She picked up some pebbles and listlessly chucked them at the water one by one, watching the ripples from one spread until they ran into the circles caused by the next stone. Suddenly that seemed very meaningful to her. She thought of how peoples’ lives were like neat concentric circles until they crashed into the sphere of someone else’s life. She wondered if anyone else in the history of the world had ever had such a deep thought. Then she figured they probably had. It was a big world with a long history and she wasn’t that clever or original.
The sound of footsteps and a body pushing through the brush brought her out of her dreamy trance and straight to her feet. She whirled to face whoever was invading her privacy.
Drake whatever-his-last-name-was emerged from the leafy branches looking like some kind of woodland creature, a faun without the goat legs. He was rangy and lean and half naked, wearing only a pair of shorts which covered him from low on his hips to his scarred kneecaps. He was sweating and ran a hand over his forehead, pushing strands of black hair out of his face. His eyes scanned the area before focusing on Jen. For a moment they widened as if he was surprised to see her and hadn’t followed her like some creepy stalker. That momentary unguarded look made her relax just a little.
“Hey.” His voice was the croak of a late summer bullfrog.
“Hey,” Jen replied then fell silent, at a loss for anything else to say.
“I thought you left. I mean, went home or something.”
Jen glanced down at her daisy-sprinkled blue bathing suit top and the striped towel wrapped around her waist. Did it look as if she’d been heading home in this outfit? “No. Antia’s mom’s going to pick us up later.”
The boy nodded and that hank of chin-length bangs fell over his forehead again. He walked toward the edge of the water, mud squelching up between his toes. He had really big feet…and hands too. His lanky body seemed unfinished, reminding Jen of her dog Bruno before he grew into his paws. At the thought, her nervousness calmed. Drake might hang out with thugs but he didn’t seem too dangerous.
He hunkered down on the bank not far from where Jen stood and stared into the water. “It’s pretty dried up.”
“Yeah. No minnows in there.”
He scooped up a stone and sent it kerplunking into the still water. The ripples spread.
Jen watched them until they disappeared then cleared her throat. “Guess I’ll be going back.”
He looked at her and when the sunlight struck his eyes she could see they weren’t really black but a deep, rich brown. “Back there? Doesn’t seem like your scene.”
She shrugged. “They’re my friends.” Then what he’d said hit her. “Besides, you don’t know me at all. We’ve never talked.”
His gaze returned to the water and he chucked another stone. “But I know who you are. One of those straight A girls.”
“No I’m not.” She’d had some B’s too. “And what does that mean anyway? That I can’t be friends with Tara and those guys?”
“You don’t seem like them is all. Not so…”
“What? Big boobed?” she burst out and almost clapped her hand to her mouth in astonishment. The description came out of nowhere but it described in a physical way exactly what she felt about her friends—they were growing up and she was being left behind.
Drake laughed and warm fingers tickled her spine. “I was gonna say ‘empty-headed’ but…”
“Oh.” She considered the unexpected compliment coming from its very unexpected source. “What about you? Do you fit in with your friends, Crawford and those guys?”
He rose to his feet, unfolding like a long ladder. “They’re okay.”
“Rumor says Crawford’s been in juvie for assault and all of those guys deal drugs.”
“So do I.” He shot her an inscrutable look. Was he checking to see if she was shocked or letting her know it was time to drop a touchy subject?
Either way Jen felt like she’d pressed too far. This was so not like her, talking so openly with a guy, let alone a thug like Drake Whoever. “What’s your last name?” she asked. “Are you a Tapper too?”
“Malinson. And you’re Jen Something.”
She stood there a few yards away from the skinny, dark-eyed boy and folded her arms over her chest, discomfort making her body itch like a case of poison ivy. Her eyes were level with his chest and she couldn’t help but stare at the dusky discs of his nipples. A fine mist of hair was beginning to grow and the bands of muscle in his chest weren’t yet developed like a man’s but they had a definite hard curve. Something fluttered in the pit of her belly and Jen dropped her gaze to the safer depths of the stream.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Thirteen.” She knew nearly everyone else in her class was a year older, fourteen as they headed into high school. She cursed her mom’s bright idea of starting her in school early because she was so “gifted.”
Drake didn’t respond and the silence spun out into awkwardness. Frogs croaked along the edge of the stream. Birds chattered in the trees. And Jen felt ready to fly away, back to the beach and her bunker in the sand amidst her friends.
“Want to see something?” His voice made her jump.
“Huh?” Her gaze returned to his face. In that moment, she could only think of one thing a boy might want to show her in the solitude of the woods and she didn’t want to see that.
“Come on, this way.” He didn’t reach out to grasp her hand or even look to see if she followed. He merely turned and strode off along the edge of the stream.
Jen hesitated. She’d be a fool to go with this stranger, an admitted druggie, into the woods. She’d end up on the news, a half decomposed body found by a hiker. She’d heard enough of those stories. She was no idiot. And yet she followed the blue-black shock of hair and the long, tan back rising over the waist-high tangle of weeds.
Drake followed the winding path of the stream away from the lake. The water widened and the woods on either side opened up into a marshy area. Despite the recent drought, they had to hop over water from tuft to tuft of solid ground.
Just as Jen was about to ask where he was taking her, Drake said “Almost there” and a few moments later he suddenly stopped so abruptly she almost plowed into him. He grabbed hold of her arm, steadying her on the little plot of land surrounded by mucky water.
He pointed. “There. See them?”
Jen strained to look at what he was pointing at. She saw a flash of white moving on the other side of a screen of long grass and last year’s dried cattails.
Drake pulled on her wrist. “Come on. We can move closer if we’re quiet.”
His long legs leapt easily to the next bit of solid ground. Jen’s foot splashed into the water’s edge and the mud nearly sucked off her flip-flop, but Drake pulled her up beside him with one strong arm. Now their view between the stalks was clear. A high-piled nest rose from the water and a swan’s back was barely visible above it. Below, in the open water, its mate was gliding along occasionally dunking its head and pulling up food from underwater. What did swans eat? Fish? Plants? Jen had no idea.
Drake squeezed her wrist. “There. See them?”
Bobbing above the nest of woven stalks was a fluffy gray thing, a little swan’s head. Jen caught her breath as several more tufts popped up. “Cygnets!”
“Yeah. I haven’t seen ‘em out of the nest yet but the parents should be teaching them to swim soon.”
Jen darted a glance at her unlikely companion. She would never have guessed in a million years that any of Crawford’s gang was into nature or baby animals. Drake’s eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun and his focus was totally on the birds. She might as well have been invisible, except he’d brought her here, shared this secret place with her, a stranger. He’d guessed that Jen might like to see the swans and he’d bothered to show them to her.
Just then one of the cygnets climbed up on the edge of the nest and tumbled over, falling awkwardly down to the bottom of the pile of stalks. It caught itself at the water’s edge and let out a plaintive peeping. Jen hadn’t known they sounded like chicks. Immediately the swimming swan rushed over to its offspring, honking in alarm.
“I thought swans were silent,” Jen said.
“Mostly they are but they can honk and hiss like geese and sometimes make a whistling sound too.” His voice was low and gruff, somehow angry-sounding even though he wasn’t mad.
“You come here and watch them a lot?”
“Sometimes.” He shrugged his nonchalance, but Jen thought he cared more about the birds than he let on. It occurred to her he’d wanted someone to share them with and she’d happened to be in the right place at the right time. More importantly, she was someone he thought he could trust—a lot to assume after a two-minute meeting.
“Thanks for showing them to me,” she said. “The babies are so cute and the grown-up swans are beautiful.”
Other cygnets were following the lead of the brave one that had dared to make a break from the nest. The mother rose up on top of the nest, spread her wings and flapped them a few times. Maybe she was giving a warning or a blessing to her young as they slid down to the water for their first swimming lesson. Within seconds the baby birds were paddling around in the water.
“They don’t look anything like their parents. They really are ugly ducklings,” Jen said.
Drake didn’t answer. Maybe he had no idea of the fairytale reference Somehow she didn’t imagine he had the kind of parents who’d read him stories when he was little.
He dropped down to his haunches on the spot of solid ground, long legs folded up, arms draped over his knees. Jen crouched beside him and continued to watch the cygnets’ swimming lesson. She was hot under the baking sun, sweat making her scalp itch and trickling down her bare back.
“Wish I was swimming right now,” she said. “I thought we’d spend some time in the lake but all the girls want to do is sunbathe.”
“You could’ve gone in. You don’t have to do everything they do.”
“Yeah. I suppose.” Easy for you to say. I don’t see you swimming upstream against your friends either, she didn’t say. She looked at Drake’s sharp profile. “Why’d you decide to show me your swans?”
“You noticed the minnows weren’t in the stream so I guessed you like stuff like that. Figured you’d like to see the swans.” His gaze slid over to hers. Once again Jen felt powerless to look away.
She smiled at this long, lean boy who wasn’t like his loud-mouthed friends. “You were right.”
At last he released her gaze, turning back to the swans. Jen thought of the things she’d like to ask Drake about himself, the small talk people made with people they didn’t know very well. But she remained silent by his side, quietly watching the swans while insects buzzed around them and the sun etched itself into her skin. A weird sense of timelessness sank over her, filling her with the sensation that this was a significant moment in her life, a single afternoon she’d remember many years later when she was very old.
She didn’t know how many minutes passed before Drake rose with a crack of his bony knees. “Guess I’ll go back. You can stay here if you want.”
But of course she wasn’t going to remain behind without him. Jen stood and took one last look at the swans before following Drake on his zigzag path back through the marshy area. He hadn’t waited for her and didn’t look back to see if she made it all right. His rudeness irritated her and it didn’t help that she was hot, sweaty and very thirsty.
By the time they reached the path in the woods that led back to the main trail, Jen was breathless and annoyed.
“You could hold up a little,” she called after him.
Drake was a few paces ahead and he stopped and half turned toward her. He waited while she caught up.
“What’s your rush?” Jen demanded.
“If Crawford decides to leave and I’m not there, I’ll have to walk back to town. He won’t wait for me.”
“Wait a minute. He’s got a car? But he’s only in eighth grade like us.”
A small smile curved Drake’s mouth, the first one she’d seen. “He’s got his brother’s car.”
She shouldn’t have been shocked. These were boys who did what they wanted when they wanted and thought rules didn’t apply to them. Underage driving was probably the least of Crawford’s crimes. “Oh.”
“Anyway, you don’t want your girlfriends to wonder why we’re both out in the woods together. They’ll start talking.” His eyes glittered, with humor or something else Jen wasn’t sure.
“They won’t think we did anything. They know me. They’d know better.”
“Do they?” He was standing close, peering down into her face. She could smell his sweat and the scent of mud rising up from the ground beneath them. “Or do they make up gossip just to keep things interesting?”
Jen was suddenly very aware of how close they were standing. She felt the heat of his body radiating more warmth than the sun. And those eyes staring into hers were mesmerizing her once more, a snake to her frozen rabbit.
“I…” She couldn’t put together words, not when the blood was rushing through her veins and pounding in her head. She was hot and cold at the same time and a hungry feeling that had nothing to do with missing lunch gnawed at her stomach.
“Ever kissed anybody?” His husky voice made the hair on her arms prickle. “Want to?”
She forced a careless laugh, one Tara would be proud of. “Kiss who? You?”
Her breath stopped and her laughter cut short. “Why w-would I?”
Jen’s stutter embarrassed her and she squeezed her lips tight shut, but they were tingling at his suggestion. A kiss. She’d dreamed about what it would feel like. She’d practiced kissing her arm when she lay in bed at night. What would a real kiss be like, mouth covering mouth, lips moving together, maybe a bit of tongue darting like a minnow into her mouth? She couldn’t imagine…and she wanted to know.
“To see what it’s like,” Drake answered, almost as if he’d read her mind. “Nobody would know. I won’t tell my friends if you don’t tell yours.”
But boys always did. That’s what Antia had said. Boys bragged about what girls wanted to keep private and precious.
He was over a head taller than she. He leaned down a little, his gaze dropping from her eyes to her mouth and Jen’s lips tingled more strongly as if he were already touching them. Her tongue flicked out and licked them. She intended to tell him “no” but the words didn’t come.
And then Drake’s head bent further. His face filled her vision—too large and overwhelming so she closed her eyes. She felt a puff of warm breath on her mouth the moment before his lips touched hers. Soft. Warm. A little moist. Each sensation registered clinically in her mind but exploded in surprising ways upon her senses. She hadn’t counted on her whole body reacting to a kiss, nerves popping and zinging like fireworks.
All of a sudden, she found herself leaning toward him, reaching out a hand and touching his biceps, rising on the balls of her feet and pressing close. The pressure of his mouth on hers grew stronger. One of his hands rested on her waist, holding her steady. The curve of her breasts brushed his chest. She could feel his heat bathing her skin.
This was so much more than mouth touching mouth and the strength of the desire tumbling through her frightened her. It was too much, too fast. She wasn’t ready for this.