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A year passed, and we didn’t talk or say hello. I figured he’d forgotten who I was until the day one of his friends took the playground ball my friends and I were using to practice soccer.
“Give it back!” I yelled, my fists knotted at my sides.
“Us boys need this for kickball,” the boy said, laughing. “Go play with dolls or something.”
Boyce walked up. “Quit being a dick, Rick,” he said, punching the ball from his friend’s grip, bouncing it once on the packed ground before tossing it back to us.
“What’d you do that for, asstard?” his friend shot back, because boys liked to cuss out on the playground where the teachers couldn’t hear. “They’re just dumb girls.”
Boyce looked right at me then. “No they’re not.” His mouth didn’t smile, but his eyes did. He scanned the playground, zeroing in on a group of boys kicking a ball back and forth while heckling some girls sitting in the gravel beneath the monkey bars. “Let’s go steal that ball from Clark Richards. Maybe he’ll cry again.”
“Yeah!” the other guys said, tearing off toward them.
“Thank you, Boyce,” I said as he turned.
“You’re welcome, Pearl,” he answered softly, not looking back.
• • • • • • • • • •
After shooting down Boyce’s one-lining friend, Melody’s mood improved. From her standpoint, even unwelcome attention had always been better than no attention. After explaining the responsibilities of a junior account executive at a public relations firm, she poked a lime slice into the neck of her Dos Equis bottle and shrugged. “So basically I’ll be coordinating social media publicity for our housewares and pet-products clients.”
Housewares and pet products? I couldn’t think of anything that said Melody less.
“I won’t just be posting stuff on Twitter or whatever. I’ll be directing the production of market-savvy graphics that will be used for all the major social media channels.”
For housewares and pet products. Her words sounded more like justification than new-career enthusiasm. Public relations was a long way from Melody’s dream job when we were sixteen. She’d wanted to work in a museum or gallery, helping curate collections, discovering new talent, unearthing works of genius by historically overlooked artists.
“That’s great, Mel. I’m sure they’re thrilled to have you.”
“Damn right they are.” Her smile seemed counterfeit, and I wondered if that’s how I’d have looked on my way to med school. “What about you? My best friend’s going to be a doctor! Better you than me, girl. I am so relieved to be done with school. You’ll have to come to Dallas some weekend, and we can go out for real.” She glanced around the Saloon like it was a dump, and I realized she saw our entire hometown that way and had for a while.
I shifted and took a deep breath. “Yeah, about that. I decided I don’t want to be a medical doctor after all.”
Melody arched a brow. “But you got into Vanderbilt! And what else would you do?”
“You know I’ve always been interested in marine science…”
She stared. “Pearl—you can’t be serious! You got into a top medical school. Do you know how many people are smart enough to even get into med school at all?”
About twenty thousand a year, I thought.
“And oh God. Your mama will shit a brick if you drop out.”
“This is my life, Mel, not my mother’s.” We both knew what I wasn’t saying. Aside from small, aimless rebellions, Melody followed the path her parents expected of her. Her previous relationship had ended when her boyfriend admitted that he had no plans to give her a ring after graduation, a discussion that had only occurred because her mother began dropping wedding hints over winter break, like the next plot point on the map of her daughter’s life—one she controlled.
Still, I wished I could take the words back. We’d been friends for a long time, and I had no room to judge. “I’ve already declined the acceptance. But hey, it’s not dropping out if I never start, right?” I smiled, hoping for commiseration, at least, not disapproval. I anticipated plenty of that from my parents.
“Oh. My. God. You’re seriously going to stay here instead of going to medical school and getting the hell out of this craphole of a town? Have you freaking lost it?” She sat forward and seized my wrist. “Wait. Is this about Mitchell?”
“No. This decision has nothing to do with him.” Not that he’d seen it that way—but I wasn’t getting into that. “Melody, I’m not you.” She jerked her hand away, inferring the thing I’d not meant. “I never wanted to move away,” I clarified. “I’ve spent the past four years missing the open water like I’d misplaced of piece of myself. I don’t want a big city life. I want a beach. I want the ocean. I want this. I’ve always loved it here.”
She shook her head. “I don’t get it.”
“I know.” I sighed, risking a glance across the bar where Boyce, done with his dart game, leaned back in his chair and laughed, engrossed in the animated conversation between Mateo and the guy who’d hit on Melody earlier.
Until he took a long pull from his bottle and shifted his attention to me down the length of it, like he’d been watching me all along, keeping me in his sights.
Chapter Four
Living with my father had been a nightmare I woke to daily. That’s why I never faulted my mother for getting the hell out when she had the chance. If there’d ever been a time he wasn’t an abusive fuck, it was before I came along. When cussing and screaming and throwing things didn’t make enough of an impact on her, he shoved and slapped and pulled hair. When he was stinking drunk, he landed punches.
Brent, nearly eight years older than me, started getting in the way of those punches when he was eleven or twelve. While I hid under my bed or in our closet—“Stay here,” he’d order, as if I needed convincing—he would try to talk Dad out of whatever fit he’d worked himself into. He usually ended up with a few bruises for his trouble.
Days before my eighth birthday, I heard a car pull up out front after one of my parents’ brawls. A minute later, the front door’s rusted hinges whined, and then there was a man’s voice, deep and unfamiliar. I scooted out from under the bed, thinking maybe the cops had come at last. Maybe they’d haul Dad off to jail and he’d have to stay there forever. I inched around the corner to watch. A stranger stood in the doorway, but he wasn’t wearing a uniform. Dad was sprawled in his chair, passed out, a half-empty bottle on the floor, just below his fingertips.