“Could I pay you to go away? Seriously.”
Lucy laughed, though she didn’t think it was funny. She had every right to be here and no plans to leave. It was a public park, right? She rolled her bike a little closer to her brother just to emphasize that point. But she knew it wouldn’t do any good; not when Dave had his girlfriend, Cassie, nestled against his hip, his index finger looped through the zipper pull-ring on the front of her clingy shirt.
“Don’t be mean to her,” Cassie playfully admonished. The older girl, leaning against a split-rail fence that bordered the town park, had her arm around Lucy’s brother’s waist. She used her other hand to give his cheek a teasing little smack, which Dave accepted with an adoring smile. As he fixed his eyes on Cassie’s, Dave began tugging his finger ever so slightly on that ring, exposing additional millimeters of his girlfriend’s pale skin. All three pretended not to notice.
“Here’s two dollars. Ice cream. Go.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Still, Lucy took the bills from Dave’s waving hand and folded them into her shorts. It was useless to protest, though she felt like she’d be missing something important, some vital piece of information she’d be tested on later when she wasn’t expecting it. She wheeled her bike around in a half-circle and took off.
Summer vacation had just started and nothing was going on—nothing that included Lucy, anyway. Her best friend, Claire, was in the mountains for two weeks. She only saw her older sister, newly married, when the two of them took a shift together at the family farm stand. And Dave…it was sad. “His brain’s in his pants,” Claire would say. In the fall he’d be going to college in New York City. Didn’t he realize how little time they had left together?
Lucy pedaled past the baseball fields and turned right onto Main Street toward Stewart’s. What to get? They had hand-dipped cones and also a freezer full of ice cream sandwiches and Good Humor bars. She mentally ran through the choices as she zipped past eight sunny blocks of weathered wood-frame houses with narrow grassy front yards, some brightened by orange daylilies.
Lucy’s purple mountain bike was an elementary school graduation present from her parents. She had gotten it after the ceremony, just last Friday. Her mother had been leaking tears the whole day. Lucy would have been embarrassed had most of the other mothers not been doing the same thing. “They’re not babies anymore,” she heard Mom’s friend Deb, another teary mother, say on their way out the auditorium door. Well, duh. Why did mothers always seem to want time to stand still?
In five minutes Lucy was coasting through the Stewart’s lot, maneuvering between the gas pumps and a row of parked cars. She could rest her bicycle by the door. Someone else had already done that.
She got off her shiny Schwinn and positioned it near the larger black bike she found leaning against the store’s cinder-block front. She started to push through the door and was immediately sucked in by someone pulling from the other side. Stumbling into the store’s cool interior, she saw it was Kyle holding the door. She felt her face flush, so she looked down as they passed each other. Damn. She could have said hi. Why was it so hard to talk sometimes?
Lucy rubbed the goose bumps on her arms and made her way past racks of newspapers, magazines and loudly printed chips bags to the freezer near a small checkout counter. This whole place feels like a freezer, she thought, as she peered into the glass case. It would be good to be back outside in the late June sun. She pushed up the sliding door and selected a strawberry shortcake bar, walked over to the checkout line and glanced outside. Kyle was still there, sitting on his bike. He was eating an Italian ice, listening to his iPod. Go away, Lucy thought. The outdoors no longer seemed that enticing. There were two people ahead of her. A man with wiry gray hair and a face that Lucy imagined might have been handsome a very long time ago was trying to pay for lottery tickets with a credit card. Good, Lucy thought. This will take a while. That kid’ll be gone by then. She scolded herself: What’s your problem, anyway?
The strawberry shortcake was starting to melt. She unwrapped it and slurped off one bottom corner, then the other. The problem was that she was alone. Claire wasn’t there to walk past the boy on the bike, whispering about how cute he was and that maybe he’d ask one of them out once they started junior high in the fall. You couldn’t do that alone. Alone you could only be looked at. And Lucy didn’t want to be looked at. She was short, skinny and didn’t really need the bra she was wearing.
The lottery man was done. A short woman in a teddy-bear-patterned nurse’s smock stepped up to the counter with a gallon jug of milk. She would take only one second. Then it was Lucy’s turn. She fished out Dave’s soft dollars and handed them to a clerk with heavy mascara and pink-streaked hair, who slid back two coins Lucy didn’t bother to look at before sticking them in her pocket. There was almost no ice cream left on her stick. Soon she would have no reason to be in here.
On her way toward the door, she looked out one more time. The older boy was still there, staring off into space and nodding his head to the music pumping through his earbuds. He had finished too. Lucy considered pretending to make a phone call but decided that was lame. Instead, she threw her stick in a trash bin under the counter, took a deep breath and pushed through the door. It was no big deal. All she had to do was say hi, get on her bike and go. It would be over in two seconds.
The only acknowledgment Lucy received was a slight lifting of the chin and a smirk. Fine. She got on her bike and pedaled away. This time she took a shortcut through a lumpy, unmowed hay field with a slender deer track beaten through it. Grass brushed her calves along with an occasional daisy or stalk of white yarrow as she steadied herself on the tromped-down trail. She kept both hands on the handlebars and both eyes on the ground ahead until she was deposited onto the pavement on the other side, by the ball fields. She crossed over to the park fence, but Dave and Cassie were gone. Wait—over there; they had moved to the swings by the edge of the lake. Cassie was sitting on Dave’s lap on one swing, talking to another girl who sat on the neighboring swing. A Frisbee, being tossed back and forth by two of Dave’s high school friends, sailed toward them. Dave reached out and caught it as both girls shrieked, even though it hadn’t really come that close to either of them. Dave stood up, gently tipping Cassie out of his lap, and joined the game.
“You ride fast,” a voice said.
Lucy gasped and Kyle laughed. How could she not have noticed he was following her?
“You ride quiet,” she replied, proud for having come up with something to say that was almost clever. They stood side by side looking out over the park.
“That your brother?”
She looked at the lanky, monkey-armed teen leaping for another catch, his gelled curls remaining perfectly in place.
His asking was a formality. Everyone in Cedar Glen knew who everyone else’s brother was.
“His girlfriend’s hot.”
“You’ll be hot too. When you’re older.”
Yikes. Lucy twisted a blond curl around the knuckle of her index finger and absently brought it to her mouth. What was she supposed to say now? Claire would know. Probably anyone else would know. Why didn’t she know? She just kept her eyes on her brother.
“I bet they’ve been to third base at least,” he went on. “You probably haven’t even been to first base.”
“Sure I have,” Lucy lied.
Kyle looked away and smiled slightly. Either he approved of her answer or didn’t believe her; Lucy wasn’t sure.
“There’s a good spot over there,” he said, nodding toward a clump of trees. “We could go there and you could show me what you know. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
Lucy looked into Kyle’s eyes for the first time. They were green. His lashes were long and black, like a girl’s. His hair was black too. His lips were redder than you’d expect a boy’s to be. Lucy noticed this when he licked them and said, “Well?”
“Our bikes,” she said, to buy time. She wanted to go with him. She wanted to learn something. Claire would die. They would talk about it all summer. After she did whatever it was they were going to do.
“We’ll bring them with us.” He stood on a pedal with one foot and coasted that way toward the trees. She just watched him. Go! She urged herself, then started pedaling. Away. Toward the bumpy field with the deer track. It would be the quickest way out. He must have noticed she was no longer following because she heard him shout, “Hey—where’re you going?” She sped through the field. The scenery was blurring by so fast she could hardly tell if she was going forward or maybe backward—not just through space but time. His laugh was closer now.
There was no way she could have spotted the small piece of shale before it wedged under her front wheel. Lucy pitched over the handlebars and hit the rocky ground with her right knee. She heard Kyle’s bike skid up next to her.
“Holy—are you okay?”
Lucy stood up shakily and looked at Kyle. His mouth was open and the color had drained from his olive skin so that his face looked almost green. She followed his terrified gaze to her own knee and then down the wet ruby ribbon that was slowly staining her white sock. Funny how she hadn’t felt a thing. Now it was her turn to laugh.
• • •
“What were you doing with that kid?”
They were in the farm pickup, Dave driving with Lucy reclined in the backseat. He had deigned to leave his girlfriend for two seconds to collect her and her bike from the path by the park.
“None of your business.”
“Don’t tell me none of your business!” Dave turned to glare at his little sister.
“Watch the road. I don’t need another accident.”
Dave let out an exasperated sigh and turned forward. He looked up and caught her eye in the rearview.
“Look, I’m not going to be here in the fall, Lucy. I have to know you won’t be stupid when I’m not here to protect you.”
Like you did today?
That’s what Lucy was going to say, but she had only just realized he couldn’t.