Act I: Scene 1
I was five years old the night stars fell from the sky. They tore loose somehow and came down like rain. I remember the heavy, dull sound of them hitting the water.
I'm watching-waiting for them to do that act again-but tonight they stay pinned to the vast blackness above us. Where they're supposed to be. Which is more than I can say for us, because we're supposed to be in our cabins. Curfew was like an hour ago.
But here we are on the beach.
The salt hangs heavy in the air. It prickles my skin.
Burns my lips.
Tickles my memory.
I think the girl's name is Viv. The one with her arm around me. We're cabinmates. She has the bunk across from mine, and we are perfect opposites. My hair is the color of ice. More white than blonde. It falls just below my shoulders, hanging straight and limp in the dampness, but Viv's inky curls tumble all the way down her back. Like laughter. Our eyes are almost the same shade of green, but hers are lined in that sexy cat-eye style I can never seem to master. She's swaying back and forth, and she pauses to whisper in my ear. Then she laughs, throaty and low. And I laugh, too. Because Viv is the kind of girl you want to laugh with. The truth is, I didn't catch what she said. Her words were lost to the crash of the waves. The cresting swell of voices all around us.
"Avril!" she shouts. "I'll be right back! I gotta pee!" And that I hear, so I nod and take a deep breath. I'm grateful for a few seconds alone in the crowd. A little time to just stand here and take it all in. This is why I came down to the beach tonight. I thought about skipping the party, but I had to be here. In this place. Something inside me wouldn't wait-couldn't wait-for morning.
I've always been drawn to the water. Even from landlocked North Texas, I've felt the pull of the tides. Craved the brokenness of the coastline. And now, finally, here I am.
Here I am again.
There are so many people, though. And I'm not really great with big groups.
Or small groups.
Or people in general.
I haven't met the tall girl writing her initials in the sand by the fire. Or the shaggy-haired guy who's sitting beside her, picking out chords on the guitar. Fragments of melody that Viv and I were trying-failing-to sing along to.
I do know the redhead who's walking toward me with a couple of beers. His name is Lex. I met him at dinner, and evidently that makes us besties now.
"Holy shit," he says, and he hands me one of the sweating bottles. "Can you believe we're actually here?" He raises his own half-empty beer in my direction, and his blue eyes come alive with reflected flames. "To the first night of the best summer ever!"
Each year, high school juniors from all over the country apply for a chance to attend the four-week theatre intensive at Whisper Cove. They all want the opportunity to study with Willa Culver. And we made it in-me, my new pal Lex, and everyone else milling around us. This secret after-hours welcoming party makes it official.
Lex is playing with the fringe on a light scarf that's expertly draped around his neck. He's all freckles and gorgeous red-gold hair in the firelight. Barefoot with his jeans rolled up, he looks like a stylish Tom Sawyer, and I suddenly feel plain in my cutoff shorts and concert T-shirt. "You ever been to Connecticut before?" he asks me.
"Once," I tell him. "A long time ago. You?"
"Nope," Lex says. "I've never even seen the ocean before."
I detect a southern drawl, elongated vowels that clink together like ice cubes in a glass of sweet tea, and I remember he told me at dinner that he's from somewhere just outside Nashville, Tennessee. Franklin, I think he said. Or something like that.
"It's not really the ocean," I correct him, even though it makes me an asshole. "It's Long Island Sound."
"Whatever." He rolls his eyes, totally unbothered. "It's basically the ocean. And it's pretty, right?"
He's not wrong about that.
Tonight a full moon hangs huge and low just above a horizon that looks like it's been stitched with golden thread, and below that, waves rise and fall in a shimmer of silvery brilliance. In the distance, silhouetted against the black, a lighthouse is the tent pole holding up an expanse of dark sky.
The view doesn't look real. It reminds me of a storybook I had when I was a kid. Something Dad used to read to me at bedtime. About mermaids.
Or maybe they were pirates.
Lex and I stand there. Staring. Toes buried in the sand.
"Avril! Hey! You decided to come!" I turn to look over my shoulder at the sound of my name, and Jude is making his way toward us with a big grin on his face. He's the program assistant who picked me up at the train station earlier this evening. My flight from Dallas to New York City was delayed, so I had to take a later train out to Connecticut, which meant I was the very last one to arrive. I got here just in time to drop my bags in cabin number one before dinner. "And Alexander," he adds when he sees Lex. "Shit." He snaps his fingers. "Sorry. You said you go by Alex, right?"
Jude is cute. Dark brown skin and big, warm eyes. His hair is shaved short except for a cascade of perfect charcoal-colored ringlets in the front. I see Lex run a hand through his own red hair before he throws a grin back in Jude's direction. "It's just Lex. I go by Lex." He's playing with the fringe on his scarf again.
"Lex." Jude nods. "Got it." And I notice the way his eyes linger on Lex for a second, even though he's talking to me. "I told you the bonfire would be awesome. It's kind of a first night tradition. You get settled in okay?"
"Yep," I tell him. "Like you said. Hilton by the sea."
The temperature has dropped, and I wrap my arms around my chest. I wish I'd grabbed a sweater. I keep forgetting I'm not in Texas anymore. By mid-June, Dallas is already sweltering. Even at night. But here, with the breeze sweeping in off the water, it's chilly.
"Yeah." Jude laughs. "The cabins aren't exactly luxurious." That seems like an understatement. I think of the paper-thin bunk bed mattress and the leaning dressers with their crooked drawers. "But you'll really just be there to sleep anyway. Willa keeps everyone busy." He laughs again. It's an easy sound, and it makes me a little jealous. I wish I could be easy like that. "Oh man, you guys are gonna love Willa. She's a trip. In the best way. You'll meet her before breakfast tomorrow."
"Whoa," Lex mutters under his breath, like he can't quite comprehend it. "Willa fucking Culver."
I knew she'd be here, of course. We all knew she'd be here. But Lex's reaction is still understandable, because Willa Culver is a theatre legend.
"The one and only," Jude tells us. "Y'all get ready, because for the next four weeks, Willa's gonna be your director, your teacher, your boss, your mom, and your best friend all rolled into one."
"You sound like you know the whole drill." Lex gives Jude a flirty little wink. I'm impressed, and I can't help wondering if he's always that brave, or if the beer and the moonlight are making him bold.
"I actually did the intensive last summer," Jude tells him. "But Willa picks someone from each group to come back the next year and help out. Manage rehearsals. Make van runs into town. That kind of thing."
"Did you have fun?" I ask. "Last year."
"Best four weeks of my whole damn life." The way he says it, it's clear he's telling the truth. "And God, I learned so much. That's why I jumped at the chance to come back as a program assistant." Jude looks a little sad all of a sudden. "Man, this month will fly by. So make the most of it." That grin is back. Friendly brown eyes. He pops the top off a beer he's been holding, and I watch him slip the cap into his pocket like a quarter. "That's just a little free advice from someone who's been where you're standing."
"Noted," Lex says, and I'm glad he doesn't wink again. Because that would be overkill.
Viv the dark-haired beauty comes back to the fire. "Avril!" She grabs me by the arm. "Come swim with me!"
"Hey hey!" Jude raises his bottle to greet her like an old friend. "Val, right? From the City of Angels."
Shit. He's right. It's Val. Not Viv.
Valeria from Los Angeles. I remember that now.
And how the hell does Jude know everybody's name? There are like two dozen of us, and he just met us all today.
Val tosses her hair over her shoulder. "Good memory," she says, and I hope like hell I never called her Viv to her face. "Come on, Avril." She's tugging me toward the water. I turn back to Lex and Jude.
"You guys wanna swim?"
"Swim?" Jude laughs and shakes his head. "Oh hell no." He swallows a long swig of the beer he's been holding.
"You scared?" Val teases.
"Me?" Jude lifts his chin and brushes those charcoal-colored curls back off his forehead. "Nah. But listen, California girl, these are not the warm waters of your misspent LA youth." He shivers and jerks his head toward the waves. "The sound is cold. Especially at night."
Val rolls her eyes. She's staring at Lex now. He swallows the last of his beer and shrugs. "I don't have a swimsuit."
Val throws her head back and laughs, but Lex just stands there. Waiting.
"Oh," she says. "You're serious." And she raises one eyebrow. "Who cares? No swimsuit? No problem." She's already stripping off her sweater.
"I'm in," I say, not because Val convinced me, but because that dark water has been tugging on me since I first laid eyes on it. I bend down to plant my half-empty beer bottle in the sand, and I'm rewarded with a huge smile from Val. She grabs my hand and pulls me toward the shoreline.
"Jesus Christ!" I can't help but squeal when the waves lap over my feet. Jude was telling the truth. We don't have water this cold in Texas. Not even in the middle of winter.
"It's fucking freezing," Val hisses under her breath, and she tightens her grip on my hand. She turns to yell back in Lex and Jude's direction. "Come on! It's not that bad!" Then she looks at me, and we both crack up, because it's cold enough to stop your heart.
The guys exchange a skeptical look, but they stick their bottles in the sand, side by side, and follow us down to the water.
"Holy shit!" Lex does a little dance as the sound licks at his toes. "I thought the ocean was supposed to be warm, y'all!"
"Easy, Nashville," Jude tells him with a smirk. "You're thinking of Florida. You see any palm trees here?"
Val lets go of my hand and slips out of her jeans like she's shedding her skin, splashing into the water in just her tank top and underwear. I blink, and she dives beneath the black surface and comes up gasping. "Oh my God! So cold!" Her dark hair stretches even further down her back. Heavy and wet now.
Lex hesitates, but then he strips off his scarf and his T-shirt and tosses them onto the sand like he's throwing down the gauntlet. His skin is baby-smooth and china-pale. Dotted with freckles.
He grabs Jude by the arm and tries to tug him into the waves, and I see so clearly the moment Jude decides to let him get away with it. And the two of them laugh.
Val reaches for me again. A cold hand tight around my wrist.
And just for a second, I'm frozen.
Five years old.
Then Val and I both shriek as a big wave nearly takes us down, and that flash of almost-memory is swept back out to sea. Gone. Washed away. Like maybe it never existed.
We're all playing and splashing now. Shouting. Darting up and down the beach, in and out of each other's grasp. Sandy fingers reaching and wet hands slipping. The sound of our laughter mixes with the pounding of the surf.
The water is like ice, but after a few minutes I don't mind the bite of it anymore. It almost feels good. Wispy bits of seaweed brush the backs of my knees like floating spiderwebs, and soft, deep sand squishes between my toes.
My T-shirt and shorts are already soaked, so I wade in deeper until I can lift my feet off the bottom and float. And then I can't feel the cold anymore. I can't feel anything anymore. So I let the current pull me out even further, past a floating swim dock and beyond the clanging safety buoys.
I can still hear the others carrying on and having a good time. But it's like an echo. I'm separate from all that chaos now. I stretch out on my back and let the water hold me up. Carry me away. I'm far enough from shore that there are only gentle swells. I rise and fall with them. Like breathing.
It makes me feel safe. That painless, floating feeling. The numbness of it. And the dark. Like being rocked to sleep. Suspended. Inside a cocoon, maybe.
Or a womb.
I stare up into the emptiness and think about that night. Twelve years ago. When I was five.
I'm trying to remember something real. A tight hand on my wrist, maybe? But that moment has slipped away, and I can't get it back. There's just the same impossible memory as always.
Stars falling into the sea. Like rain on fire.
The heavy, wet plop of them.
And, always, a voice that seems to come from nowhere. From no one.
Look at the stars!
Water is sloshing around my ears, but somehow I hear shouting. Not memory voices. Real ones. Muffled words tinged with panic.
"Avril!" It's Jude. "Too far out!" Then something I don't catch. Dangerous. Undertow something. "Come on back!" I open my eyes and let my feet drop so that I'm treading water. It's so much deeper here than it was along the edge.
Copyright © 2022 by Ginny Myers Sain. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.