I don't recall a single care
Just greenery and humid air
Then Labor Day came and went
And we shed what was left of our summer skin...
Hello there! :) Welcome to my latest fic. I actually wrote this a while ago after being struck by a certain idea, but my lovely gorgeous editor only just recently helped me make this first chapter sufficiently presentable, which is why I am just now, well...presenting it. It's something that I've worked hard on. I wanted to try something with a much different feel from my other fic, Different Names for the Same Thing...let's see how it goes. Please enjoy, and if you read, please please review!
Btw--the title is taken from the Death Cab for Cutie song of the same name (the bit at the top is a verse from the song). I feel like the lyrics of Summer Skin portray my original intention of this fic rather well...although this makes two of my fics with their titles taken from DCfC songs. Eep! Well, that's okay.
When I stepped off the ferry and had both feet planted on the worn, wooden planks of Mineral Town's dock, I was finally hit by the dread.
I had been in denial since the day my mom had told me about my punishment. Even when she made me pack my bags I didn't believe her. Not even when the ferry pulled out of the port and started chugging its way to Mineral Town. I figured that it was just a joke, or maybe a unique scare tactic to try to get me to stop misbehaving.
No, I never once believed that she was serious. She'd never done anything like this before.
But there was no denying it now: I was standing there on the dock with bags in both hands, alone, while the ferry rumbled back to life and began its journey back to the mainland. It was that moment that I realized this was actually happening. I was stuck on a tiny island for a summer of hell.
Slightly melodramatic, yes, but I couldn't fight the feelings of panic and wrath rising up in my throat.
"Shit," I muttered under my breath. I took deep breaths, desperately trying to convince myself that it wasn't as bad as I thought. The only problem was I couldn't find a single good thing about it.
"Are you new?" My head snapped over towards the direction of the unrecognizable voice. My hands gripped the handles of my luggage a little tighter. Popuri and Rick were supposed to be meeting me, and this guy who had just called out to me definitely was not either one of them.
He was tan, browned to the point that he probably had one of those year-round tans. He had a purple bandana tied loosely around his head, which looked a little cheesy. His clothes screamed beach bum. He made his across the sand towards me, barefoot with his pant legs rolled up. I stood there on the dock, rooted to the spot.
"K-kind of," I called back, embarrassed at how my voice hitched. I felt so upset and having someone stumble across me in that state was the last thing I wanted.
He got closer and closer, close enough that I could see the finer details. He wore a smug half-smirk, like he was laughing at his own private joke, and there was something about his stride that seemed intimidating. I wondered who he could possibly be. Someone who had moved here while I'd been gone, obviously. But his arrogant aura was vaguely irritating; I didn't like the way he was acting like he owned the place. Not that I felt any ties to Mineral Town anymore, but it was still annoying.
"Kind of?" he questioned, looking me straight in the eye. "I don't think I've seen you around before."
"I've never seen you, either," I shot back. "I'm visiting Popuri." This wasn't really a lie. I was visiting—just not by choice.
His eyebrows arched, like this was an oh-so-interesting development. His smirk remained. "I see. I don't remember her mentioning you…"
My eyes narrowed. So he knew Popuri, apparently. "It was a little sudden, me coming here," I answered, with more confidence that time. It was definitely true.
"I can take you to Chicken Lil's, if you like," he suggested. The offer was innocent enough, but that smirk leaked a hint of condescension into his words.
"No thanks," I said bluntly, heaving my bags up and shuffling past him. "I know my way around."
I got no reply, and I was tempted to look over my shoulder to see why he was so quiet, but then I heard him say, "Tell Popuri I said hi, okay?"
I ignored him and kept going. I hoped I wouldn't have to run into him again anytime soon, although if he was friends with Popuri I guessed that would be pretty difficult.
I was trying my best to march off with my dignity, but then a huge gust of wind came out of nowhere, cruelly flinging sand and sea spray into my eyes. I almost dropped my bags to claw at my eyes in pain.
"Damn it," I hissed, doubling over and rubbing my face. I froze, however, when I thought I heard someone snickering behind me. I immediately stood up straight, blinking my watering eyes, and soldiered on, not even daring to look back to see if I had imagined that idiotic beach bum laughing at me. My eyes were still burning in agony, begging me to relieve them, but I kept my hands firmly gripping the straps of my bags.
And so my summer of hell on a tiny island began.
x x x
My history of my summers spent at Chicken Lil's went like this:
My mom had been friends with Lillia, owner of Chicken Lil's and mother of two kids, Rick and Popuri, for a long time. I was Popuri's age; Rick was a few years older. One summer about seven years ago, my mom, my dad, and I stayed in Mineral Town for a vacation. We rented a room at the inn, and every day my mom would visit Lillia and the two would chat all afternoon. Inevitably, I was introduced to Rick and Popuri.
Hanging out with them turned out to be a ton of fun. Since I was the "city girl," they showed me all over the island, and we spent most days running around the beach or exploring in the mountains. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced, and at the end of our stay I begged to go back the next summer. Only Mom came with me that time. The year after that I went alone.
And then, during the summer when I was thirteen, I stopped going. I had my reasons.
So, with all that, going back to Mineral Town—location of three happy summers from my childhood—might not have seemed so bad. Except for the fact that I was sixteen now, and playing around outside all day had long since lost its appeal.
My mom had probably selected Mineral Town for my exile for that very reason, just to make me miserable. Although I knew that wasn't really the case. I could still remember what she'd said on that day, when she'd caught me.
I don't know what to do with you anymore, she'd cried, throwing her hands up in the air. So she was sending me away to someone she trusted until she figured it out. I was the one making her miserable.
That wasn't as troubling to me, her daughter, as it probably should have been.
x x x
I was acutely aware of the sweat collecting along my spine, dripping down my back and making me feel disgusting. The heat was unbearable and inescapable; how did I ever put up with it as a kid? I wished I'd put on more sunscreen before I got off the ferry. Where were Popuri and Rick, anyway? Mom had told me I would be meeting them at the dock, and now I was hobbling down the bricked paths towards Chicken Lil's alone, trying to balance all my bags in my arms.
As if on cue, I heard the familiar, sugary-sweet voice call my name. "Claire!" I stopped dead in my tracks at the sound of my name and watched as Popuri bounded towards me, her cotton candy hair bouncing loosely behind her. It took her long enough to reach me to give me the opportunity to look her over. I found it somewhat irksome that she had gone through virtually no change since I was gone. It had been four years since I'd seen her last and yet she looked the same. She hadn't lost any baby fat; her fair-skinned cheeks were round and flushed with excitement. I couldn't help but compare myself to her, although I wasn't one to be to concerned with appearances. She was just so pretty, startlingly so. Small and delicate, like a porcelain doll. I tried to picture how I looked right then: red-faced and sweaty, my blonde hair awry and sticking to my lips, my clothes wrinkled and smelling like sea salt. Far from being even remotely dainty or feminine.
And then behind her I saw Rick, who had changed only slightly more than his younger sister. His legs seemed almost comically long, and each of his strides seemed to equal two of Popuri's. It looked like his limbs had grown faster than the rest of him, which set him quite a few inches above me. Popuri, who was shorter than me, exaggerated his height even further. His hair was grown out and shaggy and his glasses were as big as ever, magnifying his eyes. The two siblings would look like some kind of comedic duo if they stood next to each other; the cute little sister with her gangly, awkward older brother. Genetics sure are impressive sometimes.
It seemed to take ages for the two of them to reach me, and then suddenly everything was a flurry of action.
"Claire!" Popuri chirped again as soon as she was in front of me. Rick was there a second later.
"Here, I'll take your bags," he said, reaching out his hands towards me. I noticed they were covered in calluses, probably from farm work.
"S-sure," I mumbled, feeling a little overwhelmed. I handed over my things, which had felt like they weighed a ton when I was carrying them, and he shouldered them all with ease.
"Oh my gosh! How are you?" Popuri squealed, pressing her hands to her face like she couldn't contain herself. "It's been so long!"
"Yeah," I managed, studying them both carefully. I wondered how much they knew, if they even knew why I had come back after all this time. Would she still be as cheerful if she knew I didn't even want to be here?
Probably, I thought. Popuri had always been one to be bright and cheery no matter what, mostly because she was a tad on the naïve side.
"I'm so sorry we're late," she continued, totally oblivious to my lack of enthusiasm. She linked her arm with mine and started pulling me along, Rick following along right behind us. "I got the ferry times mixed up and just realized the mistake. Oops! But you're here now and that's what matters. Oh my gosh. This is so great!" I let her ramble, because I didn't have anything to say. I was truly speechless. Not to mention I was waiting to figure out how much they really did know.
"Popuri, take it easy," scolded Rick, cutting her off in mid-gush. Thank you, I thought silently, my mouth twitching in a smile in spite of myself. Popuri didn't notice and instead switched over to arguing with her brother.
"Gosh, Rick, you could at least be a little more excited that Claire is here," she retorted, clutching me a little tighter. I bit back a sigh.
"Or maybe you could be a little less."
"Guys," I broke in reflexively, mediating the way I used to when we were kids and they would start to fight. It was eerie, really, how little things had changed. It wasn't just Rick and Popuri; it was the whole town. Everything looked the same.
Except for that guy on the beach, I remembered. He certainly wasn't here before.
All three of us fell silent, even Popuri, as Chicken Lil's came into sight. I felt a bundle of nerves in my stomach suddenly tighten. The panic that I'd been distracted from was coming back quickly.
There's nothing to be afraid of. It's just Chicken Lil's, for God's sake.
Rick held the door open for Popuri and I, our arms still locked tightly. I resisted the urge to squirm away now that we were inside.
"Mom! Claire's here!" Popuri shouted happily, finally releasing me. I let out a sigh of relief and rubbed my arm instinctively.
"There's no need to yell," Rick grumbled, tromping past us with my bags in tow. He had a point: Lillia was sitting right at the table, smiling at us over a cup of tea. I could feel the sweat on my forehead just looking at the steaming hot beverage. Yikes, I thought. Who could drink that in this weather?
And then I remembered. I had been young then, but I had known that Lillia was sick. Nothing to keep her bedridden, but she rarely left the house, and she often got the chills. Unfortunately, it looked like her condition hadn't improved any.
"I'll put your bags in Popuri's room," Rick called down to me as he made his way up the stairs.
"'Kay," I answered hesitantly, and it dawned on me that they didn't have a guest room. Which meant I'd be sharing with Popuri, obviously. Fun.
"Claire honey, it's so nice to see you," Lillia greeted me, giving me a warm smile. She was the same too, except her pink hair seemed just a slight shade grayer since I last saw her.
"Yeah, you too," I replied, smiling before I could stop myself. Lillia had always felt like a second mom to me. Maybe she would be more understanding…
"Popuri, if it's okay, I'd like to talk to Claire alone," Lillia said gently to her daughter. Her smile remained, but I could tell something was up. Or not.
"Sure!" Popuri chimed, totally oblivious. She gave my arm a little squeeze and then disappeared up the stairs. Lillia waited until her footsteps faded until she addressed me again.
"Please, Claire, sit down," she said, touching the chair beside her. I obeyed, dropping down into the seat slowly.
"Did you eat lunch?" she asked, setting her cup down and giving me her undivided attention. I felt the nerves bunch up again.
"Y-yeah. I ate a packed lunch during the ferry ride." I glanced over at their clock and saw it was half past one. I found that my fists were clenched and tried to relax them, staring down at my fingers.
"Claire, it's been a long time. Your mother told me why you stopped coming."
I waited, unsure of how to answer that.
"But she didn't tell me the details of why you came back now. I'll respect your privacy. However, she did tell me that you were here on punishment."
I rolled my eyes at that, unable to stop myself. I could feel another sensation underneath my nerves: guilt. As much as I hated having to be there, I knew that Lillia was only trying to be nice and acting so irritated only made me look like a brat.
"Although I want you to be as comfortable as possible, I can't forget that. So, as I'm sure you already know, you'll be doing some chores on the farm in the mornings and the evenings. Rick will help you out."
Lucky me, I thought cynically. Although it's better than having to spend that time with Popuri.
It made me feel a little guilty again, thinking those ugly thoughts while sitting right next to Lillia. But I couldn't help it, and wasn't like I cared enough to stop.
Instead, I forced what I hoped looked like a polite expression. "Thank you, Lillia."
She smiled, but something in her eyes looked a little sad. "You're welcome. And Claire, if you ever want to talk about anything…"
"Right," I said quickly, not even wanting to hear the rest of that (in my opinion) utterly ludicrous, impossible suggestion. Lillia seemed to recognize this and patted my hand. Her skin felt strangely cool.
"All right. If you'd like, I'm sure Popuri's waiting for you in her room."
I nodded in response. "Sure," I said, the chair making a muffled scraping sound as I stood up and headed for the stairs. I half-expected Lillia to say something, bestow some motherly wisdom upon me before I ascended the steps, but she kept quiet as I exited.
My hand closed around the smooth, wooden banister, the same one I'd gripped almost every day of those summers past. Again, that ghostly feeling of sameness was haunting me.
x x x
"It's just like when we were kids! I'm so excited!" Popuri chattered, plopping down on her bed.
"Mm-hmm," I grunted, sitting down cross-legged on the floor and pulling one of my bags into my lap. I unzipped it and stared inside, not because I needed anything but I wanted to look busy so that maybe Popuri would finally leave me alone.
"I guess you'll have to sleep on the floor then. Would you like to borrow some of my blankets? And pillows? Or we could just share my bed—"
"No," I blurted, and she stopped, her smile fading. I felt that guilt scratch at the back of my brain, so I hastily added, "I brought my own sleeping bag."
"Okay!" she replied, her happiness immediately returning as if someone had flipped a switch. I let out a small sigh. This was going to be exhausting.
The room grew quiet, and I zipped my bag shut and tried to start up conversation again. "So, um, Popuri?"
I shifted in my place on the floor, feeling inexplicably self-conscious now. "I met this guy on the beach today…"
"Oooh, you must mean Kai!" she cried, her smile spreading all the way across her face now.
I hadn't been expecting such an…enthusiastic response. "Uh, I guess?" I didn't think it would be appropriate to ask, do you mean the wannabe pirate beach bum with the cheesy purple bandana?
She turned suddenly shy then, picking at an invisible thread on her comforter. "Listen, don't tell Rick, but…he's kind of my boyfriend."
Okay, now this was just weird. I blinked, not really sure what to say next. "Um, yeah, sure. But, why can't I tell him?" I was trying to piece things together. I was sure the guy at the beach looked like, twenty. At least. Which I guess wasn't too big an age difference, but still. Which might explain why Rick wouldn't be too happy about it…
Now Popuri pouted, a scowl crossing her face. "He always gets so mad. He hates Kai."
"Why would he hate Kai?"
"Jealousy," she answered matter-of-factly, crossing her arms and sticking her nose in the air.
"Huh? Why would he be jealous?" I found myself feeling ridiculously curious about this turn of events, despite their trivialness.
Popuri shrugged. "I guess because all the women in town are like, totally in love with him. And Karen drinks with him sometimes. But it's not that big a deal. And he's my boyfriend," she said, her pride evident with the last statement. "He started coming here last year. He only stays for the summers. He asked me out just before he left last summer. He's the best."
"Uh," I said, trying to get back on track before she went off on a tangent. "Anyways, how old is this guy?"
"Nineteen. Rick acts like that's such a big age difference, but I don't think it is. Do you think it is?" I opened my mouth to answer but shut it when I realized it was a rhetorical question. "I mean, it's not. But he still throws a fit about it. Mom doesn't even care. Rick's so old-fashioned." She scrunched up her nose, illustrating her displeasure with her older brother's overprotective nature.
Just then, there was a knocking sound, and we both turned to see Rick standing in her doorway. "Stop telling Claire weird things," he chided, but I could tell he hadn't heard everything Popuri had just said.
"What do you want?" Popuri asked, throwing a pillow at him. It fell short, landing a few feet from its target.
"I'm going out for a bit, so make sure you watch over Mom," he told her, giving her a stern look before walking away.
"Yeah, yeah!" she called after him, and then turned back to me. "He's just saying that so I won't go out and visit Kai. Mom doesn't need to be 'watched.'"
"Mm," I intoned, knowing that she wasn't really looking for a reply. I was a quick learner.
"Anyway, so you've already met Kai?" she asked, abruptly changing the subject and swinging the focus onto me.
I paused before I answered. "Um, I guess you could say that…" I wasn't really sure what to call my brief exchange with him. There hadn't been any introductions, and we hadn't really talked about anything in particular.
Popuri took no notice of my uncertainty. "Isn't he the greatest? I'm hanging out with him tomorrow, you've got to come with me!"
I tried to keep my face from looking too horror-struck. For starters, I wasn't in the mood to hang out with anyone, and least of all Popuri and Kai at the same time.
"I-I dunno, I think I'm supposed to be helping Rick with chores," I stammered, unable to come up with anything on the spot but a pathetic, lame excuse. I could see her excitement falter.
"Oh, that'll only be in the morning," she whined, putting on a playful pout. "Please? I want you and Kai to be friends."
Why? I immediately thought. And I don't want to, anyway. "Oh…okay. That sounds…great."
She beamed at me, clapping her hands together. "I know, right? This is going to be amazing. The best summer ever!"
I tried my hardest to twist my grimace into a smile. "Yep," I said through my teeth.
Popuri giggled, and then suddenly a worried expression crossed her face. "Wait, what time is it right now?"
"Um, I think it's almost two by now…why?"
She jumped up off her bed and headed straight for the door. "I totally forgot! I have to go pick up Mom's medicine. I'm sorry, Claire, I'll be back in like, ten minutes. Okay?"
"Sure, that's fine," I replied promptly, feeling a little relieved. It wasn't like I felt too tortured talking to her, but I did feel a lot less pressured now. "I'll be here."
Popuri smiled at me and gave a little wave before disappearing around the corner. "Ten minutes!" she called, and I didn't bother to respond that time.
Instead, I pushed my bag out of my lap and set it behind me, resting my head back on it. I stared up at the ceiling and sighed, puffing a few stray hairs out of my face.
Better get used to the view.
x x x