“Seriously? I would never do that, Gwen.”


“Not here,” he orders. “Come on.”

He already has Dad’s truck out in front, engine purring. So unlike Nic to premeditate. Everything is different now.

I slide into the passenger seat with the torn upholstery inad-equately patched by duct tape. Nic adjusts the rearview mirror, fastens his seat belt, moves his seat back, doing all these safety checks as though he’s about to take off in a Cessna rather than a battered Chevy.

Silence as we ride down to the bridge. Nic doesn’t slow on Ocean for the speed bump, and the truck bounces hard as we go over it. Driving like Dad. He pulls in sharply, spraying sand, then turns to me.

“Did you know?” he asks, at the exact same time I blurt out the same question.

“About Vivie?” I press, because Nic doesn’t. “Had no clue. I would have . . .”

I don’t know what I would have done.

We slide out of the truck, pick our way down to the beach, the sand so cold and wet, I’m shivering. Cass would have grabbed a sweatshirt for me, offered me his. In this short time, I’ve gotten accustomed to these little things, little watchful courtesies, enough for their absence to feel strangely like a presence.

At the creek’s edge, Nic sits down heavily. I fall into place next to him. He shifts sideways, reaches into his pocket, pulls out a flat rock, balancing it in the flat of his hand as though weighing it, staring at it as though he’s never seen such a thing.

I reach for it, planning to snatch it from him, throw it into the rush of water, not to skip, just to get rid of it, wipe out the memories Nic must be leafing through, wondering what signs he missed . . . how what he thought was true turned out to be nothing like the truth at all.

But Nic curls his fingers around the rock before I can take it.

“So, I’ve been a douche lately,” he begins.

“Well, yeah. You sure have,” I say. “But that’s not why Vivie—”

He opens his mouth to answer, then closes it, a little muscle jumping in his jaw. “I’m not talking about Vee.”

“Nico—” I start, but he shakes his head, stopping me.

“Last year—even this spring—you never for a moment would have thought I’d offed myself in the creek. That’s true, right?”

His brown eyes pierce mine. I nod.

“Did you know?” I ask. “About Spence?”

He shakes his head, kicks at the water. “Yes. No. Something wasn’t right. She was . . . I was . . . I just figured I’d fix it later. I mean, she’d be there. Of course. Get the captain thing squared away, then deal. But . . . I mean . . . what happened on the beach.

Pretty clear that ship had sailed while I wasn’t even looking.”

I wait, quiet. Dad said not to push.

“I . . . couldn’t face you guys, after . . . Aunt Luce, Grandpa . . . you . . . You’d be all sorry for me.” He rolls his shoulders as though shrugging off our imagined sympathy.

“Knew Uncle Mike wouldn’t be like that.”

“Did you get the What a Man Does lecture?”

“Hell yeah,” he says. “I knew you’d be freaking. Told him to call you. He said a man spoke for himself. If I wasn’t ready to talk to you, he sure as shit wasn’t going to do it for me.”

Again I open my mouth, but he shuts me down with the wave of a hand. Or in this case a fist, since he’s still holding the stone.

“Do you remember,” he asks, “when Old Mrs. Partridge had that skunk under her porch, cuz? When we were, like, seven?

And she called Dad to handle it? He threw a towel over it and tossed it to me and it bit me through the towel?”

I do. I remember Viv holding his hand in the clinic, crying the tears Nic would never let himself cry.

Oh Nic.

“And Vivien—”

“This is not about Vivien. I had to get rabies shots, ’member? And the nurse was standing there with this wicked big needle. Aunt Luce and Vovó were crying, and Grandpa Ben was praying, and you were asking if it would work if you took it instead. I asked if it would hurt . . . Grandpa and Aunt Luce started to say no and Uncle Mike said it was gonna hurt like a motherfucker. Do you remember that?”

I do, partly because I’d never heard that particular word before.

“Thing is, he was right. It did. But it helped. Knowing how I was going to feel. Can’t deal with the truth if no one tells it, right?”

I nod.

“I’ve loved that girl all my life,” Nic says.

“I know.”

He weighs the stone in his hand, angles his wrist, flips it across the water. A double skip, not one of his best.

“And I’m more bummed about not getting the captain spot.

Want to tell me what that means?”

That what you’ve always had doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll always get. That what you’ve always wanted isn’t what you’ll always want.

I don’t realize I’ve spoken out loud until Nic says. “Yeah.

Exactly, cuz.”

Mom’s just pulling on her sneakers as I get home, sitting on the steps. I hear the shrill of Disney coming from inside the house.

Mulan. “I’ll make a maaann out of you, ” Emory’s voice wobbles, sweet and high.

“Nic okay?” Mom asks.

I nod. “He’ll be fine.”

She studies my face. “For sure,” she says finally, firmly. “But if he isn’t? For a little while? It’s not your problem to solve.”

Mom picks up one of her Nikes, with an inextricable knot, tries to untangle it with the fingernails she has to keep short because of cleaning houses.

“Here, let me,” I say, pulling at the shoe.

“Gwen. I can solve this.” A pull and a jerk here and there and the shoelaces untangle. She slips them on her feet, reaches for her can of Diet Coke. Shuts her eyes as she drinks it, closing out the world, the way she does with the things that take her away, her books, her sodas, her stories.

A rattle of gravel and a flash of silver. Mom and I both look up in time to see Spence’s Porsche flash by. His sunglasses pushed up into his hair, arm along the seat. He pulls into the Almeidas’ driveway, slanted, the way the car was that first summer day at Castle’s, taking up more space than it needs.