The next morning I passed my father on the stairs, flattening myself against the wall as he walked up. His feet dragged across the carpeted steps with exhaustion. He held his cap in his hand, curled beneath his sweaty palm, and reached his other out to stroke my head.
"Morning, pumpkin. How was your night?"
"Hi Daddy, it was good." I willed the blood not to rush to my cheeks, but like the Benedict Arnold of fluids, it pooled high on my face. It was my version of Pinocchio's nose.
"Something you want to tell me?" He pinched my cheek, and I pulled away.
I shook my head. "No."
"Hmmm." He rubbed my skin then walked up the final steps, heading for his room. I touched my palm to my face, feeling the fire warm my hand. I really needed to get that under control.
I was used to making my own entertainment when my father worked nights, but today Angela couldn't make it to the lake, and I didn't want to go alone. Edward was spending the day in San Francisco, helping out at the free clinic, which was always overrun on a Saturday. I whiled the morning away finishing chores; filling the top-loader with dirty laundry, and cleaning out the kitchen cupboards. I screwed my nose up at the mouse droppings I found underneath the sink, wishing I could borrow the imaginary cat that had gouged my face.
When the first load of laundry was finished, I piled the heavy, wet clothes into our large wicker basket, pulling it up into my arms and staggering into the garden. My father had installed a clothesline when we first moved in, over sixteen years before, and I started to peg the clothes out, watching as they began to dance in the gentle breeze.
A prickle on my neck alerted me to a visitor, long before he cleared his throat. I squeezed the wet socks in my hand before turning around, wondering why my heart was beating so fast.
"Eric?" I lifted my free hand to cover my chest. "Oh my, you gave me a shock."
He flashed me a sad smile, tugging a lock of black hair from his eyes. His face was tinged grey, like the sky after a summer storm. His dull eyes were bloodshot.
He glanced at my clothes—an old pair of cut-off jeans and a tiny black tank—but I didn't feel embarrassed like I would in front of any other guy. Eric never looked at me in that way, not the way Mike Newton, or even Edward Cullen would. His stare was more like a child watching animals at the zoo, interested, but not engaged. I felt comfortable in his company, when psychedelic drugs weren't involved.
"Bella, I'm so sorry ..." He frowned as he scanned my face, swallowing hard as he took in the gouges that were scabbing over. "I can't believe I did that."
Without thinking, I reached up and touched my skin, feeling the rough texture of the healing wounds. My mouth was dry, parched from my morning's exertions. I inclined my head to the kitchen door. "You want a drink?"
Eric nodded, and I abandoned the washing, walking over to the house. He followed behind, his sneakers dragging across the grass. As I pushed the door open, I noticed the yellow paint was peeling away, and the mastic from the windows was cracked, like the sun had beat down too brightly on it that year. I added it to my list of things to repair.
"Sure." Eric leaned on the table as I walked over to the pantry, pulling out the lurid orange box and shaking out a sachet. Grabbing an old glass pitcher, I emptied the bright granules into the bottom, before putting it under the tap, filling it with water until the whole thing was a maelstrom of orange clouds.
"How are you feeling?" I asked, pulling out a long wooden spoon from the drawer. I stirred the liquid manically. I hated the way the granules clung to the bottom of the pitcher like drowning men to a lifeboat.
Eric shrugged, looking miserable. "I feel like shit." He glanced up at my face. "But that's because I am a shit. I'm so sorry for hurting you like that."
I handed him a full glass, gesturing for him to sit at the table. "Do you remember any of it?" I wasn't ready to accept his apology yet, and I really wanted to hear about his experience. I was perpetually curious.
"Not much, just flashes whenever I try to sleep." He took a long, deep swallow. Beads of Kool-Aid clung to his lips. "Not that I can sleep for longer than an hour or two."
"Why did you do it?" I looked at him with eyes full of questions. He'd never been a rebel at school. He preferred to fly under the radar, keeping his camera in front of him like a knight would hold a shield.
Eric shook his head, staring down at his drink. I wondered if he could see beautiful patterns swirling within it. How long did an acid trip last for anyway?
"I felt happy, like I fitted in for the first time." His face was sombre as he spoke. "I've never felt like that. Not at school, and definitely not at home."
Eric lived with his parents in a ramshackle house on the edge of town. His mother was a quiet lady, barely seen, and his daddy was out of work after an accident at the mill broke three of his bones and left him hobbling for life. I'd heard he was a nasty drunk, and the bruises I sometimes saw on Eric testified to that. It wasn't unusual for a kid to be beaten, especially if they had a mean father, and I counted myself lucky that Charlie was anything but mean.
"None of us fit in, Eric. We're all just a group of outsiders, trying to claw our way through."
He grimaced, running his finger through the condensation on the outside of his glass. "You've never been an outsider. You don't know what it's like to be different."
I slammed my glass down on the scratched Formica table. "What the hell do you know about anything?" He made me angry, making judgements about me. He was casting aspersions where he had no right.
"I know you'll go to college and make your daddy proud. You'll probably get married to some handsome guy with a post-grad, then churn out three babies who'll be just as pretty and wholesome as you are."
I felt myself flushing again. "You say that like it's a crime to want a family."
"I didn't say it was a crime, I just said you had it easy. You'll never disappoint your parents, or have to hide stuff from everybody, even though it eats you up inside."
I looked at Eric through narrowed eyes. Who knew that beneath his calm surface there was angst? I licked my lips, tasting the tang of the Kool-Aid on my tongue, staring at him in contemplation.
"What's so different about you then, Eric? What makes you any better than me, when I can just picture you shouting at your kids while pushing the lawnmower on a Saturday afternoon. We're all gonna be parents one day."
His laugh was short and harsh. "You don't know anything." Eric leaned back in his chair, covering his face with his hands, using his fingers to rub at his bloodshot eyes.
"Then tell me."
He was silent for a moment, dragging his hands down his cheeks until his skin resembled a melting waxwork dummy. When he released them, his flesh sprung back, though the desolate expression on his face was far from an improvement.
"I'm gay." His voice was a whisper.
I was silent for a long minute. I checked the door to the stairs automatically, forgetting my father was already out. Leaning forward, I covered his hand with my own, surprised at its coolness on such a hot day.
"Gay?" I mouthed, trying to hide my surprise. I wasn't sure I'd met a real-life homosexual before. My eyes were wide as I considered the implications. It was a subject so taboo it was practically unmentionable; in our house, our town, and the country itself. The thought of a friend being gay was both shocking and exhilarating.
He nodded, saying nothing, though his eyes never left my face. I swallowed as I racked my brain for something to say, something to take the misery from his expression.
"Do you have a ... boyfriend?" My tone was still low.
"I've never met another gay man until we went to San Francisco," he admitted. "I think that's why I got so carried away." It explained a lot. The Eric I knew would never have experimented quite so freely with drugs.
"Do your parents know?" I tried to imagine how Mr. Yorkie must have reacted to the news. From my knowledge of his ready fists, I couldn't believe it was pleasant.
"I could never tell them. Nobody knows but you, and I'd like to keep it that way." His eyes were pleading.
I nodded my agreement. "I won't tell a soul."
"Not even Angela?" Eric was wily. He knew I told Angela pretty much everything.
"No, but you should. We'd both be on your side." I squeezed his hand, trying to show him that I cared. "And by the way, I forgive you for my face."
He laughed, genuine amusement washing over him for the first time. He lifted my hand and squeezed back, his fingers almost crushing my bones.
"I wondered why you never took a girl to prom," I reflected, remembering how he'd said the official photographer was too busy for a date. "In fact, now I think about it, I've never seen you with a girl."
"I never saw you with a boy, either, until you sucked face with that doctor."
"You remember that bit, do you?" I grinned at him, my mind full of Edward.
"It was before the acid took effect. It was hot, though." He smiled back, "even if you are a chick."
I leaned across the table and whacked his arm. "Shut up, Eric."
He just winked, his body more relaxed than I'd seen it all morning. I felt a little fire burning in my stomach, warming me up as I thought of how he trusted me. Like me, Eric had been accepted at Berkeley, and I was glad I'd be there for him in case he ever needed me.
I hoped he wouldn't.
Angela and I spent the Sunday at the lake, lying in the sun and talking, as we ran our fingers through the gritty sand. We ignored the sting of grains against our faces as children ran past us, kicking balls and flying kites. Not to mention the catcalls coming from Mike Newton and his friends as they played game after game of volleyball.
It was nearly 5:00 p.m. when a few of the kids from school stopped by to tell us about a cookout, asking us if we'd like to join them. I sat up on my threadbare towel, making faces at Angela as they asked for a dollar contribution for the food.
I wasn't a big fan of lake parties, though I enjoyed sitting around the bonfire, listening to Riley Biers softly strumming his guitar and singing whatever he turned his hand to. Unfortunately, the parties usually ended up in the same way; boys would get drunk, try and make out with girls, and then a fight would begin causing the police to be called. I always tried to leave before then, knowing my father would be one of the men to come stalking down the sand; his gun holstered but highly visible as he broke things up.
"So what do you think, should we go?" Angela asked.
I shrugged. I'd been hoping Edward might turn up, but Angela had told me he was still in San Francisco, where a rough batch of acid had led to a breakout of bad trips.
"What else is there to do?" The drive-in was still showing Barefoot in the Park, and the flea pit theater in town was running In the Heat of the Night, a movie we'd already seen three times.
"I'd offer for you to come and play vinyl in my garage, but if I hear the Beach Boys one more time, I think I'll scream." Her reply was dry as the desert.
Since the night of the drive-in, I'd become addicted to Pet Sounds album, despite it being two years old. I kept replaying "Wouldn't It Be Nice", agreeing with Brian Wilson that it would be oh-so-nice if I could wake up in the morning next to Edward, having held him tight the whole night through.
I'd annoyed Angela so much that she'd even begged me to play Bobbie Gentry.
"Ah, let's spend the dollar and go to the party." I felt like we were capitulating. There was nothing to do around Wentworth for kids our age, it was either this or stay at home with Angela's mom and watch The Beverly Hillbillies. There wasn't any competition.
"Why don't we call Eric and see if he'll come?" Angela suggested. It reminded me she had no idea about his revelations.
I picked a clump of grass that was growing through the golden sand. It came out by its shallow roots, leaving a crater in its place.
"Sounds good. Let's go home and put something warmer on." There was no way I was going to sit around the bonfire in a bikini, especially knowing Mike Newton was bound to turn up. We stood up and shook out our towels, a cloud of dusty sand raining down to the ground. Packing our bags, we headed home to get changed.
When we got back to the lake at 8:00 p.m., the orange sunset was bouncing off the lake, mirrored in its beauty by the roaring fire the boys had managed to build. It seemed like a different beach than it was in the daytime. The shouting children and over-attentive mothers were replaced by a different kind of activity. Teenagers were everywhere; some making out in the dunes, others throwing footballs; running long and shouting for the catch. By the shoreline a crowd had gathered and were passing around a pipe, reminding me that if my father came to check on us I was certain to be grounded.
Angela was called over by one of the girls from her Spanish class. I carried on to the fire pit, watching black specs of burned embers dance in the breeze, and feeling the wall of heat hit my skin. Riley Biers was plucking at his guitar, playing nothing in particular, his blonde hair flopping in his eyes.
"Hey, Bella." We vaguely knew each other from English, though he tended to sit with the stoners, and I was with the intellectuals. Away from school we talked more, sharing a love of music and a general ennui toward life.
"What are you playing?" I asked, hitching my leg over the log the boys had dragged over to form a bench.
"Just trying out a few riffs. I've been listening to Hendrix a lot."
I knew who Hendrix was, though I'd never been that big a fan. But listening to the way Riley crafted the chords made me rethink my preferences. His fingers moved over the strings like an artist, each sound he made drawing me in further.
"That's beautiful." I nodded toward the guitar. He looked up through his bangs and grinned. His strums got louder, and he opened his lips and started to sing "Hey Joe." There was something about it that sent shivers down my spine. I laid down in the sand, closing my eyes as his mellow voice made love to the lyrics.
The heat from the bonfire made my skin feel sensitive, as if the flames were whipping it. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the smoky fumes, enjoying the way their flavor danced in my throat.
I barely noticed when something sticky fell on my chest. My body was still attuned to the words spilling from Riley's lips. Then it fell again, this time icy cold against my skin. I opened my eyes, the last fragments of the evening sun obliterated by the tall man standing over me.
"Hey." Edward's voice was soft. He held a bottle of Coke in his right hand, tacky, brown liquid dripping from the thickly moulded glass. I sat up immediately, all thoughts of Hendrix forgotten. Edward knelt down to meet me, placing his bottle on the sand.
"How was San Francisco?" I felt shy again. Only a few days before I'd been grinding myself to ecstasy on his knee, but now my heart was hammering against my ribcage, blood rushing through my ears.
"The clinic was busy. Every time I thought I could get away, another case was brought in. Dr. Smith was totally overwhelmed, so I had to stay." His deep voice brought out a yearning in my body I didn't quite understand. He looked tired, his skin luminous against the flickering flames, his eyes dark and deep. I reached out to touch the shadow that had formed across his jaw, feeling the thick stubble he hadn't had a chance to shave away.
He captured my hand with his own, holding it against his cheek. His eyes closed for a moment as if to savor my touch. I rubbed my thumb across the sharp line of his cheekbone, feeling a soft rush of air escape his mouth.
"I missed you." I said the words before I thought them through. "It was quiet around here without you."
I didn't need to say it would be quieter still when he was gone for good. That spectre was more of a monster, waiting to eat us both alive. In just a few short weeks he'd be at Basic Training, and I would be heading for Berkeley. More than ever I wanted to stop the world from turning, from night melting into day.
"I'm here now." A slow grin formed on his lips, and like a magnet it pulled my cheeks up to form a smile. We stared at each other for a long moment, seeing the orange fire reflected in each other's eyes. It was like a manifestation of the heat growing between us.
I hadn't noticed Riley stop playing, but when I glanced around I saw we were all alone. I could feel a pulse jumping in my cheek, a reminder of the speed of my heartbeat. I watched Edward's mouth open, his full bottom lip dropping to reveal a sliver of tongue. My head was dizzy as I remembered how it felt when he brushed it against my mouth, pushing it inside and sliding it against my own.
"Let's go for a walk." His voice was thick and heavy. I nodded in agreement, and his fingers wrapped around my hand to pull me up. He didn't let go.
"There are some trees over there," I pointed to the far end of the beach. Most people didn't bother going that far, but I wanted privacy, to be alone with Edward Cullen while I still could. "A little path behind them leads to the rock pools."
I pulled off my sandals, and we walked across the sand. His height dominated my small stature. He had to moderate his long strides to let me keep up, and I suppressed a grin at his chivalry. We chatted idly, Edward telling me about his family, and his older brother Emmett. He worked in the DA's office in Seattle, though he had political ambitions like his father. Edward sounded bitter as he explained he, too, was expected to serve.
He captured my hand with his, threading his fingers through mine. We spoke of my mother, and the way she died of cancer when I was little. I told him how she'd take me to the beach every weekend, and that we'd dig ever-deeper holes, trying to find our way to Africa.
I leaned into him, as we talked of our fathers and their expectations, and whether we'd ever be able to live up to them. His skin was cool against my heated touch.
By the time we reached the rock pools, my earlier nervousness had dissipated, replaced by a breathless anticipation. The moon reflected on the calm surface of the water, occasionally rippling when a water boatman skated across the pool. We stood and stared down, unable to see any animals beneath the shallow, dark waters.
His profile was illuminated by the yellow moonlight. He turned to look at me, his gaze making my stomach contract and my heart hammer against my ribcage. Inclining his head, his lips brushed softly against mine in a way that made me sigh. All thoughts of crabs and insects were forgotten, replaced by sensation and deep, yearning need. I curled my fingers into his hair, feeling his wet tongue slide against mine.
I wanted more.
More of his lips.
More of his touch.
I wanted it all.
A/N California Dreamin' has been nominated for Fic of the Week at TehLemonadeStand dot net, along with some other, excellent stories. If you have the time, it would be great if you could vote.
I'm going on vacation next week, but I have the chapters pre-written. I'll do everything I can to post as normal, it all depends on the wifi!
SunflowerFran beta's, Midnight Cougar, SparrowNotes24 and Pates Greeneyes pre-read. You are all fabulous.
Your reviews make my day, thank you for reading. Choc xx