Two weeks passed, and I continued to deliver Thelma's paintings until she finally succumbed to a dry spell. During her dry spell, she was always out of the house – walking on the beach, going to the farmer's market, meeting new people, but always looking for new inspiration.
The last painting I dropped off was for Loretta – she'd finally gotten her naked flapper girl, and she'd just stared at it in awe with a big smile on her face for a full minute. "I don't care what Robert says," she told me, her eyes all lit up. "I'm going to hang this up for everyone to see."
Loretta's mother had come to town so I stopped seeing her for awhile. She did call, from time to time, and apologized for what she had said about Sam. "I'm not going to apologize because it's the truth," she'd said, "but I do want to say sorry for butting into your business like that. I couldn't help it. I mean, watching you guys that night. . . it was pitiful."
I could tell she wanted to know exactly what had happened, but she never asked. Loretta was too polite in that way. Sometimes I wished she wasn't – that she would butt in, like she said, because I knew that I could never be the one to start it. How would I start it out? And how could I even begin to tell her everything now?
If Sam had told Thelma what happened, and where he had seen me, I honestly didn't have a clue. Thelma acted like she always did, except I certainly saw her less now that she no longer needed to finish any paintings. Sometimes I wondered, when she kissed me on the head and told me that she was heading out, if she was going to see him. My dad.
Apart from that night outside the diner, Sam didn't make any other attempt to talk to me. I saw him from time to time on the beach, or when I was driving around town making deliveries. Once I had stopped at a convenience store to grab a slushie and I'd seen him across the street, talking to a girl on a bike. As I watched them I realized that she had been at the bonfire. She had been the girl in the white bikini.
There were some times I thought about what Loretta had said, about Sam liking me. I didn't know if it was true, honestly – at the bonfire I'd seen him with different girls, and even around town I saw him with different girls. Sometimes I couldn't help but judge Loretta's instinct. What did she know, anyway? It wasn't like they were friends. Loretta barely knew him.
Then there was that night on the beach. We had almost kissed. In spite of the much larger issues I had to deal with right now, I could finally admit this. We had a moment, and we had almost kissed. Of course, this was before I knew that he had been lying to me this entire time. If I had known that then, or had even had a single clue, I doubted that moment would have ever happened between us.
And it was that logic, in a way, that made me feel a little better.
It was her friend's party. It was his twenty-fifth birthday and he always threw those parties that everybody talked about for weeks – or at least that's what Loretta sold me in on when she insisted I go with her. "Robert can't come because he's got to get up at five in the morning," she said, sitting on my bed. "Come on. I can't go alone. What if some drunk beefcake tries to make a move?"
I laughed. "If some drunk beefcake tries to make a move," I said, "I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that you could handle him, Loretta."
"Oh, come on, Liz," she said. "Just come. Drink a little. Have fun. You've been so glum lately. You need to let loose, you know?"
As she said those words, I had been standing in front of the mirror, combing out the wet tangles in my hair from my afternoon swim. I looked at myself. My listless eyes, my dead mouth. I looked like a fish that had washed up on the shore. She was right. I needed to have fun. I needed to let loose, and forget everything that was on my mind.
She hadn't been kidding about the party. It was huge – with tons of people, on the beach, with tiki torches and all kinds of food. There were colorful lanterns strung up all around. There was a DJ playing poppy music and there was a crowd dancing, most with drinks in their hands. Loretta introduced me to a few people she knew, as well as the birthday boy, and I tried to convince myself that I was going to have fun tonight. She handed me a drink and I drank it with no questions. I was tired of being the anti-social animal.
I talked to a few people, and even danced a few times. I met Bran again, and he recognized me, but he wasn't any sober from last time. I spent most of my time with a guy named Theo, who was going to University in the fall, and worked at the Tiki Hut.
It was when Theo asked me to dance that I saw him watching me. There was a crowd of people between us, and I could see him talking to a girl with blond hair, but he was looking straight at me. I quickly looked away, feeling my cheeks flush, not wanting to think about him. After all, Theo seemed like a nice guy, and he was a good dancer.
After our fourth dance, I started to get dizzy. More people had joined the dance floor and now it had gotten hot and almost suffocating. The music seemed to have gotten louder somehow. "Hey, I'm just going to go take a walk," I said to Theo, yelling over the music. A girl in a cowboy hat bumped into us, but continued to dance.
He nodded at me. "Do you want me to come with you?"
I shook my head and told him that I'd be fine. I left him behind at the dance floor, all the while looking for Loretta. She was by the drinks, talking to a girl with purple hair.
I picked up a bottle of water before I started to walk away from the party, towards the ocean. I was trying to walk off my wooziness, taking deep breaths. On the dance floor, I had started to sweat and my skin felt sticky and hot. I had never done too well with crowds. After a few minutes by the sea, I already felt better. The breeze was nice and cool and everything stopped spinning. I dipped my feet in the water, shivering a little.
"You've been ignoring me."
Suddenly he was there, too. He wasn't holding a drink; his hands were empty. Silently, I wondered what had happened to the blond girl he'd been talking to. I shook it off.
"I've been busy," was all I said.
He nodded. "Yes you have. Been busy with Theo, I see." He stepped a little closer, shrugging. "He's a nice dude. I went to elementary school with him. He peed in his pants until the fourth grade."
I gave him a dry look. "Is that supposed to disgust me?"
"It doesn't hurt to know," he only said, smiling. "He's been drinking a lot of beer. It's only about time."
I didn't say a word. I picked my foot up and then put it down again, letting it sink into the sand. Part of me wished that he would just give up and leave, but the other part of me wished for the exact opposite. I didn't know why he did this – why he went out of his way to talk to me. Was he hoping to get something from it? Did he really want to be friends?
In front of me, the tide was getting stronger, and nearer.
"A couple of weeks ago," I found myself saying, "I wanted to punch you."
He laughed, but it was an empty one. "But that would have meant that you would have had to stop ignoring me, in order for that to take place."
Finally, I looked at him. I was convinced I could take it now – whatever explanation he had ready for me. I wondered if it would be believable. I wondered if it would be true.
"That night, when I told you about my dad," I said, feeling the words tightly being squeezed out from my throat, "you didn't say anything. You could've, but you didn't."
His smile fell away, and his face was so serious I almost didn't recognize it. "I wanted to," he said. "But I promised Thelma, and your mom had made Thelma promise. They wanted to protect you."
"Protect me?" I echoed, feeling my eyes starting to get hot. "From what? What, is he an axe murderer? A child rapist?"
He was shaking his head. "No, he's not any of that."
"Then I fail to see exactly what it was you're all trying to protect me from," I snapped, starting to walk backwards. I could feel the water rising on my legs. "Was it fun, Sam? To feel like you belonged in some secret club, while I had been on the outside all this time – not having a single clue? How long have you known, huh? How long have you known my father?"
His voice was quiet, ashamed. "I met him two years ago. At first I didn't know he was your father. Then Thelma told me, and made me swear not to tell you."
I stared at him for a second, speechless, before I angrily rubbed my eyes. I couldn't believe I was crying like this, in front of him. When I was little, I had thrown tantrums in front of him, but I had never cried. I had always waited until I got back inside the house, inside my room. "So that's it, isn't it? Why you've been trying so hard to be nice to me, to be my friend? It's because you felt sorry for me, didn't you?"
"No, Liz," he said, his voice getting louder, trying to compete with the sound of the ocean. He began to get closer to me, wading into the ocean. "That's not it at all."
"Then what is it?"
He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Then he tried again. There was a desperate, wild look in his eyes. "Look, Liz, I. . ."
A tide crashed down beside us, roaring in my ears. Then before I knew it, my feet were no longer on the ground. They were above my head, somewhere, and I had been plunged underwater.
When I woke up, I had no idea where I was. My entire body hurt, and my head felt like it had been bashed up against a brick wall. I opened my eyes to see a few blurry figures in my white room, and tubes connecting me to noisy machines.
"What. . .?" When I opened my mouth to speak, barely anything came out. My mouth was so dry I thought I would see dust would fly out.
Thelma handed me a glass of water, which I quickly drank.
"Thank God you're awake," I heard her say above me. She was smoothing my hair, and she looked tired.
I drank until the last drop was gone. Thelma took the glass from me and set it on the table. I looked around, seeing Thelma, Loretta, and my mother standing worriedly above my bed.
"What happened?" I asked.
"You were on the beach with Sam when a wave swallowed you up," Loretta told me grimly. "Sam swam after you. Such a brave boy. He could have drowned."
I tried to remember that night. Finally, I pulled up a bleary memory of me standing on the beach, screaming at him, before I'd been swept into the ocean. Anything else after that was black and meaningless.
Without thinking, I asked, "Is he okay?"
"He's just fine," Thelma answered. "A little bit banged up, but he got out alive – with you in his arms, actually. But you were already unconscious before they could call the ambulance."
"He's such a sweet boy," my mother said. "I'd never seen anyone so brave."
Loretta, on the other hand, was looking at me ruefully. Her eyes looked shiny and her mouth was stretched tautly into a frown. Her dress was wrinkled, and I realized that it was the same one she'd wore to the party. Had they all slept here?
"Oh, Liz, I'm so sorry," she suddenly said, taking my hand. "I should have been watching you. We told each other that we would watch out for each other. But I saw you go off with Sam, and I thought you'd be okay—"
"Don't worry about it, Loretta," I said. "It's not your fault. I'm fine."
She sniffled. "I still feel so guilty."
"Don't," I said. I tried to smile, and I felt my chapped lips crack. "Honestly."
Loretta was nodding, still looking a little sad. A nurse walked in to check on me, and my mother went out to the hallway to talk to her. I couldn't believe I was here, in a hospital. I had always considered myself pretty careful – even a little too careful. I wasn't adventurous or reckless, yet here I was, at the volition of Mother Nature herself.
And Sam. . . I swallowed hard. Sam had rescued me. He'd dove right into that monstrous wave and had swam for me. When I thought about it, I couldn't breathe. But my head still wasn't in the wrong place; I was still confused, more than anything else. Nevertheless, throughout the day, people weaved in and out of my hospital room. Loretta had gone home to change, and even Theo had stopped by to check in on how I was doing. When he did, my mother had been in the corner, pretending to read a magazine. But I could see her eyes peering above the page, intently watching.
"It's nice to see you've been making friends," she'd said, when he left. She fixed the flowers that he'd brought me. Then she smiled. "He's thoughtful. And cute," she added.
He was thoughtful, and cute. That's what had attracted me to him the night before. But now all I could think about was Samson. I found myself wondering constantly if he was going to drop by – I'd heard he'd been admitted to the hospital for some minor cuts and bruises, but he'd been released last night. I wondered if he still thought I was mad at him. . . which, I was. But he'd saved my life. I liked to think that if anything, he'd think that my priorities were in order.
"He's going to be on the paper, you know," Thelma said, drinking her coffee, after my mom had left to go down the hall for a refill. "Samson. In such a small place like this, he's going to be a called a town hero, though I doubt he'd like that very much. He seems like he'd be the type to milk it for what it's worth, to put his own spin to it, but I've been that boy's neighbor ever since he was just a little fetus. He's not always what he seems to be."
I watched her for a moment, and heard the stable beeping of the machine next to me. I hated seeing the tubes on my arms. I hardly even knew what they were for. They said they'd keep me until tonight, for observation, even though I was feeling better. I think they were worried I'd lapse into a coma or something.
"What we had been fighting about, on the beach," I said, to her swallowing hard and looking at my hands, "was about my dad. How he'd known about him the entire time and hadn't said anything to me."
I could tell Thelma had frozen in her seat. It looked like she had stopped breathing. Her big, round eyes suddenly began to well up with tears. "Oh, Liz."
"I went to visit him a couple of weeks ago," I said, as if I was in a hurry. I wanted to get it all out before I inevitably chickened out. Maybe it was the drugs they had me on that suddenly made me so brave, and confrontational. Or maybe it was just. . . time. Maybe it was just about time. "I'd found out about the home and I'd called my mom to ask for his name. I just. . . needed to know, Thelma. I'm old enough to know why I've never had a father. So I went, and I visited him. I didn't tell him that I was his daughter. But he talked about you, and Sam. About how you visited him and told him stories about me."
Thelma was silent, listening to me intently. Her eyes were red again.
"And I just. . . didn't get it, you know? How come he was allowed to know about me, but I wasn't allowed to know about him? And why had you never said anything to me about it before? I'd tried asking you so many times before about him, but you always just changed the subject."
As I talked about it, I felt hurt all over again. I couldn't even look her in the eye. I waited patiently for what she would tell me – her explanation. I wondered if it would be the same as Sam's, that they were just trying to protect me.
"I promised your mother I wouldn't say a word," she said, her voice soft and remorseful. She grabbed my hand. Her hand was cool compared to mine, which had suddenly become burning hot. "But there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't want to, Liz. Believe me. But I made a promise to your mother. She had to be the one, baby, not me. It wasn't my secret to tell. And Sam. . . it wasn't his, either. I made him understand that.
"And your mother – she didn't want to tell you because she wanted to protect you. I know she can be harsh, and seem unreasonable, but she has her reasons. It's been tough on her, too. Your father. . . there are days when he remembers who he is, and the life he's had. Days when he's happy and laughing. But there are other days when he wakes up and doesn't know who he is, or where he is. Your mother and I pay to keep him at the home. They take special care of people with that condition."
She paused, wiping her eyes. I didn't realize it, but I had begun to cry as well. So that was my father. Some days he remembered himself, and his family. And other days he had no idea.
"For years we discussed you going over to visit him – but you were still so young, and we were afraid that it would only hurt you. So we didn't. We hid it away from you, his whole existence. I'm so sorry, Liz. We just. . . we thought we were doing right by you, that's all."
She stood up and hugged me, pressing my face to her stomach. I inhaled her, long and deep, and she smelled like paint and oranges and spice. I cried all over her dress, but she didn't seem to mind. I hadn't noticed that my mother had come in until she'd joined us, too, smoothing my sticky, matted hair away from my face and telling me that she was sorry, so sorry, that I'd had to find out that way.
I was, too.
I was released from the hospital around seven in the afternoon. The nurses had checked my stats and deemed me well enough to go home. Thelma was overjoyed, of course – she hated hospitals. She'd had a lifelong fear of them and never went into one unless she completely and totally had to. My mother had insisted on staying with us at the beach house until summer was over, but Thelma, seeing the look on my face, convinced her otherwise. So my mother slept over that night, and we ate a big breakfast the next morning before she went on back home.
A few days later, I still hadn't heard from Samson. I felt stupid hoping that he would come by the house and check up on me – especially since he hadn't done so at the hospital. I stayed around the house and spent half the time hoping and expecting that he would drop by, and spent the other half telling myself how stupid that was. Of course he wouldn't come by. He'd already saved my life. He probably already knew that I was home, so what did he need to check up on me for?
I told myself that I needed to be the one this time, to be the opener. I had to go to him and thank him. The anger and hurt had passed when I had talked to Thelma in the hospital, and now all I had for him was. . . gratitude.
"Have you spoken to him since that night?"
Loretta had come over to help me make dinner. Contrary to Thelma's boast about my cooking skills (really, it was only relevant to things that had directions on the back of the box), I was not a chef. She was hosting a big dinner tonight for her birthday, which was a first. Every summer before, she'd insisted on spending her birthday just me and her, on the beach. Sometimes we would watch old movies or go to the boardwalk and eat so much junk that we'd be sick to our stomachs by the end of the night.
But this one was different. I knew it the moment she'd told me about the dinner, washing her hands at the sink, her hair pulled back with a bright yellow scarf. "It's times like these that I realize I'm not getting any younger, Liz," she sighed. "And when you get older, you just see more and more that you need people. Nobody wants to end their life remembering all of the empty moments, but the ones that were full, and happy."
So, I enlisted Loretta's help, the best cook that I knew. She was probably even the best cook in the whole town.
"No," I said, not having to ask who she was talking about. I hated to admit it, but I'd been thinking about him even before she'd brought it up. It was like she'd just snagged onto my train of thought. "I haven't even seen him. Not once."
"Do you think he's avoiding you?" she said, mixing the frosting. "I mean, you did give him a pretty good yelling that night, from what I could see."
"I don't know," I said, pouring the batter into the pan. "He might as well be."
Loretta was silent for a minute as she licked her fingers, looking at me. "Look at you, all anxious. Last time I heard from you, he was the bane of your existence," she said, laughing. "Oh, how the tides have changed."
I rolled my eyes. "I don't like him like that, okay, Loretta? I just want to thank him, that's all."
"Oh my God, seriously?" she said, putting the bowl down. "Are we going to do this, Liz? Do you even remember that you almost died a week ago? And that boy swam after you like he was part shark or something just to save you? You know he almost drowned, right? Nobody at the party even knew what was going on until he came back, with you all passed out and wet in his arms, yelling for people to call an ambulance."
I didn't want to look at her. Why did I feel guilty every time I heard about that? It wasn't like I did anything. So I had been yelling at him. I'd been angry. He'd lied to me.
"I think," she continued, "that you're just afraid of rejection. But I'm here to tell you, Liz: he likes you. Do not doubt me. He has a big ol' crush on you. Hell, he might even love you. Not just any boy would dive into a big scary wave to save someone he couldn't really care less about."
I was afraid to look at her. What was it with Loretta that she just happened to know things, even before you found them out for yourself? It was scary as hell.
"If he likes me so much," I said, frustrated that I was even playing along, "then why didn't he come to see me at the hospital?"
"Because, Liz," she said sternly. "Because you've got your own two feet, too."
Thelma's guests began to arrive around six. They all came in, laughing loudly and sharing stories. It was a blast hearing about how each of them had met her – somehow they all had some unique story. They even talked about the paintings Thelma did for them, and what it meant. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was charming. But they were all different, each time.
Thelma had dressed up for her dinner, which was extremely rare to see. Even I had to close my mouth when I saw her, dressed in a long red dress and wearing some beads she had painted. Her hair was down in soft waves and her mouth was a bright red. When she saw Loretta and I, and the food we had set out (some we had prepared; some we'd ordered from a few places around town), she both pulled us in for a tight hug. "I love you girls," she'd whispered into our hair, kissing our heads.
I felt my heart quicken when I saw Mr. and Mrs. Bell at the door, expecting Sam to be with them. But he wasn't. They both came in, giving me a hug and telling me how great it was to see me again, before they'd walked onto the rest of the house, heading to the back where the table had been set up. I found myself staring at an empty doorway, feeling like something had just punched me in the stomach. I couldn't deny the feeling. I was incredibly disappointed, and even a little hurt. Had he not come on purpose? Was he really avoiding me?
Nevertheless, I wasn't going to let that ruin tonight. I shook it off and took a deep breath, closing the door and heading back to the party. Tonight was Thelma's night, and nothing else was going to get in the way of that.
Loretta sent me a look as she watched Mr. and Mrs. Bell take their seats. Pointing at them, she mouthed, 'No Sam?' I shook my head, smiling weakly. No Sam.
Dinner was delicious. I could tell Thelma was in the highest spirits because every few seconds she was laughing – not just her, but everybody else, too. Even my mother had come down for her birthday this year, and had brought a date: Tim. He was tall and had a kind smile and big hands. I could tell my mother was smitten. Her cheeks had been pink ever since she'd gotten here.
It was halfway through dinner, as the Mrs. Bell was giving her toast ("I think that I've probably got the most stories about Thelma here, after living beside her for twenty years"), that he came. He'd come dressed up, but his tie was undone, and his hair was messy. He looked a little bit out of breath and it was obvious he had just run here from his house. The bottoms of his pants were covered with sand.
When I saw him, my breath hitched in my throat. I could feel Loretta's eyes on me from across the table.
"I'm sorry I'm late, Thelma," he said, bending down to kiss her cheek. And then he whispered something in her ear, something I couldn't make out, but instantly Thelma's face broke out into a huge grin. She said something back and stood up to give him a huge hug, and he looked sincerely happy. As I watched them, I couldn't help but feel something hit the low pit of my stomach with a hollow thud. It was stupid, but I still felt left out. Like even though I was in on the secret now about my father, they still had their own little club.
I didn't try to catch his eye. I looked down at my plate and ate what was left on it.
There was dancing after dinner. Robert had brought his amateur DJing set and had volunteered himself for the party, "for practice," he'd said. I cleaned up with Loretta while everybody socialized, taking back the dishes and setting out the dessert. Soon it would be time for the cake.
"Sam's here," Loretta said, setting the dishes down by the sink. I grabbed more napkins and silverware.
"So I saw."
"Please at least tell me you're going to talk to him," she said. "I know that you're in one of your moods again. I saw your face when he came. It was like a little girl finding out that somebody had just sat on her new kitten."
I halfheartedly told her that I would. Try, I mean. I knew that I would thank him, most definitely – but I wasn't exactly sure about anything else.
"Life's short, Liz," she said to me as she passed by. "You better start living it soon."
Something about what she said stung me, and left me in the kitchen, looking after her, long after she'd gone. I walked towards the door and watched everyone dancing, and laughing, and talking. I watched Samson talk to Mr. Pierce, the man that owned the pet store. I observed the way he was always smiling and so kind, ready to make anyone laugh at any given moment. Suddenly it wasn't so surprising to me that he'd dove in after me. Samson Bell was just the kind of person to do just that.
And just as soon as I was starting to feel like my old self again – an outsider, unable to relate to anyone because I was so standoffish and cold – I felt someone grab my hand. It was Thelma, grinning at me. "Come dance with me, Liz."
So I danced with her, joining the rest of the happy and fun-loving couples on the floor. I put on my best smile for her; I really wanted her to believe that I was having fun. Because I had been, I really had been.
As if she could clearly read my mind, she said to me, "Don't ever think that you don't belong with us, Liz. Because you do. You've belonged with us the moment you got here, eight years ago."
I hugged her closely and laughed. Not because it was funny, because it was exactly the kind of thing that I needed to hear, and somehow she'd known that. "Thanks, Aunt Thelma."
She smiled at me, softly tracing my chin. "When it comes to people," she said, "sometimes you just have to be a little brave."
After the cake, Thelma opened her presents. She got a handmade vase from Mr. Pierce and his wife, and the Bells had given her a gift card to her favorite restaurant. But it was one present that caught everyone's eye, especially mine.
It was a large square thing, wrapped in stark white paper. At first I'd thought it was a frame. But as Thelma opened it, I watched her face. Her big smile gave way to complete and total awe. And then, extreme pride.
She ripped off the rest of the paper and then turned it around for us to see. "Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "you are privileged to be the first few pairs of eyes to see an original by none other than our very own Samson Bell."
The words didn't register to me at first. It was the painting. It was of her. Aunt Thelma. She was smiling, her brown softly graying hair caught in the wind, and behind her was the infinitely blue sky that I recognized so well. It was amazing. It was breathtaking.
Everybody was silent, taking in the painting. Samson was standing up, his hands in his pockets, looking nervous but proud. I remembered, just then, the paintings that had been hidden away in the corner, that day Thelma had shown Loretta around in her studio. They hadn't seemed like Thelma's handiwork at all – because they weren't. They had been Samson's. He was the one who had painted those stunning landscapes, and that portrait of me from two summers ago.
That was why he'd been in the house that day, cleaning off her brushes. He had been cleaning up her studio because he had been using it.
Everything suddenly made sense. The way Aunt Thelma seemed so keen on him, and how close they were. It wasn't because they weren't in some special club. It was because Samson was a painter, just like her.
And suddenly, as my brain tried to comprehend this sudden deluge of new information, I felt. . . incredibly stupid, and ashamed.
I silently wondered how I'd gotten through all of my summers here without knowing much of anything at all.
A few people had left after the opening of the presents, but most stayed behind. Robert was still DJing, and Loretta was meeting new people. A few were still dancing. Robert was ending the night with slower, more romantic songs.
I had been dancing with Mr. Pierce, who had been telling me about his daughter that had just recently gone to university, when I heard his voice.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Pierce, but may I cut in?"
Something fluttered in my stomach, and my hands suddenly went from being perfectly cool to warm and moist. He appeared in front of me, gently taking my hand. His were cool and smooth.
I tried to act as if I understood all of the physical reactions my body had when he came near me. I felt my whole body tense as I tried to not let it show how nervous he made me.
It was awkward. We danced for a few seconds, not saying a word. He was looking at me with those green eyes of his, looking perfectly serious, while I frantically thought of how to start things off.
"Look," I finally said, my tone soft and apologetic, "about that night. I'm sorry. I had no idea. Thelma explained it all to me at the hospital, and I get it. I do. And. . . I feel lousy for getting mad at you." I bit my lip, taking a breath. "Thank you, for saving my life."
He cracked a smile. "Well, it would've been pretty irresponsible if I had just stood there and let that wave carry you away, don't you think?"
"I know, but. . . I guess I just don't really understand why you'd want to. I was pretty mean."
"I hardly think you should be blamed for your personality defects," he said. "And besides, let's face it: it's not like I've been a saint, either. All of those summers, all of those pranks. . ." He paused, looking at me, his smile fading away. "I mean, you know, don't you?"
He laughed, shaking his head. "Never mind. It's nothing. It's just that I thought it would've been pretty obvious, that's all."
I wanted to press on it, but I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
"I wanted to stop by, at the hospital," he said, then. "But I didn't know how you'd react. If you still hated my guts. And I didn't want all that to happen again, not there."
I laughed, softly. "I understand."
"Plus," he said, "I saw Theo come in with some flowers. How could I follow up to that, you know? Theo the charming, compulsive bed-wetter. It would've been impossible."
We lapsed into an awkward silence. I tried not to mind it and instead tried to focus on dancing, and the song that was playing, and the way he smelled like soap. But for some reason I felt like I had so much to say to him, but the words had all scurried off to their little hiding places.
"Where are you heading off to in the fall?" he asked me.
"I'm going to the University. It took me awhile to decide, but I think I made the right choice. What about you?" As I asked that I realized that I had never really put much thought into where Samson Bell was going to go to college. I'd always assumed he would stay behind in this town and work and have fun, maybe go take a few classes at the community college nearby. And for that I felt a little guilty.
"Well, that's why I've been gone for the last few days," he said. "I was showing my portfolio to the art department at the Institute. I mean, I almost didn't get in – I'd had to beg and plead for them to let me show. Then finally, Thelma called in and pulled some strings to get me that audition." Something washed over his eyes: admiration. "I owe her a lot, you know. I mean – I was never really serious about it, but she kept inviting me over to paint. And then suddenly it was all I was doing. It'd already passed applications so I'd missed the deadline for the school. If she had never called in. . ." he paused. "I'm just lucky to have her, that's all. That's how I knew I just couldn't miss her birthday dinner. I drove like a maniac to get here, and broke at least three state laws."
He was grinning at me, and suddenly I couldn't remember why I'd hated that grin of his so much before.
"Plus, you know," he added, a little hesitantly. "I had to see you."
I froze. It was like all of the muscles in my body had tensed up and were incapable of moving. He stopped, too. We became the only nonmoving pair on the dance floor.
He ran a hand through his hair. He looked as nervous as I felt. I knew that was supposed to make me feel better, but it didn't.
"Thelma told me that you saw my paintings in her studio. You have to at least have a clue."
Instantly my mind scurried to the painting of me. My heart started to beat loudly, drumming in my ears. The dance floor disappeared, and the moving bodies vanished. All I could look at, and all I could focus on – was him.
"But," I said, starting to stammer, "I saw you around with all those girls."
"Girls?" He laughed, shaking his head. "Why? Can't I have friends, Appleton?"
I suddenly felt very, very dumb. "Oh."
"I've liked you ever since I met you. That's why I've pulled all of those pranks, and all of those tricks. . . it's supposed to be this dysfunctional way that boys let girls know that they like them. Except, that, you know, it really is dysfunctional." He sighed. "But every time I tried to get close to you, it seemed like you really didn't want to give me the time of day. It was hard. I mean, you – you're an enigma."
I felt my face heat up, thinking about how badly I'd treated him. I wanted to vanish into thin air.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I guess I haven't really grown up. I'm still that little girl on the beach, pissed at you for getting me stung by a jelly fish, and then offering to pee on it."
"Well," he said, smiling again, taking my hand. "Before now, right?"
"Right," I said. "Before now."
We finished up our dance and had a few more before Robert retired his set. Everyone was leaving and Thelma was hugging them goodbye, but Samson had chosen to stay behind. It was in a crowd when Loretta had grabbed my arm and pulled me aside to a corner, her eyes bright and shiny.
"You did good, girl," she said, giving me a tight hug. "You did so good." Then she clapped her hands together happily. "God! Finally! Finally, the world has come to its senses. I have been watching you two dance around each other ever since that night of the bonfire."
When everybody had left, and Thelma had gone up to her room to change and head to bed ("Good night, you two," she'd said, twiddling her fingers and giving us both a wink), we went for a walk on the beach. The waves were distant and quieter than usual, and the sand was cold. The moon was a thin, silver slice in the dark sky.
"I believe it was right at this exact spot, Appleton," he said, stopping beside me, "that we had our little moment, all those nights ago."
I rolled my eyes, but couldn't hide my smile. "That was not a moment."
He shook his head. "How can you deny our electrifying chemistry? It astounds me."
I turned around to face him. His hair looked brown at night, but his face was beatific. I felt his soft breaths against my hair. "And how do you know we've got electrifying chemistry?"
"Because," he said, stepping closer to me. "I just do."
When he leant down to kiss me, I didn't move away. I stood there, waiting, feeling my heart dance a little number against my ribcage. My eyelids fluttered close without a single thought. But I was convinced that this was how that moment – if we'd ever let it happen – so many nights ago, would have happened. Except, of course, better. Much, much better.