For the Js—without you, none of this would have been possible
Turn the page for more amazing teen books from HarperCollins . . .
About the Publisher
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
It doesn’t matter that we’ve only been on three dates or that I wasn’t his biggest fan for the last five years. It doesn’t even matter that his romantic attempts to win me over this summer could be just a means to an end—better girls have been taken in by lesser guys.
But when the air changes, the temperature drops a fraction of a degree, the wind picks up, and a shot of electricity moves through the sand under my feet, I know he’s here.
At least, that’s what I tell Elise, since she likes to swoon over my sort-of love life and gets annoyed when she thinks I’m keeping the details to myself.
I can tell the exact moment Nick steps on the beach, though.
But that’s just because it’s sort of hard to miss seventy-eight twelve-year-olds rushing the beach.
Today I’m actually relieved to see the tidal wave of Little Leaguers descend on Torrey Pines, and I can’t help but smile. Not because of them—not even because of Nick—but because their arrival signifies the end of another ten-hour shift. My last dawn-to-five lifeguard shift this summer. Which is bittersweet, because I love spending my days here—there’s something about the wide-open expanse of water, especially at dawn, when the only people here are the diehard surfers. But I don’t love the long days or the Little League camps or the weekend warriors.
“Damn, J,” Steve says as he gets out of the truck, his eyes wandering to the tendrils of my scar peeking out from under the left strap of my bathing suit. “You’re bailing?”
I grab my duffel and jump from the guard stand into the sand—and ignore the urge to remind him that the scar is nothing he hasn’t seen all summer. “Dude, it’s all you until sundown.”
Steve doesn’t get the chance to say anything else. A clump of wet sand hits me in the leg, followed by a chorus of prepubescent male snickers.
“Aw, Nick. How many times I gotta tell you not to throw stuff at chicks to get their attention?” Per usual, Kevin Collins, mediocre quarterback, star shortstop, and biggest man-whore of Eastview High School stands surrounded by a half-dozen of his Little League campers. “Sorry, Janelle, but you know my man. He’s got no skillz.” He throws an arrogant smile at me because he knows he looks good enough without a shirt that most girls will forgive anything.
But I’m not most girls.
Instead I turn to his best friend. A blush and a lazy smile on his face, he’s swinging his hands together nervously. Tanned skin, short black hair, almond eyes, washboard abs. If I were Elise, I might say Nick Matherson is so pretty it hurts.
Instead I say, “Hey. Happy last day of camp.”
His smile widens, and something in my chest flutters a little—like it always does when he directs that smile at me. “Thanks. They were punks today since, you know, they knew they couldn’t really get in trouble. I thought I might lose my mind, but I’m just glad it’s over.”
I nod—he’s already told me he doesn’t think he’ll coach or work camp again next year.
“I brought you something,” Nick says, reaching into the pocket of his board shorts and extending his loose fist to me. Only he doesn’t open his hand. He just waits.
“What is it?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Come here and see.”
I take a hesitant step closer and reach out my hand. I’m not sure what he could bring me that would fit into his hand, but the fact that he thought of me when I wasn’t around—enough to actually bring me something—makes me smile.
When I touch his wrist to turn it over, his skin is warm. I feel a tingle run through my body as I use my other hand to open his fingers.
And when I see, I can’t help gasping a little. It’s a hundred times better than a piece of jewelry. It’s a packet of lavender seeds. Something I’ve wanted. Something I mentioned to him just yesterday.
“The guy I bought them from said you can plant them in a planter, not like, actually outside, if you don’t want. Hopefully it will help your mom with those headaches,” Nick says.
“Nick, it’s perfect. Thank you,” I say with a smile, and I lean in to hug him. Instead he drops his head, and our lips brush up against each other quickly, before I pull back. I work here, after all, even if it is my last day for the summer.
“I heard you had a rough save this morning,” he says with a laugh. “Two grown men?”
“It was just a rip current,” I explain, a blush creeping into my face as I give a quick rundown of the incident. As I’m talking, I glance over Nick’s shoulder and see Brooke Haslen giving me her scariest death glare.
“But wait,” Nick says. “Elise said both guys were, like, three bills easy.”
“I had the rescue board with me. I swam out there, got them both on the board, and swam them parallel to the shore until we could get back in. It wasn’t a big deal.”
“Whatever, Janelle,” Kevin says as he throws an arm around my shoulder. “We know you’re hiding crazy guns. Think you could take me?” He flexes his biceps, which would be impressive if he weren’t so cocky.
“Dude, get off her,” Nick says, as he pushes Kevin. It only takes two shoves before they’re full-out wrestling and punching each other in the sand. Moments like this I wonder if they share the same brain.
Before the swarm of Little Leaguers rushes over to cheer them on, I start walking toward the parking lot. I still have to pick my brother up from his best friend’s house and drop him off at water polo practice, then go home, shower, and change before Nick brings me back here for the annual back-to-school bonfire.
“Janelle!” Nick shouts.
I turn around in time to see Kevin knock him over and push him face-first into the sand. Nick rolls over and punches Kevin hard in his lower back—kidney shot—and spits sand out of his mouth. “I’ll pick you up around eight tonight, right?”
I nod, and a grin overtakes his face. I start to return the smile, but then Kevin is on top of him again, and they’re back at it.
I turn around and catch Brooke staring at me. I lock onto her blue eyes and refuse to look away. There was a time when I might have been the kind of girl to wilt under the disapproval of Brooke Haslen. She’s seemingly everything I’m not—tall, blond, beautiful, perfect. And if this were three years ago, I might have felt guilty about the fact that Nick asked me out only a few days after he broke up with her. But not anymore.
Brooke and I stare at each other as I pass by her and her friends. It’s Kate who actually breaks the glare for us. She reaches for a can of soda and leans in front of Brooke. Then she looks up—sees me—then frowns and tries to look away.
When I get to my car, I understand. Brooke’s smirk. Kate’s regret.
The windshield of my Jeep reads BITCH in fluorescent pink window paint. Apparently, I’ll also be running through a car wash on my way to pick up Jared.
Or not. Because as I open my door and chuck the duffel into the passenger seat, I realize my tire is flat. It doesn’t just need more air. It’s dead flat—the rim of my tire is on the pavement.
And it’s not the only one.
My other front tire is flat too.
Kate would know I have a spare in the back of the Jeep. She knows my dad wouldn’t let me get my license until I’d successfully demonstrated I could change a tire, check my oil, and jump-start the car.
When your ex–best friend and the ex-girlfriend of your sort-of boyfriend call you a bitch—in neon-pink window paint—and slash your tires, the temptation to break down and cry is definitely there. My eyes sting, my body feels hot in that “I’m treading the emotional line between fury and tears” sort of way, and I’m tempted to just throw my arms out wide, look up at the sky, and scream at the top of my lungs. Only, this is hardly the first time I’ve felt this way. Slashing tires might be new, but the life-ruining sentiment is still the same.
And I’ve dealt with far bigger issues than high school mean girls.
Digging into the glove compartment for my cell, I contemplate heading back to the beach and asking Nick for help. But being a damsel in distress isn’t really my thing. And I don’t want Nick to make any wild guesses about how this happened—he might act like a Neanderthal sometimes, but he’s actually a smart guy, and BITCH plus two flat tires equals only one possible culprit. Plus, if I go back down to the beach for help, Brooke will get the satisfaction of seeing that she got to me.
So I call AAA and explain the problem while changing into my running sneakers. It’ll take them at least an hour to get here to change the tires, but no big deal, I’ll be back tonight. And they’ll charge the tires to the credit card, so I won’t have to worry about that.
Then I start walking. This stretch of Highway 101 is wide open—just cliffs, beach, and two-lane highway. I can easily hike up the hill and run into Del Mar. It’s a little more than two miles, but if I run full speed, I can probably make it in under fifteen minutes. I dial the one person who’s never let me down.
Because he’s Alex, he answers on the first ring. “What’s up?”
“I need a favor.”
I smile into the phone. “Can you pick Jared and me up at Chris Whitman’s house? He lives in Del Mar on Stratford Court at Fourth Street.”
“Of course, but what’s wrong with the Jeep?” I hear him grabbing his keys.
“Flat tire. Long story.” He starts to protest. “I’ll tell you all about it when you get there.”
“Yeah, no problem. Do you want me to pick up something on the way?”
Crap. That reminds me. I promised Jared a carne asada burrito from Roberto’s. I’m not going to have time, and it would be out of Alex’s way. . . . I bite my lip and close my eyes for a split second, weighing Jared’s disappointment against time.
I’m about to ask Alex if he can stop at the drive-through at Cotija’s, which isn’t quite as good but is at least on the way, when I think I hear someone shout my name.
But it’s drowned out by the screech of brakes and the grinding of metal on asphalt.
I also would have said I was the most observant person I knew—it was why I had the most saves out of all the lifeguards at Torrey Pines.
But somehow I manage to miss the faded blue Toyota pickup until it’s so close I can feel the warmth of the engine and smell the smoke of locking brakes. Until the only thing I have time to do is haphazardly throw an arm in front of my face. Because apparently I’m vain like that.
But there’s no pain. In fact, when I die—and I know I’m dying, I’m as certain as I’ve ever been about anything in my life—there’s an absence of pain, a lightness almost, as if all my worries about Jared getting enough to eat, making his water polo practices, getting good grades, adjusting to high school, about my dad working himself into the ground, getting enough sleep, spending enough time with Jared, about my mom taking her medicine on time, getting out of bed before three, not noticing I dumped the last of her gin down the drain—it all just escapes.
And I’m dead.
The clichéd whole-life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment doesn’t come either. Instead I see just one day. The most perfect day of my existence. Maybe the sight of it really is just my optic nerves firing as my body shuts down. But the feeling—that’s more than just my body’s physiological reaction. Because I can feel everything I felt that day.
And there’s nothing clichéd about it at all.
I see the heavy heat of the midday summer sun beat down on my mother, surrounding her like some sort of halo, her belly swollen and pregnant with Jared. Her dark olive skin gleams in the reflection of the sunlight off the sand, and a thick mess of black hair is piled in a loose bun on top of her head. She claps her hands and throws her head back, letting out wild, joyful laughter from her mouth.
I hadn’t remembered she could look so beautiful—so alive.
Our discarded attempt at re-creating Cinderella’s castle with sand slumps next to her, surrounded by bright pink buckets and shovels.
Love blossoms in my chest—not just my love for her, but also her love for me—and the warm peace of the feeling wraps around me like a thick blanket.
Then I see myself, a fearless three-year-old with a body board and fins, attacking the waves as if conquering them will allow me to make my mark on the world. I’m laughing and swimming. The spray of the saltwater stings my face, the roaring thunder of the swells mixing with my mother’s laughter filling my ears. The smell of the ocean and Coppertone SPF 45 in my nose.
Excitement. Happiness. Peace. Perfection.