Teens waging a war of practical jokes declare peace when they fall for one another in this charming YA romantic comedy from Jessica Pennington.
They have a love-hate relationship with summer.
Sidney and Asher should have clicked. Two star swimmers forced to spend their summers on a lake together sounds like the perfect match. But it’s the same every year—in between cookouts and boat rides and family-imposed bonfires, Sidney and Asher spend the dog days of summer finding the ultimate ways to prank each other. And now, after their senior year, they’re determined to make it the most epic yet.
But their plans are thrown in sudden jeopardy when their feud causes their families to be kicked out of their beloved lake houses. Once in their new accommodations, Sidney expects the prank war to continue as usual. But then she gets a note—Meet me at midnight. And Asher has a proposition for her: join forces for one last summer of epic pranks, against a shared enemy—the woman who kicked them out.
Their truce should make things simpler, but six years of tormenting one another isn’t so easy to ignore. Kind of like the undeniable attraction growing between them.
Read the first two chapters of Meet Me at Midnight—coming April 7th. Once you’ve read this excerpt, read a second one here!
[dropcap type=”circle”]H[/dropcap]ere’s the problem with knowing someone since you were nine and vacationing with them since you were thirteen: they know way too much. They’ve seen things. The neurotic things you only did once. The embarrassing things you wish you could forget. Usually it’s people we love who know these seemingly harmless things. But when it’s someone you hate…those tiny bits of your past become the ultimate ammunition. And with the right arsenal, it’s war. The war I call summer lasts exactly fifty-six days. It doesn’t end, and it has only two sides: mine and his.
Asher Marin doesn’t let me live anything down, and he doesn’t let me forget. I don’t let him, either. It’s why we’re both darting out of our cabins at 8:37am on the first full day of summer vacation. Why I sat by the window, barely able to make out the shadow of him at his, as I ate my bowl of cereal this morning, twitching out of my seat with every flutter of activity from the kitchen window that mirrors mine. It’s our seventh year vacationing together in twin houses that sit atop a little hill overlooking a large kidney-bean shaped inland lake. And saying that we know each other doesn’t even begin to describe the two of us. To survive summer, I don’t just have to know Asher, I have to get in his brain.
“Your hair looks pretty today,” he says. I’m walking out of my door as he walks out of his, my cereal bowl discarded so quickly I’m not positive it isn’t in shards in the old metal sink. We’re mirror images starting our days, as we each make a hard turn onto the concrete sidewalks that run alongside our houses—toward the deck that juts out from the hill rising up from the shoreline. He’s lazily smiling, and someone who didn’t know him—didn’t know us—would think he was being sweet. Complimenting me. But he’s not smiling, he’s smirking. I don’t have to look at his face to know; I can hear it in his voice. In the way the word hair comes out on the whisper of a laugh he didn’t allow himself to let loose.
Because Asher’s in my brain, too. He knows I hate when my curls get like this, wild and untamable in the summer humidity. When I was younger I’d try to straighten them every morning, like I did for school, and as the day went on and the Michigan air took its toll, the curls would rise up around my face, consuming me like my very own auburn wildfire. When I was sixteen, I finally decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Wasn’t worth the snickers through the day, the sideways glances from him as my hair revealed its true form after a day of swimming. Who was I trying to impress, anyway? I like how easy it’s made my daily routine for two months out of the year.
My hand is going to my hair without thinking, but I catch myself, twisting a few pieces in my fingers and squinting my eyes at him, still coming down the little sidewalk, keeping pace with me. I speed up, and he matches me.
“I love that shirt,” I say, my voice level and innocent as I eye the vintage green t-shirt that stretches across his chest. “Did Jordan pick that out?” I say Jordan the way he says hair. Like it’s a weapon shooting off of my tongue.
“Jordan and I broke up.” His voice matches mine, friendly and light. We’re maybe thirty feet from where our paths will merge into one, and I squeeze the towel rolled tight under my arm. My pulse speeds up, adrenaline pooling in my veins as we partake in the world’s slowest two-person sprint. We’re just a couple of pumping arms short of looking like old people powering through the mall in their bright-white sneakers. My flip-flops slap against the stone.
“Oh, did you?” My voice drips with mock innocence. Asher and Jordan broke up about a month ago. I overheard my mom talking to his in one of their weekly phone calls leading up to our joint family vacation. Poor baby, such a sweet girl, blah blah blah.
“Stalking me?” he says, his voice taking a teasing edge.
It sounds a little stalkerish that I know about Jordan. But knowledge is power, and I can’t help that my mom insists on updating me about Asher every time she talks to Sylvie. As if I didn’t have the means to contact Asher a million different ways, if I wanted to. As if we’re friends and I need to know what he’s doing the ten months out of the year I’m not being subjected to his presence. “You wish.” I roll my eyes, even though he can’t see them. “You must have been distraught, if your mom had to call mine to talk about it.”
“Devastated,” he says dramatically, not sounding it at all.
“Lucky girl,” I say.
“How’s…oh, what’s his name…?” In my periphery I can see his hand slap against his thigh like he’s trying to recall some lost bit of information. We try so hard, the two of us. We smile and tease and torture—the kind of animals that like to play with their food before they kill it.
I cringe, knowing what’s coming next. I shouldn’t have pushed him on Jordan, I should have just left it alone. But that smug face of his. I set myself up for this.
I take in a deep breath and let it out. My face doesn’t change, my eyes don’t move. They’re focused on the deck looming below us, up ahead—the end goal.
His voice is casual. “None of them stuck, huh?”
“Now who’s stalking?”
“I can’t help myself. Apparently your love life is better than an episode of The Bachelor. And you have a chatty mom, too.”
I snicker. “You watch The Bachelor?” We’ve reached the spot at the crest of the hill, where our paths converge and lead down into a single walkway of cement stairs. I narrow my eyes as we both squeeze on to them. They’re barely wider than one person, but we walk side by side, as fast as two people possibly can without running or tripping or looking like we’re purposefully racing. And we are racing. I let out a little snort. “That’s sad.”
“As sad as your two-week boyfriends?”
“Ten days.” I correct him with a shrug. “What can I say, I’m easily bored.”
It’s true, there’s something that happens to me after the first week of dating someone. When the glittery newness has worn off, and I start to notice all of the little things that drive me crazy. Taylor constantly chewed with his mouth open. David started calling me babe. You look cute, babe. Goodnight, babe. Do you want some popcorn, babe? All I could think about was the old movie I used to watch at my grandma’s house with my cousins. That little pink pig. And that my name isn’t freaking Babe.
And Evan—okay, I’m the least proud of Evan. He was a full inch shorter than me. And it shouldn’t have bothered me; I know it shouldn’t have. And it didn’t. . . for nine full days. But by day ten, all I could think about was our prom pictures. About dancing with him in two inch heels. If I’d be able to see the top of his head, and if he’d have to stretch up on his toes to kiss me. If I’d have to wear flats to our hypothetical wedding some day. They were all little things—things that didn’t matter for ten whole days—things that wouldn’t matter anytime soon. But things I couldn’t let go of. Things I couldn’t imagine overlooking for months or years. And so what was the point? Best to end things before they got too serious; before I screwed it up too badly and it felt like an actual loss.
“They were heartbroken, probably,” Asher says as our shoulders bump roughly and my foot slips off of the step and into the lumpy grass, throwing me off balance. He grabs me by the elbow and pulls me straight. I shake him away and he snickers.
“Devastated,” I say.
“I imagine.” His voice is level, serious. Mocking.
“I would bet you imagine a lot of things about me.”
He lets out a little grunt but I can tell he wants to laugh. “This is probably our last summer, Chipmunk.”
“Don’t call me that.” I practically growl the words.
“But it’s so cute.” I can hear the mock pout in his voice, can see his lake-blue puppy dog eyes, even without looking at him. I will never forgive my father for letting that nickname slip in front of Asher.
“I’ m going to destroy you,” I say with a smile. “You’ll be calling me something very different by the end of the summer.”
“Sounds dirty,” he says, and I let out an irritated grunt. “Looking forward to it…Chipmunk.” There’s a smile in his voice.
As we descend onto the wooden deck, we both abandon our illusion of normalcy and race for the chair. It’s sitting along the far side of the square deck, its soft, thick cushion the lone pop of color in a string of hard white plastic lounge chairs. The unicorn chair, as I like to call it. The one comfy, padded lounge chair. A mystical, magical chair amongst a sea of cheap plastic ones. I hip-check Asher and twist toward it, but he lunges from behind me, throwing an arm around my waist.
“Let me go,” I grunt, trying to pull away, my feet kicking at his ankles. But he pulls me tight to his chest and twists us. And then I’m falling. I’m free-falling, until I’m in his lap, on top of the lounge chair. I twist this way and that.
“How much do you hate me right now?” The words whisper against my neck and send a shiver up my spine.
“Hard nine,” I say through gritted teeth, and his chest shakes against me in un-released laughter. “Let. Me. Go.”
“Gladly,” he says, loosening his arm and reclining back onto the plush green pad.
I stand there for a minute, staring down at him, his head tipped back, eyes closed, laid out on the unicorn chair like a summer prince. At his long, tan legs stretched out in front of him, and the messy golden brown hair that skirts across his forehead. Asher has a swimmer’s body. Broad shoulders, slim waist. Lean muscles I wish I could look at without scowling. But I can’t, because Asher Marin is the absolute worst. And by the end of summer, I’m going to make him regret all of the summers that came before this one. All of the pranks, and the snarky comments. It doesn’t matter who started this between us so long ago, because this summer I’m going to finish it.
I’m about to lay my towel on one of the hard plastic monstrosities on the opposite side of the little deck, but then stop. Asher may have speed and brute strength to his advantage, but I’m more patient. He’s a bomb, but I’m a sniper’s bullet.
“Enjoy your chair,” I say, a smile on my face. Then I turn and walk back toward the house. I veer a little once I get to the top of the stairs, letting him wonder which house I’m going to and what I’ll do there. He can’t see me now, I’m blocked by the hedge of wild bushes that grow along the top of the hill. Let him get used to not knowing where I’m headed—because what I have planned for him this summer? He’ll never see it coming.
There’s a one-in-four chance Sidney Walters is going to murder me someday. Except no one will ever suspect her, because she’d be neurotic enough to make a checklist—or ten—and cover all of her bases. Sidney would do research (probably annotated) on how to hide my body. She’s been researching it for the last ten months, for all I know. Maybe since we were thirteen and started vacationing together here.
Even though Sidney’s favorite part of summer is screwing with me, she looks innocent. Like now; she is almost certainly about to soak all of my underwear in sugar water (that attracts ants and other bugs, in case you were wondering) or lace my bodywash with something only detectable by dogs. And when the neighborhood chihuahuas start trailing me through town she won’t even bat an eye.
It’s also possible she goes after my food—there was the time she used a syringe to put vinegar in the grapefruit I used to eat every morning. Total serial killer move, right? Sadly, Sidney could walk right into our cabin with a fistful of syringes and a backpack full of hair remover, and my mom wouldn’t blink an eye. She’d probably offer her a cup of coffee and ask how her senior year had gone before sending her on her way with a smile. Because Sidney Walters is a proverbial ray of sunshine—with everyone but me. Awesome, very likable (if I do say so myself) me.
I fought for this chair—threw half of my oatmeal away for it—so I’m sure as hell going to sit in it. Leaving now would be admitting fear, which is as good as admitting defeat when it comes to Sidney. I close my eyes, put on my headphones, and try to listen to the beats of my favorite song. But my mind keeps wandering back to my room, and if I remembered to put my things in all of their strategic spots. Summer (for me, at least) is about self-defense and preservation as much as it is about offensive strikes. Minimizing vulnerabilities. Making my attack zone smaller. I’m not sure when I started thinking like a Navy seal.
I try to mentally walk through everything on my dresser and remember what I left out, but I can’t visualize it. Instead, I focus on what I have lined up for Sidney this summer. I spend more time during the year than I’d like to admit thinking about these eight weeks of vacation. And this year in particular, it was basically all I could think about for the last six months. Senioritis was strong with me.
Could I do something more productive with my time this summer? Obviously. I could sit down and write that letter to Mr. Ockler. The one Dad has been on me about for months. A letter, not email, because anything important comes in print, my dad says. All it takes is one letter, Ash. A quick note to show how passionate you are about financial planning. One letter, and in Dad’s eyes, I’ll be set for life. I’ll have an apprenticeship to work through college, and the second I graduate I’ll be ready to start building my own office. Walking door-to-door, telling people how I can help them enjoy their retirements. Just like Dad. All I have to do is write that letter—but thinking about pranking Sidney is so much more interesting.
I have a whole box of supplies, and to prevent it all from falling into enemy hands—Sidney’s hands—I have it stashed in the boathouse storage area under her cabin. With Sidney, it’s all about psychological warfare. She overthinks things more than anyone I’ve ever met. So when I need something I plan to stroll right into the boathouse in broad daylight, when she’s no more than twenty feet away. It’s sure to throw her off the scent—she’ll never believe I would hide anything that obviously.
Her first instinct will be to check, but then she’ll convince herself I’m just trying to distract her, or lure her into something, and she’ll decide not to go down there. Plus, it’s spider city in the boathouse; I can’t imagine her actually digging through the crap in there to get to my box without having a major bug-induced meltdown. And that would be its own kind of victory. A win for me, either way.
My room—clad in dark wood paneling—is a little musty when I walk in. Probably it’s always a little musty, but I only notice it the day we arrive each summer, before the scent takes up permanent residence in my nose and becomes my new normal. I don’t notice it again until I get home and unzip my bag, greeted by the damp earthiness of my vacation clothes. It’s not a bad smell; it’s almost comforting, the way it reminds me that for the next two months I can forget about test scores and papers, and focus on nothing but what my body can do when it’s racing through the water. And this summer, training will be my middle name. Because in ten short weeks I’ll be a collegiate swimmer. And I’ve been promising my mom for years now that I’m going to break her 1650-yard freestyle record. The record that’s held for almost twenty-five years now. I’ll never have more time to train than I do this summer. Watch out, Mom, I’m coming for you.
I haul up my giant duffle bag, slamming it onto the squeaky bed that bounces like it’s a trampoline. The mossy green comforter is the same one that’s been on this bed since I was twelve. Since that first summer we arrived at Five Pines Resort and Lake House A. I shove the wooden window open, letting the mid-June air, hot and wet, drift into my room. At home I’d die without air conditioning—would murder and maim for it—but the heat isn’t the same here. We’re four hours north, in a little beach town that feels too small to exist outside of the months of June, July, and August. It’s always a little cooler here in Riverton—the breeze slides across the lake, like there’s some sort of spell over it, working in our favor as we lay out in the sun, draping ourselves over rafts and plastic chairs.
I abandon my bag—I should have unpacked last night when we got in, but it was late and the drive had zapped all of the energy out of me. But I can unpack later, when the sun is down and the water isn’t calling me. I make my way down the little hallway (also covered in brown wood paneling) and into the kitchen. The kitchen in Lake House A is a fraction of the size of our kitchen at home. It’s what Mom calls a postage stamp, tucked into a corner across from the little dining room and living room. The kitchen and dining room look out onto the yard and to the neighboring house—Lake House B—and the living room has a row of windows that look out over the kindey-bean shaped lake.
Mom is unpacking bags and boxes, setting our toaster and a few pans onto the little counter—apparently all of us were a little lazy when we got in later than usual last night. Two months is too long for garage-sale pots and pans, Mom said the second summer we came here. She swore in the kitchen a lot that year. That summer, it was mostly just me and her. Mom working on her stained glass and me, turning into an almost-literal fish. We came up as soon as school let out and Mom had been set free from her classroom. Dad came up for a few sporadic weeks, and most weekends. That year, Lake House B was occupied by a nice older couple, who sat on their porch and brought freshly-baked cookies out to the bonfire at night. The Wortmans.
I’m about to hit the door when Mom’s voice stops me. “Hey.” I pause, hoping I haven’t missed my chance at a clean-break from unpacking, but knowing I have. “Can you run out and get me a few things from the store?”
“Big or little?”
“Little,” Mom clarifies.
“Sure.” Better to get out of here than to get roped into unpacking boxes. Mom packs like we’re never leaving here. In reality, I think I could survive with my swimsuit and a towel. And my paints. Maybe a small library of books. Okay, I need a few things. But still not as many as Mom.
Dad looks up at me from where he’s hunched over a box in the dining room. “Don’t forget,” he says, giving me a wink. Dad’s here for almost two weeks before he has to check in at the office for a few days, and then mostly he’ll be here, working remotely, like he has for the last five years or so. I glance out the window to where our little boat is already tied alongside the dock that juts out into the still water. Mom hates driving the boat, but Dad and me, we’ve always lived out on the water, the wake misting our arms, wind burning our cheeks. Driving it still makes me nervous though, and I usually opt to let someone else do it. Boats steer funny; they’re not like cars, which turn exactly when you want them to. Asher says I think too much to drive a boat properly. As if thinking is ever a bad thing.
Down the road from us, there’s a tiny convenience store called The Little Store—its actual name, I swear—that also doubles as one of the town’s two pizza places. It’s dark, like the walls of our house; like the mossy insides and writhing bodies inside the white container of worms my father sends me to retrieve on the first day of vacation every year. When I was nine, I would ride my pink bike—balancing the plastic container precariously on my handle bars the whole way home.
Now, I steal Dad’s car keys from the little nail by the front door, and give a quick ‘I’ll be back’ as the screen door slams behind me. Through the open kitchen windows I can still hear the rustle of paper bags as Mom unpacks a week’s worth of groceries from the local market twenty minutes away, where she grumbles about everything costing twice as much as at home.
I walk alongside the house, down the little cement sidewalk that runs to the gravel driveway. Straight ahead of me is the monstrosity—as my parents call it—that is Nadine and Charlie’s house. They own Lake House A and B, and until two years ago, they also owned four more tiny shoebox rentals, before they tore them down to build their dream house. Technically, this place is called Five Pines Resort, but with two houses left to rent it hardly qualifies, if you ask me.
Charlie is quiet and short, light on words but always quick to smile if you happen to see him out and about fixing something, which is rare. He works a full-time corporate job at a bank an hour away. Nadine is the opposite. She’s loud, and eager to talk to you, though never about anything good. Her blonde hair is wild and she always looks like she’s about to board a cruise ship to some exotic locale. Her clothes are loose and flowing and bright, and her lips are always hot pink or red. It’s hard not to look at her, though I’m well practiced at it, now that she’s around entirely too much. It’s a little strange, spending your summer vacation in someone’s backyard.
While the lake houses are small and plain, the home that looms over them is like Nadine—tall and wide, and strange in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s the color of a blueberry—not quite blue, not quite purple—with pale green shutters and a white porch that wraps around the front. It looks like something that should be sitting out on a farm, not a lake.
Last summer, when the house seemingly sprouted out of nowhere during the offseason, there was a handful of yard decorations that sprang up with it. A gnome with a red hat at one corner, a whimsical green toadstool by the back stairs leading down into the yard that faces A and B. The strangest, was a rooster, almost up to my chin, positioned near the front door. But this year the house seems to have spawned a whole army of tacky ornaments. They’re littering the gardens that circle the house, dotting the mulch with dogs, and tiny girls in frilly dresses, and geese. I can’t catalogue them all without staring, and the walk to my dad’s car is over before I can appreciate even a fraction of them. What is going on at Nadine and Charlie’s house? And how could their daughter—pretty, fashionable, always-put-together Lindsay—let this happen?
My dad’s car—a silver SUV with dark windows and shiny chrome—is sitting along the backside of the little house, in front of a massive wall of firewood that lines the driveway. Beyond it, the old metal swingset is bordered in tall grass, where Charlie has clearly given up on trimming it. It makes my twelve-year-old heart a little sad to see it neglected. My phone buzzes, pulling me out of my lawn-gnome-and-swingset-induced haze, and I swipe the screen to life as I open the door and push it with my hip. Not even out of the driveway, and already my mom has texted me three more things she forgot. And I’m not finding them at the little store—I’m going to have to drive into town, to the ‘big’ market that is still little by normal standards. Giving my mom a quick ‘ok,’ I drop into the seat and twist the keys in the ignition. Without warning, the car is filled with a deafening jolt of drums and screaming. My hand flies for the volume knob, my heart in my throat. What the…
“Dammit, Asher,” I mutter, just as a messy mop of brown hair pokes up over the back seat. I startle again, not expecting that he’d be in the car. He cocks his head to the side and his blue eyes twinkle as a smile spreads across his face.
Like most epic rivalries, it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons I loathe Asher Marin. Maybe it’s the way he walks into my family’s cabin each summer—the one identical to his next door—and smiles at my mother as if he’s thrilled to see us all. As if he hasn’t been dreaming of tormenting me for the last ten months, the way I’ve been dreaming of all the things I’ll do to him. It could have been the self-tanner he put in my sunscreen when I was fourteen, or my frozen swimsuits when I was sixteen, or last year’s crowning glory, the cayenne pepper he laced my toothpaste with.
But those all came after. And there are so many that it doesn’t even matter what started it any more. All that matters is that this summer, the summer before I go off to college—probably the last summer I’ll have to see Asher Marin for eight weeks straight—I’m going to finish it.
“Happy first day of summer, Sidney.” He meets my narrowed eyes and laughs, deep in his throat. And just as he clears the door and steps aside, I put the car in drive and peel out of the driveway, a bright red brontosaurus craning its neck around the house as I leave them behind me.
Riverton is only four hours from where I live, but it’s like another world up here. One with grocery stores that take checks but not credit cards, and close at five o’clock sharp. All of the houses have names, like Blue Thunder, Copper Cove, and Lake House A. Where random businesses crop up out of the woods, and instead of parking lots, everyone just parks on the side of the road for a quarter mile in either direction.
As I pull up to River Depot in my dad’s car the next day, cars are everywhere, even on a Monday. I see the swarm of red shirts down by the canoes as I cross the little bridge over the river. It feels like forever before I find a break in the cars and can wedge myself between two with out of state plates, and set out for the big brown building. River Depot is a small, brown log building from the street, but beyond its doors it opens into multiple rooms and levels built into the hill that slopes from the road to the river.
This is the third summer Kara has worked the desk at River Depot. Her grandma lives three houses down from Five Pines—a little cabin passed down through Kara’s family from back before the lake became a trendy tourist spot. We met my first summer here when I was twelve, and I accidentally stole her inner tube. And by stole, I mean it washed up on the beach one morning after a bad storm, and with no way of knowing where it came from, Kara found me two days later, lying on the hot pink plastic tube where I had tethered it to the end of our dock.
She dumped me off of it while I lay there with my eyes closed, and when I surged out of the water, completely bewildered, she laughed at me like a wild little water pixie. Which turned out to be a pretty accurate description of Kara. She’s tiny—barely four foot nine—and even though she makes me feel like a giant at five foot eight, she’s one of my favorite people in the whole world.
We were inseparable that first summer—the only summer Asher’s family wasn’t with us. Kara brought her float to our dock, and we strapped it next to the yellow version my parents bought me at the little store down the road. She crashed dinners when her grandma let her, and the two of us were wild little summer pixies together, covering our toes in glittery polish on the deck and pretending to fish out of a little rowboat, even though neither of us ever caught anything and would have been too freaked out to pull a fish off of a hook even if we did. Some days, we’d be joined by Nadine and Charlie’s daughter, Lindsay, who was a year older than us, and would get dropped off to swim and drive around the wave runner docked at Five Pines. But by the next summer, Kara had turned fourteen and was working at River Depot in the afternoons, and when Lindsay made an occasional appearance she was more interested in my new neighbor, Asher.
By the time I make it to River Depot I’m sweaty and hot. I find it hard to believe any canoe trip can be worth this kind of dedication, but the massive lines outside the gazebo where they sign people up tells me I must be wrong. I push past the crowds and into the gift shop, which is dead and deserted compared to outside.
“Yesssss,” Kara squeals from behind the counter as I round a rack of postcards and shot glasses, all covered in the iconic images of a Michigan summer—waves and sand and towering, golden sand dunes. “Now it’s summer!”
She wraps tiny arms around me from across the counter, ignoring someone approaching with a box of graham crackers and a bottle of lighter fluid. “When did you get in?” she asks.
“Yesterday.” I glance at the man next to me, but Kara isn’t fazed.
She gives me a quick up and down, like she’s checking me out. “You’re still in one piece,” she says, looking amused with herself. “A whole day in, and no serious damage yet?”
“We’re too busy unpacking,” I say, wondering what Asher has planned for me this summer.
“You stocked, or should I dig up some bottles of hot sauce and hair remover?”
I smile. Deep down, I think Kara lives vicariously through my ongoing escapades with Asher. She can barely temper her amusement with the two of us. “I’m good.”
“I work all week.” She sticks her tongue out like she’s going to gag and makes a desperate sound deep in her throat. “But there’s a party Friday. Promise me you’ll come?” Her voice is high and whiney. “Just once?” she begs, her head tipping into a pleading dip at her shoulder.
On my left, Graham Cracker Guy clears his throat.
“I’ll think about it,” I say, but we both know I’m not going. I hate parties. The small talk with strangers, and not knowing what to wear with a bunch of people I don’t know. And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that everything in Riverton happens just a little differently than I expect it to. I hate being unprepared, and while one party would remedy that, I just can’t seem to rip that bandage.
“I’ll text you the address,” she says.
“Miss?” Graham Cracker Guy has more patience than I would have expected. It must be the beginning of his vacation—I’ve seen other tourists have total meltdowns for a lot less than being ignored for three whole minutes.
Kara’s head snaps to her right as if she just noticed someone was there, and a smile lights up her face. She’s all white teeth, blond hair, and sparkle. I notice the tiny pink stone that glitters in her nose, new from the last time I saw her. “Is this going to be all?” she asks the man as I walk out a side door and onto the deck that stretches out toward the river. I stop at one of two windows cut into the wooden wall to my left, The Grill painted in white above them. Arriving at the lake is the official start of summer, and nothing says ‘summer’ like ice cream.
“What can I get you?” a friendly voice says, pulling my attention away from the river and to a pair of brown eyes housed in a very pretty face. An almost too pretty face. The kind with cheekbones I could trace with my finger, and a jaw as sharp as the awkwardness stabbing me in the chest right now.
“Ice cream?” I say, suddenly unsure why I even stepped up to the window. Ice cream. It was definitely ice cream I came here for.
“Any particular flavor,” he asks with a smile, “or should I surprise you?”
“I like surprises.” I hate that I said it. That somehow my filter has been disabled by his brown eyes, and everything is just falling out of my mouth un-checked now. I said it nervously, but it sounded flirty. I give myself a mental pep talk. You can do this, Sidney. Just keep it up. You’re on vacation now; the mysterious, worldly girl from somewhere else. He doesn’t know you paint rocks for fun, or that you can’t ski for your life. You can be anyone this summer.
But who I actually am, is a girl staring like a weirdo at a guy who is clearing his throat and asking—maybe not for the first time—if she wants a cup or a cone. “Waffle cone.” I smile. “Sorry, big decision. Not college-decision big or anything, but, you know…big…ish.” Oh good, the nervous rambling has started.
He laughs. I’m not sure if he’s laughing at me or with me, but I laugh too, just to convince myself it’s the latter. “Done,” he says, taking a step away from the counter, toward a long white freezer that runs along the opposite wall.
I give myself a mental pat on the back for being wild and letting some random Hot Guy pick out my ice cream. You’re a regular summer wild-child, Sidney Kristine Walters. When he comes back he has a massive cone topped with three different colors.
“Wow,” I say. “That may be more ice cream than I’ve eaten in my whole life combined.”
He points to the scoops one at a time. “Superman.” He looks from the colorful swirl of ice cream to me, and I nod my approval. “Strawberry.” I give another approving nod. “And brown butter bacon.” My face scrunches up without even thinking, because I’m one of the only people in the entire world who doesn’t like bacon-flavored things. “Yeah.” He shakes his head. “Took a risk with that one.”
“It’s fine,” I say, reaching for the cone with a smile. But before I can grab it, he has a spoon in one hand and knocks the offending scoop into a container.
“I’ll give that to Ellis later, he’ll eat anything. Let me take another shot at it.” He walks back to the freezer and reaches down into it. I’m not sure if he’s flirting with me, or he just really loves his job.
“I like anything chocolate,” I offer.
He comes back to the window with a swirl of brown and white topping my colorful cone. “S’more,” he says, giving me a skeptical look. “Chocolate, marshmallow, and candied graham cracker bits.”
I smile. “Perfect.”
He smiles at me like he just aced a test.
“I’m Sidney,” I say. It bursts out of me almost beyond my control. “I have a friend who works here—” I nod back toward where I can see Kara at the desk, her eyes fixed on us. “So you’ll probably see me around. I’m on vacation. I have no life,” I offer as an excuse. Shut up, Sidney.
“I’m Caleb.” He hands me the ice cream cone as I pass a ten-dollar bill—my mom’s grocery store change from yesterday—across the counter. “So I guess I’ll see you around, Sidney.”
I take my change with a nod and a smile, and head back toward Kara, licking at the dribble of blue ice cream that’s now escaping down my cone. Holy hell, this is going to be a giant puddle by the time I make it to my car.
“Yummy, huh?” Kara says as I approach the counter.
I have a feeling she’s referring to more than the ice cream, and I have to agree. “Very.”
“What if I told you the party was at his house?”
“No.” She smiles and I smack her shoulder. “But he’ll be there.”
“I’ll think about it.” And as I walk out to my car, I am definitely thinking about it. Because seeing Caleb at the party seems like a better option than making daily ice cream trips.
Sometimes I think our parents are in on this whole Ash-and-Sid-prank-each-other-into-fiery-oblivion thing. Or that they have their own game, where they see how long they can go without acknowledging the tension between us. Like, they each get a point for not smiling at something snarky we say to each another. Two points if they keep talking right through it. Money could be passing right under the dinner table for all we know. I wonder if they pick a winner each summer, or if the longevity of their game is only surpassed by ours. Sure, we do our best to plaster smiles on our faces in front of them, and keep our mouths shut, but you’d have to be completely oblivious to not notice the twisted game we’ve had going the last few years.
And yet, our normally capable parents haven’t acknowledged our feud since the first summer it started, when we were fourteen. That was the second year my family came up with Sidney’s, and back then the pranks didn’t feel like the norm. Sometimes I barely remember what things were like before all of this, that first summer when Sidney and I were on the same team, but there was a before.
I especially suspect they’re using us for their own amusement when they do crap like announce that we’re going to start having dinner together every night. Sidney’s mom, Kris, claims it makes sense. Why should we sit in our separate homes, eating meals at the same time, when we could sit around and eat with each other?
Because it gives us more time to guard our homes?
Because I’m closer to my room and all of my stuff that Sidney inevitably wants to mess with?
And because she’s Kris, she also reminds us that not only will it be fun and practical, but we’ll also save electricity and water (and basically everything but our sanity) by having these joint family dinners. Nightly. That’s fifty-six dinners.
Which means Sidney and I have an entire hour that we have to play nice while we’re held captive at the dining room table. I’m not sure we even know how to function like normal people any more. Will we just implode from being in the same area for an hour without tormenting one another? Will the angry little crease in her forehead become permanent being in my presence for fifty-six hours’ worth of dinners this summer?
Tonight we’re at her house, seated at opposite ends of the long oval table, with our parents coupled up on either side of us. We are the reigning king and queen of mealtime misery, and all we can really hope is that neither of us tries to behead the other and gets blood all over the floor. (Or our grilled chicken, roast broccoli, and sweet corn, which is delicious.)
These dinners do have a few foreseeable perks, though. I glance toward the hallway that leads to the little bathroom I know Sidney uses. I’m sure there’s more than one way I can use this time in enemy territory to my advantage.
At the very least I can have some fun. I catch Sidney’s eye and hold her gaze. Even when I spear a piece of broccoli, I keep my eyes on her, daring her to look away. Yes, we can do this. Nothing makes time fly like harassing one another. Sidney’s eyes narrow in annoyance, but she doesn’t take them off of me. I reach for the salt shaker and blindly shake it over the blurry yellow blob that is my corn cob. Sidney reaches for her water glass, and her fingers tap against the glass as she gets a hold on it. I fumble with a roll when my mom holds the basket out to me, and Sidney clumsily spoons rice onto her plate, a chunk of it falling onto the table. In my mental tally, I give myself a point. She gets one when I pick my spoon up by accident and try to gouge a piece of chicken with it.
When I tip over my glass of water, both of us break our gaze at the same time, looking to our parents, who are all laughing. At my clumsiness or our little game, I’m not sure, but when I crawl under the table with a rag thrown at me by my mom, the game is officially over.
As Asher hoists himself off of the floor, I realize for the first time since we started our little staring game that the area around my plate looks like it should be adorned with a paper placemat and crayons. There is a heap of rice that never made it onto my plate, three pieces of broccoli I must have knocked off while blindly cutting my chicken, and a blob of melted butter. Way to keep it classy, Sid. You’ll fit right in on campus in a few months. Thoughts of school always bring back what I’m really focused on this summer—not food fights with myself, or staring games with Asher. Sitting to my right is the reigning queen of the Division II 1650 yard freestyle, and if I have anything to say about it, by the end of my freshman season, she’ll be abdicating her throne. I’ve promised her since I was nine and wearing my first team speedo that I’d do it. Back then it was a pipe-dream, the kind of thing you say when you’re too young to know what it even means. But now, it’s in my sights.
“Set your alarm,” I say, and my dad groans. I roll my eyes. He’s not the one swimming 2000m across the lake before breakfast; I’m not sure he has any room to be grumbly and cranky. I, on the other hand, have to sit across from Asher and try not to laugh at him spilling food all over himself while I’m trying to eat a meal.
Asher clears his throat and sets his fork on his plate. “I can spot her,” he says, looking at my dad and not me. A whole new kind of staring game is happening, and I will my dad to look at me, but his eyes are fixed on Asher.
I’m not sure if I’m laughing or choking, but there’s a strangled noise sliding out of me, making everyone look my way. As if my dad is going to put my safety in Asher’s hands?
“Are you sure?” My dad’s voice is hopeful, and it makes my stomach sink.
Sweet baby Jesus, no.
“It’s no problem.” Asher stabs a piece of chicken with his fork, and meets my eye. “I can’t sleep past six-thirty anyway.” A side-effect of the early morning swims Asher probably does all year. I suspect the only person I know who trains harder than me is Asher. He makes the guys on my team look flubby and soft. One more reason I need to stay on track this summer—college will be a whole different level of competition, and half of the team will be girl-versions of Asher.
Game on. “I leave at six.” I don’t break eye contact as I smile, and hope Dad doesn’t call me on the lie I’m hoping will deter Asher. Even he’s not going to give up thirty minutes of sleep just to torment me.
Asher gives me his own smile, and I wonder if anyone else realizes it’s more killer than kind. “Not a problem,” he says cooly.
Dad claps his hands together. “That’s settled.” He lets out a relieved breath and shakes his head, like he just woke himself from some sort of nightmare.
“I didn’t realize it was so horrible,” I say, my voice soft but biting.
Dad gives me a sympathetic glance. “It’s not, Chipmunk—”
God, that nickname. I shoot Asher a warning look, and his face is pinched tight, his shoulders lightly shaking.
“It’s just”—he lets out a sigh—“it’s so early. And…boring.” His face mirrors the shock in my own; like he can’t believe he said it. I can’t believe he said it out loud. My dad—the guy who prides himself on having showed up to every one of my Mom’s meets in college—admits that watching his daughter train for an hour bores him?
I take a drink of my water, setting my glass down softly. “But we always do the morning swims together.”
“I know, but this is Ash’s thing, too…maybe he can even give you some tips while he’s at it.”
I snort. Asher as spotter, making sure I’m not hit by a rogue fishing boat? Okay, fine. But my pseudo-coach? No. Hard pass. I give Dad a little smile that I hope says, Sure, I’ll think about it.
Across the table, Asher is smiling at me. I fight the urge to scowl and stab a piece of broccoli instead.
“I’ll meet you at the boat at six,” he says, lifting a cob of sweet corn to his mouth and taking a slow, deliberate bite.
“Six fifteen,” I correct. “I like to shower and wake up first.” I’d like to leave at six-thirty like usual, but now my lie is out there, and it’s going to cost me fifteen minutes of precious sleep.
Asher bites his bright yellow corn cob in a slow, straight line, holding my eyes. There’s a smile hidden there, and I try to school my face and the scowl I can feel brewing. He takes the last bite at the end and mouths ‘ding.’
I almost lose it. My mother, and her stupid stories. A few years ago my mother just had to tell everyone the “cute story” about how I used to eat my corn on the cob like the old fashioned electric typewriter my grandma had when I was little. I’d eat it in a straight line, say ding! when I reached the end, then start in on the next row. Chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp, ding! Chomp chomp chomp ding! Only Asher would remember that stupid story a million years later. Does he take notes somewhere? Record all of these stupid family conversations on his phone?
“Six fifteen.” He smiles behind the cob. “Should be fun.”
Fun. I think he and I have different definitions of the word.
“Definitely. Don’t forget your suit, you can take the leg back,” I say. “I’d be happy to give you some pointers as well.”
Asher smiles and our parents chat across the table about winery trips and new restaurants to check out, as if we’ve become invisible again. “Looking forward to it.”