This summer just got a whole hell of a lot more interesting.
“Welcome to Cedar Cove.”
The house is just the way I remember it from when I was a kid: sitting squarely in the lush, green yard like something from a picture postcard. There are blue shingles and a white trim, with a wide wraparound porch and a path winding past the house, back to the beach. As we pull off the back-road into the drive-way, I can see the pale sands of the shoreline through a gap in the trees, and hear the sound of the waves, crashing just out of sight.
The rain has passed now. The scene looks so peaceful, it’s hard to believe I’ve got a tight knot of dread in the pit of my stomach, just at the thought of being stuck here with my family for the whole summer.
“You OK now, sweetie?” My mom puts the car in park and turns to me, concerned.
“Fine.” I snap back, tearing the car door open and getting out.
“Are you sure?” Mom follows me around to the trunk. “Dr. Atkins gave us a prescription, for when you get these panic attacks—”
“It wasn’t a panic attack.” I cut her off, lying. “I was just freaked out. You did nearly kill us, remember?”
What I remember is that guy on the road, Emerson, and the total fool I made of myself stammering all over him. I cringe at the memory, hauling out my duffel bag and heading up the porch steps. When I try the door, it’s unlocked; I step inside, trying to calm myself down. I’ve been anxious and on-edge ever since our near-crash out on the highway.
Don’t you mean since meeting the hottest guy you’ve ever seen?
I pause. In a flash, I can see Emerson right in front of me: his dark hair wet from the rain, his shirt clinging to the muscles of his torso. He was wearing faded jeans and scuffed old work boots, with the dark ink of a tattoo spiraling up across one taut bicep.
Everything about him screamed trouble.
I blush, remembering his smirk when he caught me checking him out—and the heat of his gaze as he slowly raked his eyes across my body, from my head all the way down to my toes. I don’t think anyone’s every looked at me like that: with such blatant desire. It made me feel naked, and self-conscious, as if he could see through my damp clothes to every inch of my bare flesh. It set my blood singing in my veins, made my skin prickle with a quicksilver shiver.
It made me feel alive.
“What do you think, sweetheart?” My mom comes in behind me, snapping me out of the memory.
I quickly look around. It’s like a time-warp in here: childhood photos on the walls, the scuffed floorboards laid with threadbare rugs. Through the hallway I can see the kitchen and dining room with their faded floral wallpaper. “Just like when you were younger, right?”
“It’s smaller.” I reply shortly. She laughs,
“You’re just bigger now. My baby girl, all grown up.” Her expression gets wistful, and I have to duck quickly past her to avoid a hug.
“I’m going to unpack.” I tell her, already taking the stairs, two at a time.
“OK. I’ll bring in the rest of the stuff…”
Her voice echoes behind me as I check out the bedrooms on the first floor. There are two rooms here, and a small blue-tiled bathroom, but up another flight of stairs at the back of the house, I find another small bedroom, buried under the eaves. Mine. There’s barely room for an old dresser and a bed, but the room is light and airy, and the windows open out to a drop-dead gorgeous view of the shoreline.
I fling open the shutters, and heave the old sash windows up. I lean out, taking a deep breath of the salty sea air. The clouds are clearing, showing patches of blue sky, and I close my eyes a moment, feeling the sun burn through my eyelids. I should feel lucky I know, but no matter how beautiful the scenery is, nothing can shake the twisted truth, buried beneath my mom’s cheerfulness and all her bright chatter about what an amazing time we’re going to have here together.
It’s all a lie.
The familiar panic creeps back into my body, and I catch my breath, forcing myself to stay calm. I’ve been getting these panic attacks for years now, off and on, but lately they’re worse than ever. Stress, my doctor says – with senior year, and college looming – but school has always been the least of my problems. It’s only when I start thinking about the things I can’t control that my chest gets tight and my skin starts to prickle with heat, and a three-ton weight starts pressing down on me, making it hard to breathe.
Please, not now, I try and shut it down before the attack can take hold. I cross to the bed and grab my camera from my bag. It’s an old manual SLR model, a gift from my grandpa, and by now, it’s like another limb to me. I cradle the familiar case in my hands, carefully screwing on a new lens and winding on a fresh film. The routine calms me, the panic ebbs away. I snap the case closed, and thunder downstairs.
“Going for a walk!” I yell to Mom, who I can hear settling into the main bedroom. I don’t stop: racing out the back of the house and across the yard until I hit the sand. I kick off my sneakers and sprint down to the water, shrieking as the cold surf laps against my skin.
I snap photos of the deep blue ocean, tipped with white foam; the grey clouds blowing fast across the sky to reveal sailor’s blue and a bright midday sun. But no matter how much I focus on the frame, and light, and all the dozens of details that go into making up the perfect photograph, I can’t ignore the real problem.
Three months. Here, with my family, play-acting like we’re all OK? I don’t know if I can make it.