“School’s out for . . . ever!”
Okay, so maybe it was one of the lamest songs ever to come out of the 1980s, but Avery James had to admit that thumping out of the radio in her pickup, it sounded dead-on. Driving with the windows down and the warm June breeze whipping her light brown hair, she turned the music up a little louder.
Summer, there was nothing like it. And this year, she was going to make the most of it. It was June 23, and the rest of her life stretched before her, beginning with two months of sun, sand, all-night parties—and no one checking IDs too close—to celebrate her release from the minimum-security prison known as high school.
Cruising down the road toward Wildwood, New Jersey, the salty smell of the ocean filled her nostrils and a thrill ran up her spine. This is it! Ever since she was a kid she had heard about the beachside community that was the summer hangout for thousands of high school and college students. Now she was finally going to see for herself.
She drove over the causeway—the breeze adding a ripple to the green water below—and into town, passing the blocks of rental houses and condos, motels, gas stations, and liquor stores that serviced vacationers. Her first impression was that every other car was a brand-new convertible or a tricked-out import complete with spoiler and rims. Compared with them, her rusty, dented red truck was almost an eyesore. But that was okay; she liked being different. A girl driving an old pickup stood out in the crowd. It didn’t matter that the real reason she drove the pickup was that it was free. The truck was a hand-me-down from her uncle.
The sky was blue and cloudless, the sun big and yellow. Its rays warmed her arm in the open window. Avery tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and double-checked the addresses for the house she would be sharing. She was looking for number 15. As she drove toward the beach the numbers got lower. 93 . . . 87 . . . 81. The houses were mostly two stories and larger than she had expected. Some were freshly painted with neatly trimmed green lawns. Others were victims of the salt air and harsh winter weather—paint flaking, battered shutters hanging askew. Houses like that anywhere else might have been considered dilapidated, but here they seemed charming and rustic.
She passed number 19 and slowed the pickup, but her heart sped up in anticipation. Seven people would be sharing the house, including her boyfriend, Curt. No parents, no rules, nothing to hold them back from having a great time. Daytime, nighttime, all the time. That was, if they could stand one another. She wondered what her housemates would be like. Maybe it wouldn’t be important. Her cousin had once shared a house at Wildwood with three other girls and swore she never saw two of them more than five times the entire summer.
A brisk ocean breeze swept in the open window, and Avery tasted the salt in the air. She couldn’t wait to get into her bathing suit. The scent of suntan lotion and ocean water mixed with the aroma of funnel cake and popcorn. Ah, bliss!
Her thoughts turned to Curt. He should have arrived two days ago with his band. Almost instantly the muscles in the back of her neck began to tighten with nervous tension. They’d had a fight the last time they’d seen each other because she didn’t want to live in the house the other band members had rented for the summer. Curt hadn’t called her cell to let her know he’d arrived, so she was pretty sure he was still annoyed. But she knew she’d made the right decision. He was so involved with that band, it was hard to get him alone. She wanted time with him this summer. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy hanging out with the other musicians; she just wanted something different, something special. As she pulled up to number 15, her new summer home, she hoped that she had found it.
Avery parked the pickup on the street outside the house. Like most of the other houses on the street, it was two stories tall. The dull gray paint and black trim were weather-beaten but not yet flaking. What lawn there was had been recently cut, but already a few gnarly looking weeds poked up through the grass.
She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, pressed the 2 on the speed dial, and got Curt’s voice mail. His clipped message, “You know what to do,” was followed by the requisite beep. “I’m here and it looks great,” Avery said. She hung up and breathed in the warm air for a moment, had another thought, and hit redial. “I can’t wait for you to see our place if you haven’t already. . . .” She paused and found herself unwilling to hang up. The memory of their argument was fresh in her thoughts, and she didn’t want their summer together to begin on a bad note. “I really think you’re going to love it. We’ll get to have time together and it’ll be fun. I can’t wait.”
She got out of the truck and looked around. The street ended two houses down, and beyond that was the beach and then the vast blue green ocean stretching out to the horizon. White-tipped waves crashed on the velvety golden sand, and sprays of water looked like millions of diamonds glittering in the sunlight.
“What a dump,” someone behind her muttered. Startled, Avery turned to see a girl with expertly highlighted honey blond hair, tan skin, and stormy blue eyes climbing out of a cab. She was wearing a tight pink baby doll tee with a light blue terry cloth miniskirt. While neither was see-through, they might just as well have been, given what they revealed about her drop-dead figure. She was carrying a brown Louis Vuitton overnight bag. The cabdriver opened the trunk and placed two large matching suitcases on the curb.
“Ahem.” He cleared his throat and held out his hand.
The blonde gave him a perplexed look.
“I don’t drive for free, sweetcakes,” said the cabbie.
Where Avery would have apologized like mad for the oversight, the blonde merely looked annoyed as she opened her bag and paid him.
“Ahem.” The driver cleared his throat again.
The blonde gave him an exasperated “Now what?” look.
“You ever heard of a tip?” he asked.
Rolling her eyes dramatically and acting as if he’d just asked her for one of her kidneys, she opened her purse and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. “Got change?”
The driver frowned. “That’s all you got?”
“Sorry.” The blonde stuck the bill back in her purse.
Muttering to himself, the cabbie got into the cab. Avery couldn’t help but feel a bit shocked that the blonde had stiffed the guy. From the looks of things, she could have easily afforded the tip.
“Excuse me.” Leaving the matching luggage on the sidewalk, the blonde pushed past Avery. Pretentious blue blood, Avery thought. The kind who spends a thousand dollars on designer clothes tailor-made to give the wearer a casual, just-thrown-together look. What is she doing renting a room in this place? Mommy and Daddy can probably afford to buy her a beach house of her own.
The blonde rang the doorbell. Almost instantly it was opened by a guy who looked about twenty years old. It seemed to Avery that he must have been waiting for the knock. His straight brown hair fell down his forehead, almost into his eyes, and he was wearing a white T-shirt, and green plaid shorts that revealed pale, bony arms and legs. The black socks and shoes did little to enhance the look. Behind his thick, black-rimmed glasses his eyes sparkled with excitement.
The blonde wrinkled her nose. “You’re . . . not one of my new roommates, are you?”
“No, I’m Fred, your landlord,” he said, extending his hand.
“Oh! The landlord! So nice to meet you!” The blonde’s frown turned into a smile, and her voice became sweet. “Sabrina Morganthal,” she said, taking his hand in hers instead of shaking it. “Would you be a dear and help me with my bags? They’re too heavy for me, but I’m sure they’d be no problem for you.”
It was Avery’s turn to roll her eyes. She has to be kidding. Fred may look a little dense, but he has to see that she’s playing him!
All Fred seemed to see was Sabrina’s hand holding his, and the bare arm, and amazing body behind it. He smiled wide. “My pleasure.”
Sabrina batted her eyes. “Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it.” She sailed past him and into the house.
It was hard to believe how quickly Sabrina had gone from being rude to the cabdriver to sugary sweet with Fred. The poor guy practically tripped over himself in his rush to get her bags. He didn’t even notice Avery on the walk as he dashed past her and tried to pick up both bags at once.
“Uhhh!” He grunted and struggled to drag them up the walk. Meanwhile, Avery went inside the house. Sabrina was standing in the middle of the living room with her back toward her and her hands on her hips, surveying the place. Avery immediately liked the way the light streamed through the windows. The walls were painted a pale seafoam green, and the carpet was the color of sand. The living room had two sofas, three comfortable chairs, and a television set.
“Decorated it myself,” Fred announced proudly once he made it inside and let go of the bags. “Well, with a little help from my mom. The entertainment center has a wide-screen TV, DVD/VCR with Surround Sound. The CD player holds twelve disks. And we’ve got Wi-Fi. Nice, huh?”
“Fabulous,” Sabrina said with feigned enthusiasm. Avery wasn’t particularly interested in the entertainment center. Instead, she focused on the staircase that led up to a second-floor landing. She could see several doors, no doubt bedrooms.
“And over here is the kitchen.” Fred was still giving Sabrina the guided tour.
“You don’t say,” Sabrina replied. “I never would have guessed.”
Avery bit her lip to keep from laughing. Fred couldn’t be more than a year or two older than her. This must have been his first venture into real estate, and he was too eager to please.
Sabrina flipped her hair in that way that seemed to come naturally to beautiful girls. People had told Avery she was beautiful, but she’d never quite believed it. Maybe that was why she wasn’t blessed with awesome hair flippage.
Meanwhile, Sabrina was getting impatient with Fred’s house tour. “Can we get to the bedroom already?”
An astonished look spread over Fred’s face. It suddenly occurred to Avery that he might have misunderstood the statement, especially if one believed all those stories about how wild “summer girls” could be. She clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing while Fred moved toward Sabrina, almost as if he was going to embrace her, clearly misreading her intentions.
Before he could get too close, Sabrina raised a hand to stop him. “Isn’t there something you should take care of first?”
Fred scowled, raising one eyebrow, then the other, clearly wracking his brain to figure out what she meant. Meanwhile, Sabrina laid a hand gently on Fred’s arm. “I meant, my bags, Freddy. Someone has to get them upstairs.”
“Oh . . . uh, right. Right!” Fred hurried for the bags while Sabrina, with the air of a queen, went up the stairs.
Avery’s cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Hey, baby.” It was Curt, and he sounded like he was in a good mood. She felt a tingle of relief. “Got your message. You seen our room yet?”
“Not yet. The landlord’s got his hands full with one of the other renters,” she said ruefully.
“Okay, I’ll be there in ten.”
“I love you,” she said.
He’d already hung up. Well, at least he’d sounded happy. She closed her phone and slid it back into her pocket. Fred came past with Sabrina’s bags.
“Excuse me,” Avery said. “I’m Avery James.”
“Be right with you.” Fred lugged one bag up to the second-floor landing, then turned and hurried back down for the second.
“I’m also renting here this summer,” Avery said.
“In a minute,” Fred gasped under the strain of the heavy bag, his forehead beginning to glisten with sweat as he headed back up the stairs.
Annoyed, Avery seated herself on the couch and listened to the sound of footsteps and doors opening and closing as Sabrina inspected the upstairs bedrooms and Fred tagged along. It was only when she heard footsteps coming back down the stairs that she looked up.
“—and that’s why I need the big bedroom, sugar,” Sabrina purred to him as he followed Sabrina down the steps.
The big bedroom? Avery felt a jolt, then stood up and cleared her throat. “Excuse me? Fred? I thought my boyfriend and I are supposed to have the large bedroom.”
Fred stopped and looked flustered and confused. “Oh, gee. I’m sorry, she . . .” He gestured toward Sabrina but then trailed off, like he wasn’t sure what to say.
“We paid for that room in advance,” Avery stated, trying to sound forceful but fearing that she sounded wimpy.
Fred bit his lip and glanced over at Sabrina, who gave him a coy smile and batted her eyes. He turned back to Avery. “I’m really sorry, but she was here first. If it’s the money you’re worried about, I’ll refund the difference.”
Now Avery was pissed. “Actually, I was here first. But she pushed past me. And my boyfriend has been in town for two days, but you told us we couldn’t check in until today, so he waited.”
Again Fred’s eyes slid to Sabrina. Avery realized that he was under her spell and there was probably nothing she could say that would make a difference. She took a deep breath and calmed herself. She was here to have a good time this summer, not make enemies on the very first day. Besides there had to be another decent bedroom. If Curt didn’t like it, she’d let him work it out with Fred.
“I get to pick the next bedroom,” Avery said. “No matter who shows up next.”
“I promise,” Fred replied. Having put out that fire, he sidled over to Sabrina. “So, uh, I was wondering if you had any plans. . . .”
Sabrina gave him puppy dog eyes. “Oh, Freddy, I just remembered I promised a friend that I’d meet her on the beach.”
Disappointment spread over Fred’s face, but he quickly caught himself. “Yeah, okay, maybe later?”
“You’re a sweetheart.” Sabrina gave him a peck on the cheek and ran back upstairs to her room. Which had been my room, Avery reminded herself bitterly, then sighed. Oh, come on, get over it. It’s not worth ruining your first day for. She went outside to get her bags out of the truck. The sun was strong, and she liked the feeling of heat on her head and arms. This is going to be a great summer.
Then she heard the voice that she hoped was going to make it so great. “Hey, baby.” It was Curt, strolling toward her on the sidewalk. Tall and lanky, he took his time, with that slightly disheveled look that made it seem like he’d just woken up. His black hair was tousled, and he wore baggy jeans and a black long-sleeved Metalhead T-shirt that was so wrinkled, it looked slept in. He had a bag slung over his shoulder and a couple day’s growth of dark stubble on his jaw. Comparisons to Colin Farrell were not out of the question.
She threw her arms around him, and he dropped his eyes down to hers. They were dark like his hair and smoldered with an inner fire. “Miss me?” he half asked, half growled in the voice that always made her heart pound. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. In the heat in his kiss she tasted something unexpected and pulled back. “Drinking already?”
Here we go, Curt thought, annoyed. They’d hardly been together a minute and Avery was already upset about something. What was the big deal, anyway? He’d only had a beer. So what if it was the middle of the day? She probably thought he was just goofing off, and didn’t understand how hard he’d been working to get his band, Stranger Than Fiction, or STF, ready for a summer of shoreline gigs. The afternoon beer was just a way to relax a little, cut through the tension and stress of trying to get the guys in STF to rehearse. Especially when they were so close to the beach, beautiful water, and lots of babes in bikinis. Avery would understand soon enough. In the meantime, he wanted to check out the house where she’d insisted they stay this summer instead of with the band. He had to admit that from the outside, at least, the place looked nice, nicer than the dump his bandmates were renting.
“They’re a corrupting influence,” Avery said, referring to the other members of STF. She was only half teasing.
“That’s what they say about you,” he replied, also only half teasing. He slid his fingers through her soft brown hair. He liked the way her eyes sparkled when she gazed up at him. Like I’m the only guy in the world.
She let go of him and moved to the back of the pickup and began unhooking the tarp. He got on the other side to help her. “You bring the rest of my stuff?” he asked.
“Of course.” She paused. “Where’s Lucille?”
Lucille was not a person, it was a cherry red 1975 Fender Stratocaster guitar and, Avery sometimes suspected, the closest “woman” to Curt’s heart.
“I’m going to keep her at the other house,” Curt answered. “It’s easier than hauling her back and forth.”
“Oh.” Avery averted her eyes and busied herself with the bags, but Curt knew she was disappointed. It was some dumb symbolic thing to her, like if he left his guitar with the band, then he wasn’t entirely there with her.
A nerdy-looking guy with brown hair and black-framed glasses came out of the rental house. He was wearing plaid shorts with black socks and shoes. “You two moving in?”
“Fred, this is my boyfriend, Curt,” Avery said. “Curt, this is Fred. He’s our landlord.”
Curt was surprised. While nerds often had an ageless quality, this Fred guy didn’t look much older than he was. Kind of young to own properties.
“How did you know my name?” Fred asked Avery.
She looked stunned. “I’m Avery, remember? We just met. You know, inside, when that other girl stole our room?”
“Someone else got our room?” Curt asked with a frown.
“Oh, uh, I’m really sorry about that,” Fred said sheepishly. “Like I said, I’ll refund the difference in rent to you, and I’ll be glad to show you the other rooms right now.”
Curt bristled. Half the reason he’d agreed to stay here instead of with the band was that Avery had told him she’d found a really nice room for them. “You mean someone else snagged our room and you didn’t do anything about it?”
“I tried,” Avery mumbled.
Curt knew Avery wasn’t real big about asserting herself, but given what a wimp this Fred nerd was, he thought he could take advantage of the situation. Curt narrowed his eyes menacingly at the landlord. “We paid for that room in advance. You had no right to give it away.”
“Look, I said I’m sorry and I’ll refund the difference,” Fred answered uncomfortably. “I’ll let you have the next best room.”
“I think you’ll have to do better than that,” Curt said with just a hint of a threat in his voice.
“I . . . I don’t understand what you mean . . . ,” Fred stammered.
“Think about it,” Curt said.
“Oh, well, I guess I could give you a discount on the other room,” Fred said.
Curt smiled. “There you go.”
“Let me show you what I’ve got.” Fred turned and led them into the house. Curt grabbed a couple of bags from the back of the pickup, and he and Avery followed.
“I still think we should bag this whole thing and stay with the band,” Curt muttered to Avery as they entered the house.
“I want us to have more privacy,” Avery replied.
“Privacy?” Curt scoffed. “In a house full of strangers, that’s a good one.”
She turned scarlet but didn’t say anything. Curt sighed. The whole situation was lame.
Inside they followed Fred up the staircase to the second-floor landing. Suddenly a hot-looking blonde came out of the room at the end of the hall, wearing a pink bikini top and pastel green shorts. Curt felt his eyes bulge. She was gorgeous and had a killer bod, top and bottom. If she was one of his roommates, he suddenly had a whole new reason for staying here. The blonde smiled warmly at Fred, then flounced past them on her way to the stairs. When she passed Curt, he caught a whiff of perfume that had to be expensive. Even better, she brushed against him in a way that let him know she had done it on purpose. As she passed, he couldn’t help imagining what she’d look like with less clothing.
“Was that the big bedroom she came out of?” Curt asked after the blonde had passed.
“Yes,” Fred said, sounding miserable.
“I want to see it,” Curt said.
“Why?” Fred asked.
“So I know I’m really getting a discount on the piece of crap room we wind up with.”
Fred’s shoulders sagged. “Uh, sure.”
Curt smiled. He was gonna talk this wimp down until they got a room almost for free. But when they reached the door of the big bedroom, they discovered that it was locked.
“You’ve got a spare key, right?” Curt said.
“Uh, no, I don’t,” Fred said, shrugging and looking embarrassed.
Curt rolled his eyes. What kind of landlord didn’t keep spare keys? This guy Fred was a joke.
“Here, this room is the next largest,” Fred said, hastening to open another door on the landing. This room wasn’t much larger than Curt’s bedroom at home, with only a double bed and a small dresser. The walls were drab, and the carpet was worn in spots. On the other hand, it was clean and it smelled okay, which was a major improvement over the rooms in the house where the other members of STF were staying.
“How much is it?” Curt asked.
“Eighteen hundred for the summer,” Fred said.
Curt narrowed his eyes. “So what are you gonna do for us?”
Fred started to squirm, and a line of sweat formed on his upper lip. “I . . . I could give it to you for, say, fourteen hundred.”
“That’s not good enough,” Curt said. “You broke your promise, remember?”
Fred swallowed. “Twelve hundred?”
Curt shook his head. It almost wasn’t about the money. It was about making this guy pay for not upholding his half of the deal. Now it was a challenge to watch this guy squirm and see how low he would go.
“A thousand?” Fred asked.
“Still not good enough,” Curt growled even though inside he was laughing. At this rate they would get the room for nothing.
“No,” Avery interrupted. “A thousand is fine. That’s a very fair price, and we appreciate it.”
Fred sighed with relief, but Curt was annoyed with Avery.
“Well, good, I’m glad we settled that,” Fred said, handing them a key to the room. “Just promise me you won’t tell any of the other renters, okay? This is our secret.”
Curt and Avery went back downstairs and out to the pickup to bring in the rest of their gear.
“Why’d you do that?” Curt asked. “I probably could have gotten him down to nothing.”
“It wasn’t fair,” Avery said. “He’s trying to run a business, not a charity.”
“Well, it wasn’t fair of him to give away our room,” Curt argued.
“He made a mistake,” Avery said. “That doesn’t mean you have to crucify him. Let’s have a good summer, Curt, please? It’s about having fun, not winning every battle.”
Typical Avery, Curt thought. Always running from a fight. Never standing up for what she deserved. “You can’t let people step all over you,” he shot back.
“What are you talking about?” Avery asked. “He didn’t step all over me. We got that other room for a bargain, and you know it.”
With the last of the gear, Curt followed her into the house and up the stairs. In their new room, he dumped the stuff on their bed. “You’ll put everything away?” he asked.
Avery looked up, surprised. “What?”
Curt broke into a smile. “Just kidding.” He slid his hands around her waist and pulled her close. Her breasts pressed against his chest, and he breathed in her sweet scent. “I figured if you let Fred take advantage of you, you’d let me, too.” It had been nearly a week since he’d held her this close and he could feel the growing desire mute any lingering annoyance he felt toward her for letting the blonde get their room.
Avery kissed him, but when his hands began to wander, she pulled back. “You can take advantage of me later,” she whispered. “In ways that Fred will never know. But for now, help me unpack.”
They started opening bags and putting things away. Even though he’d just as soon live out of a suitcase for the summer, Curt knew Avery enjoyed doing stuff like this. To him it was a little like playing house, but if she got a bang out of it, he was glad to oblige . . . up to a point. After a while other concerns began to nag him. The band wasn’t ready. Their songs weren’t ready. Shouldn’t he be spending his time and energy on that?
“I better get back over there, Ave,” he said. “The band’s still got a long way to go and we should be rehearsing.”
“Oh, okay.” Avery hung her head, clearly disappointed.
“Hey, I’ll be back later.” Curt took her in his arms. “And if you’re a good girl, I might just let you take advantage of me.”
She smiled. “You should be so lucky.”
“No, you should be so lucky.” He kissed her hard and held her tightly, knowing she liked it when he lingered.
Soon enough, he left the room and headed back down the stairs. He was just going out the front door when a girl came up pulling a heavy black suitcase on wheels. She had reddish, neatly bobbed hair and was wearing a baggy pink polo shirt with pleated khaki shorts. She looked like the kind of preppy girl who’d be class secretary.
“Excuse me,” she panted. “You wouldn’t know if the bathrooms are working, would you?”
“What?” Curt said, taken by surprise.
“I was warned that plumbing on this street can be kind of a problem. My cousin said she once rented a room in number twelve and they had to use a Porta Potti for half the summer.”
“No kidding?” Curt said.
“So, can you tell me if they’re working,” the preppy girl said. “And if they’re not, when they might be?”
“How should I know?” he asked, trying to figure out what was up with her.
“Aren’t you”—she gave him a once-over, taking in his clothes—“like, a workman or . . . something?”
Now Curt understood. “No, I happen to be moving in here,” he answered indignantly.
The girl raised her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize . . . wait, you’re living here this summer?”
“Yeah, and your point is?” Curt replied. She was starting to annoy him.
“It’s just that, so am I,” she said, her brown eyes wide. “We’re roomies!”
“Well, hey, that’s just fabulous,” he said, with feigned excitement. Unlike the hot blonde, this one was nothing to get excited about.
“Yeah, hi!” she answered even more excitedly. “Listen, I’m Polly.” She offered her hand.
“And I’m Curt.” He shook it.
“Look, I’m really sorry about what I said before,” Polly gushed. “I just . . . well . . . the truth is, I have this way of putting my foot in my mouth.”
No kidding, Curt thought.
“I mean, I do it all the time,” Polly went on. “It’s really best not to pay any attention to me.”
Can’t say I was planning to, Curt thought.
“Just ignore me and I’ll go away,” Polly said. “Also, another thing is, when I get nervous, I talk too much, you know?”
“I’m kind of figuring that out,” Curt said. It was not unusual for girls to become nervous around him. And while this one definitely had the potential to be annoying, he couldn’t help enjoying the idea that he had the looks that provoked it.
“Well . . .” Polly bit her lip, “I guess I’ll go inside and see if the toilet’s working, you know? So, uh, see you around, roomie.”
He went past her and out to the street. Roomie? He was pretty certain no one had ever called him that before. Could he really spend an entire summer sharing a house with someone like that? She’d probably have them all singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire if she had her way.
He started for the band’s house, but found his thoughts drifting back to number 15 and that hot blond babe who’d brushed against him. The good news was that he’d probably be seeing plenty of her around the house. And that was something to look forward to.
Polly brushed off the encounter with the moody but great-looking guy. It bothered her when she got nervous and began to blather, but this was the first day of summer and she wasn’t about to let him or anyone else spoil it. She was frightened and excited the way someone feels just before they do something wonderful and unexpected, and scary. That’s what this whole summer was going to be. She had never lived away from home before. Even after her freshman year of college she’d still commuted from her parents’ house nearby. This summer that was going to change. She had made up her mind. She was going to do something on her own, and it was going to be wild and crazy. She entered the house. There were three doors off the living room, and the closest one to the stairs was a bathroom.
Polly went in and checked it out. The walls were painted white to match the tile. On the far wall there was a white shower curtain pulled across a combination shower-tub. Most importantly, the toilet flushed! Delighted that the plumbing worked, Polly was checking her hair and lipstick in the mirror when she heard voices. She came out to find a nerdy-looking guy with thick black glasses coming down the stairs. He was dressed in a white V-necked T-shirt, and green plaid shorts, with black socks and shoes. Oh, please don’t be one of my roommates, Polly thought. All she wanted was one cute guy in the house. The tall, handsome guy had been too good-looking (a girl had to be realistic, she told herself), and this one seemed too far on the other end of the spectrum. What are the chances of meeting Mr. Perfect? Her summer plans involved a guy, but not just any guy; it had to be the right guy.
“Uh, hi.” The nerdy guy seemed puzzled to find her coming out of the bathroom.
“Hi, I’m Polly Prentice,” she introduced herself. “I’m renting a room here this summer?”
“Oh, yes,” the guy said. “I’ve been expecting you. I’m Fred, your landlord.”
“Oh, that’s . . . er . . . very nice,” Polly said, relieved that he wasn’t one of her new roommates.
“Let me show you your room,” Fred said. “It’s down here.”
Polly had one of the two downstairs bedrooms with entrances off the living room. The good news was that it was right next to the bathroom. She paused on the threshold of her room and took it in. It wasn’t huge but it wasn’t a cracker box either. The important thing was that it was all hers. There was a nice double bed with a white comforter and fluffy-looking pillows. A window looked out right onto the next street over. Not exactly ocean view, but, hey, at least the ocean was nearby. She smiled. It was a perfect blank slate, and she was going to have a great time making it hers.
“So what do you think?” Fred asked behind her.
“Could I do a little decorating?” she asked. “Like maybe some shells from the beach? I could use the bigger ones to hold things like my jewelry and makeup. And stick the smaller shells around my mirror—”
“No glue on the walls!” Fred interrupted, sounding aghast.
“Oh, of course not,” Polly quickly agreed. “I’ll stick them with putty. By the way, was that a Wi-Fi router I saw by the cable box?”
Suddenly Fred brightened. “You bet. I just installed it,” he announced proudly.
“Great!” Polly gushed. “I brought my laptop. This is going to be so much fun!”
They smiled at each other. But then the silence became awkward. Polly had the oddest feeling. Fred might not have been the best-looking guy around, but they shared some sort of connection. “Uh-oh. I’m going to start babbling,” Polly warned him. “When I’m nervous, I tend to talk too much. Everything that’s inside comes tumbling out. Some people say I overshare, but I just think I communicate well.”
“Hey, I’m all ears,” Fred said eagerly. “Babble away.”
She glanced at Fred under her eyelashes and tried to make her next question sound casual. “So, how many guys will be living here this summer?”
“Three. And four girls, including you.”
“Are . . . you going to be living here?” she asked.
“No,” he said, then added, “but I’ll probably be around a lot. You know, fixing stuff.”
Polly quickly did the math. There were still two male roommates left. Always good to keep your options open, she thought as she went outside to retrieve her luggage from her car. A little while later, back in her room, she began to unpack, hanging up a few sundresses and putting everything else into drawers. She wondered for a moment what to do with her toiletries. Given that her bathroom was downstairs and liable to be used by everybody, she decided it was safer to leave her little bag in her room.
Satisfied, she left the room, hoping to meet some of her other roommates. A pretty girl with long brown hair was coming down the stairs. Polly admired the way the other girl’s hair just seemed to float about her when she moved, and wished that she could get her own red hair to do something as nice. “Hi! I’m Polly,” she said. “Are you one of the summer renters?”
“Yes.” The other girl smiled and offered her hand. “Avery,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
Polly was relieved by the other girl’s friendly warmth. “So have you met any of the others?”
“Well, sort of,” Avery answered. “Just first impressions, you know?”
“Oh, do I.” Polly dropped her voice conspiratorially. “I just met this guy outside, dressed all in black. Good-looking, but kind of moody. And weird—I mean, who wears a long-sleeved black T-shirt at the beach?”
The girl named Avery smiled painfully. “That would be my boyfriend, Curt.”
Polly lost her breath. Oh, no! Foot in mouth again! “I am so sorry!” she gasped. “Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m saying. Like you said, first impressions, right? Of course I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy. And since you two just got here, he wouldn’t have had time to change into his beach clothes.”
“Actually those are his beach clothes,” Avery said, still smiling.
“All right, then just shoot me.” Polly felt a wave of humiliation wash through her.
To her relief, Avery laughed. “Believe me, you’re not the first person to notice that Curt is a little dark. He takes a while with strangers, but once you get to know him, he’ll lighten up. After all, we’re all just here to have fun, right?”
Polly smiled back. “Definitely. So you haven’t seen any of the other guys who will be living here, have you?”
“I hope they’re nice,” Polly confided. “And tall and strong and gorgeous. Of course, also sweet and gentlemanly.”
“So, uh, let me guess,” Avery teased good-naturedly, “you’d like to meet someone?”
Before Polly could answer, they were interrupted by knocking on the front door. Polly went to open it. Outside was a good-looking, bare-chested guy with long, bleached-blond dreadlocks, a bright red surfboard under one arm, and a very large bong under the other.
“Hey.” He had an easy smile. “This the rental house?”
“Yes,” Polly said, staring incredulously at the bong.
“Looks pretty good.” The blond guy gazed over her head into the house.
“You’re . . . renting here too?” Polly asked.
“Sure am,” he said. “I’m Lucas Haubenstock.”
“Polly Prentice,” Polly replied, thinking, Two down, one to go. The prospects were dimming quickly. He might have been good-looking in a laid-back California kind of way, but the dreadlocks and bong were definitely not her thing.
“Think I could come in?” Lucas asked. “This stuff’s getting heavy.”
“Oh, sorry.” Polly moved out of the way. Lucas stepped in. As he did, the skeg of his surfboard bumped Polly, and she jumped back in surprise.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to clip you,” he said.
“That’s okay” Polly said, giving him a closer look. He was wearing board shorts and Tevas. His bare chest was bronzed and thin, but muscular. She found herself starting to look where she shouldn’t have, then swallowed and forced herself to look away. On second thought, she might not be crazy about the hair and bong, but the rest of him wasn’t bad at all.
Once inside, Lucas put the board and bong down and looked around. Avery came out of the kitchen, and Polly introduced them.
“Nice house,” Lucas said. “Would either of you know where the owner is?”
They turned to find Fred coming in carrying an armload of pillows. He dropped them on the couch and offered his hand to Lucas. “I’m Fred.”
“Right. From Princeton.” Fred glanced at the board and bong and frowned. Then he looked back at Lucas. “Isn’t there some economist up there with that name? I think I read his book in college.”
“People have asked me about that before,” Lucas said. “He might be some kind of distant relative or something.”
Polly listened to the exchange with interest. Not only was Lucas good-looking, but he seemed easygoing and nice and had an unusual aura of confidence that she found appealing. Like Avery said, you couldn’t always trust first impressions. Maybe Lucas was worth taking a second look at. She’d just have to see.
Fred took Lucas to see his room, and Polly turned to Avery. “Thirsty?”
“Yeah, actually,” Avery said. She and Polly went into the kitchen. It was apricot colored and cheerful. An island in the center provided extra counter space. On the refrigerator were a few colorful magnets holding menus from places that delivered. One showed a slice of pizza with legs and arms dancing with a can of soda and proudly proclaimed: “Even the pizzas are partying at Pop’s!” Avery had a feeling she would definitely be dialing that phone number.
Since her mom had died Avery had spent a lot of time in kitchens and she moved through this one easily. There were six cabinets, and she opened all of them before she found the glasses. She handed one to Polly and grabbed one for herself. They filled them up with tap water and raised them toward each other in a toast.
“To a great summer,” Avery said.
“The best ever.”
They both drank, then made faces.
“Not the best tap water I ever tasted,” Polly said.
“We better add bottled water to the shopping list,” Avery agreed.
“Think I could have a bedroom downstairs?” they heard Lucas ask Fred.
“How come?” Fred said.
“I’d rather not have to carry my board up and down the stairs,” Lucas explained. “And there’ll be less chance of dinging your walls.”
Considerate, Avery thought. She sometimes wished Curt would be more like that.
“Okay, you can take the second room on the ground floor,” they heard Fred tell Lucas.
“Sweet,” was Lucas’s answer.
In the kitchen, Avery leaned close to Polly. “How long until Fred asks Lucas about the bong?” she whispered.
A moment later, as if Fred had heard her, they heard him ask nervously, “You’re . . . um . . . not planning on using that thing in the house, are you?”
“The bong? It’s just for show. Artwork, you know?” they heard Lucas reply.
“Somehow I doubt that,” Avery said under her breath.
Polly looked at her with eyes wide. “You think!?”
In that moment, Avery realized that Polly was even more naive than she looked.
“Didn’t look like any artwork I’ve ever seen,” Avery whispered.
But from the sound of things, Fred was satisfied with the answer because he and Lucas moved on to other subjects.
“He seems awfully nice for a stoner,” Polly said in a low voice, not that she’d known many stoners in her life.
Avery nodded. “You never know.”
The front door opened, and a girl walked in carrying a large blue backpack and a guitar case. She had long, straight black hair framing a pale face, and a silver nose stud. Her eyes were heavily mascaraed, and she wore a tight-fitting black shirt, high black lace-up boots, and striped leggings under a black skirt cropped to reveal a belly button piercing.
“It’s Morticia from the Addams Family,” Polly whispered, and Avery giggled.
The new girl had not yet noticed Polly and Avery in the kitchen. Inside the front door she put down the guitar case and unslung the backpack. “Hello? Anyone here?”
Avery watched as Fred left Lucas in his room, dashed across the living room, and greeted the new girl. “Hi, I’m Fred, the landlord,” he said.
“April,” the new girl said, and offered her hand.
“Here, let me help you.” Fred reached for her backpack. “Whoa!” It must have been heavier than he’d expected because he nearly fell over backward trying to pull it on.
“Tell you what,” April said, taking the backpack from him. “You carry the guitar.”
Avery and Polly watched as Fred escorted her upstairs.
“Only one roommate left,” Avery mused out loud.
“I thought there were two more,” Polly said. “I counted three girls and two guys.”
“You missed Sabrina. She left before you got here.”
“What’s she like?” Polly asked.
Avery had some ideas, but wasn’t willing to go public just yet. “Uh, she’s got really pretty clothes.”
“And?” Polly asked with a frown.
“And she’s pretty,” Avery said awkwardly.
Before Polly could press her any further, Fred came back downstairs.
“Well, it looks like a great group of people,” he said, his voice sounding strained. “I’ve gotta go. Now, remember, if there are any problems with the house—any problems—just give me a call. My number’s on the fridge.”
Fred excused himself and exited the front door. Avery and Polly were just finishing their water when the front door swung open and Curt strolled in carrying a six-pack of beer in his left hand and a half-empty bottle in a brown paper bag in his right.
Avery narrowed her eyes. What is this new deal about drinking in the middle of the afternoon? And what happened to the rehearsal? Still, she was determined not to say anything that would get him mad. Not now, at the beginning of their summer together. Curt came into the kitchen, gave Polly a look, then pecked Avery on the cheek and deposited the six-pack in the fridge.
“How’d the rehearsal go?” Avery asked.
“Eh.” Curt shrugged. “Guys took off for the beach. We’re never gonna get anywhere if they don’t get serious.”
“Well, it’s the beach and it’s new,” Avery said. “Maybe in another week it’ll be easier to get them to stay outside.”
“Excuse me,” Polly said. “I’m just curious. Was that beer yours, or for everyone?”
“Mine,” Curt answered with a scowl. “Oh, you want one?”
“No, thanks,” said Polly. “I was just wondering how it’s going to work.”
“How what’s going to work?” Avery asked curiously.
“Well, like whose stuff is whose and what’s what,” Polly explained.
Curt frowned at Avery as if he didn’t know what Polly was talking about.
Avery had to admit that she wasn’t certain either.
“Maybe we should set up regular roommate meetings,” Polly continued, “starting tonight so that we can all get to know one another and set some house rules. Most of us are here right now. We could get Lucas and April down here and discuss it.”
“Lucas and April?” Curt repeated.
“Two of our new roommates,” Avery explained.
Curt rolled his eyes and put down his empty beer. Then he opened the refrigerator, grabbed a new bottle, and twisted the cap off. He tossed the bottle cap onto the counter and took a long swig. Avery watched uncomfortably and didn’t say anything. Meanwhile Polly stared at the bottle cap and the empty bottle and then back at Curt.
It was obvious to Avery that Polly wanted Curt to clean up his garbage. Frankly, it seemed a little anal that she expected him to do it right away. And, anyway, Curt didn’t appear to notice. Polly let out a big sigh, grabbed the bottle cap, and tossed it in the trash. Then she picked up the empty bottle with two fingers and rinsed it out in the sink before setting it aside, presumably for recycling.
Curt smiled ruefully, and Avery felt embarrassed. “So, uh, what exactly do you propose discussing?” he asked.
Avery knew he was being sarcastic, but Polly mistook it for genuine interest.
“Recycling, for one,” she said. “We should ask Fred where the recycling bins are.”
Curt glanced at Avery and smirked. Avery braced herself. Sometimes when he drank he could get a little mean. Especially when he was frustrated with the band.
“And we need to discuss care and upkeep of the house,” Polly continued. “Divide up chores. We need to all pitch in to keep the place neat and clean as a courtesy to others. We should also establish rules for the kitchen and food sharing. I figure we can each get half a shelf in the fridge for our own stuff, and community stuff can go in the door.”
Curt opened the refrigerator and gestured toward the six-pack sitting in the middle of the top shelf. “Me and Ave’ll take the top shelf.”
Avery winced. He was starting to sound a little drunk. What a great way to kick off their summer.
“Okay, good,” Polly said. “I’ll take the left side of the middle shelf.”
“Wonderful,” Curt said with feigned enthusiasm. “I’m so glad we got that out of the way.”
A door closed, and they turned to see Lucas come out of his room. He’d put on a bright yellow T-shirt with a picture of a surfboard on it. He saw Curt in the kitchen and came over to shake his hand. “Lucas Haubenstock,” he said.
“I’m glad you’re here, Lucas,” Polly said. “We’re just having a roommate discussion.”
“I’d really like to stay, but I have to get over to the surf shop,” Lucas answered. “My shift starts in ten minutes. Maybe someone could fill me in later?”
“Gnarly, dude,” Curt said facetiously.
Lucas scowled at him, then waved good-bye. “Catch you guys later.”
Polly looked disappointed, and Avery felt sorry for her. She was trying to do something good for all of them, but not getting very far.
“Go on. What else?” Avery said, giving Polly some encouragement and ignoring the dirty look that Curt fired her way.
“I think we should also discuss parties, noise levels, quiet hours, that sort of thing.” Polly had to raise her voice because of some sort of commotion outside—shouting and laughing. It sounded to Avery like a group of rowdy guys out on the street—maybe getting an early start on their partying. They didn’t pass by, though. Instead, they got louder as if approaching the front door.
The front door swung open, and in walked a guy wearing a white Abercrombie polo shirt with the collar turned up and khaki cargo pants. He had dark brown hair, a beer in one hand, and seemed to be leading the group, gesturing grandly and waving his arms around as the others filed in behind him. Suddenly there were a dozen people in the living room all talking and laughing.
“These your new digs?” someone asked him.
“Is right,” he answered as he surveyed the living room.
“Hey, nice,” said someone else.
“Where’s the stereo?” asked a third.
“There a CD player anywhere?”
Polly, Avery, and Curt watched from the kitchen.
“You know any of these people?” Polly asked Avery and Curt, who shook their heads.
A husky, broad-shouldered, football player type with a diamond stud in his ear came into the kitchen and looked in the fridge “Got any ice?”
“Who are you?” Polly asked.
“Martin, who are you?”
“I’m Polly and I live here, do you?”
“In this dump? No way.”
“Can I ask what you’re doing here?” Polly said.
Martin gave her a strange look, then gestured at the crowd. “What’s it look like?”
Just then two guys came in the front door carrying a half keg of beer.
“Hey, where’s the keg go?” one yelled.
“Ask Owen.” The guy named Martin pointed at polo shirt guy.
“This is ridiculous!” Polly declared. Avery watched with surprise as she marched up to the guy named Owen. “Are these your friends?”
“Who wants to know?” Owen asked with an amused look.
“And you are?”
“Polly, and I live here.”
“Hey, roomie!” Owen grinned and raised his hand for a high five. “I’m Owen, and guess what? I live here too!”
Polly didn’t high-five his hand. “So these are your friends?”
Owen squinted at the crowd. “Well, let’s see. Some of them are . . . I think. Some of them I never saw before in my life.”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit . . . rude . . . to bring them all here without asking?”
Way to go, Polly, Avery thought, impressed.
“Rude?” Owen scowled at her. “Who are you, my mother? Whoa, loosen up, honey, you need a drink.”
“But I don’t—” Polly’s protest was cut short by loud catcalls. All around the room the festivities momentarily paused while heads turned toward the front door. Sabrina Morganthal had just entered the house.
© 2007 Todd Strasser