On the morning we left for Key West, my stepfather, Joe, poked his head into my room. "Annie, you ready?"
I zipped up my suitcase. "I've been ready my whole life for this. Get me off this island of the dead before I implode!"
Joe grinned. Even though he'd showered and dressed, he still looked rumpled. My stepfather always looks as though he's unraveling. Maybe it's because he doesn't feel comfortable tucked in, or with shoes on. Even on his wedding day, he'd spent half the reception in his socks.
"I know how tough it is for you to tear yourself away from Scull Island," he said.
Don't get me wrong. I love where I live. Scull Island is this tiny place stuck out in Long Island Sound. There's no bridge to the mainland, so we're pretty isolated. All this can be great about half the year. The beaches are uncrowded, and you can hike and swim and eat an ice-cream cone without 60 million people rubbing their suntan oil against you and yelling, Yo, Pete! Whaddya want on your hot dog?
But in the winter, we kids call it Dull Island. The year-round population shrinks to ten people. Well, okay -- maybe not ten. Maybe about three hundred. But the island feels desolate, and wind comes off the water like a frigid Arctic blast, and everyone just wants to stay inside their house, inhaling central heating. I spent one entire weekend in February perfecting my Nerf basketball hook shot. No lie.
Which is why I was totally bummed that Nick had bagged weekend after weekend, Nick's electric presence can jazz up even Scull Island.
I call Nick my "sort-of stepbrother." He's Joe's son, but we've never lived in the same house. Nick lives in Manhattan with his mom, who is this incredibly busy assistant district attorney. We're more like friends than steps. We're both the same age, sixteen-and-a-half.
Joe and my mom just got married last summer, and Nick visited us at Christmas. We had a major adventure, but it's a long story, and I don't want to pull a Grandad Gus. Grandad Gus is my mom's father. He'll start to tell you something easy, like how to get to downtown Hartford, and he'll wind up telling you this long story about what happened to him in 1956. Not that the story isn't interesting, but you're really more interested in directions.
Are you still with me? If you haven't wandered off to turn on the TV, let me return to my conversation with Joe.
"I am so out of here!" I said, just as Mom arrived, two suitcases slung across her shoulders.
"Kate! Let me do that!" Joe tried to untangle the straps from Mom's shoulders and nearly made her topple over. Mom started to giggle. Joe turns her into a twelve-year-old, I swear.
She was just a nice, normal mom a year ago. She worked downtown in the real estate office and wrote short stories in her spare time. She tried not to say bad things about my dad, who lives in Montana and makes about a million dollars buying up ranch land and selling it to movie stars. She cried at romantic comedies and laughed at my jokes. She cooked things like hamburgers and meat loaf for dinner. Then she went out on a blind date with an Italian chef. The very next day, she threw our green can of processed Parmesan cheese in the garbage and grated a huge hunk of cheese that smelled like vomit on our spaghetti. I knew I was in trouble.
You may suspect that I am not the easiest person in the world to please. So it was a complete surprise to me that about five minutes after Joe Annunciato walked into our front door the very first time, I just about fell for him, too.
"If we make it to the ferry on time, it will be a miracle," Mom said as she dropped the suitcases on the floor with a thump. "Did we lock the garage and toss out the rest of the milk and turn off the hot water heater...what am I missing...oh, water the plants?"
"Check," Joe said.
"We'd better hurry. If we miss the ferry, we miss the plane," Mom fretted. "I should doublecheck the stove." She hurried away. "Annie, make sure you unplugged your hair dryer!"
At the Hanley-Annunciato abode, leaving is chaos. Joe is never ready, Mom thinks the house will blow up if we don't unplug every appliance, and I usually pack my entire wardrobe and forget essential things like underwear.
Somehow, we made it to the ferry on time. Joe pulled the car into a spot, and we all headed up on deck. Even though it was April, there was still snow on the ground on the island. The wind was fierce and made our eyes tear.
"In a few hours, we'll be in eighty-degree weather," Joe said, slipping an arm around each of us.
"Hard to believe," Mom said. "I hope I didn't forget anything."
"Oh, my gosh!" I cried.
"What?" Mom asked, panicked.
"We forgot to feed the dog!"
"Oh, my gosh!" Mom shrieked. Then, she squinted at me. "Hey. We don't have a dog."
The ferry horn blasted, destroying our hearing for the next two minutes. The ferry slowly reversed out of the slip and chugged into open sea.
We watched Scull Island recede into the distance.
Mom sighed. "There it goes. Now we'll have five days of sunshine and nothing to do. Don't be too sad, Annie," she teased.
"I am so totally crushed," I said.
Nick was waiting at the gate, dressed in black jeans and a black sweater. His only luggage was a black leather backpack. His laptop was tucked under his arm. My sort-of step is never difficult to spot. Just look for your average cat burglar.
"I see you're dressed for the tropics," I said as we walked up.
"I don't adapt well," Nick said. He kissed my mom, hugged Joe, and then hugged me. One good thing about Nick is that he's never too cool to demonstrate affection.
We went through the usual boarding hassle. We couldn't get seats all together, so Nick and I took the two seats in the front, and Joe and Mom took seats in the back so Mom could be near the bathroom. She's got a thing about being near the bathroom on planes.
Then we waited with a horde of people until they called out our rows, after which we stood in line with a horde of people and shuffled onto the plane, where we stood packed in the aisle for ten minutes while people hauled huge bags full of crud into the overhead bins, which would probably pop open during turbulence and conk us on our heads.
"Gosh, vacations are fun," Nick said.
But finally, the plane lifted off, and we banked over beautiful downtown Hartford. In a few minutes we were above the clouds, and were promised "premium breakfast service." It turned out to be a defrosted minibagel and a miniature package of cream cheese.
Nick and I ordered sodas, since Mom and Joe couldn't see us from where we were sitting. Everyone around us was drinking orange juice and coffee, and we clinked our little plastic glasses of carbonated caramelized sugar together.
"Bon voyage," Nick said.
"Isn't somebody supposed to say that to us?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Who knows? You're the French expert."
I settled back into my seat. "So, spill. I am waiting to hear why you completely abandoned me this winter. And it better be excellent."
I nudged him with my shoulder. "Did your mother ground you because you hooked up free cable again? Try to hack into the CIA? Scalp her Knicks tickets? C'mon. You can tell me."
"Oh, Annie," Nick said. "I'm in love."
My mouth dropped. It was lucky there was no bagel and cream cheese in it. Then I realized he must be kidding. Nick was too way past cool to fall in love. "Don't tell me," I said. "You've fallen for Leonardo DiCaprio, too."
"Annie, I'm serious," Nick said. "This is it." His eyes were glassy, as though he were airsick. Uh-oh. I've been there. I recognize the signs of love. They're awful.
"Don't worry, Nick," I said urgently. "I'll get you through it, bro. We'll cruise babes in the Keys, hang out, swim...in five days, you won't even remember her name."
"Pia Larkworthy." Nick said the name as though it were a poem. It sort of was, actually. "It's okay, Annie. For some insane reason, she loves me, too."
"Oh." I had assumed Nick's grand passion was unrequited. In the Annie Hanley universe, all true love was unrequited.
It isn't that Nick isn't prime boyfriend material. He has a big nose, like Joe, but it fits into his face okay. He has thick dark hair and big brown eyes. And even though he's a C-breaking student, he's incredibly smart. I just didn't expect another girl to get him the way I do.
"She's amazing. Incredible. She's got this way of wearing a T-shirt, or, like, doing her hair, that's totally radical," Nick burbled. "Plus, she's, like, really talented. She plays the violin. But she rocks on that thing. She's awesome."
"I can see that she's turned you into a Valley Girl," I said. "Now that's talent."
"We met downtown, in Washington Square Park, but Pia's family has megabucks. She lives on the Upper East Side, and her father works in publishing. He's this incredible intellectual. Her mother is a writer. And Pia is -- "
"Brilliant. Plus she's incredibly together for her age. She says she's really intuitive, but she doesn't let that scare her. She goes with it."
"She sounds..." Nauseating. Awful. Unbearable. Insufferable. "...neat," I said.
"She's perfect," Nick said. He leaned over and dug in his backpack. He came up with a bundle of letters tied with a piece of red silk yarn.
"We've written each other a letter for each day we're apart. We're going to read one letter at twelve noon every day. Pia says we'll be spiritually close."
"Whew," I said. "That's really good, because I was worried about your spiritual growth."
Nick just nodded happily. He didn't even catch sarcasm anymore. He was totally gone.
Where did my sort-of stepbrother go? The last time I'd seen him, he was too cool to commit. Every single girl on Scull Island had practically thrown herself in front of him, grabbed his ankles, and begged for his attention. Nick had only paid attention to me.
Color me shallow. I missed that. Now, Nick's eyes were glazed over, and he was staring out at a puffy white cloud as if it were the most fascinating thing in existence. In the absence of Pia, that is.
Then, Nick wrenched his gaze back to me. "I guess I'm obsessing, aren't I?" he said, sounding like the real Nick.
"A tad," I admitted.
He half-turned to face me. "Okay. Enough about Pia. Tell me about you. What do you think of Pia?"
He was only joking, thank goodness, so I laughed.
"What's going on?" Nick continued. "Is Pepper Oneida still the most obnoxious giggle-girl on the planet? Has Josh Do-nothing caught on to her yet?"
"Josh Doolittle," I corrected happily. Josh is my ex-boyfriend. Pepper had snagged him in a disgusting display of eyelashes and midriff-baring baby T-shirts. They were Enemy Numbers One and Two on Nick's and my Hit List. "He's still totally snagged," I added. "But last week, they had this major fight in the cafeteria -- "
"Really? Pia and I haven't had one fight," Nick said. "I find that amazing, but Pia says it's because our minds are congruent."
"That's funny," I said. "Because to me, you're such a parallelogram, and she seems so...trapezoidal."
But I guess Nick didn't get geometry references. I think I mentioned that he isn't such a great student. "It's incredible, because Pia is so sharp, you know?" he said. "But also amazingly sweet."
Who was this guy? He was using words like "amazing" and "incredible" practically in every sentence. That's what love will do to you. Which only confirms my belief that love is the most awful calamity that could befall a person.
"Anyway, my best friend, Rochelle, heard the whole thing," I continued, still trying to communicate with the love-zombie at my side. "She said that Josh -- "
"It's twelve o'clock," Nick interrupted.
"Yeah," I said. "Thanks for the time check. Anyway, Rochelle -- "
But he was already unwinding the ribbon from his stack of papers. "I have to read Pia's first letter!"
Nick began to read with this sickly sweet smile on his face, like he'd just stuffed his mouth with Double-Stuf Oreos.
"Where are you going?" he asked, his eyes glued to the paper.
"To borrow a barf bag," I said.
"Mmmm," Nick said. "Good luck."
I sighed as I headed back to say hello to Joe and Mom. Even though they could get gooney since they were technically honeymooners, they still shared at least one functioning brain between them.
Only three months before, Nick was my partner in crime. He'd had guts and brains and a devilishly scheming mind. Together, we had solved the Three Fat Brothers Pizza Murder. We'd gone toe-to-toe with a madman who'd tried to kill us.
Now the guy who'd saved my life, whose mind had totally clicked with mine, had turned into a drooling sap. This was turning out to be some spring break!
Copyright © 1998 by Jordan Cray