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Pulled Under

LIST PRICE $12.99

About The Book

Perfect for fans of The Summer I Turned Pretty, this swoon-worthy young adult romance follows a shy teen and an attractive beach town tourist on their summer of love—now with a beautiful new look!

In the small town of Pearl Beach, Florida, Izzy Lucas needs only her surfboard and the water to be completely happy. She wants nothing to do with parties, popularity contests, or showing her face around the clichéd touristy hangouts. Izzy’s tight group of coworkers at the local surf shop have tried relentlessly to break shy Izzy out of her (sea)shell. But Izzy isn’t interested…until the day Ben Barker walks into the store.

Ben’s from the city. He’s cute, charming, and wants her help adjusting to beach town culture. As the weeks of surfing lessons and pizza shack visits fly by, Izzy and Ben realize their attraction goes beyond mere friendship. But Ben is only in town for three months, and Izzy wonders if this amazing guy is worth stepping out of her comfort zone for what might be the perfect summer romance—or her first heartbreak.

Excerpt

June
Difficult questions come in all shapes and sizes. They can be big and philosophical, like “What’s the meaning of life?” Or small and personal, like “How do you know if you’re really in love?” They can even be evil (Yes, I’m talking about you, Mrs. Perkins), like “For the quadratic equation where the equation has only one solution, what’s the value of C?” But of all the world’s questions there is one that stands alone as the single most difficult to answer.

“Does this bathing suit make me look ugly?”

If you’ve ever been asked, then you know what I’m talking about. It’s not like you can just say, “No, but your butt kinda looks weird in it.” And it’s not like you can say, “Oh no, it looks great. You should definitely wear that on the beach, where every guy you know will see you.” Instead you have to find that delicate place between honesty and kindness.

I know this because I hear the question all the time. I work weekends and summers at Surf Sisters, a surf shop in Pearl Beach, Florida, where women asking you how they look in all varieties of swimwear kind of comes with the turf. (Or as my father would say, it “comes with the surf,” because, you know, dads.)

It’s been my experience that a great many of those who ask the question already know the answer. This group includes the girls with the hot bodies who only ask because they want to hear someone say how great they look. My response to them is usually just to shrug and answer, “It doesn’t make you look bad, but it is kind of strange for your torso.” The proximity of the words “strange” and “torso” in the same sentence usually keeps them from asking again.

Most girls, however, ask because while they know a swimsuit doesn’t look right, they’re not exactly sure why. That’s the case with the girl who’s asking me right now. All she wants is to look her best and to feel good about herself. Unfortunately, the bikini she’s trying on is preventing that from happening. My first step is to help her get rid of it for reasons that have nothing to do with her.

“I think it looks good on you,” I answer. “But I don’t love what happens with that particular swimsuit when it gets wet. It loses its shape and it starts to look dingy.”

“Really?” she says. “That’s not good.”

I sense that she’s relieved to have an excuse to get rid of it, so I decide to wade deeper into the waters of truthfulness. “And, to be honest, it doesn’t seem like you feel very comfortable in it.”

She looks at me and then she looks at herself in the mirror and shakes her head. “No, I don’t, do I? I’m no good at finding the right suit.”

“Luckily, I can help you with that,” I say. “But I need to know what you’re looking for, and I need to know how you see yourself. Are you a shark or a dolphin?”

She cocks her head to the side. “What do you mean?”

“Sharks are sleek and deadly. They’re man-eaters.”

“And dolphins?”

“They’re more… playful and intelligent.”

She thinks it over for a moment and smiles. “Well, I probably wish I was more of a shark, but… I’m a total dolphin.”

“So am I. You know, in the ocean, if a shark and a dolphin fight, the dolphin always wins.”

“Maybe, but on land it usually goes the other way.”

We both laugh, and I can tell that I like her.

“Let’s see what we can do about that,” I say. “I think we’ve got a couple styles that just might help a dolphin out.”

Fifteen minutes later, when I’m ringing her up at the register, she is happy and confident. I know it sounds hokey, but this is what I love about Surf Sisters. Unlike most shops, where girls have to be bikini babes or they’re out of luck, this one has always been owned and operated by women. And while we have plenty of male customers, we’ve always lived by the slogan, “Where the waves meet the curves.”

At the moment it also happens to be where the waves meet the pouring rain. That’s why, when my girl leaves with not one but two new and empowering swimsuits, the in-store population of employees outnumbers customers three to two. And, since both customers seem more interested in waiting out the storm than in buying anything, I’m free to turn my attention to the always entertaining Nicole and Sophie Show.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Nicole says as they expertly fold and stack a new display of T-shirts. “Absolutely. No. Idea.”

In addition to being my coworkers, Nicole and Sophie have been my best friends for as long as I can remember. At first glance they seem like polar opposites. Nicole is a blue-eyed blonde who stands six feet tall, most of which is arms and legs. This comes in handy as heck on the volleyball court but makes her self-conscious when it comes to boys. Sophie, meanwhile, is petite and fiery. She’s half Italian, half Cuban, all confidence.

Judging by Nic’s signature blend of outrage and indignation, Sophie must be offering unsolicited opinions in regard to her terminal crush on the oh-so-cute but always-out-of-reach Cody Bell.

“There was a time when it was an embarrassing but still technically acceptable infatuation,” Sophie explains. “But that was back around ninth-grade band camp. It has since gone through various stages of awkward, and I’m afraid can now only be described as intervention-worthy stalking.”

Although I’ve witnessed many versions of this exact conversation over the years, this is the first time I’ve seen it in a while. That’s because Sophie just got back from her freshman year at college. Watching them now is like seeing the season premiere of a favorite television show. Except without the microwave popcorn.

“Stalking?” Nicole replies. “Do you know how absurd that sounds?”

“No, but I do know how absurd it looks,” Sophie retorts. “You go wherever he goes, but you never talk to him. Or if you do talk to him, it’s never about anything real, like the fact that you’re into him.”

“Where are you even getting your information?” Nicole demands. “You’ve been two hundred miles away. For all you know, Cody and I had a mad, passionate relationship while you were away at Florida State.”

Sophie turns to me and rolls her eyes. “Izzy, were there any mad, passionate developments in the Nicole and Cody saga while I was in Tallahassee? Did they become a supercouple? Did the celebrity press start referring to them as ‘Nicody’?”

I’m not about to lie and say that there were new developments, but I also won’t throw Nicole under the bus and admit that the situation has actually gotten a little worse. Instead, I take the coward’s way out.

“I’m Switzerland,” I say. “Totally neutral and all about the chocolate.”

“Your courage is inspiring,” mocks Sophie before directing the question back at Nicole. “Then you tell me. Did you have a mad, passionate relationship with Cody this year?”

“No,” Nicole admits after some hesitation. “I was just pointing out that you weren’t here, so you have no way of knowing what did or did not happen.”

“So you’re saying you did not follow him around?”

“Cody and I have some similar interests and are therefore occasionally in the same general vicinity. But that doesn’t mean that I follow him around or that it’s developed into… whatever it was that you called it.”

“Intervention-worthy stalking,” I interject.

Nicole looks my way and asks, “How exactly do you define ‘neutral’?”

I mimic locking my mouth shut with a key and flash a cheesy apology grin.

“So it’s not because of Cody that you suddenly decided that you wanted to switch to the drum line?” Sophie asks. “Even though you’ve been first-chair clarinet for your entire life?”

“You told her about drum line?” Nicole says, giving me another look.

“You’re gonna be marching at football games in front of the entire town,” I say incredulously. “It’s not exactly top secret information.”

“I changed instruments because I wanted to push myself musically,” Nicole explains. “The fact that Cody is also on the drum line is pure coincidence.”

“Just like it’s coincidence that Cody is the president of Latin Club and you’re the newly elected vice president?”

Another look at me. “Seriously?”

“I was proud of you,” I say, trying to put a positive spin on it. “I was bragging.”

“Yes, it’s a coincidence,” she says, turning back to Sophie. “By the way, there are plenty of girls in Latin Club and I don’t see you accusing any of them of stalking.”

“First of all, there aren’t plenty of girls in Latin Club. I bet there are like three of them,” Sophie counters. “And unlike you, I’m sure they actually take Latin. You take Spanish, which means that you should be in—what’s it called again?—oh yeah, Spanish Club.”

It’s worth pointing out that despite her time away, Sophie is not the least bit rusty. She’s bringing her A game, and while it might sound harsh to outsiders, trust me when I say this is all being done out of love.

“I had a scheduling conflict with Spanish Club,” Nicole offers. “Besides, I thought Latin Club would look good on my college applications.”

It’s obvious that no matter how many examples Sophie provides, Nicole is going to keep dodging the issue with lame excuse after lame excuse. So Sophie decides to go straight to the finish line. Unfortunately, I’m the finish line.

“Sorry, Switzerland,” she says. “This one’s on you. Who’s right? Me or the Latin drummer girl?”

Before you jump to any conclusions, let me assure you that she’s not asking because I’m some sort of expert when it comes to boys. In fact, both of them know that I have virtually zero firsthand experience. It’s just that I’m working the register, and whenever there’s a disagreement at the shop, whoever’s working the register breaks the tie. This is a time-honored tradition, and at Surf Sisters we don’t take traditions lightly.

“You’re really taking it to the register?” I ask, wanting no part of this decision. “On your first day back?”

“I really am,” Sophie answers, giving me no wiggle room.

“Okay,” I say to her. “But in order for me to reach a verdict, you’ll have to explain why it is that you’ve brought this up now. Except for Latin Club, all the stuff you’re talking about is old news.”

“First of all, I’ve been away and thought you were keeping an eye on her,” she says. “And it’s not old. While you were helping that girl find a swimsuit—awesome job, by the way…”

“Thank you.”

“… Nicole was telling me about last week when she spent two hours following Cody from just a few feet away. She followed him in and out of multiple buildings, walked when he walked, stopped when he stopped, and never said a single word to him. That’s textbook stalking.”

“Okay. Wow,” I reply, a little surprised. “That does sound… really bad. Nicole?”

“It only sounds bad because she’s leaving out the part about us being on a campus tour at the University of Florida,” Nicole says with a spark of attitude. “And the part about there being fifteen people in the group, all of whom were stopping and walking together in and out of buildings. And the fact that we couldn’t talk because we were listening to the tour guide, and nothing looks worse to an admissions counselor than hitting on someone when you’re supposed to be paying attention.”

I do my best judge impression as I point an angry finger at Sophie. “Counselor, I am tempted to declare a mistrial as I believe you have withheld key evidence.”

“Those are minor details,” she scoffs. “It’s still stalking.”

“Besides, you have your facts wrong,” I continue. “It wasn’t last week. Nicole visited UF over a month ago, which puts it outside the statute of limitations.”

It’s at this moment that I notice the slightest hint of a guilty expression on Nicole’s face. It’s only there for a second, but it’s long enough for me to pause.

“I thought you said it was last week,” Sophie says to her.

Nicole clears her throat for a moment and replies, “I don’t see how it matters when it occurred.”

“It matters,” Sophie says.

“Besides,” I add, also confused, “you told me all about that visit and you never once mentioned that Cody was there.”

“Maybe because, despite these ridiculous allegations, I am not obsessed with him. I was checking out a college, not checking out a guy.”

“Oh! My! God!” says Sophie, figuring it out. “You went back for a second visit, didn’t you? You took the tour last month. Then you went back and took it again last week because you knew that Cody was going to be there and it would give you a reason to follow him around.”

Nicole looks at both of us and, rather than deny the charge, she goes back to folding shirts. “I believe a mistrial was declared in my favor.”

“Izzy only said she was tempted to declare one,” Sophie says. “Besides, she never rang the register.”

“I distinctly heard the register,” Nicole claims.

“No, you didn’t,” I say. “Is she right? Did you drive two and a half hours to Gainesville, take a two-hour tour you’d already taken a month ago, and drive back home for two and a half hours, just so you could follow Cody around the campus?”

She is silent for a moment and then nods slowly. “Pretty much.”

“I’m sorry, but you are guilty as charged,” I say as I ring the bell of the register.

“I really was planning on talking to him this time,” she says, deflated. “I worked out a whole speech on the drive over, and then when the time came… I just froze.”

Sophie thinks this over for a moment. “That should be your sentence.”

“What do you mean?” asks Nicole.

“You have been found guilty and your sentence should be that you have to talk to him. No backing out. No freezing. And it has to be a real conversation. It can’t be about band or Latin Club.”

“What if he wants to talk about band or Latin Club? What if he brings it up? Am I just supposed to ignore him?”

“It’s summer vacation and we live at the beach,” Sophie says. “If he wants to talk about band or Latin, then I think it’s time you found a new crush.”

Nicole nods her acceptance, and I make it official. “Nicole Walker, you are hereby sentenced to have an actual conversation with Cody Bell sometime within the next… two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” she protests. “I need at least a month so I can plan what I’m going to say and organize my—”

“Two weeks,” I say, cutting her off.

She’s about to make one more plea for leniency when the door flies open and a boy rushes in from the rain. He’s tall, over six feet, has short-cropped hair, and judging by the embarrassed look on his face, made a much louder entrance than he intended.

“Sorry,” he says to the three of us. There’s an awkward pause for a moment before he asks, “Can I speak to whoever’s in charge?”

Without missing a beat, Nicole and Sophie both point at me. I’m not really in charge, but they love putting me on the spot, and since it would be pointless to explain that they’re insane, I just go with it.

“How can I help you?”

As he walks to the register I do a quick glance-over. The fact that he’s our age and I’ve never seen him before makes me think he’s from out of town. So does the way he’s dressed. His tucked-in shirt, coach’s shorts, and white socks pulled all the way up complete a look that is totally lacking in beach vibe. (It will also generate a truly brutal farmer’s tan once the rain stops.) But he’s wearing a polo with a Pearl Beach Parks and Recreation logo on it, which suggests he’s local.

I’m trying to reconcile this, and maybe I’m also trying to figure out exactly how tall he is, when I notice that he’s looking at me with an expectant expression. It takes me a moment to realize that my glance-over might have slightly crossed the border into a stare-at, during which I was so distracted that I apparently missed the part when he asked me a question. This would be an appropriate time to add that despite the dorkiness factor in the above description, there’s more than a little bit of dreamy about him.

“Well…?” he asks expectantly.

I smile at him. He smiles at me. The air is ripe with awkwardness. This is when a girl hopes her BFFs might jump to her rescue and keep her from completely embarrassing herself. Unfortunately, one of mine just came back from college looking to tease her little high school friends, and the other thinks I was too tough on her during the sentencing phase of our just completed mock trial. I quickly realize that I am on my own.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“Which part?” he asks, with a crooked smile that is also alarmingly distracting.

When it becomes apparent that I don’t have an answer, Sophie finally chimes in. “I think you should just call it a do-over and repeat the whole thing.”

She stifles a laugh at my expense, but I ignore her so that I can focus on actually hearing him this go-round. I’m counting on the second time being the charm.

“Sure,” he says. “I’m Ben with Parks and Recreation, and I’m going to businesses all over town to see if they’ll put up this poster highlighting some of the events we have planned for summer.”

He unzips his backpack and pulls out a poster that has a picture of the boardwalk above a calendar of events. “We’ve got a parade, fireworks for the Fourth of July, all kinds of cool stuff, and we want to get the word out.”

This is the part when a noncrazy person would just take the poster, smile, and be done with it. But, apparently, I’m not a noncrazy person. So I look at him (again), wonder exactly how tall he is (again), and try to figure out who he is (again).

“I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Ben,” he says slowly, and more than a little confused. “I’ve said that like three times now.”

“No, I don’t mean ‘What’s your name?’ I mean ‘Who are you?’ Pearl Beach is not that big and I’ve lived here my whole life. How is it possible that you work at Parks and Rec and we’ve never met before?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he says. “Today’s my first day on the job. I’m visiting for the summer and staying with my uncle. I live in Madison, Wisconsin.”

“Well,” I hear Sophie whisper to Nicole, “that explains the socks.”

Finally, I snap back to normalcy and smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Ben from Wisconsin. My name’s Izzy. Welcome to Pearl Beach.”

Over the next few minutes, Ben and I make small talk while we hang the poster in the front window. I know hanging a poster might not seem like a two-person job, but this way one of us (Ben) can tape the poster up while the other (me) makes sure it’s straight.

Unfortunately when I go outside to look in the window to check the poster, I see my own reflection and I’m mortified. The rain has caused my hair to frizz in directions I did not think were possible, and I have what appears to be a heart-shaped guacamole stain on my shirt. (Beware the dangers of eating takeout from Mama Tacos in a cramped storeroom.) I try to nonchalantly cover the stain, but when I do it just seems like I’m saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

“How’s that look?” he asks when I go back in.

I’m still thinking about my shirt, so I start to say “awful,” but then realize he’s talking about the poster he just hung, so I try to turn it into “awesome.” It comes out somewhere in the middle, as “Awfslome.”

“What?”

“Awesome,” I say. “The poster looks awesome.”

“Perfect. By the way, I’m about to get some lunch and I was wondering…”

Some psychotic part of me actually thinks he’s just going to ask me out to lunch. Like that’s something that happens. To me. It isn’t.

“… where’d you get the Mexican food?”

“The what?”

That’s when he points at the stain on my shirt. “The guacamole got me thinking that Mexican would be muy bueno for lunch.”

For a moment I consider balling up in the fetal position, but I manage to respond. “Mama Tacos, two blocks down the beach.”

“Gracias!” he says with a wink. He slings the backpack over his shoulder, waves good-bye to the girls, and disappears back into the rain. Meanwhile, I take the long, sad walk back toward the register wondering how much Nicole and Sophie overheard.

“I noticed that stain earlier and meant to point it out,” Nicole says.

“Thanks,” I respond. “That might have been helpful.”

“Well, I don’t know about you guys,” Sophie says. “But I think Ben is ‘awfslome’!”

So apparently they heard every word.

“And I think it’s awfslome that our little Izzy is head over heels for him,” she continues.

“I’m sorry,” I respond. “What are you talking about?”

“What we’re talking about,” says Nicole, “is you full-on crushing for Ben from Wisconsin.”

“Is Wisconsin the dairy one?” Sophie asks.

“Yes,” says Nicole.

“Then I think we should call him Milky Ben,” Sophie suggests.

“We are not calling him Milky Ben!” I exclaim.

“Cheesy Ben?” she asks.

“We’re not calling him anything Ben.”

“See what I mean?” Nicole says. “She’s already so protective.”

“You’re certifiable. All I did was hang a poster with him. That qualifies as head over heels crushing?”

“Well, that’s not all you did,” she corrects. “In addition to the guacamole and the ‘awfslome,’ there was the part when you were so dazzled by his appearance that you couldn’t hear him talking to you. That was kind of horrifying, actually.”

“I know, right?” says Sophie. “Like a slasher movie. Except instead of a chain saw, the slasher has really bright socks that blind you into submission.”

“You guys are hilarious,” I say, hoping to switch the topic of conversation.

“Are you denying it?” Nicole asks, incredulous.

“It’s not even worthy of denial,” I reply. “It’s make-believe.”

“Um… I’m going to have to challenge that,” she says. “I think I’m going to have to go to the register.”

“You can’t go to the register,” I say. “Besides, I’m on register.”

“Really?” says Sophie. “?’Cause it looks like I am.”

It’s only then that I notice that Sophie slipped behind the counter while I was helping Ben.

“Wait a minute,” I protest. “This is a total conspiracy. I’m being set up.”

Sophie doesn’t even give me a chance to defend myself. She just goes straight to the verdict. “Izzy Lucas, you have been found guilty of crush at first sight.”

“You should make her talk to him like she’s making me talk to Cody,” Nicole suggests, looking for some instant payback. “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

“No,” I reply. “But I know two girls who might qualify.”

“Really?” says Sophie. “You’re going to call me names right before sentencing?”

“Oh,” I say, realizing my mistake. “I didn’t mean you two girls.”

“Too late,” Sophie laughs. “Isabel Lucas, sometime in the next two weeks you must… have a meal with whatever-embarrassing-nickname-we-ultimately-decide-to-call-him Ben.”

“A meal? Are you drunk with power? Nicole stalked a guy across six counties and all she has to do is talk to him. Why is my sentence worse than hers?”

“Because she has a whole school year coming up with Cody,” Sophie explains. “But Ben said he’s only here for the summer. That doesn’t leave you much time.”

Before I can beg for mercy, she rings the register, making it official.

Pearl Beach is a barrier island, eight and a half miles long and connected to the mainland by a causeway bridge. I’ve spent all sixteen years of my life as an islander, and when I think of home, I don’t think of my house or my neighborhood. I think of the ocean.

That’s why, despite the fact that it’s summer vacation and I should be fast asleep, I’m awake at six thirty in the morning putting on my favorite spring suit—a wet suit with long sleeves and a shorty cut around the thighs. The combination of last night’s storm, the rising tide, and a slight but steady wind should make for ideal surf conditions.

It’s a two-block walk from my house to the beach, and when I reach the stairs that lead down from the seawall, the view is spectacular. Purple and orange streak through the sky and the sun is barely peeking up from the water.

The only remnants of the storm are the tufts of foam that dance across the sand like tumbleweeds and the thin layer of crushed shells that were dredged up from the ocean floor and now crackle beneath my feet. The early morning water temperature shocks the last bit of sleep from my system, and as I paddle out on my board, there’s not another living soul in sight. It is as if God has created all of this just for me.

I inherited my love of surfing from my dad. When I was little, he’d take me out on his longboard, and we’d ride in on gentle waves as he held me up by my hands so that I could stand. We still surf together a lot of the time, but this morning I slipped out of the house by myself so that I could be on my own and think.

It bothers me that I got so flustered the other day when I met Ben. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but the truth is when it comes to guys, I’m not a shark or a dolphin. I’m a flounder. I just don’t have the practice. I’ve never had a boyfriend or been on a date. I’ve never even been kissed. Part of this is because I’m introverted by nature, and part of it is because I’ve grown up on an island with all the same boys my whole life. Even if one’s kind of cute now that we’re in high school, it’s hard to forget the middle school version of him that used to call me Izzy Mucus and tell fart jokes.

Ben is different. My only history with him was less than five minutes in the surf shop. And, while I wasn’t about to admit it to Nicole and Sophie, during those five minutes I was definitely guilty of “crush at first sight.” I don’t know why exactly. It’s not just that he’s cute. I’m not even sure if most girls would classify him as cute. It’s just that there was some sort of… I don’t know what to call it… a connection, chemistry, temporary insanity. Whatever it was, it was a totally new sensation.

And now, because Sophie snuck onto the register when I wasn’t looking, I have to try to convince him to share a meal with me. It’s a total abuse of power on her part, but I meant what I said about us taking traditions seriously at Surf Sisters. The girls won’t hold it against me if I’m not successful. But if I don’t give it a real try, I’ll never hear the end of it.

I sit up on my board with the nose pointed to the ocean and straddle it so that I can watch for waves. I see a set of three coming toward me and suddenly all thoughts of boys and crushes wash out of my mind. I lie out on my stomach and slowly start to paddle back in. I let the first two swells pass beneath me, and the moment I feel the third one begin to lift me, I paddle as fast as I can, trying to keep up.

Just before the wave starts to break, I feel it grab hold of the board and I pop up on my feet. This is the moment that takes my breath away. Every time. This is when it’s magic. In one instant you’re exerting every ounce of energy you have, and in the next it feels like you’re floating through air as you glide along the face of the wave. You stop thinking. You stop worrying. You’re just one with the wave, and everything else melts away.

The ride doesn’t last long. No matter how well you catch it, the wave always crashes against the shore and snaps you back to reality. But those few moments, especially at times like this when I’m alone, those few moments are perfect.

If only boys were as predictable as waves; then I’d know just what to do.

The Bermuda Triangle is a section of the Atlantic Ocean where ships and planes mysteriously vanish into thin air. It’s totally bogus and based on some ridiculous alien conspiracy theory. But it inspired my dad to come up with The Izzy Triangle. He likes to say, “It’s where daughters disappear for the summer.”

Unlike the Bermuda Triangle, however, this one has some truth to it. If you’re looking for me anytime from June through August, the odds are you’re going to find me in one of three places: the beach (surfing), my room (reading), or Surf Sisters (hanging out or working). In fact, I’m not exactly sure when I officially started working at the shop. I was just there all the time, and I slowly started to chip in whenever they needed help.

That’s where I’m heading now, even though it’s my day off. I surfed this morning and finished my latest mystery novel, so I figure I should do something that involves other humans. (Introvert, push yourself!) Besides, both Sophie and Nicole are working, and once their shift’s over, we’re catching a movie.

The problem is that I know they’ll be ready to pounce on me the second I walk through the door. It’s been a few days since the Ben Incident (Sophie wants to call it the Bencident, but I refuse to let her), and they’ll want to know if I’ve made any progress with him. If I say that I haven’t, they’ll give me a hard time and start talking about how I’m going to run out of time. That’s why I decide to take a calculated risk and stop by the bandshell on my way to the shop.

The bandshell is our town’s outdoor stage. It’s at the north end of the boardwalk and where we have little concerts and annual events like Tuba Christmas and the Sand Castle Dance, which we all make fun of but secretly love. It’s also where the Parks and Recreation office is located. I figure Ben probably spends most of his time parking and recreating, so the odds are pretty good that he won’t be in the office. If I drop by, I can at least tell the girls that I tried to see him. Even if he happens to be there, I don’t have to actually talk to him. I can act like I’m there for some other reason and tell the girls that I saw him, which would technically be true.

The office is in a plain cinder block building right behind the bandshell. Its only architectural flourish is a mural painted on one side that’s meant to look like The Birth of Venus, except instead of Venus it has a pearl. Written above it is the slogan PEARL BEACH, GEM OF THE OCEAN. It’s so tacky that I actually think it’s kind of perfect.

When I open the door, I’m greeted by an arctic blast of air-conditioning. And when I look around the office and see that Ben’s not there, I have a sinking feeling. I realize I was maybe secretly hoping he would be. This fact surprises me and is just another indication that all of this really is new for me.

Just as I’m about to turn and leave, I hear a voice call my name. “Izzy?”

I look over and see Ms. McCarthy behind a desk. She lives down the street from us and is good friends with my mom. I totally forgot that she works here.

“Hi, Ms. Mac. How are you?”

“Good,” she says. “What’s brings you by?”

“I’m looking for…” I’m halfway through the sentence before I realize that I don’t really have a good finish for it. I stammer for a second and say, “Well… there’s a new boy who just started working here and…”

“Ben?” she asks, with that knowing smile that grown-ups give when they think they know what’s up. “Are you looking for Ben?”

Mental warning bells sound as I realize that this information will get back to my mom within seconds of me leaving.

“Actually, I’m not looking for him. I’m looking for a poster. He dropped one off yesterday at the shop, and Mo, one of the two sisters who own the surf shop, wants me to pick up another one for us to hang up. You know… to help support the town… and all of its wonderful activities.”

Ms. McCarthy gives me a slightly skeptical look. “Okay. If it’s just a poster you want, there are some extras over there.”

She points to a table, and I go over and see a stack of posters.

“Yep, this is it,” I say, picking one up. “This is the reason that I came by. It’s a nice poster. Attractive and informative. Thanks so much. Mo will be really happy about this.”

I realize I’m overdoing it and decide my best course of action is to stop talking and nod good-bye.

As I head out the door, Ms. McCarthy says one more thing. “I know it’s not why you came here, but if you had come to see Ben, I would have told you that you just missed him and that he was headed down the boardwalk to get some lunch.”

I find this information very interesting, but I don’t want her—and therefore my mom—to know this, so I just make a confused expression and say, “Whatever.” I maintain this “whatever” attitude up to the instant that I’m beyond her field of vision, at which point I sprint toward the boardwalk.

The boardwalk is the main tourist strip for Pearl Beach, and it stretches eight blocks from the bandshell at one end to the pier at the other. Normally I avoid it because of the whole “it has crowds and I’m an introvert” thing, but since it’s technically on the way to where I’m going and we’re early enough in the season that the crowds aren’t too bad, I decide to walk along it.

After a couple blocks I see Ben in all of his white sock and coach’s shorts glory standing in line at Beach-a Pizza. It’s an outdoor pizza stand that has picnic table seating facing out over the ocean. It dawns on me that I can get in line, buy a slice, and if I sit at the same picnic table, we’ll be eating together. That will fulfill my sentencing requirement. Clever me.

I slip into the line and see there are a few people between us. It’s not until I’m standing there that I realize I’m still holding the stupid poster. I’d kept it so that I could prove to the girls that I really had stopped by the office, but now it just seems awkward. I’m strategizing what I should do about it when he turns and sees me.

“Hey… it’s you. Izzy, right?”

“Right,” I answer. “And you’re Ben.”

He smiles. “You remembered.”

“Tell me something three times and it sticks.”

He lets the people in between us cut in front of him and moves back so that he’s next to me. I know it seems small, but this instantly makes me like him more. So many people try to get you to move up to them and cut in front of other people, and I’m never comfortable with that. Of course, I’m not particularly comfortable at the moment standing in line clutching my poster. But you know what I mean.

“Something wrong with the poster?” he asks, pointing at it.

“Nope,” I say. “I just picked up another one to hang in the other window.”

Apparently he’s just as clueless about things as I am, because he buys this as an acceptable excuse.

“Good to see that the word is spreading.”

“So what are you up to?” I ask, as if there are a wide variety of reasons why someone would be standing in line at Beach-a Pizza.

“Just getting pizza and a pop.”

“A pop?” I ask, confused. “You mean a popsicle?”

“No, a soft drink. Don’t you call it ‘pop’?”

I laugh. “We say soda.”

“Okay, this is good. Now I’ve learned something,” he says. “I’m getting pizza and… a soda.”

“Very nice,” I respond, playing along.

“Pretty soon I’ll be just like the locals.”

“Well… not as long as you eat here.”

He looks at me for a second. “What’s wrong with Beach-a Pizza?”

“You mean besides the name?” I lean closer and whisper. “It tastes like cardboard with ketchup on it.”

“It seems pretty popular,” he says. “Look at all the people in line.”

“Yes, look at them,” I reply, still keeping my voice low. “They have pale skin, wear shoes with their bathing suits, and fanny packs. They’re wearing fanny packs, Ben! What does that tell you?”

He thinks it over for a moment and shakes his head. “I don’t know, what does it tell me?”

“That they’re tourists,” I say. “Only tourists are waiting here. The people who live in Pearl Beach are not in line. You’re living here for the summer. Don’t you think you should get pizza where we get it?”

“But you live here,” he says. “Why are you in line?”

This one catches me off guard. It’s not like I can say, “Because Sophie was on the register and I have to eat with you or be subjected to extended hazing.” I pause for a second before blurting, “Because I wanted to rescue you and show you where we go.”

“Rescue me?” He likes this. “You’re like my knight in shining armor?”

“More like light wash denim… but it’s something like that.”

“Well, you were right about Mama Tacos,” he says, reminding me of the horror that was the guacamole-stain recommendation. “That was delicious. I’ll trust you again. Where do you think we should go?”

“Luigi’s Car Wash,” I say.

“I meant for pizza,” he says.

“So did I.”

“Sounds awful!” He hesitates for a moment. “Let’s go!”

It suddenly dawns on me that I may have just asked a guy out on a date.

As we’re driving down Ocean Ave. in an old blue Parks and Rec pickup truck, I get my first true up-close look at him since the Bencident. (Sophie can’t call it that, but I can.) I’m trying not to stare, but as I give him directions I at least have an excuse to be looking his way.

I will amend my earlier statement in which I said I wasn’t sure that all girls would classify him as cute. I think your boy vision would have to be seriously impaired not to rate him at least that high. He has strong features and permanent scruff that gives him a ruggedness I find irresistible. But the clinching feature is still the smile. It’s easy and natural, with teeth so bright they might as well be a commercial for the virtues of Wisconsin milk.

“Explain to me why we’re getting pizza at a car wash,” he says, flashing those same pearly whites.

“It’s complicated,” I reply. “Back when my parents were growing up, it really was a car wash. But at some point Luigi realized that he could make more money selling pizzas than washing cars, so he decided to convert into a pizza joint.”

“But it’s still called Luigi’s Car Wash?”

“That’s the complicated part. Technically it still is a car wash,” I try to explain. “It’s right on the beach and oceanfront property is really valuable. Developers would love to get rid of Luigi, tear down the building, and put up a condominium or a hotel or something awful like that. But as long as he keeps the name the same and as long they wash a few cars every week, it’s protected by an old law that was in effect when he first opened.”

Ben laughs and gives me a skeptical look. “I was perfectly happy eating boardwalk pizza, which I have to say sounds way more legit than car wash pizza. Why do I feel like I’m being set up for some kind of practical joke?”

“You’re not. I promise.”

“Now, before I embarrass myself, you do call it pizza, right?” he asks. “It’s not going to be another ‘pop’ situation, where it turns out I’m using the wrong word again?”

He’s funny. I like funny.

“No,” I tell him as we pull into the parking lot. “But if you really want to sound like you know what you’re doing, just say that you want a couple slices of Big Lu.”

“What’s Big Lu?”

“It’s short for Big Luigi, a pizza with everything on it. It’s the house specialty, and trust me when I say that you’re going to want to order it.”

“You’re telling me it’s good?”

“No, I’m telling you it’s life changing.”

“Life-changing car wash pizza?” he says as we get out of the car. “This should be interesting.”

Luigi’s still has the shape and design of a car wash, which is part of its charm. (It’s also part of the legal requirements that protect it.) As we walk up to the counter to order, I’m suddenly extremely self-conscious. I’ve never been on a date before—and I’m not sure this would even qualify as one—but I am walking into Luigi’s with a guy and I don’t know all the protocols. In fact, I don’t know any of the protocols. There’s no line, so we go straight to the counter.

“I’ll have a couple of slices of Big Lu and a—” He almost says “pop,” but he catches himself and says “soda.”

Then he says something that surprises me.

“And whatever she wants.”

I wasn’t expecting him to pay for my lunch, but I think it’s a check in the “it’s kinda, sorta like a date” column.

“I’ll have the same,” I say.

The cashier rings it up, gives us two cups and a number to take to our table. Ben makes another “is it soda or pop?” joke as we get our drinks, and then we sit down in a booth. I have been in Luigi’s a thousand times before, but I have never felt more like a fish out of water in my entire life.

“How long have you lived in Pearl Beach?” he asks.

“Born and raised,” I answer. “Third generation. By the way, we usually call it PB.”

“More lingo,” he says with a nod as he sips his drink. “So far I’ve learned ‘soda,’ ‘Big Lu,’ and ‘PB.’ Pretty soon I’ll be fluent, which is important considering that I’m a native.”

I give him a look. “I think you’re getting ahead of yourself. You ordered two slices of pizza. That hardly makes you a native.”

“No, no, no,” he tells me. “It’s legit. I was born here.”

“You were born in Pearl Beach?” I ask skeptically.

“Nope,” he says. “I was born in PB. See, I’m using the lingo.”

I laugh. “Now you’re messing with me.”

“Actually, I’m not. I was born the summer after my father finished law school. This is where Mom grew up, and since his job didn’t start until the following January, they came here and stayed with my grandma. That way they could save money and my dad could study for the bar exam. I lived here for the first six months of my life.”

“Well then, I guess that means there’s an islander in there somewhere,” I joke. “We’ve just got to shake off some of the Wisconsin that’s covering it.”

“Watch what you say about Wisconsin,” he says with mock indignation. “That’s America’s Dairy Land.”

“I didn’t mean to imply anything negative.”

“You better not. There are a lot of important things that come out of Wisconsin.”

“Is that so?” I say playfully. “Like what?”

“Okay,” he replies, perhaps a little caught off guard. “I’ll list some of them for you.”

He pauses for a second, and I impatiently cross my arms.

“Harley-Davidson motorcycles… and custard.”

“Custard?”

He makes the happy delicious face. “You haven’t lived until you’ve had the custard at Babcock Hall.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“And the Green Bay Packers. Everybody loves the Packers.”

I shrug.

“And don’t forget milk. Without which we would not have our wonderful smiles.”

He flashes a smile, and I have to admit that I am sold.

“You’ve got me there,” I say.

I don’t know if it’s because of the back and forth nature of the conversation or all the endorphins released by the incredible aroma of pizza that fills the air, but I’m actually feeling more relaxed.

“So we’ll accept that Wisconsin is amazing and wonderful. But since you’re stuck with us for the summer, what exactly does your job with the Parks and Recreation Department entail?” I ask.

“I think I’m responsible for anything that no one else wants to do,” he says with a laugh. “There’s a lot of scrubbing and cleaning. More than a little mowing. And, starting Monday, I’m one of the counselors for the summer day camp. That should be great—four days a week with a bunch of screaming kids trying to torment me.”

“I did that,” I tell him.

“You were a counselor?”

“No. I was one of the screaming kids who tormented the counselors. It was a lot of fun.”

“The schedule’s insane,” he says. “Every day it’s something different. We’ve got kick ball, soccer, swimming, and we’re even going to the golf course once a week.”

“Don’t forget Surf Sisters,” I say.

“We’re going to Surf Sisters?” he asks.

“On Tuesdays campers will learn respect for the ocean, beach safety, and the fundamentals of surfing,” I say, quoting the brochure.

“I thought that was at a place called Eddie’s Surf… something or other.”

“Steady Eddie’s Surf School,” I say.

“That’s it.”

“Surf Sisters is actually run by two sisters, and Steady Eddie was their dad,” I explain. “They are one and the same.”

“That’s great news,” he says with a smile. “Does that mean you’re going to be our surfing instructor?”

I try to hide my disappointment as I tell him no.

I leave out the part about how I was supposed to be the instructor but pawned it off on Sophie because I didn’t want to deal with all of those screaming kids. Of course, it had never dawned on me that I would want to deal with their dreamy counselor.

“That’s too bad,” he says. “We could have chased them together.”

This development puts me in a funk for a little while, but it’s nothing that two slices of Big Lu can’t cure. During the rest of the conversation we talk about his hometown and high school. I figure if I let him do most of the talking, I will not put my foot in my mouth, as I’ve been prone to do in the past. This strategy seems to work, because we keep talking even after we’ve finished eating, which is pretty cool.

I try to resist my natural instinct to overanalyze every little detail, but I can’t help but look for any hint that he might be interested in me. He’s good about eye contact; it’s not piercing and creepy but he stays engaged. Never once does he make more than a casual glance at the game playing on the big screen TV behind me. Better yet, there are a couple of sharky girls at the next table. They’re cute and giggly, and I think more than a little loud on purpose trying to get his attention, but he seems oblivious to them.

“Don’t you think?” he says, and I realize that I have no idea what he’s talking about. (How’s that for irony? My analyzing how engaged he is made me zone out.)

“Totally,” I say, hoping that it makes sense based on the question. Fearful of continuing to talk about a subject of which I am unaware, I decide to change the topic. “So how’d you end up here for the summer?”

It didn’t seem like a trick question when I asked it, but his expression makes me rethink this. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”

“No, it’s nothing secret, just a little sad,” he says. “My parents are getting divorced and it’s really ugly. There are lawyers and screaming arguments, and my mom was worried that it might scar me for life, so she arranged with Uncle Bob for me to come down here and work with him.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that. A few of my friends have had their parents get divorced, and it was hard on them. I’m so lucky that mine are happy together.”

“The worst part,” he says, “is that my dad is being a total jerk. I don’t get it. He’s being so mean to her, and I wish I were up there because I want to be there for her. But she thought this would be best for me.”

The discussion about his parents brings down the mood of the conversation, and before I can come up with a new topic, he gets a phone call. The conversation is short, and when it’s over, he says, “Duty calls.”

He takes one last sip of his soda and stands up.

“What’s the problem?”

“There’s a pavilion at the playground where they like to have birthday parties,” he says.

“I know it well,” I say. “I believe I celebrated birthday number seven there.”

“Apparently some of the kids learned an important lesson about what happens to your digestive system if you eat massive amounts of cake and ice cream immediately before going full speed on the merry-go-round.”

“And you’ve got to clean it up?” I ask with a grimace.

“Like I said, my job is pretty much to do whatever nobody else wants to do.” He shrugs. “Let me take you wherever you were headed?”

“It’s not far, I can walk,” I say. “I don’t want to make you late.”

“I’m pretty sure it will still be there,” he says.

“Okay, I’ll take a lift to Surf Sisters.”

As we walk out to his truck, I manage to send a clandestine text to Nicole and Sophie. Make sure you can see the parking lot in three minutes. Trust me!

I slide my phone back into my pocket and ignore the vibrating of reply texts no doubt asking for an explanation.

“Thanks for rescuing me from boardwalk pizza,” he says as we drive down Ocean. “Luigi’s is without a doubt the best pizza I’ve ever had.”

“It was the least I could do,” I say. “And thanks for buying me lunch. You didn’t have to do that.”

“You can buy next time.” As he says it he flashes that oh-so-distracting smile, and I’m feeling good.

“Next time.” I like the sound of that. Of course, I’m not sure how to read the smile. Is he smiling because he’s polite? Is he smiling because he likes being with me? Or is he smiling because he just ate the best pizza in the world?

When he pulls up to Surf Sisters, I look through the windshield and can see that Nicole and Sophie are both looking out the window. They’re dumbfounded when they realize that it’s me in the truck with Ben, and it takes everything I’ve got not to react. It also makes me even more self-conscious as I try to come up with the perfect farewell line that will keep him thinking of me.

“Well,” I say with a goofy grin, “have fun cleaning up the vomit.”

Apparently that’s the best I could come up with. My first ever may or may not be a date ends with me turning to a guy and talking about vomit. I am so smooth.

“I’ll do my best,” he says. “Thanks again.”

I get out of the truck, wave good-bye, and watch him drive away.

I’m still not sure what to make of it all, but that does nothing to dampen the feeling of total triumph that I have as I walk into the store. For a moment the two of them stare in disbelief.

“Is there a problem, girls?”

“No,” Sophie says, trying to suppress a grin but failing miserably. “Where were you?”

“You know, just eating pizza at Luigi’s with Ben. No big.”

“Are you serious?” asks Nicole.

I smile and nod. “Absolutely.”

“Okay,” Sophie says, getting excited. “There are questions that need to be answered. Many questions.”

“No, there aren’t,” I say, trying to project cool for once in my life. “There’s just one question that needs to be answered.”

“What’s that?” she says.

I turn to Nicole, who’s working the register. “I’d like an official judgment on this. Which beach girl totally kicks ass.”

Nicole grins as she says it. “That would be Izzy Lucas.”

And she rings the bell on the register to make it official.

Since the shop is busy, the girls don’t get to grill me for information until after their shift ends and we’re all riding to the movie theater. Sophie’s driving and Nicole’s in the passenger seat. (One perk of being a six-foot-tall girl is that you always get the front seat.) She wedges herself sideways to look at me in the back.

“Explain again how this happened?” she asks.

“First I stopped by the Parks and Rec office to see if I could ‘bump into’ him there,” I say. “And I found out that he was taking his lunch break on the boardwalk.”

“I’m surrounded by stalkers,” Sophie interjects as she gives me a wink in the rearview mirror.

“So I went walking along the boardwalk and saw him in line at Beach-a Pizza.”

“BP?” says Nicole. “That’s disgusting.”

“Which is exactly what I told him,” I continue. “So I suggested that he should try Luigi’s and that was that. We were on our way.”

“Very nice,” says Nicole.

“See what happens when you actually talk to the guy,” Sophie says, giving Nicole a raised eyebrow.

“Can we get back to Izzy?” she protests, not wanting another lecture on how she should talk to Cody. “What’s Ben like?”

“I don’t know,” I answer. “I mean, he seems great. He’s funny. Kind of goofy but in the totally good way.”

“I love that,” Nicole says. “Give me cute and goofy over slick and sexy any day.”

Sophie gives Nicole another look but decides not to press her on Cody. Instead, she looks at me in the mirror for a second and asks, “Does that mean you’re into him?”

I think about it for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

Nicole grins. “Her lips say ‘maybe,’ but the redness in her cheeks says ‘hell yeah.’?”

We’re all laughing as Sophie parks and we get out of the car.

“Tell me that you picked this movie because it’s supposed to be good,” she says to Nicole. “And not because you think ‘you know who’ will be here.”

“He’s not going to be here,” Nicole says. “He already saw it last Saturday with some of the guys from Interact.”

Sophie stops. “And you know this how?”

“I’ve already been convicted of stalking and as such am protected by double jeopardy,” she says. “So lay off.”

Sophie and I share a look and shake our heads. Nicole really does need to do something about this.

“All I’m saying is that I pushed Izzy and it paid off,” Sophie replies. “I’d like the same good fortune to happen to you.”

“Slow down,” I say. “We’re not sure that it ‘paid off’ for me. Ben and I had pizza, but I have no idea if he likes me or not. He may just like the pizza.”

“Didn’t you see any signs?” asks Sophie.

“Yeah,” says Nicole. “I’ve heard there are supposed to be signs.”

“The signs were mixed,” I reply. “At some points it seemed like he was into me and at others not so much. It doesn’t help that his parents are going through an epic divorce. I think it may have soured him a bit on the whole idea of relationships.”

We reach the ticket window and Sophie turns to me.

“By the way, you’re buying my ticket.”

“And why is that?”

“Because you owe me… big time.”

I think about this for a second. “Because?”

“Because, despite it being a major hassle, I went through the computer and swapped shifts with you every Tuesday for the rest of the summer.”

It takes me a moment to realize what she’s saying.

“You mean…”

“You’ll be teaching all the summer campers how to surf, which should give you plenty of opportunities to read signs from Ben.”

I wrap her up in a giant hug, and because she’s so small it lifts her off the ground.

“You’re pretty awesome sometimes, you know that?”

“No,” she says. “I’m incredibly awesome all of the time. And as soon as you two realize that, your lives will improve dramatically.”

Needless to say, I am more than happy to buy her ticket.

On Tuesday morning I spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to select my surfing attire. Normally, this is automatic: wet suit in the cold months, spring suit on chilly mornings, bikini and a rash guard when it’s hot. My rash guard has two purposes. It’s a swim shirt that protects my skin from all the wax and sand on my surfboard. And, bonus, it keeps me from falling out of my bikini top whenever I wipe out.

Of course, normally I’m only interested in what’s most comfortable and functional for surfing. Today, however, is not normal.

Instead of hitting the waves to find the perfect ride, I’ll be teaching a bunch of grade school kids how to surf. That means they’ll be staring at me while I do a lot of leaning and bending over. The last thing I want to do is give them a little show-and-tell. But I’ll also be in front of Ben, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I actually looked, you know, cute.

After countless combinations, I finally settle on a pair of rainbow-striped board shorts that have a stylish cut but still cover everything I need covered and a baby blue Surf Sisters rash guard that I put on over a black bikini top. As I take one final look in my bedroom mirror I empathize with all of the women who ask me to help them find a swimsuit. Still, to my surprise, the combination actually looks cute, and in a rare moment of self-confidence I’m willing to say I’ve gone from flounder to dolphin.

At the beach, Sophie helps me set up before the campers arrive. She’s doing a good job of keeping it light and funny so I don’t stress out. She can ride you relentlessly, but when you need it, she’s nothing but your biggest cheerleader. We’re laughing about something when we hear the faint sound of mass whistling approaching us.

I look up just in time to see Ben leading a makeshift platoon of campers over a sand dune and right at us. They are whistling a silly tune as they pretend to march, and it is irresistibly cute.

My guess is that Ben didn’t spend nearly as much time worrying about his wardrobe as I did. He’s traded in his coach’s shorts for a flowery Hawaiian print bathing suit but has maintained the rest of his signature look with a tucked-in polo, white socks, and running shoes. You’d think it was a uniform or a job requirement, except both of the other counselors are wearing swimsuits and T-shirts.

“He’s wearing shoes and socks,” Sophie says to me. “He’s wearing them on the beach.”

“Yeah,” I respond. “I’m going to have to work on that.”

I recognize the other counselors from school. The guy’s name is Jacob. Even though he’s a star soccer player, he runs with the brainy crowd and stays pretty low key. I wouldn’t say we’re friends, but I’ve always liked him and we get along well. The girl is a different story.

Kayla is a total alpha, a shark to my dolphin. She lives to make sure that girls like me know that we’re not nearly as sparkly as girls like her. For example, just so everyone realizes how unbelievably awesome she is, she’s wearing a way too tight Surf City top that shows off her curves—and I imagine also restricts her breathing. Surf City is a megaretail store on Ocean Ave. where girls like Kayla, wearing short-shorts and tank tops, sell overpriced T-shirts and surfboards to tourists who don’t know any better. They are our sworn enemies.

“Watch out for that one,” Sophie says with a nod toward Kayla. “If she so much as gets a hint you’re into Ben, she will totally drop in on you.” “Dropping in” is what surfers call it when someone tries to catch a wave that you’re already riding.

Although the Kayla development puts a slight damper on my mood, things take a turn for the better when Ben sees me and flashes that smile of his.

Even Sophie can’t help but notice. “Well, what he lacks in fashion sense, he makes up for with dimples,” she says, accompanied by a friendly nudge of her elbow. “That’s my cue to let you two be all alone… you know, except for the screaming kids and the conniving camp counselor.”

She smiles and gives a friendly wave to Ben and the campers as she walks back up toward the surf shop.

Just as they’re about to reach me, Ben holds his hand out like a stop sign. “Campers, halt!”

The kids make exaggerated stops, some even going so far as running into each other in slow motion before crashing onto the sand. Apparently, his goofiness has already infected them.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to be teaching this class,” he says.

“There was a change in plans,” I answer, trying to sound mysterious but probably coming across as clueless.

He thinks about this for a second and nods. “Very nice.”

He turns to address the kids, and from the way they hang on his every word I can tell that they love him.

“I want all of you to say hi to Izzy.”

“Hi, Izzy!” the kids shout in unison.

“Hi, everyone!” I say back. “Are you ready to learn how to become slammin’ surfers?”

There are cheers, and I realize that even if it wasn’t for Ben, I should never have tried to avoid this. Kids are great and I love teaching them about the ocean. I can’t help but flash back to my own summer camp when I came here for the same lessons. My dad had already taught me the basics, but this was when I really got the bug. It’s also when I first started to hang out at Surf Sisters.

“Before we do anything,” I continue, “I want you all to repeat these three words. Slip! Slop! Slap!”

“Slip! Slop! Slap!” they shout in unison.

“Who can tell me what these words mean?”

When no one else raises a hand, Ben jumps right in.

“Slip, slop, slap,” he says. “That’s what happened to me when I tried to stand up in a bathtub this morning.”

The kids laugh.

“Good guess,” I say. “But not what I was going for. This is why they’re important. If you’re going to be in the sun for a while, you should always ‘slip on a shirt,’ ‘slop on some sunscreen,’ and ‘slap on a hat.’?”

I open up the two big boxes that Sophie helped me set up and start handing out rash guards, Steady Eddie surf caps, and plenty of sunscreen.

“We love the sun, but we have to respect it,” I say. “Too much of it is bad for your skin. Isn’t that right, Kayla?”

All eyes turn to Kayla, whose richly tanned skin is a pretty good indication that she does not follow this advice.

“That’s right,” she says unenthusiastically as she stares daggers at me.

Once everyone is fortified against the sun, I get them all in a big circle so that we can stretch. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or conniving, but Kayla winds up directly across from Ben so that he has an unobstructed view of her doing her stretches. And, as much as I hate her, even I have to admit she looks pretty spectacular while she’s doing them.

Once we’re all stretched out, I hold up a thick foam board about three feet long and ask, “Who can tell me what this is?”

Without missing a beat, Ben answers, “A surfboard!”

The kids all laugh because they think he’s joking, but I can tell by his expression that he thought he had the right answer. I quickly come to his rescue.

“Ben’s trying to trick you guys, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” they shout, and Ben smiles and plays along.

“This is way too short to be a surfboard, isn’t it, Ben?”

“Absolutely,” he says with a grateful smile. “Way too short. Even for short people like these guys.”

“So, who, other than Ben, can tell me what it really is?”

A few of the kids call out, “A boogie board.”

“That’s right,” I answer. “A boogie board. It’s also called a body board, and although you use it to ride waves, you don’t stand up on it like a surfboard. Do you?”

“No,” they reply.

I notice one girl in back is too shy to shout out with the others. She reminds me of me at her age, so I point to her and ask, “How do you ride a boogie board?” As I ask the question, I rub my hand over my stomach.

“On your belly?” she says with a little uncertainty.

“That’s right, you ride it on your belly. Before camp is over we’re going to have all of you standing up on surfboards. But for today we’re going to just stay on our bellies and ride these. Okay?”

“Okay!” they shout, and this time she shouts with them.

We break the campers into smaller groups and take them out into shallow water a few at a time. This lets them get used to the dynamics of waves and builds their confidence for riding on a board. It’s also unbelievably fun.

Most of them pick it up instantly, and I quickly become a fan of the shy girl, whose name is Rebecca. I notice the change in her attitude with every bit of success, and it reminds me even more of the nine-year-old version of me.

The only one who struggles getting the hang of it is Ben. First he has trouble catching a wave, and when he finally does get one, he lies too far up on the board and winds up going face-first into the sand. The kids all get a kick out of this, and the thing that’s great about Ben is that he does too. A lot of guys would get embarrassed and try to act cool, but he just goes with the goofy, and the kids love it.

By the middle of the session I am certain that it’s more than a crush for me. I really like him and I would love for him to like me. But the problem is that I just can’t tell if he’s even remotely interested.

He’s relaxed when we talk, which makes it seem like he is, but then he’s all goofy with the kids, too, so maybe that’s just him. Furthermore, he seems to have no idea that Kayla is a shark in surf clothing and seems mighty comfortable talking to her, too. I don’t have the body or confidence to do what she’s doing and begin to think that I may be in beyond my depth.

In fact, I don’t get a good read on the situation until the lesson is done and we’re all carrying our boards back up to the shop. Ben walks next to me.

“This was great,” he says. “The kids loved it. I loved it. Obviously, I need a lot of practice and coaching, but it was great.”

I can’t tell if he’s opening the door for me to offer to help him get that practice and coaching or if he’s just making conversation. I walk quietly for a moment before I start to stammer, “Well, you know… if you really want to get better… I could always—”

And that’s when Kayla drops in, just like Sophie warned me she would. She sidles right up next to him and grabs him by the elbow with an effortlessness that is as impressive as it is evil.

“Ben, you are so great with these kids,” she says, all dimples and boobs. “Don’t you think so, Iz?”

I cannot believe that she is calling me “Iz,” like we’re old friends or something. Of course there’s nothing I can do about it but agree.

“Terrific,” I say. For a moment she and I lock stares, and I know that war is at hand. Before I can say anything else, one of the campers comes running up to Ben.

“Ben, Ben, Ben,” he says excitedly. “You won’t believe it. There’s this dead fish and its guts are exploded all over the place. It’s totally disgusting.”

“Well, if it’s TOTALLY disgusting,” he says with an exaggerated expression, “then I have to see it.”

They hurry off and leave me alone with Kayla. Neither of us says another word for the rest of the walk. We’re just a shark and a dolphin swimming side by side across the sand.

You’re my daughter and I love you,” my dad says with total tenderness before he flashes an evil grin and adds, “But first I’m going to demolish you, and then I’m going to destroy you.”

Welcome to game night with the Lucas family. Always fun, always competitive, always full of trash talk. At the moment we’re in the middle of a particularly intense game of Risk, and Dad is about to attack my armies in Greenland. He’s feeling good about it until my mom interrupts.

“You know that ‘demolish’ and ‘destroy’ mean the same thing,” she says, tweaking him.

He stops just as he’s about to roll the dice. “What?”

“You can’t destroy her if you’ve already demolished her. Your threat doesn’t make sense.”

“Donna?” he whines. “I’m going for an intimidation thing, and you are literally raining on my parade.”

“You mean ‘figuratively,’?” she says. “Or is there actual rain falling on a parade I don’t know about?”

“You’re doing it again,” he says, getting flustered. “You’re doing it again.”

“I’m sorry, but I think if you want to be a global dictator, the least you can do is use proper grammar.”

My parents totally crack me up. They’re both teachers at Pearl Beach High School. Mom is the chair of the English Department, hence the grammar, and Dad teaches history and coaches cross-country, which explains the competitiveness. At school I might have a slight tendency to avoid them, but they’re actually very cool and fun to hang out with. During the summer we usually play board games around the kitchen table a couple nights a week.

“What if I say this?” he offers, having fun with it. “First I’m going to invade your country, and then I’m going to destroy it?”

He looks at her hopefully, but she just shrugs and replies, “It’s not great.”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

“Why invade the country if you’re going to destroy it? I think you may mean that you’re going to invade the country and destroy her army, but that’s not what you said. Your command of pronouns is about as strong as your armies in northern Africa.”

He’s trying to think up a comeback when the doorbell rings. “Saved by the bell,” he says. “Literally.”

“Thank you,” she replies. “In that instance ‘literally’ is correct.”

She stands up and adds, “I’ll go answer the door so you can keep up your attacks on Greenland and the English language.”

“English teachers,” he says under his breath as he shoots me a wink.

Just as he’s about to roll the dice, I hear a familiar voice talking to Mom at the door and signal Dad to stop.

“Wait a second. Is that Ben?”

“Ben?” my father asks. “Who’s Ben?”

Suddenly visions of embarrassment dance through my head. I turn to him and give my most desperate face. “Don’t be you. Don’t tell bad jokes. Don’t tell embarrassing stories. Just once, try to be normal.”

“I am offended,” he says indignantly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I give him a look and he returns it in kind.

“Really?” I ask.

“Really.”

I hear them walking toward the kitchen and I know I’m running out of time. “If you’re good, I’ll promise not to attack you in northern Africa and we can gang up on Mom in Asia.”

“Deal,” he says with a grin.

We shake on it just before Mom walks into the room with Ben.

“Hi, Izzy,” he says sheepishly.

“Hey, Ben,” I say, trying to figure out why he might be here. “Mom, Dad, this is Ben. He’s down for the summer from Wisconsin. Ben, these are my parents.”

“Nice to meet you,” he says. “I’m sorry to interrupt your game.”

“That’s okay,” says Mom. “We were just about to take a break.”

“We were?” asks my father, no doubt disappointed that his plans for global domination keep getting interrupted.

“We were,” she says, “so that you and I could head over to the Islander and get some ice cream.”

“That’s right,” he replies, suddenly pleased. “We absolutely were going to get some ice cream.”

Without missing a beat Mom picks up her purse and beelines for the door with Dad right behind her. Just before he leaves, though, he turns around and pulls out his phone to take a picture.

“Dad?” I say, suddenly worried. “What are you doing?”

He takes a picture of the game board and gives me a look. “Just in case someone accidentally ‘bumps’ into the table while I’m gone, I want to make sure we can put all the pieces back where they’re supposed to be.”

Rather than reply, I just shake my head and let them leave.

“I really am sorry to just drop in like this,” Ben says once they’re gone. “But I don’t know your phone number and I need to ask a favor.”

“Sure,” I say, trying to sound confident and cool, neither of which remotely describes my current state of being. “But if you didn’t know my phone number, how’d you figure out where I live?”

“I stopped by the shop to see if you were working, and one of your friends was there. She told me how to find you.”

“Would that be the really tall one?”

“No, it was the one who says I wear the wrong clothes on the beach.”

I cringe. “You heard that.”

“She has the kind of voice that carries,” he says. “But it’s okay. It didn’t hurt my feelings or anything. I really don’t know what to wear on the beach. And I did think that the boogie board was a surfboard.”

“I know.”

“And I call things by the wrong name.”

“Yeah.”

“If I’m going to spend the summer here, I don’t want to feel like I’m an alien from some far off planet.”

“Okay, but what’s the favor?”

“Can you teach me all that stuff? Can you teach me what to wear? Where to go? How to tell the difference between a surfboard and a boogie board?”

“Sure,” I say. “I’d be happy to.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. When’s your next day off?”

“Saturday,” he says.

“Perfect,” I tell him. “I’m off this Saturday too. Why don’t we meet here at eleven?”

There’s that smile, and then he says the most remarkable thing of all.

“It’s a date.”

On Saturday morning I wake up early to surf the stretch of beach closest to my house. The waves are better down by the pier, but I’m not really looking for a workout. I just want to clear my mind and have a chill start to the day.

As I paddle out I keep thinking about something that Nicole said to me last night. She came over to the house to hang out and, big shocker, talk turned to Ben. Considering our mutual cluelessness about boys, it was pretty much a blind-leading-the-blind conversation. That is, until she said, “The girl you are on a surfboard is the girl you have to be with him.”

At first I laughed at the whole profound quality of it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was on to something. My problem is that the girl I am on a surfboard has literally been surfing longer than she’s been walking, while the girl I am with boys has barely taken baby steps. I have no idea how to convert one into the other.

I try to figure it out as I sit on the board, dangling my legs in the water. Unfortunately, my brainstorming session is as flat as the surf. This morning the ocean looks like a lake, and after fifteen minutes with little more than a ripple, I decide to call it a day. But just as I start to bail, the surf gods surprise me with a sudden gift. I turn to take one last look and see a swell forming in the distance. It’s going to be big and it’s all for me.

My board is already lined up perfectly, so all I have to do is lie flat on my belly and start paddling. I go slowly at first and then pick up the pace when it gets close. As I feel the wave come up beneath me, I try to study my technique. Maybe it’s as simple as Nicole said, and all I have to do is look for hints of how I am on the surfboard to figure out how I should be with Ben.

I feel a rush as the wave catches the board, and I get up on my feet. I analyze every detail—the face of the wave, the placement of my feet, and the way my hand reaches back toward the white water breaking off the crest. I adjust my weight to test my center of gravity and bend my knees to lower my butt closer to the deck. I study everything… for about three seconds.

Then I pearl.

Pearling is what you call it when the nose of your board digs under the water and throws you flying over the front. This particular one is a textbook example, and before I even realize what’s happening, I slam face-first into the water. It’s more disorienting than scary. One moment I’m riding a wave and the next I’m getting slapped around by Mother Nature. When I’m underwater it feels like a weird combination of slow motion and superspeed as the force of the wave pushes me down from the surface.

I get kicked around for a few seconds until it passes over me. Then I wade up to the tide line and plop down on the sand to catch my breath. The back of my shoulder stings where it scraped against some shells, and there’s a dull throb around my ankle because it got yanked by the tether line attached to the surfboard. But overall my body isn’t hurt nearly as much as my pride.

I’m not embarrassed because I wiped out. Everybody does that. It’s just that I did it like some newbie trying to catch her first wave. I’m not even sure what went wrong. Since I was so carefully analyzing each step, you’d think I’d be able to figure it out. But as I run through my mental checklist, it seems like I was doing everything right.

That’s when it hits me.

The reason I pearled is because I was analyzing each step. I was thinking too much. Normally I don’t think at all. I just do it. I mean, you can’t fight a wave; you can only go where it takes you. Maybe boys are the same way. Instead of analyzing every little detail and looking for signals with Ben, I should just see where it takes me. I should just be myself.

Okay, so this might not be the most original realization, but it sure is new for me. Normally when I’m around guys, I’m trying to be anyone but me. But I remind myself that Ben’s the one who suggested hanging out today and that he’s the one who used the phrase “It’s a date.” He might actually be into me.

That thought gives me a rare burst of confidence as I walk home with my board under my arm. Earlier I was worried about how the day would unfold, but now I’m thinking it might work out fine. Of course, that could just be because I bumped my head pretty bad when I was underwater, but I’m going to go with it.

It also helps that I’ve eliminated wardrobe drama this time. Unlike the day when I taught the campers, I don’t need to spend time obsessing about what I should wear. Nicole and I took care of that last night. I picked out a loose pink halter to wear over the top of my bathing suit and a pair of old denim shorts that seem cool but not in a trying too hard sort of way.

As I look at myself in the mirror I feel… cautiously optimistic. I also feel a throbbing in my shoulder. I twist to see if there’s any noticeable swelling but stop when I hear footsteps on the porch. My room’s in the front of the house, which means I’m always the first to know when someone’s coming to the door. It sucks when you’re trying to sleep in on a Saturday morning, but it’s great at times like this, when you want to make sure you’re the one answering it instead of your parents.

I move out into the hall and wait for Ben to knock.

And I wait.

And I wait.

Through the door I can hear the sounds of deep breathing and loud footsteps walking from one side of the porch to the other. It sounds like he’s panting and pacing, which doesn’t really make sense. It’s not like he can be nervous about hanging out with me. Or can he be?

I peek through the window and can’t believe my eyes.

“Dad!” I exclaim as I fling the door open.

My father’s doing huge lunges across the porch and checking his pulse by holding three fingers against his wrist. He’s also wearing running shorts that are a little too short for my comfort level, a sweat-covered T-shirt, and a smiley face bandanna. I did not make that last part up. He’s actually wearing a smiley face bandanna.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Cooling down,” he says between deep breaths. “At my age you’ve got to stretch to keep from tightening up.”

I think about adding a tip that at his age he should also rethink the concept of short-shorts, but there’s not time. I check my watch and it’s exactly eleven o’clock. Ben’s going to be here any second.

“Do you have to stretch here?” I ask.

“I guess I could do it in front of the Bakers’ house, but I think that would look a little strange.”

“Spoiler alert: It looks strange anywhere,” I say as I scan the neighborhood for Ben. “And why are you wearing a bandanna with a smiley face? Did you lose a bet?”

Dad stops for a moment and gives me a confused look. “Is there something going on that I should know about?”

“No, there most definitely is not,” I say. “Now, would you please get inside before you ruin it?”

At first he’s completely baffled, but then a look of comprehension comes over him.

“Too late.” He nods down the block to where Ben is walking toward our house. “I think I figured out why you’re stressed. His name is Ben, right?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Howdy, Ben!” he calls out.

Howdy? Seriously? When did we become cowboys?

“Howdy, Mr. Lucas,” Ben says as he reaches the walkway. “Hi, Izzy.”

“Hi,” I respond, trying to smile at him while simultaneously giving my dad the cue to disappear.

Dad doesn’t seem to get the hint, because he’s continuing to stretch and has now moved on from lunges to deep knee bends.

“Just ignore me,” he says, as if that were possible. “I have a whole stretching routine I have to do after I run.”

“Me too,” Ben says. “It drives my teammates crazy.”

“Teammates?” my dad says.

“I run cross-country at my school.”

“What a small world!” Dad says. “I coach cross-country at PB High.”

Do you ever wish that life were like a DVR? I do. That way I could hit pause and rewind this in hopes of it playing out a different way.

“We should run together,” Dad suggests.

“That would be great,” Ben replies. “I signed up for a 10K next month and I need to train for it.”

“The Rocket Run?”

“That’s it.”

“I’m running it too,” my dad says. “We can train together and then keep each other company during the race.”

I mean, this is seriously not how I had envisioned the day unfolding. But just when I think it can’t get any worse, Ben says three words that break my heart.

“It’s a date.”

When he said it to me about our day together, I took it to mean that it was an actual date. But now I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just something he says.

Finally Dad finishes stretching and asks, “So what do you two have planned for today?”

“A major makeover,” Ben says. “Izzy’s going to teach me the ways of Pearl Beach. She’s going to help me blend in with the natives.”

I am totally ready for Dad to finish me off with some joke like “How would she know?” But that’s not what he says.

“So you’re a runner… and you’re smart,” he says. “That’s a good combination. You guys have fun.”

It may sound hokey, but in person, in the moment, it’s sweet. Once Dad is inside, Ben turns to me and rubs his hands together in anticipation.

“So where do we begin?”

“That depends,” I reply. “How much of a transformation are you looking for?”

“Total witness relocation program,” he says. “Wardrobe, attitude, everything.”

“Well, then,” I say with a smile, “we better get some ice cream.”

The Islander has been serving ice cream on the boardwalk for as long as there has been a boardwalk. It has entrances on both the beach and street sides, and there is a double counter in the middle of the shop that faces each way. This counter looks like an island, which is how the shop got its name. But because PB actually is an island, locals co-opted it and they like to wear the shop’s “Islander” T-shirts as a sign of civic pride.

I order my usual, a waffle cone with two scoops of mint chocolate chip, and Ben gets a junior sundae with hot fudge and whipped cream on rocky road. There is a row of booths against the wall, and we take the one in the middle.

“I’m always up for dessert,” he says. “But I don’t see how a sundae is going to give me insight into Pearl Beach. You know, we actually have ice cream back home in Wisconsin. That whole ‘America’s Dairy Land’ thing isn’t just for the license plates.”

“We’re not here because of the ice cream,” I say.

I turn sideways so that my back is pressed against the wall and stretch my legs out on my side of the booth. He gets the hint and does likewise. Now we’re looking right at the counter.

“We’re here for the view,” I explain.

“What’s so special about a view of an ice cream counter?”

“There are two sides to Pearl Beach,” I tell him. “The tourist side and the local side. You can’t have one without the other. We need the tourists and the tourists need us.”

“Okay,” he says. “That makes sense.”

“But our beach and their beach are different,” I say. “They’re coming here for something they’ve seen in movies and on postcards. It’s kind of like the theme park version and not the real one.”

“You’re starting to lose me.”

“I’ll give you an example. Have you been to the candy shop down by the arcade?” I ask. “The one with the big mixer machines that twist taffy?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I went in there when I was handing out posters. It’s really cool.”

“Did they offer you a sample of the saltwater taffy?”

“Two,” he says with a guilty smile. “They were delicious.”

“Do you know why they call it saltwater taffy?”

He looks at me like it’s a trick question. “Because it’s made with salt water?”

“No,” I say. “It’s just regular taffy made with fresh water.”

“Then why do they call it that?”

“Because over a hundred years ago there was a candy shop on a boardwalk in New Jersey that got flooded in a storm. All the taffy got seawater on it, so the man at the counter joked that it was now ‘saltwater’ taffy. He was joking, but when people heard about it, they started buying it up. They figured saltwater taffy must be something that you can only get at the beach. And from that point on all boardwalks are expected to have saltwater taffy.”

“So you’re saying that the beach is full of con artists taking advantage of tourists?”

“Hardly,” I reply. “You like the taffy. It’s delicious. And people expect it to be here. They want to come to the beach and see the pretty candy being made in the big machines. They want to buy a decorative box of it to give to their grandma. There’s nothing wrong with that. But while tourists think of it as something to do with the beach, we think of it as something to do with tourists. It’s fake. That’s true of almost everything on the boardwalk.”

“So the locals don’t come down here?” he asks.

“Not much. Some of the kids do when they’re scamming for a quick summer vacation romance, but for the most part, the locals only come down here for two things: work and…”

“Ice cream,” he says, putting it together.

I nod.

“The Islander is just that good. Now, if you look toward the boardwalk entrance, most of the people you’ll see coming off the beach are tourists. But if you look toward Ocean Ave., you’ll see the locals. This table is where the worlds collide. It is the perfect place to study them side by side and see how they’re different.”

Ben takes it all in and understands what I’m talking about.

“Okay,” he says, turning toward me. “This is kind of brilliant.”

“And don’t forget the ice cream is amazing.”

He takes a spoonful and nods his agreement. “Yes, it is.”

We spend a half hour people watching, and Ben quickly picks up on some of the basic differences. He starts off with the obvious ones, like clothes and sunburns, but eventually starts to pick up on the more subtle things, like attitude.

“All right,” he says. “I get the thing about the shoes and socks.”

“Sophie will be so relieved.”

“But here’s one thing I don’t get.” He nods toward the beach side. “All of these people are on vacation.” Then he nods to the street side and continues. “But these people all seem more relaxed.”

I couldn’t be prouder. This was the reason we started here.

“You’ve got it,” I say as I stand up. “You’ve figured out step one. That means it’s time to move on.”

I start walking out toward the boardwalk and he follows me.

“But I haven’t figured out anything,” he says. “I just noticed the difference. I don’t know why they’re different.”

We keep talking as we snake our way through the clumps of people on the boardwalk. “You don’t have to know why. You just have to know that it’s true. We all have different theories on why.”

“Really? What’s yours?”

“My theory is unimportant,” I tell him.

“Maybe so,” he says. “But I want to hear it anyway. I don’t just want to figure out what the beach is about.”

“What do you mean?”

He looks at me. “I’d like to figure you out too. I find you… intriguing.”

I worry that this makes me blush, so I look down as I smile.

“Okay,” I say. “Come over here and look out at the ocean.”

We walk over to the railing that overlooks the water.

“I think it’s because tourists are like waves. But maybe that’s just me. I always think everything is somehow related to surfing.”

“How are tourists like waves?”

“When a wave comes at the beach it looks like the water is coming toward the land.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Not really. It’s mostly an optical illusion. The wave is a force of energy that travels through the water and makes it rise and fall. It also pitches forward and falls back a little, but the actual seawater basically stays in the same place. And once the wave is gone, the water is all back where it started. Tourists do the same thing. They come rushing toward town and it’s all so very exciting, but they’re not here for long. That means they have to squeeze everything into that short period of time. They’re so rushed that they’re willing to go into a gift shop and buy shells with real money when all they have to do is walk along the beach and pick them up for free. That’s loony tunes. So to me they’re like waves that come crashing on the shore, and we’re like the water. They have fun. They rise and fall. But it’s not relaxing. And once they’re gone, we go back to normal, like nothing ever happened.”

“That’s… deep,” he says, taking it all in. “Are you always so philosophical?”

“Hardly. I just spend a lot of time thinking about waves.”

“Okay, so what’s our next stop?”

“Next we are going behind enemy lines,” I say as we start walking down the boardwalk again. “But you have to promise me that under no circumstances will you buy anything while we’re there.”

“If it’s another ice cream shop, I might not be able to resist. That junior sundae just triggered the hunger without fully satisfying it.”

“It has nothing to do with food, but I mean it. You have to promise.”

“All right, I promise not to buy anything,” he says. “But where am I not buying anything?”

Just saying the name brings a scowl to my face. “Surf City.”

Surf City is huge. It’s a surf shop on steroids. And like steroids, everything about it is phony, especially the employees. Their egos are big, their tank tops are small, and their knowledge of surfing is comically inept. Take for example the girl at the door who greets us in Hawaiian. You know, because even though we’re five thousand miles away from Hawaii, it just sounds so surfy.

“Mahalo!”

Of course she has no idea that mahalo means “thank you” and not “hello.”

“Ma-hello to you, too,” I say back, with a tinge of snark as I shake my head.

I lead Ben up to a second-floor landing so we can fully survey the landscape. The lower level is filled with swimwear, clothing, and accessories while the upper has surfboards in every color of the rainbow. Every inch of it’s gleaming, and everywhere you look there’s another walking, talking Malibu Barbie.

“Welcome to the belly of the beast,” I say as I look out over it. “Pure evil.”

Ben takes it all in for a second and turns to me. I can tell he’s conflicted about something but doesn’t know how to say it.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. “Spit it out.”

“You love surfing, right?”

“More than you know.”

He looks out across the store again and then back at me. “Then why isn’t this your favorite place on earth? I mean, the name says it all. This is Surf City.”

I don’t reply with words so much as I emit a low growl.

“Okay, let me rephrase that,” he says. “I know this place is like the worst place in the world, but since I’m just a cheesehead from Wisconsin, could you help me develop the right vocabulary to fully describe how awful it is?”

“I’d be happy to. First of all, it’s owned by a faceless corporation and only exists to make money. It just happens to be that they make it selling surfboards. There’s no love of the ocean or surfing in its DNA. I mean, just look at the boards. They’re arranged by color, like that’s the most important feature. It’s like if you went into a bookstore and all the books were arranged according to how many pages they had.

“No one’s concerned about matching customers with the right one. They just want you to buy any of them. And to be honest, the boards are mostly here to create an artificial atmosphere so they can sell you overpriced swimsuits, Hawaiian shirts, and sunglasses. Or, best of all, a bunch of Surf City T-shirts with their logo everywhere so you can go back home and become a human billboard as you tell everyone about your ‘radical adventure hanging ten and riding gnarly waves.’?”

When I reach the end of my rant, I realize that it was a little more passionate than I had intended. But Ben takes it all in stride and makes a joke out of it.

“So, you’re saying you don’t like it?”

“Yes,” I say with a laugh. “I’m saying I don’t like it. But it’s not about what I like or don’t like. It’s about showing you how to blend in among the locals. And if you look around, you’ll notice that there aren’t any here. Only tourists. See the fanny packs and the sunburns?”

“And the white socks.”

“Pulled all the way up,” I add, shaking my head.

“I wish you told me yesterday before I went and bought all those Surf City T-shirts.”

He’s joking, but I still give him my “don’t mess with me” look. And, while I don’t like to brag, my “don’t mess with me” look is quite impressive.

“But you said that they’re evil. How is any of this more evil than selling saltwater taffy? That’s just as fake and you’re okay with it.”

“Seven dollars for a decorative gift box of candy is a lot different from seven hundred for a longboard,” I say.

“Seven hundred dollars?” he says with a comical laugh. “You can’t be serious.”

“Take a look.”

We walk over to a row of blue longboards, and he looks at the price tags. He shakes his head in disbelief.

“And the worst part isn’t even the money,” I say. “This is way too much surfboard for a beginner. But they’ll never tell you that. They’ll just let you walk out the store and totally bomb in the water. They’d never tell you that you can get a used fish for about seventy-five bucks that’s much better to learn on.”

“A used fish?”

“It’s a type of surfboard,” I say. “But we’ll save that lesson for later. We’re still taking baby steps.”

He laughs and we start to leave (escape?) when we pass the store’s Wall of Fame. It features action photos of some of the surfers who make up the Surf City Surf Team and a display case full of their trophies.

“Impressive,” says Ben.

“Yeah. As much as I hate to admit it, their team is amazing,” I concede. “They win most of the tournaments in the state.”

“Like King of the Beach?” he says, referring to the annual Pearl Beach tournament.

“How’d you know about King of the Beach?” I ask.

“It’s sponsored by Parks and Recreation,” he says. “I will be working there later this summer.”

“Surf City has won both trophies,” I say. “That one’s for the top team and that one’s for the grand champion. Bailey Kossoff has won the grand champion trophy two years in a row.”

“Is he a local guy?”

I shake my head. “No. They sponsor guys from around the state. That’s how they make sure to win.”

“Does Surf Sisters have a team?” he asks.

I shake my head. “There’s no money for it. These guys are like the New York Yankees. They can sign anyone who’s really good.”

“I bet they can’t sign you.”

“Well, no, they couldn’t, but since I don’t surf in contests, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

“Why don’t you?”

“It’s just not my thing,” I say. “I like to keep my surfing between me and the ocean. No spectators, no judges.”

He raises a skeptical eyebrow but lets the topic slide.

So far the day seems to be going great. I still don’t have any idea if he’s into me or if he’s just looking for a friend, but I feel more comfortable with Ben than I’ve ever felt with a guy. He laughs at my jokes, and when I try to explain why I think tourists are like waves and Surf City is evil, he doesn’t look at me like I’m a lunatic or something. But now it’s time for the big test.

Now we’re going to Surf Sisters.

Surf City is owned by an evil, faceless corporation,” he says as we walk along Ocean Ave. “But you said there’s actually a pair of sisters who owns Surf Sisters, right?”

“Mickey and Mo. They’re the best.”

“Mickey and Mo sound more like surf brothers than sisters.”

“That’s because the guys they used to beat in all the surf contests thirty years ago were too embarrassed to say they were getting waxed by Michelle and Maureen.”

“So, unlike you, they were willing to compete in contests?”

I give him a look, and he holds up his hands in surrender.

“Anyway,” I say, changing the subject back, “their dad was a legendary lifeguard and surfer.”

“Steady Eddie,” he says.

“That’s right, Steady Eddie. Lifeguarding doesn’t pay much, so he started up Steady Eddie’s Surf School to give lessons to people staying at the hotels along the boardwalk. Mickey and Mo’s mother wasn’t in the picture, so they were always part of the deal. They were the first girls in this area to make names for themselves as surfers, and they were determined to make sure it was easier for the next generation.”

“Which is why they opened the shop, right?”

“It just seemed like the logical next step. They turned their house into a shop, and when Steady Eddie passed away, they kept the surf school going to honor his memory. It’s part business, part civic duty, part family memorial.”

“So the shop was actually the house where they grew up,” he says. “Okay, I see why that beats some corporate megastore.”

“I was hoping you would.”

Sophie and Nicole are both working today, but they’ve sworn to be on their best behavior when we arrive. Sophie’s on register while Nicole’s walking around making sure all the customers are finding what they’re looking for. Both seem to be keeping an eye on the door as we enter.

Even though they saw Ben when he first came to the shop and again when he was with the campers, they’ve never officially met him, so I take care of the introductions.

“Ben, meet Sophie and Nicole,” I say. “Guys, this is Ben.”

They exchange hellos, and when I see Sophie about to talk, I panic for a millisecond that she might revert to her normal self and say something outlandish just to see how he reacts. But she keeps her promise to behave.

“What brings you to the shop today, Ben?” she asks.

“I want to get some new shoes and socks to wear on the beach,” he says. “Maybe knee-high socks and something in a boot. Is there such a thing as a beach boot?”

The girls both laugh, and suddenly any potential awkwardness is gone.

“Actually,” he continues, “I’m getting some hard-core beach tutoring from Izzy, and I think that means I need some wardrobe adjustments.”

“Looking for anything in particular?” asks Nicole.

“I’m guessing I need some new trunks.”

They both look at each other in total confusion.

“Board shorts,” I say, translating. “They speak a different version of English in Wisconsin.”

They laugh some more, but Ben doesn’t seem to mind.

“You don’t say ‘trunks’ either?” asks Ben. “It’s like ‘pop’ all over again.”

Because the shop is a converted house, it has a homey feel that’s very different from Surf City. The staff even picked up Mickey and Mo’s habit of referring to the different rooms by what they once were. That’s why surfboards are in the garage, women’s swimwear is in the family room, and accessories are in the kitchen, where the counter and shelf space are perfect for displaying everything from sunblock and sunglasses to key chains and waterproof wallets.

“We’re going to the dining room,” I tell the girls.

“We’re eating again?” Ben asks.

“No,” I tell him. “The dining room is where we put everything that’s on sale.”

“That’s good,” he says. “Despite its obvious glamour and prestige, the Parks and Recreation Department doesn’t pay particularly well.”

“Don’t worry,” says Sophie. “We’ve all got employee discounts.”

“Yeah,” adds Nicole. “We’ll take care of you.”

I smile because this makes me think that he’s passed his first test with them. This is confirmed about fifteen minutes later when Ben carries an armful of clothing into a fitting room and Sophie and Nicole rush over to me like football players about to tackle a quarterback.

“We approve,” Sophie says with a firm whisper.

“Definitely,” adds Nicole. “By the way, you look really cute today.”

“Thank you.”

“You owe me so bad,” Sophie adds. “Not only am I the one who made you eat with him, but I’m also the one who swapped shifts with you for the rest of the summer. Don’t forget about that.”

“I already paid you back. Don’t forget who bought your ticket at the movie.”

“I think this is worth more than a movie. This deserves—”

She’s interrupted when Ben comes out of the fitting room wearing a pair of navy blue board shorts. They look great, but we’re all a little distracted by the fact that he’s shirtless and—surprise, surprise—his muscles and abs come fully loaded. (Thank you, cross-country.) The three of us are literally speechless, a reaction that he mistakes for disapproval.

“They don’t look good?” he asks, pointing at the shorts.

“No,” I say with a cough. “They look… great.”

“Yeah,” Sophie adds. “Nice trunks.”

The mention of trunks makes him smile, unleashing the dimples again. “I know, I know. I promise I’ll get the hang of it all.”

He is totally oblivious to his current overall hotness factor, which only makes him that much more appealing. He goes back into the fitting room, and the others turn to me and we’re speechless again.

“She’s right,” Nicole finally says. “That’s worth way more than a movie.”

It takes everything we’ve got not to bust out laughing. I can honestly say I have never felt the way I feel at this particular moment. I know it sounds pathetic, but it’s making me a bit dizzy. I’m having trouble processing the whole thing.

By the time we’re done, he’s picked up another pair of board shorts, two Surf Sisters T-shirts, and a pair of inexpensive but comfortable flip-flops.

“Give us some catwalk action,” Sophie says. “Let’s see how it plays.”

Ben goes along with this and walks back and forth in front of the register, accenting it with some goofy fashion poses. When he’s done, he turns to the three of us and asks, “So what do you think?”

“I’d believe he was an islander,” says Nicole.

“It won’t be official until he loses the tan line from his socks,” adds Sophie. “But he’s definitely getting there.”

“I can hardly believe it,” I say.

He takes it to mean that I can’t believe how well he’s got the look down. And while that’s true, it also means that I can’t believe this is happening to me. The cynic in me is waiting for the bubble to burst.

After we leave the shop, we head down to the beach and walk barefoot along the waterline. I point out some shells and a shark’s tooth, but for the moment the lessons are over. I just want to enjoy… this.

Whatever “this” is.

It is the most romantic moment in my life, which is a bit of a problem because for all I know I’m just his shopping buddy. I mean, he really seems to like me and we’ve spent the day together, but I don’t know how to know for sure. It would be great if he held my hand as we walk along the beach, but his hands are full because he’s carrying two Surf Sisters shopping bags.

I decide to add a little stop.

“Let me teach you something,” I say. “Stop, look out at the water, and wiggle your feet like this.”

I wiggle my feet side to side and they start to sink into the wet sand. He does the same, and we both settle in about ankle deep.

“I like it,” he says.

“It’s cool, isn’t it?” I reply. “I always love to do that when I’m walking along the water’s edge.”

We spend a quiet moment looking out over the ocean. It’s peaceful and nice, but inside my head I’m going a million miles a minute. Finally I snap and blurt out, “So, do you have a girlfriend back home in Wisconsin?”

It is very unsmooth and made worse by the fact that it is not followed with a quick denial. His face looks a little pained, and I wish I could erase the question.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s none of my business.”

“I don’t mind,” he says. “I don’t have a girlfriend… anymore. I did for a long time. For over a year. But we broke up during spring break.”

That sounds pretty recent considering they dated for so long. I should stop asking questions, but I can’t help myself. “Did you break up because you were coming here for the summer and she didn’t want to try long distance?”

“That may have been part of it,” he says. “But there were a bunch of little things. I think a lot of it has to do with my parents. I mean, I always thought they were a perfect couple, happy and in love with each other. Then it turned out that they weren’t. It made me realize that things aren’t always how they seem. I started to question what was going on with Beth and me, and eventually I decided that we weren’t right for each other either.”

Beth and Ben. Ugh. They even sound perfect together.

“I’m sorry. It really isn’t any of my business.”

“No, it’s okay,” he says. “Actually, it’s kind of nice to have someone I can talk to about it. Things were so crazy at home, I didn’t even tell my parents until a month after it happened. And my guy friends were useless. They don’t usually have much to offer when it comes to relationships.”

I have killed the mood and totally lost control of this conversation. I have done the boy-girl version of pearling and it’s my own fault. Yet I can’t seem to make myself pull out of it. I just have to know whom I’m competing with.

“What’s Beth like? I bet she’s pretty.”

“She’s really pretty,” he says, in an automatic way that I could never imagine a guy saying in reference to me. “And smart. And funny. Everyone thought we were perfect together.”

I would like to go on the record here and declare that I completely hate Beth.

“But that’s history,” he says with a trace of melancholy. “She’s in Wisconsin and I’m in Florida.”

Izzy Lucas, door prize.

I really have no idea what to say next, so I just stand there and try to imagine how I can possibly compete with the girl he just described.

“It’s easy to talk to you,” he continues. “You’re the kind of girl I can just be myself with. That’s nice.”

And the final verdict is in.

“Easy to talk to,” “kind of girl,” and “nice” are all codes I know how to decipher. I’m the confidante, the girl he feels comfortable talking to about the girl he really likes. Unfortunately, this falls into the category of “been here, done this.” My heart feels like it’s sinking into my stomach just like my feet sank into the sand.

That’s it?” an exasperated Sophie exclaims when I finish recapping my day with Ben. “That’s the end of the story?”

“That’s it,” I say.

We’re sitting in a booth at Mama Tacos sharing a plate of nachos.

“You bailed too early,” she says.

“I hung in there as long as I could,” I reply.

Nicole has an order of chips and guacamole and slides into the booth next to me.

“I still think he’s totally into you,” Sophie says.

“He sees me the way every guy sees me,” I say. “As the one who makes for a really good friend and has a great personality. Besides, I think his parents getting divorced has turned him against the whole concept.”

“The concept of what? Marriage?” Sophie asks. “I’m not saying he wants to settle down for life, but I think he’s interested. And if he is spooked because of what’s going on with his parents, then you’re going to have to be superbrave like my girl Nicole over here.”

She nods toward Nicole right as she chomps down on a huge guac-and-salsa-covered chip.

“What makes Nicole courageous?” Then it hits me. “Wait a second—did you talk to Cody?”

Nicole grins and nods as she finishes the chip.

“I want details!” I say.

“It’s not that big a deal,” she says.

“Liar, liar, skinny jeans on fire,” says Sophie. “It’s a huge deal.”

“Tell me,” I say. “What finally inspired you to break out of your years-long silence?”

She looks me right in the eye and says, “You.”

“How’s that?”

“I’ve never seen you as happy as you looked with Ben,” she says. “I thought maybe that could happen for me. So I just called him up and asked him if he wanted to catch a movie. Just like that. No plan. No script. No stalking.”

My cheeks hurt from how much I’m smiling. “Oh my God! What did he say?”

She almost blushes at the answer. “Yes.”

I really am happy for Nicole. She has liked Cody forever, and it is amazing that she had the courage to ask him out. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a part of me was dying inside. I inspired her because I looked so happy, but the happiness was all based on hope. Not reality. I was happy because I didn’t know better, and that makes me feel like some tourist who just bought a surfboard for seven hundred dollars.

Over the next two weeks I see Ben twice for summer camp. I’m polite, but I try to keep the conversation to a minimum. I just can’t shake the sting of the conversation we had. Normally, I don’t mind being the confidante, but with Ben it’s different. I need more.

At the surfing class he comes up to me before we stretch and asks, “Do you think we can do another lesson this week? I still feel like a fish out of water around here.”

I shrug and tell him, “It’s hard to say. I’ve got a lot going on with my parents this week.”

“Okay,” he replies, sounding a little disappointed. “Maybe next week.”

“Sure, we’ll see.”

I continue using my evasive skills the next week, however, and when he makes a joke about calling something by the wrong name, I just give a halfhearted laugh.

“Right. That’s funny.”

I feel like a total drama queen about it, but it’s just so hard. I like him so much and am utterly embarrassed by my inability to navigate these waters. At the end of the lesson I almost go over to him to talk, but I notice that he’s talking to Kayla and I hear her invite him to a party. I’ve lived here my whole life and have never been invited to one of the cool-kid parties. I take it as the final sign that we belong in different circles and that I should just move along.

That’s what I’m thinking about on the last day of June as I paddle out on my board. It’s early and beautiful and I am safe here, in my special place, with no one around to get in the way. These waters I can navigate perfectly.

The waves are great and it is liberating to ride them one after another. It’s like the surf gods are trying to make up for my heartbreak. My last ride in is perfect, and when it finally dies out, all I have to do is step off the board into the shallow water. I am fully relaxed.

And then I hear clapping.

“I knew you were good, but I didn’t know you were that good.”

I look up at the beach and see Ben sitting there. He stands up, and I have no idea how long he’s been watching me.

“I really think you should compete in some of these contests,” he continues. “I know it’s not your thing but… wow.”

“How long were you there?”

“For about forty-five minutes,” he says.

How did I not see him there? I wonder as I walk up toward him.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’ve got seventy-five dollars,” he replies, holding up his wallet. “I want to learn how to surf. I thought you might help me get—what did you call it—a used fish? Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “That’s what it’s called.”

“Great. Where do we find one?”

“You could check online or I can ask around at the shop to see if anyone knows of one for sale.”

He walks right up to me and stops. “Did I do something wrong?” he asks. “Because if I did, I’m sorry.”

“No,” I say curtly. “You’re perfect.”

“Then why are you avoiding me? I thought you were going to teach me about the beach. I don’t want to look online for a surfboard. I want you to help me find one. I want you to teach me how to surf. I want to hang out with you.”

I close my eyes tightly and can feel the burn of the salt water. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because… I’m busy. I’ve got work… and—”

“I’ll work around your schedule,” he offers. “Besides… I thought we were friends.”

“?‘Friends,’?” I say. “Why does that sound so impersonal? Friends.”

“I take my friendships very seriously,” he replies.

“Of course you do,” I say. “Friends are the kind of people you talk to about other girls, right?”

“Is that what this is about? I’m sorry I talked to you about Beth,” he says. “But if you remember, you were the one who asked me about her. I never would have brought her up, but you asked and I’m not going to lie to you.”

“And what about your new friends, like Kayla?” I ask. “I heard her invite you to a party. Did you go?”

“Yes,” he says. “For about thirty minutes, just to be polite.”

“Is that what this is?” I ask. “You’re being polite?”

“No, this is me trying to figure out why you keep avoiding me. I don’t understand.”

“I know,” I say. “It doesn’t make any sense. I’m really sorry, but I have to head back home so I can go to work. I’m opening the shop today.”

Luckily I’m still dripping wet from the ocean, so he can’t tell that there are tears mixed in with the water on my face. I force a smile and start to walk past him toward my street.

“I knew it was a boogie board,” he blurts out.

“What?”

“When you held it up at camp. I knew it was a boogie board. But I always give a wrong answer so that the kids don’t feel bad if they don’t know something.”

“Then why did you act like you didn’t know later on?”

“I was flustered. I wanted to have an excuse to talk to you,” he says. “I figured if I looked pathetic enough, you might feel sorry for me and help.”

“You were flustered?” I say. “Because of me?”

“Wasn’t it obvious?”

“No. I’m not very good at picking up signs.”

He turns right to me and says, “Let’s see if you can pick up on this one.”

Even though I’m dripping wet and carrying a surfboard, he wraps one arm around my waist and the other around my shoulder and kisses me. To say the least, I’m caught off guard, but I drop my surfboard and start to kiss him back.

It is the first kiss of my life, and on a scale of one to ten I’d have to rate it at least a fifteen. I know I don’t have much to go on, but I have spent a great deal of time thinking about it and it far exceeds my wildest hopes.

There’s a cool breeze coming off the water, the sky is bursting with color and light, and my feet sink into the sand as I lose myself in his lips. I feel like I have caught the longest, sweetest wave, and I want to ride it for as long as possible before it crashes against the shore.

About The Author

Michelle Dalton is an author of swoony summer romances set by the sea.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (May 7, 2024)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665953153
  • Grades: 7 and up
  • Ages: 12 - 99

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