Page 17


I smirked. “C’mon now—the trailers in my neck of the woods may look the same, but they can be told apart by their distinctive landscaping designs. The Echols’ place has that big cactus out front. The Olneys have that dead tree with a couple dozen birdhouses hanging from the branches. And of course, the Thompson house has that pool and snack bar.”
Stopping in the doorway, she glanced at my darkened neighborhood and then turned back, head angled and giving me a narrow-eyed look like I was pulling her leg and she knew it.
I took her arm and turned her, pointing. “See that discarded bathtub and commode next to their driveway? When we were kids, Mrs. Thompson filled the john with dirt and grew strawberries in it. Summers, we’d pull the garden hose over to that tub and fill it with water—it had a slow leak from a crack in the porcelain so we left the hose on a slow trickle—and we’d take turns swimmin’.”
She laughed and so did I. A lot of my life had been crap. It would be easy to look back and only see the asstastic parts, but I couldn’t look at Pearl’s face or hear her husky little laugh and do that. I’d had a superhero for a brother. I’d had neighborhood friends, a beach in walking distance, a best friend I hadn’t deserved but got anyway, and memories of this girl that I’d take to my grave. I’d survived my dad, and whether he meant to or not, he’d taught me a skill and left me with the ability to make a living from it. All in all, I was a lucky son of a bitch.
The thought of Boyce and Rick “swimming” in that discarded bathtub—and eating strawberries out of a toilet!—should have been the saddest thing I’d ever heard, but I couldn’t stop laughing and he didn’t seem to mind. Unlike just about everyone else in my circle of friends, Boyce Wynn had no qualms about being blatantly inappropriate and ridiculing himself for it.
He shut the door behind me and walked into the trailer’s kitchen, gesturing for me to follow. The refrigerator door rattled when he pulled it open. “Beer?” he asked, and I nodded, picturing him growing up here in this ramshackle trailer with his abusive father. What he must have endured. Popping the tops off two Shiner bottles, he said, “So, you’re home for the summer. Boyfriend visiting this year?”
His expression was almost neutral, but I knew him too well, and he hadn’t exactly curbed his opinion of Mitchell when I’d asked for it last summer. He also hadn’t been far off base.
Boyce and I hadn’t talked or texted during the four years I was away at school unless I was home for a weekend or during semester breaks. His actions—or lack of them, I suppose—had confused and hurt me at first, when I’d text him and get a word or two in response. Or nothing at all. I was lonely and homesick, and for some reason, he was home to me in a way that no one else was. Maybe because he’d remained here when Melody and most of my other friends dispersed to colleges all over the country.
We hadn’t spoken since winter break, when I told him I’d been accepted into the doctoral program in marine biology. When he’d sized up my cowardice in one glance and guessed that I wasn’t going to do it. When he’d said the thing about being afraid to live my life, delivered in the candid method I knew to expect from Boyce—no sugarcoating, no sidestepping politeness. I hadn’t wanted that to be true, so hearing him say it kind of pissed me off.
Truth spoken out loud like that has a way of niggling at you from the inside, nudging your heart, tugging at your soul, lighting your mind with possibilities and sinking your gut with the risks behind them. Truth knows how to say I dare you and make you take notice, even if you’d rather disown it and remain insulated and safe.
That conversation had occurred before the ugly breakup with Mitchell.
“No. We, uh, broke up. A few months ago.”
He blinked, still trying to pull his mask of indifference into place. Boyce was thoroughly capable of disconnecting emotionally. For years I’d watched him go cold with authority figures and peers and other girls, like he was insensitive to other people’s rants or disappointments. No matter how scared or angry or dejected a normal person would have been, unless he was in the mood to punch somebody, he’d just shrug it off. I knew that ability must have been acquired in ways I probably wouldn’t be able to handle the details of. He was never completely detached with me, though. Not when we were standing this close. He was a confusing mosaic of moods when it came to me, but never detached.
“Oh?” he said, his eyes glinting with something more than simple curiosity.
Sighing, I shrugged and took the beer. “Yeah. He wasn’t too keen on my decision not to go to Vanderbilt with him.”
The bottle in his hand paused halfway to his mouth. “You’re going somewhere else, then?”
I nodded. “I’m going into the doctoral program here. The one I told you about before?”
“Marine biology, instead of med school.”
Five months had passed since I’d told him that, but he’d remembered. Immediately. “Yeah.”
“So you’re staying here. Not just for the summer.”
“The first two long semesters are on the main campus, and there will be some travel to different dive sites over the following few years to build my general knowledge base and then gradually work toward my dissertation focus. But the program is based here, so a year from now, I’ll be here full time.”
“Cool.” He took a swallow and cleared his throat, staring at his haphazardly tied work boots. “That’s really cool.”
I stared at his hands—big, strong, dusted with light hairs, a few scars, and more recent scrapes likely due to his work. He’d grown out of fistfights. I had no idea where he stood on dating or relationships—whether there was a current girlfriend or a regular hookup or a series of them. He’d grown out of being talkative about that too. I wondered if he’d grown out of his desire for me. It had appeared when I’d given up on it and became a kind of game—he flirted and sweet-talked and stared, one brow cocked, shameless. I demurred, silently, as if both of us knew it would never happen, all the time wanting more. Ridiculously more.
By my second week of high school, I’d been absorbed into a new social circle—one I suspected had allowed me entrance based wholly on my new lifestyle and appearance. Not that I particularly cared. The worries about my few former friends—most of whom didn’t even recognize me when we passed in the hall or when I sat down a row over in class—faded. I was no longer Pearl Torres, daughter of a Mexican immigrant single mother. I was Pearl Frank, stepdaughter of an established town surgeon. I didn’t forget who I was, but it seemed like no one else—my mother included, sometimes—remembered.