“So I’ve been thinking…”
“That sounds fun,” Charlotte said, not looking up from the mixing bowl. Emily could never tell when her stepmother was actually listening to her. Generally, she just assumed that she was always listening, because assuming anything to the contrary had gotten her in trouble before.
“I know that you and Dad don’t mind me staying here for… basically ever.”
“It’s a big house,” Charlotte said, as she had said before and probably would again.
“Right,” Emily agreed, crossing and uncrossing her legs beneath the kitchen counter, feet dangling from the barstool. “The thing is, though, I think I’ve maybe found a place I really want?”
“That’s fantastic!” Charlotte said, pouring more sugar into the bowl before she resumed stirring. She did not seem to bother measuring.
“Right,” Emily agreed, “but the problem is, it’s not really… I mean technically it belongs to the city, right now, and I would have to put it an offer and have it rezoned as residential and since it’s technically abandoned and kind of dilapidated I’ll need to pay to have it fixed up, and I don’t really have a lot saved up right now…”
“That’s fine,” Charlotte said, waving a dismissive hand. “I’m sure your father won’t mind, he loves a project. Your brother’s got some boyfriends who do construction, doesn’t he?”
“That… sounds plausible? I don’t know. He deleted his Facebook, I don’t really know who he’s dating.”
“I think that’s the point,” Charlotte said, pulling the spoon out of the bowl to lick some of the batter off the spoon thoughtfully. It looked like it might be something chocolate. She made a face, and started digging through the cupboards, having to stand on her toes to reach. “Johnny is a very popular young man.”
Emily snorted. “That’s one way of putting it, yeah.”
Charlotte tsked. “Don’t tease your brother,” she said, curls bouncing as she came down from her tiptoes. “Work has been very stressful for him lately, it’s the least we can do to be supportive.”
“The weed farm has been stressful?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, pouring cinnamon and brown sugar into the bowl before resuming her stirring. “There’s a lot of competition in the field, you know.”
“Sounds tough,” Emily said, trying to look empathetic.
“It is,” she agreed. “Maybe you can help him with some of that marketing stuff. It’ll be like a trade! You share some of those business school skills and he’ll share one of his boyfriends.”
Emily buried her face in her hands. “Please don’t phrase it like that,” she said, muffled by her hands.
Charlotte laughed. “Not like that. You get that filthy mind from your father, you know.” Emily shook her head, face still hidden. “So tell me more about this place, is it one of those old barns? I know you kids love old barns these days, I saw it on that cooking show.”
Emily had no idea what show she was talking about, but also knew better than to ask. “It’s more… coastal…?”
“Like a bungalow?”
“… like a lighthouse?”
Charlotte frowned, setting down the bowl for the first time to look at Emily, placing a hand on her hip. “A lighthouse?”
Emily fidgeted. “Yeah,” she said. “Is that… bad?”
Charlotte came closer, and took Emily’s hand in hers, a serious expression on her face. Emily’s hand looked large and pale by comparison. “You know you can tell me anything, right?”
This conversation had taken a turn somewhere.
“Yes?” Emily agreed, confused. “Wait, what do you think I’m not telling you?”
“I know when Johnny came out, maybe that made you think you had an obligation to be the straight kid—”
“—so that you could give us grandkids, but you know that you can adopt and we’ll love those babies just as much—”
“—so you can just go right on ahead and be as gay as you want to be, and your father and I will love and support you no matter what, okay?”
“I mean it, honey.”
“Mom, I’m not gay.”
“Are you sure?” Charlotte asked, coaxing.
“Yes,” Emily said firmly, “I am very sure.”
Charlotte put her hands on her hips again, a dubious expression on her face. “What, so you’re just a totally hetero girl moving into a lighthouse?”
“Yes…?” Emily looked around the empty kitchen, as if an explanation was going to present itself. “Mom, I don’t—who told you that was a gay thing? Did Johnny tell you that? I don’t know where you’re getting this stuff about lighthouses.”
“Everyone knows about lighthouses!” Charlotte said, throwing up her hands, with such conviction that Emily briefly doubted herself.
“I really don’t think that’s true,” Emily said.
“Here, look, I’ll ask your father.” Charlotte swept across the kitchen to the hall so that she could call up the stairs. “Kevin?”
Emily’s father came in through the sliding glass door at the back of the house, hands and knees covered in dirt. “Yes?” Charlotte spun around, brow furrowed as if he’d been outside just to spite her.
“Emily needs some money so she can buy a lighthouse,” she said, before waiting, expectant.
Kevin blinked. “Okay,” he said, handling the news quite well. “That sounds fun.”
Charlotte huffed. “That’s a lesbian thing, right?” Emily shook her head. Kevin looked between the two.
“I thought it was an alcoholism thing, actually.”
Charlotte snapped her fingers. “Alcoholic! That’s what it is! I always get those two mixed up.”
“Emily, are you an alcoholic?”
“No!” Emily looked between her parents helplessly. “I don’t understand where you’re getting all these stereotypes.”
“Hemingway, mostly,” Kevin said, wiping dirt off his hands and onto his shirt.
“I do love Hemingway,” Charlotte agreed, licking batter off the spoon again. “Are you going to need to borrow the RV? That way you won’t have to pee in the ocean.”
“I don’t think Hemingway ever—yeah, that would be great, actually. I don’t want to pee in the ocean. What even are you making?”
Charlotte looked down at the bowl of batter as her husband walked past her, pressing a kiss to her hair as he went. “No idea, but it’s good. Should I try baking it, do you think?”
“Who’s the guy?”
“What? What guy?”
Sofia was not convinced. “Oh, no,” she said, “I don’t think so. You can lie to me about a lot of things, but not this. There is definitely a guy.”
Emily tried to look busy chewing on her sandwich. Sofia waited, patient. “I don’t know why you think there’s a guy,” she said, finally.
“You’re moving into a lighthouse,” Sofia pointed out. “A big, sudden life-changing decision that comes totally out of nowhere? It’s a guy.”
“Is that seriously what you think of me?” she asked, and Sofia sighed.
“No,” she said firmly, “I am not letting you make me feel bad about this. Remember when we were in high school and you joined band because of that kid with the yellow eyes?”
“They were hazel and I needed more extracurriculars.”
“You are literally tone deaf.”
“You can’t hold bad teenaged decisions against me, okay? We need to move on.”
“Okay, college, and the guy you catfished.”
“Not on purpose!”
“That’s not better! What about when you thought you were going to move to Alaska?” she pressed.
“I did move to Alaska, and it was valuable life experience.”
“Two weeks does not count as moving, and you spent the whole time in bed with mono because your new boyfriend was a manwhore.”
“We don’t know that’s why I got mono,” Emily said defensively. “It was still valuable life experience.”
“You changed majors like six times, you shaved your head once for a guy who turned out not to have cancer, you quit your job for a guy who turned out to be married, and Robbie—”
“Don’t even start,” Emily warned.
“I don’t think I have to,” Sofia said, popping a french fry in her mouth. “Now you’re moving into a lighthouse, and it’s probably for some guy with a manbun and a curly moustache.”
“He doesn’t have a moustache,” Emily muttered as she sipped her iced tea.
“But he does have a manbun.”
“No,” Emily said, making a face. “I mean. I guess he could.” She tried to imagine it, and almost immediately started turning pink.
“Long hair,” Sofia said, holding up a finger. “First red flag.”
“That’s not a red flag!” Emily protested.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Sofia said, her tone brooking no argument. “Have you met his friends? His family?”
“I can’t,” she said, “he’s not from around here.” Which was not, technically speaking, a lie.
“Oh really?” Sofia asked, narrowing her eyes. “Did he tell you that?”
“He’s Italian,” Emily said, which was a lie. “If I went running off to Italy to meet his friends, that would be even more suspicious.”
Sofia ate another french fry contemplatively. “What’s his name?” she asked. “I want to see his Facebook.”
“He doesn’t have one,” Emily said, and before Sofia could verbalize her expression she added, “Plenty of people don’t have Facebook. My brother doesn’t have a Facebook.”
“Your brother lives in the woods and grows weed and has a gay harem. That’s the kind of person that doesn’t have a Facebook.”
“It’s not like that,” Emily insisted. “He’s not really online because he’s always at sea. He’s a sailor.” She took another bite of her sandwich, pleased at herself for having thought of it. It was barely even a lie, really.
Sofia’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Oh, honey, no. Emily. Sweetheart.”
“What?” she asked around a mouthful of ciabatta.
“A sailor? An Italian sailor?” Emily shrugged her confusion, and Sofia shook her head. “You are way too innocent for a girl whose had so many boyfriends.”
“I have not—”
“Please just make sure he wraps it up. Okay? For me?” Emily choked, her face turning red as she pushed her plate out of the way to drop her head against the table. “Emily. Emily.” Emily shook her head, face buried in her arms to hide it. “You are an adult, Emily.” Sofia pounded her palm against the table for emphasis as she spoke. “Italian. Sailors. Must. Wear. Condoms. Okay?”
Face still buried in her arms, Emily nodded, trying not to laugh.
“Promise me, Emily.”
“I promise I won’t—wow, Sofia. I can’t even believe you, right now.”
“If you thought your little Alaskan boyfriend’s mono was bad—”
“Okay, wow, no, this is not—he doesn’t have mono, okay? I promise he doesn’t have mono. Or anything else!” She straightened in her seat, trying to fix her hair, pressing her hands against her cheeks as if that would help cool them down. “I never even should have told you about this, wow. You’re seriously terrible.”
“You know what’s terrible?” Sofia said, balling up her napkin. “Chlamydia.”
“If Popeye out there told you he catches crabs—”
“Sofia. No. No. We’re done here.”
“… so there might be more people here during the day, until everything is settled, but at night it will just be us.”
Emily was sitting in her bikini on one of the boulders along the shore, and Drago was resting his head on her knee. It was very hard not to pet his hair.
It was also very hard not to think about lunch. About all the things she didn’t know about him, the life he had away from her. What did he do, when she wasn’t around? Did he have friends? Parents? Ex-girlfriends? Ex-boyfriends?
“Do you usually live around here?” she asked cautiously.
He lifted his head to look around at the rocky sea around them. “No,” he said simply, before setting his head back down on her knee. Hesitant, she stroked a few fingers over his hair; immediately he nuzzled at her hand, like a dog wanting to be pet.
“Where do you usually live?”
He considered the question in silence as she stroked his scalp. “Nowhere,” he said finally.
She frowned. “You have to live somewhere,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Different places.”
“Oh.” She chewed her lower lip. “So you’re sort of… nomadic?” He nodded. “You don’t stay in one spot?”
He must have heard something in the tone of her voice, because he reached up to run his thumb along her cheek. “I will stay here,” he said, “for you.”
She blushed, and couldn’t help smiling. “You don’t have to,” she said, even though she wanted him to.
“I want to,” he said. “Nowhere is better than you.”
Her smile grew wider at that. “No one will miss you?” He frowned as if he did not understand the question, and shook his head. She thought about asking more, but…
… did she really want to?
She wanted to know everything there was to know about him. Eventually. But for now, maybe this was better. Give them time to breathe.
She ran her fingertips over the stripes along his cheekbones, and his eyelids fluttered shut, a quiet purr between his collarbones. “What does this mean?” she asked softly. “You said… it meant something.”
He opened his eyes to look at her, hummed something she didn’t understand. Then he pulled away from her, and she wondered if she’d asked the wrong thing. “These,” he said, and his hands went to the fins at his hips.
“They are…” He trailed off, gesturing instead of words, like something emerging out from underneath the fins. Emily reddened, her eyes widening. “Pins,” he said finally.
“Pins?” she repeated weakly.
“Like… weapons?” She turned redder. “Poison. Very dangerous.”
“Oh. Oh!” She clapped her hands together as she figured out what he meant. “You’re venomous? Like a snake? Except instead of biting, you… hipcheck people? I guess?” Drago shrugged, possibly because he only understood half of what she was saying. She pressed a hand to her chest, letting out a whoosh of breath. “Okay. Good.”
He frowned. “Good?”
“Oh! No, I don’t mean—not good, I just, I thought you were talking about… something else…”
He narrowed his eyes, moving closer, though he didn’t rest his head in her lap again. “What else?”
“Nothing!” she said, too quickly and too high-pitched. “So the stripes are like a warning?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“Yes,” he said, and she regretted it, because now he seemed anxious. “I can hurt you very badly.”
“No,” she said immediately, reaching for him. “You could never.”
His expression softened, but he didn’t take her hands. “No?”
“You’re way too careful,” she said. “You’d never hurt me. Not in a million years.”
He lifted his hands out of the water, and they hovered inches away from hers. “Can I?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said, unsure why he was so hesitant. Slowly his palms met hers, hands turning against her own until he could lace their fingers together. Her fingers splayed wide to fit the size of his hand, his skin rough against hers and his nails against the backs of her hands. The curve of his mouth blossomed into a smile, practically beaming, a flush across his face.
She didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone in her whole life look so happy to hold hands.
She used them to pull him closer, leaning back and all but pulling him into her lap. She didn’t think she’d be strong enough, but he moved where she wanted despite his surprise, letting her press a kiss to the tip of his nose. Trying to arrange themselves comfortably without letting go proved to be too difficult, however, and in no time at all he had pulled her down into the water instead. She was giggling all the while, even as his lips caught hers in another purring kiss. She wasn’t sure he’d ever let her have her hands back.
“You’d better not have mono,” she murmured.