7

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7.

Luke

THE COAST

Taking the steps two at a time, I paused only to use the shorts I'd tugged on to unscrew the cap of my beer. I took a sizable slug. The cold liquid did nothing to quiet the angry thoughts in my head or dull the thudding of my heart.

Deep breaths, buddy. Deep breaths.

My interior mantra slurred into a string of curses as I reached the last step and the sand gave way under my bare feet. I put my hands out for balance as I slid down the dune towards my favorite spot. It was nice and secluded amongst the tall grasses and weeds. Alyssa liked to call it my brooding rock.

I was actually surprised she hadn't come running after me, arms waving, telling me I was rude and her tuna casserole was so worth the smell. I was sure to be in for it when I got back to the house, but I didn't want to think about that now. I had to focus on the matter at hand. Focus on Callie.

It wasn't every day a girl like Callie showed up on your doorstep without any prior warning. It was even rarer that Callie, of all people, would try to pass it off as nothing more than a game of cross-country hooky. There was something about the way she'd clamed up when our eyes locked that told me that was a well-rehearsed line, like a thank you when someone gives you a present. It came out too easy, as did her chain of other excuses. There was no mention of her old flame or her new accessory. My jaw twitched.

It was sick, like he was branding her.

Just the thought made the beer I drank stir unpleasantly in my stomach. I ignored the sensation, nearly downing half of the bottle. Adam would've had to twist her arm to get her to follow through. It was nothing more than a quarter-sized sunburst on her wrist, but Callie's fear of needles rivaled her fear of heights.

I let out a frustrated grunt as a wave lapped the shore. Part of me wrestled with why a girl known for being highly predictable was thrust back into my life as unceremoniously as a piece of driftwood after the tide. The other part tried to ignore what was right in front of me. I wasn't normally the logical one, that was Callie's territory, but oddly enough I found myself examining the few facts I had. I finished off the bottle, propped it up in the sand, and cast my eyes out at the dark water.

Like it or not, Callie and Adam being back together made sense. It explained her lack of appetite, her forced comments about my wardrobe, her wrist. It even explained her shifty behavior.

Not now nor ever had I been Adam's number one fan. Of that, she was well aware.

But it seemed too easy, it discounted too much. It didn't clear up why she was here in Surfside. She hadn't just moseyed through on her way to visit him. In fact, South Carolina was almost half a continent in the opposite direction. And the tension in her body, her frazzled appearance, the surprise factor-none of those were characteristic of Callie.

No, there had to be more to it.

Brody's voice echoed in the still night air. I turned and squinted towards the top of the dune, his silhouette was backlit by our porch light, giving him an almost ghostly glow. I picked up my empty bottle and got to my feet, brushing the sand off my shorts. I was tempted to hurl my bottle into the oncoming waves. Instead, I gestured over my head as if signaling an airplane and started climbing the sand, meeting Brody half-way.

The Mohawk he'd spiked his hair into flopped over in the humidity, still damp but not quite dry. He'd changed shirts and his hands were jammed into the pockets of his shorts.

"Alyssa said you might be down here."

"Yeah, I needed a breather. Must be the heat, it makes the fish smell more unbearable-or something," my voice caught on the lie and then recovered, but not soon enough. He knew I spent plenty of time around the docks and fish would be the last thing to make my stomach churn. Hopefully that fact escaped Alyssa's radar. I couldn't risk a slip up. Not now, not with Callie staying here.

Brody's lips parted in a knowing smile, but he said nothing of it. "Must be. Callie wanted to come talk to you herself but Alyssa went all girl's night on her. She's probing her about home and making popcorn. She sent me instead."

My fingers tightened around the neck of the bottle.

Home was always a sore spot with Callie. Not that I blamed her. Kansas didn't conjure too many light and fluffy memories for me either, at least not many without her.

Brody clapped a hand on my shoulder. "You okay, Luke?"

I took a deep breath, shoved the bottle awkwardly into my pocket, and crossed my arms over my chest. "Yeah."

His eyebrow arched. "You sure? You seem a little out of it. Callie and you, you aren't dating or something, are ya? I didn't think you were the long distance type."

"We're not dating." We weren't. I don't know why it was so hard to vocalize the fact. It was probably because some part of me anticipated what came next.

I knew Brody too well for my own good.

"Too bad."

Despite being expected, I bristled some. While Adam was a theory he wasn't definite. I turned and started trudging up the side of the dune, pretending I hadn't heard him. Brody quickly got the hint and followed suit.

"I figured it was alright leavin' them. It seemed harmless enough. Your girl, she wasn't saying much anyway. Sometimes I think Alyssa just likes hearin' herself talk."

I let out a good natured laugh, trying to regain my composure, prove everything was all good. "Figures, I think she's been craving some extra estrogen lately. Tammy didn't come down yet this month."

Alyssa's sister worked at the resort up the coast and it was peak tourist season, so her lack of appearance wasn't anything too out of the ordinary. But it didn't go without notice.

Brody stalled, his eyes glassy. "Now that is a shame. I've been missin' her something fierce."

Mentioning his quasi-girlfriend never failed to veer him away from uncomfortable topics. Topics like Callie and home and our relationship. I'd learned that early on and took every opportunity I could to use it to my advantage.

I shook my head at him, playing the part of the amused friend. "Tammy works in a hotel for crying out loud, the least you two could do is get a room and let us sleep peacefully. I wouldn't be surprised if Alyssa begged her not to come. Hearing your sister going at it with your roommate must be all kinds of traumatizing."

I was careful to omit just how traumatizing Alyssa had let on that it was. That was best to be saved for another time.

Brody's look of confidence faltered briefly and he rubbed his jaw, no doubt pulling his head out of the gutter. If it had been anyone but Brody, he would have had the decency to be embarrassed.

"Maybe you should pay her a visit this weekend?" I offered.

Brody's broad smile returned as we reached the wooden steps up to the landing. "That sounds like a genius idea, Luke."

It was rather clever. The less distractions and strangers in the house the more I could get out of Callie. I just had to work on Alyssa.

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