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I sat next to Principal Ingram, waiting to deliver my inane valedictorian address to my forty-two classmates, their families and friends. Boyce sat in the audience, not-so-covertly texting or playing a game on his phone. Swinging my eyes away from him to avoid glaring while facing all those people, I spotted Mama, who was snapping dozens of photos of me, her lipstick-perfect smile wide beneath a black Nikon worthy of a professional photographer. I was graduating at the top of my class, with a full scholarship to the best university in the state, and her maternal pride was as insuppressible as it was embarrassing.
Thomas sat next to her wearing his crooked smile. He’d taken me aside that morning after Mama made me try on four different pairs of earrings, two necklaces (including her pearls, to which I put my foot down), and I don’t even remember how many pairs of shoes (all-important, she explained, because they would be the only part of my ensemble showing beneath the royal-blue commencement gown).
“I know the spotlight is awkward for you, Pearl,” he said. “But she’s been waiting for this day all your life. You might as well grin and bear it.”
Awkward was an understatement. I hated public speaking like nothing else. I would’ve faked a fever to get out of it, but my doctor-stepfather would have seen right through a feigned illness. I’d been screwed into near-perfect high school attendance; my only absences had been due to that bout of mono sophomore year.
I’d planned to resist looking at Boyce at all once I stood to give my speech, but that intention lasted about a minute. I wanted to know if he would watch me. Maybe because the things about me that everyone saw—my intellect, my potential—weren’t what Boyce saw. Boyce saw me. He sensed my mushy center. He seemed to somehow know the body I was too self-conscious to show off, as if he could see right through my clothes. He stared at my lips like he wanted another taste of them. Like he might devour me, given the chance. Lord knows I didn’t need to dwell on that while attempting to enunciate clearly for ten minutes straight.
On accident, I glanced Boyce’s way to find his attention was pinned on me instead of his phone. My cheeks warmed and then my neck, as if caught beneath that spotlight Thomas had mentioned. I fought the temptation to fan my face with the index cards in my hand. My voice warbled, and I had to clear my throat. “Sorry,” I murmured, soldiering on with the hollow we will make the world a better place section of my speech, cheerfully insisted upon by Ms. Ingram.
And then—Boyce winked at me. If I hadn’t been marking my place with my finger, I’d have lost track of what I was saying completely. That wink shot straight through me, scrambling my insides and giving them all a solid yank. The hundred-degree stare that followed said he wasn’t mocking me—he was sending me a signal. A dare, even. I shifted my gaze away from him, phony smile fixed in place while scanning the audience, unable to distinguish one face from another. Though it took monumental effort, I forced myself not to look at him again.
As I finished (thank God thank God thank God) and turned back to my chair, everyone cheered—more for the fact that the ceremony was nearly over than anything I’d said. But none of that touched me, because Boyce Wynn had, with a solitary wink, issued a dare. And I had resolved to take it.
Chapter Nine
I’d returned to that sandbar a few times, alone—to the far side, less visible from the two-story houses lining the channel and man-made canals where Pearl lived. A few of our classmates had lived in her neighborhood. Jackholes like Eddie Standish, and decent guys like Joey Kinley, who hadn’t thought he was the shit because his parents were loaded. My buddy Lucas Maxfield—he’d gone by Landon back then—had grown up in private schools, wearing name-brand threads. I reckoned he’d have been like Kinley.
In the middle of eighth grade, a few months before Brent died, Maxfield and his dad moved to town, bunking with his granddad just down the beach in a wooden-shack version of our trailer. They chartered fishing trips in the bay and the gulf, something it seemed like half the old guys in this town did—the half who hadn’t retired here with piles of money. His dad still lived in that old house, running tours. He’d started bringing his truck in for service once I took over the garage.
After high school, Maxfield had gone off to college—same one as Pearl, though he said the student body there was bigger than our whole town and then some, so he didn’t run into her often. She’d probably been smack-dab in the middle of coed social life—frat parties and the like (which I couldn’t let my mind linger on)—while I was pretty sure he was the opposite. If I hadn’t dragged him to parties on the beach for all of high school, he would’ve never gone. Both of them spent ninety-nine percent of their time not saying much, but Pearl could be surrounded by any level of crazy and just quietly observe like she was running an experiment. She had a watchful way about her. I sometimes imagined she studied me like that—as if I were an unidentified organism pressed between slides under her microscope.
Maxfield’s silence wasn’t like Pearl’s. He had a simmering sort of hostility just under the surface, always ready to erupt. His silence was fucking scary. Which came in handy when we worked for Rick Thompson in high school—our dumbshit era, we called it later—collecting defaulted drug debts.
I’d only seen him lose his shit three times. I was on the other side of his fist the first time, when we were in ninth grade. He was smaller than me, but gave as good as he got, and we each wound up with a scar and a best friend. The second time was Clark Richards, who’d keyed FREAK into the side of his truck. (Idiot. You don’t deface a man’s truck and expect no retribution.) The last was Eddie Standish, supposedly for a two-hundred-dollar liability to Thompson for a bag of dank. In reality, Standish crossed one of Maxfield’s moral lines while the three of us were having a little discussion over that debt, got his shit-talking mouth rearranged, and had to eat through a straw for a month.
I’d missed the fourth, final time—the one that got him hauled to jail. Some prick on the beach went after Thompson’s little sister—who was still in middle school—and Maxfield stopped him cold.
Sitting in a cell scared him straight. He’d been different after—got a job in town instead of working the boat with his dad or being Thompson’s enforcer. Drove to Corpus for martial arts classes. Stopped skipping class and started studying—with Pearl in a few instances. Only the strength of our friendship and his general trustworthiness kept me from wanting to kick his ass over that. No more weed, no more fights. I didn’t exactly follow his lead, but I graduated, which was something. After I helped him sell his truck so he could pay his first year’s tuition, we rebuilt a shittily maintained Harley to take its place.