I was trying to think if a topic to fit our Summer Love theme and Chris Blount, my youngest son, said, "Mom, what about writing your characters' first summers together?"
Ding! We have a winner.
What fun. We literally just had this conversation fifteen minutes ago over a bowl of raisin bran. He demanded his name in the by-line so.... there you go.
Dan Ellison grew up on the Jersey Shore as Kenny Mele. After he and his family fled their home to avoid a murderous dad bent on revenge, they settled on Long Island under new names. Dan loves Long Island beaches. It makes him miss home just a little bit less. His first summer on Long Island, however, follows the heartbreak of the novel. Julie and he are not together. He's depressed. Lonely. Haunted by his past and his delusional alter-ego, "Kenny".
But Dan made some friends during his final year of high school. Lisa and Paul, his team-mates during a debate. And Brandon, the boy who Dan prevented from becoming a perpetrator of school violence. And even Jeff, the guy who tried his best to hurt Dan -- but in the end, did the right thing.
They know what Dan's been through. But they also know Dan needs to find a way to pull himself out of this hell. So one summer morning, Paul picked him up in his Jeep, swung by to snag Brandon, and drove to Cupsogue Beach. Paul took the Jeep to the east side of Moriches Inlet and the three boys dropped some poles in the water, saying little. Every once in a while, Paul woud stick his hand in a cooler and come out with something icy for Dan to drink and the whole time, Kenny's voice in Dan's mind is crying for Julie until eventually, even he notices how peaceful it is, just listening to gulls cry, and waves roll over the rocks.
Brandon stripped down to his trunks and sank under the surface of that cool dark water a few times. So did Paul. Eventually, Dan had to admit it did look... fun? No, not that. Necessary, he decided. So he took off his shirt. Paul had already seen his scars. Nobody said anything. Nobody judged. Waves washed over him.
I like this. Feels like home. Kenny said in his mind. Dan had to agree.
It was much later when Paul asked, "Anybody hungry?"
Weird. Dan hadn't noticed he was hungry until Paul mentioned it. In fact, he was starving. To his shock, Paul went back to the Jeep, unloaded a portable charcoal grill and got it fired up. In that bottomless cooler, he pullsed some hot dogs and tossed them over the hot coals. The boys had themselves a feast.
They spent all day on that small beach. Other four-wheel drives joined them, stayed for no more than an hour or two, but they remained until sunset. They never caught any fish, but there was something soothing in that act -- cast, reel in, cast again. One of the vehicles parked near them was a family's -- mom, dad, toddler. The child's delighted shriek when her toes got wet caught Dan's attention. She reminded him of the baby he'd saved that day from being hit by a car at the Italian Ices shop.
He looked at Paul and Brandon. "Want Italian Ices? I'm buying."
They looked at him for a minute and then at each other. Brandon slung an arm over Dan's shoulder. "Sure, pal. That sounds great."
It took them a little while to pack the Jeep back up, clean all trace of their presence from the beach. But once they were rolling, Dan felt clear. "Guys? Thanks," he said when they'd hit paved roads again.
Paul said nothing. Just reached across the center console and punched Dan's arm. "No problem, man."
Dude. We have friends again, Kenny said.
They're a lot more than that, Dan thought. He made a vow, right there in the passenger seat of Paul's Jeep, that he'd be the kind of friend these guys were to him. Do anything, go anywhere, be whatever they needed from him.
Just as they'd done for him.
Summer for Grace is a mixed blessing. On one hand, there's no school, which means there's nobody whispering about her behind their hands, keying up her car, and generally making her life miserable. On the other hand, it's way too hot for kick-ass studded leather boots and black clothes. When Ian suggested a day at the beach, she almost said no.
Bikini? Hell, no!
Not to mention her make-up. It would melt down her face. She actually hit up Google trying to learn how to avoid that. When she realized she'd wasted two hours on that search, she laughed at herself and called Dr. P. for advice.
Dr. Phillips reminded her that the black makeup, the edgy clothes -- they were armor, not courage. All Grace had to do was find a way to feel fierce without them.
Uh huh. Sure. No problem.
So early the following morning, she met Ian at the door wearing a long maxi dress and hat. The only thing black on her were her sunglasses. He gave her a long slow look and grinned. "Am I gonna see what's under there?"
To her complete shock, she felt a blush burn its way up her face. Even more shocking? She really wanted to let him see.
They headed east to Smith Point Park, one of the Fire Island beaches, Ian holding her hand while he drove. "Grace, would you feel more comfortable around people or would you rather have privacy?"
She thought it over and decided, "Privacy."
He parked his dad's Camry as close to the entrance as he could and then started lugging stuff from the trunk. There was a long slender case he slung to one shoulder, a soft-sided cooler he handed her, and a tote bag. He stuffed the keys into a pocket of that tote and they started walking -- past the memorial for the crashed airliner, the concession stand, the people on blankets and sand chairs, and the life guard stands. They walked for ages and finally, Ian stopped, took a look around and said, "How's this?"
Grace looked around, too, and nodded. It was like their own private beach. She watched him drop the tote, kick off his sneakers, and unzip that long slender case. Inside was one of those instant tent things. In seconds, he had it upright and staked into the sand. Under the tent, he spread out a blanket he took from the tote and stretched out on it, sighing loudly.
After a second or two of deliberation, she joined him.
From her own bag, she took out a hair tie, coiled her long hair back and up, then readjusted her hat. She kicked off her own shoes -- flip flops today -- and -- after a few seconds' deliberation -- peeled her dress off, revealing a one-piece swimsuit. Black, of course.
She settled next to Ian, her heart beating out a synth rhythm. Ian turned to watch her.
"What?" She demanded when he said nothing.
He shrugged. "Nothing. Just like looking at you."
"Yeah?" Her body warmed.
"Yeah," he confirmed. "Grace, I want to do more than look."
She immediately sat up and scooted away from him.
"When you're ready," he added, hands up surrender style. "If you want to kiss me, you can. If you want to do more, you can. You need to drive, Grace. I'm just giving you permission."
Permission. Oh, boy. Frowning, she looked over the ocean and tried to sort out her feelings. She did want to kiss him. And do more. But she was scared -- terrified really -- of not being able to. What if she froze? What if, right in the middle of it, she had a panic attack? What if she never would be able to-- and Ian left her?
She turned, met his gaze, her eyebrows raised.
"I can almost hear you thinking. Don't worry. Don't think. Just do whatever you want, okay? That's all I'm saying. Whatever you want. There's nobody here to judge you, okay?"
Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe they should walk back to where the crowds were. Or maybe, maybe she could find her ferocity without the props. She wanted normal. She wanted normal so badly, she could practically taste it. And normal, she decided when she grabbed Ian's face in both hands and tugged him toward her, meant making out with your boyfriend when the opportunity presented itself.
She kissed him the way she'd always wanted to kiss him. He hesitated for about half a second and then kissed her back with the same enthusiasm. It went on and on, lasting for a good five minutes -- maybe longer. When they finally broke apart, staring into each other's eyes and grinning from ear to ear, Grace realized for those five minutes, she hadn't been scared or anxious.
She'd been...happy. And Ian? The big dope was almost wagging his tail like a puppy.
"Let's go in the water. Or we could build a huge sandcastle! Are you hungry? I can go get us some burgers or something."
"It's ten thirty in the morning, Ian."
"Oh. Okay, maybe ice cream? Anything, Grace. Anything you want."
Oh, God. It hit her then, how much his happiness depended on hers. So she made a promise --to herself and to him -- that she would do whatever it took to heal.
"Let's go sit by the water, put our toes in."
"Just our toes?" He teased.
"For now." She held out her hand and when he took it, she walked beside him in the hot sand, dodging shells and bits of seaweed. At the water's edge, she waited for a wave to cover her feet up to the ankles, shut her eyes and sighed.
Everything's better at the beach.