Summer Island Page 36

Caroline's laughter was sharp. “Actually, that's exactly what it's like.”

“She's not who we thought, Caro,” she said softly, realizing that she'd said the words before, but without truly knowing their power. “She's the ... gatekeeper of our memories. Who we are. You should come.”

Caroline paused, drew in a breath. “I'm afraid.”

Ruby understood. She wouldn't have a week ago, but now she did. “You won't break.” She halted, thinking.

It was important that she phrase it well, that she pass on something of what she'd learned about this family of theirs. “You think you have to hold it all in, and if you let any of it go, you'll shatter into tiny pieces and you won't know who you are. But it doesn't work that way. It's more like ... opening your eyes in a room you'd expected to be dark. You can see things, and it makes you feel stronger.” She laughed. “God, I sound like Obi-Wan on heroin.”

“Jeez, Rube,” Caroline said, sniffling a little. “My baby sister has finally grown up.”

“And only a moment before menopause. But then, I've always been gifted. Top of my class, don't forget.”

“There were ten people in your class.”

“And three of them flunked out. Come on, Caro, come up and visit us. Run on the beach with me like we used to ... slam tequila and dance with me. Let's see-finally-who we are.”

“RUBY! Can you hear me?”

It was Mom's voice again. This time she was yelling at the top of her lungs.

Ruby accepted defeat. “I gotta go. I love you, big sis.”

“You sound like the big sister now,” Caroline answered, "and I'm proud of you, Rube. And jealous.

God ... Bye."

Ruby hung up, then hurried downstairs. “Good God, is there a fire in the-”

She skidded to a stop in the kitchen.

Dean was standing there, holding a bouquet of Shasta daisies wrapped in tinfoil.

“Oh,” Ruby said, feeling heat climb into her face.

Mom stood beside the table, grinning. “You have a visitor,” she said in a perfect sorority-housemother voice.

Ruby took stock of herself: She hadn't brushed her teeth yet and she was still in her pajamas-an old Mega death T-shirt and fuzzy pink knee socks. If she were lucky-and she couldn't be-the oak floorboards would simply open up and swallow her.

Dean stepped forward and handed her the flowers. “Do you still like daisies?”

She nodded.

He closed the gap between them. “We need to talk.” His voice dropped; its quiet timbre matched the soft pleading in his eyes. “Please.”

The way he said it made her shiver. “Okay.”

They stood there, staring at each other. Finally, Mom thumped toward them and gently tugged the flowers out of Ruby's hand.

“I'll put them in water,” she said.

Ruby turned to her. It felt as if she'd just stumbled into a weird Bradys-gone-wild episode. Then she realized that moms were supposed to say things like that.

“Thanks, Mom.” Ruby turned to Dean. “So, where are we going?”

He grinned. “Just wear a bathing suit under your clothes. Oh ... and tennis shoes. I'll meet you outside.” He gave her another quick smile, then kissed her mother on the cheek and headed outside.

Ruby could hear his footsteps crunching through the gravel behind the house. She looked at her mother.

“Did you organize this?”

“Of course not.”

“This is not a good idea.”

“Ruby Elizabeth Bridge, you don't have the sense God gave a banana slug. Now get upstairs and get dressed. If you're too damned scared to go out with your first love, then try remembering that he used to be your best friend, too.”

She couldn't think of anything brilliant to say, so she left the room. Upstairs, she stood in front of her opened suitcase, staring down at the clothing she'd brought.

A bathing suit. Yeah, right.

Had she noticed when she packed that everything was black? Or did she always dress this way? Every T-shirt said something--MEGADEATH, UCLA BRUINS, PLANET HOLLYWOOD. Her personal favorite was a white T-shirt with a cartoon drawing of a plumber bent over a broken toilet. His low-slung pants revealed a huge part of his ass. The punch line was: Say no to crack.

Hardly the right choice for a visit with your first love ...

Finally, at the very bottom of the suitcase, she found a plain, peach-colored tank top and a pair of frayed cutoffs.

She didn't bother with socks, just brushed her teeth, slicked her hair back (thank God Mom had cut it), grabbed her sunglasses, and raced back downstairs.

Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table, doing a crossword puzzle and sipping tea as if this were an ordinary morning. “Have a nice time,” she said, not looking up.

“Bye.” Ruby went outside. The first thing she noticed was the sweet scent of the roses and the salty tang of the sea. Baking kelp and hot rocks gave the air a faintly scorched, metallic smell.

She headed down the porch and skipped around to the side of the house.

There stood Dean, just outside the picket fence, with a bicycle on either side of him.

She stopped. “You've obviously confused me with a woman who likes to sweat.”

He handed her a bike helmet. It was pink and had a Barbie decal on the forehead. She crossed her arms. “That is definitely not gonna happen.”

He smiled. “Too old to ride a bike, Rube? Or too out of shape?”

Damn him. He knew she couldn't refuse a challenge. She grabbed the handlebars and yanked the bike around. “I haven't ridden a bike since. . .” She stumbled over the memories. “In a long time.”

His smile faded. He was remembering it, too, the day she'd asked him out for a bike ride ... and broken his heart.

She stared at him for a minute more, trying to read his mind. It was closed to her. “Okay,” she said at last. “Lead on.”

He jumped on his bike and pedaled on ahead of her. She wanted to watch him, maybe ride alongside, but frankly, she was terrified that she was going to do a face-plant on the gravel driveway and end up as a medical episode on the Discovery channel.

He turned at the end of the driveway and headed uphill.

Ruby tried to keep up. By the top of the street, her pores had turned into geysers. Her vision was blurred by sweat; she could have been pedaling underwater for all she could see.

And it was hot.

Really, really hot.

She would have complained was, in fact, dying to complain-but there wasn't enough breath in her lungs to form the word stop, let alone, you asshole.

Just when she felt her heart start to stutter; they turned a corner.

Levinger Hill.

They were flying now, racing side by side down the long, two-lane road. Golden pastures studded with apple trees rushed past them.

Dean leaned back, held his arms out ...

And Ruby sailed into the past. They were fourteen again, that summer they learned to ride without using their hands, when every scraped knee was a badge of courage ... when they'd whooshed down this very hill, arms outflung, together, the radio strapped to the handlebars blaring out Starship's “Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now.”

The hill slowed down into a long, even S curve, then wound into the entrance of Trout Lake State Park.

Ruby should have known he'd bring her here. “No fair, Dino,” she said softly, wondering if he even heard her.

He heard. “What's that they say about love and war?”

“Which one is this?”

“That's up to you. Come on, race you to the park.” Without waiting for an answer, he pedaled away from her, down the long, winding, tree-lined street.

It was dark on this road, even on this hot summer morning. Shadows fell across the thin layer of pavement in serrated strips. The air was cold.

She sped up to Dean, then pulled ahead. She heard him laughing quietly behind her, and she knew they were both thinking of the girl she'd been-the one who couldn't stand to lose at anything, even a pop corn dare like “race you to the park.”

The road curled around a huge Douglas fir tree and spilled out into the sunshine. Ruby jumped off her bike and set it against the wooden bike rack. There was no need to lock it.

She heard Dean's bike land against the rack with a clatter, but she was already walking toward the lake. She had forgotten how beautiful it was here. The heart-shaped sapphire-blue lake was surrounded by lush green trees and rimmed in granite. A ribbon of water cascaded over the “giant's lip”-a flat, jutting rock at the top of the cliffs-and splashed onto the placid surface of the lake.

There were children everywhere, locals and tourists, playing on the grass, shrieking, swimming along the shore.

Dean came up beside her. “Are you up for a climb?”

She laughed. “I'm an adult now. Waterfall Trail is for mountain goats and kids who are desperate to smoke pot or get laid.”

“I can make it,” he said, letting the challenge in his words hang there.

She sighed. “Lead on.”

Side by side, not talking, they walked around to the western side of the lake, wound through the horde of picnickers, Frisbee-catching dogs, and screaming children. When they reached the heavy fringe of trees, they left the people behind. Gradually, the sound of human voices faded away. The gurgling, splashing sound of falling water grew louder and louder.

Once again, Ruby was sweating.

The trail was rocky and narrow. It corkscrewed straight up through the trees, salal, and blackberries (which scratched her exposed arms and legs, thank you very much).

Finally, they reached the top. The giant's lip.

It was a slab of gray granite as big as a swimming pool and as flat as a quarter. A thick green moss furred the stone; dainty yellow wildflowers grew impossibly from the moss. A stream of water no wider than the length of a man's arm flowed across the rock in a groove worn long ago, then spilled over the edge and fell twenty feet to the lake below.

Ruby stepped into the clearing and saw the picnic basket. It was sitting on a familiar red-and-black plaid blanket.

Dean touched her shoulder. “Come on.” He led her to the blanket, which he'd carefully spread out on a spot where the moss was several inches thick.

They sat down. He reached into the basket, pulled out a thermos, and poured two glasses of lemonade.

Ruby drank hers greedily. When she was finished, she set the glass aside and leaned back on her elbows. The hot sun beat down on her cheeks. “We used to come up here all the time.”

“This is where you first told me you were going to be a comedian.”

“Really?” She smiled. “I don't remember that.”

“You said you wanted to be famous.”

“I still do. And you wanted to be a prize-winning photographer.” She didn't look at him. It was better to stay separate and talk about the past, as if they were just two old high-school friends who'd bumped into each other. “That's a long way from junior executive.”

“Yeah . . . but I still wish for it. If I could, I'd throw everything away and start over. Money sure as hell doesn't make you happy.”

It bothered her to think of him as unhappy. “Spoken like a man whose family business is on the Fortune Five Hundred.”

He laughed softly. “Yeah, I guess.”

A quiet settled in between them, and she was vaguely afraid of what he would say, so she said, “I saw Eric yesterday.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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