The Summer I Turned Pretty Page 3

"Lovely? Yeah, right," said Steven. "She's a lovely pain in my ass."

"Steven," my mother warned.

"What? What'd I say?" he asked.

"Steven's too much of a pig to understand the concept of lovely," I said sweetly. I pushed the bread to him. "Oink, oink, Steven. Have some more bread."

"Don't mind if I do," he said, breaking off a crusty chunk.

"Belly, tell us about all the hot friends you're gonna set me up with," Jeremiah said.

"Didn't we already try that once?" I said. "Don't tell me you've forgotten about Taylor Jewel already."

Everyone busted up laughing then, even Conrad.

Jeremiah's cheeks turned pink, but he was laughing too, and shaking his head. "You're not a nice girl, Belly," he said. "There's plenty of cute girls at the country club, so don't worry about me. Worry about Con. He's the one missing out."

The original plan was for both Jeremiah and Conrad to work at the country club as lifeguards. Conrad had done it the summer before. This summer Jeremiah was old enough to do it with him, but Conrad changed his mind at the last minute and decided to bus tables at the fancy seafood buffet instead.

We used to go there all the time. Kids twelve and younger could eat there for twenty dollars. There was a time when I was the only one twelve or younger. My mother always made sure to tell the waiter that I was younger than twelve. As, like, principle. Every time she did it, I felt like disappearing. I wished I was invisible. It wasn't that the boys even made a big deal out of it, which they easily could have, but it was the feeling different, like an outsider, that I hated. I hated it being pointed out. I just wanted to be like them.

Chapter six

AGE 10

Right off the bat, the boys were a unit. Conrad was the leader. His word was pretty much law. Steven was his second in command, and Jeremiah was the jester. That first night, Conrad decided that the boys were going to sleep on the beach in sleeping bags and make a fire. He was a Boy Scout; he knew all about that kind of stuff.

Jealously, I watched them plan. Especially when they packed the graham crackers and marshmallows. Don't take the whole box, I wanted to tell them. I didn't, though--it wasn't my place. It wasn't even my house.

"Steven, make sure you bring the flashlight," Conrad directed. Steven nodded quickly. I had never seen him follow orders before. He looked up to Conrad, who was eight months older; it had always been that way.

Everybody had somebody but me. I wished I was at home, making butterscotch sundaes with my dad and eating them on our living room floor.

"Jeremiah, don't forget the cards," Conrad added, rolling up a sleeping bag.

Jeremiah saluted him and danced a little jig, which made me giggle. "Sir, yes, sir." He turned to me on the couch and said, "Conrad is bossy like our dad. Don't feel like you have to listen to him or anything."

Jeremiah talking to me made me feel brave enough to say, "Can I come too?"

Right away Steven said, "No. Guys only. Right, Con?"

Conrad hesitated. "Sorry, Belly," he said, and he really did look sorry for a second. Two seconds, even. Then he went back to rolling his sleeping bag.

I turned away from them and faced the TV. "That's okay. I don't really care anyway."

"Ooh, watch out, Belly's gonna cry," Steven said joyously. To Jeremiah and Conrad he said, "When she doesn't get her way, she cries. Our dad always falls for it."

"Shut up, Steven!" I yelled. I was worried I really might cry. The last thing I needed was to be a crybaby our first night. Then they'd never take me along for real.

"Belly's gonna cry," Steven said in a singsong voice. Then he and Jeremiah started to dance a jig together.

"Leave her alone," Conrad said.

Steven stopped dancing. "What?" he said, confused.

"You guys are so immature," Conrad said, shaking his head.

I watched them pick up their gear and get ready to leave. I was about to lose my chance to camp, to be a part of the gang. Quickly I said, "Steven, if you don't let me go, I'll tell Mom."

Steven's face twisted. "No, you won't. Mom hates it when you tattletale."

It was true, my mother hated it when I told on Steven for things like this. She'd say he needed his own time, that I could go the next time around, that it would be more fun at the house with her and Beck anyway. I sank into the couch, arms crossed. I'd lost my chance. Now I just looked like a tattletale, a baby.

On the way out Jeremiah turned around and danced a quick jig for me, and I couldn't help it, I laughed. Over his shoulder Conrad said, "Good night, Belly."

And that was it. I was in love.

Chapter seven

I didn't notice right away that their family had more money than ours. The beach house wasn't some fancy kind of place. It was a real honest-to-God beach house, the kind that's lived in and comfortable. It had faded old seersucker couches and a creaking La-Z-Boy us kids always fought over, and peeling white paint and hardwood floors that had been bleached by the sun.

But it was a big house, room enough for all of us and more. They'd built an addition years ago. On one end there was my mother's room, Susannah and Mr. Fisher's room, and an empty guest room. On the other end was my room, another guest room, and the room the boys shared, which I was jealous of. There used to be bunk beds and a twin in that room, and I hated that I had to sleep all alone in mine when I could hear them giggling

and whispering all night through the wall. A couple of times the boys let me sleep in there too, but only when they had some especially gruesome story they wanted to tell. I was a good audience. I always screamed at all the right places.

Since we've gotten older, the boys have stopped sharing a room. Steven started staying over on the parents' end, and Jeremiah and Conrad both had their rooms on my end. The boys and I have shared a bathroom since the beginning. Ours is on our end of the house, and then my mother has her own, and Susannah's is connected to the master bedroom. There are two sinks-- Jeremiah and Conrad shared one, and Steven and I shared the other.

When we were little, the boys never put the seat down, and they still didn't. It was a constant reminder that I was different, that I wasn't one of them. Little things have changed, though. It used to be that they left water all over the place, either from splash fights or from just being careless. Now that they shaved, they left their little chin hairs all over the sink. The counter was crowded with their different deodorants and shaving cream and cologne.

They had more cologne than I had perfume--one pink French bottle my dad bought me for Christmas when I was thirteen. It smelled like vanilla and burnt sugar and lemon. I think his grad student girlfriend picked it out. He wasn't good at that sort of thing. Anyway, I didn't leave my perfume in the bathroom mixed in with all their stuff. I kept it on the dresser in my room, and I never wore it anyway. I didn't know why I even brought it with me.

Chapter eight

After dinner I stayed downstairs on the couch and so did Conrad. He sat there across from me, strumming chords on his guitar with his head bent.

"So I heard you have a girlfriend," I said. "I heard it's pretty serious."

"My brother has a big mouth." About a month before we'd left for Cousins, Jeremiah had called Steven. They were on the phone for a while, and I hid outside Steven's bedroom door listening. Steven didn't say a whole lot on his end, but it seemed like a serious conversation. I burst into his room and asked him what they were talking about, and Steven accused me of being a nosy little spy, and then he finally told me that Conrad had a girlfriend.

"So what's she like?" I didn't look at him when I said this. I was afraid he'd be able to see how much I cared.

Conrad cleared his throat. "We broke up," he said.

I almost gasped. My heart did a little ping. "Your mom is right, you are a heartbreaker." I meant it to come out as a joke, but the words rang in my head and in the air like some kind of declaration.

He flinched. "She dumped me," he said flatly.

I couldn't imagine anyone breaking up with Conrad. I wondered what she was like. Suddenly she was this compelling, actual person in my mind. "What was her name?"

"What does it matter?" he said, his voice rough. Then, "Aubrey. Her name is Aubrey."

"Why did she break up with you?" I couldn't help myself. I was too curious. Who was this girl? I pictured someone with pale white blond hair and turquoise eyes, someone with perfect cuticles and oval-shaped nails. I'd always had to keep mine short for piano, and then after I quit, I still kept them short, because I was used to them that way.

Conrad put down the guitar and stared off into space moodily. "She said I changed." "And did you?"

"I don't know. Everybody changes. You did." "How did I change?"

He shrugged and picked up his guitar again. "Like I said, everybody changes."

Conrad started playing the guitar in middle school. I hated it when he played the guitar. He'd sit there, strumming, halfway paying attention, only halfway present. He'd hum to himself, and he was someplace else. We'd be watching TV, or playing cards, and he'd be strumming the guitar. Or he'd be in his room, practicing. For what, I didn't know. All I knew was that it took time away from us.

"Listen to this," he'd said once, stretching out his headphones so I had one and he had the other. Our heads touched. "Isn't it amazing?"

"It" was Pearl Jam. Conrad was as happy and enthralled as if he had discovered them himself. I'd never heard of them, but at that moment, it was the best song I'd ever heard. I went out and bought Ten and listened to it on repeat. When I listened to track five, "Black," it was like I was there, in that moment all over again.

After the summer was over, when I got back home, I went to the music store and bought the sheet music and learned to play it on the piano. I thought one day I could accompany Conrad and we could be, like, a band. Which was so stupid, the summer house didn't even have a piano. Susannah tried to get one for the summer house, so I could practice, but my mother wouldn't let her.

Chapter nine

At night when I couldn't sleep, I'd sneak downstairs and go for a swim in the pool. I'd start doing laps, and I'd keep going until I felt tired. When I went to bed, my muscles felt nice and sore but also shivery and relaxed. I loved bundling myself up after a swim in one of Susannah's cornflower blue bath sheets--I'd never even heard of bath sheets before Susannah. And then, tiptoeing back upstairs, falling asleep with my hair still wet. You sleep so well after you've been in the water. It's like no other feeling.

Two summers ago Susannah found me down there, and some nights she'd swim with me. I'd be underwater, doing my laps, and I'd feel her dive in and start to swim on the other side of the pool. We wouldn't talk; we'd just swim, but it was comforting to have her there. It was the only time that summer that I ever saw her without her wig.

Back then, because of the chemo, Susannah wore her wig all the time. No one saw her without it, not even my mother. Susannah had had the prettiest hair. Long, caramel-colored, soft as cotton candy. Her wig didn't even compare, and it was real human hair and everything, the best money could buy. After the chemo, after her hair grew back, she kept it short, cut right below her chin. It was pretty, but it wasn't the same. Looking at her now, you'd never know who she used to be, with her hair long like a teenager, like mine.

That first night of the summer, I couldn't sleep. It always took me a night or two to get used to my bed again, even though I'd slept in it pretty much every summer of my life. I tossed and turned for a while, and then I couldn't stand it anymore. I put on my bathing suit, my old swim team one that barely fit anymore, with the gold stripes and the racerback. It was my first night swim of the summer.

When I swam alone at night, everything felt so much clearer. Listening to myself breathe in and out, it made me feel calm and steady and strong. Like I could swim forever.

I swam back and forth a few times, and on the fourth lap, I started to flip turn, but I kicked something solid. I came up for air and saw it was Conrad's leg. He was sitting on the edge of the pool with his feet dangling in.

He'd been watching me that whole time. And he was smoking a cigarette.

I stayed underwater up to my chin--I was suddenly aware of how my bathing suit was too small for me now. There was no way I was getting out of the water with him still there.

"Since when did you start smoking?" I asked accusingly. "And what are you doing down here anyway?"

"Which do you want me to answer first?" He had that amused, condescending Conrad look on his face, the one that drove me crazy.

I swam over to the wall and rested my arms on the edge. "The second."

"I couldn't sleep so I went for a walk," he said, shrugging. He was lying. He'd only come outside to smoke.

"How did you know I was out here?" I demanded.

"You always swim out here at night, Belly. Come on." He took a drag of his cigarette.

He knew I swam at night? I'd thought it was my special secret, mine and Susannah's. I wondered how long he had known. I wondered if everyone knew. I didn't even know why it mattered, but it did. To me, it did. "Okay, fine. Then when did you start smoking?"

"I don't know. Last year, maybe." He was being vague on purpose. It was maddening.

"Well, you shouldn't. You should quit right now. Are you addicted?"

He laughed. "No."

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