Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO
1985
LEO

All three children sat on the sand atop a series of towels they'd borrowed from Mrs. Culpepper. The towels were entirely too fancy for an oceanside lounge, with fringes and velvet trim; they were cotton/silk blends that were mostly for show in a rarely used bathroom. But Simon had begged. As he'd vigorously reminded his grandmother, the weather was uncharacteristically warm and there wouldn't be many days like it. The kids could either take advantage of this happy boon...or play inside the house—where they would surely drive the old lady batty.

On purpose, if necessary.

"Don't go any deeper than your ankles," Mrs. Culpepper had warned. "Wading is fine, splashing is acceptable, and damp knees are to be expected. But no swimming. I know it's hot outside but the water is too cold for swimming, and the current is stronger than it looks." Then she'd given them the towels and kicked them out to do their worst.

Now these pasty Pacific Northwesterners had sun, they had time to kill, and they had a beach.

Or if not a beach, they had a coastline—and it stretched along the eastern side of a slender, minimally occupied island on the western end of Puget Sound. Sure, this coastline was covered in gravel and crushed shells, and yes, it was pocked with volcanic black boulders that were too sharp to climb without bloodied elbows, knees, and palms. But it was long and narrow and private, just out of sight from the Culpepper house on the other side of the tree line.

The ocean hovered around forty degrees most of the year. In August, maybe as high as fifty. It was only the end of June. All three children sprawled in a row, wearing their smallest clothes. None of them owned bathing suits, but they all had shorts and Melissa had a tank top rolled up to cover little more than her nonexistent boobs.

Simon was eleven years old. He had hair and freckles the color of carrots, and the lanky, pale body of a boy who wouldn't hear from puberty for another couple years at soonest. His eyes were the color of the sky past the horizon line, mostly blue with a bit of gray. He'd lived with his grandmother since his parents had died in an accident when he was eight.

Melissa was also eleven. She'd been a towheaded baby and now was an ashy blond child. Mrs. Culpepper had offered her tousled head a spritz of lemon juice to let the sun brighten those dull, unruly locks. "It'll give you highlights," she'd promised. Given time and no further lemon juice intervention, her hair might eventually catch up to her eyes, rich and golden brown.

And then there was newcomer Leo, seven years old. Small and round. Darker in complexion than the other two, with black wavy hair and eyes that matched it perfectly, until you saw them in the light. He was chatty and excitable and eager to please—desperate to fit in with Melissa and Simon, who were the only other children on the island. Despite his efforts, he remained a third wheel wherever they went—even if they were only going down the walkway, past the big driftwood tree that was as long as a truck, and through that narrow gap in the seagrass-covered dunes, onto the rocky sand beside the ocean.

Regardless, Leo was happy, especially when the sun was out. Even if the big kids didn't include him in every conversation, even if they talked over his head. He had a baby blue towel with a faux-Persian velvet pattern around the hem. It was very soft between his fingers when he fiddled with it.

He wished for sunglasses, but he didn't have any. Neither did Simon, but Melissa was wearing a pair of Mrs. Culpepper's that were comically oversized on the little girl's face.

Simon pointed out, "You'll get funny tan lines, if you don't take those off."

She shrugged. "I don't care. I like them. They make me feel rich." Melissa was not rich. Her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents every summer because they couldn't afford daycare when school was out.

Leo said, "I like the sunglasses. They make you look grown-up and important." Leo's family wasn't rich either. He was living with his aunt and uncle part-time for the same reason as Melissa. Their house was through the woods on the next lot over.

"Thank you, Leo. See? He's little, but he's not stupid."

"He's not that little," Simon said, with a friendly elbow to the younger boy's shoulder. "One of these days, you'll be bigger than both of us, I bet."

He liked that idea. "Then I shall have vengeance!" he declared, as close to the tone of his favorite Saturday morning cartoon character as he could manage.

Simon and Melissa cackled. They knew the show too.
...

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