My lack of flip flips was an oversight that I was dearly regretting. Walking over the shallow sand dunes was how I imagined walking over hot coals felt like. To the observer I must have looked like I was partaking in some kind of crane-imitation dance act.
And actually the oversight wasn't even my fault.
A part of me, quite a strong part, wanted to wail at my friends for the surprise attack at my house in which they had kidnapped me and dragged me down to the beach without any thought to the fact I had been happily floating on a lilo in my family's pool, and therefore I had not been wearing shoes, only the dress and cardigan I had grabbed as an afterthought when I went to answer the door. They had definitely intended it to be a proper kidnapping, as I had been stuffed into Jessica's car when the beach was a four minute walk from my house, usually rendering the need for a car unnecessary. But then it was Jessica's style to go over the top on something, so I shouldn't have been surprised.
I knew why they'd done it, of course. I might be in the midst of a confusing jumble of contradictory emotions, but I wasn't clueless. They were 'looking out for me'. Clearly they had decided my grieving/hatred stage was to be over and done with and I should commence with the moving on. It was a speech I was expecting and was still waiting to hear; no doubt it would crop up at some point during the day. Never mind whether I was actually ready to do the moving on bit; they had decided so apparently I had no choice.
"Okay, enough walking, my feet are dying." Jessica, in her usual take charge manner, claimed ownership to a patch of sand by abruptly dropping her stuff in a heap. The rest of us followed, in our usual 'do-what-Jessica-says' response, and the others proceeded in much shuffling of towels and giant umbrellas and coolers.
I, on the other hand, sat on my neatly folded towel and watched them organize themselves. It came as no surprise to me that the lethargy that I had been battling for twenty minutes – the time it had taken for them to drag me into the car and drag me out of it again – was beginning to settle in once more. It was strange how the chatter of voices about me faded into a faint buzzing sound that didn't grate on my nerves so much as actual words did. I picked at the material of my cardigan, avoiding eye contact as I didn't particularly want be pulled into conversation. I was still mad that I'd been removed from the peace and quiet of my lilo.
"What is with your swimsuit?" Kim asked bemusedly, looking at Nina. Nin was shrugging despite having drawn everyone's attention, which was something she was never comfortable with, but what really caught my attention was her outfit. She had always been a conservative dresser, particularly compared to today's generation's spend-more-for-less-material approach to fashion, but this time it seemed she was taking wallflower to whole new limits.
"I just don't like having people looking at me walking around wearing a bikini which is, essentially, underwear," she said defensively, crossing her arms over her... swimsuit.
"Oh honey," Jessica said, a person firmly in the spend-more-for-less category, peering over her Raybans, "you're gonna draw more attention to yourself wearing that than actual underwear. What is it, some sort of chastity belt?"
Nina rolled her eyes in response to the giggling and self-consciously smoothed down invisible creases in her swimsuit, which appeared to be some sort of loose wet-suit-like onesie ensemble. Even for Nina's conservative style it was quite... something.
The corner of my mouth twitched at the sight, the smallest of movements, but it was enough to snap their eyes to my face, whereupon it instantly dropped and I averted my gaze to an interesting grain of sand next to my foot. Admittedly, I hadn't really smiled in a couple months which must have been why the twitch attracted their attention. I only ever frowned with gritted teeth or started off into the distance. Or so I'd been told. But that was the whole point of holing myself up in my house on a lilo. So that people didn't have to watch me being gloomy!
There was the smallest of uncomfortable silences, which was eventually broken by Jane.
"Bagsie the first swim. Anyone coming with me?" she asked, standing up and stretching as if she was limbering up for the Olympic eight hundred meters.
"Defeats the purpose of bagsying if you're going to invite us with you," Nora pointed out, but got up anyway.
Nora was the spitting image of Nina, and from behind it was still a hard task to tell them apart. Except from when they wore swimsuits, apparently, as Nina's onesie looked nothing like the little red and white polka dot bikini Nora was modeling. But then, you know, some people had the body and others... well, also had the body, but wanted to hide it. Very annoying and unfair.
I tugged at the cardigan I still wore over my dress and swimsuit. I noted wryly that compared to them and their lack of clothes I looked like I could be going arctic exploring. But the heat on the outside was doing nothing to thaw my insides, which always felt like I'd drunk a huge glass of ice cold water. Pushing my sunglasses a little more firmly on my nose, I continued to watch silently as the banter went back and forth. Speaking honestly, it was quite nice to hear constant chatter and laughter. Reducing voices to a simply buzzing noise was a technique that I had mastered in the first few days back in school after... that thing that happened. It meant that I didn't actually have to hear individual words.
The individual words had been painful to hear.
While the others were busy, I finally made the effort to roll out my towel properly and arranged my things around me. I thought about the novel I had in my bag, reached for it, paused, and then retracted my hand – it was one of those thick ones with a cover that was meant to make you think about metaphors and injustice and life and really had very little to do with the book. Personally, I wanted nothing to do with the book, but my AP English teacher thought otherwise. I stared at my bag, but couldn't quite bring myself to reach out again, and kept my arms folded around my knees.
"Regan, you coming?" I looked up to see Jessica looking at me, smiling that smile which I had grown to severely dislike over the last couple months. It meant I-care-about-you-to-death-but-I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-you-anymore. Halfway down the beach the others had stopped to look back, interested in my response. They were probably hoping for my presence but not expecting it. Well, no need to surprise them .
"I'm fine," I said.
'Fine', such a generic term. Completely useless in describing real emotions, but it would do, even if it wasn't exactly true.
"Are you sure? It'll be fun," Jessica coaxed, seeing through my lie but knowing me well enough not to call me on it. At least, not just yet.
"Totally sure," I insisted, and was finally left in peace. Well, if you discounted the laughing tourists and screaming children that surrounded me.
Peace had been quite a hard thing to attain in the past two months. Few had acknowledged that I didn't want to chat and respected my privacy. Even two months later people were still curious and eager to gossip. I knew it was no good trying to shut them out, it just made them even more ravenous for news, but I refused to indulge them anyway. My miserable business was my miserable business, thank you very much. Not that I was miserable anymore. But I had been.
I picked absentmindedly at the nail polish on my toes, remembering I hadn't repainted them for a long time and only flakes of red polish were left. There had never seemed to be a good moment to think about nail polish. My mind had been full of angry venting, and sad soliloquies, and wondering whether I could march over to Nick's house and tear off his genitals without anybody but him noticing. I had decided against it. Many times. Many many times. And yet the temptation remained.
I shivered, despite the heat surrounding me and pulled up the sleeve that had drooped on my shoulder. My body had was just as mixed up as my head was; when it was cold outside I was hot, when it was hot outside I was cold. Everything had gone a little bit crazy. And it was probably time to repaint my toes.
Only then did I notice the shadow that fell across my knees.
"... me. Excuse me... Excuse me. Hey!"
Dressed in the stereotypical – and eye-catching which I suppose is the point – red shorts and carrying a foam life saving board, the stranger beside me towered over, brown hair falling into his eyes which were... scowling at me?
"Um, can I help you?" I asked, leaning back to be able to see him.
The lifeguard looked away at the sea and back again, still scowling. His sunglasses slid further forward on his head and I wondered if I was going to have to catch them if they fell off.
"You need to do something about your jacket. And move that umbrella into a better position. You're going to get heatstroke."
I stared, completely taken aback. His tone was one of utter exasperated annoyance, and in response, my hands curled in the sand. What was his problem? I was just sitting there.
"I'm fine," I said, forcing a smile. Maybe he'd go away faster if I was nice.
"No, you're not," he said flatly.
So nice clearly didn't work.
"You can't tell me if I'm fine or not," I said adamantly.
"Look," he said, dropping his foam board upright into the sand, "you might think you're 'fine' now but if you keep the jacket on and don't move under the umbrella properly you're going to get heatstroke and then you definitely won't be 'fine' and then it'll be my problem."
The remark I would normally have snapped out under normal circumstances froze on my tongue. I had absolutely no idea what to say to a stranger who was being so... so... argh! I crossed my arms defiantly and chose to glare instead, which only seemed to make him more aggravated. Well, good. I wasn't going to make this easy.
"Miss," he said, his voice steady but laced with irritation. "I will tell you again. You need to remove your jacket-"
"Will's actually trying to get a chick out of her clothes?" came a voice from behind the lifeguard, or 'Will' as it had been revealed. A tall black haired male, also apparently a lifeguard by the similar shorts he wore, walked up to Will and slapped him on the shoulder. "This never happens. Ever! Guys, come and see this!" he said, turning round and cupping his hands around his mouth.
Great, just great. Asshole number two is bringing his friends. I sighed and balanced my chin on my hand.
"First time for everything, Mike" said an approaching blonde, who was shorter but far more good-looking than his black-haired friend. With him he brought a guy in dark dreadlocks, who said nothing, but smirked knowingly.
"Just so I know," I interrupted before they could get started on... whatever they were going to do, "is this some kind of jacket intervention?"
They all grinned, apart from Will who continued to scowl, but this time aimed at them instead of me.
"Jacket intervention? Can't leave you alone can we, bro?" said Mike, shaking Will's shoulder only to be shrugged off. "Not now we know you're trying to strip pretty women on the beach," he continued, undeterred, and winked at me. I wrinkled my nose, which only seemed to amuse him.
"I'm just making sure she doesn't faint and cause trouble," Will said flatly.
My useful reaction was to splutter defensively, which only succeeded in drawing his attention again. He frowned, as if expecting me to keel over then and there. Well, my brewing anger had certainly warmed me up, but there was no way in hell I was taking off my jacket.
"Dude, there are certain ways to give people practical advice without being rude," said the blonde.
"... and obnoxious, and offensive, and out of line," I continued for him, boldly returning Will's gaze.
"I think it was covered in the training meeting we were forced to go to," Mike mused, looking ready to laugh at any minute.
"It was a voluntary meeting," said the guy in dreadlocks, fingers tapping an unidentifiable rhythm on his foam board.
"What? But they said I had to go or else."
"It was voluntary for everyone except you," the blonde said lightly, "because you never go to any of the meetings."
I was inherently aware that Will was still looking only at me as I glanced back and forth between the lifeguards. I didn't want to back down and remove my jacket after all of this, but there didn't seem to be any other way that he would leave me alone and take his friends with him. Will was no longer scowling at me, but his persistent frown wasn't exactly much of an improvement. His dark eyes looked almost black and the hard way his eyes were fixed on mine was incredibly disconcerting.
Just when it seemed like he would say something, we were interrupted by loud chatter and bikini clad women which of course drew everyone's attention, including mine, though not because they were wearing in bikinis, but because I was so extremely grateful. The two groups surveyed each other curiously, and finally Jessica's eyes landed on me.
"Regan, we leave you alone, fully clothed, for two minutes and you've already attracted four guys? You better be drowning," she demanded, eyes dancing. She sashayed past the lifeguards to wrap a sarong around herself and then crouch down next to me. I at once acknowledged it was both a clever ploy to put her in the direct view of four good looking guys and also a silent sign to me that if something untoward was actually happening, she would back me up. I patted her hand and she winked. This was one of the reasons I loved her so.
The rest of my friends stood to one side, staring curiously and appreciatively at the guys who were returning the look, although Mr Dreadlocks seemed to be distracted by Nina's onesie ensemble.
"Nope, not drowning," I confirmed, staring at my knees again. Will's shadow was still there and I resisted the childish urge to move to get out from underneath it. It wasn't like he could infect me with bad manners through the silhouette.
"Will here was just making sure she was okay," Mike assured her, pointing at Will, who was no longer looking at me and instead seemed very interested in a nearby umbrella. "You know, girl sitting by herself, unprotected, looking all lonesome-"
"I was not," I objected. "I'm fine."At least I would be, if they left and took Will with them.
"I'm Jessica," my friend said now that she was satisfied that I was not being attacked in any way. I, on the other hand, felt differently, I was definitely being attacked in some jacket-related way. Not that she would have listened to me the way she was looking at Mike. She craftily held out her hand so that Mike would have to come nearer and bend down to shake it. By his cheesy smile it was clear that he was aware of what she was doing and had every intention of playing along. Typical. Now they'd never leave.
"I'm Mike, I guess you know that Will is Will, blondie here is Carter and dreadlocks is Scoot."
"Scoot?" Jane asked, squinting back at 'dreadlocks', who smiled, but had yet to say anything to anyone other than his friends.
"Yeah, Morris Scoots. Hates his name. I'm sure you'll notice that he's quiet so it's easy to forget he's around."
It was apparent that Scoot was used to this kind of ribaldry as the smile never left his face. Carter meanwhile had busied himself striking up conversation with the twins. Will... well, Will was still looking off into the distance, either not listening or plain uninterested. This inherently pissed me off. This was all his fault, he'd disturbed my peace and quiet and then I'd been accosted by his friends who were now looking so chummy with my own friends that they looked like at any minute they were going to sit down and sing Kumbayah together – either that or just plain old make out – and he had the gall to find everything uninteresting and look like he wished he was somewhere else. I think that was my prerogative, actually.
"Shouldn't you guys be patrolling the beach, or something?" I asked stonily, making it known to all involved that I was not quite so willing to make friends as the others, and ignoring the swift and not so subtle jab to the ribs from Jessica who was not as eager as I was to see them leave. "Not exactly practical, is it, to have every lifeguard on the beach hovering over us when it's already been established that I'm not drowning."
Both Jessica and Will had the same expression on their faces (although probably for different reasons), and looked ready to jump in with some comment no doubt, but Mike managed to slap a hand over Will's mouth and interject before Jessica could say anything.
"No need to worry about the tourists, sweetheart, there are a few more of our buddies out there watching for idiots in the ocean. Plus, may I mention that we have saved you from Will divesting you of your clothing, so all in all I think we've done a good job helping you out."
"Right," I muttered, with florid cheeks under the girls' curious stares. I was not going to get on with Mike, that much was clear. Not only had he continued to add to my embarrassment and frustration, he had also called me 'sweetheart' and now I had to avoid Jessica's pointed gaze and smirk. From her expression I could tell she wasn't going to let me escape without finding out what Mike had meant. Why did he have to mention divesting clothes?
Just as I was reaching the point where I figured if the earth didn't open up a whole and swallow me soon I would steal a spade from the family nearest to us and dig the hole myself, Will exhaled loudly, drawing everyone's attention, and then, completely ignoring me, addressed Jessica.
"Tell your friend that she shouldn't wear a jacket as it's way too hot and she'll overheat. She should also sit under the umbrella in the shade instead of beside it. And drink water. That's all I came here to say." He was turning away when he seemed unable to stop himself from looking at me once more, with an undecipherable glance, and then he was off walking down the beach. It didn't escape my notice that several female heads turned in his direction as he passed them.
If only they knew.
I was fuming.
"He's a nice guy," said Carter, wincing apologetically. "Really. He just takes some getting used to."
"Believe me when I say that I never want to be in his presence long enough to have the chance to get used to him," I said through gritted teeth. Without looking at any of them I finally ripped off the jacket which had started this whole mess, yanked off my dress, grabbed a rubber ring out of Nora's hands and marched down to the sea, ignoring Jane calling after me, "but we just came back!"
In comparison with the hot sand, the water was heavenly.
With the rubber ring around me I kept myself above the water with very little effort, and leaned my head back to look up at the sky. It was definitely one of those really beautiful days, and I felt the frustration ebb away with the waves. I was still annoyed, hell yes, but the asshole was on the beach and couldn't bother me here. From my position I could just about overhear snippets of conversation from other swimmers who were bobbing up and down on the waves. No one was near enough to bother me, though, although this did leave me alone with my thoughts, which perhaps wasn't such a good thing. I sighed as images I'd been trying not to bring up flashed across my consciousness.
Rather than the over-thinking, which I had done a lot of, especially in beginning, and rather than the 'what if's and the regrets, it was the memories that were the worst; because I'd been really super happy two months ago. Nothing like the bitter mess I was now. People usually hate high school; they moan and complain about homework and deadlines and love life dramas and backstabbing friends. But I had loved it; every bit of it had been enjoyable to me. I wasn't in loads of clubs or anything, nor was I especially popular, but I had a good group of friends, I had good grades, I had fun and worked hard and ate a lot and played a lot (and very occasionally had to cut school to do so… very occasionally).
And more importantly, I had Nick.
It was interesting that my heart no longer experienced the familiar twinge I'd always felt at the thought of his name. At first it had been due to excitement and anticipation, then abject fury and hurt, and then it had all faded away and his name no longer made any physical impact on me at all. It didn't exactly bring up any pleasant feelings, but it was quite tiring being angry all the time.
Nick had transferred into our high school in junior year. He was smart, athletic, and could make anybody laugh, even Mr Tady whose sense of humor seemed to have left at the same time as his first wife. We attributed his current girlfriend (and the improvement of our grades) to Nick's special powers. For someone who was so well-liked, he'd seemed completely uninterested in getting a girlfriend, until I accidentally tipped paint from an art project of mine all over his favorite sneakers. Apparently this put me on his radar, but not for such reasons as vengeance and payback, which would be any normal person's reaction. Instead, desecrating his shoes had made me irresistible.
But it turned out after a few weeks that he was rather irresistible himself. You know when a person is both cheeky and serious and you just want to pinch their cheeks then fall into their arms? Yeah, that was Nick. And he made me really really happy.
And then he'd taken it all away.
"Would the girl in the rubber ring please pay attention!" I was brought rudely and cursing out of my thoughts by a loud voice coming from the shore.
Actually the shore looked pretty far away. So much so that it took me a minute to identify Will as being the one yelling through a megaphone. And because he was having to yell through a megaphone to be heard, pretty much half the beach were able to hear and had stopped to look over, either at him, or at the speck that I must have looked like to them in the waves. Well this was going to get mortifying very quickly. At least at this distance no one would be able to spot my reddening cheeks.
"Do you need rescuing?"
"Is he seriously asking me this?" I muttered to myself, and then louder, "I'm fine!"
"I said I'm fine!"
"No you're not."
"You can't keep telling me if I'm fine or not!" Exasperating boy! To prove my point I tipped forward into a front crawl stroke, rubber ring still attached and keeping me afloat... or encumbering my progress and dragging me even further out to sea. It was hard to tell. Except Will still looked incredibly small, no matter how hard I paddled. Damn it.
Not feeling at all panicked, I decided to sacrifice the rubber ring – I'd buy Nora a new one – and started to really put some effort into swimming. It was soon becoming apparent that I had actually drifted into a fairly strong current, and it occurred to me helpfully that I was a moderate swimmer at best. Too busy fighting the waves to curse, I kicked and paddled and occasionally accidentally swallowed salt water and tried not to gag from the taste.
The waves by now were crashing down on me quite heavily, and soon the panic I had been denying began to overwhelm me. I swallowed more salt water and stopped swimming to gasp and cough above the surface, treading water although the muscles in my legs and arms felt like they were on fire. It was hard to stay afloat and several times I was pushed underwater, only to come back up spluttering and blind, unable to open my eyes which stung from the salt. I didn't know where the shore was anymore, and the waves were high so to see over them was impossible. Perhaps I'd made no progress towards the shore whatsoever. I tried to concentrate on regulating my breathing before trying again, but it was a battle I was losing.
Still coughing, I pried open my eyes and noticed a familiar long red tube bobbing in front of me, and didn't even think twice. Once it was in my arms I tightened my grip fiercely. No one was removing me from another floating device. I thought mournfully of the rubber ring I'd discarded.
"Keep kicking! Don't stop kicking!"
I followed the brusque order, and found myself moving a lot easier than I would have thought in my current state. It wasn't until we were halfway to shore that I realized it was because Will was swimming hard and pulling me along, my feeble kicking actually doing very little to help. At this point in time I also noticed that all my friends, Mike and the other lifeguards, and several strangers were standing at the water's edge, watching. Was that someone taking a photo?
Oh god. Maybe drowning would have been better? Time to get a spade and dig that hole.
It was amazing how my brain could still come up with quips at myself when physically I was dead exhausted.
As we closed in on the shore, several of the familiar bystanders rushed towards me and helped to pull me along. My limbs felt like rubber and I thought that I might throw up if people didn't stop tugging at me. It must have been an attractive sight as I curled over on my knees and dry heaved, desperately trying to combat the nausea and dizziness.
A bottle of water was thrust into my hands, cap off, and I took a hesitant sip, and then another. The noise, a mixed jumble of sounds, started to de-fuzzify and started to sound more like individual people, asking me if I was okay, how did I feel, and telling me to sip slowly and take it easy. I planned on doing just that. When I no longer felt like heaving, I rolled onto my back and closed my eyes. I felt a deft pair of hands briefly feel my legs and arms and I peered under my eyelids to see Will leaning over me, checking my pulse which couldn't have been anything but racing.
"Jesus, Regan! That was fucking crazy! What were you thinking? What, were you in your own little world or something?" Jessica cried out on the other side of me, her tone a mix of anger and worry.
"I guess," I managed to say, unable to keep my voice from wobbling. This immediately tipped her expression towards worry rather than anger, which I supposed was preferable.
"It's okay, you're gonna be fine," said Mike, appearing in my field of vision as he crouched down beside Will. Mike was still grinning. Always grinning. Bastard. "You're gonna feel nauseas and crap for a while, but just keeping sipping that water, maybe have some real simple food like crackers, then you'll be fine."
"Maybe stay out of the water for today though, huh?" Carter added helpfully from behind him. Scoot said nothing, but I figured that wasn't unusual.
I looked over at my... well, savior I guess. He'd sat down facing the sea, but was looking at me, hands clasped loosely around his knees. He had already regulated his breathing pattern, something I had not yet fully achieved, and he looked like he'd been sitting there for hours instead of just having rescued a stupid damsel in ridiculous distress. His expression which had been worried had smoothed out and was now rather blank, which I supposed was better than a scowl. As the others spoke over me, he never removed his eyes from my face.
"You alright, mate?" Mike asked, noticing Will's constant vigil.
Will did not respond at first, seeming to struggle with something inwardly, and then said, "Splash about near the shore if you can't swim, alright? Instead of causing trouble for other people."
I stared at him, dumbfounded. Surely, surely he was not being... yes he was. Without another word, he stood up and walked away towards the lifeguard beach hut without a backward glance, and I painfully swallowed the gratitude I had been mustering up the courage to utter. The interested bystanders had already left, so the only witnesses to the scene were my friends and the other lifeguards. Everyone was silently watching his back disappearing. Mike eventually turned to face me, looking even more apologetic than Carter had before I'd gone into the water.
"Save it," I croaked angrily, "I honestly do not care that you think he takes some time getting used to."
I was still feeling sick, I was in pain, and I was livid. Again. With concerted effort I dragged myself onto my feet and strode ungainly over the sand to my towel, where I sat down. Unwilling to even lift it to dry myself off, I stared stonily at anything except my friends, who had followed me quietly. It was Nina, surprisingly, who broke the silence.
"He's an asshole, Regan, just ignore him and don't let him spoil today." Her words were soft-spoken and sincere, but I could only nod while looking steadily at my hands, counting the wrinkles that had formed from being in the water too long.
"We were thinking we'd get lunch now, shall we get you a hot dog or something?" Jane asked, knowing without me saying anything that I wanted the subject changed quickly.
"Yeah I'm starving, let's get hot dogs and rest up before we go back in the water, I need to work on my tan," said Nora, probably the tannest of us all, looking at her arms.
"If you go any darker, people are definitely going to be able to tell us apart," Nina teased.
"Do you even realize the weird tan lines you're going to get from your swimsuit?"
I couldn't help but feel grateful, despite my temper, that the others were purposefully act as normal. Although it was a reminder of the careful way they had been treating me ever since Nick... well, I was still grateful. Jessica stayed with me, filling me in on something they had been talking about before my dramatic episode. Her smile was protective in nature, and I smiled back to reassure her.
The others came back with hot dogs and passed around cans of pop. I consumed them without a word, but they seemed to understand. My anger had abated, and now I was just feeling quite dull and tired. I just wanted to rest my head and drift off to sleep, so when the girls said they were going in for another dip an hour later, I stayed behind, clothes rolled into a ball under my head, and umbrella firmly stuck into the sand providing me with much needed shade. This way he-who-shall-not-be-mentioned would have no excuse to come over and insult me again.
It was easy to doze off in the warmth, and I was only occasionally aware of my surroundings as I drifted in and out of consciousness. At one point a beach ball landed fairly near my head, and I made the inhuman effort to throw it back before curling back into a comfortable ball and dozing off again. A short time later, a body thumped down on the sand beside me. Through bleary eyes I took stock of the brunette, and felt vaguely pleased that Jessica had come back to keep me company, before I was dozing off again.
It was the sound of children laughing that woke me up again. The high pitched shrieks of delight rang through my ears and pulled me abruptly from a troubling dream. My body desperately wanted to stretch from my curled up position, and I obliged, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. No one else had come back yet, I noticed, except for Jessica who was still sitting silently beside me. Except...
"Oh god, really?"
My insides cringed, actually cringed. My sleep addled brain had apparently dreamed up long flowing tresses on my companion instead of the short brown locks that I really hadn't wanted to see. I winced and looked away deliberately. Not that he took the hint.
"Yeah, I know."
It was actually a surprise to hear him speak, especially as the words were not biting or scornful for a change. Not that I was in the mood to engage him in any kind of conversation whatsoever. Except I hadn't expected this response, "yeah I know". Then again I didn't really know what to expect from the guy anymore. He wasn't scowling, but that didn't necessarily mean anything.
"You know what?" I asked warily.
"That I'm an asshole."
I think a tiny part of me wanted to smile at the matter of fact way he had said it, but mostly I just agreed with him. It also kind of went without saying that he was an asshole, so I didn't comment.
"You slept a long time," he said eventually, which again I didn't expect. How long had I been asleep? How long had he sat there? I looked up at the sun, but came to the quick conclusion that I had no idea about the movement of the sun in relation to time.
"Yeah, well," I said, still not wishing to encourage him.
"It's quite dangerous to fall asleep in this heat though, it means you're probably not drinking enough to sustain the hydration levels your body needs."
"Would you go away if I paid you to?"
This put a quick end to his newest lecture, and he brushed a frustrated hand through his hair. Well, if he wanted a willing student he had picked the wrong person in the wrong kind of mood.
"I..." Will started. I looked over and it seemed as if he was trying to ground the sand beneath his feet into even smaller particles. He had that look on his face again, the one where he seemed to be struggling inwardly with himself. After a short pause he began again. "I didn't mean to... it didn't come out right."
"Is that some sort of apology? 'Cause it sucks," I told him frankly.
Oddly enough this seemed to bring a smile to his face. The change was immense, and it stunned me for a second. His face was as tanned as the rest of his body, I imagined from spending hours on the beach. His blues eyes seemed to glimmer a little now he was no longer knitting his eyebrows over them in a frown or scowl. His body was in a pose similar to the one he had used when sitting beside me on the shore after the dramatic rescue. He looked incredibly relaxed and good-looking. Sort of good-looking. Not really good-looking at all, in fact, just moderately nice to look at. If we were partially sighted.
"I guess it sort of is," Will said, and my eyes jerked from his face to examine my nail-beds intently. "I'm not really good at those either."
"No kidding," I said wryly.
"I wasn't trying to get at you," he insisted.
"You could have fooled me. Why did you, by the way?"
The smile dropped from his face, which I very briefly thought was a shame. But I wasn't going to make this easy on him. He'd spoilt a lot of what was supposed to be a really good day. Or a pretty good day, anyway. As Will bent his head to pick up a handful of sand, the sunglasses that had perched in his hair slid forward, and with quick reflexes he caught them awkwardly in his hands. I watched as played with them, waiting until he thought of something to say.
"Don't take this the wrong way," he said eventually, which immediately sounded suspicious, "but as I was walking around, I saw your friends leave, and then you were sitting alone, staring at the ground. I wanted-" Will looked up at the sky as if willing the words he was trying to say to fall from it. "I wanted to help. You looked pale, and I thought you might not be feeling well."
"You thought I wasn't feeling well, so you told me off?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Like I said, it didn't come out right," Will said, looking apologetic.
"And after you pulled me out of the water? What was that?"
Will winced again and looked back out to the ocean, squinting into the sun. I appreciated the fact that he hadn't put his sunglasses back on over his eyes. His expressions were more interesting and much easier to read without them on.
"The guys had been ribbing me for how I'd talked to you. They were getting on my nerves, and they kept bringing up the fact that I was keeping an eye on you. It was 'cause of that that I saw you going out too far. When we were back on the shore, well, I thought that Mike was about to say something, make some stupid comment, and I snapped at you instead of him. Which I... also... apologize for."
"And how long have you been sitting here while I was sleeping?" I asked, trying not to smile at the visible effort on his face as he apologized.
"Not too long."
"How very creepy Edward Cullen of you."
His face was a picture and I couldn't stop myself from giggling, although it brought to my awareness the fact that my muscles were aching and tense from my drowning experience. I put my hands on my ribs and groaned.
"Are you okay?" Will asked, instantly concerned and reached over to feel my ribs, causing me to take a sharp intake of breath. Whether it was the pain or... yeah it must have been the pain.
"It'll probably hurt for a few hours, at worst a couple days. Sore muscles are a bitch," he said. He then seemed to realize where his hands were lingering and pulled them back into the safety of his lap. All I could really think to say was "yeah", and then a hush ensued.
Out in the ocean, I could see that Jessica had spotted us and was waving, no doubt grinning stupidly. Jane was making some kind of sand sculpture, and it was clear even at this distance that Nora and Carter were flirting with each other, as every few seconds they seemed to reach out to touch the other person and laugh. Nina was nowhere in sight, but it was doubtful that she had made my stupid mistake of floating out to sea, so I wasn't concerned.
"Am I the only idiot who needed rescuing today?"
Will's laugh was nice, not quite an all out laugh but more than a chuckle. It sounded quite strange coming from him, even stranger than his smile, considering he had been scowling for most of the day.
"There was an unsupervised toddler before you, and a cut foot after you. You've been the most dramatic part of the job all day, really. But we still have a while to go, so you never know."
I nodded. I wasn't sure where else this conversation would lead, and to be honest I'd run out of ideas. Will, too, did not speak, either satisfied with the quiet or also unsure of what to say. When the same beach ball from before crashed down in front of us, he got up to throw it back, I was sure he was going to use it as an excuse to leave, but instead he came and sat back down next to me. We both watched Jane and her sandcastle, which were soon joined by two small children. I say joined, but really they just crouched in the sand beside her, fascinated.
"What happened?" he said eventually.
"What do you mean?" I asked, confused, not following his train of thought.
"What happened that upset you."
"Upset me?" Wow, it was that obvious? How pathetic. I thought after all this time I'd hidden it at least reasonably well so that people would stop asking me questions about it. But apparently it was still obvious.
"Before I went over to you, you looked, I don't know, sad I guess? I thought you were feeling unwell but then when you spoke… sorry, none of my business."
He was getting used to saying sorry, I thought, watching as he didn't even wince this time. I'd never had a stranger apologize to me so much in such a short amount of time. And here he was, asking the question I'd been asked over and over again by curious bystanders to my spectacular love life drama, in an episode entitled "The One Where The Shit Hit The Fan."
They completely pissed me off, those people, because it was blatantly obvious that they just wanted to gossip about it. And so they did, even without any input from me. It wasn't even at whisper level. People I hardly knew would be talking about it behind me as I stood in the lunch queue, so yeah, literally talking about me behind my back. But then again, everyone knew Nick, and so knew of me, and everyone loved Nick, no matter what he did. Even after the 'shit hit the fan,' they still loved Nick. Which was in part what had made me so angry.
Beside me, Will had apparently come to the conclusion that I wasn't going to answer him, and was looking out to sea. But for once, I actually felt like telling someone. Telling someone what had happened, who didn't already have a predisposition to stay on Nick's side even if they did sympathize with me. Once the urge was there, it grew and grew, until I could barely contain the words anymore. And I realized I desperately wanted someone to see things as I saw them. My friends were on my side, of course they were. They'd vilified Nick to his face. But this was different. This was important.
"I had a boyfriend," I started. Will didn't turn to look at me, but I knew he was listening. "He was a transfer student, really popular with everyone because he was genuinely a nice guy, and we were together for a year."
"You broke up." It wasn't a question so much as a statement, but Will's tone was gentle.
"How long ago?"
"Two months," I answered. Those two months had been such an ordeal. "He broke it off. He didn't want to. We were actually really happy."
"In love?" Will didn't smirk, and it seemed like a genuine question, so I answered truthfully.
"No, not in love. Not for me anyway, and he never said it. I think I could have been, though. Given more time, but..." I trailed off.
Okay, deep breath, just say it.
"He got another girl pregnant."
"He did what?" The sunglasses he held dropped from his hands, unnoticed.
"Yeah," I said, chuckling sarcastically, although I still found nothing funny about it. "Usual story, apparently. Guy gets mega drunk at a party, to the point where he isn't even aware of what he's doing; girl has fancied guy for ages despite him having a girlfriend and they find an empty room and have sex. Or something along those lines, I didn't really ask him to go into too much detail."
I laughed. 'Fuck' didn't even come close to covering it, but the outraged look on his face lightened some of the weight I had been carrying on my shoulders for two months.
"What an asshole."
"A dastardly bastardly asshole," I said, happily, and it made Will smile.
"How do you feel now?"
I pondered this for a second. I definitely felt different what I'd felt a month ago, a week ago, ten minutes ago even. The hurt had faded away fairly recently, and just the anger had remained. But now, I didn't think I even felt particularly angry. Just fed up.
"I can't wait to go to college," I said finally, "it's out of state and most of the people I know are staying in state. It'll be nice to get away. No more meaningful side glances and people bothering me about it. It's a hot topic at school, still, so I just have to last until graduation. Not long now."
"Well, if you ever need to get away from them you can always cut school and come here," he suggested, eyes twinkling, "although I probably shouldn't encourage you seeing how often you're down here during school time already."
I gaped at him.
"Eh? How do you know that?"
"Mike doesn't go to college, just bums around here," he explained, picking his sunglasses out of the sand, shaking them, and then wedged them back on his head. "When I saw you a few weeks ago, he mentioned how you and those girls often cut class to come here. And he warns you if someone teacher-looking is on the way."
"Wait, that was him?" I asked, scrunching my nose and trying fit Mike's face to the blur of an image I had in my memory. "To be honest, if we even heard the word 'teacher' we were usually already halfway up the sand dunes so I don't think I ever really looked at Mike before."
"He'll be so pleased he made such an impact," Will grinned.
Then, out of nowhere, I felt a stinging sensation near my eye and I grabbed my face.
Will was already on his feet, picking up the same beach ball that had been thrown near us before that had apparently connected with my face this time, and jogged over to a nearby family. He bent down to talk to one of the children, a boy of about twelve, and then stood up and faced the boy's parents who didn't seem to know whether to look apologetic or embarrassed, but seemed to cover both emotions between them. That familiar scowl was back on Will's face, and despite the pain in my head, I giggled. So that was actually how he dealt with everyone. Good to know.
Will was soon kneeling beside me again and inspecting my eye, holding my head between his hands to tilt my face towards the sun.
"I know you don't usually believe me," I murmured due to his proximity which was doing all kinds of weird things to my stomach, "but I seriously am fine. It was more an 'ow' from shock than pain."
Will ignored me and continued to hold my face, and I felt the heat start to steal up my neck. With seconds to spare, he let go, and I was able to duck my head to conceal most of the blush.
"I don't think sand got in your eye, but if it scratches you need to tell me."
"Are you sure you're okay?" This made me raise my head in exasperation.
"Oh my god, Will I'm fine. Why-"
With a gentle hand, Will moved my bangs out of my face. The heat from his fingers seemed to spread through my face and trickle down my spine, and I shivered. When he didn't back away I found I could no longer hold his gaze and I shifted, only to find myself staring at his mouth. Ah crap. Look at his ear, look at his ear. It was a very nice ear. No piercings, good, I'd always hated that about Nick, one of the very few things I'd disliked about him, until the whole cheating pregnancy thing of course.
"Purely out of curiosity, would you set your friends on me if I made a move on?"
He caught me eyes again and a frisson of… I don't know, something, fizzed like sparks down my back. Then I frowned, deliberately ignoring the pleasure I received from the entire sentence and focusing only on part of it.
"My friends? Why?"
"That Jessica girl is frightening, like actually frightening. She shot death rays at me when I left you on the shore. And I'm not sure what's up with the girl in the bodysuit."
A helpless giggle rose up in my throat, but the look in his eyes prevented it from coming out. He looked serious. I looked at his lips again and considered the option of kissing him. Yeah, his lips would probably look pretty good on mine, and if I didn't get to cop a feel of his chest which I had been steadfastly ignoring since the moment he'd walked up to me, I'd probably go insane.
So I smiled.
And you know those people who say "it was just as good as I imagined it would be". Well, it was just as good as I imagined it would be. Or had tried hard not to imagine it would be… if that even made sense. He had no t-shirt to cling to so my hands closed around leanly muscled arms. The pressure of the kiss was light, but it took some effort to remain upright when all I really felt like doing was to sink down into the sand. But there were kids around, so it probably wouldn't have looked good. It was strange, kissing someone other than Nick – different. I hadn't expected it to be for some reason, but it made sense that it was. And it was a relief. And good. Really good.
His hands were in my hair and I reached up to put mine in his. Without meaning to, I knocked his sunglasses off his head having forgotten they were there, but neither of us made any sign that we'd noticed. Will was good at kissing, that much was clear. He applied pressure when I gripped him harder and nipped and teased when the kiss might have gotten too hot and heavy. When I stroked the nape of his neck I felt that shiver that unexpectedly ran through him and I smiled against his mouth. The feeling was so much better than drowning, but it still felt like drowning. In a good way.
Time must have ticked by without us noticing because suddenly there was a loud and meaningful cough from behind him. It took a few seconds once we'd parted for my eyes to focus on four curious sets of eyes watching us. Everyone looked confused, apart from Jessica who was grinning from ear to ear.
"You okay, Regan?" Nora asked.
"I'll say she is," Jessica teased.
Will didn't release me, but he was scowling again, and this time I just found it adorable. And then everyone was talking and claiming their spaces and passing around drinks. Jessica patted my head as she went by, and I scrunched my nose in distaste. Will chuckled quietly and quickly kissed the end of my nose, which did not go unnoticed by the rest of the group.
"I'd better go," he said, rising up and brushing the sand of his trunks. Almost immediately, though, he was hunkering down again in front of me so that he was eye level. "So if I ask you out, I'm assuming you'd also be okay with that?"
I shrugged with faked nonchalance.
"I suppose so. You could come in handy, saving me from errant spoons in restaurants and overzealous folding chairs in cinemas."
"Blimey, how accident prone are you?"
I grinned and retrieved a pen from my bag to write my number on his hand. "Don't let it wash away," I said.
"I won't. If you need anything, just don't go drowning yourself to get my attention. I'm only gonna be over there," he said and pointed to a hut along the beach I had seen him disappearing into before.
I grabbed his shoulder and made like I was going to push him over, and he settled his hand atop my own and squeezed. He hesitated a few seconds, and then he was gone.
I watched him as he ran off, dodging people and pets, and vanished inside the beach hut. When I turned round, it came to my attention that everyone had stopped talking and were watching me with unreserved curiosity. Jessica was grinning slyly, as usual.
"Tell. Us. Everything."
A/N: So hello, it's been a while! You have no idea how many half finished stories I have in my half finished story folder (it's literally called that on my laptop). I kept starting things and then felt they were no good or got bored with them and then rewrote them and then wrote something new and completely different. But I got there in the end! I hope this is worth the wait, and I apologize if it's not. I tried to make it a longer one-shot to make up for the time it's taken me to post something.
Would you mind if I did write shorter things, which might be posted quicker? Or do you think this is the right sort of length?
Anyway, hope you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, wherever you may be. Here's to great 2012! (And hopefully not the end of the world…)