Second Star (Excerpt)

Alyssa B Sheinmel’s Second Star is a modern summer romance based on J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It publishes May 13th from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

A twisty story about love, loss, and lies, this contemporary oceanside adventure is tinged with a touch of dark magic as it follows seventeen-year-old Wendy Darling on a search for her missing surfer brothers.

Wendy’s journey leads her to a mysterious hidden cove inhabited by a tribe of young renegade surfers, most of them runaways like her brothers. Wendy is instantly drawn to the cove’s charismatic leader, Pete, but her search also points her toward his nemesis, the drug-dealing Jas. Enigmatic, dangerous, and handsome, Jas pulls Wendy in even as she’s falling hard for Pete.

 

 

1

I can smell the bonfire before I even get out of the car. It’s dusk, and the sun is low on the water. According to my watch, it’s been exactly four hours since I officially graduated high school. But I don’t feel any more grown-up now than I did this morning.

I leave my shoes in the car and step onto the beach. “Congratulations,” I say to no one in particular, to whichever of my classmates are close enough to hear. I’ve never heard the same word so many times in one day.

“Wendy!”

Fiona’s voice rings above the crowd as she runs toward me. Fiona has always had the loudest voice, the biggest laugh. Even in kindergarten, it got us into trouble sometimes. Her arms fly around my waist and we both go crashing to the ground.

I sit up quickly, crossing my legs beneath me, and Fiona rests her chin on my shoulder. The brush of her strawberry blond hair raises goose bumps on my bare arm. My own dark hair is pulled into a tight ponytail at the nape of my neck.

“Where’s Dax?”

Fiona shrugs with the ease of a girl who knows her boyfriend won’t stay away long. “Around.”

I remember how they looked at graduation this afternoon. I was sitting on the stage, in the section for those graduating with honors, so it was easy to look down on the crowd and pick out Fiona. Dax kept his arm around her shoulder the entire time, even though it was sweltering hot underneath our caps and gowns.

Fiona grabs my hand with a laugh and pulls me to stand. “Your fingers are icy.”

From behind us a voice says, “Let me see.”

I can feel Dax’s touch before I see him. I try not to shiver when he takes both my hands in his, brings them to his mouth, and blows.

“Man,” he says, “you are ice-cold, girl.”

Yes, I think, that’s me. The ice princess who lives in the glass house on the hill. The girl who closes her door to write her college essays while her parents are talking to the police in the living room.

“I’m okay.” I pull my hands away and fold my arms across my chest. “Really.”

“Let’s get you close to the fire,” he says, ignoring my protests.

“I’m really not cold,” I argue as he tries to pull me away, making a path among the kids gathered around the bonfire. Instead of following, I turn to face the water, my back to my friends. A group of boys are paddling out among the waves.

“Surfers,” I whisper. I didn’t mean to say the word out loud. My brothers started surfing when they were ten years old, the two littlest surfers on the beach. And the two most determined. Now I watch strangers surf, boys who remind me of John and Michael, bobbing up and down between the waves, shouting to each other, pointing to the spaces where the water breaks, paddling out and then drifting back.

“Wendy,” Fiona says gently, “you know they’re not out there, right?”

I try to ignore the shiver of anger that runs down my spine at her words. They’re out there, I think, somewhere.

“You okay?” Fiona puts her arm around me, and I fight the urge to shrug it off. She is just trying to find the right thing to say; everyone always tries to find the right thing to say. As if there were any words that could make it better.

My brothers disappeared nine months ago, just as the school year was beginning. The police searched for them, but even I could see that it was a halfhearted investigation. They didn’t think much of a couple kids running off to the beach for a few days, a few weeks, a few months.

At first, my parents called the station every day, insisting on talking to the detective in charge, trying to explain that their boys were different from all the other teenage runaways. But the police had seen this story play out too many times. They had murder suspects to hunt, thieves to catch. Two sixteen-year-olds on a joyride up the coast was hardly enough to hold their attention.

I still remember the last time I saw Michael and John. They had packed up their favorite surfboards and their wet suits for some early waves, just like they did every morning. There was still sand glinting in their hair from the previous day’s surf. They never got it all out, no matter how many times they washed their hair. John had been driving, and I imagined I could hear Michael urging him to hurry as they pulled out of the driveway without a backward glance.

I close my eyes at the memory and take a deep breath. I feel closest to them when I’m near the water.

Dax moves to stand between me and Fiona, putting an arm around my shoulders and taking Fiona’s hand. I’ve tried to figure out how Dax automatically became my friend the minute he started dating Fiona, but I have no idea. Maybe there’s some unspoken rule about best friends’ boyfriends that I don’t know about because I’ve never had a real boyfriend myself. The heat that radiates from Dax’s body makes me uncomfortable.

“I left my phone in the car,” I lie. “I’ll be right back.”

But I don’t even bother walking to the parking lot. Once I’m sure Fiona and Dax are no longer watching, I make my way to the water’s edge, the waves lapping against my toes, higher and higher as the tide comes in. The sun has set completely now.

In the distance I can just make out the silhouette of a boy on a surfboard. He floats between the waves, patient while he waits to take a ride. It’s dark now, and he’s the only surfer left on the water. But he doesn’t look scared. The air around him is bright, like the stars are following him, his very own spotlight.

He makes it look easy, paddling in between the waves and shifting into a crouch. I inhale sharply when he jumps up to stand. It looks like he’s floating over the water. It looks like he’s flying.

Without thinking, I take another step, even though the hem of my dress is growing heavy with salt water. I move deeper and deeper, closer and closer. The water rises with a gentle touch, the sea wrapping its cool arms around me. I close my eyes and just listen to the waves: rising and crashing, rising and crashing.

But then there is the sound of someone splashing into the water and the feel of a strong hand encircling my arm.

“Are you okay?”

I blink. The surfer is in the water next to me, his board bobbing a few feet away.

“What were you thinking?” he shouts. He puts an arm around me and starts pulling me to shore, letting go only when we’ve reached the shallows. Water drips from the ends of his dark hair down his face. Even in the darkness I can see that his skin is covered with freckles.

I shake my head in confusion. I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t even realize how deep I’d gone in. I just wanted to get a closer look. I’m surprised to feel that the tips of my hair, my shoulders, even the underside of my chin, are wet.

“My board could have hit your head,” he says, just loudly enough to be heard over the waves. “It’s a good thing I saw you.”

“I’m sorry,” I reply.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” he says, shaking his head. “Just be more careful next time.” He’s so tall that water from his shaking head falls down on me like raindrops.

“Next time,” I repeat, but he’s already released my arm from his light grasp.

And then he’s gone.

 

2

“Wendy!”

I’m lying on the beach, gazing out at the water, when I hear Dax and Fiona calling my name. I turn around and see them running toward me, kicking up sand with every step.

“What took you so long?” Fiona says, out of breath. “I thought you were just going to get your phone.” She reaches for me, then pulls back suddenly. “Why are you soaking wet?”

“I’m fine,” I say, brushing some of the sand from my damp skin. “He saved me.”

“Who?” Dax says, wrapping his fingers around my upper arm and pulling me to a stand.

“The surfer who got me out of the water.”

“Who got you out of the water?” Fiona’s voice sounds desperate. “What were you doing in the water?”

I turn back to the ocean, even though the boy and his surfboard are long gone. “He left,” I say, shrugging.

Without even seeing it, I can sense Fiona shooting a look at Dax over my head.

“Don’t do that.” I shake my head, irritated. People have been giving me that same worried, nervous expression for months, to my face and behind my back. Teachers, when I turned my papers in, not just on time, but early. Police officers, when I dropped off missing persons fliers in their precincts. Did they think I didn’t notice it? That I didn’t know what it meant?

“It has nothing to do with John and Michael,” I say suddenly, surprised at how harsh my voice sounds. I turn to Dax. “You can let go of me now. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I think we should take you home,” Dax says, the words coming slowly. “You need to get out of those wet clothes.”

“You know, just because you’re my best friend’s boyfriend doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do.”

Dax finally releases my arm.

“Wendy,” Fiona says gently, resting her dry hand on my wet skin. I shake my head. “I can take myself home,” I say, shrugging

off Fiona’s soft touch and turning to walk to the parking lot. “What’s gotten into you?” Fiona asks.

I spin to face her. “Who are you to tell me that they aren’t out

there?” I say, and my voice sounds rough, as though the sand has stuck to my tongue and caught in my throat.

“I didn’t mean…” Fiona pauses. She looks at Dax, not at me.

“Sure you did,” I say, and I wonder where the certainty in my voice is coming from when I add, “But they are out there. I know they are.”

 

The last time the police visited our house was three months ago.

“You better sit down,” the officers had said to my parents. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to sit down, too. But I wasn’t about to miss a word they said, so I stood by the kitchen counter listening as the officers spoke.

There had been a major swell somewhere up the coast this winter, they said. Surfers had come from all over the world, lured by the promise of record-breaking waves all along northern California, from Pebble Beach to Monterey to Santa Cruz. But conditions had been bad: it was raining, water temperatures were low. Three surfers went missing that day, the police said. Only one body had been found. Spectators recalled that the missing surfers had been young—no more than teenagers—and someone heard that they were from Newport Beach.

One of the officers nodded to the other, who got up wordlessly from our kitchen table and walked out the front door. I was tempted to follow him, but I kept myself planted by the kitchen counter. He didn’t even bother closing the door behind him, and when he came back in, he was struggling under the weight of two surfboards. The remains of two surfboards.

“Do these look familiar to you?” he asked.

My mother’s only answer was to burst into tears; my father said nothing. The boards were destroyed; it was more like twothirds of one board and less than half of another. On one, the foot straps were torn in half. The very things that were supposed to keep the surfer’s feet tethered to his board had betrayed him.

Since then, my parents have been acting as though they’re positive that Michael and John were the two nameless drowned surfers. The police certainly believed it; the search had stopped, and I pictured my brothers’ files stamped with the words case closed. Our family mourned as surely as if there had been bodies to lay inside caskets, coffins to lower into the ground.

But I was never so sure. I sat at my computer and searched for images from the swell, pictures and videos of surfers in the rain, in the fog, tumbling between the crashing waves. I didn’t see my brothers anywhere.

 

I’m still soaked as I slide open the door of my house. My mother’s car will be sandy and mildewed in the morning. At least I don’t have to worry that my parents will have waited up for me. They go to bed earlier every night and sleep later each morning.

My dog bumps my hip with her nose when I open the door, sniffing at the salt water on my clothes. “Hey, Nana. Nothing to get worked up about,” I whisper. “Just a surfer in the water.” I stroke the soft spot between her ears. “And that’s as much of an explanation as you’ll get from me tonight.”

She follows me down the hall behind the dining room to the bedrooms. The glass house has cool tile floors, and Nana licks up the water that drips from my dress.

In my bedroom, I leave my dress on the floor and climb into bed. Nana leaps up beside me. My room isn’t dark, not even when I turn out all the lights. It never really gets dark in a house with glass walls, propped on top of a hill, looking out over the city. The city lights keep the house bright; I’ve never slept in darkness. When we were little, my mother told my brothers and me that the lights from the city were our own night-lights, there to watch over us and keep us safe. The three of us believed in our mother’s night-lights the way other kids believed in Santa Claus.

The tips of my hair are still wet. Maybe it’s the salt water drying on my skin, but I feel closer to my brothers tonight than I have any other night since they left. I can almost hear the laughter coming from their bedroom across the hall, almost see the surfboards they’d leave propped by the front door every night, just waiting to take the waves in the morning.

I get up and walk to the window, looking down at the city lights I know by heart and the dark horizon of the ocean beyond. I picture the waves crashing on mile after mile of empty shoreline, bonfires burned down to ash, nothing but the moon and the stars left to light up the beach.

There are secret spots only surfers know. Places that the police can’t find and where my parents wouldn’t have looked. I heard John and Michael whispering once about a hidden cove.

Out loud, I say, “They can’t have gone far. They would never leave the ocean.”

I take a deep breath like I’m about to dive underwater and get back into bed. My heart is racing as though I’ve just discovered something. My eyelids grow heavy, but a thought works its way into the space between sleeping and waking: If I search hard enough, I will find them.

I expect to dream about John and Michael, but instead I dream about the boy I saw on the water, the boy riding the perfect wave under the stars. Asleep, I can still feel the waves lapping against my body. In the morning, my sheets are heavy with the scent of the sea.

 


Second Star © Alyssa B Sheinmel, 2014

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