I didn't go back to bed right away. I stayed on the front porch awhile, feeling blue and a little teary--not that I would ever admit it to Steven.

In a lot of ways it was like the last summer. That fall, Conrad would start college. He was going to Brown. He might not come back next summer. He might have an internship, or summer school, or he might backpack across Europe with all his new dorm buddies. And Jeremiah, he might go to the football camp he was always talking about. There were a lot of things that could happen between now and then. It occurred to me that I was going to have to make the most of this summer, really make it count, in case there wasn't another one quite like it. After all, I would be sixteen soon. I was getting older too. Things couldn't stay the same forever.

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Chapter twenty

AGE II

The four of us were lying on a big blanket in the sand. Conrad, Steven, Jeremiah, and then me on the edge. That was my spot. When they let me come along .This was one of those rare days.

It was already midafternoon, so hot my hair felt like it was on fire, and they were playing cards while I listened in.

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Jeremiah said, "Would you rather be boiled in olive oil or skinned alive with a burning hot butter knife?"

"Olive oil," said Conrad confidently. "It's over quicker."

"Olive oil," I echoed.

"Butter knife," said Steven. "There's more of a chance I can turn the tables on the guy and skin him."

"That wasn't an option," Conrad told him. "It's a question about death, not turning the tables on somebody."

"Fine. Olive oil," Steven said grumpily. "What about you, Jeremiah?"

"Olive oil," Jeremiah said. "Now you go, Con."

Conrad squinted his eyes up at the sun and said, "Would you rather live one perfect day over and over or live your life with no perfect days but just decent ones?"

Jeremiah didn't say anything for a minute. He loved this game. He loved to mull over the different possibilities. "With that one perfect day, would I know I was reliving it, like Groundhog Day?"

"No."

"Then I'll take the perfect day," he decided.

"Well, if the perfect day involves--," Steven began, but then he looked over at me and stopped speaking, which I hated. "I'll take the perfect day too."

"Belly?" Conrad looked at me. "What would you pick?"

My mind raced around in circles as I tried to find the right answer. "Urn. I'd take living my life with decent days. That way I could still hope for that one perfect day," I said. "I wouldn't want to have a life that's just one day over and over."

"Yeah, but you wouldn't know it," Jeremiah argued.

I shrugged. "But you might, deep down."

"That's stupid," Steven said.

"I don't think it's stupid. I think I agree with her." Conrad gave me this look, the kind of look I bet soldiers give each other when they're teaming up against somebody else. It was like we were in it together.

I gave Steven a little shimmy. I couldn't help myself. "See?" I said. "Conrad agrees with me."

Steven mimicked, "Conrad agrees with me. Conrad loves me. Conrad's awesome--"

"Shut up, Steven!" I yelled.

He grinned and said, "My turn to ask a question. Belly, would you rather eat mayonnaise every day, or be flat-chested for the rest of your life?"

I turned on my side, grabbed a handful of sand, and threw it at Steven. He was in the middle of laughing, and a bunch got in his mouth and stuck to his wet cheeks. He screamed, "You're dead, Belly!"

Then he lunged at me, and I rolled away from him. "Leave me alone," I said defiantly. "You can't hurt me or I'll tell Mom."

"You're such a pain in the ass," he spat out, grabbing my leg roughly. "I'm throwing you in the water."

I tried to shake him off, but I only succeeded in kicking more sand into his face. Which of course only made him madder.

Conrad said, "Leave her alone, Steven. Let's go swim."

"Yeah, come on," said Jeremiah.

Steven hesitated. "Fine," he said, spitting out sand. "But you're still dead, Belly." He pointed at me, and then made a cutting motion with his finger.

I gave him the finger and flipped over, but inside I was shaking. Conrad had defended me. Conrad cared whether or not I was dead.

Steven was mad at me the whole rest of the day, but it was worth it. It was also ironic, Steven teasing me about being flat-chested, because two summers later I had to wear a bra, but, like, for real.

Chapter twenty-one

The night Steven left, I headed down to the pool for one of my midnight swims, and Conrad and Jeremiah and this neighbor guy Clay Bertolet were sitting on the lounge chairs drinking beer. Clay lived way down the street, and he'd been coming to Cousins Beach for almost as long as we had. He was a year older than Conrad. No one had even liked him much. He was just a person to hang out with, I guess.

Right away I stiffened and held my beach towel closer to my chest. I wondered if I should turn back. Clay had always made me nervous. I didn't have to swim that night. I could do it the next night. But no, I had as much right to be out there as they did. More, even.

I walked over to them, pretend-confident. "Hey, guys," I said. I didn't let go of my towel. It felt funny to be standing there in a towel and a bikini when they were all wearing clothes.

Clay looked up at me, his eyes narrow. "Hey, Belly. Long time no see." He patted the lounge chair. "Sit down."

I hated when people said "long time no see." It was such a dumb way to say hello. But I sat down anyway.

He leaned in and gave me a hug. He smelled like beer and Polo Sport. "So how've you been?" he asked.

Before I could answer, Conrad said, "She's fine, and now it's time for bed. Good night, Belly."

I tried not to sound like a five-year-old when I said, "I'm not going to sleep yet, I'm swimming."

"You should head back up," Jeremiah said, putting his beer down. "Your mom will kill you for drinking."

"Hello. I'm not drinking," I reminded him.

Clay offered me his Corona. "Here," he said, winking. He seemed drunk.

I hesitated, and Conrad snapped irritably, "Don't give her that. She's a kid, for God's sake."

I glared at him. "Quit acting like Steven." For a second or two I considered taking Clay's beer. It would be my first. But then I'd only be doing it to spite Conrad, and I wasn't going to let him control what I did.

"No, thanks," I told him.

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