A/N: I know, I know. It's been like eight months. Also, I'm sorry that I kind of just stopped replying to reviews somewhere in that time. All I can say is, my life is insane. Good, but insane. And when it occasionally isn't, all I want to do is sleep, and it's a little hard to write in your sleep. =P But I appreciate every word you guys left me, and your reviews do remind me that I need to keep writing this when I do have the time. So, in teeny tiny increments, I managed to get this chapter out. Don't expect it to be overly good. But I'm happy enough with it to post it for you guys, so. Here it is.
A ridiculous number of thank yous for all your ridiculously kind reviews go to: Martine, rachel-rob-sandwich, rosieroo (and A Drop of Romeo for promoting my little story like that. You guys are fantastic.), Ceri Anne, xoxluurve, TasteTheFreakingRainbow, ginger heart, Kyllex (x2), moonlitbreeze, InsanelyEllie, rukz, anon (x2? Are the two reviews from the same 'anon'? If not, thanks to both of you!), Melly Salone, Shawnden, schradez007, HiHelloMisterBear, ChermaineV, mereoftheoworld (x2), Mary Chrys (x2), u wouldjustbe AWESO without ME, Mrs-Not-So-Sane, likelemondrops, myrrine, morpheusandmuse, .E.A, tg19, There's-A-Star-In-My-Hand (x2), cl, xXMoonsilverXx, Ara Juules, uninspiredsoul, CMTaylor, Joemommah, T, kauth0, sophiesing, .Spazz, dezzydays, Ten Off the Ground, alittlehope, lunabella, DrippingRubies, SweetDreamz3116, TheSnoopy, shann-ng.
This chapter is dedicated to all of you who tried your best to critique me on the last chapter. I know I didn't reply to a lot of you, but that definitely doesn't mean I don't appreciate your words and that I haven't taken them into serious consideration. You guys are the best. I probably won't reply to many reviews from now on, just because I literally don't have time, but I read and appreciate every word. =) Special thank you to Lara for her mad beta skillz.PREVIOUSLY:
Konstantine picked up a battered Nate in the middle of the night and took him to Dr. Mannowitz's house. There they established 'secret for a secret', in which one of them shares a secret in exchange from a secret from the other. Nate took Kon to Oral History as something of a thank you for picking him up that night and they people-watch together.
Just Keep Your Head Above
There's no shame in drifting,
feel the tide shifting and wait for the spark. …
Just find the horizon,
I promise you it's not as far as you think. …
Just keep your head above.
- 'Swim' by Jack's Mannequin
Luckie Street High scheduled finals week so that the last day of exams was also the day of graduation. Most of the seniors didn't seem to care all that much about their final exams, having already received college acceptance letters. The week before finals was what the students called "dead week," in which few kids turned up to classes and those who did sat silently, studying, speaking only to ask the teachers relevant questions.
I didn't skip a single day, habit beating out the knowledge that this was a school where parents could buy their child's graduation if necessary. Jon, being a scholarship kid, turned up every day too, but he was the only member of the gang who did.
One day it was just the two of us there, and when lunch came, Jon caught me on the way to the cafeteria. He told me he needed to let out some of the stress of studying, so he was going to spend lunch in one of the music studios. He didn't want me to have to spend lunch alone, so he invited me to come with.
I found myself eating the sandwich Carol had made me that day on the floor of a recording studio Chris would have jizzed at the sight of—and this was a high school—watching Jon play the drums. It looked like an incredibly effective form of therapy, attacking them the way he did.
After a few minutes, he seemed to be feeling better, and he came and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me.
"So I heard this funny rumor," he said.
"About you and Nate. Laughing. Together. And, I mean, I've been telling people, 'Impossible. You saw it wrong. Nate and Kon don't laugh.'"
I couldn't help smiling at him. Jon really was just a sweet guy, and had I not been specifically trying not to get attached to people, I think I'd very much like to be friends with him. He spoke like an idiot sometimes, but he actually was a smart kid, and he saw things differently from the other kids at the school. Because he wasn't from their world. He didn't observe things as keenly as Nate or I did, but he certainly observed what he did out of self-preservation.
"The rumor may be true."
"Really?" He leaned over and grabbed the acoustic guitar that rested on a stand beside me. He settled it in his lap and looked thoughtfully at his fingers on the frets. He strummed a quiet chord. "Huh. Who woulda thunk."
I shook my head at him, still smiling a little.
He spent the rest of that lunch period more or less improvising a '90s pop song mash up, singing the wrong words very loudly (though not at all badly), and dancing as if he expected me to join in. If I did dance along a little toward the end, no one could blame me.
"I never actually thought I'd make it to graduation," I told Sanders during our dead week session. "I always thought something would … happen. You know, something to change everything."
It was only after I said it that I comprehended what I'd said. Something had happened. It just hadn't affected my probability of graduating. In fact, it may have improved it. It changed everything.
Sanders was watching me closely. "Which is why you never made any plans for college."
I shrugged a little.
He smiled at me. "Sometimes I forget that underneath it all, you are just a typical. What are your favourite classes?"
I took a moment to think about it. "I like English, I guess. And the Philosophy unit in the Social Sciences class was really interesting."
He nodded approvingly. "You did well in those classes too, I believe? That's certainly something. You should register for those kinds of classes then, when your priority registration day comes along."
"OK," I said.
"I'd like to keep working on this with you, Konstantine. But since you're graduating next week, this is our last session."
I was surprised at the slight sinking feeling in my stomach. Of course I'd already known that. I should be glad right? Who ever actually liked therapy?
I looked down at my hands and didn't say anything.
"I was discussing it with your father, however, and we agreed that it would be a good idea if we continued our weekly sessions."
I looked up at him. "OK." I said it far too quickly but, surprisingly, I didn't care.
The graduation ceremony was incredibly surreal. I got to sit next to Jess, since there was no one else alphabetically between Dawson and Delaney, and she grabbed my hand, squeezing tight when our names were called. And afterwards there was photo after photo after photo, and smiling got microscopically easier by the hour. And before we got in the car to go back to the Dawsons', Shaun pulled me into his arms and kissed me on the top of the head and told me he was proud to call me his and that I was beautiful and that he loved me. And if when we got back I went up to the guest room he'd gifted me and cried without entirely understanding why, well. I was OK with that.
That night, Jessica used the money she received from relatives as graduation presents to get Shaun and Carol a hotel room for the night so that she could have a party. She requested my help in setting up—or rather, hiding breakables and valuables—and then forced me into dressing up the way she did before any party she likewise forced me to go to. Of course, by force, I mean unintentionally guilting me into doing what she wanted, lest my "no" cause that contagious, perpetual smile of hers to leave.
I kept her company until people started arriving. As soon as she was distracted, though, I went and hid in the guest room I used, snuggling into the pillows with the book Nate had lent me in exchange for the promise that I wouldn't read it until after finals.
Then, of course, Max arrived and physically forced me out of the room and down the stairs. There I sat in silence, people-watching rather than drink, or dance, or hook up, or laugh like the rest of LSH's graduating class. I don't think I'll ever find myself comfortable in that situation. I didn't know quite how to feel outside of surprised when I found myself wishing Nate were sitting beside me, playing the creepy-stalker-observing game the way we had at Oral History and a couple of lunch times and French lessons since. But I didn't know where Nate was, and even the idea of seeking him out made me uncomfortable.
So I sat cradling a plastic cup of lemonade and interacting with the gang and random strangers in the way that was considered socially acceptable.
I noticed little things about the graduates, how under the collective smile at being through with high school, the watery eyes at the knowledge of the inevitable drifting away of friends, the terrified excitement of life as they knew it being over—underneath it all, there were the secrets. Everything these kids had hidden all through high school was bursting to come out. It was the closing act, and all the loose ends sought resolution. It was only social correctness, dead fear of rejection, of pain, of making a mistake that kept this part from turning into a cesspit of confessions.
I was watching Jon, the way he interacted with Jess on the dancefloor. Whatever his secret was, it was far more subdued than the rest. It had been wanting to burst for days, maybe weeks, and this night meant nothing to it. The toothy grin, the hand that twirled Jessica, the eyes, his open-book eyes were so guarded.
This secret was big. He pulled Jess in close, then pushed her back out. He sang along with the song. He moved like a perpetually crashing wave, winding all the people he'd gathered to him, lured in with a gentle tug, a simple, gentle smile.
He wasn't made for keeping secrets. He wasn't the type who could adapt. The thing was eating him alive.
"Who're we watching?"
I hadn't seen his approach or heard him sit down beside me. It took more than I wanted him to know to pull my eyes away from Jon, to lose sight of my new mystery in favour of the older one.
Nate's lips were pale pink, and they twitched as my gaze met his, not quite wanting to smile, but rather wishing they had enough strength to smile without conscious willing.
"Who aren't we watching?" I replied, and noticed Leslie making out with some guy in the corner of the room behind Nate.
"I know," he said, drawing my gaze back to him, "There are too many secrets trying to come out. I can't decide what's more pathetic—people thinking now is a good time for that shit, or people thinking any of their secrets are still actually secret."
"The best time for telling secrets is never."
"The best time for making something a secret in the first place is never."
I looked back out at the party. Jon and Jess were gone now, and this vanishing of my newest mystery left a little hole in the ever-thinning fabric that held my consciousness sufficiently in the realm of sanity.
I said, "Secret for a secret?" and I didn't look at him. The silence that followed was like a slow flap of a landed butterfly's wings. A butterfly that was about to get snatched by a wasp.
The he said, "Go."
So I asked the first thing that came to mind, something that may actually give a one-word answer, something completely pointless. I still didn't look at him. "What's with the palm trees?" I asked.
When I did look at him, mostly just because I didn't want to, he was almost smiling.
"Beach?" he said, and then he stood up. When I didn't follow, he looked down at me, almost smiled even more, and gestured C'mon with his head.
C'mon, and I may as well have taken him by the hand and let him lead me to the door. I didn't comprehend the blind trust at the time, or that it was the beginnings of another predetermined heartbreak. But he did. He knew that letting me that tiny step further in was one of the most dangerous things either of us had ever done with our hearts. The beauty of the whole thing was that for once in his careful, distant, painful life, he didn't care.
The breeze was fresh and chilly, making my skin tingle like it was barely resisting goosebumps as the air pushed me gently toward the sand, toward the water, like smooth hands pressed palm flat and insistent against my back. Those loose strands of pale blonde hair that never seem to want to stay in the ponytail got caught up in the breeze and looked like they were floating before my face, occasionally whispering against the skin of my cheeks.
The sky was a shade of dark blue barely discernible from black, lit up by the stars in front, above, behind me, the silvery shine contrasting sharply with the florescent, dizzying, yellowish glow of the streetlamps. The stars made the water look silvery black, like liquid lead but strangely less dense because it moves more readily. The waves were creeping along the wet sand toward us, reaching, then retreating a split second later. The waves dragged across the grains of sand, back, before the next tiny wave broke, so tiny there wasn't any white foam to disturb the liquid metal, just a bucket or two of water spilling on the sand. There was the steady, rushing hum of traffic in the distance, almost like wind against the too-thin walls of an old house. And there was the sound of our sneakers, Nate's and mine, on the sidewalk. There was a slow rhythm to the scraping, with a dragging every four steps when Nate moved the foot he didn't pick up quite high enough.
I glanced over at him, turning my head just far enough to the left to catch sight of him, a head or so taller than me, rich dark brown hair just long enough to be wavy. He had his eyes, on the distant star-filled sky where it met the water, that chestnut brown sparkling gold again. His lips rested together, turned down at the corners in thought, or maybe just turned down because that was the way they sat, maybe he wasn't thinking anything at all.
He smelled slightly of the beer Leslie had spilled on the sleeve of his grey hoodie—stale, but mostly overpowered by the smell of the ocean.
I looked away from him, at the pavement, playing with the hem of my own hoodie sleeve, picking at the pieces of material that had formed into tiny cotton balls on the inside where the fabric chafed against the heel of my hand.
The pavement was a pale yellowish-grey under the light of the street lamps, glittering occasionally where broken glass had become embedded by years of foot traffic.
"It's just here," Nate said, his voice like steady footsteps in the gasping ocean breeze. He raised the arm nearest to me, pointing to a palm tree a few dozen feet in front of us, towering from a systematically placed plot of dirt in the lawn that separated the sidewalk from the sand. As he pointed, he leaned toward me a little and inclined his head. He shifted direction to walk toward the tree a moment before I did, and in that moment he was a forearm's length from me and I could feel his body heat on my arm. I caught a sudden whiff of that beer stain, and the mixture of aloe vera soap and dried perspiration that rested on the skin of his neck. When I'd corrected my direction, when we were at a normal distance once again, the smell of him stayed with me, and the space on my back between my shoulders was tight, stiff, as tense as if he'd physically touched me. And there was a warmth at the very bottom of my gut.
We stepped off the pavement and into the sand, and the scuffing of our shoes turned into a muffled rhythm of patting, shuffling, and squelching. The sand shifted under the momentum and pressure of each step, only stable because there is so much sand, compacted layer by layer for eons down until you reach the rock. It's unnerving, feeling the world you walk on shift under your feet.
"This," Nate said, moving to rest a hand on the trunk of the tree, head tilted back, eyes searching out the stars through the gaps in the leaves. "This was my mom's favourite palm tree."
He looked at me, striped shadows of the palm leaves shrouding his face.
Of course. What else could the palm tree obsession be about but his mother.
"She used to bring me here all the time. She'd read or take pictures while I played."
"Take pictures of what?"
He shrugged. "The tree, the water, me, whatever she felt like."
"Was she a photographer?"
He nodded. "Next secret, you should ask to see her pictures. I have them all in a box."
"Next secret," I repeated. I took a deep breath of the ocean air. I felt it rush down my throat, scouring. "She's the only thing you're open about, you know. You hide everything, Nate, except her. How you love her. How you miss her. Her death is the worst thing that ever happened to you, but it's the only thing you'll talk about with complete sincerity."
Nate's eyes found the ground, the tree trunk, the leaves again, then me.
"She was perfect, you know. No one—no one—is perfect, but she was. She was everything every good person in the world strives to be. And she was taken from me."
And I could see it in his eyes, in the downward curve of his lips, in the creases on his forehead. Nate knew he was spewing bullshit. He knew his mom wasn't perfect. She'd died when he was five. She'd had plenty of flaws, it was just that five-year-old Nate hadn't witnessed them. And eighteen-year-old Nate knew it. And that terrified him. If the only true good he had ever known wasn't as pure as it had seemed to him at the time, how could anything else in the world be anything but terrible?
She was his faith.
"What kind of games did you guys used to play here?" I asked.
He graced me with a tiny smile. "Pirates. Knights and dragons—she was the dragon of course. Or, you know, we'd just chase the waves."
"Do the what now?"
He tilted his head slightly. "Chase the … You've never—?" He stopped short to stare at me for a second. "Do you know how to swim?"
I shook my head.
His smile widened and he scratched his forehead. "Of course you don't. You'd have no reason to learn." He glanced over at where the little waves reached out to us across the sand. "C'mon."
"We're going to chase some waves."
"No, see," I said, holding my hands up in a gesture that I'd intended to be distancing, but ended up looking more like surrender, "when you can't swim, you just don't go near the water. General rule."
"It'll be fine. I can swim well enough for the both of us. But it won't come to that. We won't go any deeper than our ankles. Take your shoes off, though."
"Nate, I'd really prefer not to risk it."
He sat in the sand and began to untie his shoe laces.
"No, look," he said, throwing one removed shoe toward the palm tree. He tugged off a sock, balled it up, and sent it to join the shoe. "Don't worry about it. Worse comes to worst, you just keep your head above the water."
I watched him roll up his pants, both shoes gone. "You know, you have this reputation for being really comfortable to be around, but that wasn't comforting in the slightest."
Nate clambered to his feet, pants rolled up to just below his knees, and took a couple steps toward me. We were maybe a forearm's length apart. He looked at me, eyes flickering between the two of mine. And then he smiled.
The next thing I knew, my shoes were off too, and I was following Nate towards the water, following him right the fuck out of my comfort zone for the second time that night.
The cool sand grew substantially wetter under my bare feet. The dampness was warm, though, and there was a comfort in it that counteracted my wildly beaten heart. I followed Nate step for step, refusing to hesitate on my first step into the cold water. Nate stopped just three steps in and I came to stand beside him.
The water swirled around my ankles, pushing at me back toward the beach, then pulling at the back of my legs, tugging toward the depths of the ocean. The sand swirled too, as the waves pushed, and then it was dragged back, rushing from behind me and under my heels so that I sank ever-so-slightly into the ground. The first time it happened I didn't dare move, ridiculously unsure of what would happen if I tried. But then I took a breath and glanced over at Nate. He was shifting his weight, lifting his feet out of the sand, staying on the surface. I did the same the next time around.
The minutes passed as we both stood at the edge of the ocean until, finally, I said, "This isn't so bad."
Chasing waves is probably the kind of game that gets boring fast if you're any older than six. Except I'd never played it before, and the running and the fresh air were exhilarating, and I got braver as the time passed, until I was thigh-deep in the water, though Nate was always a few steps behind.
It was only when I turned to see Nate watching me with the smile that seemed to be so much easier for him tonight that I realized I was grinning. The knowledge threw me off a bit, and before I'd finished turning, I tried to take a step. My foot didn't lift far enough, dragging in the sand. I stumbled.
The sensation of falling, physically or metaphorically, is always a terrifying one, and one I had a lot of experience with. Falling from the force of the rare bottle that hit its mark. Falling to my knees beside an unconscious Chris. Falling for people, no matter how hard I tried to stay unattached. Falling is terrifying because the crash, the breaking, is always the inevitable ending.
And this time I heard the crash of my body in the water before I comprehended that I'd broken the surface. I was still comprehending, in fact, when Nate's hands were on my upper arms and I was upright, weight on him, my nails digging into his shoulders. I don't know how long I stood there, shaking, breathing hard, blinking in confusion, and letting Nate's hands hold me steady, letting his voice wash over me as he repeated, "You're OK. You're OK."
I hadn't stood so close to someone for so long in months. But I was still shaking, and I couldn't let go. And his eyes caught mine, and they were warm, and my gut was warm, and so were my cheeks and my neck and my arms, flushed against the cold water, flushed against his gaze.
I said, "You never asked for my secret."
He smiled. "You can have mine for free."
And slowly he let go of me, though less slowly than I let go of him.
We turned back onto the Dawson's street sometime around 2 a.m. We didn't really speak. I'm unsure if the silence was due to awkwardness or the fact that neither of us had anything to say.
The past few minutes, I'd been smelling smoke, but I hadn't thought anything of it. My mind had explained it away as a barbeque or a bonfire. But the smell had been growing progressively stronger, and it wasn't until we passed the first house on the street that I saw the blaze over the rooftops.
And then both Nate and I were running.
I don't know why I made a move for the Dawson's burning house. It wasn't until Nate's arms wrapped around me from behind and pulled me to his chest that I felt the heat on my face, even all those yards away. My nose and cheeks stung from the pressure as the heat pushed against them, the way Nate's arms pressed against the clenched muscles of my stomach.
I touched a hand to one of his and he let go immediately, moving to stand at a comfortable distance beside me now that he was sure I wouldn't rush headlong into the flames. I searched the backs of heads and sides of faces of the party-goers gathered before the house for Jessica's. I knew Nate was doing the same.
Then there was a cry of, "Kon! Nate!" from my left, and I turned to see her rush toward us, bare instants before I heard the sirens.