Party? I’d forgotten about the party. “Maybe,” Rowan answered for us.
“We’ll be there,” I said. Bradley winked, then took off down the hall.
Rowan exhaled slowly. “That guy is too much.”
“I like him.” I studied the fresh T-shirt Rowan had changed into. This one featured a cat holding a piece of pizza in one hand and a taco in the other. A purple-and-black galaxy played out in the background.
“I think I like this one even more than the hypnotized cat,” I said, pointing at it.
“Thanks.” He lifted the familiar coffee-stained book into the air. “Ready for an adventure?”
“You mean am I ready to walk back out into the cold?” I flourished my hand toward the door. “Why not?”
Poststorm Dingle had a completely different temperament. The heavy clouds had thinned into a soft haze, and water lapped restfully against the edges of the cliffs. We rode past a marina filled with colorful bobbing boats and signs about a local hero, a dolphin named Fungie, who, according to Rowan, had been visiting tourists for decades.
“We’re here,” Rowan called back to me. We coasted off the main road, our bikes picking up speed as we curved down to a small inlet.
“Wow,” I said.
“I know, right?” Rowan said.
The sand at Inch Beach sparkled a deep gray, the sun kissing it with a touch of glitter. The tide was low, and silver ruffles of water unfurled lazily onto the shore. Out on the water, sunlight fragmented into kaleidoscope shapes. Stress melted from my shoulders, and my lungs opened up. I took the first deep breaths I had in days.
Next to the sand was a small, sea-glass-green building with SAMMY’S STORE stenciled on the side. Large swirly script read:
Dear Inch must I leave you
I have promises to keep
Perhaps miles to go
To my last sleep
It reminded me of a paper I’d written for English last year about the similarities between Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Emily Dickinson’s “A Bird, came down the Walk.” I loved Emily Dickinson. She didn’t get things like capitalization and punctuation right, but it didn’t matter because you could still hear exactly what she was saying.
As we made our way toward the beach, two messy-haired kids emerged from the store holding ice-cream cones and chasing each other in a feisty game of tag. Their mom played along, lifting the young girl up in the air once she caught up with her.
“She reminds me of my mom.” I nodded toward the woman. The girl now sat comfortably on the mom’s shoulders, the little boy speeding around them in a circle.
Rowan pulled his beanie over his ears. “How so?”
“The way she’s running around with them. She played with us. Lots. Even when it meant she didn’t get other stuff done.” My mom had never been a picture-perfect type of mom—the kind with a clean kitchen floor or a PTA résumé. But she was excellent at building blanket forts, and when she read to us, she did all the voices. Plus, she was just always there. Her going back to work had rocked me more than I’d thought it would.
“She sounds really great,” Rowan said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Once, I was talking to Ian, and your mom came in to talk to him about school. I could tell she really cared.”
“She does.” So why aren’t you telling her about Cubby? a little voice inside my head asked. I brushed it away.
“So what’s your family like?” I asked carefully. I’d have to be deaf to miss the longing in his voice.
“Ha,” he said unhappily. “It’s just the three of us—my mum, my dad, and me—and we’re a mess, that’s what we are. Sometimes I wish there were more of us, to spread the misery around.”
In my experience, that wasn’t how misery worked. Or happiness, for that matter. Both tended to expand until everyone had an armful.
I dug my big toe into the sand. “I’ll bet there are lots of perks to being an only child.” The words felt false as they slid off my tongue. Not that being an only child couldn’t be great—I was sure it had its pluses and minuses just like every family situation—but I didn’t even know who I’d be without my brothers. Especially Ian.
“I guess so,” he said very unconvincingly. He straightened up, squaring his shoulders to the horizon. “You ready to do this?”
The wind heard its cue, skipping off the water and blasting us with cold air. I had officially given up on being anything but frozen on this trip. “What Guidebook Lady wants, Guidebook Lady gets.”
We headed toward the water, our toes sinking in the cold sand. When a cold wave slipped over our ankles, we both looked at each other in shock. “Cold” didn’t even begin to describe it. It needed a more dramatic word, something like “arctic” or “glacial.” Maybe “arcticglacial.”
“We’ve got this,” Rowan said, extending his hand to me. Before I could overthink it, I grabbed tight, his hand warm and comfortable in mine as we plunged into the water.
“So, back to the guidebook. What’s your thing?” Rowan asked. “What’s something you survived that you thought you couldn’t?”
“Losing Lina’s mom to cancer.” I was surprised by how easily the words bypassed my filter. I didn’t usually talk about that experience with anyone but Lina. I’d tried a few times, but I found out pretty quickly that most people don’t actually want to know about the hard things you’ve been through. They just want to look like they care and then move on to the next subject as quickly as possible. Rowan felt different.
He looked up, his gray eyes stricken. “I didn’t know her mom died. How long was she sick?”
“Only a few months. It was so disorienting. One minute she was running us around town looking for the best fish taco, and the next . . .” I trailed off. The water tingled against my shins. Whenever I thought about those months after Hadley’s diagnosis, I remembered the sounds. The beeping hospital machines. The whooshing of the ventilator. How quiet Lina’s apartment was in the afternoons when I brought her her homework. I was supposed to be the go-between, delivering homework both ways, but the teachers all knew the score, so they never cared that I rarely brought any back.
The water inched above my knees. “I don’t know if Ian told you, but Lina moved in with us right after the funeral. She was really shut-down. She even stopped eating, which is a huge deal, because she loves food more than anyone I know. I ended up getting really obsessed with cooking shows because the only way I could get her to eat was by making things I knew she couldn’t possibly turn down.”
“You can cook?” Rowan said hungrily. “What did you make for her?”
A tall wave slammed into our knees, sending a spray of salt water into my face. I wiped my eyes on the neckline of my shirt. It was taking every ounce of my willpower not to turn and run out of the water. “Triple chocolate cupcakes. Bacon-wrapped asparagus. Wild blueberry pancakes with whipped cream. Gourmet mac ’n’ cheese . . . That one was probably my best. It had four kinds of cheese plus bacon and truffle oil.”
Rowan moaned. “I haven’t eaten anything but Sugar Puffs since I left Dublin yesterday.”
“I thought you loved Sugar Puffs.”
“I do love Sugar Puffs,” he said adamantly. “But I love bacon and truffle oil more.” He looked down at the water, then squeezed my hand. “How’s this? We far enough?”
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