We'd been driving for about seven thousand years. Or at least that's how it felt. My brother, Steven, drove slower than our Granna. I sat next to him in the passenger seat with my feet up on the dashboard. Meanwhile, my mother was passed out in the backseat. Even when she slept, she looked alert, like at any second she could wake up and direct traffic.
"Go faster," I urged Steven, poking him in the shoulder. "Let's pass that kid on the bike."
Steven shrugged me off. "Never touch the driver," he said. "And take your dirty feet off my dashboard."
I wiggled my toes back and forth. They looked pretty clean to me. "It's not your dashboard. It's gonna be my car soon, you know."
"If you ever get your license," he scoffed. "People like you shouldn't even be allowed to drive."
"Hey, look," I said, pointing out the window. "That guy in a wheelchair just lapped us!"
Steven ignored me, and so I started to fiddle with the radio. One of my favorite things about going to the beach was the radio stations. I was as familiar with them as I was with the ones back home, and listening to Q94 made me just really know inside that I was there, at the beach.
I found my favorite station, the one that played everything from pop to oldies to hip-hop. Tom Petty was singing "Free Fallin'." I sang right along with him. "She's a good girl, crazy 'bout Elvis. Loves horses and her boyfriend too."
Steven reached over to switch stations, and I slapped his hand away. "Belly, your voice makes me want to run this car into the ocean." He pretended to swerve right.
I sang even louder, which woke up my mother, and she started to sing too. We both had terrible voices, and Steven shook his head in his disgusted Steven way. He hated being outnumbered. It was what bothered him most about our parents being divorced, being the lone guy, without our dad to take his side.
We drove through town slowly, and even though I'd just teased Steven about it, I didn't really mind. I loved this drive, this moment. Seeing the town again, Jimmy's Crab Shack, the Putt Putt, all the surf shops. It was like coming home after you'd been gone a long, long time. It held a million promises of summer and of what just might be.
As we got closer and closer to the house, I could feel that familiar flutter in my chest. We were almost there.
I rolled down the window and took it all in. The air tasted just the same, smelled just the same. The wind making my hair feel sticky, the salty sea breeze, all of it felt just right. Like it had been waiting for me to get there.
Steven elbowed me. "Are you thinking about Conrad?" he asked mockingly.
For once the answer was no. "No," I snapped.
My mother stuck her head in between our two seats. "Belly, do you still like Conrad? From the looks of things last summer, I thought there might be something between you and Jeremiah."
"WHAT? You and Jeremiah?" Steven looked sickened. "What happened with you and Jeremiah?"
"Nothing," I told them both. I could feel the flush rising up from my chest. I wished I had a tan already to cover it up. "Mom, just because two people are good friends, it doesn't mean there's anything going on. Please never bring that up again."
My mother leaned back into the backseat. "Done," she said. Her voice had that note of finality that I knew Steven wouldn't be able to break through.
Because he was Steven, he tried anyway. "What happened with you and Jeremiah? You can't say something like that and not explain."
"Get over it," I told him. Telling Steven anything would only give him ammunition to make fun of me. And anyway, there was nothing to tell. There had never been anything to tell, not really.
Conrad and Jeremiah were Beck's boys. Beck was Susannah Fisher, formerly Susannah Beck. My mother was the only one who called her Beck. They'd known each other since they were nine--blood sisters, they called each other. And they had the scars to prove it-- identical marks on their wrists that looked like hearts.
Susannah told me that when I was born, she knew I was destined for one of her boys. She said it was fate. My mother, who didn't normally go in for that kind of thing, said it would be perfect, as long as I'd had at least a few loves before I settled down. Actually, she said "lovers," but that word made me cringe. Susannah put her hands on my cheeks and said, "Belly, you have my unequivocal blessing. I'd hate to lose my boys to anyone else."
We'd been going to Susannah's beach house in Cousins Beach every summer since I was a baby, since before I was born even. For me, Cousins was less about the town and more about the house. The house was my world. We had our own stretch of beach, all to ourselves. The summer house was made up of lots of things. The wraparound porch we used to run around on, jugs of sun tea, the swimming pool at night--but the boys, the boys most of all.
I always wondered what the boys looked like in December. I tried to picture them in cranberry-colored scarves and turtleneck sweaters, rosy-cheeked and standing beside a Christmas tree, but the image always seemed false. I did not know the winter Jeremiah or the winter Conrad, and I was jealous of everyone who did. I got flip-flops and sunburned noses and swim trunks and sand. But what about those New England girls who had snowball fights with them in the woods? The ones who snuggled up to them while they waited for the car to heat up, the ones they gave their coats to when it was chilly outside. Well, Jeremiah, maybe. Not Conrad. Conrad would never; it wasn't his style. Either way, it didn't seem fair.
I'd sit next to the radiator in history class and wonder what they were doing, if they were warming their feet along the bottom of a radiator somewhere too. Counting the days until summer again. For me, it was almost like winter didn't count. Summer was what mattered. My whole life was measured in summers. Like I don't really begin living until June, until I'm at that beach, in that house.
Conrad was the older one, by a year and a half. He was dark, dark, dark. Completely unattainable, unavailable. He had a smirky kind of mouth, and I always found myself staring at it. Smirky mouths make you want to kiss them, to smooth them out and kiss the smirkiness away. Or maybe not away . . . but you want to control it somehow. Make it yours. It was exactly what I wanted to do with Conrad. Make him mine.
Jeremiah, though--he was my friend. He was nice to me. He was the kind of boy who still hugged his mother, still wanted to hold her hand even when he was technically too old for it. He wasn't embarrassed either. Jeremiah Fisher was too busy having fun to ever be embarrassed.
I bet Jeremiah was more popular than Conrad at school. I bet the girls liked him better. I bet that if it weren't for football, Conrad wouldn't be some big deal. He would just be quiet, moody Conrad, not a football god. And I liked that. I liked that Conrad preferred to be alone, playing his guitar. Like he was above all the stupid high school stuff. I liked to think that if Conrad went to my school, he wouldn't play football, he'd be on the lit mag, and he'd notice someone like me.