by Jaime Clevenger
Moving back to her hometown was never at the top of Joy Henderson’s to-do list. With a successful career in San Francisco and plenty of opportunity for casual relationships, the last thing Joy wants is to return to the small town she’d planned her whole life to escape. But family obligations pull her back home and it isn’t long before Joy runs into someone she’s always dreamed of seeing again—the first girl she ever imagined kissing. Kelsey West.
Olympic dreams are a thing of the past for Kelsey. Now an out of work swim coach recovering from a bad relationship, she’s back home only long enough to get her life together. When she learns that Joy Henderson, the high school crush she never forgot, is also back in town, she can’t help but wonder if there’s a chance to rewrite the past.
Time has changed their hometown. Time has changed Kelsey and Joy. But when it comes to two women who have never trusted love—has time changed them enough?
|Publication Date||May 15, 2016|
|Cover Designer||Linda Callaghan|
Streaks of silver and blue threaded across the polished stone. The smooth oval shape matched her thumb and she rolled it between her fingers. When it came to rest in her palm, she pushed back tears and jammed it in the pocket of her jeans. Moonstones were cheap. Twenty bucks bought a handful in Chinatown along with a velvet bag to carry them home.
The car was finally packed and she had to slam the overfilled trunk to get it closed. Joy glanced again at her third-floor apartment. Her old apartment. She was leaving most of her things. Framed prints still hung on the walls—Picasso and Annie Lee interspersed with Frida Kahlo. The red plaid sofa sagged in the middle and the coffee table was ringed with years of sweaty water glasses. Both had followed her through grad school along with the queen bed and the squeaky box spring. At thirty-five, she didn’t own anything worth the hassle of a moving truck. If it didn’t fit in her Honda Accord, it was staying behind along with the view of Golden Gate Park.
The street was clear for a block in either direction and no one noticed how long she stood with one hand on the car door. Finally she climbed into the driver’s seat. She started out of the narrow parking spot and then slammed on the brakes when something struck the roof. A cinnamon raisin bagel rolled down the windshield. She waited a moment and when nothing followed, eased her death grip on the steering wheel. Another bagel pelted the sunroof and she jumped at the sound. Then she smiled.
Joy cut the engine and eyed the third-floor apartment. The bay window was propped open and Vanessa leaned out. Joy was ready for the next bagel when it hit the hood. Sesame onion. It tumbled over the nose of the car. She rolled down the window and stuck her head out.
“Don’t be mad.” Vanessa’s voice was contrite. “I didn’t want you to drive off and forget about me.”
“So you decided to throw bagels?”
“It was a last-minute decision.” Vanessa had thick black hair that she always kept pulled back in a low ponytail unless she had a date. Then she let it loose. Now it framed her olive complexion and fell off her shoulders as she leaned out the window.
“Most people stick with goodbye.”
“You know I’m not most people.”
“And now I’ll always remember you were the one who threw bagels.”
Vanessa could have called dibs on having the best pout a grown woman could muster. But she couldn’t hold it for long. Finally she cracked a smile and reached for another bagel.
“You wouldn’t,” Joy said. She ducked when Vanessa raised her arm. Joy waited but no bagel came. She risked a glance at the window.
“Come back for Pride. Breakfast in Dolores Park Saturday morning.” Vanessa wiped her eyes. “By then you’ll be missing the city even if you aren’t missing me.”
Joy missed San Francisco and she hadn’t left yet. She knew she was going to miss Vanessa. “I’ll bring bagels.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
Vanessa blew a kiss and pulled the window shut. Joy waited until she’d disappeared. Only a silhouette marked her shadowy movements. She’d gone to her usual spot—sitting on the coffee table with her feet kicked up on the sofa. She was probably already on her cell phone looking for her next date.
From the start, they had agreed to an open relationship. Vanessa had suggested it but Joy didn’t argue. Grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon was better with her company. She was even nicer company naked in bed on Saturday night. The only hint that she wanted more from the relationship came the day Joy told her she was leaving. Vanessa had argued, almost persuasively, that there was no reason to break up in an open relationship. After a week of sulking, Vanessa asked to sublet the one-bedroom apartment and bought pots to plant flowers on the balcony. She hung around while Joy packed and gushed about her new view of the park. Joy’s old view. Then she insisted Joy keep a key. By the last kiss, Joy was less certain than ever that they needed to break up.
Joy closed her eyes. She pushed away the thought of getting out of the car to ring her old doorbell. It was too late. She turned up the volume on the radio and pulled out of the parking space. The curvy silhouette had disappeared.
The drive to Raceda was over five hours. Six with traffic. She’d lose her favorite station before she reached Santa Rosa. Everything north of that was tainted with static or country the closer she got to home. “Home.” She repeated the word only because the hollowness of it reminded her of murmuring “Om” over and over again. She didn’t go to yoga in search of enlightenment, but the “Om” had struck a chord.
She’d told Vanessa that she was moving home, but the house where she’d grown up in Raceda had sold a month after the funeral. Her mom was renting a cramped townhouse that didn’t feel like home. Everything familiar was in storage or donated to Goodwill. The town itself, she decided, was home. It was also the last place she wanted to go. Joy turned her attention to the cars lining up to cross the bridge. She wouldn’t miss the city’s traffic.
Raceda had a small downtown business district near the waterfront, but all of the housing was north of downtown, past the old lumberyards and far enough from the fish-processing warehouses to escape the stench. Joy pulled off the highway one exit before her mom’s. She made a loop through downtown to check in on her old favorite haunts. Most of the buildings were unchanged, but several storefronts had switched hands. Handlebar Toys with the rusty tricycle propping open the front door and BJ’s Ice Cream remained as bookends on the main drag. Ranger Clothing and Colliers Drugstore had both closed, replaced respectively with a different clothing store and a real estate office. Joy slowed in front of Caketown Doughnuts when the car in front of her tried to parallel park. Caketown’s neon “D” no longer lit up, so the sign in the window now flashed “onuts.”
Wates Bridge was a shortcut from downtown to the old neighborhood where she’d grown up, and her mom’s townhome complex was just beyond that. She drove through her old neighborhood, passed her old high school, now trimmed in blue instead of green, and then had to stop at a red light at the intersection for the community pool. There was a new statue of a whale’s fin in front of the pool’s parking lot. The fin, crusted with barnacles and draped with algae, jutted ten feet above a granite slab cut to resemble a cresting wave. To the left of the towering fin was the sign for the pool. Eighteen years later and the sign was unchanged. She’d gotten the job of painting the bubble letters “Raceda Community Pool.” The paint was chipped now and in sore need of a touch-up. The sign seemed to mock her. Of course she’d come back to Raceda. No matter how many years had passed, the town had waited for her. Joy stared at the sign long enough to miss the light turning to green. The car behind her honked and she stepped on the gas.
* * *
Eighteen Years Ago
Joy heard the door creak and then familiar footsteps. She didn’t look up to see who had come in. For as long as she could remember, she’d made a game of trying to guess people by the sound of their footsteps. This one was easy. Kelsey was the only lifeguard who shuffled in flip-flops. And shift change was every thirty minutes. In the two years that they’d guarded together, Kelsey had never been late. This time she was one minute early.
“Did the Mama and Me Class finish already?”
Kelsey nodded. She went over to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of orange juice. “They have ice cream planned and the kiddos scooted out of the water faster than I’ve ever seen toddlers move.” She pinched up her face as she swallowed a sip of the juice. “This is their last class. Too bad, huh?”
Joy smiled at Kelsey’s sarcasm. “Don’t worry. There’s a new session starting in two weeks.”
“Something to look forward to.” Kelsey balanced on one leg like a crane, her bare foot tucked behind her knee as she tugged off her ankle band, then she deftly slipped her toes back into her flip-flop. Her red running shorts showed off almost too long a length of perfectly sculpted muscles. She’d been away for spring break at a swim program in Sacramento and her skin had tanned to bronze. Since she’d come back, Joy had found it hard not to stare at her. Unfortunately, there was no sign that Kelsey noticed her. They worked together. That was it. Kelsey set the ankle band down in front of Joy and then leaned against the counter. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temple.
“I’m fine. It’s only a headache. I woke up late and didn’t have time to stop for Tylenol.” She sighed. “One more toddler screech out there and I was sure I was gonna lose it.”
Joy guessed that the headache was only part of the story. A group from the swim team met on Sunday nights at Mad River Beach. Apparently someone had a way to get their hands on enough alcohol to get everyone buzzed. That was the story Joy had overheard at swim practice. She’d yet to have even a sip of alcohol and partly envied Kelsey’s hangover. She wanted to know what a buzz felt like. Her parents didn’t even keep wine around and chances were she’d need to wait until she was of legal age to ever experience a hangover. There was no way she’d get an invite to a Sunday at Mad River—not that she’d want to hang out with anyone who went to Mad River anyway. Except maybe Kelsey.
“I’ve got some aspirin in my locker,” Joy volunteered. “Want to keep an eye on things while I run and grab it for you?”
“I think the pounding will pass if I down enough orange juice. It’s better already just closing my eyes. But I wouldn’t mind some earplugs before the water aerobics teacher blasts the stereo.”
“Sorry. No earplugs.” Joy reached for a whistle, picking her favorite yellow one from the pile on the counter.
“You don’t have to rush out there. No one will be in the pool until water aerobics starts in ten minutes and Andrew’s on deck anyway.”
Joy had picked out her ankle band but set it back on the counter next to Kelsey’s. She didn’t mind an excuse to wait to put it on. The elastic itched and she’d gotten a rash from the plastic sensor rubbing her skin. If the sensor got wet an alarm was triggered to signal that a guard had dived in for a rescue. The alarm was ear piercing when it sounded and since the pool was enclosed on all sides by cement blocks, the noise bounced from one wall to the next like an echo on steroids.
“Oh, and you might want to avoid the back hallway. The kids were throwing their wet suits at each other while their moms gossiped in the locker room. They’re running loose between the showers and the bathrooms. I have to pee but I’m going to hold it until they clear out.” Kelsey sank down on the seat Joy had left. “By the way, Andrew hasn’t gotten the hot tub working yet. I think I can see a rubber ducky jammed behind the filter. He thinks it’s a pair of goggles. Whatever it is, it’s clogged up the whole system.”
“A rubber ducky? The fun never stops around here.”
“Lifeguarding at Raceda Community Pool—what a blast,” Kelsey said, her sarcasm evident.
“Totally.” Joy grinned. She was comfortably chatting with Kelsey and hadn’t said anything stupid yet. Unbelievable, she thought. The last time they’d exchanged more than a hello was sophomore year when they’d been in the same English class. Kelsey had asked her a question about a homework assignment and Joy had barely managed to answer in a full sentence. Worse, she’d given Kelsey the wrong page numbers to read. Since then, Joy had avoided any chance at looking like an idiot, which meant she never talked around Kelsey. For someone who’d been pegged as a nerd since the third grade by Andrew O’Reilly, becoming friends with one of the cool kids wasn’t possible. Thick-rimmed glasses and spelling bee wins had sealed her fate.
Kelsey was the swim team captain and had been in the cool kid group since middle school. She ate lunch in the quad with a group of girls who all wore designer jeans and boasted about trust funds. Even the cheerleaders wanted in on that crowd. But Kelsey was different from the others. For one thing, she always smiled and said hello. Maybe it wasn’t much, but most everyone else whispered if Joy was within earshot and then glanced quickly away if she looked over at them. Some would point with their eyebrows or nod in her direction. If they thought she’d noticed, they’d cover with some comment about how her darker skin tones looked good against the orange and teal team swimsuit.
Joy changed in the corner of the locker room and avoided eye contact. She was always the first one in the water and the last one out. She belonged in the water even if she didn’t fit in anywhere else. But in a few months she’d be out of Raceda for good. Maybe that was why she wasn’t stumbling over her words with Kelsey now. She didn’t care who she impressed. Or didn’t.
“Only four more months and we’re out of here,” Kelsey said, as if guessing Joy’s thoughts. “No more screaming toddlers, no more scooping birthday cake out of the pool…I’m not sure I’ll miss this place.” She glanced over at Joy. “I heard you decided on Cal. You know that means we’re gonna be rivals.”
Joy wondered how Kelsey knew. She hadn’t told anyone at school, but news traveled fast in Raceda. “I’m not going there for sports,” she managed, uneasy with Kelsey’s eyes on her. “I’m not even trying out for the swim team.”
“Why not?” Kelsey took another gulp of her orange juice and then set the jug on the counter. “Berkeley’s got a great team.”
“Exactly. I’m not that good. The only reason I had a spot on our team is because I swim butterfly. No one else wanted the two-hundred-meter fly. Everyone on our team thinks butterfly is a pain in the ass and it sure isn’t sexy.” Joy wished she could swallow back the word “sexy.” It was too late to hope that Kelsey hadn’t noticed. She’d looked over at her and the corner of her lips had been edged with a smile.
“Not sexy? I don’t know about that,” Kelsey said. “I’ve seen guys watching you in the pool.”
“After the third lap, they’re only watching to see if I’m gonna sink.”
“You took first in both of your races in Rockridge and Sac, then got us a length ahead in that last relay. And Coach always pencils you in as my backup for the two-hundred free. No one thinks you’re gonna sink.”
“I’m only penciled in because the coach knows you’d never need a backup.” Joy didn’t ask why Kelsey had watched her races or remembered the wins though both questions popped to mind. “Anyway, there’ll be plenty of people ready to sign up for butterfly at Berkeley.”
“I think you should try out for the team. What do you have to lose?”
Pride? Joy answered silently. She shook her head. Unlike Kelsey, she wasn’t on track for the Olympics. She was on track for optometry school. “I need to focus on my classes. It’s easy to ace tests here without studying, but Berkeley…I’m already nervous.”
“I bet you could swing the swim team and good grades. Me on the other hand—I don’t need perfect grades. Just fast times.” Kelsey shook her head. “Swimming is my way out of this town.”
“And good grades are mine.”
“Well, good luck to both of us then, I guess.” Kelsey grinned. “May we never end up back in Raceda.”
Joy had to glance away from Kelsey’s gaze. She eyed the clock. “The water aerobics teacher is gonna be jogging through the front door any second. I’m going to turn down the stereo’s volume setting before she gets here.”
“You think she won’t notice?”
“It’s worth a shot,” Joy said. “Otherwise, let me know if you change your mind about the aspirin.”
Kelsey smiled appreciatively. She reached for the attendance clipboard and slid a new sheet of paper into place, then tucked the sign-in pencil behind her ear. Kelsey was the only girl in their senior class with short hair. She’d cut her hair at the start of the school year and around that same time began outpacing all the boys on their swim team. The short cut made it hard not to stare at her earrings—three dotted each ear. She kept the earrings on even when she swam at meets. Joy wondered if she’d take out the earrings when she swam at Stanford. She’d landed a full scholarship for swimming and maybe they would make her take out the earrings as part of the deal. Joy realized that she’d probably never know. When they both left for college, they’d likely never see each other again. Maybe she could have been friends with Kelsey in some alternate universe, but not in Raceda. She didn’t envy that Kelsey was one of the cool kids. That was just a matter of fact. Some people were nerds, some people weren’t. What was amazing was that they’d had a completely normal conversation and Joy hadn’t managed to say one stupid thing. Except “sexy.”
Joy turned back to the counter when she realized she’d forgotten her ankle band. She leaned around Kelsey’s chair to reach for the band. The back of her hand brushed the orange juice bottle and Kelsey lunged for it at the same moment that Joy did. They caught each other’s hands instead of the bottle and Kelsey locked her gaze on Joy. One millisecond passed and they only stared at each other. By the time Joy pulled her hand back it was too late. Juice surged onto the counter, drenching the ankle bands and the sign-in sheet in a wide pool of orange. The trusty alarm howled.
After the wail of the last siren died down, the houseboat was too quiet. Kelsey stayed above deck, waiting for a seal’s bark or even a seagull’s cry. Usually the fishermen with their heavy footsteps and banging buckets would pass at this hour, but no one came. A distant screech of brakes would be some company, but the road leading down to the docks was quiet. The only sound came from the waves sloshing against the pier and the groan of ropes straining against the pull of the wide ocean. There was no comfort in the noises she’d grown used to.
Slick from the misty fog, the docks were silvery gray in the last shreds of light. Within minutes of the sun setting, the harbor had turned cold and damp. Kelsey sat hunched on the bench, shivering in her T-shirt and jeans. What had happened wasn’t unexpected. She’d been dreading it for weeks. But she hadn’t planned anything out and now regret pushed at the corner of every thought as she replayed the last half of the day. Lunch had been a deli sandwich. That was the last bit of normalcy. Turkey and Swiss with a side of potato chips. She wished she could forget every moment after that. Two days shy of her thirty-sixth birthday and she’d logged a lot of bad days, but this one made the top of the list. The only good thing that had come of it all was that Hannah was officially someone else’s problem.
Kelsey wasn’t sorry about making the 911 call. The operator had been so calm—Kelsey could have been ordering a pizza instead of an ambulance. But the sedate voice on the other end of the line only offered forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours. The seconds ticked off on her wristwatch but still she sat motionless.
Shrieks and cursing filtered in and out of her mind in an unending thread and she wondered how forty-eight hours could possibly change Hannah’s course. She touched the red spot on her arm that would be an ugly bruise by morning and wished it had been a bad dream. Two years was too long for any dream.
The lapping waves rocked her into a dull, half awake-half asleep state. An hour passed and still she’d avoided going below deck. She knew what was waiting for her, Hannah’s clothes strewn about along with the empty bottles of Jack Daniels. When the slate sky darkened and no moon appeared, she stood and stretched. She could make out the tips of her fingers on her outstretched hand but beyond that there was nothing but hazy orange dock lights perched on invisible posts. The wind picked up and a swell surged the boat against the dock, upsetting what balance she’d found. The sound of the rails striking the wood was too close to the sound of Hannah’s head slamming against the plank stairs. She’d staggered down to use the latrine and missed the last step. She hadn’t gotten up after that until the paramedics had carried her off on the stretcher.
Kelsey knew she had to move out before Hannah’s suicide watch ended. Forty-eight hours wasn’t long in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it was long enough for the alcohol and most of the medication to wear off, but it wasn’t long enough to clear away the thoughts that had pushed Hannah to swallow the half bottle of pills with a whiskey chaser.
“Forty-eight hours.” Kelsey said the words aloud and only then moved to grab the handrail leading down to the cabin. She had enough time to pack the few belongings she’d moved into the houseboat with seven months ago.
Moving hadn’t been on the list of things to do that day and she didn’t have boxes. She filled plastic garbage bags with her clothes, emptying the dresser all too quickly, and then went to clear out the bathroom. The toothpaste and shampoo she left, knowing Hannah had none otherwise. She didn’t touch anything in the kitchen, but Hannah hadn’t eaten anything solid in a week.
Kelsey saved the closet for last. Most everything in the narrow closet belonged to Hannah. She picked through the clothes until she found her Stanford sweatshirt. She pulled this on over her T-shirt and then spotted a favorite black tank top that Hannah had swiped months ago. The top was under the extra bedding and smelled vaguely of pot. A plastic baggie full of marijuana leaves had been hidden behind the folded blankets long enough for Hannah to probably have forgotten she’d stashed it there. Kelsey briefly considered tossing the contents overboard along with the pills on the nightstand. Instead, she set the plastic baggie on Hannah’s pillow. She grabbed the two medicine vials that Hannah had half emptied. Valium and Percocet. There were enough pills remaining to do damage if she tried again—how much damage depended on whether she had access to her favorite whiskey as well. Kelsey jammed the vials into the pocket of her sweatshirt and then pulled the zipper. The evidence disappeared inside.
Maybe if Hannah got high as soon as she was released, she wouldn’t think about missing the pills. Maybe not right away. Kelsey couldn’t hope for anything more. Hope had a line as long as a kite string but she’d reached the end of it. The rescue mission had finally come to its unsuccessful end.
Kelsey dialed her mom’s number. She waited for the sound of the answering machine’s beep, wondering what to say. She decided on the truth or at least part of it. She needed a few weeks home. One month at most.
Kelsey made the drive to her mom’s by rote. Six hours slipped by and she nearly missed the exit to Raceda. Heavy fog choked the streetlights and familiar landmarks passed in a blur of hazy yellow. She wasn’t surprised when she ran a red light, but she slowed down after that. When she reached Ackland Street, she hit the brakes but didn’t turn, stopping in the middle of the intersection. A blue and white light suddenly flashed behind her and she reluctantly pulled over. A cop was the last thing she wanted to face. She didn’t want to explain that Ackland was the street she’d grown up on but she couldn’t bring herself to turn down it now. Before she’d turned off the engine, the cop sped past her. He was after someone else.
Kelsey stared at the intersection in her rearview mirror. If she continued on, she’d circle back to the highway. She could be in Portland by daybreak. She had an ex-girlfriend in Portland, but chances weren’t good that Abby wanted to see her now. And she couldn’t waste money on a hotel room if Abby turned her down. Her mom would give her a hug and then she could fall asleep on the old twin mattress. There’d be questions, of course. She wasn’t certain the hug was worth the questions.
She hadn’t turned the radio on for the drive; the noise of the highway had been enough distraction. The sound of her idling Audi engine was little company now. She made a U-turn and headed back to Ackland Street. The neighborhood glowed under the bright streetlights. Nate’s motorcycle was parked in her mom’s driveway. When she saw it, she nearly decided on Portland. She didn’t want to hear her brother’s tirade about Hannah. Of course he’d been right all along.
Her cell phone beeped and she saw her mom’s name flash on the screen. Are you coming home tonight? It was four a.m. Reality was, she had nowhere else to go. Once she’d made it out of Raceda, she’d promised herself she’d never move back. That had always been the plan. But now she couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.
* * *
Nate cut the engine and pulled off his helmet. He tossed the helmet to Kelsey and then leaned the motorcycle onto the kickstand.
“Let’s go for a ride,” Nate said.
Kelsey shook her head. “You only have one helmet.”
Nate shrugged. “Only one of us needs to be smart.” His T-shirt had an oil stain that popped into view when he unzipped the leather jacket halfway down his chest. Leather gave him broad shoulders that he really didn’t have and turned his stomach pudge into a thickness that was altogether tough. It didn’t matter that he had pimples on his back or that he smelled like a washcloth someone had drenched with sweat and then tossed in the laundry still wet, balled up underneath a pair of dirty socks. His thick caterpillar eyebrows pulled together as he scowled. “Get on before I change my mind.” Freckles dotted his nose and cheeks. The freckles seemed out of place on a nineteen-year-old. They belonged to a ten-year-old boy still hoping for a fish down at the docks.
“You stink,” Kelsey said, tossing the helmet back. “Besides, I’m still mad at you for breaking up with Sadie.”
“That was a week ago.”
Kelsey slung her backpack over one shoulder. “I have homework.” Bus number seven pulled up to the curb. Most seniors didn’t ride the bus. If they didn’t have their own car, they shared a ride with someone who did. But she wasn’t the only senior who took the bus. Kelsey watched Joy climb onto the bus. Joy’s stop was only a few blocks from hers, but in the past three years of bus rides, they’d never once sat together and never talked. Yesterday at the pool was the first time they’d said more than a few words to each other and now Kelsey couldn’t get Joy off her mind. She wanted to tell someone, but she couldn’t. Not even Nate. “Why are you here anyway?”
He was staring at the bus line and pointed to a girl with platinum blond locks down to the middle of her back. She turned and looked right at them. “That’s Sadie’s little sister, isn’t it? They could be twins.”
“Except Sadie’s a senior and Hannah’s a sophomore. That makes her fifteen, maybe sixteen. Don’t even think about it.” Kelsey hadn’t wanted Nate to date Sadie in the first place, but since they’d broken up, she was siding with Sadie. They’d been friends since freshman year.
“I wouldn’t date Sadie’s little sister. I was only saying they look alike.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I hate this town. I’m always running into someone I know.”
“You could leave. You could be a bum somewhere else as easy as in Raceda.”
Nate stuck up his middle finger but didn’t argue. “Are you coming or not?”
Kelsey glanced back at the bus again. She could see Joy at the back of the bus. The windows were open and Joy’s hand was sticking out like she was catching raindrops only it wasn’t raining. Her skin was golden brown and she stood out among all the pale kids who jostled to get a seat.
Joy’s father was Dr. Henderson—the eye doctor in town. When she was a kid, Kelsey’s mom had taken her along on eye appointments to help pick out new glasses. Kelsey had loved the long stories Dr. Henderson would tell to keep her occupied while he flipped switches and gadgets and then peered into her mother’s eyes. She’d sit at the foot of the chair, listening to the click of the lenses. His hands worked the buttons on the machine while the toe of his brown leather shoes tapped out a beat to a song he’d sometimes hum aloud. Dark brown pants were paired with the brown shoes, a tan shirt and a brown tie. His skin was only a shade lighter than the tie and when he laughed his Santa Claus belly made the tie dance. He seemed to love to laugh. Joy’s father looked nothing like her mother—pale, blond and willowy thin. She wore bright headscarves, big hats and sunglasses year round as if she planned on the fog layer breaking at any moment. Kelsey had seen them together in the grocery store, Dr. Henderson in his brown suit and Mrs. Henderson with a wide-brimmed yellow sunhat and a red sundress, holding hands and smiling at each other. She’d never seen her parents hold hands. Ever. People said the Hendersons were an odd match, but Kelsey knew it was only because Dr. Henderson was black and Mrs. Henderson wasn’t. As far as couples went, she didn’t know of two people who looked happier together.
Joy stood out more because of how she acted than anything about her parents or the color of her skin. Everyone else was moving from seat to seat and yelling, tossing balls and throwing backpacks, but she was ignoring all of it, looking up at the clouds. She seemed like she was light years away from the school bus. Light years away from Raceda High. Kelsey thought of the orange juice again and couldn’t hold back a grin.
“Who are you looking at?” Nate asked.
“Let me guess. Your boyfriend rides the bus?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.” He was wrong of course, but perceptive if nothing else. That was Nate.
“I can tell when you’re hiding something,” he insisted. He scanned the bus windows. “What’s he look like? I can’t believe your boyfriend rides the bus—he’s gotta be a complete nerd. Should I be looking for pocket protectors?” Nate laughed. “How old is he? If he’s riding the bus, he probably doesn’t even have a permit. Fifteen?” Nate leaned back on his seat and grinned. “Now I get it. That’s why you still want to take the bus home, isn’t it?”
“There’s no boyfriend, jackass.” There was so much Kelsey could add. But she didn’t. Nate was still chuckling. “Shut up.”
“It’s not like I care anyway,” Nate said. “So you have a boyfriend who rides the bus.”
“There’s no boyfriend,” Kelsey said. Maybe the tone was a little harsh. The volume was definitely louder than she’d planned.
Nate held up his hands. “Fine. I get it.” After a minute he added, “Maybe you need one. You do need to get out more. All you do is swim and study.” He pointed to a kid in a cowboy hat pushing past another kid. “How about him?”
Kelsey shook her head. “He’s an asshole.”
Nate shrugged. “You should go to the parties at Mad River. That’s where I used to hang out every weekend. People hook up there all the time.”
“You’re giving me advice on where to go for a hookup?” Kelsey wanted to say that she’d already been to plenty of bonfires at Mad River. Mad River was where she’d kissed Andrew O’Reilly. But that wasn’t the important part. It was a terrible kiss. His lips were wet and pressed too hard. She’d pushed away, wiped off the feel of his tongue and wished that she hadn’t been too buzzed to drive. He didn’t try to kiss her again. But the bad kiss wasn’t the problem. The problem was that as soon as it had happened, she’d realized something. It wasn’t about Andrew at all. She wanted to kiss a girl. And now it was hard to think of anything else.
“All I’m saying is you should enjoy this time. It’s your last year of high school. You’re supposed to be out partying every night.” Nate shook his head. “There’s more to life than following the rules.”
“Yeah, I follow the rules. And I don’t waste all my time getting high either.” Kelsey felt her jaw muscles tighten.
“I’m not talking about getting high. I’m talking about living life.” He lit a cigarette and leaned back on the seat. He took a drag and puffed for emphasis.
“Look, I know there’s always a catch. Why are you offering me a ride?”
He flicked the ash off his cigarette. “I need gas money.”
“You need a job.”
“You sound like Mom. I know you have ten bucks on you.”
“I’m saving it for college.”
“Ten bucks?” Nate laughed. “Good luck. Anyway, Mom showed me the offer letter. Nice scholarship.”
“That scholarship is all Mom talks about lately,” Kelsey said.
“Better than her worrying about Dad’s divorce lawyer.”
Kelsey eyed Nate. “He got a lawyer?”
“They’re finally making it official. I don’t think she was going to say anything to us about it,” Nate said. “I saw the letter from his lawyer.”
It’d been five years since their dad had moved to LA. He’d gone to live with his girlfriend. For some reason, no one was surprised. But there’d been no formal divorce. Kelsey guessed the girlfriend finally wanted to get married. “Screw Dad.”
The bus pulled away from the curb and Kelsey couldn’t help but watch it leave. Joy had pulled her hand back inside and the way the light hit the windows, Kelsey couldn’t make out her face. Nate was watching her so she shoved the helmet on and then popped open the visor. The cheek pads were wet with Nate’s sweat and smelled of stale cigarettes.
The bus turned at the intersection and then disappeared from view.
“Come on, you, me, the open road…and some gas money.” Nate revved the engine and pushed off the kickstand. “Let’s blow this town.”
Kelsey climbed on behind him. “When I finally leave this place, Nate, I’m not coming back.”