Hey' who was saying it, and I believed everything you ever said. Compared to you, everyone else is saltines, even Cam. And I hate saltines. You know that. You know everything about me, even this, which is that I really love you."
I waited, standing in front of him. I was out of breath. I felt like my heart would explode, it was so full. I pulled my hair into a ponytail with my hand and held it like that, still waiting for him to say something, anything.
It felt like a thousand years before he spoke.
"Well you shouldn't. I'm not the one. Sorry."
And that was all he said. I let out a big breath of air and stared at him. "I don't believe you," I said. "You like me too; I know it." I'd seen the way he'd looked at me when I was with Cam, I'd seen it with my own two eyes.
"Not the way you want me to," he said. He sighed, and in this sad way, like he felt sorry for me, he said, "You're still such a kid, Belly."
"I'm not a kid anymore! You just wish I was, so that way you wouldn't have to deal with any of it. That's why you've been mad at me this whole summer," I said, my voice getting louder. "You do like me. Admit it."
"You're crazy," he said, laughing a little as he walked away from me.
But not this time. I wasn't going to let him off the hook that easily. I was sick and tired of his brooding James Dean routine. He had feelings for me. I knew it. I was going to make him say it.
I grabbed his shirt sleeve. "Admit it. You were mad when I started hanging out with Cam .You wanted me to still be your little admirer."
"What?" He shook me off. "Get your head out of your ass, Belly. The world doesn't revolve around you."
My cheeks flamed bright red; I could feel the heat beneath my skin. It was like a sunburn times a million. "Yes, exactly, because the world revolves around you, right?"
"You have no idea what you're talking about." There was a warning in his voice, but I didn't stop to listen. I was too mad. I was finally saying what I really thought, and there was no turning back now.
I kept getting in his face. I wasn't going to let him walk away from me, not this time. "You just want to keep me on this hook, right? So I'll keep chasing after you and you can feel good about yourself. As soon as I start to get over you, you just reel me back in. You're so screwed up in the head. But I'm telling you, Conrad, this is it."
He snapped, "What are you talking about?"
My hair whipped around my face as I spun around to walk backward, facing him. "This is it. You don't get to have me anymore. Not as your friend or your admirer or anything. I'm through."
His mouth twisted. "What do you want from me?
You have your little boyfriend to play with now, remember?"
I shook my head and backed away from him. "It's not like that," I said. He'd gotten it all wrong. That wasn't what I was trying to do. He'd been the one stringing me along, like, my whole life. He knew how I felt, and he let me love him. He wanted me to.
He stepped closer to me. "One minute you like me. Then Cam ..." Conrad paused. "And then Jeremiah. Isn't that right? You want to have your cake and eat it too, but you also want your cookies, and your ice cream . . ."
"Shut up!" I yelled.
"You're the one who's been playing games, Belly." He was trying to sound casual, offhand, but his body was tense, like every muscle was as tight as his stupid guitar strings.
"You've been an ass all summer. All you think about is yourself. So your parents are getting divorced! So what? People's parents get divorced. It's not an excuse to treat people like crap!"
He snapped his head away from me. "Shut your mouth," he said, and his jaw twitched. I had finally done it. I was getting to him.
"Susannah was crying the other day because of you-- she could barely get out of bed! Do you even care? Do you even know how selfish you are?"
Conrad stepped up close to me, so close our faces were nearly touching, like he might either hit me or kiss me. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. I was so mad I almost wished he'd hit me. I knew he'd never do it, not in a million years. He grabbed my arms and shook me, and then he let go just as suddenly. I could feel tears building up, because for a second there, I thought he might. Kiss me.
I was crying when Jeremiah walked up. He'd been at work lifeguarding; his hair was still wet. I didn't even hear his car pull up. He took one look at the two of us, and he knew something bad was happening. He almost looked scared. And then he just looked furious. He said, "What the hell is going on? Conrad, what's your problem?"
Conrad glared at him. "Just keep her away from me. I'm not in the mood to deal with any of this."
I flinched. It was like he really had hit me. It was worse than that.
He started to walk away, and Jeremiah grabbed his arm. "You need to start dealing with this, man. You're acting like a jerk. Quit taking your anger out on everybody else. Leave Belly alone."
I shivered. Was this because of me? All summer, Conrad's moodiness, locking himself up in his room-- had it really been because of me? Was it more than just his parents divorcing? Had he been that upset over seeing me with someone else?
Conrad tried to shrug him off. "Why don't you leave me alone? How about we try that instead?"
But Jeremiah wouldn't let go. He said, "We've been leaving you alone. We've left you alone this whole summer, getting drunk and sulking like a little kid. You're supposed to be the older one, right? The big brother? Act like it, dumbass. Freaking man up and handle your business."
"Get out of my face," Conrad growled.
"No." Jeremiah stepped closer, until their faces were inches apart, just like ours had been not fifteen minutes before.
In a dangerous voice Conrad said, "I'm warning you, Jeremiah."
The two of them were like two angry dogs, growling and spitting and circling each other. They'd forgotten I was there. I felt like I was watching something I shouldn't, like I was spying. I wanted to put my hands over my ears. They'd never been like this with each other in all the time I'd known them. They might have argued, but it had never been like this, not once. I knew I should leave, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I just stood there on the periphery, holding my arms close to my chest.
"You're just like Dad, you know that?" Jeremiah shouted.
That's when I knew it had nothing to do with me. This was bigger than anything I could be a part of.
This was something I knew nothing about.
Conrad pushed Jeremiah away roughly, and Jeremiah pushed him back. Conrad stumbled and nearly fell, and when he rose up, he punched Jeremiah right in the face. I think I screamed. Then they were wrestling around, grabbing at each other, hitting and cursing and breathing heavy. They knocked over Susannah's big glass jar of sun tea, and it cracked open. Tea spilled out all over the porch. There was blood on the sand. I didn't know whose it was.