By Jack Lopez
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Copyright © 2006 by Jack Lopez
Reading Guide Copyright © 2007 by Jack Lopez
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: October 2009
Epigraph quote from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, 1960, Houghton Mifflin Company.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
"What's with you, Juan?"
I wanted to sleep!
"Psssst! C'mon, swell's up." Half whisper, not his normal voice.
Normal voice: "Get up, asshole."
"Okay, okay. Keep it down." It was Sunday morning, and my mother and father liked to sleep late. Everybody was supposed to keep quiet, not supposed to have friends come to their windows and shout out for the whole damn house to hear.
"I'll get your board."
"Yeah." I put the pillow over my head and went back to sleep. Then Jamie began honking the horn! I looked at the clock. It wasn't even 6:30. I looked at my older brother's twin bed, empty, unused.
On the way out of the house I saw my little brother already catatonic in front of the TV — anime or something. No, it was too early for those shows, and, besides, they were on Saturdays. "Paul, tell 'em I went surfing."
He grunted without looking at me. Twerp seven-year-olds!
I threw my pack in the backseat on top of our boards that Jamie had stuffed in … F's car? "What are you doing with F's ride?"
"My mom's car's dead."
I didn't like this one bit. "Does F know?"
"Screw F," Jamie said, putting the car in gear and peeling out.
I had to chuckle. F, Jamie's so-called stepdad, (Frederick was his name, but our nickname for him was Fuckhead and F was what we called him) was such an ass, he deserved to have his car taken. But the funniest thing was, had Jamie shown up in his mother's car, which he usually did, I wouldn't have thought a thing of it, even though he only had a learner's permit. He always drove as if he had a license and his own car. But now, it really did seem illegal, somehow, what we were doing.
I looked over at Jamie. He had the seat way back so he'd be low in it, though his legs were still scrunched at the knees. His hair was all messed up and blowing in the wind. Even though there was a chill in the early morning air, he had the windows down.
"What?" he said, and then laughed his high-pitched laugh. It was like a weird hiccup or something.
I shook my head.
"You won't do that when you see the waves."
"There aren't any waves."
"Greg J.'s getting it right now."
"No, he's not. Did they go?"
"You bet they did."
Greg J.'s father surfed and took Greg J. and his older brother down to Baja. Greg J. was on the surf team, he had a huge expensive house, and his dad had customized a van for Baja surf trips. I think his grandfather even surfed, dammit! He wasn't our friend.
A hurricane swell was on the way. But it was too soon for the waves to be here, or so the buoy readings said last night when I checked them online. "They're not getting anything this weekend."
"You gotta believe, Juan."
"I do. In surfcams."
We dropped down the hill, turned left on the Coast Highway, passing sandy Playa Chica, heading toward the pier. On the mesa where we lived you could smell the ocean air, but when you got closer it permeated everything. There would be one more even stronger blast right before you got in the water. It was funny, I knew where Jamie was headed even though we hadn't talked about it. There was a sandbar right in front of Greg Scott's street. It had built all summer, and now, with the approaching big swell from the south, it would fire!
When we could see the waves, Jamie said, "Fuck."
I knew it. "Swell's going to hit tomorrow. Maybe, if we're really lucky, a little action this afternoon." You can get all the info you need online.
"Tomorrow's school." He parked the car; we got our boards and stuff, and walked down the sand to the water's edge. The surf was little.
On the paddle out we could see who was in the water (Greg Scott, Ricky Ybarra, Herbie French, a bunch of other guys I didn't really know, and some old longboarders), what the tide and the waves were doing (dropping tide, dinky waves), and how the crowd was (big for so early, soon to get bigger). One good thing about surfing is that the waves almost always seem smaller from shore than when you enter the water. Sure, these waves were small, but they were hollow from the dropping tide, and would only get faster.
"Yeah!" Jamie shouted to Greg Scott as he crouched and got covered and then scrunched in the shorebreak. He broke the surface and looked at Jamie and me. "It's about time," he said, jumping on his board. As Greg Scott paddled, Jamie caught up to him, tugged on his leash and kept pulling, and passed him by pushing off his body. Greg Scott hadn't been expecting this, and I too caught up to him and propelled myself by grabbing on to him and thrusting myself forward, paddling hard to catch Jamie.
"Pricks!" he shouted as he got hit by an incoming wave.
We paddled out to the sandbar ahead of Greg Scott, scoping out the lineup. Boom — in no time some little lines showed, and Jamie caught the first one, acing out some older guy who'd been there first but didn't have position on Jamie. The guy whistled his disapproval. Jamie looked back just before dropping in, staring at the guy.
That was the problem with surfing around older guys: they thought that just because they were older, you were supposed to cut them some slack. On the next wave I out-positioned the dude, and he really whistled. After my ride and on my way back out I saw the same guy go ballistic when Herbie shoulder-hopped him. Who gave a shit, we were surfing!
Paddling back out yet again, I watched Jamie take off, stalling his board at the top. When he shot down the line and some guy dropped in on him I tensed, though the kook flopped off his board. Jamie was still in a good mood. Had the kook pissed him off and been older, Jamie might have thrown down with him in the shallow water. By the time the whitewater from that wave got to me, I pushed through the measly remnants.
It had remained a clear, calm morning, unusually warm even for late September, and particularly crowded, though it was what you'd expect for a Sunday. I was tired but took off anyway on the next wave: waist-high mush. I faded left, cranked a turn when I hit the bottom, going right. There was no juice to it, so I turned back into the whitewater, bellying the pathetic thing all the way into shore. I picked up my board and walked through the swirling water up the incline onto the white sand, where Amber, Jamie's sister, sat with Robert Bonham. The sea was now riffled with the rising wind, and Jamie was paddling back out to the lineup, toward our friends. I placed my board on Amber's.
Turning back and facing the sea, I scanned north toward the bluffs and then all the way south to the pier. There wasn't much of a swell. The tide was coming up as was the crowd, making the surfing day over. Whitewater hit the pier's pilings with a gentle regularity, and tourists dotted the top of the structure. I stretched my arms over my head and swiveled side to side. Then I grabbed my towel and looked at Amber and Robert. Bad vibe. Fighting vibe, which they'd been doing a lot of recently. Amber sat on her beach towel, looking out to the break, fidgeting with her Hello Kitty backpack, which she always had with her, it seemed. In it she kept her journal, and shells and beach glass and all kinds of shit that she was always collecting on the beach, feathers and rings and all sorts of trinkets. Robert stood beside her, looking toward the pier.
Amber was so pigeon-toed that her feet actually crossed over in front of each other as she walked. But they never collided, though it appeared that they should. Even when she surfed. She never wore shoes in the daytime, only at night. When it was warm as it was now she surfed in board shorts and a bikini top with a rash guard, which she now wore, sitting on her towel. She always had a deep copper tan, the result of much thought and patience, of lying on the beach or in the sun for hours, moving her towel so it would face the right direction, rotating her body so that it tanned evenly, and even going so far as to lie on her sides an equal amount of time as she lay on her back and stomach. She didn't speak a lot until she knew you, and even then she was not particularly talkative. She was tall, long-legged, and strong. She never wore any makeup, and a lot of girls didn't, but in her case guys thought she was weird; I think they were afraid of her. She was imposing, regal in her quiet beauty. She had gotten straight As so far through high school, and was planning on going to Berkeley or Stanford when she graduated. The only boyfriend she ever had was Robert Bonham, the dirty dog (how I envied him!). From the ninth grade on she was his girlfriend. He was attending community college. Amber was in the twelfth grade, two grades ahead of Jamie and me.
Now, as she sat on the beach above the high-tide line, looking uncomfortable and sad, her feet, even while sitting, were pigeon-toed.
"The hell with this," Robert Bonham said, and stomped off toward the service road at the end of the beach.
"Nice," I said. Supposedly Robert Bonham had been with another girl, or that's the story I heard. He and Amber had been going at it for a few weeks now.
Amber stuck her tongue out and crossed her eyes at me.
Don't, I thought, it'll make your eyes crossed permanently, like your feet.
The wind was picking up for real now, and I wrapped the towel around my upper body. Amber'd missed the good waves of the morning, sitting on the beach and arguing with Robert Bonham. I'd rather surf than argue with a girlfriend.
Jamie continued surfing, even though it was getting really windy. He caught wave after wave, no matter how bumpy the faces were, trying to perform some tricks: floaters, big cutbacks, getting tiny air when he could, all the things you do when you surf crummy waves but you yourself are really good.
"Oh crap!" Amber said.
I didn't turn around, assuming that Robert Bonham was back.
"Where is he?" a stern and angry voice half-shouted.
There stood F in a white shirt and tie, slacks, and hard shoes, right on the sand! In all his imposing size and heft. It wasn't that F was really that big, or that he was obese or anything. He just looked big, what with his fat head and his meaty forearms. He gave the appearance of being larger than he actually was. I looked out to sea, ignoring him.
"I know he's here, and he took my car," F said. "He was supposed to mow the lawn!"
"I drove," Amber said. She had come with Robert, about an hour after Jamie and I had.
"Don't you lie to me. Don't!" Other sunbathers and surfers began looking at us.
Amber said nothing. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders, trying unsuccessfully to make herself smaller somehow.
"He didn't ask permission to use my car! He was supposed to mow the lawn on Friday! Get him in. Now!"
I looked at F in all his crew-cut, engineer fury. He was a full dick, but he was scary. Especially when he was pissed off, which was practically all the time. I only saw him around Jamie, and he seemed perpetually pissed at him. Jamie could do no right as far as F was concerned. So he would yell at Jamie about the car, and, when you got down to it, he'd been yelling since shortly after he married Claire, Amber and Jamie's mother. I suppose F had been auditioning for the family before he married into it when he pretended to be nice to Jamie, pretended he gave a shit about surfing, or any of the stuff that other fathers are interested in. I didn't have to take his orders, but didn't want any undue grief to befall Amber, so I walked out toward the surf and began waving to Jamie.
As I tried to get his attention I wondered why it was we got stuck with the people we got stuck with? Me, I was lucky, I guess. My parents irritated the hell out of me sometimes. But they cared about me. They wanted me to do the right thing and they did right by me. F not only didn't care about Jamie, he wanted to break him or something, like a drill instructor in those goofy movies. The guys in the movies can't do anything about it cause they're in the Army, and I guess Jamie's in the same boat because he can do nothing either, until he moves out — which will be the second he's eighteen, maybe before, I know that much. When I finally caught his eye he flipped me off, though I kept waving to him. After about ten minutes he rode a wave in.
Jamie smiled his winning smile at me, throwing his long, sandy-blond hair back out of his eyes. He was tall and thin, though when he got older he was going to be huge. The football coaches were always trying to get him to join the team. "Why you buggin' me, Juan?" he said, laughing. His voice was a little higher when he laughed.
"He's giving Amber shit."
All the joy disappeared from Jamie's face and he looked empty yet determined as he went up the beach, dropping his board in the sand next to mine.
Before I knew what happened, he stood before F, arms crossed over his chest, head down, supplicatory, as if he were in the principal's office or something.
"Who gave you permission to take my car?"
Jamie didn't say anything, just stood there, looking at the sand.
"No one," Jamie said, now looking right in F's face.
"What about the lawn? Why don't you do anything? And your lousy grades. Let me tell you something, after your prank this morning, your free ride's over!"
Jamie just stood there taking it, that asshole yelling right in his face before the whole world to see. I don't know why I was set in stone but I was. Amber wasn't though. She jumped up, getting in between them, saying, "Not here, Frederick."
When F made like he was going to grab her, Jamie gave him a ferocious shove, knocking him on his ass. But F was quick in spite of his age and size, and he grabbed Jamie while going down. They tussled, rolling in the sand like dogs, F punching Jamie on the head, the back, the shoulders. When they stood up, Jamie held his hand over his nose and I could see blood leaking out. In an instant F had Jamie by his free wrist, dragging him up the beach toward the cars.
"Ahhhhhhhh!" Amber shrieked. While sitting on the sand she said, almost to herself, "I hate you." She pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face between her knees.
It was brutal and quick, and everybody in close proximity looked at us. Jamie and F were now climbing the small bluff right before Coast Highway. In an instant they were gone. Where was that ass Robert Bonham when we needed him? He could stand up to F, was legally an adult. When I looked down at Amber, she was crying, her hands covering her face.
I felt sick but also felt like doing something, so I picked up Jamie's board and walked it back down into the surf, rinsing it off. While thinking of Jamie I sat back on the sand, away from Amber, and watched the surf deteriorate.
I had been in only one fight in my life. And it was because of Jamie. When we were in the third grade there was a wacko named Alex who always picked on kids and stuff. At that time Jamie was so shy that he couldn't even do his book reports in front of the class; he would stay after school and do them in front of the teacher. I could watch if I wanted, and I usually did. At that time he wouldn't stand up for himself at all. It was only later that he would assert himself for what was right.
This one day we were lined up on the ramp waiting for Mrs. Brown, our third-grade teacher, to arrive when Alex cut in front of Jamie. Jamie let him. No problem. But then Alex turned around and started flicking Jamie on the head.
"Stop it," Jamie said after a few more flicks had hit him.
That was ammunition for Alex to flick him harder.
School had just begun and September was always the hottest month, though there were olive trees shielding us from the morning sun. And Mrs. Brown had to be late this day of all days.
Alex flicked Jamie again, really hard.
Jamie just looked down at that ground.
"Cut it out," I said to Alex. Other kids were now watching.
Alex flicked Jamie again.
What enraged me was to see Jamie flinch before he was even hit. I pushed Alex hard on his shoulder.
He came forward, trying to flick my head, but I just kicked him in the stomach, the way I'd seen these Thai kickboxers do on television. Nestor, my father, would sometimes watch sports on TV before he went to work and I'd watch with him. The kickboxers just wailed on each other using their hands, feet, knees, and elbows even. I noticed when they came forward they led with a kick, a lifting of the knee and snap of the foot. That was what I did to Alex. And it caught him right in the belly.
Right when Mrs. Brown showed up.
Jamie was as surprised as I was that Alex was suddenly crying. I was sent to the principal's office, where my only regret was that I cried too when she told me how much trouble I was in.
Now, I almost felt like crying. Rather than help Jamie moments ago, I had just stood by. Amber was the one who had intervened, not I.
After some time she said, "That's why he wasn't at school." She stared at the waves and her voice sounded scratchy.
Jamie had told me he didn't feel well, was why he missed school on Friday. "What?"
"F wouldn't let him out of the house until he mowed the lawn. He wouldn't do it Friday and he wouldn't do it yesterday. He just sat in his room. Until this morning."
We had talked on the phone and he'd said he didn't feel like doing anything. But the hurricane swell got him off his ass. And it wasn't even here yet. I didn't know what to say so I said nothing.
Some of our friends came in from the water, though most of them hadn't seen anything. Greg Scott had but he was too polite to mention it. I could tell by the way he looked at Amber that he knew. In fact, everyone knew that F was an asshole and yelled at Jamie sometimes. Nobody talked about it, it was just growing-up shit. F was a cheap jerk. Jamie was big now. Some shit would go down, no doubt about it.
While picking up my board I told Amber we should go. She got her board, stuffed her towel into her backpack, and, in a slight daze, followed me, Greg Scott walking with us. When we got up to the highway, there was no car. F must have taken it.
"Now what?" Amber said. Her long brown hair was coming out of its tight braid. Her face looked more linear than it really was, making her look older, tired.
"You can leave your boards at my house," Greg Scott said. He was such a pal, unlike Mr. Has-It-All Greg J.
And we did, which was nothing new. I carried my board under my right arm, and Jamie's under my left arm. An hour ago we had two cars. Now we had no car and four boards to carry. Greg Scott's father saw us approaching and came out and took Jamie's board from me, helping us to place them all in the garage.
"Where's Jamie?" Mr. Scott said.
"He had to get home suddenly," Greg Scott said. He looked at his father. His father asked no more questions.
I didn't feel like carrying my pack all the way back home, so I left it with the boards. Amber left her wetsuit and stuff too.
Greg Scott walked with us back to the street. His father resumed the weeding he was doing. "Take it easy," Greg Scott said.
"Yeah," I said. Then Amber and I began the long walk back toward our houses.
Behind The Strand, the name of the beach houses just north of Playa Chica, were large tract homes where Jamie lived. His father, Mr. Watkins, had been a really nice guy, coming to our ball games when we were young, putting a basketball backboard in their driveway and shooting hoops with us far into those summer nights that seemed to go on forever when I used to spend the night at Jamie's. His house was bike-riding distance from mine, and he and I spent all our free time together.
For a time I think I secretly wanted to be a Watkins, to be their second son, to have those soft searing blue eyes that Jamie and Amber had, to have the sandy blond hair, to be in a two-child family, to acquire the ease with which they all seemed to do everything. Jamie's father was a professional, an up-and-coming architect, someone who was in the paper sometimes for awards and things. Mrs. Watkins was athletic and perky (my mother's term — I think she was jealous), and stayed home.
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers