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Gideon keeps falling down.
He and Claudia slipped outside to the beach and were out there for at least ten minutes before my parents or Noah or I noticed they were gone. They’re greasy and gritty now with sand and seawater, so there’s no point in dragging them back inside and getting everything dirty our first night here, plus none of us feel like putting in the effort to chase them. My mother, who’s a little too old and way too pregnant to run around outside and parent them hands-on like she used to, drifts to the porch off the first floor to watch them and make sure they don’t kill themselves, one hand on her stomach, one on the railing.
Noah and I linger by the windows on the other side of the family room, our foreheads pressed against the glass. We’re moaning every time we see a particularly good wave roll by and looking at each other—maybe we should go out? Maybe we can? No.
Outside, Claudia is laughing loudly enough for us to hear. She always says she’s way too old to play with Gideon, and she’s not going to, no way, and if we want a babysitter, we can pay her. But she always ends up playing with him anyway, at least when we’re here. Here no one is too old. Except Mom and Dad. And Claudia and Gideon are the two youngest, so they get shoved together and there is no way to avoid it, even though Claudia’s eleven and Gideon’s barely six.
Dad says, “Aren’t you two going out?”
We can’t. Even though there’s sand stuck to our feet from the walk from the car, up the stairs, inside, and back, and back, and back, while we hauled in suitcases. Even though the carpet smells like old sunscreen. Noah and I know that it isn’t quite summer. Not yet. Summer can’t start at night, first of all, and it definitely can’t start before we see the SUV roll up outside the Hathaways’ beach house. And until it comes, we’ll wait here. That’s tradition, and Noah and I do not kill tradition. If we get here before the Hathaways, we wait.
Dad says, “You boys are sticks in the mud.”
“Heathen,” Noah mutters.
Dad’s not pregnant, but he acts like he is, complaining that he’s so tired from the drive, that he needs to put his feet up. He sits on the scratchy couch—the one with years of our sand embedded between the cushions—and complains, like every year, that the renters have moved the furniture.
We’re totally not listening.
“Boys,” he says. “They’re probably not coming until tomorrow.”
“They always come the same day we do,” I say.
Dad says, “You’d be able to hear the car from the beach. Go outside and make sure Gideon doesn’t get dizzy.”
Making sure Gideon doesn’t get dizzy is one of our family duties, along with getting Mom’s slippers, thinking of a name for Chase’s song, washing the makeup off your sister’s face are you kidding me she is not leaving the house like that, and figuring out where the hell Noah is.
Mom laughs from the balcony and reports, “He’s tipping over every which way.”
“Claudia will catch him,” Noah mumbles.
“Claudia’s catching him,” Mom calls in.
I can just barely see Claudia and Gideon if I crane my neck and press my cheek around the window. Noah laughs because I look silly with my face all squished, but I like seeing my little siblings, pushing each other over, spinning in circles, always getting up. I can see Claudia’s hands moving, but she’s too far away for me to know what she’s signing.
God, I can taste the ocean. I’m weak. “Let’s go out, Noah.”
He shakes his head and says, “We’ve got to wait for Melinda and the twins.” This is so weird, because usually it’s Noah trying to go somewhere—the movies, out for a run, college—and me begging him to stay, to wait, though I never have a specific thing for him to wait for.
“Noah, Chase, come sit with me,” my father says. “You’ll still be able to see the headlights, I promise.”
This is enough of an excuse for me to abandon our stakeout. I give Noah a little head jerk, but he frowns and, instead of staying where he is, shows how disappointed he is by heavyfooting into the kitchen to put away groceries. He could not act more put-upon if it were his job. Whatever. I join my father on the couch and tuck myself under his arm while he strokes my hair.
I’ve just barely closed my eyes—the grain of the couch against my cheek, Noah’s malcontented grumblings in my ear—when I see the headlight glare through the windows and through my eyelids.
“Noah, they’re here!”
We run barefoot across the street to the Hathaways’ and maul Melinda, Bella, and Shannon as soon as they step out of the SUV. Their parents laugh, pushing back their sweaty bangs, hauling duffel bags out of the car. Shannon pulls out of my hug and taps his fist against mine. He sticks his hand in my hair. “Welcome back, soldier,” he says.
“Welcome home, Shannon.”
“Can we make s’mores, Mom?” Bella asks. She’s clinging to one of Noah’s arms, which is kind of weird. I wrap the hem of Noah’s shirt around my finger until I have a good enough hold to tug him away from her.
He’s not even paying attention, because Melinda is milling by the other arm. She’s nineteen, older than Noah, and so thin that she always looks like a part of her is missing and the rest of her might be about to go find it. Her long fingernails close the gap between her hand and Noah’s wrist. I’ve seen Claudia do the same grip when she wants Noah to do something.
Melinda is his sister in a different way.
“Of course we can,” Mrs. Hathaway says, with a laugh like a string instrument. “You boys want to get your family here?”
Noah says, “Chase, run and get everybody.”
I sprint across the street and straight onto the beach. I’m in the sand for the first time this summer. I always forget how cold it feels on my feet. “Claude!”
Claudia’s wearing her first two-piece bathing suit. She bought it around February, when they put the first bathing suits on the racks, and she’s been clamoring to wear it ever since. I pretty much hate that some company thinks her preteen body is capable of being sexualized, and that this—this night, this beach—is the time and place to do it. She screams, “Chase!” and tackles me into the sand, and she’s a child no matter what she’s wearing.
“Melinda and the twins are here,” I say. “Get dressed and we’ll make s’mores.”
But Claudia’s already running across the street. “Gimme a shirt, Mom!” she yells, and Mom tosses down some old T-shirt of mine. Claudia doesn’t stop running as she catches it and pulls it over her sweaty hair.
“Gid!” I yell. He’s deaf as a board, but he’s still spent all six years of his life getting yelled at. He’s watching me, asking me with his eyes and his hands where Claudia went.
Across street I sign to him. Come here. Don’t fall down. My ASL sucks, but the light’s so bad right now it doesn’t matter. Gideon runs over to me and I sign hold my hand before we start across the street. Either he sees this or just holds out of habit.
At the Hathaways’, we make s’mores on the grill, pushing down on them with the spatula until they hiss. I sit with Shannon at the Hathaways’ picnic table and we try to fill each other in on our lives since last August. During the year, I always feel like there are a million things I need to remember to tell him, and now nothing seems important but our siblings and our summer and the smoke from the grill.
Shannon keeps asking about my family—mostly Claudia and the baby yet to come—and I’m trying to pay attention, but my eyes keep going back to Bella. Was she this tall last summer? Maybe that’s why she was hanging off of Noah. I’m still waiting to hit my growth spurt. But I’m the one who’s her age. I hope she keeps that in mind.
I respond to one of Shannon’s questions about Claudia with a quick, “I always forget how old she is,” and then clear my throat. “So what’s Bella been up to?”
Shannon looks over at his twin. She dances in circles in the spots of moonlight that break through the Hathaways’ awning. Her bare feet glitter. They’re white and pointed, like something off a fairy.
He smiles. “She got the lead in the Nutcracker this year.” It’s his turn to ask about someone. “So how’s Gideon?”
Gideon’s hugging on to Mom’s leg, watching Claudia, probably wishing she were talking to him because she’s the only one of us who signs well. The rest of us really only pretend we can, but, then again, so does Gideon.
“Deaf,” I say. “Melinda?”
“Grumpy. And she dyes her hair a lot. She’s always sighing and mumbling about the universe.”
But right now Melinda’s at the corner of the balcony, talking to the dogs. “Mom?” she says. “I’m taking the dogs out for a run.”
Her mother is by the grill with my parents, where they’re laughing over a few beers, throwing coals down to the sand, touching Mom’s huge stomach.
Shannon says, “Chase? How’s Noah?”
“I’ll come with you,” Noah says, with a glance Melinda’s way, and he has the dogs unclipped from their leashes and free in no time, and he’s gone, chasing them across the street and onto the beach. I listen for the sound of them splashing in the water, but they’re too far away. I am getting a headache, listening this hard.
I try to think about Bella again, and I don’t answer Shannon, but his father asks me the same question when I go over to the grill to collect my s’more. He claps me on the shoulder and says, “Noah excited for college?”
I want to tell him Noah doesn’t really get excited, but I don’t know how to describe my brother to someone who’s known him just as long as I have but doesn’t understand him any better. So I smile. It’s so dark now, but the coals and the stars illuminate my siblings and Shannon’s siblings and our parents and make us all look permanent and important.
I say, “He’s kind of quiet about how he feels.”
“Yeah. Did he run off with Melinda?”
“I guess so.”
My parents exchange looks, like they were expecting Noah and Melinda’s flighty romance to take a hiatus this year, or something.
Noah does not ruin tradition. I could have told them that. And Melinda is his summer. More and more every single year.
So I just say, “He runs off a lot.”
Mr. Hathaway laughs and says, “Man, your brother’s a flight risk, isn’t he?” He serves me a s’more and says, “Still playing guitar, Chase?”
I grin and look down.
They drag their old guitar out so I don’t have to run home, and I make up chord progressions while Bella sings along in this ghost voice that makes me hyperaware, like my whole body is made of fingertips. They smile at me in that way adults do when they’re drunk that makes you feel not so much younger.
We carry the plates into the kitchen, where the lights dazzle us into submission until someone has the sense to dim them. Once all the dishes are cleaned and stacked, the adults convince us to run down to the beach and try to find Noah and Melinda.
He’s up to his waist in the ocean, the Hathaways’ two dogs swirling around him like they’re trying to create a whirlpool. My brother is the eye of his manufactured hurricane.
“Get in!” he yells, and none of us needs to be told twice.
The six of us splash in after him, screaming at the cold water, screaming at each other, screaming at every single foot of empty where the sky is and we aren’t. Bella’s on my shoulders and I’m twirling her around, Melinda’s holding her breath for as long as she can, everyone’s always yelling, “Where’s Gideon?” and pulling him out from underneath a breaking wave, yelling, “Where’s Noah?” and realizing he’s swum halfway out to sea.
Whenever there’s a split second of silence, we can hear our parents across the street, strumming the old guitar, laughing, clinking their beer bottles together.
Eventually my brother the flight risk comes and holds my head underwater until everything swirls, and, when I come up and sputter and blink, everyone’s skin is shiny and spotted from the stars. Bella and Claudia are running around on the sand, throwing handfuls at each other, shrieking, and Melinda’s squeezing the ocean out of her somehow colorless hair, her legs absolutely sparkling.
I want to be exactly this old forever.
“Y’all right, soldier?” Shannon asks me, his voice raspy from the salt.
I nod and count heads. There’s Claudia, Gideon, Melinda, Bella, Shannon … there’s everyone but Noah, who somehow managed to disappear in that split second I wasn’t watching him.
So I look at Shannon and smile, and I try not to care, I try not to worry that my brother will leave me for good, because nothing is as permanent or important as the first summer night. Bella’s voice puts mine to shame, but I sing anyway, until Shannon dunks me underwater. When I come up, I hear everyone’s laugh—Shannon’s and Bella’s, as identical as they aren’t; Claudia’s, trying to be a woman; Gideon’s—that haunted sound that he doesn’t know he’s making—and Melinda’s. Twinkling into Noah’s ear as he swims back, back to her and not to me.
© 2011 Hannah Moskowitz