Chapter One

June 2000

I kicked the ground lightly, almost as if I was determined to scuff up my shoes even more. Not that it was possible, anyway. But, as I ran my soles along the dusty concrete, it seemed to be my intent. Granted, I had to amuse myself in some way and there was absolutely nothing else to do.

It was just like any other summer since I was a little kid. Hot, boring, violently humid. Full of popsicles and Mt. Dew through multi-colored straws. Brittany's letters to the ones she'd left behind, written in silver on black paper. Long, lazy days lying with the dog on the sun-scorched grass.

Only it wouldn't be the same. Absolutely nothing from that summer would be ordinary.

Too bad I didn't know that from the start.

---

I hiked my backpack up on my shoulder and continued down the jetway, with Brittany close behind me. As the scent of recycled air faded away, we stepped into the concourse. My eyes quickly flitted around in search of our grandparents, who were supposed to be picking us up.

"Britt, I don't see them."

Brittany, of course, didn't answer. Brittany never answered me. At 19, she was too cool for me with her masses of blond curls and her enticing hourglass shape. Ever since puberty, she hadn't cared for me – at all. I was just a nuisance.

Not that I was too bothered by this. Brittany, in my opinion, was far too loud and hopelessly dramatic. She annoyed me just as much as I annoyed her.

"Cammie! Brittany!"

Both Brittany and I turned in the direction of the voice. There, near some hideous potted tree, stood Gram and Grandpa Harris. They were my mother's parents and they were still young enough to be fun. Grandpa was 62 and Gram was 60, but they acted so much younger and I loved that about them. Their actions often annoyed Brittany but that was no surprise – the list of things that didn't annoy Brittany was miniscule compared to the list of things that did.

"Girls, it's so good to see you," Gram said softly when we were within hearing distance.

"Cameron Melissa, you get more beautiful every time I see you," Grandpa chuckled, engulfing me in his arms.

I tried to mutter some sort of gratitude but I couldn't; not only was Grandpa hugging me too tightly to allow me to speak but I didn't even believe what he said. Not in the least. He may've believed it but I didn't.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gram and Brittany exchange an awkward hug. Brittany did not look pleased to have such contact with Gram and I resisted the urge to kick her for being such a brat.

I sighed, telling myself not to care about Brittany. Instead, I hugged Grandpa tighter and pressed my face against his tidy plaid button-up. Grandpa smelled ever-so-slightly of Old Spice and I breathed it all in. His scent remained the only constant of my summers. Sometimes, the weather was erratic and sometimes placid, something Brittany was tolerable and sometimes I'd love to staple her lips shut, sometimes I was bored to death and sometimes I was only bored to tears. Everything seemed to vary from year to year. But not Grandpa. He always had that pleasantly reassuring scent.

"I missed you, honey," Gram whispered into my ear as I hugged her.

"I missed you too."

"Miss Brittany," I heard Grandpa laugh. "I'll have to fight off the boys with a stick."

Brittany gave a laugh sounding so horrendously fake that I cringed when I heard it. She had a boyfriend at home – Asa was his name. They were in love and had been for quite some time. Our entire family was waiting for them to get engaged but, secretly, I longed to tell Asa to run. If he did marry Brittany, he'd go crazy before their first anniversary. Okay, maybe not crazy, but he would go deaf. Definitely.

We all shuffled into our proper positions – Grandpa with his arm around my shoulders, Gram on my other side and then Brittany at a distance on Gram's far side, likely already hating us all immensely – and began down to baggage claim. The flow of people was light, though I knew that was because it was nearing midnight. Midnight was the perfect time to be in an airport. Or anywhere, for that matter. It was no more than a 60-second span on a clock but, to me, it had always been magic.

"How was your flight?" Grandpa asked.

I looked up at him and had to smile – Grandpa's smile was adorable. "It was really bumpy."

Brittany scoffed loudly. "No it wasn't."

My eyes automatically went down to the floor in shame. The flight was bumpy but Brittany obviously didn't think so. And, unlucky for me, what Brittany said was law. I was used to it, though, being as I'd been her little sister for 14 years. Brittany's bossiness was just one of her traits that you had to accept, along with the fact that she always monopolized the phone, she took forever to get ready in the morning and, when you finally got her out of the bathroom, all of her hair products, lotions and body sprays left it smelling like a sickly overpowering fruit salad.

"Grandpa just finished fixing up the porch," Gram said as we rolled our suitcases out to the parking garage. Her voice almost sounded strained, like she was trying as hard as she could to make some sort of conversation. I'd often felt sorry for Gram in the sense that she had to deal with Brittany and me. I tried not to be too difficult but, no matter what I did, I was an adolescent and difficultly happened to go hand-in-hand with adolescents. Brittany, on the other hand, seemed to try to be a pain in the ass.

"It was a big project," Grandpa added in a voice that sounded nothing like a complaint. "But I got it finished."

"Didn't you start that last summer?" I asked with a big smile.

Grandpa started to chuckle, giving my shoulder a soft pinch. "You didn't need to point that out, Cam."

I smiled up at him. "I was just curious."

The ride home was silent. Well, not technically silent but it lacked any real conversation. That was how I liked it, though. To me, car rides were a time to just watch everything slip past you like the world is frozen and you're running through it. Long trips always left me with my head against the window, simply watching it all go by. Brittany was always the first to roll her eyes at me but I did it anyway. After all, you'll never see anything if you don't look around once-in-a-while.

My grandparents lived in the tiny town of Charity, South Carolina. It wasn't too far from Charleston; about 100 miles Northwest on the Congaree River, just above Lake Marion. Charity was a cute little town that looked like it could've come right out of a movie; green, friendly, quiet, clean. The one bad thing about Charity was the size. It was teeny tiny, without as much as a movie theatre or its own high school. But, no matter what you wanted, you could find it at the end of a half hour drive to one of the bigger towns.

Brittany and I lived with our parents in Portland, Oregon. We were both born in South Carolina, as were our parents. I was only four when our father's job transferred him out to Portland. After that, Gram and Grandpa decided to leave the hustle and bustle of Charleston for the calm, laid back atmosphere of Charity. Our father's parents also left Charleston, though they ended up down in Florida, even though the climate wasn't all that different from South Carolina. Anyway, ever since moving out to Portland, Brittany and I had returned every summer to see Gram and Grandpa. Occasionally during our trip, we would go down to Florida but it was rare. This year, Brittany had decided to stay home but she still received a ticket in the mail. She put up a fight but neither of our parents would budge. Needless to say, she was not happy to be spending another summer in the South.

"Cammie, Sarah wanted me to tell you that she'd wait for you," Grandpa said from the front seat.

I looked up from the window and saw Grandpa's soft eyes watching me in the rearview mirror. "Thanks."

Next to me, Brittany pulled off the headphones that were pumping Dave Matthews Band into her ears – and the entire car. "Cammie, don't go over there."

"Why not?"

"It's way too late."

"She's waiting for me," I protested.

Brittany's eyes narrowed. "By the time we get there, it'll be two in the morning. Wait until tomorrow, Cammie."

"She's waiting for me," I repeated.

"She can wait until tomorrow."

I crossed my arms defiantly across my chest. "I'm going tonight."

"Cammie," Gram said loudly, deciding to finally intervene. But I could already tell that she wasn't going to stick up for me. "It's late. You can go see Sarah first thing in the morning."

Brittany shot me her patented 'I told you so' look and I felt myself deflate entirely. Here I was, back in Charity for the first time since the previous summer and they were telling me to wait another several hours to go see Sarah. It was easy for them to say: they didn't live across the entire country from their best friend.

Sarah Rodriguez was nothing more than the girl next door. She was 15, just a year older than I was. We met two summers before, when Grandpa was outside and saw Sarah weeding her mother's garden. He started a conversation and mentioned that his two granddaughters, who had to be close to her age, were in town for the summer. Later that day, Sarah was on the doorstep.

Sarah and I bonded instantly. We both loved boybands and Leonardo DiCaprio, which gave us an endless supply of things to talk about. We would stay up until all hours of the night watching movies featuring Mr. DiCaprio and so many others. Our nights seemed to revolve around Mt. Dew, mozzarella sticks and the lovely ones on the TV screen, who we knew were way too old for us but loved anyway.

During the day, we'd walk around the neighborhood in the stifling heat, laughing and making fun of whatever we deemed worthy. And then there were the swings. Behind my grandparents' house there was a park. It wasn't really anything special, just a tennis court, a basketball court, a play structure and a swing set. Sarah and I loved the swings. We'd spend hours on them, just swinging and laughing like the little kids that we wished we weren't.

There were other people our age in the neighborhood too. Megan was also 14 and she lived down the street with her cousin, Kim, who was a few years older than us. On the other side of Sarah's house was a boy named Dylan. He was 18 and his brother Travis was 13. When I met Sarah, I quickly became acquainted with a group of neighborhood boys that she and Megan had deemed 'the monkey-slappers.' I never actually met them but I knew that Dylan was one of them.

When I came back to Charity the second summer of knowing Sarah, I somehow managed to get involved with Dylan. I don't even remember how it happened. Moreover, I don't know why it happened. I was 13 and Dylan was 17. Not only was it weird, it was wrong. Nothing happened between us (aside from a lot of kissing and some heavy petting) and when I went home at the end of the summer, we stayed together. That is, we stayed together until I found out that Dylan put the moves on Sarah. And then, on top of everything, Dylan went a little crazy when I broke up with him – literally. He never really got over it, or so I was told.

As we finally got into town and began down the ever-familiar Lilac Lane, an odd feeling hit me. I continued to stare out the window, wondering what it was. My thoughts paused for a moment when I saw that Dylan's light was on. And next door to him, Sarah's light was on too. Another feeling rested in my chest; I wanted to go see her so badly. A year is way too long to go without seeing your best friend.

"Don't even think about it," Brittany whispered into my ear. I didn't have to look at her to know that an evil smirk was resting on her face; I could hear it in her voice.

Feeling my own evil smirk taking over, I elbowed Brittany hard in the ribs.

"Cammie!" Brittany hissed. Her long nails grabbed my bare arm and squeezed hard. I tried to wiggle away but that only managed to hurt more. "Don't touch me again."

Luckily, someone above obviously pitied me because the very next second, Grandpa parked the car in the garage. Brittany gave one last squeeze before releasing her death grip. I flashed her a glare before looking down at my arm. As usual, my encounter with Brittany's nails left me with a few patches of broken skin.

"Bitch," I whispered to myself as we got out of the car. The presence of my grandparents had nothing to do with my reluctance to insult Brittany out loud. It was out of fear. More than once, Brittany had popped me in the mouth. One time, when I had braces, Brittany backhanded me in the mouth and cut her hand on one of my brackets. For a few seconds, I basked in the glory of getting the better of Brittany. But then she kicked me in the shin so hard that she left a sick-looking gash in the center of the purplish bruise.

"Alice is going to be happy to see you," Gram said, taking the keys from Grandpa. "She was acting like a maniac today. She must've known you two were coming."

Grandpa rolled his eyes and leaned down towards me. "That dog always acts like a maniac."

It was true. Alice was Gram and Grandpa's Irish Setter. She was about five years old but she still acted like a puppy. Years before, the family bought Alice at a pet store. We were all at the mall over in Christiansen and I wanted to go into the pet store. I made a b-line for the puppies and Alice immediately caught my eye. Surprisingly, Grandpa fell in love with Alice too. She came home with us that same day.

To state it plainly, I adored Alice. She was the sweetest dog and she always came in handy when I missed my yellow lab, Rio. Alice stuck to me like glue whenever I was in Charity. She tried at first to be Brittany's pal too but Brittany could never be bothered by something as stupid as a dog. But I liked having Alice all to myself. She slept at the foot of my bed every night and trailed me whenever I was out with Sarah.

Gram opened the door to the house and Alice surged out like a bolt of mahogany lightning. Wagging her feathery tail faster than I would've deemed physically possible, Alice bounded over to us. A quick jump up on Brittany yielded no positive result so Alice gave up and began jumping up on me excitedly.

"Hi, baby," I cooed, petting Alice the best I could while she danced happily around me. "How's my girl doing, huh? Did you miss me?"

"Come on, Dr. Doolittle," Brittany growled.

Right, because she's the queen of the world and gets to tell everyone what to do. But I followed anyway, with my backpack haphazardly over my shoulder and a far too easily-excited dog following very close behind.

The cool, crisp air of the house quickly engulfed me as I stepped inside. The air reminded me of all of the summers I'd spent in the house since I was five. They'd all been soft and so sweet; nothing more than tiny vacations from my real world. Sure, Dylan had complicated things but only for a moment. Everything would again be like it used to be – like it had been for all those years.

"Do you girls want me to make you something to eat?" Gram asked sweetly.

I shook my head. "I'm gonna go to bed."

Gram set her gaze lightly on Brittany. "Britt, do you want anything?"

"No," Brittany replied, almost icily. "I need to call Asa."

"Don't stay up too late, sweetie," Grandpa said, giving Brittany's shoulder a squeeze. Brittany smiled back at Grandpa and I could tell that she was trying her hardest not to pull away.

"Night, Cam," Gram said as she gave me a hug.

"Night," I replied quietly. Without hesitation, I have Gram a light kiss on the cheek. "It's good to see you again."

Grandpa came forward plopped a kiss on my forehead. "You too, honey."

I stood in that same spot for a few moments and watched them head off, taking our suitcases with them. Alice sat alertly at my feet, letting out a miniscule whimper when they turned the corner. But she forgot all about that when my hand lightly grazed the silky hair on the top of her head. She wagged her tail again, licking my hand enthusiastically.

"Suck up," Brittany spat, her narrowed eyes resting heavily on me.

I rolled my eyes but didn't say anything, knowing that there was absolutely nothing I could say that would make any difference to Brittany.

Brittany took a step towards me. "Don't even think about it."

"Think about what, Brittany?" I asked in annoyance, emphasizing her name with a bit of a sneer.

"Going to Sarah's."

"Wasn't gonna."

"Bullshit."

I rolled my eyes again. "Goodnight."

Brittany laughed quietly but didn't say anything else. She obviously thought that she'd foiled my plan of going to Sarah's after everyone went to bed. But it was never my plan to begin with. As badly as I wanted to see Sarah, I was not about to go behind my grandparents' backs to do it.

My bedroom was on the second floor of the house, nestled in the back corner and looking out over the roof of the wraparound porch. Brittany's room was on the first floor and also on the completely opposite side of the house, simply because she wanted the biggest room possible. My room was small but I didn't care at all; it was in the perfect part of the house. Not only did it have a bathroom right across the hall but it was far enough from everyone else's rooms that I didn't have to care about playing my music too loud or being woken up when I wanted to sleep in. But the best part of my room was definitely the windows. On both outer-facing walls, I had windows that opened right out onto the roof of the porch. Sleepless nights often brought me out there where I would lay on my back and stare up at the heavens above.

My room remained untouched since my last visit, although there were new sheets on the bed. Sarah had helped me decorate the room two years before with posters of the Backstreet Boys and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio. Sarah's room had slowly lost those same touches as she slipped into her 'freak' phase but mine still remained; a subtle reminder of our first summer together.

"Alice, are you ready for bed?" I yawned, carelessly kicking off my shoes and not bothering to move them out of the middle of the floor.

Alice wagged her tail at me and jumped up on the foot of my bed. She immediately lay down, her long, silky fur making a deep red puddle around her on the pale pink comforter. Alice's brown eyes watched me intently as I dug through my suitcase for my pajamas.

"Night, sweets," I said, climbing under the covers. My eyes slipped closed and, within a moment, I was long gone.