Authors: Alyssa B. Sheinmel
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Classics, #Fairy Tales & Folklore, #Adaptations, #Family, #Siblings, #Love & Romance
I shake my head. “That’s not the way I see it.”
“You don’t get to choose what’s real and what’s not.”
I put my hands in my pockets and make fists. Fine grains of sand stick to the insides of my fingers, dig into my palms, plant themselves underneath my fingernails.
Feels plenty real to me.
I keep my fists clenched and say, “We don’t know that they drowned. We have no idea who those missing surfers were.”
“You know those surfers didn’t meet any other missing-person profiles,” Fiona interrupts, but I continue.
“So until I see proof—absolute proof—I’m going to believe that John and Michael are still out there, still surfing, still together. And I’m going to try to find them.”
“Wendy—” Fiona tries, but I stand.
“I’m really tired,” I lie. “I think I’m going to take a nap.”
Fiona nods. “Okay. I’ll call you later.”
I shrug. “Of course. We’ll talk later.”
Before she leaves, Fiona hugs me, rubbing my back like I’m a little kid who’s come to her for comfort over a skinned knee. Later, I crush the business card into a ball and drop it into the garbage, a fine coating of sand falling along with it.
I’m going back to that beach, and soon. But I’m not going to tell Fiona about it. She doesn’t understand.
That night, I dream of Kensington, and in the morning I wake up in sheets that smell like salt water. I miss the shiver from Pete’s touch. My lips are warm where his touched them; my palms flush with heat when I think about holding his hand. I can still feel his breath on my face, leftover from our kisses.
I want to see him again. I want it almost as badly as I want to find my brothers.
The car seems to remember how to get to Kensington. It’s dusk when I pull into the lookout. I told my parents I might be late tonight. I even said that I might sleep over at Fiona’s, though for days I’ve been screening her calls, answering noncommittally to her texts.
I slip my sandals off as I walk into the reeds. The sand is cool beneath my feet, and just the tiniest bit damp, like it’s waiting for the tide to come in and drench everything.
When I get down to the beach, I look out to the waves for Pete, but the water is empty. The beach is empty. Where the fire burned, there’s nothing left but a pile of ash. But over the roar of the surf, shouts and cheers descend from the top of the cliffs. I spot the wooden stairs and begin to climb. All the way up this time, until I’m out of breath.
The stairs lead practically into what must be Pete’s backyard. I slide my shoes back on and walk toward an empty infinity pool overlooking the cliff. A group of boys lounge on the other side, and I gasp when one of them jumps right into the empty pool. Blinking, I realize that he’s riding a skateboard. He skates expertly down the curving sides of the pool, around the puddles leftover from last week’s rainfall, and out again. The sound of the wheels on the concrete echoes like a plane taking flight.
Suddenly, Belle is standing beside me, graceful as a tightrope walker on the edge of the pool. She gets to me so fast, I can’t help thinking that maybe she has been waiting for me.
Belle doesn’t say hello, so I don’t either. Instead I ask, “Do all of you live here?” I can’t count how many kids are milling inside and out of the sliding glass doors.
Belle shrugs. “Some of us,” she says. “Others are like you—just passing through.”
“But where did they all come from?” I don’t say what I’m thinking:
Are their parents looking for them, too?
Belle shrugs again. “Mostly runaways. Foster kids, like Pete.”
“Pete’s a foster kid?” I try to picture him as a little boy, shuffled from home to home, but I can only imagine him the way he is now.
“What’d you think?” Belle says, narrowing her eyes. “That he just materialized out of thin air for your entertainment?” She stands so close that I think she might push me right over the cliffs.
I shake my head, looking beyond the empty pool to the enormous house where Pete and his friends live. There isn’t a single light coming from inside, but even in the darkness I can see that most of the paint has peeled from the wooden sides of the house, which must have been white once. The planks of wood on the porch around the empty pool are splitting; some are missing altogether.
“I just didn’t know that he was a foster kid,” I say finally.
“Of course you didn’t.” Belle lifts one foot and balances like a gymnast on a beam.
Trying to ignore her acrobatics, I ask, “Is Pete here?”
“Pete’s always around somewhere,” she says, cocking her head to the side. “Why are you looking for my boyfriend?”
I can feel my spine curving as I sink into a slouch, like the wind has been knocked out of me.
. Pete is Belle’s
. But he asked me to come back. He stood so close. He kissed me. He wouldn’t have kissed me if he had a girlfriend, right?
“I’m sorry,” I say, trying to get the words out of my mouth as quickly as possible. I remember the way Pete and Belle stood beside each other on the beach; I thought they moved with the easy intimacy of a brother and a sister, but really it was the easy intimacy of a couple. I can’t tell whether the heat rising to my face is anger or shame.
Belle smiles, her teeth almost glowing in the dusky light. “Goodbye, Wendy Darling,” she says as she turns to walk away.
I don’t remember ever having told her my last name, but maybe I told Pete and he told her. What else did he tell her? Does she know I kissed him? I press my fingers into my lips. She must hate me. She has every right to.
When Belle is gone, I ignore the looks from some of the other kids and rush back down the stairs, sliding my hand over the railing even when the stairs get so steep that it’s like running down a slide face-first. I can’t believe Pete kissed me with his girlfriend just a few yards away, waiting for him in the house at the top of the cliffs. Was she worried when he didn’t come home that night? Did she know he was with me? I wonder if she yelled at him when he walked through the door the next morning; I can’t picture it. Belle seems more the strong, silent type than the type who would scream and shout.
I grip the railing to keep from falling then run across the beach and through the reeds. The tide is coming in, flooding the path and soaking my jeans, but this time, I don’t let it stop me. I want to get out of here before Pete sees me. I never want to see this place again.
That night, I sleep restlessly in a bed that feels like it’s rising and falling with the waves. In my dreams, I’m sharing a surfboard with Pete, his hand steady on the small of my back, giving me the balance to stay on my feet. I wake up scolding my subconscious for thinking about him.
It’s early. Nana is fast asleep at the foot of my bed, twitching her legs, having dreams of her own.
I should try to go back to sleep, but I’m not tired. Actually, it feels as though my skin is buzzing, like I’ve just had a dozen cups of coffee, like I’ve been struck by an electric shock. I swing my legs over the side of the bed, stand, and walk into the hallway. Nana’s head pops up; she makes a human kind of sound, a little moan, complaining that I’ve woken her up so early.
“Shhh,” I say to her as she hops off the bed and joins me in the hall. “It’s okay, girl.”
My brothers’ room is directly across from my own, and I stare at their closed door for a split second before crossing the hall and turning the doorknob. I haven’t stepped foot inside their room since the day they disappeared.
The room is surprisingly bright; I never realized that their windows face the sunrise. Other teenage boys would have complained that the light woke them too early; other teenage boys would have wanted to sleep late. But they liked to wake up hours before anyone else, always determined to get in a few waves before school. I inhale deeply, expecting to smell some remnant of John and Michael, but the air is clear. I guess time can erase anything.
Nana hovers in the doorway, like even she knows what I’m ignoring, the unspoken rule laid down by my parents: we are not supposed to even look inside this room. It’s been left exactly as it was the day the boys left. The police searched it months ago, hunting for some clue to where my brothers went. They didn’t find anything.
I step inside. Two twin beds, the same ones they slept in when they were five. They didn’t have to share a room, but they preferred it. Two desks and one enormous shared bulletin board littered with pictures of their favorite surfers, of epic waves. I run my hands along their desks, my fingers leaving marks in the dust that’s settled over the past months. Open and close their drawers. Finally, my eyes land on the bulletin board, study the collage of photographs scattered across it.
One picture stands out like a beacon: a set of waves, perfectly glassy and hollow. The picture must have been taken from the ocean, behind the break of the waves, because beyond the waves there is a sandy white beach in the shadow of enormous cliffs, with one rickety wooden staircase built into the rocks. I lean in to get a better look. The water is a familiar but unusual blue, the sand as white as sugar.
I pull it down off the bulletin board, careful not to rip it. I flip it over, recognizing Michael’s chicken-scratch handwriting on the back:
, it reads.
There’s only one place I know where the water is that shade of blue, the sand that bright white, the waves that perfect. I know that staircase; I ran down it just hours ago. The wood may look rough and weathered, but it feels as smooth as glass. I didn’t get a single splinter, even as my hand slid over the steepest parts.
Nana whines softly from her spot in the doorway and I turn, coming face-to-face with my father. He stands frozen in the hall behind the dog. I hold the picture behind my back.
Dad takes several slow, methodical steps toward the open door of his sons’ room, like maybe he’s frightened to look inside.
“Wendy,” he says, exhaling on the word. “What are you doing in there?” He peers through the door.
“Nothing,” I say, shaking my head.
My father steps away from the door, walking backward down the hallway. I take one more look around the room, fingering the picture behind my back.
My father doesn’t look at me.
“When I saw the door open, for a second I thought…”
He doesn’t finish his sentence, but I can see the hope disappear from his face, like a wave receding from the sand.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I won’t do it again.”
He smiles weakly and turns away, heading to the kitchen. In a few minutes, I hear the sound of the percolator and smell coffee drifting through the house.
Back in my room, I put the picture on my desk and stare at it for a few minutes. My brothers were in Kensington.
my brothers were there.
Kensie was the hidden cove I heard them talking about. They’d always had a knack for finding the best waves, were always sneaking off to new beaches in search of the next great ride. It drove my parents crazy; we’d wake up on a random weekday morning and the boys would already be gone, driving somewhere down the coast, cutting school to get to some beach we’d never heard of. When they first ran away, we thought maybe that was all they were doing, and once the waves died down, they’d be back home.
Now, I think they must have run to Kensington, at least at first, to live by the beach with the perfect waves. There were so many kids there last night. Someone there
have met my brothers. Maybe someone there surfed with them. Maybe someone there knows where they are right now.
When my brothers were younger, I used to create elaborate scavenger hunts for them, complete with treasure maps and coded clues that they had to decipher. Each clue led to another clue that led to another clue that led to a silly little treasure, like a cookie or, eventually, a cake of wax for their boards. Sometimes these hunts went on for days or weeks. One particularly tricky one that I made for their eleventh birthday lasted a month and ended with their birthday present, a gift certificate to their favorite surf shop.
The photograph on the bulletin board is a clue.
Maybe they left it for me. They must have known I would find it. It’s my turn to go on a scavenger hunt, and I have to be a better detective than I have been so far. I missed so many clues already: I didn’t see that Pete and Belle were a couple. I kissed him and went back to Kensie to find him, when I should have been looking for my brothers. When I go back, I’ll do better. I won’t lose my focus again.
And if the squatters and runaways in Kensington don’t exactly warm to strangers coming around and asking questions, I’ll just have to make sure I don’t stay a stranger for long.
I get ready quickly. When I shower, I rinse off a patch of sand that’s stuck to the small of my back, just where Pete’s hand rested in my dreams. I pack a duffel bag full to overflowing with warm dark clothes for cool nights on the beach, cash I’ve gotten from relatives as graduation gifts, a notebook, a block of surf wax pilfered from the supply in my brothers’ room. I feel like I should pack a magnifying glass, a set of walkie-talkies. The prize at the end of this scavenger hunt will be John and Michael themselves.
Nana follows me to the driveway when I load the duffel bag into the car.
“You can’t come with me. Not this time, girl.”
My father’s voice makes me jump. “Go with you where?”
He’s holding a cup of coffee, his bathrobe tied loosely around his waist.
The lie comes to me so easily, it’s shocking.
“My road trip,” I say. “With Fiona. Remember?” Fiona and I have been talking about taking a road trip after graduation for years, since before we even had our driver’s licenses. We got our parents to agree to it when we were in the tenth grade. We were going to drive up the coast, spend some time just the two of us before moving away to our respective colleges. But ever since Fiona began dating Dax, she’d stopped talking about our trip, and I stopped bringing it up. I can’t even remember the last time we spent a full day together without him.