I got tripped in my flip-flops as I was shooting. There were no painted lines, but it didn't matter to me, because I knew a basketball court like the back of my hand. And in all that time, no one came by, so I was starting to get comfortable. This also meant that I didn't care if I looked like an idiot, which is why I found myself at little past center court, spinning the ball in my hands. It rotated once, twice, and then I closed my fingers over it. My eyes went to the net. I'd never been able to make this shot before, but somehow a lot of my friends back home had each managed to once in their lives, through dumb luck.
I turned around, biting my lip momentarily, and then hurled the ball up and over my head and listened carefully. I waited for any sound that would hint if I'd been even close, but the murmurs of the other beach-goers drowned out any sound. Sighing, I faced the hoop again and immediately froze.
A guy around my age stood at the edge of the court, ball in hand. He regarded me with a blank expression.
"That was dumb," he said simply.
I absently scratched at my arm. Did I hit him? Did he catch it? If he caught it, then damn! It wasn't even close to the hoop. Instead of voicing any of those concerns aloud, I picked a new one. "Oh - sorry. Is that your ball?" I asked hesitantly.
"No, I meant the shot was dumb."
Yeah, there was no arguing there. I gave a sheepish smile and indicated the ball. "How about some one-on-one?"
Amusement laced his features, and something quirked at the edge of his lips. I would've bet money that he was going to smile, but instead his expression turned placid. "How about no?" He threw the ball back to me and I caught it with a grunt.
The fact that he didn't immediately turn on his heel and walk away encouraged me. "Do you have somewhere else to be?" I asked, propping the ball against my hip.
The sun was in my eyes now and so I raised a hand to my forward, to block it. "Then why not?"
"It wouldn't be fair. I'm taller than you," was his abrupt reply.
Well no shit he was taller than me, he was a boy after all. My brow cinched and I regarded him a bit skeptically now. "That's fine," I said, letting off a shrug. "I'm probably faster than you, so we'd be even."
He looked towards the beach, towards the horizon, as if it had been talking to him. He was probably the same height as Peter, I figured, taking the moment to size him up. Six foot, or maybe a smidge under. He had brown hair, but it was blond in some places in a way that told me he'd spent a lot of time in the sun and not in front of the mirror.
"Sure," he said after a moment, looking to me again. I couldn't suppress the expression of surprise that claimed my features. Did he really just say yes? "Whoever reaches eleven points first wins."
Piece of cake. I smiled as he stepped onto the court, sneakers scuffing against asphalt. I kicked off my flip-flops and tossed them to the edge of the grass; if I left them on, they'd just turn into a problem, and I couldn't lose now that I'd made a big deal about it.
"Do you usually play here?" I asked him, returning to center court, ball in hand. He gave a mild nod. "How about free-throw shots to decide who starts with the ball?" I suggested, rolling up the ragged sleeves of my shirt, each in turn. He gave a nod and took a few steps back, giving me room to line up my shot. I dribbled once, glanced up at the hoop, then another dribble. There wasn't much preparation needed. I'd played basketball for my school's team since sixth grade. A shot like this was as easy as walking.
I forewent squaring up and simply lobbed the ball towards the net with a flick of the rest, my feet leaving the warm ground for only a fraction of a second. The result seemed a foregone conclusion, but I watched anyway. And that's where things got ugly.
The bottom of the ball just barely caught the rim and it was enough to stop it from going in. It ran along the faded orange metal for a moment, then dropped off and fell to the ground with a hollow bounce.
I froze. Did that... really just happen?
"Well that was easy," he said in a humored tone as he caught the ball before it rolled off the court.
I sent him a sour look and stopped myself from saying anything smartass. I hardly ever missed free-throws, but he didn't know that, and so saying it would make me sound even more like a fool than I already felt. "I guess it's your ball," I said, sifting air through my teeth. Beginning to stretch my legs, focusing my attention on the asphalt, I stopped when I spotted one of his sneakers just inches away from my foot. I looked up.
"Here." He handed me the ball, and I just stupidly looked back at him.
"But - "
"Winner of the free-throw gets to decide who has the ball," he replied simply. "They don't actually have to take possession of it."
With a slow nod, I took the ball from him, then shot him a cheeky look. "Such a gentleman."
"Just trying to keep things balanced." His words earned a double-take from me, but he was oblivious to it as he walked away. "Half-court?"
I nodded and joined him at the area where the center circle would be, had it been marked. "Winner's out?"
"Of course." There was an almost whining insistence to my tone that I hoped he didn't catch. The expression on his face told me he did. I ignored it and turned to face the hoop, quickly trying to devise a plan of attack.
He stood in front of me in an unhurried way, the lack of expectation practically screaming from his closed mouth. "Anytime you're ready," he said after a few moments, eyes on the stagnant ball in my hands.
And that was just what I'd been hoping for. When he'd spoken, he'd relaxed his stance, and I used the opportunity to dribble and skirt around him, past him, and drove towards the three-point line. Stopping, I wasted no time and shot. This time, it arced perfectly through the air, kissed the backboard and dropped down through the net, just the way I'd imagined it. I grinned, and when he glanced at me, I skipped ahead and retrieved the ball.
"That's one point," I said, brushing some dirt off the ball. We made back to center court and I started with the ball again. I couldn't try the same trick again, and so I spent a few moments one-hopping the ball from one hand to the other, trying to figure out which direction to feint him. My thinking cost me, though, as he tipped the ball from my grasp, turned on a time, and made a drive towards the basket. By the time the ball left his fingers, I'd caught up to him, but by then, it was too late. The ball floated through the air and fell through the hoop. He was quick to retrieve it and I tried to hide the disappointment from my face as we returned to middle court.
He started with the ball this time, and I did my best to block, but after a series of zig-zags, he momentarily lost me, and it took me a moment to recover. He shot from the free-throw line and I cut around his side and jumped to block the shot, but he'd jumped too, and the ball sailed high over my fingertips and into the net. It passed through soundlessly and after landing, slowly started rolling towards my sandals.
A sigh of frustration escaped from my lips and he caught the look of aggravation I'd been unable to keep off my face as he went after the ball. Flushed and breathing heavily now, I rubbed the back of my arm against my forehead and pulled the edges of my cut-offs away from my legs, where they were starting to stick.
The next ten minutes flew by, and he racked up the rest of the eleven points with ease. I'd managed another three, but doing so had tired me out and I trudged back over to my flip-flops with legs of lead. I slipped the shoes on slowly, glancing over my shoulder to see if the guy was still around. I kind of thought he'd just disappear the moment my back was turned, but no, he was still standing near center court, spinning the ball on his finger.
"Rematch tomorrow?" I asked, brushing my hair away from my neck and jaw, where it'd stuck. It was probably safe to say I looked like a mess.
"What?" He definitely looked better for wear, but it wasn't as if the game hadn't taxed him at all. He was just good at hiding it, which wasn't necessary, but it was something you did to make your opponent look even worse than they already did. God, I only knew this guy for ten minutes and he was already finding ways to get under my skin. "If you're interested in a date, you can just say so."
"If I was, I would," I replied, slightly miffed at the notion. My tone was sharper than I'd meant. "I want to win, that's all."
"But I already beat you, fair and square." He wiped his forehead with the edge of his shirt. "Why would I agree to a rematch?"
Resisting the urge to cross my arms, I left them at my sides and kept his steady eye contact. "Because I won't take no for an answer."
His brow raised and there was that same amused expression as before. "That's some ego you've got."
"There's nothing wrong with having pride."
He tossed the ball to me, and I caught it. "Pride?" he repeated the word, his eyes slowly finding mine again. They seemed livelier. A slow grin came over his lips. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."
Smiling back, I nodded. "Same time?"
"Sure." And with that, he walked away, across the tarmac, the patchy grass, and onto the boardwalk, where others still milled about. During the game, I'd completely forgotten we weren't alone. I watched his retreating form, until he stopped abruptly, and tossed over his shoulder, "Tell Eric I said hi."
"Uh - " I blinked, then gave a fervent nod. "Okay." How did he know Eric? They had to be at least two years apart.
I kept on watching until he was well out of sight, replaying our match in my head, trying to figure out what kind of screw-ups I'd made to get smoked like that. And then, that's when something occurred to me:
I hadn't gotten his name.