Prologue: …Comes Around
The sun is merciless today.
I shade my eyes with one hand, closing my fingers when it shines through the webbing, and exposing a sharp, saw-toothed grimace up at its blinding face. A heavy sigh drops from my throat, and I sag back into the quite-uncomfortable chair perched atop a short, bright-white tower. Even the umbrella erected by the previous life guard on duty doesn't seem to adjust in any meaningful way to keep the sun wholly off me.
It's not like I can get any tanner, and if my hair gets any more sun-bleached, the blonde is going to turn white like my folks.
Even when I am able to keep all my body parts in the small swath of shadow, there is no breeze. So, when
I am not being irradiated directly, I am slowly baking in the convection oven strangling the coast right now.
The fact that I am part shark is being made so very evident by how dry and thirsty I feel. No matter how much water I drink, that part doesn't go away. I feel constantly parched.
Not as bad as Dad though. To this day, he can't remain out of water indefinitely – not without repercussions. However, the thirst and the feeling of being a literal fish out of water is enough to make me scream.
I rub one hand against sandpaper skin trying to get the shriveling and tightening sensation to go away.
Why couldn't there be an emergency in the water right now?
I glance up and down the visible sections of the beach from my elevated perch. Sunbathing adults on the groomed-daily sand, tottering youth and splashing teens in the light surge. I note no anomalies to indicate my services are needed.
"Damn," I mutter, frowning into my fist. I could really use to get wet right about now.
While on duty, there is no recreational swimming. Lifeguards only hit the water for someone in distress.
Since I hired on here two weeks ago, I'd only had to render aide once, and that had been a false alarm. Some dude decided to give his girl a heart attack by grabbing her ankles and pulling her under somewhere closer to the protective buoy line.
I'm unable to appreciate that humor, ironically. This area is well-known for everything from tiger sharks to bull sharks, and all the nasty maneaters in between. The Sea of San Joaquin's selection of selachimorpha tend to be a lot larger than even open ocean predators. Being that large and that far up the food chain translates into them being bolder than their open water cousins.
Crying wolf like that is bound to get someone hurt – killed even. The last thing I want is for that to happen on my watch.
A pang of nerves shoots up from my gut, and I lift my gaze to the sonic buoys out beyond the swimming area. I scan each, looking for the indicating light that one of them isn't emitting.
A sigh of relief escapes me when all the lights tipping the poles above are a calming green.
That small self-scare past, I melt once more in the Santa Ana heat. Combined with the inversion layer, it's nearly unbearable.
Another heavy exhalation later, I think, And you thought being a lifeguard was the perfect job for the summer.
I laugh at myself for the delusion and then straighten in an effort to pretend I'm not bored out of my skull or bordering on heat stroke.
"I'm bee-lining for the surf as soon as my shift is over," I mutter. And thinking about it only makes me feel even more dried out and thirsty.
Crazy part is?
It will still be hot even after my shift ends at five. Weather-guessers are saying it's going to be into the eighties until around midnight. That just makes the current heat all the more torturous.
A few hours and degrees of the sun later, I find myself very close to the end of my shift and hiding behind the tower's broken shade because the platform is unavoidably bathed in slanting sun from the west. I can't adjust the umbrella without blocking my view of the beach and water, and I can't just sit there and boil in my own skin. Besides the sun is directly in my eyes and I can't see anyway.
At least here, I can block some of the direct rays and observe most of the area around my post.
"Help," comes teasingly from behind me. "Oh, save me!"
I spin, despite that I already know it's a joke and who it's originating from. But that small spark in my gut insists, wanting the assurance that I didn't misinterpret the phrasing.
I relax a moment later when my first impression proves true. My shoulder's slouch.
"Hey, Andrea," I sigh. "You got me… again."
A grin erupts on her pale, freckled face. She grabs for the top of the wide-brimmed straw hat when a rare gust attempts to tug if off her strawberry blond curls.
Her attempt to skip in delight is ruined by the uneven footing of the soft sand. She stumbles, but recovers before I can leap forward and catch her. "I can't believe that is still working!" she squeals gleefully as if the slip never happened. "By now you should be ignoring me when I do that, right?"
"Until what? It happens for real, and I don't react like I should," I reply, hearing the soft reprimand in my own voice.
Andrea sighs and moves in for a hug and a kiss.
I lift one halting hand. "Can't," I say, grimacing to have to rebuke her affection. "I'm on duty for another fifteen minutes. You're early."
"Oh." Her lower lip pushes out. "I couldn't help it!" She glares at the sky as she stomps a divot in the sand. "I couldn't stand the wait any longer!"
I laugh. Even pouting she's cute as hell.
"No SoPA until I'm off," I insist.
Again, that pouty-puppy expression tugs on my resolve.
With a sly grin, I add, "I'll make it up to you, I promise."
She bats her greenish-brown eyes coquettishly. "Oh, I trust you will."
"How was your day, anyway?" I ask, forcing myself to watch the beach and the water, rather than drinking in how fine Andrea looks in her one piece.
She twists, leaning her back on the tower to my left. I catch a hint of the light perfume she wears as a hint of hot breeze carries it to my nose.
Man, she is really intent on distracting me.
"We went school shopping today." She makes a dry, retching sound, completely fake, but the sound definitely illustrates how she feels about it.
I break my scrutiny of my purview to look at her. "Damn, is junior year that close already?"
"Two weeks," she sighs.
"I… have been too busy to think about it," I say, shaking my head.
"Yeah, you have!" She glowers a moment. "Haven't even been able to take me out for a date like you promised."
"I know," I sigh, regret filling every corner of the sound. "I thought it would be easier than this to arrange."
"It's okay Michael. You wouldn't have the car if you didn't have the job, and it would put you right in the same boat." She grins devilishly. "At least we can rendezvous now and again."
She winks and swings her shoulders a little, showing off the backless portion of her swimwear.
Nngh… dang it girl, knock it off, I think.
I don't mean an iota of it. She's beautiful. Something about the freckles washing the lighter skin – it's intoxicating.
"Are they going to let you keep the job after summer is over?"
I nod. "Friday through Sunday. Less days, but longer hours. Still going to lose some income on it."
"Still, better than most of us," Andrea says. She grins and shrugs, and I catch a glimpse of her digging her toes into the sand to make an unfinished Zen garden.
"Not complaining." I return my gaze to the water. "I was lucky to get hired, considering. If I wasn't an excellent swimmer, that black mark might have eliminated me from the running."
"They'd have been stupid to hold that against you." Andrea quips, sounding defensive for me. "I still don't understand why no one realizes you were simply defending yourself!"
I sneak a quick peek her way, but don't jump into the argument. Self-defense doesn't justify how badly I messed those guys up. Instead, I say, "Even so."
As I peel my gaze off of her again, I glance at my chrono seeing that the appointed hour has arrived.
Used to be, because I'm the last lifeguard of the day, I'd extend my stay a bit, feeling guilty about leaving the beach unattended. But I swiftly came to realize my Good Samaritan streak would not pay me extra, nor would the city, who gives me my paycheck. The only time they might consider a bump is if a lifeguard is still entangled in a rescue after the shift ends.
I grin at Andrea and then wheel around the edge of the tower, pulling myself up to the deck without touching the ladder, in one of my rare shows of speed and power. As I grab the bull horn, I spin to face the open beach, key the mike, and announce, "Lifeguards are no longer available for any emergencies! You now assume all risk and responsibilities for continued use of the beach!"
I repeat it several more times, aiming the bull horn at different areas to ensure maximum coverage. That done, I adjust the umbrella to its full upright position, collapse the canopy on it, and secure it with the strap. Grabbing the torpedo buoy and snatching the umbrella out of its holder, I leap down into the sand. I set them next to the tower for a moment, before reaching up to the platform to grab the bullhorn to add to the pile.
"So, I'm going to go jump in the water really quick before I get this all put away. I'll meet you at your car." I glance over her shoulder to the lot behind us. "Where'd you park?"
"Next to you, actually – surprisingly," she chirps.
"Cool," I nod. "Meet you there!"
"Okay, see you in a few!"
I twist away and start running top speed for the surf, intent to get this cloying, dusty feeling off my skin and out of my mouth. I barely touch the edge of the surge with one toe, and I'm leaping for deeper water. I slip under at an angle and swim along the bottom until I'm beyond the shallows. I like to swim the buoy line just before I truly quit for the day, so this is something of a routine.
I swim past them ensuring that they are emitting the fields meant to mess up a shark's ability to sense electricity. I have to admit the sonic and electrical pulses the buoys emit bothers even me, and I don't have their ampullae of Lorenzini. I stay just far enough away from the emitters that I can sense them without giving myself a headache. I'm not as leisurely as usual, because leaving Andrea waiting for me is not something I want. I make it to the end of my usual arc and then head, once again, to shore.
Heading back to my station, I gather up the umbrella, bullhorn, and torpedo buoy, and put them away in the storage locker. When that's done, I run myself under the freshwater shower before heading over to Andrea.
When I get there, she is perched on the trunk of her car, swinging her legs and humming a nameless tune. At my approach, she smiles brightly. "There you are! I was beginning to wonder if one of your half-brothers decided to have a word with you!"
I laugh sarcastically at that.
"Had to do my final rounds," I utter in answer.
Unlocking the trunk of my car, I trade my work bag for our outing bag. I keep the towel out, rubbing it over my hair again and again trying to stop it from dripping in my face.
"Did you clear the extra time with your folks?" Andrea asks, sounding a bit guilty – as if she might get me into trouble.
"Of course!" I respond, shutting the hatch on my hand-me-down vehicle. Well, it's not mine yet, just on semi-permanent loan. "I told them we had a date, and I'd be home at or around eight."
I glance over at her, and my body follows. Setting down the small duffle, I move to fill the space between her knees, leaning in to kiss her. Her arms wrap around my neck and head, even as mine find her waist. I worry for a moment about the fact that my trunks and skin are still somewhat damp. Andrea doesn't complain, so I let it go.
The kiss lasts a long time, long enough that another feeling swells – longing. I finally break off, pushing back slowly.
I lift one hand to stroke her flushed cheek, before letting it drag down her neck and shoulder, tracing that touch all the way down until my fingers capture hers.
"C'mon," I nod to one side, stooping slightly to reclaim my duffle. "Let's get out of this heat."
Holding hands, we jog to the edge of the parking lot, hugging the cliffs rather than keeping to the beach. It's easier walking. After about fifteen minutes we slow, more leisurely moving towards my intended destination. The short journey is filled with small talk, hugging, occasional kisses, and just savoring each other's company.
Living and swimming in this area for so long has given me a list of places the general public has no idea even exist. I'm leading us to one such secluded micro-beach so we can be alone.
I assist Andrea as we climb over the rocks and boulders which discourage most from venturing this far. As we dismount the scrape, Andrea gasps in excitement.
"Oh, this is lovely!" she bursts, bouncing excitedly and leaving her imprint in the pristine sand.
"I'm glad you like it!" I say. "I haven't brought you here before, because the tides need to be just right."
"Oh?" She tilts her head.
"This cove is underwater at high tide. The first time I found it was actually when it was underwater."
I beckon her forward once again, heading to the far corner of the small pocket of shoreline hemmed in by cliff faces. I stop at an opening, showing her a small pocket cave. It's existence a matter of wave action eroding the foot of the limestone cliff. It's completely shaded.
Her grin widens as she drops her backpack at the entrance and ducks in. I mirror her example.
"It's so cool in here," she whispers, her voice reverent.
"Yeah, it is pretty neat," I answer.
"No, I mean it's not hot, goof," she smacks playfully at my arm. "It's such a nice break from the heat!"
"Yeah, nice isn't it?" I ask huskily, wrapping her in an embrace and gently pushing her against the wall. We rub noses a moment, as her hands snake once more around my neck.
"It is," she whispers. "I like it."
"Do you?" I ask, softer still, leaning closer to her lips. "Or do you say that to just any life guard who shows you a cool cave?"
I feel her smile on my lips as they make light contact. "Only you, Michael. Only you," she assures me as she smothers anything I might say with a kiss.
Once more that overwhelming longing wells up. Rather than resisting what is obvious we both feel, we follow where passion leads.
As the sun lowers on the horizon, we emerge from our shelter and head for the water. We spend another hour hanging out, talking, making impermanent drawings in the wet sand and watching the rising tide erase it for us. We finally settle on the sand just above the edge of the water, watching the bronzing sky.
"Oh!" Andrea says suddenly breaking the pleasant silence. She leaps up and heads back for the entrance of the small cave, rooting through the bags still parked there.
I twist curious as to what she's after. As she slips back to me on the uneven, now thoroughly spoiled sand, she offers me a bottle.
"You want some?" she whispers, looking somewhat devilish. "I snuck it out of the house."
In the fading light, I make out the label on the tequila. My stomach does a bit of a flip. I grimace, already shaking my head in the negative. "Uh… no thanks. I swore off of that in middle school."
Her eyes get huge. "What? Middle school? Seriously?"
I nod, but don't elaborate.
"So, you really are a bad boy!" she teases.
"Not really no," I defend. "I just didn't make the greatest choices back then." I nod to emphasize. "Too much too fast. It was no bueno, not in the slightest."
"Are you sure? I mean you're older now."
Again, I politely refuse. "Even if I was inclined, I'd be in trouble the minute I walked in the door. Mom and Dad'd sniff me out in a heartbeat. Thanks for the offer, though."
She shrugs and takes a quick swig right off the neck of the bottle. Just moments later, her face is pinches almost as if in pain, her freckles disappear and she begins coughing and sticking out her tongue and fanning her face. "Oh God, I can see why you gave it up!" she bellows. The echoes of it blend into her continued effort to catch another breath.
"So, you've never?" I ask, pointing at her.
She can only shake her head, still looking like she just got out of a tear gas exercise. Finally, she wheezes, "Never."
"Now you know what you can continue missing!" I tease.
For long moments more, she sits there squirming, heaving air into and out of her lungs.
As the shade of red at the horizon deepens, I sigh, "We'd better start heading back."
It's a reluctant concession, because I don't want this to end.
"Yeah," she agrees. The sigh in her voice just as heavy. Her gaze flicks to me, and red obliterates her freckles again. I wonder if the flush is rooted in the same memory as the heat in mine.
Still, we start packing up our things and get ready for the walk back to the parking lot. We don't want to get trapped in here when the tide really begins coming in. I walk the area one last time before we depart to ensure nothing got left behind, not even a candy bar wrapper.
"Leave it in better shape than you found it."
It was a good motto, so there are a few extra items in the trash bag in my duffle that we didn't bring with us.
We take our time, hand in hand, silent, though I'm sure her brain is as full as mine is at the moment. We find ourselves speeding up as the edge of the ocean invades further and further inland.
Making it back just as the horizon burns that deep orange edged with rose and red, we pause in the gap between our two vehicles. We turn to face each other, leaning in until our torsos are pressed together. We stand this way for a few moments before her arms crawl around my chest and draw me into a hug.
"I had fun, Michael," Andrea says, her voice muffled by my chest and arm.
"Me too," I add, tightening my embrace just a moment before we back out of it simultaneously to kiss.
We take a long time more saying our goodbyes, but finally force ourselves to part ways and head home.
The first day of my junior year of high school.
Who'd have thought I'd actually make it this far, right? With the drama of the past two years, you'd think I'd be gun-shy about beginnings of the year.
I'm up about a half hour before my alarm goes off – showered, dressed, and groomed before Mom and Dad even roll out of their respective beds.
You'd think I was excited or something.
In a way, yeah. It's the first year since I started high school – since everyone who knows me found out I wasn't the typical brand of human – that I can claim I'm not dreading the return.
That's not all though, there is a certain measure of anxiety rolling through my middle. But that emotion is not about school.
Grabbing my already stocked backpack, I sweep into the main room and snatch my net set off the charger. Two motions later, I've got it unlocked and am moving through my texts.
Corbin is already blowing up my phone with a group message about meeting up upon arrival – our usual spot. I check the time on them and start laughing. They're from an hour ago.
Here I thought I was excited to be coming back, I text in return, putting a crazy face emoji at the end of it. I see several more from other friends, Rowan, Mandy, Evan even, wishing me the best for a killer year – dated last night. Yet for all those being heartwarming and thoughtful, my expression falls.
My thumb hovers over the message stream, and despite that it doesn't look new, I open it up. Nothing. I've gotten no messages from Andrea since last Thursday.
"Odd," I mutter, trying not to read a whole lot into it. It was only a few days ago after all, she probably just got busy.
The twist in my gut says otherwise.
I start analyzing everything I've said to her, everything I've done around her and with her. I can't really pinpoint anything specific that might have upset her. Our last couple get-togethers have been great. No red flags are evident. Even Thursday everything seemed easy, lighthearted, heartfelt. Now? Nothing.
I feel a healthy swell of guilt for her radio silence.
Trying not to sound desperate, I send a general text. Happy first day of the school year! Can't wait to see you! 3
And then I hawk the net-set looking for a reply.
Normally she's pretty punctual on responding. Not so today.
I check my watch, noting that it's still somewhat early. Though I try to convince myself that my reason for her lack of reply is staring me in the face, my gut still is insisting something's gone awry.
A shuffle of footsteps and a loud yawn interrupt my tail-chasing. I hear Mom shuffle to a stop and her yawn cuts off abruptly. I spin just in time to catch her peeking up from her chrono to stare at me incredulously.
"Who are you and what did you do with my son?" she asks sardonically.
"Morning, Mom," I reply, a crooked grin turning up one corner of my mouth. "Are you guys still okay with me using the car today?"
I've caught her mid-stretch, and she keeps me waiting until she's resumed her natural height and pose. "So long as we don't catch wind of you taking your friends joyriding on your provisional."
I'm already negating that. "Nope, no way, not happening. To school, from school – that's it!"
I know for a fact that if I break their trust, they will revoke my privilege – across the board. That means buses on the weekends to get to work, and I'm not down for that. That would narrow my available time for school work down even further, and I do not need any further reasons to get behind on school work.
I grin, embarrassed to be thinking about being behind in school when I hadn't even been yet.
"Thanks! I promise, nothing hinky," I finally respond.
She smiles, pours herself some tea, and then heads back to the bedroom to change. I catch the sound of Dad moving into the bedroom from below. The slight sound of water dripping follows. When it stops, I know Mom handed him a towel.
The car is a blessing. I don't have to leave for school nearly as early, because my travel will be a straight shot.
I was ready to suck it up and ride the bus, despite that I would be disgruntled to do so after part of a summer's freedom.
I fix myself a quick breakfast and just as I'm getting milk and the box of cereal put up, Dad strides in. He gives me just as odd a look as Mom did.
"Okay, so what's the occasion?" he grunts.
"I can't be excited to go to school?" I answer, to which, he lifts one brow ridge.
I flush, despite it all. "Just excited to see my friends."
"Uh, huh." A knowing look comes over his face, but he doesn't press the issue. Instead, he steps up into the kitchen, fixes Mom's tea, and pours himself a glass of water. With those in hand, he heads back to the family room area.
Mom's out of the back room again, dressed and looking much more alert. She bypasses me at the kitchen table for the couch to sit next to Dad. I guess their morning routine isn't going to be interrupted by my change in routine.
I spoon mouthfuls of cereal and surreptitiously check my net-set. My gut squirrels at the fact that nothing has been received. When I catch Mom and Dad rising from the couch, I quickly pocket the device and more eagerly finish off my bowl.
They say their goodbyes to me and each other, and then, both depart, only a few minutes apart, for their respective jobs. I glance out the window, feeling weird that there is still a car parked there.
The only reason I have wheels is because Dad bought mom a new vehicle for their anniversary this year. But I'm still not used to the notion that I get the near full-time use of her hand-me-down.
So long as I don't screw it up.
Making final preparations, I head out as well, ensuring that all the entrances are locked. I practically jog to my car, throw my stuff in the back seat and start towards school.
I find myself behind the transport for a few blocks down the frontage road. Rowan – holding down the fort in the back of the bus – just in case the car gets taken away, waves at me. Corbin's there too, making funny faces through the glass. It makes it hard to pay attention to the road.
On the third block, the transport takes a left, heading into one of the suburban tracts for another group of students. I wave one final time before accelerating to the speed limit (A little over if I'm being honest.), and traverse the streets until I arrive at the student parking lot.
That's another weird sensation. I feel almost isolated. My socializing has been cut short by nearly half an hour because I'm not on the bus with the others. On the other hand, it's a pretty giddy feeling knowing I've gained just a mote more independence about my schedule.
I see Andrea's car pull into a parking space across from me, but notice there's no slots next to her. Free spaces are rather checkerboarded throughout the lot.
As I'm pulling into one free space, I catch the glimpse of Andrea angling my way. Maybe I did read too much into the weekend's silence.
Shutting off my vehicle, I open the door and rise. By the time I've gathered my things from the back seat, Andrea is standing at the aft end of my car.
"Hey," I start. "I was worried 'bout…"
I trail off as I get a good look at her face – there's a crazy mix of determination and abject terror in her expression.
"We need to talk," she blurts, sounding close to tears.
A/N: So here we go! The THIRD Michael book is underway! I have a lot of bits and bobs from the first iteration of Michael that I will be sourcing in order to get his story rolling on the regular (I have three chapters already written!). I still have some planning ahead of me and I have a feeling this will be another shorter book compared to Michael: The Cause. Please drop your thoughts, my purpose in sharing them at this level is to get feedback on what is working and what isn't!