Part 1

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Things happen whenever I'm in water.

That's all I really know.

I wouldn't know what it's like to be submerged for very long, because I have a "skin condition." That's why Mom always makes me get out of the tub after five minutes. Oddly enough, the shower never irritates my skin. But other things happen.

Take the shampoo bottle, for instance. Our family has used the same bottle going on two years now. I'm certain it's the same one because there's a purple streak on the side from a hair dye kit Mom brought home when I was in sixth grade. Now I'm about to enter eighth grade, and the streak's still there.

The funny thing is, it feels empty every time I pick it up. I've been positive each time I squeeze a drop into my palm will be the last. Yet, whenever I wash my hair, just enough shampoo squirts out to get the job done.

Okay, so I'm probably being silly about the shampoo bottle. Maybe it's only because, deep down, I know we don't have a lot of money, and I'm used to trying to make things stretch for as long as I can. It's like a contest: how many more wears can I get out of a holey pair of socks? How many more pages—and corners of pages, and borders of pages—can I fill up before we have to go to the Dollar General for more spiral notebooks? How many more uses can I get out of a seemingly empty shampoo bottle?

Apparently, two years' worth.

I guess it's not so strange. But when I'm walking on the shore, collecting seashells...I don't know how to describe the sensations that sift through me. Sometimes it feels like déjà vu, but stranger. Usually, Mom's voice interrupts by then, telling me it's time to go home and to watch out for the tide.

She's cooking right now. She's stirring tuna into our Hamburger Helper instead of hamburger meat, because I eat a healthy diet of fish, fish, and fish. I've never had an interest in eating land animals. I mean, we live on the eastern shore of Maryland with constant access to the best seafood ever, so why would I want anything other than crabs and mussels and fried fish? Covered in Old Bay—yes, please.

I know Mom expects me to set the table, but it's just the two of us tonight and I don't see why we can't just eat outside on the porch. Mom's embarrassed because it's June and our Christmas lights are still up. From four Christmases ago. They're the white twinkly kind though, so I told her they're actually 'year-round' lights. (Dad seemed to appreciate the excuse not to have to take them down during his week off.)

"Roshelle, get the napkins, please?" Mom glances over her shoulder at me.

I go to the pantry and pull out a wad of napkins. I refill the napkin holder in the center of the table. It's got a little wooden anchor on each side.

"Thanks, hon." She sounds tired as she stirs the pan with a wooden spoon.

"You working tonight?" I ask her.

She pauses, then shakes her head. "I told you, I'm not doing that anymore."

"Why not?

"Because I hate leavin' you at night."

"I'm not a baby," I grumble, reaching for the plastic bowls.

"Shell, no plastic. Use the good bowls."

I head for the ceramic bowls in the cabinet. "Now we'll have to do dishes after dinner."

She musses my hair as I pass. "Two bowls to rinse out—boo hoo!" she teases.

I smile. She wears bangs these days and I love it. Her dark hair tapers down her back, and her bangs fall almost to her eyelashes. It accentuates her cheekbones and would make her look decades younger, if not for the big circles under her eyes.

Naturally, I look nothing like her. My cheeks are round and full. Some of the cliquey girls at school have made comments about my "baby fat." As for my hair, it's wavy and blonde, but unfortunately not in a perfect, California sun-kissed babe style. More like a chubby-Maryland-girl-can't-run-a-comb-through-her-hair kind of way.

Mom serves dinner and we sit down at the table. Dad's spot at the head is empty. He drives trucks cross-country for Busey Ltd., so he can be gone for weeks at a time. I wonder if it makes Mom lonely. But she's got her jobs, and me.

I slip a forkful of creamy cheese noodles and salty flakes of steaming tuna into my mouth. My eyelids flicker down as I savor it.

"You ready for summer break?" asks Mom.

"I've been ready since last September." I swallow my bite and my stomach twists a little. Now is the perfect time to ask her...if I don't chicken out. "Mom?" I stir the fork in my bowl. "I wanted to ask..."

She's looking like she already knows what I'm about to say.

I take a breath. "Ginger Dover's party is Friday night and she invited me. I was really hoping—"

"Where's it at?" Her eyes look sharp.

I falter. "The cove," I say, causing her to sigh dramatically.

"Shell, we've talked about this..."

"I won't get in the water, I swear!" I drop my fork to hold out both hands, proudly displaying no crossed fingers. "I'll stay on a towel in the sand. I promise there won't be any drinking. Ginger isn't like that, anyway."

Mom massages her forehead like I'm hurting her. I hate when she does that. It makes me feel so guilty, and I don't even know what I'm supposed to feel guilty about. "Will there be boys?" she asks.

"I know how you feel about bathing suits and boys, Mom."

"Answer the question."

"No, it's just a girls' night at the beach. Ginger's aunt will be supervising. She's a lifeguard."

Mom pulls her phone out of her back pocket. "Then I'd like Ginger's aunt's number. Because she needs to understand that you have a serious skin condition and cannot under any circumstances submerge—"

"Myself in water," I finish for the billionth time. "I know, Mom. Everyone does." Gently, I reach across the table and lower her hand.

She meets my eyes, and I can't help but blink in surprise at the fear on her face.

"Mom?" I whisper, startled.

She tucks her phone away again, and suddenly I want to know why she looks so frightened. Is she afraid for me? I've never broken a bone. Never been held up in an alleyway. It's only my skin, which has been totally fine for as long as I've been aware. She says I had lots of problems as a baby, but I've never seen a flare-up myself, since my parents have taken so many precautions since.

I chance another glance at my mother as we resume our dinner in silence. Her eyes rest absently on my necklace. I touch it, and she makes a little grunt in her throat and looks away.

My thumb slides down the contoured ridges of my pendant, its familiarity instantly comforting me. It's the shape of a shell. I've worn it for as long as I can remember. It's rock-solid, a glimmering blend of turquoise and aquamarine in color. Shiny, almost like dichroic glass, but too textured to be glass. I don't know what it's made of.

My friends have marveled at it and asked where I bought it, but I honestly have no idea where it came from. And I kind of like it that way. Mom and Dad said someone gave it to me when I was born, but they don't remember who. So many people sent gifts that they lost track of who gave what.

Kind of a sad irony that the girl with the seashell necklace, who lives in a trailer by the seashore, can't go into the ocean.

"So, Mom, about the party at the cove..."

"No swimming?" Her tone challenges me.

"None whatsoever."

"Not even a bathing suit. Promise?"

My heart pounds. I want so badly to go. Ginger is one of my best friends and I don't want to tell her 'I can't' yet again. I'm sure the other girls will go in the water for a dip, but that doesn't mean I have to. Right?

"I promise," I say.

Mom takes a sip of her Diet Sprite, swishes it in her mouth a little. Then she smiles at me, softly. Trusting me. "M'kay."

~ ~ ~

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