My mom went to the end of the dock to wait for the ferry so I could have a few minutes of privacy to say goodbye. Popuri was first, and she hugged me and even cried a little bit, and I wished her luck with Kai, and told her to call me all the time to keep me updated, even though I knew she would.
"So," I said, when it was Rick's turn. I didn't know what to say, actually—we hadn't had much time to talk since the wedding. I wondered if he was upset that I'd left him like that.
"I guess it's back to the long distance thing for now, huh?" he said with a half-smile. "Sucks."
"I was thinking, actually," I said, and suddenly it was like my mouth was moving all on its own, saying all sorts of things I didn't want it to. "Maybe we should slow everything down a little."
"What do you mean?" He was confused, obviously, and a little wary.
"I mean that, you know, well, I'll be graduating high school, and after that, who knows? I don't know where I'll be after next summer. So I don't want either of us to feel obligated or anything." I bit my lips to stop myself from going any further.
I could tell I'd hurt his feelings. "I don't feel obligated about anything, Claire. If this is about what happened after the Fireworks Festival…"
"No, it's not," I answered quickly, although maybe it was, a little bit. "I swear."
"Well, okay," he said, with obvious unease. "But what does that mean, 'slowing everything down'?"
I glanced over my shoulder, and saw the ferry approaching, slowly but steadily. My mom gave a little wave. I didn't have a lot of time left. "Just…let's go day by day, okay?" Hold off on planning our wedding, and all that.
"Okay," he agreed half-heartedly. He opened his arms to hug me, and I stepped forward, closing my eyes as I did so. It hit me then that I would miss this. No matter how jumbled up I felt about everything else, I knew I would miss Rick. I just needed time to figure things out.
He kissed my head—he didn't even try for the lips, and I wondered if it was because my mom was standing there, or if it was because he was mad at me—and then walked back to join Popuri.
Kai was last. He'd waited at a respectful distance, standing with his hands in his pockets and staring out at the ocean, as if we weren't even there. But as soon as Rick and Popuri began walking away, he immediately started towards me, a big smile on his face.
"Hey," he said, before he'd even reached me. "Last night was pretty hectic, huh? I didn't even get to talk to you."
"Yeah, I know," I replied, unable to keep from smiling myself. "But it was still really fun. And the ceremony was so pretty."
"Yeah." He was still grinning.
"What are you smiling about, jerk?" I scoffed, punching him lightly in the arm. "I'm about to leave for a whole year. Aren't you going to miss me?"
"Of course I'm going to miss you," he said with such ease that it made my stomach jump. "But I have good news."
"What?" I tried not to let my imagination run wild.
"I decided I'm gonna stay here."
Whoa. "What? You mean like…"
"All year round."
"But why?" Kai had always complained that Mineral Town felt like winter compared to wherever he came from, that he wouldn't be able to take the actual winter. How would he be able to stand it now?
"Guess I feel like I have some unfinished business here," he said vaguely, scratching his jaw.
I got it then and put on a smug smirk. "Does this unfinished business happen to have recently broken up with her boyfriend?"
He rolled his eyes, and I expected him to deny it, but he surprised me. "All right, fine. You got me. My unfinished business is Popuri."
It took me a few seconds to realize what he'd said. My smirk faltered a little. "Wait, what? Really?"
"Yeah, really," he said, obviously trying to hide his smile but failing. "I guess sometimes you look at a person and it's like you're seeing them for the first time, you know?"
"Yeah," I answered meekly, feeling sort of dazed.
"Anyway," he said, his voice suddenly loud, like he was trying to hide his shyness, "the point is, I at least want to give it a try."
"You better not break her heart," I said, my warning sincere.
"I won't," he promised. Just then the ferry let out its loud blaring horn, signaling its arrival.
"Come on, Claire," my mom shouted from behind me.
"See you next summer, Claire," Kai said, and I waited, waited for him to do something crazy like last year and kiss me, waited so long that I didn't realize he was already walking away from me until I finally blinked.
"Claire," my mom called again, louder this time, and I turned and walked towards her and the boat.
"That was the boy I was talking about," she said to me once I was within earshot. "He was giving you that look again, did you notice? I told you so."
I smiled weakly. I guess she'd been wrong about Kai after all.
"Yeah, Mom," I answered, my voice full of deliberate, fake pep. No point in explaining anything—right now, it felt like I might just crumble if I tried. "He did. I noticed."