An excerpt from
“Can we please go?” Gabby asks, sighing as she flips through the pages of her Us Weekly. “We’re going to be as orange as Snooki if we stay out here too long.”
I don’t think over-tanning should be at the top of Gabby’s list of worries right now. She’s wearing board shorts and an oversized t-shirt, giant sunglasses and a floppy sun hat. The only thing she’s actually in danger of is looking like a mummy.
“Just a few more minutes?” I ask, trying not to be too obvious as I glance over at the Awesome-Nots. I’m looking, of course, for Justin Westcroft.
“The Awesome-Nots” is Gabby’s name for the most popular kids in school—because they think they’re awesome, but they’re not. They’re sitting about thirty feet away from us, taking up two blankets and two umbrellas in the middle of the beach. And while Justin Westcroft may hang out with the Awesome-Nots and sit under their umbrella on the beach, he’s not one of them, not exactly. Justin Westcroft is just Awesome. Full-stop.
He’s not with them, though. I mean, I knew that. Of course I knew that. I always keep an eye on the dreamy Justin Westcroft. I know he dove into the water just a few minutes ago for a race across the lake with Luke Kendricks. But he should have come back by now. When I look out at the lake to scan the horizon for him, I only see one break in the water instead of two.
“Something’s wrong,” I mutter to Gabby.
“I know, the best boy-candy is in the water and out of view,” she says without looking up.
Gabby’s talking about Luke. The thing about Luke is that he looks like an actual Ken Doll. But while Luke may be technically prettier than Justin, with tanned bronze skin, eyes so blue they look like someone colored them in with magic markers, and abs that you practically need a calculator to count, none of that stuff holds a candle to Justin’s smile.
“Gabs?” I murmur. Luke’s head is bobbing above the water every few seconds, but Justin’s still nowhere to be seen. “I think something’s wrong.”
She doesn’t even bother to look up. “Yeah, I know what’s wrong. Your case of Justinitis is flaring up again.”
She’s right. I’ve been kind of obsessing over Justin Westcroft since I moved back to Heron. But my feelings for Justin go back way further then that. Our mothers were in the same Mommy and Me class when we were babies. I chewed on his toys, he drooled on me, and from then on we were best friends. Well, at least until we were seven, and my dad left and my mom took my sister Meg and me to live with our grandma in Tampa. We moved back almost exactly two years ago, the summer before my freshman year, because Mom says it’s a better school district.
While I was gone, Justin grew up to be one of the hottest guys in school, and I grew up to be—something else. Not the hottest girl in the school. Not the ugliest girl, either. Not the anything-est, really.
“They drink Starbucks while wearing 10,000 dollar handbags. Just like us.” Gabby is saying, reading from her US Magazine with gleeful sarcasm as she absently pulls on her t-shirt for the 100th time, covering the extra ten pounds that she thinks is thirty. “If I had a spare ten grand, I would not…”
She trails off, and when I look up, she’s staring out at the water with her mouth open, her lips forming a pink, glossy “O.”
The beach has gone silent. They’ve all noticed it together: on the shore, Luke is pulling Justin from the water.
I drop my magazine onto the sand and stare with everyone else.
Justin’s eyes are closed. He’s not moving as Luke tries to drag him further onto shore, then gives up and crouches down next to him. He looks panicked as he casts around the beach for help and finds none.
He squares his shoulders, his voice coming out between gasps for breath. “Someone call 9-1-1,” he calls out, his voice cracking. I think it’s the first time
I’ve ever seen Luke looking anything other than totally cool and collected. There is no lifeguard in sight.
Gabby is on her feet now. “Oh my God…oh my God…” she’s babbling. I spring up too, using my hand as a visor as I scan the beach for someone who looks like a doctor, or in any way adult or in charge. My breath is short. My head feels like it’s about to detach from my neck and shoulders and just float away.
Everyone else has their phones out, calling 9-1-1, but I think we all sort of know that it’s pointless; we’re miles from everything. “Run, get to the guard’s station,” Luke yells at Harrison Dean, who nods and goes sprinting down the beach.
It will be at least ten minutes before he makes it there. “CPR! Does anyone know CPR?” Luke gasps.
I don’t say anything. Gabby nudges me, but I’m waiting for someone else. This isn’t raising my hand with something I think might resemble the answer to a trig equation. This is Justin’s life. If I do this wrong, Justin will die. Gabby looks me in the eye like she can read my thoughts. “You have to,” she urges.
I know she’s right.
Everything suddenly feels like it’s moving in slow motion, but I’m not lightheaded anymore. I feel a strange sense of calm filling my body as I step forward.
“I do,” I say. I was fourteen when my mom taught me my BAC’s—breath, airways, compression. The threat level at our house has been characterized as orange for years. On top of CPR, I know how to stop, drop and roll, how to make a splint, and how to treat an accidental poisoning. It’s not just because my mom is a nurse. It’s because Frank, otherwise known as my father, is DTH. Dead to Her. Ever since he left, Mom’s been in super-safety mode. She doesn’t want us leaving her, too.
Luke is gesturing me over. “Tara. Thank God. You can do this.”
Out of the corner of my eye I spot Amanda Sykes looking around desperately for a more suitable rescuer. Her lips are pursed like she’s just tasted something sour. Given the choice between her boyfriend’s life and my lips touching his, I think she might choose death.
Before I know it I’m kneeling in the pebbly sand, peering down at Justin’s unmoving face. He looks weirdly peaceful, more beautiful than ever. But I can’t think about that now…
There had been a test with an instructor and a mannequin that looked a little like Luke, with those same unnaturally pink lips. But this is the real test. It doesn’t feel the same at all.
I tilt his head back to check his airways. His skin is slippery and so cold. I find the spot of his breastbone with the heel of my palm, reinforce it with my other hand and then press down like I was taught. And even though I expect it, the feel of his chest, bones and chest pressing back surprises me. I count between compressions.
1, 2, 3, 4…Justin?…5, 6, 7…
I hesitate for a split second over his mouth. I remind myself that I’m not stealing a kiss. I have to bring him back. His lips are cold and blue. They feel almost raw. I pinch his nose, and, mixed with the lake water and sand, I can almost taste my own fear.
I don’t feel Justin. He isn’t there. I start to really panic.
“He can’t say no to a dare,” Luke is saying to himself, crouching beside me in the sand. He’s blaming himself for the race. He’s right. Not about the blame. But about Justin. A flood of memories comes back to me. Staring contests, monopoly, even the number of fireflies in a jar. Justin never could stand to lose.
I can’t comfort Luke right now. But when I move back to compressions, I whisper, “Justin always wins.”
I give him a second breath. Still nothing.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, If you don’t… 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, wake up…
14, 15, 16, 17, there will never be…18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, an us… 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30. I stop at 30.
I have imagined our first kiss a gazillion times. My lips on his. My heart beating fast. But his isn’t beating at all. And his lips are so very cold. And this isn’t a kiss.
Another count of thirty. Two more breaths. The panic moves to my chest.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, I love you, Justin… 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, I love you… 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30… I love you.
I feel a tear roll down my cheek and as I bend over his mouth again I watch it fall onto his still face.
And then, as I breathe out, I feel Justin’s lips moving against mine. I pull away.
Justin coughs. He sputters water out of his mouth and it runs down his face onto the sand. His eyes open.
I rear back, stunned.
“You’re okay. You’re okay!” I hear myself saying. My voice sounds so happy; I barely recognize it.
Justin’s eyes lock on mine. First he looks confused, like he doesn’t know who I am or what I was doing two inches from his face. I open my mouth to explain, but then I see the confusion replaced with something else. His eyes light up and he breaks into a faraway smile. It’s like he’s looking at the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.
He’s looking at me.
He tries to talk. I stop him. “Don’t,” I say. He coughs again and tries to sit up.
“Just stay put Justin.” As I talk, his skin changes colors right before my eyes. He nods and falls back into the sand, inhaling and exhaling. I watch his chest go up and down for a second and then flop onto my heels next to him, suddenly filled with a strange mixture of exhaustion and elation.
Luke announces to the crowd, “He’s okay!” Then he looks at me, grateful and a little surprised. “You did it!” He claps me on the back happily.
A cheer erupts on the beach. I know they’re really clapping for Justin but I don’t care. I want to clap myself.
Justin’s not paying attention to any of it, though. He’s just staring up at me like I’m the only one he can see. Like we’re the only ones on the beach.
“Hey,” he says softly. “Star. You saved me.”
It takes me a second to register. I’m Star. It was the name Justin had for me when we were really little, before he could pronounce Tara. I can’t remember the last time anyone called me that. Definitely not since we moved when I was seven.
I don’t say anything, just smile back at him. His eyes don’t leave mine.