17-year-old Gwen Castle's Biggest Mistake Ever, Cassidy Somers, is slumming it as a yard boy on her Nantucket-esque island this summer. He's a rich kid from across the bridge in Stony Bay, and she hails from a family of fishermen and housecleaners to her island's summer population. Gwen dreams of getting off the island, and a summer job working for one of the elderly residents might just be her ticket to the good life. But what will it mean for Gwen's now life? Sparks fly and secret histories unspool as Gwen spends a gorgeous, restless summer struggling to come to terms with what she thought was true—about the place she lives, the people she loves, and even herself—and figure out what really is.
- Pages: 448 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Speak
- ISBN: 9780142423950
An Excerpt From
What I Thought Was True
Cass broke the kiss. His eyes were bright sea blue, pupils wide and black. I stared at him, stunned, consciousness slowly returning, which he must have seen in my face because he pulled back.
He cleared his throat. “Stop?”
Shaking my head emphatically was wrong. A mistake. Certainly, so was me flipping up the arm rest and moving closer. Which resulted in Cass pulling me right into his lap.
I took my hands out of his hair (warm at the roots, frost cold at the tips) and reached down. What was I doing? I was doing exactly what Cass was, and my fingers folded on his as he pulled the lever to recline the seat and BOOM I was lying on him and his hands were all over my back, then swirling my hair aside so he could put his open mouth on my neck.
Oh my God. Cass Somers had lightning-fast reflexes and some magic potion coming out of every pore that dissolved self-control, caution, rational thought.
It was all gone and the only thing I could think was that it was the best trade I ever made.
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Nothing like a carful of boys to completely change my mood.
There’s a muffled expletive from inside Castle’s Ice Cream, so I know Dad’s spotted them too. A gang of high school boys tops his list of Least Favorite Customers—they eat a ton, they want it now, and they never tip. Or so he claims.
At first, I barely pay attention. I’m carrying a tray of wobbly root beer floats, foil-wrapped burgers, and a greasy Everest’s worth of fried scallops toward table four out front. In a few weeks, I’ll be in the rhythm of work. Balancing all this and more will be no big deal. But school got out three days ago, Castle’s reopened full-time last week, the sun is dazzling, the early summer air is sticky with salt, and I have only a few more minutes left in my shift. My mind is already at the beach. So I don’t look up to see who just drove in until I hear a couple of whistles. And my name.
I glance back. A convertible is parked, slanted, taking up two spaces. Sure enough, Spence Channing, who was driving, shakes his hair from his eyes and grins at me. Trevor Sharpe and Jimmy Pieretti are piling out, laughing. I whip off my Castle’s hat, with its spiky gold crown, and push it into the pocket of my apron.
“Got a special for us, Gwen?” Spence calls.
“Take a number,” I call back. There’s a predictable chorus of ooo’s from some of the boys. I set the tray down at table four, add soda cans and napkins from my front pockets, give them a speedy, practiced smile, then pause by the table where my brother is waiting for me, dreamily dragging French fries through ketchup.
But then I hear, “Hey, Cass, look who’s here! Ready to serve.” And the last boy in the car, who had been concealed behind Jimmy’s wide torso, climbs out.
His eyes snag on mine.
The seconds unwind, thin, taut, transparent as a fishing line cast far, far, far out.
I jolt up, grab my brother’s hand. “Let’s get home, Em.”
Emory pulls away. “Not done,” he says firmly. “Not done.” I can see his leg muscles tighten into his “I am a rock, I am an island” stance. His hands flick back and forth, wiping my urgency away.
This is my cue to take a breath, step back. Hurrying Em, pushing him, tends to end in disaster. Instead, I’m grabbing his ketchup-wilted paper plate, untying my apron, calling to Dad, “Gotta get home, can we do this take-out?”
“Not done,” Emory repeats, yanking his hand from mine. “Gwennie, no.”
“Gettin’ slammed,” Dad calls out the service window, over the sizzle of the grill. “Wrap it yourself, pal.” He tosses a few pieces of foil through the window, adding several packets of ketchup, Emory’s favorite.
“Still eating.” Emory sits firmly back down at the picnic table.
“We’ll watch a movie,” I tell him, wrapping his food. “Ice cream.”
Dad glances sharply out the take-out window. He may be brusque with Em from time to time, but he doesn’t like it when I am.
“Ice cream here.” My brother points at the large painting of a double-decker cone adorning one of the fake turrets. Yes, Castle’s is built to look like a castle.
I pull him to the truck anyway and don’t look back, not even when I hear a voice call, “Hey, Gwen. Have a sec?”
I turn the key in Mom’s battered Bronco, pressing hard on the gas. The engine revs deafeningly. But not loud enough to drown out another voice, laughing, “She has lots of secs! As we know.”
Dad, thank God, has ducked away from the service window and is bent over the grill. Maybe he didn’t hear any of that.
I gun the car again; jerk forward, only to find the wheels spinning, caught in the deeper sand of the parking lot. At last the truck lurches, kicks into a fast reverse. I squeal out onto the blazing blacktop of Ocean Lane, grateful the road is empty.
Two miles down, I pull over to the side, fold my arms to the top of the steering wheel, rest my forehead on them, take deep breaths. Emory ducks his head to peep at me, brown eyes searching, then resignedly opens the foil and continues eating his limp, ketchup-soggy fries.
In another year, I’ll graduate. I can go someplace else. I can leave those boys—this whole past year—far behind in the rearview mirror.
I pull in another deep breath.
We’re close to the water now, and the breeze spills over me soft and briny, secure and familiar. This is why everyone comes here. For the air, for the beaches, for the peace.
Somehow I’ve wedged the car right in front of the big white-and-green painted sign that marks the official separation between town and island, where the bridge from Stony Bay stops and Seashell Island begins. The sign’s been here as long as I can remember and the paint has flaked off its loopy cursive writing in most places, but the promises are grooved deep.
Heaven by the water.
Best-kept little secret in New England.
Tiny hidden jewel cradled by the rocky Connecticut coast.
Seashell Island, where I’ve lived all my life, is called all those things and more.
And all I want to do is leave it behind.
“Kryptite the only thing,” Emory tells me, very seriously, the next afternoon. He shakes his dark hair—arrow straight like Dad’s—out of his eyes. “The only, only thing can stop him.”
“Kryptonite,” I say. “That’s right. Yup, otherwise, he’s unstoppable.”
“Not much Kryptite here,” he assures me. “So all okay.”
He resumes drawing, bearing down hard on his red Magic Marker. He’s sprawled on his stomach on the floor, comic book laid out next to his pad. The summer light slants through our kitchen/living room window, brightening the paper as he scribbles color onto his hero’s cape. I’m lying on the couch in a drowsy haze after taking Em into White Bay for speech class earlier.
“Good job,” I say, gesturing to his pad. “I like the shooting stars in the background.”
Emory tilts his chin at me, forehead crinkling, so I suspect they aren’t stars. But he doesn’t correct me, just keeps on drawing.
An entire day after running into the boys at Castle’s, I’m still wanting a do-over. Why did I let them get to me this time? I should have laughed; flipped them off. Not very classy, but I’m not supposed to be the classy one here. I should have said, “Well, Spence, we all know that with you, it wouldn’t take more than a sec.”
But I couldn’t have said that. Not with Cassidy Somers there. The other boys don’t matter much. But Cass . . .
An hour or so later, our rattly screen door snaps open and in comes Mom, her dark curly hair frizzing from the heat the way mine always does. She’s followed wearily by Fabio, our ancient, half-blind Labrador mix. He immediately keels over on his side, tongue lolling out. Mom hurries to push his bowl of water closer to him with one foot while reaching into our refrigerator for a Diet Coke.
“Did you think about it some more, honey?” she asks me, after taking a long swallow. Caffeinated diet soda, not blood, must run through her veins.
I spring up, and the old orange-and-burgundy plaid sofa lets out an agonized groan. Right, I should be making decisions about what to do this summer, not obsessing about the ones I made yesterday—or in March.
“Careful!” Mom calls, waving her free hand at the couch. “Respect the Myrtle.”
Emory, now scribbling in Superman’s dark hair, heavy-handed on the black marker, offers his throaty giggle at the face I make.
“Mom. We got Myrtle from Bert and Earl's Bargain Basement. Myrtle has three legs and no working springs. Getting off Myrtle makes me feel like I need a forklift. Respect. Really?”
“Everything deserves respect,” Mom says mildly, plopping onto Myrtle with a sigh. After a second, she crinkles her nose and reaches under the cushion, extracting one of my cousin Nic’s ratty, nasty sweatshirts. A banana peel. One of her own battered romance novels. “Myrtle has lived a long, hard life in a short time.” She swats me with the gross sweatshirt, smiling. “So? What do you think—about Mrs. Ellington?”
Helping Mrs. Ellington. The possible summer job Mom heard about this morning, meaning I wouldn’t have to keep working at Dad’s again. Which I’ve faithfully done every year since I was twelve. Illegal for anyone else, but allowed for Nic and me, since we’re family. After five years, for sure, I could use a change from scooping sherbet, frying clams, and slapping together grilled cheese sandwiches. More than that . . . if I’m not handling Dad’s at night, I can help Vivien on catering gigs.
“Is it for the whole summer?” I plop down, stretch back gingerly. If you hit her the wrong way, Myrtle lists like the Titanic before its final dive.
Mom unlaces the shabby sneakers she wears to work, kicks one off, stretching out her toes with a groan. She has daisies delicately painted on her big-toenails, no doubt the work of Vivien, the Picasso of pedicures. On cue, Emory leaves the room in search of her slippers. He would have gotten her the Coke if she hadn’t beaten him to it.
“Through August,” she confirms, after another long draw of soda. “She fell off a ladder last week, twisted her ankle, got a concussion. It’s not a nursing job,” she assures me hastily. “They’ve got someone coming in nights for that. Henry. . . . the family . . . just wants to make sure someone’s looking out for her—that she’s getting exercise, eating—not wandering off to the beach by herself. She’s nearly ninety.” Mom shakes her head as if she can’t believe it.
Me neither. Mrs. Ellington always seemed timeless to me, like a character from one of those old books Grandpa brings home from yard sales, with her crisp New England accent, straight back, strong opinions. I remember her snapping back to some summer person who asked “What’s wrong with him?” about Em: “Not as much as is wrong with you.” When Nic and I used to go along with Mom on jobs, back when we were little, Mrs. E. gave us frosted sugar cookies and homemade lemonade, and let us sway in the hammock on her porch while Mom marched around the house with her vacuum cleaner and mop.
But . . . it would be an island job. A working-for-the-summer-people job. And I’ve promised myself I won’t do that.
Rubbing her eyes with thumb and forefinger, Mom polishes off her soda and plunks the can down with a tinny clink. More tendrils of hair snake out of her ponytail, clinging in little coils to her damp, flushed cheeks.
“What would the hours be, again?” I ask.
“That’s the best part! Nine to four. You’d get her breakfast, fix lunch—she naps in the afternoon, so you’d have time free. Her son wants someone to start on Monday. It’s three times what your dad can pay. For a lot less work. A good deal, Gwen.”
She lays out this trump card cautiously, sliding the “you need to do this” carefully underneath the “you want to do this.” Whatever Nic and I can pull in during the summer helps during the Seashell dead zone, the long, slow months when most of the houses close up for the season—when Mom has fewer regulars, Dad shuts down Castle’s and does odd jobs until spring, and Em’s bills keep coming.
“What about her own family?” I ask.
Mom hitches a shoulder, up, down, casual. “According to Henry, they won’t be there. He does something on Wall Street, is super-busy. The boys are grown now—Henry says they don’t want to spend their whole summer on a sleepy island with their grandma the way they did when they were younger.”
I make a face. I may have my own thoughts about how small and quiet Seashell can be, but I live here. I’m allowed. “Not even to help their own grandmother?”
“Who knows what goes on in families, hon. Other people’s stories.”
Are their own.
I know this by heart.
Emory bounces back into the room with Mom’s fuzzy slippers—a matted furry green one and a red, both for the left foot. Reaching out for Mom’s leg, he pulls off the remaining sneaker, rubs her instep.
“Thanks, bunny rabbit,” Mom says as he carefully positions one slipper, repeating the routine on the other foot. “What do you say, Gwen?” Mom leans into me, nudging my knee with hers.
“I’d have afternoons and nights free—every night?” I ask, as though this is some key point. As if I have a hoppin’ social life and a devoted boyfriend.
“Every night,” Mom assures me, kindly not asking “What’s it matter, Gwen?”
Every night free. Guaranteed. Working for Dad, I usually wind up covering the shifts no one else wants—Fridays and Saturdays till closing. With all that time open, I can have a real summer, do the beach bonfires and the cookouts. Hang out with Vivie and Nic, swim down at the creek as the sun sets, the most beautiful time there. No school, no tutoring to do, no waking up at 4:30 to time for the swim team, none of those boys . . . Running into them yesterday at Castle’s was . . . yuck. Out at Mrs. E.’s, the farthest house on Seashell, I’d never have to see them.
I can practically smell my freedom—salty breezes, green sun-warm sea-grass, hot fresh breezes blowing over the wet rocks, waves splashing, white foam against the dark curl of water.
“I’ll do it.”
It’s an island job. But only for one summer. For one family. It’s not what Mom did, starting to clean houses with my Vovó, her mother, the year she turned fifteen to make money for college, still cleaning them (no college) all this time later. It’s not what Dad did either, taking over the family business at eighteen because his father had a heart attack at the grill.
It’s just temporary.
Not a life decision.
“Hon . . . did your dad pay you for your days yet? We’re running a little behind.” Mom brushes some crumbs off the couch without meeting my eyes. “Nothing to worry about, but—”
“He said he’d get it to me later in the week,” I answer absently. Em has moved from Mom’s feet to mine, not nearly as sore, but I’m not about to turn him down.
Mom stands, opens the fridge. “Lean Cuisine, South Beach, or good old Stouffer’s tonight? Your choice.”
Gag on Lean Cuisine and South Beach. She stabs the plastic top of a frozen entrée with her fork, but before she can shove it into the microwave, Grandpa Ben saunters in, his usual load of contraband slung over his shoulder, Santa Claus style. If Santa were into handing out seafood. He pushes one of Nic’s sweat-stiffened bandannas to the side of the counter, unloading the lobsters into the sink with a clatter of hard shells and clicking claws.
“Um, dois, três, quatro. That one there must be five pounds at least.” Excited, he runs his hands through his wild white hair, a Portuguese Albert Einstein.
“Papai. We can’t possibly eat all those.” Despite her protest, Mom immediately starts filling one of our huge lobster pots with water from the sink. “Again I ask, how long will it be until you get caught? And when you go to jail, you help us how?” Grandpa’s fishing license lapsed several years ago, but he goes out with the boats whenever the spirit moves him. His array of illegal lobster traps still spans the waters off our island.
Grandpa Ben glares at Mom’s plastic tray, shaking his head. “Your grandfather Fernando did not live to be one hundred and two on”—he flips the box over, checking the ingredients—“potassium benzoate.”
“No,” Mom tells him, shoving the tray back into the freezer. “Fernando lived to one-oh-two because he drank so much Vinho Verde, he was pickled.”
Muttering under his breath, Grandpa Ben disappears into the room he shares with Nic and Em, emerging in his at-home mode—shirt off, undershirt and worn plaid bathrobe on, carrying Emory’s Superman pajamas.
“Into these, faster than a speeding bullet,” he says to Emory, who giggles his raspy laugh and races around the room, arms outstretched Man-of-Steel style.
“No flying until you’re in your suit,” Grandpa says. Em skids to a halt in front of him, patiently allowing Grandpa Ben to strip off his shirt and shorts and wrestle the pajamas on. Then he cuddles next to me on Myrtle as Grandpa fires up a Fred Astaire DVD.
Our living room’s so small it barely accommodates the enormous plasma-screen TV Grandpa won last year at a bingo tournament at church. I’m pretty sure he cheated. The state-of-the-art screen always looks so out of place on the wall between a cedar-wood crucifix and the wedding picture of my grandmother. She’s uncharacteristically serious in black and white, with the bud vase underneath that Grandpa never forgets to fill every day. It’s a big picture, one of those ones where the eyes seem to follow you.
I can never meet hers.
Lush, romantic music fills the room, along with Fred Astaire’s cracked tenor voice.
“Where Ginger?” Emory asks, pointing at the screen. Grandpa Ben’s put on Funny Face, which has Audrey Hepburn, not Ginger Rogers.
“She’ll be here in a minute,” Grandpa tells him, his usual answer, waiting for Emory to love the music and the dancing so much that he doesn’t care who does it.
Em chews his lip, and his foot begins twitching back and forth.
My eight-year-old brother is not autistic. He’s not anything they’ve mapped genetically. He’s just Emory. No diagnosis, no chart, no map at all. Some hard things come easy to him, and some basic things he struggles with. I wrap my arms around his waist, his skinny ribs, rest my chin on his shoulder, feeling his dark flyaway hair lift to tickle my cheek, inhaling his sun-warm, little-boy scent. “This is the one with the funny song, remember? The sunny funny-face song?”
At last Em settles, snuggled with his favorite stuffed animal, Hideout the hermit crab, in his arms. Grandpa Ben won him at some fair when Emory was two, and he’s been Em’s favorite ever since.
I nudge aside Fabio, go outside to the front steps, because I just can’t watch Audrey Hepburn being waifish and wistful. At nearly five eleven, nobody, no matter how nearsighted, will ever say I’m waifish.
Squinting out over the island, over the roofs of the low, split-level houses across from ours—Hoop’s squat gray ranch, Pam’s dirty shingled white house, Viv’s pale green house with the red wood shutters that don’t match—I can just barely catch the dazzle of the end-of-day sun off the water. I lean back on my elbows, shut my eyes, and take a deep breath of the warm, briny air.
My eyes pop open. A pair of my cousin’s workout sneakers are inches from my nose. Yuck. Eau de sweaty eighteen-year-old boy. I elbow them off the porch, onto the grass.
The screen door bangs open. Mom slides down next to me, a carton of ice cream in one hand, spoon in the other. “Want some? I’ll even get you your own spoon.”
“Nah, I’m fine.” I offer a smile. Pretty sure she doesn’t buy it. “That your appetizer, Mom?”
“Ice cream,” she says. “Appetizer, main course, dessert. So flexible.”
She digs around for the chunks of peanut butter ripple, and then pauses to brush my hair back from my forehead. “Anything we need to talk about? You’ve been quiet the past day or so.”
It’s ironic. Mom spends most of her spare time reading romance novels about people who take their clothes off a lot. She explained the facts of life to a stunned and horrified Nic and me by demonstrating with a Barbie and a G.I. Joe. She took me to the gynecologist for the Pill when I was fifteen—“It’s good for your complexion,” she insisted, when I sputtered that it wasn’t necessary, “and your future.” We can talk about physical stuff—she’s made sure of that—but only in the abstract . . . Now I want to rest my head onto her soft, freckled shoulder and tell her everything about the boys in the car. But I don’t want her knowing that anyone sees me like that.
That I’ve given anyone a reason.
“I’m fine,” I repeat. She spoons up more ice cream, face absorbed. After a moment, Fabio noses his way through the screen door, staggers up to Mom, and sets his chin on her thigh, rolling his eyes at her beseechingly.
“Don’t,” I tell her. Though I know she will. Sure enough, Mom scrapes out a chunk, tapping the spoon on the deck. Fabio drops his inches-from-death act and slurps it up, then resumes his hopeful post, drooling on Mom’s leg.
After a while, she says, “Maybe you could walk down to the Ellingtons’”—she wags the spoon toward Low Road—“say hiya to Mrs. E.”
“Wait. What? Like a job interview? Now?” I look down at my fraying cut-offs and T-shirt, back at Mom. Then I run inside and come back with my familiar green-and-pink mascara tube. I unscrew it, flicking the wand rapidly over my eyelashes.
“You don’t need that,” Mom says for the millionth time, nonetheless handing me her spoon so I can check for smudges in the reflection. “No. I pretty much told her you’d take the job. It’s a good one. But I don’t know how many other people already know about it. And such good pay. Just get there, ground floor, remind her who you are. She’s always liked you.”
This is why, three minutes later, I’m toeing on my flip-flops when Grandpa Ben hurries out, his shock of curly white hair tousled. “Gwen! Take this! Tell Mrs. E. they are from Bennie para a rosa da ilha, for the Rose of the Island. Mando lagostas e amor. I send her lobsters and love.”
I look down at the moist paper sack encased in Grandpa’s faded rope-mesh bag, from which a pair of lobster antennae wave menacingly.
“Grandpa. It’s a job interview. Sort of. I can’t show up with shellfish. Especially alive.”
Grandpa Ben blows out his breath impatiently. “Rose loves lobsters. Lobster salad. Always, she loved that. Amor verdadeiro.” He beams at me.
“True love or not, these are a long way from lobster salad.” One of the lobsters is missing a front claw but still snapping scarily at me with its other one.
“You cook them, you chill them, you make the special sauce for her to eat tomorrow.” Grandpa Ben thrusts the bag at me. “Rose always loved the lagostas.”
He’s aged in the years since Vovó died, more so since Dad moved out and he moved in. Before then, he seemed as unchanging as the figureheads on a whaling ship, roughly hewn, strong, brown as oak. But his face seems to sag tonight, and I can’t stand to say no to those eager chocolate eyes. So I bundle the mesh sack onto my wrist and head down the steps.
At nearly six o’clock the early summer sun is still high in the sky, the water beyond the houses bottomless bright blue, glinting silver with reflected light. There’s just a bit of a breeze, and, now that I’m out of range of Nic’s shoes, the air smells like cut grass and seaweed, mingled with the mellow scent of the wild thyme that grows everywhere on the island.
That’s about all we have here. Wild thyme, a seasonal community of shingled mansions, a nature preserve dedicated to the piping plovers, and the rest of us—the people who mow the lawns and fix and paint and clean the houses. We all live in East Woods, the “bad” part of Seashell. Ha. Not many people would say that exists on the island. We get woods at our back and can only squint at the ocean; they get the full view of the sea—sand tumbling all the way out to the water—from their front windows, and big rambling green lawns in back. Eighty houses, thirty of them year-round, the rest open from Memorial through Columbus Day. In the winter it’s like we year-rounders own the island, but every spring we have to give it back.
I’m halfway down Beach Road, past Hooper’s house, past Vivien’s, heading for Low Road and Mrs. Ellington, when I hear the low clattery thrum of a double lawn mower. It gets louder as I walk down the road closer to the water. The rumble builds, booming as I turn onto Low Road, where the biggest beachfront houses are. The maintenance shack on Seashell—the Field House—has these huge old stand-up mowers, with blades big enough to cut six-foot-wide swaths in everyone’s yard. As I pass the Coles’ house, the sound stutters to a halt.
And so do I.
At first I just have to stare, the way you do when confronted with a natural wonder.
The Grand Canyon.
Okay, I’ve never been to either, but I can imagine.
This summer’s yard boy has climbed off the mower and is standing with his back to me, looking up at Old Mrs. Partridge, who’s bellowing at him from her porch, making imperious sweeping gestures from left to right.
“Why can’t you folks ever get this?” shouts Old Mrs. Partridge. She’s rich, deaf, and Mom’s number one candidate for undetectable poison. Not only are all the people who work for her in any capacity “you people,” most of the other island residents are too.
“I’ll work on it,” the yard boy says, adding after a slight pause, “ma’am.”
“You won’t just work on it, you’ll do it right. Do I make myself clear, Jose?”
“Yes.” Again the pause. “Ma’am.”
Old Mrs. Partridge looks up, her mouth so tight she could bite a quarter in half. “You—” She jabs her bamboo cane out at me. “Maria! Come tell this boy how I like my lawn mowed.”
Oh hell no. I take a few steps backward on the road, my eyes straying irresistibly to the yard boy.
He’s turned to the side, rubbing his forehead, a gesture I recognize from Mom (Old Mrs. Partridge can get a migraine going in no time). He’s in shorts, shirtless . . . broad shoulders, lean waist, tumble of blond hair bright in the sun, nice arms accentuated by the bend of his elbow. The least likely “Jose” in the world.
Oh, I should keep backing away now instead of what I actually do, which is freeze to the spot. But I cannot help myself.
Snagging the shirt draped over the handlebars of the lawn mower, Cass wipes his face, starts to mop under his arms, then glances up and sees me. His eyes widen, he lowers the shirt, then seems to change his mind, quickly hauling it over his head. His eyes meet mine, warily.
“Go on!” Mrs. Partridge snaps. “Tell him. How Things Are Done. You’ve been around here long enough. You know how I like my lawn. Explain to Jose here that he can’t just mow it in this haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion.”
I feel the sharp edge of a claw nudge under my arm and slide Grandpa Ben’s bag to the ground behind me. This is bad enough without lobsters.
“Well, Jose,” I say firmly. “Mrs. Partridge likes her lawn to be mowed very evenly. Horizontally.”
“Horizontally?” he repeats, tipping his head at me slightly, the smallest of smiles tugging the corner of his mouth.
Cass. Let’s not go there.
“That’s right,” I say. “Jose.”
He leans back against the mower, head still cocked to the side. Old Mrs. Partridge has caught sight of Marco, the head maintenance guy on the island, making his final rounds with the garbage truck, and temporarily deserts us to bully him instead, railing about some hurricane that’ll never make it this far up the coast.
“You’re the yard boy on island this summer?” I blurt out. “Wouldn’t you be better off—I don’t know, caddying at the country club?”
Cass lifts two fingers to his forehead, saluting sardonically. “This year’s flunky, at your service. I prefer yard man. But apparently I don’t get a choice. My first name has also been changed against my will.”
“You’re all Jose to Mrs. Partridge. Unless you’re a girl. Then you’re Maria.”
He folds his arms, leans back slightly, frowning. “Flexible of her.”
I’ve barely spoken a word to Cass since those spring parties. Slipped around him in school, sat far away in classes and assemblies, shrugged off conversations. Easy when he’s part of a crowd—that crowd—striding down the hallways at Stony Bay High like they own it all, or at Castle’s yesterday. Not so simple when it’s only Cass.
He’s squinting at me now, absently rubbing his bottom lip with his thumb. I’m close enough to breathe in the salty ocean-scent of him, the faint trace of chlorine. Suddenly that cold spring day is vivid in my mind, closer than yesterday. Don’t think about it. And definitely not about his lips.
He ducks his head to see my eyes. I don’t know what mine show, so I direct my gaze at his legs. Strong calves, lightly dusted with springing blond hair. I’m more conscious of the ways he’s changed since we were kids even than the ways I have. Good God. Stop it. I shift my gaze to the limitless blue of the sky, acutely aware of every sound—the sighing ocean, the hum of the bees in the beach plum bushes, the distant heartbeat throb of a speedboat.
He shifts from one leg to the other, clears his throat. “I was wondering when I’d run into you,” he offers, just as I ask, “Why are you here?”
Cass is not an islander. His family owns a boat-building business on the mainland, Somers Sails, one of the biggest on the East Coast. He does not have to put up with the summer people. Not like us—the actual Joses and Marias.
He shrugs. “Dad got me the job.” He leans down, brushing grass cuttings off the back of his leg. “Supposed to make a man of me. School of hard knocks and all that.”
“Yup, we poor folk make up in maturity what we lack in money.”
A flash of embarrassment crosses his face, as if he’s suddenly remembered that, while we both go to Stony Bay High, I don’t have a membership at the Bath and Tennis Club. “Well . . .” he says finally, “it’s not a cubicle, anyway.” His sweeping gesture takes in the gleaming ocean and the swath of emerald-green lawn. “Can’t top the view.”
I nod, try to picture him in an office. I’m most familiar with him near the water, poised to dive into the school pool or, that one summer, hurling himself off the Abenaki dock into the ocean, somersaulting in the air before crashing into the blue-black water. After a second I realize I’m still nodding away at him like an idiot. I stop, shove my hands in my pockets so violently I widen the hole in the bottom of one and a dime drops out onto the grass. I edge my foot forward, cover it.
Done with browbeating Marco, Old Mrs. Partridge tramps back up the stone path, points at Cass with a witchy finger. “Is this break time? Did I say this was break time? What are you doing, lolly-gagging around? Next thing I know you’ll be expecting a tuna sandwich. You, Maria, finish explaining How Things Are Done and let Jose get to work.” She stomps back into the house. I step away a few paces. Cass reaches out a hand as if to stop me, then drops it.
Go, I tell myself. Just turn around and go.
Cass clears his throat, clenches and unclenches his hand, then stretches out his fingers. “Uh . . .” He points. “I think . . . your bag is crawling.”
I turn. Lobster A is making a break for it across the lawn, trailing the mesh bag and Lobster B behind. I run after it, hunched low, snatch up the bag, and suddenly words are spilling from my mouth as freely and helplessly as that dime from my pocket. “Oh I’ve got this job interview, sort of . . . thing, with Mrs. Ellington—down island.” I wave vaguely toward Low Road. “My grandfather knows her and wants me to make lobster salad for her.” I shake the lobsters back into the bag. “Which means I have to, like, boil these suckers. I know I’m a disgrace to seven generations of Portuguese fishermen, but putting something alive into boiling water? I’m not— It’s just— I mean, what a way to go—” I look up at Cass, expressionless except for one slightly raised eyebrow, and clamp my mouth shut at last. “See you around,” I call over my shoulder, hurrying away.
Nonchalant. Suave. But really, are there any nonchalant, suave good-byes that involve unruly crustaceans? Not to mention that the Good Ship Pretense of Nonchalance sailed several blatherings ago.
“Will I?” Cass calls after me. I pick up my pace but can’t resist a quick reverse look at him. He just stands there, arms still folded, watching me scurry off like some hard-shelled creature scrabbling over the seafloor. Except without the handy armor.
I keep speed-walking down Low Road, my thoughts racing ahead of my feet. The yard boy is everywhere on island, all summer long. Cass will haunt my summer the way he preoccupied my spring.
I hear a sound behind me, rubber on sand, skidding. I turn, my breath catching. But it’s just Vivien, bouncing over the speed bump on her old-fashioned, sky-blue Schwinn with the wicker basket, legs kicked out. She looks, deceptively, like an ad for something wholesome. Butter. Milk. Fresh fruit. Her glossy brown hair is caught up in pigtails that don’t look stupid, her cheeks glowing in the heat.
“Hey!” she says. “Your mom told me where you were going. Wanted to say good luck.”
“I thought you were meeting up with Nic.”
Vivien flushes the way she always does at Nic’s name, the thought of Nic, the sight of him. Yes, things have shifted, rearranging our childhood trio into something different.
She shakes her head. “I talked him into applying for the island painting and repair gig. He’s interviewing with Marco and Tony right now. If that works out, please God, he won’t have to rely on Hoop’s connections to get sketchy painting jobs all over the state.” She rolls her eyes. “That was a good idea . . . why?”
“Hoop’s an idiot,” I say. Nic’s best friend and partner for the summer in the house-painting business, Nat Hooper, can make a disaster of anything, and Nic is far too good-natured to stop him.
I hear the zzzzzzz of the mower starting up again. It takes all my concentration not to look back over my shoulder. Did Vivien see Cass? She must’ve.
“Hey, want to work a clambake with me Friday night?” Vivie asks. “Mom and Al are catering a rehearsal dinner. Ver-ry fahn-cy. It’s on the Hill—okay with that?”
“Absolutely. Nic up for it too?”
“Oh, for sure. We’ve got the bar covered, but low on waiters and servers. Hoop’s not sure he can make it—might have ‘a hot date with a special lady.’ Although I’m thinking the special lady is digitized. D’you know any other guy who’d be willing?”
I can’t help shifting my eyes down the road. Vivien trails my gaze, and then stares back at me with a little crinkle between her eyebrows.
“Have you seen this year’s yard boy?” I ask, wary.
“Yup.” She watches my face. “I gave him the gate code when he drove in to report for duty this morning.”
“You didn’t think to mention it to me? No warning text? Nothing?”
“Oh shit, sorry.” Viv lowers her heels to regain bike balance. “I tried once, but you know how cell reception sucks here.” She sneaks another look over her shoulder. “I should have kept trying.”
I follow her eyes back to the Partridge house, where Cass has dutifully returned to mowing the lawn. Horizontally. Shirt off again, hair gleaming in the sun.
“What, Gwenners? Thinking of asking Cassidy to be a spare set of hands?” She tips her head at me, eyes twinkling.
“No! What? No! You know my policy. Hands off. Avoid at all cost.”
Vivien snorts. “You sure? Because you’re getting that glazed look that leads to bad judgment, impulsive decision-making, and a walk of shame.”
Even though it’s Vivie, no real criticism there, I can feel my face go red. I look down at the ground, kick aside a pebble. “There were only two actual walks of shame.”
Vivien’s face sobers. She flings her leg over the bike and knocks back the kickstand, moves closer. “Cassidy Somers . . . right here on the island. Just . . . watch your step, Gwenners. Be careful with yourself.” Her fierce expression is so at odds with her sweet face and my childhood nickname that I want to laugh, but there’s a little twist in my stomach too.
We all can’t be Vivie and Nic.
My cousin and my best friend have been an item since we were all five, when I ceremonially performed their wedding service on Sandy Claw Beach. Since we were more familiar with boat launchings than weddings, I bashed them both on the knees with a bottle of apple juice.
How many people, honestly, get the guy they’ve loved all their lives treating them like they’re rare and precious and deserving of adoration? Hardly anyone, right?
Still, there’s a big gap between that and some unseemly scuffling in the sand.
Or a bunk bed.
Or a Bronco.
“Gwen!” Vivie snaps her fingers. “Stay with me, here. Remember your promise. Want your dad to catch you rolling around on the beach again, like with”—she hesitates, lowers her voice—“Alex?”
I cringe, turn my back on the Partridges’ lawn. Then I hold up one hand, resting the other on an imaginary Bible. “I remember. From now on, I will not, no matter how tempted, get even close to a compromising position with someone unless I love them and they love me.”
“And unless we’ve passed a lie detector test to prove this,” I finish obediently. “But I have to say, that’s going to be awkward. Carrying around all the equipment, setting it up . . .”
“Just stay out of the sand dunes. And far away from those parties on the Hill,” Vivien says. “When it’s real love, no equipment necessary. You just look in their eyes and it’s all there.”
“Go apply for that job at Hallmark right this instant!” I swat her on the shoulder. She ducks away, kicking the bike back into gear, laughing.
I wouldn’t pass the lie detector test myself if I didn’t say that, oh, I want what Vivien and Nic found without even having to search. I give one last look over my shoulder at the back of Cass’ uptilted head, as Mrs. Partridge once again bellows at him from the porch.
The Ellington house is the last one on the beach—big, turn-of-the-last-century, graceful, stretching along the shore like a contented cat in the sun. It’s got weathered dove-gray shingles and gray-green trim, two turrets, and a porch that sweeps three-quarters around, like the tail of a cat cozying close.
Taken with all that, the carport where Mrs. E.’s Cadillac is parked looks so . . . wrong. There should be a carriage house there, an eager groom in livery waiting to take the reins of your horse.
I walk up the side path to the kitchen door, wondering if this is the correct thing to do. You never know on the island. Half the houses Mom cleans welcome her in the front and offer her a drink, the other half insist she go around back and take off her shoes.
Toeing off my flip-flops, I look down at my feet, wishing for a second I had dainty ones like Viv, or that my nails were decorated with polish and not a Band-Aid from stubbing my toe on the seawall.
Mrs. Ellington’s glossy oak side door is propped open by a worn brick, but the screen door is closed. “Hi . . . ?” I call down the shady hallway. “Um, hello? . . . Mrs. Ellington?”
A television murmurs in the distance. A porcelain clock shaped like a starfish ticks loudly. From where I am I can see the gleam of a silver pitcher on the kitchen table, a tumble of zinnias glowing in it. I put my hand on the screen door, poised to push it open, then hesitate and call out again.
This time, the TV is immediately silenced. Then I hear click/thump, click/thump coming down the hardwood floor of the hallway, and there’s Mrs. Ellington. Her hair’s whiter and she’s holding a cane, one ankle tightly wrapped in an Ace bandage, but she’s still beautifully dressed, pearls on, smile broad.
“Gwen! Your mother says you are Gwen now, not Gwennie. I’m delighted to see you.” Propping her cane against the wall, she pulls open the screen door, then holds out both hands.
I slide my bag o’ lobsters down behind my back and take her hands, her skin loose and fragile as worn silk.
“So you’re to be my babysitter this summer! How it does come round,” Mrs. Ellington continues. “When you were tiny, I used to hold you in my lap on the porch while your mother cleaned. You were a dear little thing . . . those big brown eyes, that cloud of curls.”
There’s a note of melancholy in her voice when she uses the word babysitter that makes me say, “I’m just here to be—”A friend? A companion? A watchdog? “I’m just here to keep you company.”
Mrs. Ellington squeezes my hands, lets them go. “That’s lovely. I was just getting ready to enjoy a nice cool drink on the porch. How do you like your iced tea?”
I don’t drink tea, so I draw a blank. Luckily Mrs. Ellington steams ahead. “It was quite warm this morning, so I made a big batch of wild cranberry, which should be perfect now. Personally, I adore it cold and very sweet with lemon.”
“That sounds good,” I say, glancing around the kitchen. It looks the same as when Nic and I were little—morning-sky-pale-blue walls, appliances creamy white, navy-and-white checked cloth on the table, another Crayola-bright bunch of zinnias in a cobalt glass pitcher on the counter.
When Mom makes iced tea it’s a two-step process—scooping out the sugary powder and mixing it with cold water. Mrs. Ellington’s iced tea is a production involving implements I never knew existed. First there’s the bucket for ice and special silver tongs. Then the lemon and another silver thingie to squeeze it. Then a little slanted bowl to set the tea bag in. Then another little bowl for the squeezed lemon.
Mrs. E.’s blue-veined hand opens the cabinet, flutters like a trapped bird, hovering between two glass canisters. After a second, she selects one, the one with rice in it. The one I know from years of coastal weather must contain the salt. Rice keeps salt from sticking in the moist heat. She places it on the counter, starting to screw off the top.
I put my hand on top of hers gently. “I think maybe it’s the other one.”
Mrs. Ellington looks up at me, her hazel eyes blank for a moment. Then they clear, clouds moving away from the sun. She touches her fingers to her temple. “Of course. Ever since that silly fall I’ve been all in a muddle.” She shifts the canister back onto the shelf, takes down the other one.
Then scooping the sugar into a silver canister . . . and some sort of scalloped spoon . . . This process was obviously designed by someone who didn’t have to do their own dishes. Or polish their own silver. Mrs. Ellington again asks me how I like my tea, and I want to say “with everything” just to see how it all works. But I repeat “Cold and sweet,” so she removes a frosted-cold glass from the freezer. She blends sugar in the bottom and finally pours tea for me, then does the same for herself.
“Let’s have this on the porch,” she suggests.
I start to follow her, but remember Grandpa Ben’s gift. Just in time. One of the lobsters is again crawling for its life, this time scrabbling down the hallway toward the back door. I hastily snatch it up and put it, indignantly waving claws and all, back into the soggy paper bag.
I’d have expected Mrs. Ellington to be horrified, hand pressed against her heart, but instead she’s laughing. “Dear Ben Cruz,” she says. “Still setting those traps?”
“Every week all summer.” I open the refrigerator, shove the bag in, hoping that Houdini the lobster and its cohort will be stupefied by the cold before I have to slay them. I pass on Uncle Ben’s message, translated entirely from Portuguese.
Mrs. Ellington sets down her cane again to clasp her hands together. “Lobsters and love. Two essentials of life. Do come with me to the porch, Gwen dear—if you wouldn’t mind carrying the glasses? There we can discuss the other essentials of life.”
The porch too—just exactly the same—all old white wicker furniture with the worn, teal-colored hammock swaying in the breeze. The Ellingtons’ wide lawn fades into sea oats, sand, and then the azure ocean. To the far left is Whale Rock, a huge boulder that looks exactly like a beached humpback whale. At high tide all you can see is the fin, but the water’s low now and almost the entire rock is visible. The view’s so stunning, I catch my breath, with the feeling I always have when I see the prettiest parts of the island—that if I could look out my window at this all the time, I would be a better person, calmer, happier, less likely to get flustered with school or impatient with Dad. But that theory can’t really work, because Old Mrs. Partridge up the road has one of the best views on the island—I mean of the water, not of Cass Somers—and it doesn’t sweeten her disposition at all.
Mrs. Ellington clinks her glass against mine. “Here’s to another sunset,” she says.
I must seem puzzled, because she explains, “My dear father’s favorite toast. I’m quite superstitious. I don’t think I’ve ever had a drink on the porch without saying it. You must answer ‘Sunrise too.’”
“Sunrise too,” I say, with a firm nod.
She pats me approvingly on the leg.
“I imagine we should negotiate our terms,” Mrs. E. says.
Damn. I stammer out something about the salary Mom mentioned—she must have been wrong, it had to be too good to be true—and Mrs. Ellington chuckles. “Oh, not money. That’s all been settled by your mother and my Henry, I suspect. I meant terms as in how we will rub along together. I haven’t had a . . . companion before, so, naturally, I need to know what you enjoy doing and you need to know the same about me, so we don’t spend the summer torturing each other. I must say . . . it will be good to be around a young person again. My grandsons . . .” She trails off. “Are off, living their lives.” For a second, all eighty-plus years show on her face as her usual smile fades.
I have a flash of memory of some big party she held for one of the grandsons. His wedding? Twenty-first birthday? Big tent. White with turrets. Almeida’s catered. There were fireworks. Nic and Viv and I . . . and Cass . . . lay on the beach and watched them burst and glimmer into the ocean. A private party with a public show. Like the ocean, no one owns the sky.
After a moment, she continues, resolutely. “As they should be. Now, do tell me all about yourself!”
Uh . . . What “all” does she want to know? The kind of “all” I tell Viv is different from the “all” I tell Mom, so God knows what the “all” is to someone who might want to employ me, and . . .
As if hearing my mental babbling, she again pats me on the knee. “For example, how do you feel about the beach, dear Gwen? Like it or loathe it?”
Does anyone on earth hate the beach? I tell Mrs. Ellington I love the ocean and she says, “Good then. My friends—we call ourselves the Ladies League, but I believe there are others on the island with less flattering names—the Old Beach Bats comes to mind . . . Anyway, we like to swim every day at ten and again at four—just as the light is shifting. Sometimes we make a picnic and have a day of it. The beauty of age—we really don’t need to worry about sunscreen and we can linger all day.” Her eyes get misty as they look out over the water, her wrinkled face softening with a dreamy expression that makes it suddenly clear how beautiful she must have been back then. The Rose of the Island, indeed.
For the next half hour we cover Mrs. Ellington’s likes and dislikes, from her favorite and least favorite things to eat—“If you ever make me egg salad I shall reconsider my good opinion of you”—to her views on exercise—“I shall like good brisk walks when this silly ankle recovers but when I’m in the mood. I don’t wish to be prodded”—to technology—“You won’t be perpetually typing on or answering your cell phone, will you? When I’m in the presence of another person, I want them present.”
I guess I pass the test, because Mrs. Ellington finally pats my hand and says, “Good then. Our new regime will start on Monday.” She beams at me, lowering her voice. “I was dreading this. I am a creature who enjoys solitude. But I think, bless fortune, I may be lucky in my employee.”
I thank her, and then remember I have to cook the lobsters. Hell. Does she even want me to do this now? Or am I dismissed? If I am, can I leave her with living lobsters? Should she even be using a stove? Nic got a concussion playing soccer in middle school and he was out of it for days. I’m about to ask her what she’d like me to do when there’s a knock on the screen door, forceful enough to rattle the loosely nailed boards. A voice calls, “Uh—hello? Seashell Services!”
“I wonder what that can be.” Mrs. Ellington’s eyes brighten as if a visit from the island maintenance crew is cause for excitement. “The hydrangeas aren’t due to be pruned and we had the lawn mowed only yesterday. Do let’s go see.”
Though her back is as straight as ever, her gait is so wobbly, despite the steadying cane, that I waver behind her, trying to be on both sides at once to break her inevitable fall.
“Hullo?” the voice calls again, slightly louder. More recognizable.
“Com-i-ng!” sings out Mrs. Ellington. “Do come in! My progress is gradual, but we will be there in good time!”
I wish her progress were nonexistent, because far too quickly we reach the kitchen, where, yes, Cass is standing, looking particularly tan against the dainty ruffles of the sheer white curtains.
“My dear boy!” Mrs. Ellington says.
How has he managed to be her dear boy after just one day spent mowing her lawn? Does she remember him from that one summer? Old Mrs. P. didn’t.
“Gwen, dear. This is Cassidy Somers, who will be keeping the island beautiful for us this summer. Cassidy, this is my new”—she hesitates, and then continues firmly—“this is Guinevere Castle.”
I wince. Concussion or not, Mrs. E. recalls my whole, real, hopelessly romance-novel name. Which I never use at school. Or anywhere. Ever.
Unfazed, Cass extends his palm cheerfully. “Hello again, Gwen.”
I ignore his outstretched hand. “We’ve met,” I say, turning quickly to Mrs. Ellington. “We know each other. Um, not that well. That is, we’re not friends. I mean . . . We don’t have that much in common . . . Or know each other at all, really. We just . . . we go to high school together.” I conclude these ravings, not looking at Cass, and wait miserably for Mrs. Ellington to decide I’m a lunatic.
Instead, she smiles gently at me. “Schoolmates. How lovely. Well, then, I do believe our gentleman caller could benefit from some of our iced tea. Will you do the honors, Gwen?”
I nod, opening the freezer to scoop out the ice and, with luck, cool my blazing face. Grateful I don’t have to mess with all the silverware, I pour tea into an iced tumbler and hand it to him, trying to avoid any contact with his fingers. Which means that the sweaty glass nearly crashes to the ground. Good thing Cass has fast reflexes.
Mrs. Ellington flutters next to him, apologizing for not asking if he takes lemon and sugar.
“No, just as it pours is great. Thanks.”
“It is terribly easy to become parched in this heat,” Mrs. Ellington says, “particularly when in the throes of physical exertion. You must feel free to come by my house at any time to get something tall and cool.”
Cocking his head at her, Cass gives her his best smile. “Thank you.”
He chugs the iced tea. I watch the long line of his throat, look away, wipe my fingers on my cut-offs. My palms are actually damp. Fantastic.
“Perhaps a refill for him, Gwen? Now, dear boy, why are you here? If it is in regard to the bills, those all go to my son Henry.”
“It’s not that,” Cass says swiftly. “I’m here to boil your lobsters.”
My head whips around sharply.
“We’ve been looking to expand our list of services,” he continues, calm and reasonable. “Competitive times and all that.” His eyes cut to mine and then away again.
“Really?” Mrs. Ellington moves closer, as though he’s a magnet with an irresistible pull. “How so?”
“Well . . . um, seems as though the yard boy usually just mows and weeds. And”—Cass takes a long slug of iced tea—“I think . . . there’s room for more. Dog walking. Grocery runs. Um . . .” He looks up briefly at the ceiling as though reading words off it. “Swimming lessons.”
“Enterprising!” Mrs. Ellington exclaims.
Cass tosses her another smile, and then continues. “When I saw Gwen here heading over with your, uh, dinner, I thought it might be a good time to show you my technique.”
“You have a technique?” Mrs. Ellington clasps her hands under her chin, a happy child at a birthday party. “How accomplished! I wasn’t aware there was any such thing with regard to lobsters.”
“Technique might not be the right word,” Cass says. “Where’s your lobster pot?” He asks this with total assurance, like every kitchen in New England has such a thing. But yes, Mrs. Ellington does, the exact same huge, spattered black-and-white enamelware one we have at home. He pulls it out of the cabinet she opened for him and takes it to the sink, totally at home, practically toeing off his shoes and kicking back on the couch.
“You know,” I say, struggling to keep my voice level, “I can do this. You don’t need to—”
“Sure you can, Gwen. But I’m here.”
I think my eyes actually bug out. Him being here is exactly the problem. But this is still sort of a job interview; it’s not like I can arm-wrestle him for the lobsters.
He fills the pot with cold water and sets it on the stove, turning the gas up high, talking rapidly all the while. “Technique implies finesse—or skill. This isn’t really that. It’s just . . .” He fiddles with the knob, concentrating on lowering the flame. “Some people get bothered by the idea of cooking something alive, you know. Plus, lobsters can make that screaming sound—I’ve heard it doesn’t really mean anything, and their nervous systems aren’t well-developed enough to feel pain—their brains are the size of a ballpoint pen tip, but . . . it can still bother some people.”
Oh, yes, thanks for rescuing me, Cass. I’m just so squeamish.
I don’t want to kill lobsters. But I can.
“Indeed,” Mrs. Ellington says. “I always made a point of leaving the kitchen when Cook boiled lobsters. Or chopped the heads off fish.” She shudders reminiscently.
Cass flashes that melting smile at her again. All charm—the kind that pulls you in as surely as a hand in yours, and can hold you back just as firmly, leaving you wondering which is real, which Cass is true. As I think this, he glances over at me, straight into my eyes this time, and I’m taken aback by the expression in his. Readable for once, not guarded the way it’s been since March.
I turn away, open the refrigerator, take out the bag of lobsters, pulling it close to my chest. He reaches for it and I hold on tighter. He pulls, gently, looking at me quizzically to see if I really will challenge him for possession of a bag of shellfish.
I let go.
“Thanks, Gwen.” His voice is casual. “So, yeah, some people put the lobsters in the freezer for a while to numb them out. But that doesn’t seem all that much more humane than the heat, does it?”
He disentangles Grandpa Ben’s rope-mesh sack and sets the wrinkled brown paper bag that was inside it on the table. One huge claw immediately gropes out, clunking on the wooden island. Despite a stint in the Sub-Zero, Lobster A has not lost its mighty will-to-live.
“They say,” Cass continues, dipping his hand into the bag, “that if you kill the lobster too far ahead of time, it gets all tough and then it’s no good for eating.”
He twists Lobster A right and left to avoid its clinging claws. “Look away, Gwen.”
I’m not used to the note of command in that laid-back voice and instantly fix my gaze out the window on the beach plum’s fuchsia blossoms, then shake myself. “I can handle this,” I repeat to Cass. Then, trying to sound brisk and casual: “It’s in my blood, remember?”
“There,” he says, ignoring me. “Just a quick knife to the brain and then into the very hot water. No time to feel a thing.”
Mrs. Ellington claps her hands. “That does relieve my mind. It seems to work. No waving claws. None of that awful sound.”
“I’m done now, Gwen. You can look.” It’s an aside. Quiet, not mocking.
“I am looking,” I mutter, feeling suddenly adrift.
“These guys are, what, one-and-a-half-pounders? So fourteen minutes or so.” He reaches for the egg-shaped timer on the stovetop, deftly twists it. “I can stay and take ’em out if you like.”
I clear my throat. “You can go. I’m fine. I’ll take it from here.”
“You are a marvel, young man!” says Mrs. Ellington. “I am delighted by Seashell Services’ new policy. Dare I hope you also clean fish?”
“I do whatever needs doing.” Cass flicks me a quick glance, then grins at her again, that wide, slightly lopsided smile that creases the corners of his eyes. “Thanks for the iced tea. It was the best I’ve ever had. See you later, Mrs. Ellington.”
He crumples the soggy brown lobster bag and tosses it to the trash can. It bounces off the side. Without looking at us,
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