Spring, Senior Year
NOW that Atlantic Beach and I are about to part ways, something strange has started to happen. With just two months left in senior year, suddenly I’m noticing every little detail: the way the salt-screened classroom windows smudge the sun. How the beach rats’ feet are permanently plastered with sand. The color of Wil Hines’s skin, perpetually an end-of-August bronze from hours spent between the ocean and the sun. Now that it’s all about to disappear, everything around me is sharper, brighter. My brain is trying to convince me that I’ll miss this place once I leave for Miami and The Rest of My Life, but that’s impossible. I’ve been plotting my escape for almost a year now.
At the desk next to me, Leigh props up her sketchpad. On it is a drawing of a concrete wall with What time should I pick you up tonight, biotch? graffitied in blazing hot-pink flames. Weeds crawl through the cracks in the wall, and a girl leans against it, smoking a joint. Leigh is incapable of texting like a normal person.
She flips to the next page, where she’s written First bonfire of senior year!!! When I shake my head no, she rolls her eyes and flips again. The third page says Dude. Bridge. Come on. The girl is slumped against the wall in defeat. She looks like Leigh: shoulder-length dreadlocks, warm mahogany skin, and dark brown eyes. Even the cartoon-version of my best friend finds me lame these days. I shrug and mouth Sorry, even though we both knew the answer before she asked the question.
At the front of the room, a substitute stares blank-faced at her computer screen. We’re supposed to be doing trig practice problems, but the thirty-four of us seem to have an unspoken agreement: We’ll do nothing, leaving the sub free to analyze her sort-of-boyfriend’s Instagram posts.
As Leigh sighs and goes back to her sketchpad, Ana Acevedo leans across the gray linoleum aisle and puts her lips close to Wil’s ear: “We should go to the bonfire, babe. You never go out anymore.”
Babe. I can’t believe they’re still a thing.
I can’t believe we’re not anymore.
I stare at the back of Wil’s neck, taut from Ana’s whisper. I remember the first time I sat behind him. It was the beginning of fourth grade at my new school, and my entire body was raw with sunburn. I was on fire. Breathing hurt. Even holding a pencil hurt. So I sat as still as I could on the edge of my seat and counted the sun-bleached hairs on the head in front of me. On hair number eighty-six, the boy turned around.
He said, “Your skin matches your hair, almost.”
“You have sun poisoning. Like, bad,” he told me.
“Duh,” I replied, but secretly, I was relieved by his diagnosis. I had been considering something in the flesh-eating disease category.
“Didn’t your mom put sunscreen on you?”
“She had to work.” I didn’t tell him that yesterday had been the first beach afternoon in the history of Bridget Hawking. That I didn’t understand the Florida sun. I lay on the sand, feet and palms pressed into the fine grains, the fireball searing me slowly and without my knowledge. The water looked exactly the way I thought it would, like a beach diorama I’d designed in first grade. Crinkled aluminum foil scribbled cerulean.
“What about your dad?” he asked.
“My dad is dead,” I lied. Or maybe I didn’t. Mom told me once she had no idea.
“Oh,” he said. He poked his tongue in the space between his two front teeth. “Do you want to come over after school? My dad has a workshop and you should probably stay inside.”
“I don’t even know your name,” I said.
“Wil. Short for Wilson, which is my dad’s name, too.”
That afternoon, Wil’s dad picked us up in a truck that had been patched and repainted too many times to tell its true color.
“This is Bridge,” Wil told his dad.
“As in, Brooklyn?” Wilson Hines smiled. “Or maybe Golden Gate?” When he turned to wink at Wil, I noticed that he had longish hair. The dads I knew back in Alabama had buzz cuts, mostly.
“As in Bridget,” I said. “From Alabama?”
“Bridget from Alabama,” he said. “Of course.” He had us ride in the cab so my burn didn’t get worse. He fished around in a bag at Wil’s feet and found a trucker’s hat that said MAMA P’S SEAFOOD SHANTY. He put it on my head to keep the sun off my face. In the truck, there was a tiny fake pine tree on the dash, which made everything smell like Christmas.
He buckled my seat belt and was quiet most of the way but every now and then he’d ask me a question, like what Alabama was like this time of year or whether Wil had caused the teacher any trouble in class today.
“Just between us,” he said, as though Wil wasn’t there. He winked.
Wil’s family lived in a white ranch-style house that was low and long, ten blocks east of the water. The house was situated on a double lot, and behind the main house was a large workshop. It looked like a barn, which reminded me of home. Over the front door of the workshop was a neatly hand-lettered sign: HINES BOAT BUILDING AND REPAIR. Inside, the light was watery, and it smelled like varnish and sawdust. In the center of the workshop, the upside-down skeleton of a small wooden boat balanced on a large worktable. The walls were all pegboards and wood shelving and straight lines.
Wil’s dad went to get us some snacks and told us that when he got back, he wanted to see that everything was as he’d left it.
“Got it,” we said. We sat with our legs outstretched on the stained concrete floor and compared things, like mothers (his was an office manager at a dentist’s office in downtown Jacksonville; mine was a hospitality expert), and least-favorite things about our fourth-grade teacher (his: how she had only picked girl line leaders so far; mine: how when she read to the class, she licked her finger each time she turned a page, which meant that every book in our classroom was covered in her spit), and favorite holidays (his: Halloween, because you can’t buy packets of fake blood any other time of year without looking crazy and also because of the candy; mine: my birthday because my mom made Funfetti waffles).
“Also, sick days in quotes,” I announced as Wil’s dad returned with a paper plate full of celery and apple wedges smeared with peanut butter. A sick day in quotes was something special Mom did for my brother, Micah, and me once or twice each school year. We’d get up at the regular time, get dressed for school and eat breakfast, and just as Mom was rushing us out the door, she’d yell, “Sick day in quotes!” and pull us back inside. She’d call the school and tell them we were “sick” and make a big show of the air quotes while she was on the phone. Then we’d pile in her bed together and eat sugar cereal straight out of the box and watch cartoons until we all fell asleep.
“What about sick days?” Wilson crouched on the floor and placed a single napkin in front of each of us. One celery stick for me; one celery stick for Wil. One apple chunk for me; one apple chunk for Wil.
Wil rolled his eyes at me. “Don’t get him started about sick days.”
“No such thing.” Wil’s dad shook his head. “No matter what, every day—”
Wil finished the sentence for him: “You show up to play.”
When Wilson dropped me off at home that night, he told me I was welcome anytime. So I showed up the next afternoon. And the next. I spent nearly every day in that workshop, until Wil and I morphed into friends. Best friends. More. We were solid: made of layers of afternoon snacks and middle-school dances and first kisses. We took years to get that way. And I undid it all in a blink.
Somehow, I’ve survived our senior year without Wil. But now it’s April, and with Miami only a couple of months away, Wil’s absence seems sharper, just like every other detail of my Florida life. If I had to get all Intro to Psych about it, I guess I’d say that before I make the biggest change I’ve ever made in my very small life, I need something familiar. I want to find Wil in his dad’s workshop. I would talk through the cloudy life questions that have been hovering over me since August: What if I don’t get a good work-study job? and Mom can’t set Micah straight all by herself and But I don’t want to stay here, I most definitely do not want to stay in Atlantic Beach for the rest of my life. Not anymore.
The bell rings, and I watch Wil slide out of his seat and rest his hand on the small of Ana’s back. He steers her toward the door, leaving the smell of varnish in his wake.
He must be working on a new boat. He always smells like sawdust and varnish when he’s finishing a skiff. Varnish is his favorite smell—he used to sniff the can as a kid. I bet I’m the only person in the universe who knows that. I know all his real secrets, like how he can’t sleep without the National Geographic channel on low in the background. How he knows his dad loves him and his mom tries but doesn’t know him. How he can only cry underwater.
It’s such a waste, knowing those kinds of things about a stranger.