“Shelton pushed Ben lightly. “Remember when you couldn’t flare without losing your temper? So Hi kicked you from behind to get you mad, and you threw him in the ocean?”
Ben snorted. “He deserved it.”
“I was providing a service,” Hi protested. “I recall Tory once trying to eat a mouse.”
I pinched my nose. “Ugh, don’t remind me.”
Ella giggled. “One time Cole lost his flare while carrying a boulder. It pinned his leg for an hour.”
Then everyone had a story. Our funeral became a wake.
The mood lifted as we swapped flare stories. It was cathartic. A way to say good-bye.
I caught Ben smiling at me. “I remember when Tory sniffed that mound of bird crap in the old lighthouse. I thought she’d vomit on the spot.”
Chance laughed. “I knew she was too clever. Always with a trick up her sleeve.”
The boys glanced at each other. Their smiles faded.
Something passed between them.
Abruptly, both looked at me.
I could see a question in their eyes. A resolve to see something through.
They talked. Oh God, they talked about me.
They’re going to make me choose.
In a flash of dread, I realized I could delay this no longer.
With another jolt, I realized I didn’t need to.
There was no point putting it off.
There was also no decision to make.
My eyes met a dark, intense pair staring back earnestly. Longingly. Fearfully.
I smiled. Even as my heart pounded.
Before anyone spoke, I stepped forward, legs shaking so badly I worried I might fall.
But my second foot successfully followed the first.
I walked over to Ben’s side.
Slipped my hand inside his.
Squeezed for dear life.
Ben’s eyes widened. He gasped quietly, his chest rising and falling.
I met his startled gaze. Smiled through my blushes.
A goofy smile split Ben’s face, one I’d never seen before. His fingers crushed mine.
No decision to make.
Tearing my eyes from Ben, I looked at Chance, found him watching me with a glum expression. Then he sighed, a wry smile twisting his lips.
Chance nodded slightly.
Not one word spoken. Volumes exchanged.
The silence stretched, like a living breathing force.
Finally, Hi cleared his throat. “Um.”
My face burned scarlet as I remembered our audience. Ella was gaping at me, a delighted grin on her face. Shelton looked like he might turn and run. Hi was rubbing the back of his neck, his face twisted in an uncomfortable grimace.
Still no one said a word.
This was the most painful moment of my life.
“So . . .” Hi drummed his thighs, eyes fixed to the pavement. “Right. A lot just happened there. Weirdly without anyone talking, but, um, yeah.”
“Ben launched himself from the building.
For the second time in two nights, I watched in horror as Ben sailed through the air. His arms pinwheeled as he dropped toward the shimmering inkblot below.
Ben hit with a thunderous splash and disappeared beneath the water. Heart in my throat, I willed him to resurface.
Ben. Ben, are you okay?!
My bond with Ben grew fuzzy. Tenuous. Then it broke altogether. Frantic, I unleashed a swell of love for Ben I didn’t know existed. All my hopes and cares burst outward. In a split second, I bared my soul.
The water rippled.
I never knew you cared.”
“If he scratches my baby . . .” Ben tried to scowl, but it didn’t take. He seemed relieved. And still hadn’t let go of my hand.
I heard a shoe scuff the ground. Shelton and Hi were standing across from Ben and me.
Shelton took a deep breath. “So it’s like that, huh?”
“Guys.” I felt my stomach lurch. “I know this is weird. Ben and I, we—”
Hi’s face was pained. “I don’t even get a chance? No shot to say how I feel?”
My head jerked back. “What?”
“So it’s all decided.” Shelton sullenly kicked a rock, his voice resentful. “What does Ben have that I don’t?”
I stared, openmouthed.
Hi dropped to a knee and pinned me with solemn eyes. “I can’t hide it anymore, Victoria. You need to know the truth. I love you, too. Forever and ever. I want to be your sweet babushka.”
My mind reeled. “Hi, I . . . I didn’t—”
“I’m gonna wring your stupid necks.” Ben’s face was burning.
Hi burst out laughing, rolling away from his kick. I glanced at Shelton, who was trying—and failing—to hold it together.
“I love you, Tory Brennan!” Hi bounced to his feet, ready to bolt at Ben’s slightest twitch. “Let me rub your supple feet!”
I covered my face with both hands. “Oh God.”
“I don’t get it, man. That dude has zero game, then suddenly he up and jets with a hottie? Meanwhile I can’t buy a date.”
“Makes no sense.” Hi, face serious.
I pressed a fist to my lips, considering. “What’d the girl look like?”
Ben shifted his weight. I heard Hi chuckle behind me.
I choked back my mounting frustration. “Could you be more specific?”
“Oh, right.” Cole rubbed his oily chin and squinted at the ceiling. “She had, like, nice hair. It was sorta . . . black? Or maybe brown. Not blonde, for sure. And she was kinda tall. But not really. Oh, and I think she wore a T-shirt. Could be wrong, though.”
I stared at the useless witness before me.
What a moron.
“Can you remember anything else, Cole?” Catching his eye, I tried to urge the memory from his brain by force of will. “Anything at all?”
For a moment, Cole’s face screwed up in thought, then it bloomed with contentment. “He said I could have his mattress. Solid dude, that Jordan.”
Hi snapped on his seat belt. “Not everyone is college material.”
Shelton shook his head. “I’m surprised that guy remembers to breathe.”
“I watched, baffled, as Will Speckman floated like an angel, drifting down to the marina dock a hundred yards away. My mind suggested all kinds of crazy answers.
The Trinity can fly. Will Speckman is actually a bird. Gravity has taken the night off.”
“Ben wrapped his fingers tightly around mine, brown eyes fierce, his thoughts a maelstrom of anger and worry. He was only thinking of me. Of getting me away. Keep me safe.
Ben was ready to die for me.
Chance halted before a battered case halfway down the wall. He began pulling on books, muttering to himself as he shoved each one aside.
They won’t get you, Ben promised abruptly. I felt his determination flowing through the bond, mixed with love and desperation. He really would give his life to protect mine.”
“I now had the pleasure of her company 24/7.
Kit broke the awkward silence. “This looks delicious, honey. You’ve done it again.” Grinning, he raised his fork in a mock salute.
My dad, the dork.
I suppressed a sigh. If this silly, white-gloved dingbat made my father happy—and I knew she did—it was my solemn duty as his progeny to suffer it.”
“Whitney misread my silent horror. “I’m excited, too! And don’t worry, I snagged your friend Ella Francis as well. We can all hang together.” Emphasized in that clueless way adults speak when trying to sound hip.”
“I desecrated my own house?” Chance snorted in disbelief. “Then swam out to Fort Sumter and played paint-by-numbers on the walls, all to make Benjamin Blue like me? Don’t flatter yourself, kid.”
Ben’s eyes cut like diamonds. “You act like such a big shot. But you don’t fool me. Do you have any friends, Chance? Is there a single person who cares where you are right now?”
“Ben!” I blurted, horrified. “That’s not—”
“You’re one to talk.” Chance stepped closer to Ben and matched him glare for glare. “I’ve never betrayed my friends. Not like you, eh, Benjamin?”
Ben’s whole body went still. “What did you say?”
“Guys, guys!” Hi half rose, palms up. “There’s no need for anyone to get upset. I’ve got Go-Gurt in the mini-fridge. I know when I get hungry, my manners can—”
“Shut up, Hi.” Ben and Chance, in unison.”
“So what do we do about it?” Chance drummed his fingers on the table. “And I do mean we. Can the five of us now agree we’re in this together?”
All heads swiveled toward the bench.
A tense moment stretched. Finally, Ben nodded. “In this one thing, we are.”
“Capital!” Hi slapped his hands together. “I can already feel the love.”
“We all looked at Shelton, who rolled his eyes. “Like my vote matters now.”
Hi patted his back. “If it makes you feel better, your vote’s never mattered.”
“Hilarious.” Shelton rubbed his face. “I hope my parole officer finds you as funny.”
I sprang up and hurried for the exit, stopping Chance with a hand on his shoulder. “Give me a second alone with Ben. He’s still worked up, probably needs a few minutes to decompress.”
Chance’s expression soured, but he held back.
Hi fired a shooter my way. “Good idea. We need him mission focused. Rodger dodger.”
Shelton covered his face with his hands. “Enough already.”
“My friend was aboard Sewee, untying his vessel from an ancient sunken post.
I slipped off my shoes and waded to the runabout. Pulled myself up the tiny ladder. Found Ben’s hand waiting at the rail. He effortlessly hoisted me into the boat, maneuvering my weight like it was nothing.
I sometimes forgot how strong Ben was. How warm his hands could feel.
Ben released me. Went back to coiling line.
“Are you okay?” I immediately realized it was the wrong thing to say.
“Of course I’m okay.” Gruff. Distant.
I stood watching him, unsure what to say next. Unbidden, the image of a bench sprang to mind. The two of us, huddled close. Me crying in his arms.
I felt blood rush to my face, was grateful for the concealing darkness.
“No one expects you to like Chance,” I said finally.
“Good.” Not looking up. “Because I don’t.”
Another awkward silence. Then Ben huffed, “You like him enough for both of us.”
I straightened, surprised. Was that what was bothering him? Jealousy?
Why would Ben be jealous of Chance? After everything that spoiled boy had done to me?
Did Ben think I was some ditz? That my memory reset with every pretty smile?
I felt a nervous twinge in my stomach. Felt it grow.
Ben. Jealous. Because of his feelings for me. The issue would not simply go away.
“Ben. I . . .” Words failed. My face grew hot.
Ben’s hands stopped moving. He stared at the deck, his long black hair fanning his face. He sucked in a breath, as if on the verge of something.”
“I gazed up at the gloomy fortress. “And now?”
Hi looked surprised. “What? You’ve never been? This national treasure is like a thousand yards from your house. You could swim here.”
“It’s on my list,” I said defensively.
Ben snorted. Chance gave me the side-eye. Even Coop’s glance seemed reproachful.
Well, excuse me.
Hi shook his head like a disappointed father, but continued.”
“We staying out here today?” Hi rubbed his chin as if considering the proposition, his Bolton Prep blazer flipped inside-out with the lining exposed. “Mr. Terenzoni might not be willing to yell his lesson plan out the window.”
“Hi flapped a hand. “Newborns. Always thinking they know everything!”
“Can you get serious for one minute?” Shelton jabbed a finger into Hi’s chest, eyes jittery behind his sparkling lenses. “We’ve gotta find this crew and . . . and . . . I don’t know. Shut ’em up. Or something.”
“Unhand me, sir!” Hi brushed Shelton aside. “Although you make a good point. Well, no, actually. You make a terrible point, but it illuminates a good one.”
“Coop’s sending thundered in my mind.
I smiled. Felt a surge of adrenaline.
“You made a mistake, Will. You didn’t catch us all.”
He snorted. “You’re gonna stop us, alone?”
Leaves rustled behind me.
Speckman’s gaze flicked over my shoulder.
“Alone?” I barked a laugh. “Guess you haven’t met the extended family.”
“Instead, I gave them the only salute I could think of.
Two middle fingers. Held high for emphasis.
The six fiery orbs winked out at once. Hopefully, they’d died from affront.
Ben eyed me sideways as he maneuvered from shore. “What in the world are you doing?”
“Those red-eyed jerks were on the cliff,” I spat, then immediately felt silly. “All I could think of.”
Ben made an odd huffing sound I couldn’t interpret. For a shocked second, I thought he was furious with me.
“Nice work, Victoria.” Ben couldn’t hold the laughter inside. “That oughta do it!”
I flinched, surprised by his reaction. Ben, cracking up at a time like this?
He had such a full, honest laugh—I wished I heard it more. Infectious, too. I couldn’t help joining in, though mine came out in a low Beavis and Butthead cackle. Which made Ben howl even more.
In an instant, we were both in stitches at the absurdity of my one-finger salutes. At the insanity of the evening. At everything. Tears wet my eyes as Sewee bobbed over the surf, circling the southeast corner of the island. It was a release I desperately needed.
Ben ran a hand through his hair, then sighed deeply. “I love it,” he snickered, steering Sewee through the breakers, keeping our speed to a crawl so the engine made less noise. “I love you, sometimes.”
Abruptly, his good humor cut off like a guillotine. Ben’s body went rigid. I felt a wave of panic roll from him, as if he’d accidently triggered a nuclear bomb.
I experienced a parallel stab of distress. My stomach lurched into my throat, and not because of the rolling ocean swells.
Did he just . . . what did he mean when . . .
Ben’s eyes darted to me, then shot back to open water. Even in the semidarkness, I saw a flush of red steal up his neck and into his cheeks.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Shifted again. Debated going over the side.
Did he really mean to say he . . . loved me? Like, for real?
The awkward moment stretched longer than any event in human history.
He said “sometimes,” which is a definite qualifier. I love Chinese food “sometimes.”
Mouth opened as I searched for words that might defuse the tension. Came up with nothing. I felt trapped in a nightmare. Balanced on a beam a hundred feet off the ground. Sinking underwater in a sealed car with no idea how to get out.
Ben’s lips parted, then worked soundlessly, as if he, too, sought to break the horrible awkwardness. A verbal retreat, or some way to reverse time.
Is that what I want? For Ben to walk it back?
A part of me was astounded by the chaos a single four-word utterance could create.
Ben gulped a breath, seemed to reach a decision. As his mouth opened a second time, all the adrenaline in creation poured into my system.
“I . . . I was just saying that . . .” He trailed off, then smacked the steering wheel with his palm. Ben squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head sharply as if disgusted by the effort.
Ben turned. Blasted me with his full attention. “I mean it. I’m not going to act—”
“I released a breath I didn’t remember holding. Turned to Ben.
Found him looking at me, face inches from mine on Sewee’s deck.
Panic flared, white hot, paralyzing me as I lay beside him.
Our gazes met. I saw fear in his dark brown eyes. Indecision. Doubt.
Ben went rigid, his chest rising and falling like a bellows. Then something changed. His face relaxed, a small smile playing on his lips.
Before I could blink, his mouth covered mine.
We shared a breath. A tingle ran my spine.
Then I pulled back, breathing hard, unsure what either my mind or body were doing.
Ben’s unsure look returned. Then vanished.
He pulled me near again, his lips melting into mine. Strong, calloused fingers stroked the side of my face. His smell enveloped me. Earthy. Masculine. Ben.
Fire rolled through my body.
So this is what it’s like.
I broke away again, gasping slightly for breath. Reality crashed home.
I sat up and scooted a few feet away, rubbing my face with both hands. What was I doing?
His hand rose to cut me off. He leaned against the bench, face suddenly serious. “I’m not going to pretend anymore. One way or another, I’m going to say how I feel.” Ben snorted softly. “Make my case.”
We sat still in the darkness, Sewee rocking gently, the scene dream-like and surreal.
“You don’t have to make a case.” I stared at my shoes, had no idea where I wanted this conversation to go. “It’s just, things are—”
Our heads whipped in the voice’s direction. Ben scrambled to a crouch, scanning the silent bulk of Tern Point, as if just now recalling we were adrift at sea.
The voice called down again, suddenly familiar. “What, are you guys paddling around the island? I don’t have a boat license, but that seems dumb.”
“Shut up, Hi!” Ben shouted, with more heat than was necessary. Scowling, he slid behind the controls and fired the engine.
I scurried to the bow, as far from the captain’s chair as I could manage and stay dry.
You’ve done it now, Tory Brennan. Better hope there’s a life preserver somewhere.
A glance back. Ben was watching me, looking for all the world like he had more to say.
I quickly turned away.
Nope. Nope nope nope.
I needed some time to think about this one. Perhaps a decade?
“Where are we?” I asked, changing the subject.
Ben must’ve sensed that my “personal” shop was closed for business.”
“Instead, he slammed the throttle, gunning Sewee in a tight arc toward the strange glow. Chance’s arms pinwheeled as the boat accelerated beneath him. He toppled backward onto Shelton, who heroically tried to break his fall.
“Ugh!” Shelton lay on his back, pancaked by the much larger boy.”
“I snuck through the front door.
Shooing Coop before me, I beelined for the stairs and the safety of my bedroom. I hoped to avoid notice for a few minutes—my clothes were dirty and smoke-tinged, my hair a tangled mess.
But it was not to be. Whitney swung from the kitchen before I could blink.
“Tory!” Smiling brightly, she smoothed her apron with manicured fingers. “I was just about to wonder what you’d gotten up to!”
Whitney winked to assure me she was joking, but the cloying attempt at humor annoyed me anyway. It made me want to actually tell her.
I was out on Loggerhead, fighting with a group of genetic freaks, when a black-ops military attack squad tried to capture me. Oh, and Ben and I made out on his boat. You?
I smothered the suicidal notion.”
“Jordan’s gone, bros.” Cole wiped crumbs from his greasy sweatshirt. “He bugged out right after you jokers gave him the third degree. Said CU wasn’t for him.” He snorted. “Y’all are, like, the leading cause of dropout around here.”
“We start out in identical perfection: bright, reflective, full of sun. The accident of our lives bruises us into dirty individuality. We meet with grief. Our character dulls and tarnishes. We meet with guilt. We know, we know: the price of living is corruption. There isn’t as much light as there once was. In the grave we lapse back into undifferentiated sameness”
“Your mother never considered giving you up.
“-¿Me deseas suerte para mi último día?
-Si utilizas la cabeza, no la necesitarás.”
“It's no good going back over the past. It's the future one has to live for.”
“See? This was how he’d gotten me to fall in love with him. At times like this he made me feel like the most treasured woman in the world. “So you don’t remember doing this to me? Naked? In the shower? On the bed? On the floor?” With Matt Damon? Okay, how had the Sarah Silverman video gotten in my
head, now of all times?”
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