Summa summa summatime! The perfect time to get a summer job and stack yo paper, but for seventeen-year-old Darcy, summer in small town Maine is a summer of secrets.
You’ll be mesmerized by Gillian French’s new novel, GRIT. Seventeen-year-old Darcy Prentiss has long held the title of “town slut. But if anyone were to look closer at Darcy, they’d realize there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. What she’s doing isn’t any different from what the guys in her town do– so why is she the only one who gets flack for it? When you’re a girl with a reputation, every little thing that happens seems to keep people whispering—especially when your ex-best friend goes missing. 👀 👀 👀
Read the first three chapters of GRIT now!
I swore I wouldn’t come back here this summer, not to Mrs. Wardwell’s foghorn voice and blisters the size of nickels. But when I went down to Gaudreau’s Sweet Dream on the last day of school and asked for an application, you know what Mr. Gaudreau said? “Sorry, honey pie, this is a family business.” Honey pie? Hell, I could sling Rocky Road faster than his girls, and I’d always offer jimmies. They’re wicked tight with jimmies at Gaudreau’s.
Anyway, it’s July 31, opening day of wild blueberry season all across Eastern Maine, and me and my sister Mags are back in the barrens for the harvest. The sun looks swollen and hazy, but I’ll be all right as long as I’ve got my straw cowgirl hat and my SPF 50.
I’m raking circles around Mags. I’ve filled thirty-two boxes of berries and we’ve only been at it since 7:00 a.m. I meet her eyes and grin. She scratches her cheek with her middle finger, slow. Pretending I want a drink of water from our gallon jug, I walk by and goose her, making her gasp, “Darcy Prentiss! God!”
Our cousin Nell is raking way over by the stone wall, but she knows what happened and her giggles echo across the fields. Soon Nell will start singing, which she does day-in, day-out, all season long, driving most of us crazy by quitting time. Still, Nell’s special, so when she bursts into Go Tell It On the Mountain at three in the afternoon when even us young kids have started aching all over, nobody tells her to shut up.
Raking goes like this: you bend at the knees and sweep a two-handled rake across the low bushes, filling the tines with berries. When your rake’s full, you dump it into a big plastic box stamped E.F. Danforth & Son. When the box is full, you open another one.
I don’t notice Nell racing across the rocky field toward me until she’s by my side, breathless. “He’s here. That Jesse Bouchard.” As we watch the pickup rumbling up the dirt road, she adds, “He’s late.” In a lot of ways, Nell’s like a kid; I guess you could call her a little slow. As my Aunt Libby likes to say to Mom, “At least I don’t got to worry about what my girl’s been up to.” Then she looks straight at me.
Jesse Bouchard parks his truck, and he and his buddies take their sweet time climbing out. Mr. Bob Wardwell, who’s field boss, goes over to bawl Jesse out, but before you know it, they’re laughing and shooting the shit like old buddies. Jesse’s gaze finds me and I look away, putting a hand to my hat even though there’s no wind today.
“Let’s move before he tries talking to us.” Nell tugs my arm.
I shake her off. “Get back in your row or I’ll tell your mom you were slacking.”
Jesse makes his way over, wearing worn-out jeans and a white tee-shirt, putting me in mind of that old picture of Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Mom’s vintage vinyl album. You know, with those dark curls and that sexy stare? All he says to me now is, “Nice to see ya,” while giving me the slow once-over, reminding me of all the places where my tank top is clinging with sweat.
His buddy Mason Howe follows–a big, blond, slow-moving guy who always seems to have his hands in his pockets, and behind him is the one person I was hoping to dodge for the rest of the summer. Shea Gaines flicks the brim of his ball cap, one corner of his mouth quirking up like somebody just told a dirty joke and the punch line was me. “Look who’s here,” is all he says.
His anger shifts under that surefooted cocky act of his, and I breathe out, holding his gaze as he passes on by. Mags and Nell move in on my left and right until we form a wall. Mags wipes her sweaty brow and says, “What’s up his butt?”
I shrug. “Tell you later.”
I fill ten more boxes before Mr. Wardwell blasts his truck horn three times, signaling us rakers to come up to headquarters (where the Port-O-Johns are) for an earful. Mags and Nell and I sit in the grass together, scarfing down our lunches, chugging water, and baking in the noonday heat as we get ready for Mrs. Evelyn Wardwell’s Jackassing-Around speech.
She squats in her camping chair, a two-liter of diet soda at her feet, eyeballing us. She’s huge, 275 easy, and the sleeveless flowered shirt she wears looks like it could cover a loveseat and leave a few yards to spare. Her husband kind of fades into the background as she heaves herself up and stands with her head thrust forward, fists on hips.
“Listen up. We got a lotta berries out there this year.” It’s true; it was a rainy spring and now the barrens are green and fit to burst. “Next three weeks, I wanna see asses and elbows, everybody showing up on time”¾her gaze finds Jesse, Shea, and Mason¾ “nobody cutting out early. No jackassing-around. We don’t pay you to jackass-around. I catch you at it, you’re outta here. I know plenty of folks who want to make some money. And don’t come to me saying so-and-so is paying more in their fields than we do. You get $2.50 a box here and that’s it.”
I sneak a look at Jesse. He sits with his forearms resting on his bent knees, and my gaze follows the line of his muscles all the way down to his wrists. You get ripped like that from tossing bales into a hay truck and thrashing down weeds to clear pasture, which he’s been doing over at his uncle’s place since he graduated in May, so I heard.
Shea catches me looking. He leans over and whispers something to Jesse, then smiles at me, hard and scalding. He’s not mad at me; he’s ready to draw blood, and I turn away, a flush rising in my face as Mrs. Wardwell keeps going.
“This ain’t gonna be like last year. None of that foolishness is gonna happen again. Understand me?” We all stop fidgeting. “Nobody’s allowed on this property after quitting time except me, Bob, and the migrants staying in the cabins. I’ll be here to see that the rest of you clear out. Get a ride or hoof it into town, I don’t care which. I can’t be responsible for what goes on after hours, got it?”
Everybody nods, us locals giving the migrant workers the once-over and the migrants looking right back to show they’ve got nothing to hide. Got to give the Wardwells credit: one of the posters, tattered and faded, is still taped to their camper door. Even twelve months later, the word MISSING stands out.
“Awright. Finish up eating and get back to work.” She drops into her chair, which is right outside the camper doorway so she can sit in the shade of the awning and prop an electric fan on the steps.
We get back to raking, but Mags and I don’t joke around like before, and Nell’s soft, flat crooning blends with the droning bugs and the sound of distant traffic from Route 15. Clouds move in. Rain’s coming.
After I load my last box of berries onto Mr. Wardwell’s flatbed, he walks around the tailgate, smacking his gloves together. He’s about half the size of his wife, with a thick head of white hair and skin so weathered it looks like old saddle leather. “You’re Sarah Prentiss’s girls, ain’t ya?” We all nod; Nell’s close enough to a sister. He grunts, scratching his stubble. “You heard what Evelyn said about being careful?”
I don’t remember her saying that, exactly, but Mags nods. “It’s okay. We stick together.”
“Good deal.” He heads for the truck. People are worried these days. Worried the ground’s going to open up and swallow another Sasanoa girl.
Exhausted and aching, the three of us walk down the road to Mags’s beat-to-hell Mazda. A group of guys hang around Jesse’s truck, talking trash. As we pass, Shea calls, “See ya at the quarry tonight, Darcy?” to big laughs.
I don’t stop or turn around, but once we’re in the car, I kick the dash so hard it sends the little hula girl into fits. Mags wears her know-it-all look, and the only reason she bites her tongue is because Nell’s in the backseat. But this time, Mags doesn’t know it all. She doesn’t know a damn thing.
Mags shifts hard into drive and we raise a rooster tail of dust behind us. Overhead, the sky looks ready to open up any second.
After my dad, smoking is Mom’s second true love. Dad died eleven years ago, so Kools are all she has left. She practices her skills every night, blowing rings or letting smoke trickle out her nostrils so slowly it hurts to watch. Sometimes I think she smokes so she won’t have to talk to us. Can’t really blame her when Aunt Libby is around, which is always, because her trailer sits on the edge of our property.
“You’re out of milk here, Sarah.” Libby sticks her head into our Frigidaire so that her rear end blocks my way, like she didn’t know I needed to get by. I have to climb over a chair to get back out to the porch. “This orange juice is expired. You know that?” She holds up the carton and sloshes it around to get Mom’s attention. “You’re gonna need bread. I’ll make French bread, how about that?” She searches the cupboard and sighs, flopping her arms down. “You’re out of flour.”
Mags and I trade looks and go back to our game of Hearts. We play cards on the porch all the time, betting change while Mom sits in a wicker chair with her feet propped on the railing, puffing and staring down to where Old County Road connects with 15. Tonight, us girls all have wet hair from showering, and moan and groan about our aching muscles whenever we shift around on the big faded area rug. Still, it’s worth it: by the end of harvest, I should have enough money saved for new school clothes and one of those clunkers down to Gary’s Salvage, which is where Mags bought her car last fall. You won’t catch me tossing coins for shotgun again.
Nell is eating pretzels. She considers each one before she puts it in her mouth, like she’s expecting to come across one shaped like Abe Lincoln or the Blessed Virgin. “I liked the movie on Saturday, but it wasn’t my favorite.” She’s been saying that since we got back from the Sasanoa Drive-In last weekend. The first movie of the double-feature is always a Hollywood classic, and Nell lives for it.
Mags rolls her eyes behind her dark-framed glasses. “Go on, tell us what you thought of the kiss.” She picks up the first trick and leads with spades.
“Wellll”¾Nell flops back on her elbows and walks her toes up the railing¾ “the boy was attractive . . . .” That’s her new thing: guys aren’t hot, they’re attractive. Marlon Brando’s all I remember from the movie, too, because I was half-gone on rum and Cherry Coke that my friend Kat brought in a thermos. “And he kissed like he meant it”¾she makes a big smooching sound, and Mags and I crack up¾ “but he was too rough with that girl. Kisses are supposed to be soft. That’s how every kiss should be.”
Mom speaks in her low smoker’s voice, holding her cigarette out to smolder in the muggy air. “And who’re you planning on kissing?” When you look at Mom, you can see what Mags and I will look like in twenty years or so: sandy blond hair, wide-spaced blue eyes that tilt up at the corners like a cat’s, short nose, pointed chin.
My gaze slides to Nell, but she doesn’t miss a beat. “None of those blueberry rakers, that’s for sure. They’re not gentlemanly.” We crack up again. “Well, they’re not.”
“What’re you talking about, Nellie Rose?” Libby leans in the doorway. She thinks Nell gets this stuff from The Young and the Restless. “You better watch yourself.”
“How can I watch myself? I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.” Nell laughs and laughs like it s the best joke ever, which gets Mags and I going again.
Libby puts her hands in the pockets of her denim jumper. That’s how she dresses, like a Pentecostal, even though we’re all lapsed Catholics: long hems and long braids and granny specs perched on the end of her nose. “Somebody mind telling me how I’m supposed to fix a celebration supper if I got nothing to work with?” She gives us a sly look as we turn to stare at her.
Mom grinds out her cigarette in a coffee cup. “You finally going to tell them?”
“What? Who?” Nell sits up. “Me?”
“You made it, baby.” Libby smiles. “Got the call today. You’re gonna be a Princess.”
Nell shoots up off the floor, shrieking and hugging her mom, jumping around to bring the porch down, which wouldn’t take much. I scoop up the cards and shuffle, since you can’t play Hearts with two people and Nell’s going to be over the moon for the rest of the night. She’s only wanted to be a Bay Festival Princess since forever, and here’s one thing I haven’t told you yet about Nell: she’s beautiful. Not beautiful like a Victoria’s Secret model, but pure, untouched gorgeous, the kind that scares most guys away. Skin like china, wavy Black Irish hair she got from her dad (wherever he is), dark blue eyes all starry and full of little-kid innocence.
Mom clears her throat. “That ain’t all the news, Lib.” Libby hugs Nell to her and lifts her chin stubbornly, saying nothing. Mom looks at me, and I stop in mid-cut. “Lady from the Festival Committee left you a message, too, Darce. You were nominated.”
Mags’s mouth drops open and then she falls over laughing. I stare at Mom, waiting for her to crack up, but when I see how sour Libby looks, I know it’s no joke. I burst out, “By who?”
Mom shrugs. “You know that’s kept secret. Guess you got a fan.” And that’s all I’ll get out of her tonight.
Nell screams again and pulls me into a hug that makes my spine pop, jerking me up and down. Meanwhile, my darling sister gasps and takes her glasses off to wipe her eyes. “Oh my God . . .wow . . . .”
For supper, we eat spaghetti and a pound cake Mom’s been hiding in the freezer behind last summer’s zucchini. I stab my fork into my plate harder than I need to, refusing to look at anyone, waiting for the world to come back into focus. Every time Nell shakes my arm and says, “Isn’t it awesome? We get to do it together!” Libby adds something like, “Lots of girls make the first round, you know,” or “Winning Queen is about more than just looks,” until I spill my iced tea accidentally-on-purpose to give her something else to bitch about.
I look at Mom as Libby fusses with paper towels. “Can I go?”
Mom waves her hand. I go upstairs, touching the framed picture of Dad hanging on the wall above the newel post; there could be bombs dropping on the house and I’d still remember to do that every night. In the picture, I’m two years old and Mags is three-and-a-half. He’s holding us in each arm like we weigh nothing, a grin on his face, leaning back against whatever hot rod he was tinkering with at the time.
The night air is thick, still waiting for the rain that’s been promised since this afternoon. Mags, Nell, and I sit where the roof flattens outside Mags’s bedroom window. We have to be careful because the shingles are crumbling, like the rest of the house. If we knock chunks down onto the porch, we could wake up Mom. Nobody knows we come out here at night, and we like it that way.
“You know what got you the vote.” Mags grins at me. “Those Daisy Dukes of yours. They scream Sasanoa’s Finest.” She leans back against her window. “I can see you up on stage now. Tiara, sash, and a bottle of Colt .45.”
I tug at my cut-offs. “They’re not Daisy Dukes. If the hem’s longer than the pockets, they’re not Daisy Dukes.”
“That’s the rule, huh?”
I want to whomp the hell out of her, but ever since we were kids, we’ve tried to go easy on each other when Nell’s around; she hates fighting. Nell holds her second piece of pound cake in a napkin and picks at it, watching me close. “Are you mad about the pageant?” The way she sounds, you’d think I wanted to cancel Christmas.
How can I explain to her that this is somebody’s screwed-up idea of a joke? Darcy Prentiss, White Trash Princess. Whoever they are, they must be laughing their asses off. I just don’t know who’d go to all this trouble. I’ve heard Libby say plenty of times that to make it onto the ballot, it takes one nomination from somebody in the community and then a Festival Committee member to second it. She nominated Nell herself. Doesn’t matter; no way am I making a fool of myself up on that stage come August 30.
“She’s just trying to decide what color corsage to wear, that’s all,” Mags says, patting Nell’s knee.
“Oh, Darcy, you can’t know that until you find your dress.”
I start to say something I’ll regret, but then the rain comes down, taking our breath away. Nell scrambles for the edge of the roof, feeling for the living room window casing with her toes before using it as a step to drop into the flower bed. If Libby ever did any weeding¾she grows the flowers, Mom grows the veggies¾she’d find bare footprints sunk deep into the soil. Waving to us, Nell runs for the trailer, taking bites of cake as she goes.
“One of these days she’s going to Pollyanna herself right off this roof,” Mags says, once we’ve crawled back inside her dim bedroom.
“And land on her feet.” I wipe rain off my face. “Nell’s got luck like most people got zits.” I catch Mags studying me and stop. “What?”
“I didn’t forget about Shea.” She sits on her bed. “What happened between you two?”
I turn away, touching the ballerina jewelry box that she’s had as long as I can remember. The porcelain dancer’s arm is so thin I could snap it between my fingers. “Nothing special.”
“Was it him, on the Fourth? Was that why you were acting so weird that night?” She waits. “Really, Darcy? Shea Gaines?”
At once I’m so tired I can barely stand it. I point to the open window. “Rain’s getting in,” and leave her sitting there in the dark.
The next day is Saturday. I come downstairs to the sound of an axe thunking into the stump outside. I fix toast¾nothing left but the heels, which Mom and Mags won’t touch; to me, it’s all bread¾and look out the window to see Hunt Chapman splitting wood for us.
I step outside in the big tee-shirt I wear to bed and call, “She’s not gonna like that.”
He stops, lowers the axe, and glances back at me. “’Morning.” He stands the log on its end again and splits it in half, then tosses the stove lengths into the pile he’s been working on since probably 5:00 a.m. Hunt’s our landlord. He’s also one of Mom’s managers at E.F. Danforth & Son, the blueberry packaging plant in Blue Hill. Hunt’s a tall drink of water, broad-shouldered and not bad-looking for an old guy, if you like the silent type, which I usually don’t.
“I’ll tell her you’re here.” I find Mom already in the kitchen, knotting her robe around her waist as she peers through the curtains, her hair a little crazy. That robe is the only pretty thing she owns, a threadbare red silk kimono Dad gave her for her birthday a long time ago.
“What is he doing?” she says under her breath.
“Keeping us from freezing to death in August.”
She takes one look at me and gives me a stinging swat on the thigh. “Get upstairs and put on some pants.” I eat my toast instead, following her as far as the doorway. She goes out onto the porch and stands with her arms crossed. “Hunt Chapman, tell me you didn’t buy us firewood.”
He splits two pieces before he answers her, chewing over his thoughts like Big Chief tobacco. “Apple tree blew down in my north field last night. Wood’s dry enough. Shouldn’t smoke up on you too bad this fall.”
“Tell me what I owe you.” In the quiet, Mom jerks her chin. “Give me a figure, Hunt.”
He stops, taking a breath before bringing the axe down and twisting it out of the stump with a one-handed motion. “Just being neighborly.”
“You live halfway to Brewer.” Hunt seems to have run out of words, and Mom sighs, stepping back. “Let me fix you breakfast, at least. Coffee while you wait?”
He looks at her for the first time, with a hint of a smile. I think Hunt smiles mostly on the inside; it kind of warms up his features without changing them much. “That’d be fine, Sarah.” Sweat glistens along his hairline, where threads of gray are coming in with the chestnut-brown.
I hear Mags’ heavy footsteps overhead and hustle upstairs to the bathroom to get ready before she can beat me to it. No point in showering before raking, but after I brush my teeth, I look back at the mirror for a second and dab on a little waterproof mascara and some tinted lip gloss. Never know.
By the time we’re ready to go, Hunt is standing outside with Mom, sipping from one of our heavy white china mugs. Nell comes tearing around the house with our lunch bag banging against her leg, scared she’s late, one hand to the blue bandanna she ties over her hair while she’s raking. She calls to us, “I got meatloaf sandwiches and Swiss rolls.”
Mags makes me pay her gas money every week, since I failed my driver’s test four times and Mom says I can’t try again until I get more practice, but Nell’s saving for cosmetology school¾pretty funny for a girl who isn’t allowed to wear makeup¾so Mags has her fix our lunch for us instead.
My sister respects saving up for school. She’s been building her college fund since she was twelve. She’s going to UMaine Orono in the spring, after she earns money for books and stuff this fall. Most of her friends are starting in August or September. She broke up with her boyfriend, Will, back in May, right around their one-year anniversary; she says she wants to be “free” when she goes away. I think she’s nuts. Will was a dork, but he was real sweet. One time he had roses delivered to her in study hall.
Libby brings up the rear on her morning trek to talk Mom’s ear off, and her eyes narrow behind her glasses at the sight of Hunt. Without even a hello, she says, “She tell you about that light switch in the living room?” I don’t know how he manages to keep his face so still, but he doesn’t even flinch at how God-awful rude she sounds. “Makes a crunching sound like peanut shells when you flip it. Wiring’s gone bad.”
“I’ll take a look.”
Libby’s always carping about how our old farmhouse and the trailer are falling apart and how Hunt would rather repair than replace things. But I know for a fact that Hunt gave Mom a break on the rent after Dad died so we could keep living here and not have to move in with Gramma Nan, who lives way the hell up in Aroostook County and keeps pigs. The way I see it, we owe him big. I think Libby’s sour on all men because Nell’s dad took off even though they were engaged and she was seven months along with Nell.
As we pile into the car, I roll down the window and call, “’Bye, Hunt.”
He flicks us a salute. Little stuff like that is how we know he likes us even though he doesn’t talk much.
As we pull out, Libby’s on her way inside to help herself to Mom’s coffeepot. I bet she’ll find a way to cadge some of Hunt’s bacon and eggs, too.
Jesse Bouchard has the darkest eyes I’ve ever seen, and I stare into them as he puts ice cubes in my hand and closes my fingers over them. The shock of cold on my fresh blisters makes me catch my breath, but I don’t look away. He’s got a chipped canine tooth you only notice when he smiles. “There. Bet that feels better.”
I nod. The ice came from Jesse’s water jug; he fished it out and brought it over to me when he saw me stop raking to blow on my burning palms. “Guess I lost my gloves somewhere,” I say. “Pretty stupid, huh?” I can feel it there, that pull when we lock eyes that makes my stomach twist in the best way. I’ve been crushing on him hard since last harvest, when some part of me woke up and really saw him for the first time.
“No. But you better borrow a pair or you’ll be a hurting unit tomorrow.” He sits back on his heels and grins. “And how’re you gonna make top harvester with jacked-up hands?”
I duck my head and laugh. Top harvester always ends up being one of the migrants, usually some Honduran guy in his twenties who travels cross-country, living crop-to-crop, somebody with endurance and a system to their harvesting. Being a raker isn’t the same as being a harvester; harvester’s a title you’ve got to earn. At the end of each season, the Wardwells pay out $700 to whoever brought in the most pounds of berries, giving everybody a good reason to bust their butts. Shea might give everyone a run for their money this year; seems like every time I look up, he’s filled another box.
Jesse has a dancing light in his eyes¾devilish, you could say¾and I’m thinking he looks good enough to eat, when a fight breaks out over by the big cluster of boulders. It’s migrants against locals, and surprise, surprise, look who’s in the middle of it: Shea. He’s got a handful of another guy’s shirt, trying to drive him back against the rocks; the guy boxes him twice in the ear, and they fall down together in a tangle.
“Hey!” Duke McCutcheon, Mr. Wardwell’s strong right hand, is coming, but then Mason wades in, grabbing Shea under the arms and lifting him almost off his feet. Shea’s tall but wiry, lean everywhere Mason’s broad, and you can see it takes everything he’s got to twist out of his hands. The other guys clear out, making themselves scarce as Mr. Wardwell gets there. Migrants can’t afford to get canned. Most of them don’t have any money to speak of except what these berries put in their pocket week-to-week, and if they lose out on raking, they’ll go hungry until the potato harvest starts up north.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Wardwell looks from brown face to white, but nobody’s talking. Mason’s hands go into his pockets. Everybody knows that somebody¾Shea¾must’ve brought up Rhiannon Foss, last summer, and the rumor that it was a migrant who did it. Not that Shea and Rhiannon were friends. Far as I know, he never had much use for her at all.
“This happens again, you’re both done. Got it?” Mr. Wardwell waits until they nod, then stalks off to his truck. Mrs. Wardwell hollers, “What happened? Bob?” from her roost outside the camper.
Shea swears, picks up his cap, and smacks it against his thigh before putting it on. He sees Jesse standing with me and stares a long time before turning away, shoulders stiff. Duke says something sharply and cuffs him on the back of the head. Duke is his family, an uncle or a cousin.
After we’ve all gone back to raking, Mags sighs, her long blond ponytail spilling over her shoulder as she dumps a rakeful into a box. “You sure know how to pick ’em.”
“I don’t like Shea.”
“Who would?” She glances at him. “But talking looks-only here. . .he is kind of sexy.”
“Don’t you mean attractive?” She snorts, and I’m over being annoyed with her for last night. Shea’s got eyes the color of sunlight through brown sea glass, and his hair’s maybe three shades darker, a little long on top so that it falls over his brow when he isn’t wearing a hat, which isn’t often. Today he’s wearing a washed-out denim shirt with the sleeves ripped off and a pair of dark Wranglers, and if it weren’t for the fact that I know he’s got a personality to match one of those black pincher bugs that crawl out from under our back steps, I could almost forgive myself for the mistake I made on the Fourth of July.
Nobody has extra gloves. I suck it up and keep raking, but I’m losing ground to Mags, and that stings worse that the blisters on my palms. My hands will callus and toughen up eventually, but not before quitting time tonight, and that means money slipping through my fingers. Mags fills her fifty-third box and starts on the next. I haven’t filled forty yet.
Jesse blows out early, getting the okay from Mr. Wardwell with that wicked charm of his. End of the day, we girls are getting ready to leave when who should come barreling up the road in his truck but Jesse. Boy’s got balls coming back here when he’s supposed to be at the doctor’s or wherever. Mrs. Wardwell stares at him like she’d like to drag him around by his ear, but it’s quitting time, so there isn’t much she can do but bark at her husband to start loading up.
Jesse idles in front of us and rolls down his window. “Here.” He tosses something out the window to me. It’s a pair of yellow work gloves; they’re beat-up and too big, but I grip them to my chest like they were made of spun gold. “Knew I had an extra pair at home somewhere.” He nods at me and drives up to get Shea and Mason before I can thank him.
None of us speak as we get into Mags’ car, and the silence is heavy. I want to gush about Jesse Bouchard, how everybody has him all wrong, but Nell speaks first. “Those things aren’t even new.”
“God, Nell.” I jerk around and give her a between-us look that makes her shrink back against the seat. “Don’t be rude.”
Mags turns right onto 15, heading toward the east side of Sasanoa and home. “Listen to you. ‘Don’t be rude.’ Didn’t know I had the Queen of England riding shotgun.”
Heat comes into my face. Sometimes Mags is so much like Mom it makes me crazy; they both have a way of cutting through bullshit. A natural-born bullshitter like me doesn’t stand a chance in this family.
Nell and I sulk as we cruise down Main Street, passing the post office, Gaudreau’s Sweet Dream, the Irving station, the Hannaford supermarket, and a dozen quiet streets where little kids have marked up sidewalks with pastel chalk and dogs snooze in porch shadows. Sasanoa’s sleepy, all right. Sometimes you want to check to make sure it’s still breathing.
Running parallel to Main Street is the wild and wooly Penobscot River, and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge spanning it. Of the thousand or so construction workers who built that thing, our dad was the only one who died, all because of fifty dollars and a tinsel Christmas star. Hardly a place in town you can’t see the bridge from, sunlight gleaming off the concrete support posts during the day, red safety lights blinking at night.
Tom Prentiss was a crazy man, though; wasn’t a chance that he wouldn’t take, Mom says. Which, Libby always adds, is why he didn’t live to see forty. If you want to get Mom talking, ask her about Dad. Ask her about midnight rides on his old Indian motorcycle when he was three sheets to the wind, or brawling at the Bay Festival truck pulls, him bleeding at the mouth, spinning one guy around by his shirt collar with another locked under his arm, laughing all the while.
Mags turns up Second Street. She doesn’t say a word; she doesn’t have to. I start grinning. Nell leans between us, realizes where we’re going, and whoops right in my ear. “Last one in the water buys at Gaudreau’s!” She drags her shirt off over her head, hardly noticing when a guy on a bike sees her and almost takes a spill into a blue hydrangea.
The quarry road is dirt, winding up through the woods until you reach a cable blocking the way with a sign reading PRVT PROP. Ours is the only car, so we race out into the clearing, stripping our clothes.
Mags and Nell stop at their bras and underwear, but I take it all off, ignoring their catcalls as I scramble down the granite ledge to the dark, oily water and cannonball right in. It is cold¾kids like to say the Sasanoa Quarry has no bottom¾and I keep my eyes squeezed shut until I surface, gasping and pushing my hair back.
The girls follow me, and for a while all we do is swim and splash and sigh as the sweat and field grit rinses away. It’s like floating in a deep bowl down here, listening to bird calls echo off the rock walls and shouting, “Hell-o,” just to hear your voice bounce around. Even though the sign says private property, lots of us party here, lighting bonfires and daring each other to jump from the highest ledge.
Nell climbs out first, wringing her hair and picking her way along the ledges as Mags and I tread water. “Are you going to keep those gloves?” She watches her feet as she walks, arms out for balance. Her underwear is sensible, her bra white cotton with a tiny rosette like you’d see on a little girl’s undershirt. Anybody who was opening the front clasp would have to touch that tight satin swirl, have a second to think about what they were doing, and then keep right on digging. I swallow bitterness and tell myself I won’t think about that. I promised myself I never would.
“Yeah,” I say. She purses her lips and shakes her head, saying mm-mm-mm. “What’s your problem? Jesse’s never done anything to you.”
“He is not. Name one nasty thing you’ve seen him do.”
“I don’t mean he picks his nose. He’s not good enough for you.” She keeps her gaze down, like she knows that if she looks at me, she’ll have to remember our secret, and realize that she’s got no place tearing the wings off what I got going with Jesse.
“Half the girls in school could tell you if he’s a boxers or briefs man,” Mags says.
I mull it over. “Jockey shorts.”
“Forget it, Nellie.” Mags climbs out of the water. “She won’t be happy until she’s felt him all over to make sure he isn’t missing any parts, and then she’ll ask us why we didn’t try to talk her out of it.” I’d never say this out loud, but Mags is built like Libby: 5’10” and full-bodied, her breasts and hips straining against her sports bra and boy shorts. I’m smaller and curvy like Mom, but I’m strong.
Nell walks in a careful line, swinging one arm at her side. She stops, positions herself, and says, “I want to thank you all so much,” in a big, clear voice.
Mags grins and heads up to the car to grab something for us to dry off with. I swim to the ledge and fold my arms on it, playing my part as I pretend to talk into a microphone. “How does it feel to be up here in front of all these people, Miss Michaud?”
“Like I’m with my friends. I can’t say how much your votes mean to me. I promise to do all I can to make my town proud.”
“And how do you plan to use your scholarship money?”
“It’s my lifelong dream to learn the art of cosmetology at Pierre’s School of Beauty in Bangor.” Nell pauses. “And if I ever open my own shop, I promise it will be here in Sasanoa.” She bows so deeply her hair brushes granite, and we clap. Breathless, she gives a little skip and drops into a crouch beside me. “So we need to be over at the Town Hall tomorrow by two o’clock.”
“Darcy! Didn’t you call the Festival lady back? We have to register for the pageant and get a packet about what we need to do and everything.”
I didn’t call the Festival lady back, and I look to Mags for help. She’s brought a blanket from the backseat, and she gives me a heavy look as she dries off. She’s made up her mind that this is one of those Things We Do for Nell. I groan. “Look, I don’t . . . .” My cousin’s eyes are so blue and serious that I can’t finish the sentence. “Okay. Fine. Why not.”
I wrap the blanket around myself as we climb back up to the grassy clearing. For a second I don’t see my clothes, but then I spot my tank top off to the far left. I’m half-dressed when Nell says, “Somebody moved our stuff.”
“We didn’t leave our clothes back here. Mags and I were over there when we took them off. Now they’re almost in the bushes.”
I look down at my shorts and underwear, and pull them on, fast.
An engine starts up in the trees. Tires crunch over dirt, and we run to the trailhead, only to get there too late. Nothing left but some tire tracks in the mud.
Gaudreau’s is packed, the line reaching back to the picnic tables on the pavement. It isn’t full dusk yet, but the strings of twinkle lights are on and the fluorescent sign is buzzing. I expect everybody to point and laugh at us, but if the person who got an eyeful up at the quarry is here, they must’ve kept it to themselves so far.
Mags treats. She and Nell order sundaes, I order a Moxie and fries, and then we scoot off to a picnic table with a red-and-white checked umbrella to wait for our number to crackle over the loudspeaker. “I don’t get why whoever it was didn’t come down and swim, too,” I say for the second time. “If they’re so scared of some half-naked girls that they have to lay a patch getting out of there, they got issues.”
“Well, in your case, it was the full monty. I was scared, too.” Mags dodges the straw wrapper I throw at her.
Nell cups her elbows. “He touched our clothes.”
Mags sighs. “You’re imagining things.”
When our order is called, Mags and I go to the pick-up window, where one of those sleepy-eyed Gaudreau girls asks if we want ketchup and salt. Mr. Gaudreau is supervising, and he comes over, his potbelly straining against his powder-blue Sweet Dream polo shirt. He leans on the sill and grins at me. “Well, hello there, Miss Thing.” The light catches one of his metal fillings. “You know, I was hoping you’d come back around. No hard feelings about us not having an opening for you this season?”
“Nope.” Behind him, I watch a Gaudreau girl making a cone like she’s got arthritis in both wrists.
“Sometimes it’s tough being the one who does the hirin’ and firin’ around this place.”
“My Fern’s going to be staying in Boston next summer. Maybe I can get you behind the counter then.” He winks and slides the tray over. “Sweets to the sweet.”
I dump vinegar on my fries. “’Bye.”
As we walk away, Mags says, “Maybe it was him.”
“Who was watching us swim?”
She laughs. “Who nominated you as Princess.”
“Oh.” I glance back but he’s already gone from the window. “I dunno. If it was, I don’t think he could keep his mouth shut about it for this long.”
Back at our table, we dig in. Lots of familiar faces from school at Gaudreau’s tonight, and one of them belongs to Mason Howe. He’s eating burgers with his mom. Mason’s knees press against the underside of the picnic table, and he has to hunch under the umbrella as he crams his food down. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him without Shea or Jesse outside of class. His fair hair shags into his eyes and the back of his neck is halfway between deep sunburn and mahogany tan.
One of the MISSING posters clings to the telephone pole nearest our table. The evening breeze flutters a loose corner, and slowly we stop chitchatting and look at it, listening to the classic country drifting from Gaudreau’s speakers.
“Were Shea and that guy fighting today because of Rhiannon?” Nell looks at us. She has a little dab of hot fudge in the corner of her mouth.
Mags wipes it quickly with her thumb, saying, “Shea’s a hothead and a bully. Rhiannon was just an excuse to mix it up.”
Nell’s quiet for a second. “She’s dead, isn’t she?” She looks at our careful expressions. “Well, it seems like she would’ve come home by now, if she wasn’t.”
My stomach does a slow roll. My fries already seem soggy, thick with grease. I push the cardboard dish away. “Nobody knows for sure.”
I remember looking out the window of Mom’s car last fall on our way to Ellsworth and seeing Mr. Wardwell driving his tractor across his west field with an oil burner dragging behind, blowing flames across the berry bushes, tossing up thick black smoke. The fields have to be burned or mowed flat every other year to grow a good crop, but it felt like more than that. Felt like Sasanoa burning a wound clean, scorching the place where Rhiannon Foss was last seen so we could forget about her and move on. And sometimes you can forget¾for weeks¾but then you see one of the posters and it all comes back, the wondering and the not-knowing, and you have to turn to somebody and dig it up again.
We may not have been friends anymore, but Rhiannon was my age, sixteen last summer, and one way or another, she never came home again.
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