Let's Get Lost
Let's Get Lost
Back Cover Text
FIVE STRANGERS. COUNTLESS ADVENTURES. ONE EPIC WAY TO GET LOST.
Four teens across the country have only one thing in common: a girl named LEILA. She crashes into their lives in her absurdly red car at the moment they need someone the most.
There’s HUDSON, a small-town mechanic who is willing to throw away his dreams for true love. And BREE, a runaway who seizes every Tuesday—and a few stolen goods along the way. ELLIOT believes in happy endings…until his own life goes offscript. And SONIA worries that when she lost her boyfriend, she also lost the ability to love.
Hudson, Bree, Elliot and Sonia find a friend in Leila. And when Leila leaves them, their lives are forever changed. But it is during Leila’s own 4,268-mile journey that she discovers the most important truth—sometimes, what you need most is right where you started. And maybe the only way to find what you’re looking for is to get lost along the way.
‘Captivating, mysterious, fun, and deep … for readers of John Green.’
‘If you’re looking for the perfect summer read, this is it.’
— Hannah Harrington, author of
Speechless and Saving June
‘Five love stories, beautifully woven together by a special girl […] A do-not-miss.’
‘A captivating cross-country journey, where four strangers’ adventures collide into one riveting tale of finding yourself’
‘Mesmerising. A story of love, loss, ambition and finding the true meaning of life’
ADI ALSAID was born and raised in Mexico City. He attended college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After graduating, he packed up his car and escaped to the California coastline to become a writer. He’s now back in his home town where he writes, coaches high-school and elementary basketball and makes every dish he eats as spicy as possible. In addition to Mexico, he’s lived in Tel Aviv, Las Vegas and Monterey, California. Visit Adi online at , or follow him on Twitter: @AdiAlsaid.
HUDSON COULD HEAR the car’s engine from blocks away. He stepped outside the garage and closed his eyes, listening, picking apart the sounds so that he would know exactly what he’d have to fix before he even popped the hood.
Standing there against the garage, listening to the still-far-off car, Hudson could forget about everything else. About school and girls and his future and whether his friends were actually jackasses or just acting like them. With his eyes closed, Hudson could reduce the world to a single engine and nothing more; a world where he could not only name every little part but knew what it was for, how it worked, how to fix it.
He opened his eyes when he heard the car’s brakes chirp as it slowed to turn into the garage. It was an old Plymouth Acclaim, the kind of car you either happily sent off to die or loved with your entire heart and refused to let go of. It had seen better days, its red paint job chipped and faded, its muffler not doing much muffling. He waved the driver forward to where he was standing. He was still identifying
the car’s problems when the girl killed the engine and climbed out.
He only allowed himself a quick glance at her, knowing as soon as he saw her that she was the kind of girl who could make you think your life was not complete unless she was in it. She was a jumble of contradictions: short but with long legs, fierce green eyes but a kind expression, baby-faced but wise. She was wearing a snug, plain red T-shirt that matched her car. Her hair was down, the black locks reaching just past her chin.
“Afternoon,” she said, offering a polite smile.
He replied in kind, trying to adopt the professional tone he used with most customers. He asked her to pop the hood and then walked to the front of the car to release the latch. He meant to bury himself in work right away, but against instinct he stole another glance. How long would the memory of her face haunt him? Days? Weeks? “You having trouble with anything specific?”
“Well, not really,” she said, slipping her hands into the back pockets of her shorts, which made her posture change in a way Hudson couldn’t help but notice. The quiet world outside the garage noticed the change in her posture, the damp Mississippi air noticed, even the various grease stains spread out on the garage floor noticed. “I just got started on a road trip, and it’s making a lot of noise, so I wanted to be sure it’s in shape.”
Hudson grabbed a clean rag off a nearby shelf and checked the oil and the transmission fluid. He liked working in relative silence, nothing but the subtle sound of the cooling engine, his hands and tools on the machine. Something about this girl, though, made him chatty. “Where you goin’?”
“North,” she said. “All the way north.”
“You from around here?” He suddenly felt self-conscious about his drawl, the hitch in his vowels, the overall lackluster quality of his presence.
He chuckled as he ran his hands around the engine, checking for cracks in belts. “Born and raised.” He nodded to himself as he made a mental checklist of what he’d need to fix. “Mind if I ask where you’re from, then?”
“I don’t,” she said. He thought he heard her smile, but when he looked up, she was ambling around the garage, curiously examining the shelves and their bric-a-brac. “I was born in Texas. A little town not unlike this one.”
“So, if you’re from Texas, and you’re going north, what brings you to Vicksburg? Not exactly on your way.”
“I needed my car fixed, and I heard you were the best around,” she said. He looked up again, and she grinned. Weeks, he thought to himself. I’ll be thinking about that face for weeks. She walked around the car and joined him in front of the hood. “So, what do you think? Will she make the trip?”
“When I’m through with her, yeah. I’ll flush out all the fluids, make sure your spark plugs are in shape. This belt might need replacing, but I think we’ve got the parts. I’ll check your brakes, too, ’cause they didn’t sound great on the way in. But nothing to worry about.”
For a moment, Hudson forgot about the girl, thinking instead about getting his hands dirty, splotched by grease that he’d smear across his work pants, adding another battle scar to proudly display.
“You like this, don’t you?”
Hudson glanced up to find her standing so close that he could smell her scent fighting through the oil fumes in the garage. “Like what?”
“My face,” she said, then smacked him playfully on the arm. “This, silly. Fixing cars. I can tell.”
He shrugged, the kind of gesture one makes when there’s no choice but to love something. “If you want, you can come inside while I write up an estimate.”
“No need,” she said. “Do whatever needs to be done. I trust you.”
“Um, this could take a few hours,” he said. “We’ve got coffee and a TV inside. Some magazines, too. There’s also a pretty good burger joint down the road...” He trailed off, realizing that he didn’t want her to leave. Usually, no matter what distractions there were around, he could shut everything out and delve into his work. It was the same with studying at the library; friends could come by to tease him, cute girls from his class could take a seat and try to engage in conversation, but Hudson never let himself be swayed.
But there was something about this girl that made him want to hear her opinions on everything, hear about her day, tell her about his own.
“Or, you could stay here and keep me company,” Hudson said.
She stepped away from Hudson, but instead of leaving the garage, she grabbed a folding chair that was leaning against a wall and propped it open. “If you don’t mind,” she said.
Hudson breathed a sigh of relief. How quickly his luck had turned. He’d come home from school to a long, empty afternoon of worrying about tomorrow’s interview with the dean of admissions, with nothing but the occasional oil change to distract him. But now he had a full workload ahead of him and the company of a beautiful girl. He wiped his hands on the rag he’d grabbed earlier, and he got to work, racking his mind for something to say.
He could see her out of the corner of his eye, sitting quietly, moving just enough to look around the garage. Her gaze occasionally landed on Hudson, and his heart flitted in response. “Did you know that certain mechanic schools have operating rooms with viewing areas, like you’d have in med school? Just like surgeons in training, there’s only so much you can learn in a classroom. The only difference is that you don’t have to get sterilized.” Hudson peeked around the hood to catch her expression.
The girl turned to him, an eyebrow arched, containing a smile by biting her bottom lip.
“I hear some students even faint the first time they see a car getting worked on. They just can’t handle the gore,” he quipped.
“Well, sure. All that oil—who can blame them?” She smiled and shook her head at him. “Dork.”
He smiled back, then pulled her car up onto the lift so he could change the oil and the transmission fluid. What had driven him to make such a silly comment, he couldn’t say, nor could he explain why it had felt good when she called him a dork.
“Have you ever been to Mississippi before?” he asked, once the car was up.
“Can’t say that I have.”
“How long are you planning on staying?”
“I’m not sure, actually. I don’t really have an itinerary I’m sticking to. I might just be passing through.”
Hudson set up the funnel under the oil pan’s drain plug, listening for the familiar glug of the heavy liquid pouring down to the disposal bins beside the lift. He searched for something else to say, feeling an urge to confide. “Well, if you want my opinion, you shouldn’t leave until you’ve really seen the state. There’s a lot of treasures around.”
“Treasures? Of the buried variety?”
“Sure,” Hudson said. “Just, metaphorically buried.” He glanced at her, ready to catch her rolling her eyes or in some other way dismissing the comment. He’d never actually spoken the thought aloud to anyone, mostly because he expected people to think he was crazy to find Vicksburg special. This girl looked curious, though, waiting for him to go on.
“Not necessarily buried, just hidden behind everyday life. Behind all the fast-food chains and boredom. People who like Vicksburg usually just like what Vicksburg isn’t instead of all the things it is.” Hudson plugged the oil drain and started flushing out the old transmission fluid, hoping he wasn’t babbling.
“It’s not a big city, it’s not polluted, it’s not dangerous, it’s not unfamiliar.” God, he could feel himself starting to talk faster. “All of which are true, and good, sure. But it’s not what Vicksburg really is, you know? That’s the same thing as saying, ‘I like you because you’re not a murderer.’ That’s a very good quality for a person to have, but it doesn’t really tell you much about them.”
Well done, Hudson thought to himself. Keep on talking about murderers; that’s the perfect way to make a good impression. While the transmission fluid cleared out, he examined the tread on the tires, which seemed to be in decent shape, and tried to steer his little speech away from felonies.
“I’m sorry, I usually don’t go on like this. I guess you’re just easy to talk to,” Hudson said.
By some miracle, the girl was smiling at him. “Don’t be sorry. That was a solid rant.”
He grabbed a rag from his pocket and wiped his hands on it. “Thanks. Most people aren’t so interested in this stuff.”
“Well, lucky for you, I can appreciate a good rant.”
She gave him a smile and then turned to look out the garage, her eyes narrowed by the glare of the sun. Hudson wondered if he’d ever been so captivated by watching someone stare out into the distance. Even with the pretty girls he’d halfheartedly pursued, Kate and Suzanne and Ella, Hudson couldn’t remember being so unable to look away.
“So, what are some of these hidden treasures?” she asked.
He walked around the car as if he was checking on something. “Um,” he said, impressed that she was taking the conversation in stride. “I’m drawing a blank. But you know what I mean, don’t you? How sometimes you feel like you’re the only person in the world who is seeing something?”
The girl laughed, rich and warm. “I’ll tell you one: It’s quiet here,” she said. She wiped at the thin film of sweat that had gathered on her forehead, using the moisture to comb back a couple of loose strands of hair. He could hear his dad around the back, testing the engine on the semi that had come in a few hours earlier. Hudson returned his attention to the car, tomorrow’s interview being pushed to the back of his mind.
“It reminds me of where I grew up,” the girl said. Hudson heard her chair scrape on the floor as she scooted it back and walked in his direction. He expected her to stand next to him, but she settled in somewhere behind him, out of sight. “At the elementary school that I went to, there was this soccer field. It seems like nothing but an unkempt field of grass if you drive by it.” Hudson had to stop himself from turning around to watch her lips move as she spoke. “But every kid in Fredericksburg knows about the anthills. There’s two of them, one at each end of the field. One’s full of black ants and the other red. Every summer the soccer field gets overrun by this ant-on-ant war. I’m not sure if they’re territorial or they just happen to feed off each other, but it’s an incredible sight. All these little black and red things attacking each other, like watching thousands of checkers games being played from very far away. And it’s this little Fredericksburg treasure, just for us.”
Hudson caught himself smiling at the engine instead of replacing the spark plugs. “That’s great,” he said, the words feeling too flat. The girl hadn’t just let him ramble on; she’d known exactly what he meant. No one, not even Hudson’s dad, had ever understood him so perfectly.
There was a pause that Hudson didn’t know how to fill. He thought about asking her why the car was registered to an address in Louisiana instead of Texas, but it didn’t seem like the right time. He was thankful when the engine of the semi his dad had been working on started, and the truck began to maneuver its way out of the garage in a cacophonous series of back-up beeping and gear shifts.
When the truck had rumbled away down the street, Hudson turned around to look at the girl, but, feeling self-conscious under her gaze, he pretended to search for something on the shelves beside her. “When I’m done with your car, want to go on a treasure hunt?”
Hudson wasn’t sure where the question had come from, but he was glad he hadn’t paused to think about it, hadn’t given himself time to shy away from saying it out loud.
The question seemed to catch the girl off guard. “You want to show me around?” She glanced down at her feet, bare except for the red outline of her flip-flops.
“If you’re not busy, I mean.”
She seemed wary, which felt like an entirely reasonable thing for her to be. Hudson couldn’t believe he’d asked a stranger to go on a treasure hunt with him.
“Okay, sure,” she managed to say right before Hudson heard his dad enter the garage and call his name.
“Excuse me just one second,” he said to the girl, raising an apologetic hand as he sidestepped her. He resisted the urge to put a hand on her as he slid by so close, just a light touch on her lower back, on her shoulder, and joined his dad at the garage door.
“Hey, Pop,” Hudson said, putting his hands on his hips, mimicking his dad’s stance.
“Good day at school?”
“Yup. Nothing special. I did another mock interview with the counselor during lunch. Did pretty well, I think. That’s about it.”
His dad nodded a few times, then motioned toward the car. “What are you working on here?”
“General tune-up,” Hudson replied. “Filters, fluids, spark plugs. A new V-belt.”
“I can finish up for you. You should get some rest for tomorrow.”
“I’m almost done,” Hudson said, already sensing the discomfort he felt any time he had to ask his dad about something Hudson knew his dad wouldn’t approve of. “There’s just...” He looked back to see whether the girl was within earshot. “Well, this girl, she wants me to show her around town.” He waited to see if his dad would run a hand through his graying hair, his telltale sign of disapproval. “I promise I’ll be back for dinner,” Hudson added.
His dad glanced at his old Timex. “One hour,” he said, adding a reminder about how early Hudson would have to get up tomorrow to drive the fifty miles to the University of Mississippi campus in Jackson. “We don’t want you to be too tired.”
“I won’t be, I promise,” he said, tiny fantasies of the next hour with the girl already flooding his head. The back of their hands grazing against each other—not entirely by accident—as they walked; her leg resting against his as they sat somewhere together, getting to know each other. Already racking his mind for places where he could take her, Hudson thanked his dad with a quick hug and then went back to the front of the car. The girl had a hand resting on the hood, staring vaguely at the engine block. “I just have a couple more things to do, and then we can get going,” he said.
“Great.” Her lips spread into a warm, genuine smile, and she held out her hand. “By the way, I’m Leila.”
He wiped his hand off on his work pants and said his name as he shook her hand. Months, he thought to himself, his fingers practically buzzing at the touch of her skin. I’ll be thinking about her for months.
AFTER HE WAS done fixing Leila’s car, Hudson went to the back of the shop to change out of his work clothes while Leila settled the bill with his dad. When he came out, he saw her sitting in the front passenger seat of her idling car.
“I’m driving?” he asked as he opened the driver-side door.
“You’re the tour guide,” she said, making a sweeping gesture with her arm as if to indicate that the world beyond the windshield was vast and unexplored. “Guide me.”
She smiled at him, and he thought to himself that she was exceptionally good at smiling. He shifted the car into drive and pulled out onto the street, wondering where to take her, how to get her to smile more often. The obvious treasure was the oxbow, but it was too far away. Everything that was nearby held fond memories—the Coca-Cola museum he’d gone to on every birthday until he was twelve, the ice cream shop that invited its customers to suggest new, strange flavors and had once taken up Hudson’s request for Bacon Chocolate—but the only way to transplant memories onto places and make them feel like treasures to her was to talk. He usually didn’t have trouble talking to girls, even beautiful ones, but while he didn’t quite feel tongue-tied around her, he didn’t know how to begin. “It’s very red in here,” he said at last.
“I know. It’s pretty much why I bought it. It was love at first sight.”
“So I’m going to go out on a limb and assume red is your favorite color.”
“I like red—don’t get me wrong. But I have a deep appreciation for anything that is willing to be totally and utterly itself. If you’re going to be red, well, then, be red, goddamnit. From your steering wheel to your hubcaps, be red.”
Hudson could only nod to himself. He’d never met anyone who talked this way, the way he thought. The brakes chirped loudly as he slowed for a stop sign, and he assured Leila that they worked fine. They just liked to sing. He turned left on Maryland so that the sun wouldn’t blind him while he thought of something to show Leila. “What about you?” he asked after completing the turn. “What are you?”
“Me?” she said, feigning innocence. She kicked off her flip-flops and put her feet up on the dashboard. Hudson imagined what it would be like to be her boyfriend, which was the first time he’d ever had such a thought without immediately dismissing it. To go on long drives with her as she sang along shyly to music, to lie on the grass somewhere and confess things to each other, find ways to cuddle around movie-theater cup-holders. “I am a treasure-tourist. And my tour guide has yet to show me a single treasure. Where are we going?”
Hudson took her toward downtown. They passed a couple of motel chains off the highway, a spattering of restaurant and fast-food places, everything flat and that shade of beige that felt duller than gray. Nothing felt like enough of a treasure to show Leila.
Afraid that she’d grow bored, though, Hudson turned the car into the parking lot of the bowling alley as soon as he saw it. Through the large windowpane he could see that the place was full, fluorescent balls rolling down the eighteen lanes in varying speeds, ending in silent white explosions of pins.
“When I was a kid, I came to a slumber party here,” he said, looking out at the squat, sky-blue building. He was flooded by warm memories of the night and wished there was a way to share them with Leila, to show her just how special it had actually been. “We bowled until two in the morning and then set up our sleeping bags on the lanes. Any time I drive by here, I wonder how many other kids have had the chance to sleep in a bowling alley before.”
Hudson stared out the windshield, admiring how the bowling alley’s façade matched the cloudless sky, the tacky and faded window art that had been there since his childhood. He noticed Leila glancing around and realized he’d been quiet for a while. “C’mon, I’ll show you around.”
* * *
The place was loud with the usual sounds: balls rolling down the lanes, crashing into pins. A little boy tried to prevent a gutter ball by shrieking at it, and groups cheered a strike. The interior was painted the same baby blue as the outside. A “wall of fame” was on display by the shoe counter. The tiny snack bar practically dripped with pizza grease.
“This turns into a salsa club on Tuesday nights,” Hudson said. “The lanes make for a great dance floor.”
Leila smiled and gave him a light shove, letting him know that she wasn’t falling for it. But she looked around the room as if searching for clues that it might be true. As she swiveled her head, Hudson caught a glimpse of a scar poking out from her hairline behind her ear, just the tiniest sliver of damaged flesh. Then she turned back to him, combing a tress of hair over her ear and hiding the scar. “There’s no way that’s true.”
“Please don’t argue with your tour guide,” Hudson said, leading them to the shoe counter. Unlike other bowling alleys that invested in cubbyholes, Riverside Lanes had a much different storage system for their shoes.
“This is ridiculous,” Leila said, staring at the massive pile of shoes, more than a few of which had fallen off the counter. A group of junior high girls came by, chatting excitedly about weekend plans, each of them tossing a pair of shoes haphazardly onto the pile. It shifted, and Hudson saw Leila brace for the pile of footwear to come tumbling at them.
“No, this is awesome,” Hudson corrected. “Whenever the pile falls, an employee yells out, ‘Avalanche!’ and then everyone in the house gets a free game.”
“Wouldn’t people just knock it over, then?”
Hudson shook his head, as if no one had ever considered that before. “Where’s the fun in that?” He crossed his arms over his chest, admiring the sight of all those separated pairs of shoes, the laces sticking out everywhere, like arms seeking salvation from a pile of rubble.
Hudson glanced at Leila, trying to get a sense of whether she was enjoying herself. Then a couple in their twenties came up to the pile and began to rummage. “The tour will continue this way,” Hudson said, touching Leila briefly on the shoulder as he led her through the bowling alley. He walked backward, like an actual tour guide. “On your left you will spot the snack bar, which still advertises freshly made pretzels despite being sold out for the last twelve years. On your right in lane six you can see the local bowling legend known as The Beaver, who’s bowled three perfect games and has never smiled at anyone but fallen pins. Please, no flash photography,” Hudson cracked, pointing out a hefty man in his sixties whose gut drooped over his belt.
“Our next stop is the men’s bathroom,” Hudson said, thinking of the chalkboard over the urinals. It was always adorned with a mix of inane vulgarities, doodles, and the occasional heartfelt message, scrawled in sloppy handwriting that indicated its author was either drunk or his focus was split with another task at hand. “You can really see some lovely things there.”
There was a pause before Hudson realized what he’d just said. He turned to Leila, who raised an eyebrow at him. “That didn’t come out right. I meant that some people really show parts of themselves that usually stay hidden.” He tensed a fist closed, stopping himself. “Nope, that didn’t clear anything up. What I meant was—” Hudson said, but he was interrupted by Leila bursting into laughter.
Hudson smiled nervously. “There’s a chalkboard in there,” he started to explain, but he was too enraptured by the sound of her laughter to keep going. It emptied his thoughts, that laugh.
“Don’t worry. I assume it wasn’t what it sounded like,” she said, catching her breath.
Hudson shook his head at himself and turned to the bathroom and pushed the door open. “Tour group coming through!” he announced.
When no one responded, he held the door open for Leila and made a sweeping motion of welcome. “After you, ma’am.”
“This is the strangest tour I’ve ever been on,” Leila said, entering the bathroom and giving him an inquisitive look with just a hint of a smile to it.
“Keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times,” he said as she passed by.
Two urinals, a stall, and a sink was all there was to the bathroom. An automated hand-drier that barely whirred hung from one wall. Leila looked up at the chalkboard over the urinals. Hudson followed her gaze, trying to guess which bit of scrawled handwriting she was reading.
Someone had doodled an impressive dragon. Joan slept with The Beaver! was scrawled in block letters across the top of the board. And below that, in tiny script, as if the author had meant it as a whisper, You have been relentlessly on my mind. Lyrics to a Johnny Cash song, a Bible verse, and a drawing of a penis were scattered across the wall. Hudson couldn’t help but smile at the collection of escaped thoughts captured in chalk. He looked back at Leila and saw that she was smiling, too, her hands behind her as if she were appraising a piece of art.
“You see the treasures?” he asked.
She nodded, her lips spreading into a smile, her gaze passing over the smudges of white and blue chalk. “That’s my favorite Vonnegut quote,” she said, pointing at the line I urge you to please notice when you are happy.
Hudson felt himself blush, wondering whether to confess that he’d been the one to write it on the chalkboard a week ago. “This is fantastic,” she said. Then she reached for one of the inch-long pieces of chalk sitting on the metallic ledge of the board. Taking only a brief moment to gather her thoughts, Leila stood on tiptoe to reach a blank spot, her neat handwriting standing out against the rest of the words on the board. People of Vicksburg, you live in a special place.
Silly, how rewarding just that one comment from her was, how it made Hudson want to keep on babbling, to take her to every single place that he’d enjoyed for even a millisecond.
Hudson led them back to the car, eager to show her anything else at all. They went to the church that had burned down and been rebuilt by the town, the Capture the Flag field at the park by his house, the closed-up candy shop where a dead body had once been found, making the lone remaining bag of root-beer–flavored candy Hudson had in his house feel very much like a treasure.
“You know what? Why don’t I take you to go see it?”
“Yeah,” he said, surprised by his own boldness but thankful for it. “You know, for the root-beer candy.”
Leila considered him. He held up an understanding hand. “I’m acting purely as a treasure guide here. It might not be the most interesting place to everyone, but it’s a place that I know well enough to know where all the hidden details are. Don’t you want to see the room that Hudson the famed mechanic has been sleeping in for seventeen years?”
She tilted her head back and squinted as if she were examining him. He worried he’d messed things up until he realized she was mock-scrutinizing him, saw the hint of a smile tugging at her lips. “Do you have one of those race-car–shaped beds?” she asked.
“I do not,” he said, pretending to be offended as he switched his foot to the gas pedal. “I got too big for it last year.”
Leila burst out laughing again. For fear that he would giggle with pride as soon as he opened his mouth, Hudson kept quiet on the short drive to his house.
* * *
Hudson parked Leila’s car in front of his house and handed her the keys as they walked up his lawn onto the narrow porch. His dad’s car wasn’t in the driveway yet—probably out shopping for groceries for dinner.
“This is the porch,” he said, gesturing redundantly with one arm as he jiggled the keys out of his pocket. “We don’t use it much.”
“How come?” Leila asked.
“Our next-door neighbor is quite the talker,” Hudson said, looking around the block at the cars and pickup trucks parked in open garages, the American flags drooping like undrawn curtains in the still air, the bicycles lying on the driveways in after-school abandon. “My dad and I actually missed a movie once because she insisted on filling us in on neighborhood gossip. Someone’s cousin had adopted an Asian baby, and that seemed to require a thirty-minute, slightly racist speech.” He turned to the door, having finally fished the keys out. “The true treasure of Vicksburg lies in its people.”
He turned over his shoulder to smile at her and then led them inside. They went fairly quickly around the house, living room to bathroom to kitchen. He showed her the backyard, the modest plastic patio furniture set up around the barbecue grill. The lawn was big and green, stretching out between the neighbors’ fences until it hit a line of trees. After a few moments, when the sun had all but dipped beneath the branches, Hudson led her back inside to show her the rest of the house.
The staircase was just wide enough to allow them to climb side by side. Hudson asked, “So, what are you going up north for?” He honestly didn’t really have a strong desire to know, since it would affirm that fact that she was going, possibly very soon.
“Haven’t I mentioned it? I’m going to see the Northern Lights.”
“Oh, nice,” he said, his heart dropping a little. “How far north do you have to go to see them?”
“Well, it kind of changes. I’m going up as far north as I can to give myself the best chance.”
“Wow. I’m jealous.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty excited,” she said, but her voice didn’t quite convey that excitement. “I’m just hoping that...” She trailed off.
“No, nothing,” she said, as they reached the landing at the top of the stairs. She held her arm out across his chest. “Wait.” She looked at the four closed doors that made up the second floor. “Let me guess.” She pointed at the door closest to them. “Master bedroom, bathroom, your room,” she said, pointing at each door from left to right. “And, I don’t think that’s another room, because you’ve got an only-child air about you, so I’m gonna say that’s the linen closet.”
“It’s a special gift.”
“That’s special, all right,” he said, wondering what she’d stopped herself from saying on the stairs. “How’d you know I’m an only child?”
“We can smell our own,” she said with a wink.
Once inside his room, Leila went straight to his bookshelf, where his car magazines and the novels he’d read for school and liked enough to buy a copy were neatly stacked. Her back was to him, her figure silhouetted against the fading light so that she seemed a little less real, a little less like a beautiful girl who understood him standing in his room and more like an apparition that could dissipate at any second. He flicked the light switch on but said nothing, giving her space to explore. He didn’t want her to seem like an apparition, wanted to keep her real for as long as possible.
“What’s this?” she asked, grabbing a seashell he kept on his windowsill.
He walked closer to her. “That is a souvenir from the first time I went to the ocean. I was bodysurfing, you know, just enjoying getting the crap kicked out of me by the waves. And this one wave just grabs me and beats me down against the shore. I felt my forehead catch on something hard, harder than the sand. So I grabbed at it, and it was this seashell. I think you can still see the scar.” He pulled at his hair and tilted his head down so she could see.
She lifted her hand and ran a finger along the scar on his forehead. He could hear her breathing, could smell something sweet on her breath.
“Why’d you keep the seashell?”
“I don’t know,” Hudson said. “I guess I just liked the idea of having a reminder from such a great day. I didn’t want the scar to be the only thing I got to keep.”
Leila smiled, her finger no longer at the scar but dropping down, tracing his jawline. Her lips were parted just enough for him to see a thin, glimmering line of teeth set against the pink of her tongue.
Then the garage door rumbled beneath their feet, and Hudson heard his dad’s Camaro pull into the driveway. Leila’s hand dropped away, and Hudson took an instinctive step back, immediately regretting it. He wanted to grab Leila’s hand and place it back on his cheek. Instead, he stood and listened to his dad making his way from the garage to the kitchen, feeling the moment slip away.
DOWNSTAIRS IN THE kitchen, Hudson’s dad was kneeling in front of the fridge, moving things around to make way for a case of soda.
“Hey, Pop,” Hudson said.
“Hey, son.” Hudson’s dad finished up in the fridge before standing and turning around. His glance went to Leila. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you had company.” He offered a smile, then stepped around them to leave the kitchen. “Do you mind getting the grill started? I’m gonna hop in the shower.” He took a step toward the stairs, then stopped and looked back at Leila. “You’re welcome to stay for dinner, if you’d like.”
“I’d love to,” Leila said.
“Always,” she said. “Thank you, Mr....?”
“Call me Walter,” he said, offering his hand with a smile. Then he turned to Hudson. “You’re gonna get some rest after dinner?”
“Of course. I was planning to sleepwalk all the way to Jackson so I could be as well-rested as possible before the interview.”
“You think you’re clever, don’t you? Just because you’re going to be a doctor?”
“You think I’m clever, too, Dad. Ever since I taught you how to connect to wireless internet, you’ve considered me a genius.”
“Don’t give this one any compliments,” Walter said to Leila, putting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “He’ll never forget them.” He was tall, still taller than Hudson but thinner, with wiry muscles. The rest of their features they shared: the same strong jaw and big brown eyes. Hudson thought of his dad as young, or at least not yet old, so it was a shock every time he noticed just how gray his hair had turned. “All right, I’ll see you guys outside, then.”
When he was about halfway up the stairs, Leila called out, “You have a lovely home!”
“Thank you,” he called back, his voice fading as he climbed the stairs and closed his bedroom door.
“He’s so sweet,” Leila said.
“Yeah,” Hudson said, picking at a splinter on a kitchen cabinet.
“What interview do you have to be well-rested for?”
“I have this interview with the dean of admissions at Ole Miss. It’s to see if they’re going to offer me a full scholarship.”
“Wow. That’s impressive.”
Hudson shrugged. “I guess. My dad knows the guy, so he helped set up the interview, and that’s why he’s a little paranoid about it.” Not wanting to think about tomorrow, when Leila might no longer be around, Hudson moved toward the back door. “Let’s get the grill going.”
Leila nodded and helped him grab a few things from the kitchen; then they went out to the backyard to light the charcoal. The air had cooled pleasantly with the oncoming dusk, only a few streaks of orange light breaking through gaps in the trees where cicadas buzzed. It was a large yard, the grass bright green and healthy. A toolshed stood in the middle, not far off from the fire pit that Walter had dug and lined with bricks. There were a few tree stumps and camping chairs gathered around the pit in a circle, a crushed beer can forgotten in the weeds from the last time his dad’s friends had come over. Hudson wished that he had some ability to stop time, to hold the Earth’s rotation, so that he could just stand near Leila for a little while longer.
“So, a doctor, huh?”
“Yeah, but it’s not a big deal,” Hudson said. “Nothing like that seeing-through-doors trick.”
“Superpower, not a trick,” Leila corrected, grabbing a match and tossing it onto the pile of charcoal. “And I’m sure you have some powers of your own.”
“Not really.” At that moment, the only superpower he felt he had was that he could spend time with someone like Leila and have her want to stay around for dinner.
“Bullshit,” she said, giving him a friendly hip check. “Ranting,” she pointed out. “I could listen to you rant about treasures all day.”
Hudson tried and failed to keep the size of his smile under control, especially when he noticed that she was smiling back at him. “I’m also pretty damn good at setting a table,” he said, trying to draw attention away from his blushing. “I can do it with one hand. And I don’t even have to look up online which side the knife is supposed to be on.”
“I knew you were holding out on me.”
“I’ll show you,” he said, and he went about setting the table with an exaggerated care that he hoped was funny. Leila took a seat and watched him, a smile on her face. When he was done, he sat next to her as they waited for the coals to heat.
This was Hudson’s favorite time of the year, favorite time of day, favorite spot of his house. It was the first time in a while that he was sitting there without a book in front of him. He’d almost forgotten how enjoyable his backyard was when he could simply sit and look around without having to study. Leila leaned back in her patio chair and put her legs up, resting her heels on Hudson’s lap. She did it so casually that Hudson couldn’t tell just what she meant by it; if she meant anything at all or if she just needed a place to rest her feet and made no distinction between him and any other surface. Or maybe, just maybe, she was as happy to be spending time with him as he was with her.
Hudson barely moved, focusing on the weight of her feet on his lap. By the time his dad joined them outside, Hudson’s legs were falling asleep. “We were waiting for the coals to get hot,” Hudson said.
“Well, looks like they’re just about ready to go,” Walter said, even though Hudson knew very well that they’d been ready for a while. Walter grabbed the tray of patties and put three down on the grill, smiling at the satisfying sizzle of the meat beginning to cook.
“Want some help, Pop?”
“I’ve got it, thanks.”
Other fathers might have turned around and winked at their son, or smiled. But Hudson liked his dad’s reserved way of showing affection, the silent acceptance of cooking duties.
“So, Leila,” Walter asked when the burgers were ready, bringing them to the table, “Hudson tells me you’re not from Vicksburg. What brings you over here?”
“I’m zigzagging my way up the country to go see the Northern Lights,” she said.
Walter picked at the label on his beer, peeling until the corner curled away from the glass. “That’s one hell of a road trip. You’re doing it by yourself?”
“Yup.” Leila nodded.
“Well, everyone needs at least one long road trip in their lives,” Walter said. “I was probably about your age when I did mine.”
“Where’d you go?”
“California to New York. Sea to shining sea.” He kept peeling the label off, lost in thought. His dad always got that look on his face when he talked about that road trip. Hudson had asked him about it more times than he could remember, but no matter how much Walter told him, Hudson could never really get a feel for what his dad had been like back then. It was strange to think that there was a part of his dad he’d never know, two whole decades’ worth of memories that did not include Hudson.
“This kid hasn’t taken one yet,” he said, snapping out of it and motioning toward Hudson.
“What are you talking about? I’ve been with you on tons of road trips.”
“Doesn’t count,” Walter said, sipping from his beer. “On your own is what I meant. You get yourself a part-time job in college, something that won’t get in the way of your studies, and maybe you’ll save up enough to travel during the summers. And, if you really impress me with your grades”—Walter paused for effect—“I might give you a free oil change for your first trip.”
“Now I see where Hudson gets his wit,” Leila said, kicking Hudson playfully under the table.
He kicked back lightly, wishing that he was barefoot and then feeling a bit creepy for it. “Why the Northern Lights anyway?”
Leila shrugged. “It’s just something I know I have to do.”
“Life to-do list sort of thing?”
“Something like that,” Leila said.
“Is this your first road trip?” Walter asked.
Leila took another bite of her burger. God, she was attractive even when she was chewing. It made Hudson want to cook for her. She gave a slight nod.
When she was done chewing, she took a sip of her soda and wiped at the corner of her mouth with a paper napkin. “I’m on a little break from school right now and thought it was a good time for some traveling.”
Hudson nodded, then realized he had no idea what that meant. “Like, college? Did you take a year off after high school?” It was hard to tell how old she was. Between sixteen and...twenty? Maybe?
“Nope.” She took the last bite of her burger, and for a second it seemed as if she’d done that so she wouldn’t have to say anything else. Then she swallowed and said, “I’ve been stuck in kindergarten for years. This trip around the country is so I can finally learn the alphabet.”
As his dad chuckled, Leila smirked at Hudson, and he could feel her face etching itself into his memory.
“I’m kidding, Hudson. You haven’t been hanging around with a kindergartner all day.”
“No? I could have sworn I was. Only kindergartners ever laugh at my jokes.”
“I could see that,” Leila said. “And kudos for not taking the opportunity to make fun of my height. I set it up perfectly.”
Hudson shrugged. “I like how short you are,” he said, immediately grabbing a chip from the open bag in the middle of the table and munching on it as a way to keep himself from apologizing for the comment.
The sky had darkened to night, and now the only light came from the pinprick stars and the neighbors’ kitchens. But he could see Leila smiling to herself, biting her bottom lip. Then she leaned back in her chair and put her feet on his lap again.
“What are you planning to see along the way?” Walter asked, grabbing a second burger, dressing it with his usual half dozen squirts of hot sauce.
“I haven’t really planned much out. I’m just going to play it by ear, see where I end up.”
“You’ve already seen Vicksburg,” Hudson said. “It’s all downhill from here.”
Leila chuckled in a way he hadn’t heard before, a laugh that was soft and throaty and that shocked Hudson into goose bumps. “I’m sure the rest of the country will have trouble living up,” she said.
After a few minutes, Walter got up to clear the table, and when he was inside, Leila pulled her feet off Hudson.
“I guess I should let you get some rest, then,” Leila said. “You’ve got that interview.” She slipped her feet back into the flip-flops and stood up.
The joy he’d felt since meeting her was slipping away, but Hudson didn’t know what to say to stop her from leaving. He followed her as she walked to the sliding glass door that led back into the house. She didn’t open the door, though, just stood there looking at her feet as if mulling over some thought.
The lights from the kitchen turned on as his dad started cleaning up inside. Hudson could see Leila clearly again, her hands in her back pockets, a half-inch strip of skin visible between her shirt and the waistline of her shorts. Then she stepped forward and pulled him in for a hug. It was surprisingly strong, coming from someone her size, from someone he’d just met a few hours before. It felt achingly good to be pressed against her.
“It was very nice to meet you,” she said. “Good luck with everything.”
Then she planted a kiss on his cheek and walked inside. It was almost paralyzing, the kiss, the feel of her lips on his skin, the already increasing distance between them. Paralyzing enough that by the time he went into the house, Leila had already said good-bye to his dad and was at the front door. Not just at the front door but halfway out of it already. She noticed him and paused; then she waved good-bye and closed the door behind her.
He stood in the hallway between the kitchen and the living room, trying to get over the shock of seeing her leave so suddenly. When he became aware of the sound of rushing water, he noticed his dad standing at the sink doing the dishes. “Pop, need any help?”
His dad turned, the bottom of his shirt stained dark with water. “No, thanks.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be upstairs. Night.” But he didn’t move for a while, just stood there staring at the front door.
“G’night,” his dad called back. “I’ll be by your room at six to make sure you’re up. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
“Right,” Hudson said. When he broke out of his daze, he climbed the stairs with measured effort and went into his room, plopping down onto his bed and pulling out the stack of papers he’d printed off the internet full of possible questions he might be asked during an admissions interview. He leafed through some pages, more aware of the sound they made as his fingertips pushed them aside than of the words on the paper. He eyed the outfit he and his dad had picked out for the interview—his blue pinstriped suit, white shirt, jade-green tie. It was hanging on the closet’s door handle, the dry-cleaning wrapper keeping the suit from wrinkling.
A couple of minutes later, Hudson heard his dad coming up the stairs, and the lights in the hallway turned off. Hudson realized he hadn’t read a single word, so he rose from his bed and walked over to the windowsill. He sighed deeply, as if thoughts of Leila rested in his lungs and all he needed was to breathe her out. As his breath rattled the venetian blinds, he noticed that Leila’s car was still parked outside. He stepped to the window and looked through the slats. He could see her sitting inside, one elbow resting against the window, the other hand on the wheel. She pulled her elbow away and looked up at him, her eyes brilliant even from that distance. He thought about the oxbow, about wandering its entire perimeter with Leila by his side, the Mississippi River providing a roar of background noise to their conversation.
Not tonight, he told himself as he poked his head out his bedroom door to make sure the lights in his dad’s room were off. I’m not going to stay home tonight, not when I have the chance to spend time with her. He went back into his room, pulled the cords that drew the blinds up, and slid his window open. He climbed slowly onto the roof of the porch, then eased himself onto the grass of the front lawn, looking back to make sure his dad’s lights were still off.
Then he jogged over to the car. Leila had rolled the window down and watched him approach without saying anything. He leaned toward her open window. “Scootch over,” he said in a near-whisper. “I’m driving.”
“What about getting some rest?” She raised an eyebrow.
He shrugged and said, “I promised to show you a treasure.”
IT WAS PITCH-BLACK on the drive, nothing on the country lane but their headlights illuminating the occasional reflectors at the edge of the road. They glowed yellow and then faded back into darkness.
Hudson kept stealing glances at Leila’s profile, trying to figure out what made her so attractive, but the only intelligible thought he came away with after each stolen glance was: I like her face. I really like her face.
“So, how’d you find this treasure?”
“It’s a local tradition. There’s always a group of kids that lays claim to it. Then, when they move on—school, babies, getting old, whatever—some new group moves in. One of my friends’ older brothers used to hang out there, and when his friends all got jobs in Jackson and Biloxi, my friends took over.”
Only after he said this did Hudson realize he and Leila might not have the oxbow to themselves. Friday night in Vicksburg, what else was there to do? He hoped his friends had gone to the bowling alley instead.
“What do you do over there? Dumb guy stuff?”
“Pretty much.” He signaled and turned the car onto another indistinguishable country lane. “Toss a football around, light bonfires. Have some drinks. I’m not a big drinker, so I’m usually the designated driver.”
“Hmm, too bad we don’t have anything to drink. It’d be fun to get drunk with you.”
Hudson let the comment hang in the air and pretended to focus on the road as he turned off onto an unpaved street. The car rumbled over the uneven surface, kicking up pebbles that struck the undercarriage and chimed like a children’s toy.
“How far away is this place?”
“We’re almost there,” Hudson said, pointing lamely at a patch of darkness beyond the reach of the headlights.
When he parked the car, Leila was quick to open the door and get out, letting in a vibrant sound. It wasn’t the river itself, the current mostly calm, but everything surrounding it: the nocturnal wildlife, the insects, the flora moving in the breeze, almost like lungs expanding and contracting. Impossible to prove, but Hudson felt that the whole length of the river was contributing to the sound, the casino boats a few miles down, the current crashing into the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans like a jazz cymbal. It all came together to create this wall of noise that felt somehow tangible.
“This way,” Hudson said, starting to head around the trees and into the ravine.
She stepped to him, and before he could realize what his fingers were doing, he took hold of her hand. “Okay,” she said, squeezing his fingers back without much fanfare, “lead the way.”
Thankful for the darkness hiding his uncontainable smile, he took them around the trees. A couple of times he almost lost his footing, too distracted by Leila’s touch to pay much attention to the terrain. They reached the river’s edge and started walking downstream. He was hoping that the boat was there. If the rowboat was there, then it meant he and Leila would have the oxbow to themselves and his friends were off doing something else.
“I like this scenic route,” she said. “It feels like an actual treasure hunt.”
“You’ll love this place,” he said, spotting the low-hanging branches where they kept the small rowboat hidden. It was there. He let go of her hand to kneel down and pull the boat out of its hiding spot. It was little more than a worn-out canoe, its wood knotty and cracked, its white paint darkened to green by the river.
“Oh, I see it,” Leila said, looking out at the river, her hands in her back pockets, that world-changing posture again. “How far is that?”
“Not too far. About sixty, seventy yards, maybe.” He put one foot in the boat and turned to offer a helping hand.
She looked over at Hudson and then back at the island. A mischievous smile spread across her lips. She stepped toward him, but instead of taking his hand and getting into the boat, she knelt down and stuck her hand into the river.
“It’s chilly,” she said. “But the current isn’t too bad.” She stood back up to her full height, which, admittedly, wasn’t very much. “Let’s swim across.”
She kicked off one of her flip-flops and stuck her foot into the river.
Hudson gave her a look.
“Haven’t you ever done it before?”
“Yeah, we’re definitely doing this, then.”
“What about our clothes?”
“They’ll get wet, and then some time after that they’ll get dry.”
“And our phones? The car keys?”
“Leave them in the car.” She walked over to him and pulled him out of the boat by his hand. “Hudson, you’re swimming across this river with me.”
He resisted for a few steps, dragging his feet. But then he remembered that he’d climbed out his bedroom window and left his house because he wanted to immerse himself in fun for once. “It’s very hard to say no to you.”
“Why would you want to say no to me?”
Leila laughed and gave his hand a squeeze, then walked them back to the car. Hudson checked the time again before leaving his phone in the glove compartment. If he was tired the next day, he could tell his dad he’d had trouble sleeping out of nervousness. They left their shoes, wallets, and keys inside, then walked back to the shore, treading carefully to avoid stepping on stones or twigs with their bare feet.
They stood at the edge, facing the island, the river’s waves lapping at their toes as if trying to coax them into the water. “Look at those stars,” Hudson said.
“Beautiful,” Leila said, looking up at the night sky. Then she turned back to him and smiled. “Are you a good swimmer?”
“I’m all right,” he said. “You?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” And with that, she dived in.
There was a very brief pause. A delay between Leila’s action and his reaction, that split second during which Hudson asked himself just who the hell this girl was and what she was doing in his life. By the time the thought had passed, he was already jumping in after her.
The cool water was a shock. She was a couple of body-lengths in front of him, her strokes fast, frantic, overjoyed, the sound of her laughter ringing out every time she came up for air. When he almost swallowed a lungful of Mississippi, he realized that he, too, was laughing in between strokes, that his heart rate was spiked by adrenaline, that he was completely intoxicated by the river, by the night, by Leila. He swam faster until he nearly caught up with her, her kicks coming down only a few inches from his face. Swimming around her kicks until he was at her side, he felt his muscles start to burn with effort. Funny, how it took a little bit of pain to remember that certain parts of yourself were alive.
They reached the island’s shore at about the same time and climbed onto the muddy grass and flopped onto their backs. Leila’s arm was resting across his chest. Without giving the move much thought, Hudson brought his right hand up and laid it gently atop Leila’s forearm. He’d expected her skin to be somehow warm, but it was cold from the water. He started to rub, wanting to bring her warmth.
“We are very wet,” she said, unsticking her shirt from her stomach with the hand not on Hudson’s chest.
“Yes, we are,” he said, chuckling.
She pulled her arm away to wring out her shirt. “Yeah, that did nothing.” Then she stood up, brushing away the grass that had stuck to the exposed parts of her legs.
As he stood, too, for a second, Hudson was dumbstruck. Although in truth it wasn’t just a second; it had been the whole day. Since Leila had stepped out of her car, he’d been dumbstruck by her presence, her beauty. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her.
“I’ll take the staring as a compliment,” she said with a laugh.
“Sorry,” Hudson said, looking down at the ground. Even when he was embarrassed, he couldn’t look completely away. He watched water dripping down her legs, wondering to himself how he’d gotten to be where he was standing.
And now she was stepping toward him and bringing her arms around his neck, pulling her body against his. “You’re shivering,” she said.
“I think I might stop shivering soon if you keep doing this thing that you’re doing.”
She laughed and pulled herself a little closer, so that he could really feel her body heat. Hudson brought up his hand to brush away a wet strand of hair behind Leila’s ear, but, not being great at this part of the process, he realized too late that he’d brought both his hands up to her face and suddenly didn’t know what to do with them.
She noticed and laughed at him, not unkindly. “I’ll just put those right here,” he said, placing his hands on her shoulders and trying to laugh off the moment.
She shook her head and then grabbed his right hand and moved it to her neck. “Right here.”
He looked down at her, at that fantastic face looking back at him, her lips parted first in a smile and then in preparation for what was to come. Her eyes looking into his, then down at his mouth. Hudson could hardly believe that he was here with her. They began to lean into each other when a sound broke through that insulating buzz of the river.
“Ho-ly shit! Is that Hudson with a girl?”
HUDSON’S FRIENDS HAD arrived, carrying a healthy arsenal of cheap beer. They began to clamor and whoop from the rowboat, and Hudson and Leila instinctively stepped away from each other. It was the usual trio—John, Richie, and Scott—each of them wearing a big stupid grin as they reached the island.
“Hudsy! What in the hell is going on here?” John said. He stepped off the boat and toward Hudson and ruffled his hair. “Has there always been a ladies’ man hiding behind that smart-kid exterior?”
“Hey, guys,” Hudson said. “Um, what are you doing here?”
“What the shit else do we have to do? The better question is, what are you doing here? And why are you wet? And who is this?” John said, looking from Hudson to Leila, then back at Hudson.
“And what the hell is she doing here with you?” Richie chimed in, making no effort to hide the fact that he was staring at Leila, her wet clothes clinging to her body. He ran a hand through his beard, which was red and bushy and had been his trademark since his facial hair started growing in ninth grade.
“I’m Leila,” she said simply, offering a wave, making a slight effort to cover herself up.
The three boys exchanged looks. Scott took a step toward Hudson and gave him a strong pat on the back. “Where’d you find her?”
Hudson shrugged, then looked at John and tried to convey with just his eyes that the boys were interrupting at the worst possible time and should immediately get back into the boat and leave him alone with Leila. If his eyes managed to say that, though, John wasn’t listening. And if John didn’t lead their pals away, there was no way the other two would take the initiative.
“Well, Leila, nice to meet you. Now, who wants to get drunk?” John pulled out a can of beer and opened it with a satisfying snap, immediately putting it to his lips to control the foam. Richie and Scott followed his lead and popped open their own cans.
“We weren’t gonna stay long,” Hudson said. “I’ve got that interview tomorrow.”
“Oh, shit, that’s right,” John said. After another long gulp he looked at Leila. “What about you? Do you have an interview tomorrow?”
“Good,” he said, grabbing another beer from the pack he’d set at his feet and offering it to her. “You guys in for a game, then?”
Scott and Richie cheered their approval and bashed their cans together in a toast that preceded another long swig. “I can’t, man,” Hudson said. “We should probably be heading back soon anyway. I just wanted to show her the island.”
“She won’t have really seen it if she doesn’t play Drunkball.” John took another quick sip. “One round and then you can go. She can stay.” He looked at Leila and winked, and Hudson felt that sensation that must have been what people meant when they said their hearts sank.
Leila looked over at Hudson, still so close to him that he could pull her in for a kiss, if only he could gather the will to lean all the way in. How he could see the greenness of her irises through the darkness he didn’t quite understand. “One game?” she asked.
Hudson took a deep breath, mostly to try to pull his heart back up into its rightful place. Every moment with her in it was a treasure, even if he had to share her. “Okay,” he said. “It is kind of pointless to come here and not play Drunkball.”
Leila accepted the beer from John, and the five of them started walking toward the thicket of trees. Thankfully the trees were spaced far enough apart that they could maneuver through them unharmed. It was as if the island had known in advance what it would be used for and wanted to offer just enough protection from the outside, adult world for the teenagers who’d someday claim it. Beyond the trees was a large clearing, although it was too dark to make out anything there.
Scott broke off from the group and headed toward the shed, then flicked on the generator, and the lights came on. The lights were about knee high, set up around the perimeter of the field and pointing inward so that the entire area, about the size of a basketball court, was lit up as brightly as a supermarket parking lot. There were random items scattered about everywhere, making the place look like something between a junkyard and a garage sale: twin leather recliners, a glass coffee table, an assortment of patio furniture in various states of disrepair. A large parasol was staked into the ground, a cabinet full of red plastic cups, a huge stuffed version of Rafiki from The Lion King. Toward one end of the field was a children’s prefab playset, its swings replaced by tires. What must have once been just a pleasant, secluded meadow had since been turned into an elaborate Drunkball playing field.
Richie and Scott, after ogling Leila’s body in the new light for a few seconds, raced out to lay claim to the leather recliners, Richie losing a couple of his beer cans on the way. They wrestled for the one recliner that actually reclined. When Scott won the battle, Richie went back to collect his fallen beers, then pulled an MP3 player and some speakers out of the backpack he was carrying and leaned down to plug them into an extension cord that ran from the shed.
“Wow, this is pretty nifty,” Leila said, her hands on her hips, a slight shiver to her bottom lip. Hudson felt like pulling her close to keep her warm. “I didn’t imagine there’d be lights.”
“There didn’t use to be,” John said. “It was Hudson who got the idea to bring a generator. He set everything up. Even built that shed.”
Leila raised her eyebrows at Hudson. “Did he now?”
“Smart guy, this one. It’s why we keep him around. Made it a lot easier to play Drunkball. We used to lose a lot of dice and Frisbees.”
“Dice and Frisbees? How the hell do you play this game?”
“Come on,” John said, leading them toward the middle of the field. “Did you ever read Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip?”
“Sure,” Leila said. She was a few steps ahead of Hudson now, closer to John.
“Well, Drunkball is kind of a drunken version of Calvinball,” John said as they approached the patio furniture next to the recliners. Hudson pulled a chair out for Leila and took a seat next to her as John continued. “The main rule of the game is that there are no rules. Or at least, no established rules. That way, we never play the same game twice, and we never get bored with it.”
“And we all get drunk,” Scott offered, already opening another beer.
“Exactly,” John said with a smile. “Now, we realized that, as much fun as that idea is, it usually doesn’t work that great. We couldn’t think of enough fun rules on the spot, and people start losing interest. So we brought in a few different elements to the game to give it some structure. Every round, there has to be a new rule for every element of the game.”
Hudson jumped in. “The elements are: Frisbees, dice, cards, and the obstacle course.” He pointed at the playset. “The opening round—”
“Wait, so there are no balls involved in Drunkball?”
“Not when it’s this group playing,” Richie said, barely able to contain his proud laughter.
“You understand that you’re incriminating yourself, too, right? If you’re saying we as a group have no balls,” Hudson said slowly, exaggerating his hand gestures as if he were trying to explain something to a child. “You’re a part of this group, and you’re admitting to having no balls.”
Richie passed a hand through his beard, his brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what Hudson had said. “All those things you’re an expert on, I should have known balls was one of them.” Richie high-fived Scott, and they burst into laughter.
“It’s impossible to be condescending to these guys,” Hudson said to Leila. She laughed and took a sip from her beer, giving his shoulder a squeeze.
John went back to explaining. “Well, there’s always the option of balls,” he said, glancing at Scott and Richie to make sure they wouldn’t have another giggling fit, which they did. “There’s the option of anything, really. As long as it’s a fun rule that everyone agrees on, any player can introduce something new. The elements are just there to give us something to lean on.”
“How does someone win?”
“We’re seventeen-year-olds with our own island. We’re already winners,” John said.
Leila laughed again, and Hudson wondered if his friends felt the same way he did at hearing her laugh. If John, at being the one who’d made her laugh, felt the same rush of pride Hudson himself had felt, the same urge to be responsible for her laughter again and again.
“The game usually just kind of dies out when everyone’s drunk,” Hudson said, watching Leila drink from her beer can. It was true what he’d said about not being much of a drinker, but at that particular moment, having a beer with everyone did not sound like the worst thing in the world. He reached for one from the pack that John had set on the table.
“Whoa, what are you doing there?”
“Grabbing a beer.”
John reached across the table and snatched the beer out of his hand. “Of all the nights we play and you never want to drink, you choose the one night before your big interview to join in? Nuh-uh, man. You’re not showing up hungover. Leave the stupid decisions to those two.” He pointed at Scott and Richie, who, for some unfathomable reason, were thumb-wrestling.
“We heard that,” Scott said, not looking away from the battle in front of him.
“You can ref one more time. Tomorrow night, after you’ve kicked that interview’s ass, we can come back here and play another round. We’ll all camp out and crash here. But not tonight.”
“Fine,” Hudson grumbled. “I guess that makes sense.”
Drunkball started with an opening round meant to prepare the players for the game ahead. One player would chug a beer while the other players each rolled one die. They’d add up the rolls until the drinker slammed the beer can upside down on the table; then the next person in line would become the chugger, and they’d repeat. Whoever accumulated the lowest score before his beer was finished would get to choose an element first.
Aside from establishing an order of play and matching up a player with the element he/she would be in charge of making up rules for, the opening round also helped to create an establishing buzz. And it loosened muscles to avoid the risk of strains, sprains, or any other injury that might occur during physical challenges.
As ref, Hudson had the privilege of adding any rule at any time, and he had fun with it, making his friends speak in accents or only be allowed to move via cartwheels. He loved the manifestation of Leila’s enjoyment—how she reached out her hand and gripped his forearm, once pulling herself into his chest and laughing directly over his heart.
“New rule!” Leila shouted, about forty minutes into the game. They were standing near the playset, catching their breath from a physical challenge that involved juggling dice while going through the obstacle course. Her hair was now dry, although her clothes weren’t, her cheeks slightly flushed from the alcohol and the running. “Any time one of you three looks anywhere below my neck, you have to chug the rest of your beer.” She paused for dramatic effect, during which Scott lowered his sight to her breasts and drank happily. “And then Hudson gets to slap you.”
“Bullshit!” Scott said. “I didn’t hear the entire rule.”
John looked to Hudson. “Ref, ruling?”
Richie interjected, “Wait, why does he get to check you out?”
“Because, first of all, he hasn’t been ogling me as if I’m a thirty-second porn clip on the Internet.”
“Are you saying I’ve been doing that?” Richie asked, trying to sound indignant despite compromising his credibility instantly as he snuck a glance.
“Ah! You did it, too. Chug the beer and get slapped by Hudson!” She laughed, then came over to Hudson and grabbed his arm, pulling him toward Richie and Scott. “Secondly,” she added, lining the two of them up and lifting their beers for them so that they’d get to drinking, “I quite like your friend here. In case you hadn’t noticed, when you lot showed up, I was getting ready to show him just how much. So, for interrupting us, he gets to slap you.”
Leila went back to Hudson and took a sip of her beer, stumbling a little. Then she slipped her fingers in between his. “So, ref, what’s your ruling?”
Hudson looked at his friends. Scott and Richie were obediently chugging the rest of the beer in their cans, and John was smiling confidently at Hudson, nodding at him. Leila’s fingers interlaced with his, her thumb rubbing lightly against his. “I’ll allow it.”
Just when he was raising his arm to slap his friends, a noise broke through the trees. They all turned toward it and paused, trying to determine if it had been a figment of their imaginations or maybe just some small animal. Then they heard it again, this time distinct: a voice. John rushed to the shed and shut off the generator. The island fell into darkness again. The five of them held their breath, their eyes adjusting to the dark. Hudson felt Leila step closer to him, her side pressed against his.
Then the beam of a flashlight came shining in through the trees on the far side of the field, opposite from where they’d come in from. No one moved yet. “You think it’s cops?” Richie asked in a whisper.
No one said anything. They held still until another flashlight came on, then another.
“To the boat!” Scott said a little too loudly, and they took off running for the trees, laughing with the thrill of a chase.
Hudson and Leila fell behind during the run. They ran hand in hand, trying to lead each other away from rocks on the ground and low-hanging branches. Hudson wanted to call out to his friends that the boat was a bad idea. But they had gained ground, and he didn’t want to shout, so he tried to pick up the pace. Leila stifled her laughter behind him as she struggled to keep up. Just when he thought that they’d lost sight of the guys, they ran into John.
“We’ll distract them,” John said quietly. “It doesn’t matter if we get caught, but I’m not letting you risk your scholarship by getting arrested for trespassing. You lay low.” Then he ran back through the woods before Hudson could object.
“Shit,” Hudson said, looking around, trying to determine in which direction to go. But before he could decide, Leila pulled on his arm, bringing them both tumbling down onto the ground. He worried that she might have gotten hurt, and he called out her name to see if she was okay. Then he felt her press close to him and put a finger to his mouth.
“Shh. We’ll be safe here.”
HUDSON LISTENED FOR noises beyond his own pounding heart. They were lying on the ground, his back pressed against the cool earth. Leila was tight against him, her skin warm and her breathing slow and deep and smelling of an alcoholic sweetness. Her head was resting on his shoulder, her hand still in his.
They’d taken cover where some fallen trees had landed on a little hill, creating a nook that, as it turned out, was just big enough to hide two people. They’d heard the guys get into the boat, the splash of the oars as they rowed away. Some moments later there’d been some unintelligible, muffled shouting. More than three voices, definitely. He and Leila had decided to stay hidden for a while, and that was fifteen minutes earlier. Now Hudson had been lying next to her for long enough to forget the danger and briefly hope that his life could continue simply the way it was. That tomorrow would be a day just like today, with the garage and Leila. Dinner with his dad in their backyard, nothing urgent to say to each other. He wished that could be every day.
Thinking about his dad stirred in Hudson a deep pang of shame and regret that he’d snuck out of the house, been deceptive. Then Leila squeezed his hand, and all his reservations disappeared.
Grass and leaves damp from the humidity clung to his arms. A barn owl screeched somewhere on the island. She looked up at him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to keep you out this late. I think I’m good to swim back across now. Let’s get you home.”
“No,” he said. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” He put his arm on her back, his fingers coming to rest at the base of her neck, massaging gently.
She smiled and shuffled closer to him, leaning her head against his shoulder. “You’re not worried about the interview?”
“No. I’ll make it on time. Right now I just want to stay here with you.”
Leila curled up against him, her head on his chest, one leg over his lap. When he put his arm around her and they settled into each other, the comfort was so overwhelming that he thought he might fall asleep on the spot. He kept his eyes on the stars until they brought to mind the Northern Lights, at which point he looked down at Leila.
He’d never really done this before, just being close to someone. But this was something people never had to learn, never had to study for. Or, no, that wasn’t quite right. This was like fixing an engine. All you needed was to find the right parts and put them together, watch them click into place.
He ran his arm up and down her back, slipping his hand beneath her shirt, exploring her skin with his fingers. It was more as if her skin were leading his fingers around, as if he had no option but to trace the lines of her shoulder blades, to follow the lace of her bra down the strap toward the clasp. His hand lingered there for a second, then, beckoned by her skin, it moved to the open expanse of her lower back, the faint dimples there, the soft curve of her hip. He rested his hand right there, the tip of his fingers at the edge of her shorts.
How long this went on for, Hudson couldn’t tell. He pictured his cell phone in Leila’s car, imagined his father calling over and over. But having Leila there instantly quelled his anxieties. She’d run her fingers through the hair by his temples, massaging his scalp. Or she’d shift her leg, and he’d feel the warmth of each other’s skin go to new, fresh places. As long as she was there and not driving north and away from him, he was happy.
“Tell me a story,” she said, the words spoken right into his chest, so he could feel her lips pulling away from and sticking a little to his skin.
“What kind of story?”
“I don’t know. Anything. A bedtime story.”
He was about to say that he didn’t know any stories, but instead he said simply what he was feeling. “This is the greatest night of my life, I think.” He paused and let the Mississippi air fill in the background noise as he gathered his thoughts. “Up until now my greatest moment was last year, when this old car my dad and I were restoring finally started. Or the time when I was five, at the park. I don’t remember much from the memory except for the fact that I had fallen and was in pain. Then, out of nowhere, my dad came in and picked me up, almost as if I were weightless. I remember how happy and relieved I was.
“But this,” he said, emphasizing by pressing Leila closer to him, if such a thing was possible. He could feel her skin filling in the gaps between his ribs, the hollows his hip bones created. “This is the highest peak I’ve ever reached.”
He let some time pass, focusing on nothing but her in his arms. Then he leaned his neck toward her and kissed the top of her head. He kissed her softly, not because he wanted anything, but because he could no longer keep the kiss to himself. Without a word, she turned to him, and before he could think to do anything else, her lips were on his.
They kissed madly, like people who’d been waiting for it much longer than they had. Their bodies seemed to understand each other; their lips parted at the same time, their tongues moved in sync, their hands knew exactly when to grasp on to one another and when to explore elsewhere. Hudson wasn’t sure whether it felt better to touch her or be touched by her, and he didn’t care to decide.
He was vaguely aware of the night sky, the plentiful stars, the sound of the river and whatever life it contained. They rolled on the earth, and Hudson was aware of the ground only in that it was outside of them, that it was colder than the two of them, conscious of the occasional pebble or scratch of grass. Aside from those minute details, his world was entirely Leila.
* * *
When they finally stopped kissing, Leila curled herself against him, her head on his chest, one leg stretched across his lap. Hudson was certain that he was grinning like an idiot, but he didn’t care anymore.
“Can I ask you a question?” She spoke softly. Not a whisper, exactly, but the kind of tone Hudson had always imagined people used when there was someone in bed with them. Close, intimate, the words not having to work hard to reach the other person.
She hesitated and brought up her hand to his jawbone, running her fingers from his chin to the spot behind his ear. “Why do you want to be a doctor?”
The question surprised him, not just because of the moment but because he couldn’t actually remember anyone ever asking him before. “Um, I don’t know,” he said. “I just do.” A mosquito buzzed past his ear, and he halfheartedly swatted at it. “I think I’ve been working for it long enough to forget the moment I made up my mind.”
“Well, if you remember, let me know,” she said, moving her hand to his chest and kissing his breastbone, then propping herself up on one elbow and studying his face. After a while she said, “You don’t regret coming here with me?”
“Not even a little,” he said. “I’m really glad I met you, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.”
She smiled that smile of hers, the smile that he knew he’d be comparing other smiles to for the rest of his life. Then she kissed him, slow and deep, not as hungry as before but just as rich. “Good,” she said, and she repositioned herself, her face buried against his neck. Every now and then he’d feel the tickle of a hurried kiss on his skin, and he’d think of it as a kiss she couldn’t keep to herself.
“I’m glad I met you, too,” she said. “I sort of can’t believe I did, this early on my trip. I was expecting something great to happen. Just not this.”
“Something like what?”
Leila shifted against him, kissed the back of his hand. “It doesn’t matter right now. I’ve got this.”
One of Hudson’s hands rested on Leila’s waist; the other held her hand. He looked up at the stars in his Mississippi sky, thinking to himself that he never wanted to leave. A sigh escaped his lungs, a deep, gratifying sigh that might as well have been the first breath he ever took. Then, feeling the weight of Leila against him, unable to keep a smile from his lips, Hudson closed his eyes.
IT WASN’T THE light of the sun that woke him up, but the heat of the starting day and the sweat dripping down his lower back. Hudson opened his eyes in a panic, immediately noticing the absence of stars, the sky bruising with the oncoming sunrise that, under any other circumstances, might have been breathtakingly beautiful.
“Shit. Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit.” He nudged Leila until she woke up with a sleepy smile. “We have to go. We have to go right now.” He lifted her gently by the shoulders until she rolled off him and watched him scurry around looking for the phone he realized he’d left in his car.
“What time is it?”
“Way too late. We have to go.”
Hudson started doing math in his head to figure out how fast he’d have to go to make it to the interview on time. Leila was just barely getting off the ground. He looked across to the mainland as if that might help reduce the distance. She stretched, yawning. It was a shame that he couldn’t take the time to appreciate her beauty in the morning light.
“Please, Leila, we have to hurry.”
This time, he jumped first into the water, going as fast as he could. When he reached the other side, he tried shaking himself dry as much as possible; then he helped Leila out of the river. Hudson hoped that his clothes would dry in time. He opened the car door for Leila, unable to break that habit even under the circumstances. He rushed around and got into the driver’s seat, reached for the glove compartment, and grabbed his cell phone. It was flooded with missed calls and voice mails from his dad. It was 7:15. The interview was in forty-five minutes and about sixty miles away. “Shit,” he said, shifting the car into reverse and getting them back on the road.
“Don’t worry, we’ll make it,” she said, placing a hand on his thigh.
He didn’t respond, but he brought one hand over to where hers was and gave it a squeeze before pulling it back to the steering wheel. He kept his eyes on the speedometer’s rising needle, on the odometer adding on the miles. The car was heavy with silence.
They arrived at the Jackson campus of Ole Miss. It wasn’t where Hudson would be attending, since it was just the medical center, but the dean had scheduled the interview there that day to keep Hudson from having to drive the two hundred miles to Oxford. There were a few buildings, and Hudson didn’t exactly know which one to park near. He turned into the nearest parking lot and hoped he’d guessed right.
The parking lot was full of cars, mostly older, used models and pickup trucks. A couple of women in nurses’ scrubs were sitting on a bench, drinking coffee and catching up on whatever nursing students catch up on.
Hudson pulled the car up to the curb in front of the nurses. He didn’t look at the time so that it couldn’t confirm his fears.
“Go,” Leila said. “I’ll park the car here and wait for you to finish. Good luck.”
Hudson climbed out of the car, breaking into a sprint toward the nearest building. He knew well before he reached the doors that it was a futile act. He was doing it because his dad was there, watching from someplace inside Hudson’s head. Hudson was dressed in clothes he’d not only slept in but had swum across a river in. Twice. His shirt was still a little damp, and his jeans were soaked. Even if this was miraculously the right building and he only had to find the dean’s office, he’d be late. A good first impression was not about to happen. His only hope was that the dean would see him anyway, and that Hudson could somehow express himself well enough to wow the dean and make him forget about his tardiness and his presentation. But the chances of that happening in his current condition were unlikely. He’d slept only a few hours, and he could still feel Leila’s touch on his skin.
He was just about to try the doors when he noticed a sign pointing to the Admissions Department in the neighboring building. He grumbled a few curse words and changed directions, rushing past the nursing students and hearing just a snippet of their conversation, “...it was absolutely awful. I even asked to speak to the manager, and I never do that...”
Only now, while running through the courtyard, did he realize that his muscles were sore from his night with Leila, wonderfully sore.
Finally, he turned a corner and reached the building entrance. He scanned the directory and rushed up the stairs to the second floor. Hudson felt himself relax a little when he saw the office empty save for a matronly woman sitting at a receptionist’s desk. She was large, her hair up in a bun, her eyes rising from her book to look at Hudson. Maybe it was because she looked like an embodied cliché of a teacher, but Hudson thought he recognized her for a second.
“Hi,” Hudson said, trying to offer a polite smile and not seem as if he’d just sprinted up the stairs. “My name’s Hudson, I have a meeting with Dean Gardner. An interview.” He cleared his throat a little and folded his hands in front of his stomach, as if that might hide his clothes.
The woman sighed and put her book down on the desk, turning to her computer screen. She played with the mouse a little bit and then hit the keyboard until the monitor came back to life.
“Hmm,” she said after a moment. “You’re late.”
Hudson nodded, making sure to look ashamed of himself. “I know. I’m terribly sorry. I’ll make sure to apologize to the dean. There’s no excuse for it.”
“Too late,” she said with a sigh. “Sorry, hon. The dean waited twenty minutes. Then he had to go to a meeting across campus.”
Hudson’s immediate reaction was to hang his head. He kept it there for a moment, trying to think, until the receptionist asked if he was okay.
“There must be something I can do,” he said. “When’s his next open slot? I’ll explain as much as I can in however much time he has.”
The woman shook her head, angling her eyebrows sadly. She turned to the computer and made a show of scrolling up and down the calendar in front of her. “You were his last meeting here. He’s across campus now, then at lunch with the school president, and then he’ll be driving back to Oxford straight from there. Nothing I can do.”
Despondent, Hudson turned away. He crossed the courtyard slowly, trying to think of how he could possibly explain himself to his dad. The two women were still chatting on the bench, steam rising from their coffee, thick like smoke from a train wreck. Leila had parked on the far side of the lot, her red car pointed away from the campus. She was sitting on the hood, her knees up and legs crossed in front of her, looking out at the road, which was as quiet as you’d expect on a Saturday morning. She looked tired but happy. There was some light bruising where her collarbone met her neck, a hickey Hudson hadn’t noticed because of the morning’s hectic mood.
Finally she noticed him and slid off the car. “What happened?”
“I didn’t make it in time.”
She threw her arms around his neck and pulled him in tight. “Shit, I’m so sorry.” It was weird how he could recognize the hug’s physical comforts yet not be comforted. “Maybe you can reschedule?”
He returned the hug briefly, then pulled away from her. “No, I can’t reschedule. I just no-showed the most important interview of my life.” He felt like hitting the car.
“Maybe if you—”
“Damnit, Leila, no.”
The harshness of his voice surprised them both. He turned so that he was facing the road, Leila’s pretty face and whatever expression it was contorted into—sadness, shock, disbelief—just out of sight, where it couldn’t weaken the anger he wanted to be feeling.
A loud cackle echoed through the parking lot. Hudson turned around and saw one of the women with her head flung back, laughing. The heavier of the two was talking excitedly, and the laughing one waved her hand, as if begging her to stop.
Hudson caught himself biting on the end of his thumb, a nervous habit he usually tried hard to avoid, since he hated the little bumps of chewed-off skin that were left behind. This time he let himself go on. After a while, Leila walked up to Hudson so that her legs straddled his and he had nowhere to look except at her. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. All he could think about was the empty office where he should have been sitting, his back straight, keeping eye contact, projecting confidence and a genuine interest in his education—all those things that FAQs on the Internet had told him to do.
“Let’s go,” he said after a few moments. “I have to tell my dad.”
Leila’s eyes narrowed until he could only see green irises and black pupils that matched her hair. He dropped his gaze to the ground, focusing on the line where the paved lot met the grass, thinking about her story of the two different anthills. He walked around to the driver’s side, opening the door and getting in behind the wheel before Leila had moved.
He turned the engine on before Leila got in, which she was slow to do. When she did, the air took on, simultaneously, the feel of weight and fragility. They were quiet, the only sound being the car itself, the brakes chirping whenever Hudson slowed for a turn. There was a clear sense that, if either of them spoke, something would break. He adjusted the rearview mirror wide to the right so that he wouldn’t have to look in her direction. He drove brusquely, with quick accelerations, sudden braking, and jerky turns. Angry driving, his dad’s voice said in his head, is the most dangerous thing on the road.
When they got back to Hudson’s neighborhood, his dad’s black Camaro was still in the driveway, sparkling in the morning sun as if it had just been waxed. Hudson parked Leila’s car at the curb and let the engine idle for a moment. He gripped the steering wheel, trying to squeeze out the tension from his fingers. His left leg jittered nervously against the door, making something in the car rattle annoyingly.
Who the hell was this beautiful tornado of a girl who had come into Hudson’s life and uprooted everything he’d known?
“All I had to do was stay at home,” he said, looking out at his house. “Get some sleep, show up there on time. It was so easy. We could have stayed in. We could have...I don’t know. Why did we have to go to the island yesterday, of all days?”
He could sense her eyes on him. “Your dad’s a nice guy. He’ll understand.”
“It doesn’t matter if he understands,” Hudson said, his voice rising. “I may have just ruined my future. Don’t you get it? This was my one shot at a full scholarship. There’s no way they’ll give me one now.”
She reached out and put a hand over his, but he kept it tight on the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white. “I’m sorry this happened. But wasn’t it worth it? It was still the greatest night of your life, right?”
In a few minutes, his dad would walk out, on his way to work. Hudson’s stomach turned with guilt at the thought. His dad spent all his time in the garage, wanting only one thing for his son, and now Hudson had thrown it right back in his face, all for some girl. He couldn’t help but bow his head, as if his shame could just drop right out of him.
“I don’t know,” he said, turning toward her. “It’s hard to see it that way right now.”
Leila’s eyes glimmered in the rising sun. What right did she have to be so beautiful at a time like this?
Somewhere in the neighborhood, a car was coming down the road. Hudson could hear its engine, at least a V6, in good shape. Hudson wished they would have just stayed at home, fallen asleep on top of his comforter, woken up on time in merely sleep-wrinkled clothes, avoiding any room for doubt about whether or not it had been the greatest night of his life. But his night with Leila was tainted by this hungover morning.
“I didn’t keep you on the island,” Leila said, her voice calm, soft. “You did.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Hudson shot back. “The way you stayed parked outside my house last night? How was I not supposed to come running out? And we didn’t have to swim across the river—that was your idea. We could have taken the boat, brought our cell phones with us, set an alarm. We didn’t have to stay there all night. You knew I had the interview.”
“You knew better than I did, Hudson.” She brought her feet up to the dashboard, tucking her knees against her chest. “You want to pretend I was in control last night, go ahead. But we both know the truth.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“You chose to stay out there with me. We could have swum back. I even asked you if that was what you wanted.” He couldn’t take the sight of her eyes anymore and turned away, catching his own reflection in the window. “‘No place I’d rather be.’ That’s what you said.”
“I don’t remember saying that.” Hudson’s leg still jittered against the car door, the annoying rattle filling the pauses between words, not letting silence grab hold of the air in the car. “And if I did, it’s only because I wasn’t thinking clearly.” Leila’s breath caught, as if it had stumbled on something. He could see her chin quiver ever so slightly.
Outside, Mrs. Roberson was walking her twin Chihuahuas, Bowser and Nacho, their tiny legs scampering to keep pace with her. She waved at Hudson cheerily, dressed in a pink tracksuit, her hair up in a ponytail. He raised his hand in response, feeling the tension in his fingers subside.
“You knew exactly what you were doing, Hudson,” Leila said, her gaze following Bowser and Nacho’s path down the street. “I think you were looking for an excuse to miss the interview. I think this happened for a reason, and as soon as you’re done being scared of admitting what you really want, you’ll see that maybe this is for the best.”
Hudson snorted derisively. “What are you talking about? Without that scholarship, I can’t afford school. Without school, I have no fucking future,” he said. He shook his head, amazed that the girl who’d understood him so clearly just yesterday now didn’t seem to get him at all.
Leila took her feet off the dashboard, slipping them back into the flip-flops and sitting up straight against the car seat. “Stop lying to yourself. You don’t want to go to school, Hudson.”
“You don’t even know me, Leila. What makes you think you know what I want?”
Leila suddenly opened the car door, swinging around so that her feet were on the asphalt, her back turned toward Hudson. The morning sounds came in through the open door, birds chirping, insects, somewhere a couple of kids laughing.
“I’ve heard you talk about this town like it’s the only thing you love aside from fixing cars. People go entire lives without figuring out exactly what they want from life. You already have it, and the future you and your dad have planned out for you is going to take it away from you.” One of her hands went to her face, but Hudson couldn’t see what she was doing with it. “You let us fall asleep on the oxbow because this is exactly where you want to be. You weren’t just talking about being there with me. You’re afraid of leaving Vicksburg, of leaving your dad.”
Hudson felt short of breath. He opened his own door and swung his feet out onto the curb, so that he and Leila had their backs to each other, like an old married couple moving to opposite sides of the bed. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He stood up, slamming the door behind him. He meant to storm into his house, but his legs were weak, and he leaned back against Leila’s car, his gaze on his front door, the rolled-up newspaper lying on the welcome mat, its pages crumpled from its collision against the side of the house. A few moments passed, Hudson taking deep breaths to steady himself, his legs refusing to move. Then he heard the rubber smacking of Leila’s flip-flops stepping toward him.
He couldn’t tell exactly what he felt when he saw that she was crying. Whether he wanted to comfort her and wipe her eyes dry or whether he wanted her to keep crying, each tear proof that he was not the only one at fault. There was another part of him that may have even been a bit proud that she cared enough about him to be crying. How could all those things exist inside him at the same time and not tear him into shreds, reduce him to a pile of rubble on the sidewalk?
“Okay, okay. I messed everything up,” she said, standing right in front of him. “What can I do to fix this?”
“There’s nothing you can do,” he said, his voice calmer than he’d expected. It reminded him of his dad’s voice. “Maybe you should just go.”
A light breeze picked up, sending a waft of fresh-smelling air their way. Hudson realized that the two of them probably smelled of the river, of the ground they’d slept on, of yesterday. For how long would the smell or the sound of the river bring Leila to mind?
Her eyes were red, redder than they should have been, since only a couple of tears had slipped out and dripped wet streaks down her cheeks. Or maybe they were red from straining to keep the tears in. She took a breath, the air rushing into her lungs sounding thin and sharp, on the verge of whistling. “Okay,” she said. “I will.”
She threw her arms around him, too quickly for him to try to stop her. He could feel her tears dripping onto his neck. The breeze blew again and cooled the wet spots on his neck. It felt as if they might freeze.
Without another word, she kissed his cheek and then moved him aside to get into her car. The engine sounded good when it came to life—healthy, ready for her trip. He watched her struggle with the seat belt, then put the car into drive, glancing back at him and forcing a crooked, broken smile. Then the sun caught the window, and he couldn’t see inside anymore, which was just as well, since she was already headed down the road.
The girl responsible for the best night of his life was gone, headed vaguely north—who knew exactly where. He stood out there on the curb for a few minutes, watching his block, the familiar driveways basking in the light of the morning sun. Hudson lingered there, as if waiting for something else to happen. Then he turned to his house, determined to put her out of his mind.
THE ONE THING Bree could never deal with was the still time in between adventures. Back in Reno, time had not been valuable, so its waste didn’t matter. But now, in her new life, every still moment was a suffocating one, a lost one. And no matter how badly she wanted to move, here she was, walking down the side of the highway in Kansas, kicking tufts of dried grass because there weren’t even any pebbles. She waited, bored, for the next car to stick her thumb out at.
The strap on her duffel bag was cutting into her shoulder, so she shifted it over to the other side and examined the little tread marks it had left on her skin. She couldn’t tell if the redness was from the strap or from the sun beating down on her all day. The bag wasn’t heavy—she never packed much, simply because she had fallen in love with the idea of traveling light—so she assumed that the redness was from the sun. She unzipped the bag and pulled out one of the three shirts she owned, a once-fluorescent-green tank top, and draped it over her head to keep her face from burning.
She sighed loudly and looked up at the sun as if it were to blame for the lack of cars. Here she was, light like dandelion fluff, ready for the wind to whisk her away, and nothing was happening.
Finally, the glimmer of something silver headed her way. She stuck her thumb out and even leaned a little forward, in case cleavage was more easily spotted. She hoped it wasn’t a trucker. Truckers were sometimes friendly but too often creepy instead—they were the reason she’d learned to carry a steak knife with her.
The sound of tires rushing against the pavement was as beautiful as any song she’d ever heard. She held her breath as the sedan came into view, but the car showed no signs of slowing, and within seconds the tires had whizzed past her.
Bree cursed at the gust of wind that trailed in the car’s wake and had knocked her green tank top to the asphalt. She grumbled as she knelt down to pick up the shirt, so anxious to get going that she almost didn’t see the second car coming. She stood back up and stuck her thumb out again, and the car instantly slowed down, the brakes not quite screeching but chirping loudly enough to be heard through the music that was blasting from inside. The car was old and crummy, its red paint job aiming for brilliance but coming closer to dried blood. Even the hubcaps were dark red.
Bree took a couple of steps toward the car and leaned over to look through the rolled-down passenger-side window. It surprised her to see that the driver was a girl more or less her age. She rarely saw other teens on the road, especially not on their own.
“Where you headed?” the driver called out over the music, which she hadn’t bothered to turn down.
“Anywhere,” Bree called back, exactly as she’d said over and over again, the perfect nomadic answer. She glanced at the interior of the car, taking in the iced coffee in the cup holder, the scattered receipts, the trash bag secured to the gearshift and stuffed to the brim with empty plastic bottles and junk-food wrappers. The inside of the car was red, too, but there it succeeded in its brilliance and looked almost new. The upholstery was red, the steering wheel was red, even the forgotten liquid in the Gatorade bottle on the floor was red.
“Perfect,” the girl said, and she motioned with a nod for Bree to come in.
She opened the door and climbed in, hoisting her duffel bag into the empty backseat of the car. She could feel her heart start to beat harder with the familiar sensation of adrenaline and motion. It was as if her heart was not simply pumping blood around her body but pounding the stillness out of her system.
The driver seemed to consider the open road for a second, as if daring it to keep her from gunning her engine. “I’m Leila,” she said.
Leila nodded and offered a smile. Then the car rolled forward, and the wind started rushing in through the open window, pulling loose strands free from Bree’s ponytail. They flapped stingingly against the back of her sunburned neck and danced wildly across her eyes, thick tresses that had nearly turned to dreads during her nine months of roaming.
After a mile or so, when the song playing through the stereo system ended, Leila turned down the music and rolled up her window halfway. “So, what’s your story?”
“I don’t have a story,” Bree said, still needing to more or less yell over the sound of the highway.
“Everyone has a story,” Leila said, combing back her black tresses over her ear, only to have the wind uproot them. It made Bree feel somehow connected to the girl, how their hair danced.
“Well, then, my story is...” She motioned to the highway. “You know. Here. Going. The road.”
Leila looked over her shoulder, taking her eyes off the road long enough for Bree to get nervous. “Did you run away from home?”
They passed a sign saying that they had fifty miles to go to reach Kansas City, and Bree gave a little nod. She closed her eyes, focusing on the feel of the wind on her skin. She didn’t blame Leila for asking, since Bree had wondered the same about others, but she still hated being asked. Mostly because no matter how much she dressed it up with the details of her departure, no matter how much life she’d soaked up since, the basic truth was simple: Yes, she had run away. As they did all too often during quiet moments, thoughts of Bree’s sister, Alexis, rushed in. She opened her eyes. “What about you?” She asked. “What’s your story?”
“North,” Leila said, as if it explained everything.
“That’s it? That’s not much of a story.”
Leila turned to look at Bree, eyes green and full of so much life that Bree almost felt jealous of what they might have seen. “I have to go to Alaska. I’ve got a rare medical condition where I can’t be away from the magnetic poles for too long, or my body starts to decompose.”
Bree shifted uncomfortably in her seat, tensing up. She wasn’t good at dealing with diseases. She’d dealt with her parents’ for long enough. Then Leila cracked a smile. Bree relaxed. “Shut up. I almost believed you.”
Leila leaned in toward the steering wheel as her body shook with laughter. “Wow, I did not think that you’d fall for that. I’m not usually a good liar.” She controlled her laughter, then said, “No, I’m going to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. I want to take some pictures for my school portfolio.”
Bree nodded and looked out her window at the midwestern sky. She sometimes felt as if she might be swallowed up by it. The music coming from the speakers was fast, brimming with energy that resonated with Bree and clashed with the emptiness of the landscape. “That’s pretty cool,” she said. “Ever seen them before?”
“Just in pictures. Have you?”
Bree turned away from the window. “Yeah, when I was a kid. In Europe.” The memory was faint, the sight of the Northern Lights overwhelmed by the presence of her parents. She couldn’t even remember if it had been Switzerland or Denmark where she’d seen them, or how her mom had smelled: coffee on her breath or soap on her skin. Bree often wished she’d paid more attention before the smell of sickness started invading everything. “I don’t really remember them all that well, though.”
“Hmm,” Leila said, momentarily lost in thought. She brought a hand up to her mouth and chewed absentmindedly on the skin between her thumb and forefinger.
“How long have you been on the road for?” Bree asked.
“I’m just getting started. The later it is in summer, the better the chance to see the Lights, so I’m going slowly,” Leila said, moving both hands to the steering wheel. “You?”
“Um, it’s been a few months, I guess. It’s hard to keep track of time after a while. Which is kind of how I like it.”
“When you don’t have any reason to think of days as weekdays or weekends, you start to realize that all days are pretty much the same. And that kind of gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. It’s a lot easier to seize the day than it is to seize a Tuesday. You have errands on Tuesday. On Tuesday you eat pizza again. Your favorite TV show is on Tuesday, you know? But the day...” she said, adding hand gestures to signify the importance. “The day is all just hours you’re alive for. They can be filled with anything. Unexpectedness, wildness, maybe a little bit of lawlessness, even.” She looked over at Leila to gauge her reaction. “If that makes sense.”
Leila glanced away from the road to smile appreciatively at Bree. “Yeah, I think I know what you mean.” She turned back to the road. “Seize the Tuesday.” A few moments passed. A new song came on, another burst of energy and liveliness. Bree reached back to her bag to grab a granola bar and offered one to Leila, which she accepted with a thank-you.
When she was done with it, Leila stuffed the wrapper into the plastic bag hanging off the gearshift. “You ever find it easier said than done? The whole seizing-the-day thing. Carpe diem
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