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“Oh hell.” Mateo passed a hand over his face and turned away like he couldn’t bear to watch. Two of his first three throws barely made the board at all.
“It’s just Melody Dover, Vega—not the queen mother,” Randy said. “Besides, your cousin could use a slapdown. Twenty bucks says he’s about to get one.” As we watched, Bart rested one elbow on the bar next to Melody, and she leaned away as he leaned closer.
I shook my head and threw another dart.
“Yeah. Except her father is my boss’s boss’s boss.” Mateo was the assistant manager for one of the half dozen convenience stores in town, five of which were owned by the same company. Melody Dover’s daddy was the divisional manager over half the state.
“Chill, man,” I said. “Rover Dover’s got nothing to report about you. God knows we can’t do anything about the dumbasses we’re related to.” I pulled my darts from the board, thinking about my dad and my brother, and how different they’d been. Wondering where I fit between them.
“‘Rover Dover,’” Mateo choked out under his breath. “I haven’t heard that in years. Christ, Wynn, don’t let her hear you say it. Between that and my ignoramus cousin, she’ll have me fired in two shakes and then drag me through town from the bumper of that Infiniti her daddy just bought her.”
Of course I would run into Boyce Wynn on my first night home. Boyce Wynn—my guardian angel, the imaginary best friend of my childhood, my unprofessed adolescent crush, my dirty little secret. Or was that last one me?
Boyce saved my life when I was five.
It was my first beach cleanup day. I was an entry-level Girl Scout, determined to take home my troop’s prize for the most bags of trash collected. Funny, I can’t recall the reward I wanted so badly—one of those plush toys filled with plastic pellets. A dolphin? A whale? I don’t remember. All I retained was my single-minded resolve to win whatever it was.
I’d defied stay-close orders and branched out a bit farther than allowed. Collecting trash along the water’s edge, I spotted something that looked like litter but turned out to be a clump of floating sargassum—the seaweed scourge of the gulf. I’d followed it far enough out that my shorts were soaked to the waistband. So when a tiny jellyfish caught my eye, the first live one I’d ever seen, I didn’t fret about getting my clothes wet. I wanted to see that translucent creature up close. It hardly looked real—gliding along the current as though it had been fashioned of fluid glass.
I hadn’t sensed the slight drop-off coming until I took a step and plummeted, the water level abruptly reaching my shoulders. I didn’t catch sight of the wave that knocked me off my feet immediately after that either, so I had no chance to draw a breath before being submerged, overturned, and disoriented. I knew how to swim, but this was no deep end of the pool where the water was motionless and I could see the blue-tiled bottom below and the clear sky overhead, just beyond the smooth, horizontal surface of the water. Here, murky water swirled in every direction. There was no up, no down, no air.
And then I glimpsed light. I propelled toward it, kicking and clawing, and burst out of the water. Air. I sucked in a breath before sinking again—nothing was underfoot. My brain knew I must have surfaced facing away from the beach because I hadn’t seen it, but it seemed as if the beach had ceased to exist.
I kicked hard and surfaced again, both arms thrust high. Still no beach. I gulped a breath and got a bit of water too, and a reflexive cough exhaled the precious air as I sank. I swam up again, legs and arms tiring rapidly, knowing only that I needed to breathe—nothing else mattered. The jellyfish I’d pursued, or maybe it was another one altogether, appeared in front of my eyes like a dream, and then there were more of them. They puffed along all around me like miniature swimming umbrellas or beautiful, soundless ghosts.
My lungs demanded air but took in water. My vision darkened and narrowed—the jellyfish swimming away, the sky fading.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes—just one scene, one memory. In the kitchen of our tiny duplex, I inhaled the aroma of Mama’s churros, fresh from the frying pan. She placed them, still warm, into a paper bag of sugar and cinnamon. It was my job to shake the bag and coat each one before placing them on a wire rack to cool, but I didn’t want to wait. I broke one open as soon as it slid from the bag, the steam erupting and singeing my fingertips.
“Ow, ow, ow,” I said, breaking off a piece and heedlessly scorching my tongue as well.
“You silly, impatient little thing!” Mama shook her head. “If you blister your tongue until everything tastes the same, what will you care if I feed you churros or meatloaf?”
I wrinkled my nose in disgust. Mama was a good cook, but as far as I was concerned, even she couldn’t save meatloaf, which we ate at least once per week.
She looked at me then and yelled, “Wake up! Wake up!” But it wasn’t her voice. The voice belonged to a boy—the big one who’d called me a dumb girl that morning. Mama always told me to ignore boys, especially the mean ones. They were bad news, she said. Besides, I didn’t want to wake up. I’d show him that no boy would tell me what to do.
My chest felt like it was being crushed. Like someone heavy was sitting on me, pressing me flat as a waffle. Was that boy sitting on me? It hurt too much. I would have to wake up after all and push him off.
I sat up and my eyes opened and I threw up all over myself, but the puke was all water. I coughed and coughed, more water coming out. He was above me, looking down at me. His hair was cropped short, but so red in the sun it seemed to be on fire. His face wasn’t mean. His eyes were full of tears, and I felt his hand, holding mine. I knew he was sorry, not bad news. I tried to tell him I forgave him, but I couldn’t speak because my chest hurt and my throat was sore, so I squeezed his hand, and he held mine tighter. That’s when I noticed there were people all around us, applauding and laughing.
I didn’t think anything was funny, and neither did he. Miss Eilish, my Daisy leader, was crying, and she repeated my name about twenty times before thanking the boy and telling him he was a hero.
We got our pictures in the paper. I cut out the story and the photo with our names listed below—Boyce Wynn and Pearl Torres. It’s still in the back of my first school yearbook, the newsprint yellowed, ink faded.
Afterward, I saw him sometimes at school, but I was two years behind him, so his classroom was in a different hallway and his class’s lunch table was four tables away from mine. All his friends were other boys. They played basketball or football on the playground while I took my turn on the swings or played chase on the grass or hunted for frogs near the drainpipes after it had rained.