The Boys Next Door, p.1Jennifer Echols
The Boys Next Door
For my brother
Heartfelt thanks to my wonderful editor, Michelle Nagler, and my friends who helped make this book possible: Nephele Tempest, Victoria Dahl, Catherine Chant, Marley Gibson, and Caren Johnson.
Thanks also to everyone who sent me an e-mail or MySpace message saying you enjoyed Major Crush. You went out of your way to do this, and I appreciate it so much! You keep me afloat.
Sean smiled down at me, his light brown hair glinting golden in the sunlight. He shouted over the noise of the boat motor and the wind, “Lori, when we’re old enough, I want you to be my girlfriend.” He didn’t even care the other boys could hear him.
“I’m there!” I exclaimed, because I was nothing if not coy. All the boys ate out of my hand, I tell you. “When will we be old enough?”
His blue eyes, lighter than the bright blue sky behind him, seemed to glow in his tanned face. He answered me, smiling. At least, I thought he answered me. His lips moved.
“I didn’t hear you. What’d you say?” I know how to draw out a romantic moment.
He spoke to me again. I still couldn’t hear him, though the boat motor and the wind hadn’t gotten any louder. Maybe he was just mouthing words, pretending to say something sweet I couldn’t catch. Boys were like that. He’d just been teasing me all along—
“You ass!” I sat straight up in my sweat-soaked bed, wiping away the strands of my hair stuck to my wet face. Then I realized what I’d said out loud. “Sorry, Mom,” I told her photo on my bedside table. But maybe she hadn’t heard me over my alarm clock blaring Christina Aguilera, “Ain’t No Other Man.”
Or maybe she’d understand. I’d just had a closer encounter with Sean! Even if it was only in my dreams.
Usually I didn’t remember my dreams. Whenever my brother, McGillicuddy, was home from college, he told Dad and me at breakfast what he’d dreamed about the night before. Lindsay Lohan kicking his butt on the sidewalk after he tried to take her picture (pure fantasy). Amanda Bynes dressed as the highway patrol, pulling him over to give him a traffic ticket. I was jealous. I didn’t want to dream about Lindsay Lohan or getting my butt kicked. However, if I was spending the night with Patrick Dempsey and didn’t even know it, I was missing out on a very worthy third of my life. I had once Googled “dreaming” and found out some people don’t remember their dreams if their bodies are used to getting up at the same hour every morning and have plenty of time to complete the dream cycle.
So why’d I remember my dream this morning? It was the first day of summer vacation, that’s why. To start work at the marina, I’d set my clock thirty minutes earlier than during the school year. Lo and behold, here was my dream. About Sean: check. Blowing me off, as usual: noooooooo! That might happen in my dreams, but it wasn’t going to happen in real life. Not again. Sean would be mine, starting today. I gave Mom on my beside table an okay sign—the wakeboarding signal for ready to go—before rolling out of bed.
My dad and my brother suspected nothing, ho ho. They didn’t even notice what I was wearing. Our conversation at breakfast was the same one we’d had every summer morning since my brother was eight years old and I was five.
Dad to brother: “You take care of your sister today.”
Brother, between bites of egg: “Roger that.”
Dad to me: “And you watch out around those boys next door.”
Me: (Eye roll.)
Brother: “I had this rockin’ dream about Anne Hathaway.”
Post-oatmeal, my brother and I trotted across our yard and the Vaders’ yard to the complex of showrooms, warehouses, and docks at Vader’s Marina. The morning air was already thick with the heat and humidity and the smell of cut grass that would last the entire Alabama summer. I didn’t mind. I liked the heat. And I quivered in my flipflops at the prospect of another whole summer with Sean. I’d been going through withdrawal.
In past years, any one of the three Vader boys, including Sean, might have shown up at my house at any time to throw the football or play video games with my brother. They might let me play too if they felt sorry for me, or if their mom had guilted them into it. And my brother might go to their house at any time. But I couldn’t go to their house. If I’d walked in, they would have stopped what they were doing, looked up, and wondered what I was doing there. They were my brother’s friends, not mine.
Well, Adam was my friend. He was probably more my friend than my brother’s. Even though we were the same age, I didn’t have any classes with him at school, so you’d think he’d walk a hundred yards over to my house for a visit every once in a while. But he didn’t. And if I’d gone to visit him, it would have been obvious I was looking for Sean out the corner of my eye the whole time.
For the past nine months, with my brother off at college, my last tie to Sean had been severed. He was two years older than me, so I didn’t have any classes with him, either. I wasn’t even in the same wing of the high school. I saw him once at a football game, and once in front of the movie theater when I’d ridden around with Tammy for a few minutes after a tennis match. But I never approached him. He was always flirting with Holly Chambliss or Beige Dupree or whatever glamorous girl he was with at the moment. I was too young for him, and he never even thought of hooking up with me. On the very rare occasion when he took the garbage to the road at the same time I walked to the mailbox, he gave me the usual beaming smile and a big hug and acted like I was his best friend ever… for thirty heavenly seconds.
It had been a long winter. Finally we were back to the summer. The Vaders always needed extra help at the marina during the busy season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Just like last year, I had a job there—and an excuse to make Sean my captive audience. I sped up my trek across the pine needles between the trees and found myself in a footrace against my brother. It was totally unfair because I was carrying my backpack and he was wearing sneakers, but I beat him to the warehouse by half a length anyway.
The Vader boys had gotten there before us and claimed the good jobs, so I wouldn’t have a chance to work side by side with Sean. Cameron was helping the full-time workers take boats out of storage. He wanted my brother to work with him so they could catch up on their lives at two different colleges. Sean and Adam were already gone, delivering the boats to customers up and down the lake for Memorial Day weekend. Sean wasn’t around to see my outfit. I was so desperate to get going on this “new me” thing, I would have settled for a double take from Adam or Cameron.
All I got was Mrs. Vader. Come to think of it, she was a good person to run the outfit by. She wore stylish clothes, as far as I could tell. Her blonde pinstriped hair was cut to flip up in the back. She looked exactly like you’d want your mom to look so as not to embarrass you in public. I found her in the office and hopped onto a stool behind her. Looking over her shoulder as she typed on the computer, I asked, “Notice anything different?”
She tucked her pinstriped hair behind her ear and squinted at the screen. “I’m using the wrong font?”
“Notice anything different about my boobs?”
That got her attention. She whirled around in her chair and peered at my chest. “You changed your boobs?”
“I’m showing my boobs,” I said proudly, moving my palm in front of them like presenting them on a TV commercial. All this can be yours! Or, rather, your son’s.
My usual summer uniform was the outgrown clothes Adam had given me over the years: jeans, which I cut off into shorts and wore with a wide belt to hold up the waist, and T-shirts from his football team. Under that, for wakeboarding in the afternoon, I used to wear a one-piece sports bathing suit with full coverage that reached all the way up to my neck. Early
Last year, I thought my boobs had progressed quite nicely. And I progressed from the one-piece into a tankini. But I wasn’t quite ready for any more exposure. I didn’t want the boys to treat me like a girl.
Now I did. So today I’d worn a cute little bikini. Over that, I still wore Adam’s cutoff jeans. Amazingly, they looked sexy, riding low on my hips, when I traded the football T-shirt for a pink tank that ended above my belly button and hugged my figure. I even had a little cleavage. I was so proud. Sean was going to love it.
Mrs. Vader stared at my chest, perplexed. Finally she said, “Oh, I get it. You’re trying to look hot.”
“Thank you!” Mission accomplished.
“Here’s a hint. Close your legs.”
I snapped my thighs together on the stool. People always scolded me for sitting like a boy. Then I slid off the stool and stomped to the door in a huff. “Where do you want me?”
She’d turned back to the computer. “You’ve got gas.”
Oh, goody. I headed out the office door, toward the front dock to man the gas pumps. This meant at some point during the day, one of the boys would look around the marina office and ask, “Who has gas?” and another boy would answer, “Lori has gas.” If I were really lucky, Sean would be in on the joke.
The office door squeaked open behind me. “Lori,” Mrs. Vader called. “Did you want to talk?”
Noooooooo. Nothing like that. I’d only gone into her office and tried to start a conversation. Mrs. Vader had three sons. She didn’t know how to talk to a girl. My mother had died in a boating accident alone on the lake when I was four. I didn’t know how to talk to a woman. Any convo between Mrs. Vader and me was doomed from the start.
“No, why?” I asked without turning around. I’d been galloping down the wooden steps, but now I stepped very carefully, looking down, as if I needed to examine every footfall so I wouldn’t trip.
“Watch out around the boys,” she warned me.
I raised my hand and wiggled my fingers, toodle-dee-doo, dismissing her. Those boys were harmless. Those boys had better watch out for me.
Really, aside from the specter of the boys discussing my intestinal problems, I enjoyed having gas. I got to sit on the dock with my feet in the water and watch the kingfishers and the herons glide low over the surface. Later I’d swim on the side of the dock upriver from the gasoline. Not now, before Sean saw me for the first time that summer. I would be in and out of the lake and windy boats all day, and my hair would look like hell. That was understood. But I wanted to have clean, dry, styled hair at least the first time he saw me, and I would hope he kept the memory alive. I might go swimming after he saw me, while I waited around for people to drive up to the gas pumps in their boats.
The richer they were, the more seldom they made it down from Birmingham to their million-dollar vacation homes on the lake, and the more likely they were complete dumbasses when it came to docking their boats and finding their gas caps. If I covered for their dumbassedness in front of their families in the boats by giggling and saying things like, “Oh sir, I’m so sorry, I’m supposed to be helping you!” while I helped them, they tipped me beyond belief.
I was just folding a twenty into my back pocket when Sean and Adam came zipping across the water in the boat emblazoned with VADER’S MARINA down the side, blasting Nickelback from the speakers. They turned hard at the edge of the idle zone. Three-foot swells shook the floating dock violently and would have shaken me off into the water if I hadn’t held on to the rail. Then the bow of the boat eased against the padding on the dock. Adam must be the one driving. Sean would have driven all the way to the warehouse, closer to where they’d pick up the next boat for delivery.
In fact, as Sean threw me the rope to tie the stern and Adam cut the engine, I could hear them arguing about this. Sean and Adam argued pretty much 24/7. I was used to it. But I would rather not have heard Sean complaining that they were going to have to walk a whole extra fifty yards and up the stairs just so Adam could say hi to me.
Sean jumped off the boat. His weight rocked the floating dock again as he tied up the bow. He was big, maybe six feet tall, with a deep tan from working all spring at the marina, and a hard, muscled chest and arms from competing with Adam the last five years over who could lift more poundage on the dumbbell in their garage (Sean and Adam were like this). Then he straightened and smiled his beautiful smile at me, and I forgave him everything.
“Hey, Buddy,” he said to me. I got a close-up view of his strange, light blue eyes and golden skin as he threw his arms around me and kept walking right over me. I had to throw my arms around him, too, to keep from thudding flat on my back on the dock.
“Oh, pardon me!” he said, pulling me out from under him and setting me on my feet again. “I didn’t even see you there.”
“That’s quite all right,” I managed in the same fake-formal tone. His warm hands still held my waist. This was the first time a boy had every touched my bare tummy. My happy skin sent shocked messages to my brain that went something like, He’s touching me! Are you getting this? He’s touching me! Eeeeeeee! My brain got it, all right, and put the rest of my body on high alert. My heart thumped painfully, just like in my dream.
But as I looked into his eyes, I saw he was already gone, glancing up the stairs to the marina. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’d been flirting with me. I knew better. He treated all girls this way.
He slid out of my grasp. He may have had to shake one hand violently to extricate it from my friendly vise-like grip. “See you later, Junior,” he threw over his shoulder at me as he climbed the steps to the marina.
When we were kids, he’d started calling my brother McGillicuddy because he thought our last name was such a riot. It caught on with the other Vader boys, and Cameron had told everyone at school. I’m not sure anyone in town knew my brother as Bill. Thankfully, everyone in town knew me as Lori. The names Sean had made up for me were too long to be practical nicknames: McGillicuddy Junior, McGillicuddy the Younger, McGillicuddy Part Deux, McGillicuddy Returns, McGillicuddy Strikes Back, McGillicuddy’s Buddy.
You see what I was up against? Obviously he still saw me as my brother’s little sister. I sighed, watching him climb the steps, muscles moving underneath the tan skin of his legs. He was immune to the delicious temptation of my pink tank top. But I had another trick up my sleeve, or lack thereof. Later that afternoon, when we went wakeboarding, I would initiate Stage Two: Bikini.
The dock dipped again as Adam jumped from the boat. I turned to greet him. We did our secret handshake, which we’d been adding to for years: the basic shake (first grade), upside down (second grade), with a twist (fourth grade), high five (fifth grade), low five (seventh grade), pinky swear (eighth grade), elbows touching (ninth grade). We’d been known to do the secret handshake when we passed in the halls at school, and on the sidelines during Adam’s football games.
Everybody on the girls’ tennis team fetched water and bandages for the football team during their games. It wasn’t fair. The football team didn’t bring us drinks and bandages at tennis tournaments. I never complained, though, because I got to stand on the football field where the action was, which was all I really wanted. The secret handshake had proven surprisingly hard to do when Adam was in football pads. We’d made it work.
But Adam had gotten together with Rachel a month before. Ever since I’d heard a rumor that she didn’t want her boyfriend doing the secret handshake with “that ‘ho next door,” I’d tried to cool it in public. I mean, if I’d had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t have wanted him doing a secret handshake with anybody but me, especially if he looked like Adam.
Because Adam looked basically like S
Adam’s hair was longer than Sean’s and always in his eyes, but you couldn’t tell this when they were both windblown in the extreme, like now. If you happened to be watching them from your bedroom window as they got in a fight and beat the crap out of each other at the edge of their yard where their mom couldn’t see them from their house—not that I would ever do such a thing—you could tell them apart only because Sean was more filled out and a little taller, since he was two years older. Also, they walked differently: Sean cruised suavely, while Adam bounced like the ball that got away from you and led you into the street after it.
But what I always looked for to tell them apart instantly, when I could see it, was Adam’s skull-and-crossbones pendant on a leather cord. I’d bought the pendant from a bubble gum machine when we were twelve. In one of my many failed attempts over the years to become more girl-like, I’d been trying for a Miley Cyrus pendant for myself. The last thing I wanted was a skull and crossbones. I’d given it to Adam because it was made for him.
Suddenly I realized I was standing on the hot wood of the dock, still touching elbows with Adam, staring at the skull-and-crossbones pendant. And when I looked up into his light blue eyes, I saw that he was staring at my neck. No. Down lower.
“What’cha staring at?” I asked.
He cleared his throat. “Tank top or what?” This was his seal of approval, as in, Last day of school or what? or, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders or what? Hooray! He wasn’t Sean, but he was built of the same material. This was a good sign.
I pumped him for more info, to make sure. “What about my tank top?”
“You’re wearing it.” He looked out across the lake, showing me his profile. His cheek had turned bright red under his tan. I had embarrassed the wrong boy. Damn, it was back to the football T-shirt for me.
The Boys Next Door by Jennifer Echols / Young Adult / Romance & Love / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes