It was Monday afternoon, all-camp free time, so most everyone was gone somewhere—into downtown Traverse City, to Sleeping Bear Dunes, canoeing on one of the two lakes, swimming at Peterson Beach. There were a few students on campus, most of them doing the same as I was, finding a solitary place to play an instrument, paint, draw, or dance. I had found the perfect spot overlooking Green Lake, sitting with my back to a pine tree, sketchbook on my knees, trying to capture the way a duck’s wings curved for landing as they floated over the rippling surface of the water.
I’d been there for over an hour already, the bark scratching my back through my T-shirt, earbuds in and playing my current favorite album, Surfing With the Alien by Joe Satriani. I’d drawn the same picture six times, each one a quick, rough sketch, capturing the outlines, the curves, the angle of the bird’s body and the delicate arch of its neck. None of them were right, though. Like with my work on human hands, one particular detail was eluding me. This time, it was the pattern of the pinfeathers as the duck fluttered its wings, the way each feather rounded into the next, layered, yet separate, while its green head and yellow beak thrust forward, the wings creating a bonnet around its body. I’d stuffed each failed sketch under my foot, using the last as reference for the next. My pencil went still as another duck approached the water. Its wings curved to slow its descent, orange feet outstretched, and then at the very last moment it reared back and flared its wings, braking to a stop and settling on the water with barely a sound or splash. I watched intently, my eyes and mind capturing the moment of wing-flare, watching the tips of its wings, then I glanced down and erased frantically, redrawing, pencil moving furiously now, line overlaying line, adjusting the curve and angles.
“You’re really good,” a voice said behind me.
I knew without turning who it was. “Thanks, Ever.” Had I really remembered her voice after that one conversation?
I wished I didn’t feel so self-conscious all of a sudden. Would she think I was stupid for drawing ducks? Watching them land had been fascinating when I was alone, and drawing them had captivated my focus for the last couple of hours, but now that a pretty girl was standing behind me…I was pretty sure it was the nerdiest thing ever.
I closed the sketchbook and set it on top of the pile of discarded sketches, standing up and brushing off the seat of my shorts. When I finally turned my gaze to Ever, I had to blink several times. I hadn’t seen her since the day we arrived, despite looking for her in the visual arts classes and at meals. She’d been pretty then, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt. But now…she was so beautiful it made my stomach flip and tighten.
She was wearing a pair of khaki shorts that barely made it to mid-thigh, and a rib-hugging green tank top that matched the emerald of her eyes perfectly. Her hair hung in loose spirals around her shoulders, and she had a bulky easel under one arm, a canvas under the other arm and a wooden carrying case for paints in her hand. A smudge of red paint stood out on her forehead, matching a similar smudge on her left wrist, and green paint was smeared near her right cheek and earlobe.
I felt an absurd compulsion to wipe away the paint with my thumb. Instead, I reached for the easel and took it from her. “Were you just setting up? Or heading back?” I asked.
She shrugged, and the strap of her tank top slipped over the round of her shoulder, revealing the white strap of her bra. “Neither. I was kinda just…walking around. Looking for something to paint.”
“Oh. I was just…sketching. Ducks. Obviously.” I felt myself blushing as I mumbled, forcing my gaze away from the overlapping green and white straps and the hint of pale skin as she brushed the strap back in place. “I don’t really like ducks, I just…I thought the way they looked when they landed was kinda cool, and I—do you want me to carry your easel?” I felt like a spaz, shifting tracks so suddenly and blurting like an idiot.
Ever shrugged again, and the damn strap of her shirt slipped again. I wished she would stop shrugging so much, because it was wreaking hell on my ability to not stare at her. It wasn’t just the strap, though, it was her chest, the way it lifted and settled along with her shoulders. I felt my cheeks burn and wondered if my thoughts were visible, somehow, like I had a digital marquee on my forehead, announcing the fact that I was staring at her boobs.
“Sure,” Ever said, and I had to refocus to remember what we were talking about. “It is kinda heavy.”
Oh. The easel. Right. I leaned down and scooped up my sketchbook and papers, then adjusted the easel under my armpit more securely. “Where to?”
I was sensing a pattern now, and managed to avert my gaze before she did the shrug.
“I dunno. I was thinking somewhere on that side over there.” She pointed to a not-too-distant portion of the Green Lake shoreline.
We traipsed through the woods along the shoreline, chatting about our art classes, comparing notes and complaints. Every once in a while, Ever would move ahead of me, and the way her shorts clung to her backside was so distracting I almost dropped the easel a few times.
This was new territory for me. Girls were just girls. There’d never been one that had grabbed my attention like this before, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Of course, there were hot girls at school, and I looked at them, ’cause duh, I’m a guy. But this was different. Ever was someone I could see becoming a friend, and it was tricky having a friend who you couldn’t stop staring at like some wonderstruck moron. I felt like she had this power of reducing me to a mouth-breathing caveman.
Ook. Me Caden. You woman.
I trotted up to walk next to her, which was only nominally better. The problem was that anywhere I looked, there was something I shouldn’t be staring at.
Eventually, she came a stop on a little knoll surrounded by trees with a stunning view of the lake. “This is good,” she said. “I could paint this.” I set the easel down and unfolded it, then moved away and watched her arrange her canvas on the easel, open her paint case and select a pencil. “You can’t watch over my shoulder. That’s weird and creepy and I won’t be able to think.” She gestured off to one side. “Find your own spot and we’ll critique each other’s work when we’re done.”
“So we’re both drawing the same basic landscape scene?” I asked.
She nodded. “Well, I’ll paint it. You draw it.”
I found a place off to Ever’s left, framing the lake between two huge Jack Pines. I set my pad on my crossed legs and started sketching, and pretty soon disappeared into capturing the scene before me. I didn’t entirely forget about Ever, because she was hot even while painting—especially while painting, really. She was messy. She had a tendency to use her fingers as much as the brushes. She would swipe her bangs out of her face and get paint on her forehead and cheeks and nose. Even as I tried to force my attention back to the sketch in my book, she scratched her wrist with one hand, smearing orange paint on her wrist, and then rubbed her jaw with the same wrist.
I must have laughed out loud, because she glanced over at me. “What?” she asked.
“It’s just…you have paint all over your face.”
“I do?” She wiped at her cheek with one hand, which of course only smeared it worse.
I set my pad and pencils down and moved to stand next to her. “Yeah, it’s…everywhere.” I hesitated, then dragged my thumb lightly across her forehead and showed her the paint on my thumb.
She frowned, and then lifted the bottom edge of her shirt to wipe her face. At the sight of her stomach and the hint of white bra, I turned away. “Is that better?” she asked.
I turned back around. She had paint all over her shirt, but her face was clean. “Yeah, you got it off your face. Except…” I took a strand of her hair between my finger and thumb, and it came away green. “You have it in your hair too.”
“I’m a messy painter, I guess. I like to use my hands. At home, I don’t even use brushes. But the teachers here want me to try and expand my ‘vocabulary as an artist’ or some bullshit like that.” She put air quotes around the phrase, mocking it. “Mom was the same way.”
Something in her eyes and voice when she mentioned her mother, along with the fact that she’d used past tense, had me on alert. “She’s a messy painter?” I didn’t want to ask, or assume anything.
“Was.” Ever turned away from me and focused on her canvas, dabbing her brush into a glop of green on her palette, darkening the shade closer to the green of the pine needles.
“Because she’s dead.” She said it calmly, matter-of-factly, but too much so. “Car accident. Not quite a year and a half ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I mean…yeah. I’m sorry for your loss.” That was a phrase I’d heard before, but it sounded awkward when I said it. Fake and empty.
Ever glanced at me. “Thanks.” She wrinkled her nose. “We don’t have to talk about it. It happened, and that’s it. No point in getting all weepy about it.”
I felt like she was putting on a brave face, but I didn’t know how to tell her she didn’t have to do that. If she wanted a brave face, what business was it of mine to say she shouldn’t? I took a few deep breaths, and then changed the subject. “I like your painting. It’s not quite realistic, but not quite abstract, either.”
It was an interesting piece. The trees were thick, blurry, smeared representations of trees, browns and greens that barely seemed like anything at all, but the lake beyond and between them was intensely realistic, each ripple detailed and perfect, glinting and reflecting the sunlight.
“Thanks,” she said. “I wasn’t sure it would work when I started, but I think I like it.” She stepped back, rubbing the side of her nose with her middle finger, blotting brown on her skin, then realized what she’d done and sighed. “Lemme see yours.”
I hated showing people my drawings. I drew because I loved drawing. I drew because it just seemed to come out of me, whether I intended to do it or not. I doodled all over my textbooks and notebooks at school, on my desk calendar at home, even on the leg of my jeans sometimes. I didn’t draw to impress people. Letting someone see my work was like showing someone a part of me, it felt like. I showed my dad my drawings sometimes, because he was an engineer with a background in drafting and knew what he was talking about. And he was my dad and wouldn’t be too harsh or critical.
What if Ever thought I was shitty? I liked her and wanted her to think I was cool, talented.
Before I could re-think the decision, I handed her my sketchpad. To disguise my nerves, I picked up a thick stick from the ground and started peeling the bark off. Ever stared at my sketch for a long time, looking from it to the lake, and then walked to where I’d been sitting when I drew it. After what felt like a thousand years, she handed it back.
“You kick my ass at drawing. That’s really amazing, Caden. It almost looks like a photo.”
I shrugged, picking at the bark with my thumbnail. “Thanks. It’s not really all that photorealistic, but…it’s not bad for a quick sketch.”
She just nodded, and neither of us knew what to say. I wanted to be calm and cool and confident, make casual conversation and impress her with my wit. But that just wasn’t me.
I was a bark-picker and a dirt-kicker, words sticking in my chest and tumbling around each other.
“We should draw each other. Just pencils and paper,” Ever said, breaking the awkward silence.
“Sure,” was all I could say. I flipped the page of my book to an empty one, then realized she’d only brought her canvas, so I carefully ripped the page out and handed it to her. “You’ve got a pencil, right?”
Ever lifted her pencil in response, and then sat down cross-legged in the dirt. I sat facing her and tried to pretend that my eyes weren’t drawn to her inner thighs, bared and looking softer than I could possibly imagine. I ducked my head and regrouped, then forced my gaze to her face. I started sketching, getting the basic shapes down first. By the time I’d finished the outline of her face and shoulders, I had an idea. I wanted to mimic her own style, mixing realism with abstraction. It flowed easily once I had the concept down. We were companionably silent then, glancing up at each other every now and again, but focused on our work.
Wind blew in the tree around us, and the sun filtered lower and lower, and somewhere voices echoed, laughing and yelling. The scent of pine trees was thick in the air, a smell so pungent it was almost visible. It was the scent of a northern Michigan summer, to me.
I didn’t know how long we sat there drawing each other, and I didn’t care. I had a sense of complete peace, soul-deep contentment. Our knees were touching, just our kneecaps brushing, and that was enough to make me feel euphoria. Then Ever shifted, and my right knee touched her left shin, pressing close and making my heart skip more beats than could possibly be healthy.
Finally, I knew the drawing was done. I examined it critically, adjusted a few lines and angles, and then nodded. I was pleased. I’d captured her face with as much realism as I possessed, her hair hanging in loose waves around one shoulder, head tilted, eyes downcast. The farther down her torso the drawing went, the more blurred and abstracted it got, so that her feet and knees were charcoal smudges on the paper.
I stood up, leaving the pad on the pine-needle-carpeted ground, and paced, working the blood back into my legs and numb backside. When I returned to my seat in front of Ever, she was holding my sketchbook and staring at it, an oddly emotional expression on her face.
“Is this how you see me?” she asked, not looking up at me.
“I—sort of? I mean, it’s just a drawing. I was trying to mimic the way you did that landscape, you know?” I reached for my book, but she held on. “Are you…I mean, you’re not mad or anything, are you?”
She shook her head and laughed. “No! Not at all. I was just expecting it to be a profile or something, you know? And this is totally not that. I don’t know, Caden. You make me look—I don’t know…prettier than I am.”
“Not—um…I kind of think it doesn’t do you justice. It’s not good enough. You’re…you’re prettier than that.”
“You think I’m pretty?”
I was beet red, I could feel it. Once again I wished I could say something debonair like James Bond would say in the old Sean Connery movies Dad watched every weekend. “Yeah.”
Nice. Might as well have grunted like a Neanderthal.
Ever blushed and ducked her head, smoothing her hair over her shoulder with one hand. “Thanks.” She glanced up at me, and our eyes met, locked. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Her eyes were mesmerizing, green and almost luminous. “I almost don’t want to show you my stupid drawing.”
I reached for the drawing, but Ever didn’t let go of it. Our fingers touched, and I swore actual physical sparks shot up from where our skin touched. Neither of us pulled away.
After a forever that could have fit into the space of a single breath, she let me take the sheet of paper, and touch became loss.
It was an amazing portrait of me, ultra-realistic. I was sitting cross-legged with my pad of paper, pencil held in my fingers, head down. You could just barely see the upper portion of my face, the frown of concentration.
“It’s incredible, Ever,” I said. “Really amazing.” I was torn between admiration and jealousy. She was really good.
She held my drawing, and I held hers. A cicada sang somewhere, the loud buzzing sound of summer.
“I have an evening composition class,” I said. “I should probably go.”
“Yeah. I should too.” She stood up, brushing off her backside, an action I tried not to watch, then handed me my sketchpad back. “I had a good time today. Maybe we could do this again. Another day.”
I tore my drawing of her free and gave it to her. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
She gave an odd, half-circle wave, then looked at her hand as if to question why it had done such an awkward thing. Then, before I could say anything, she gathered her things and left.
I watched her go, wondering what this thing was between us. Friendship? Something else? We’d only hung out twice, but it had felt like more than that. Like we knew each other, somehow.
I went to class and then back to my cabin, where I stashed her drawing of me.
~ ~ ~ ~
I didn’t see Ever again until nearly the end of camp, even though I went out of my way to find her. Every time I went by her cabin she was gone, and I never saw her in any classes or workshops, or at dinner. I got a glimpse of her once, swimming with her cabin-mates, laughing and wet and beautiful, but I was with some guys from my own cabin, on the way to shoot hoops in the gym.
It was three days until the end of the camp. Late at night. I was supposed to be in bed, but I couldn’t sleep. I had an unsettled feeling in my stomach, a restlessness that had no source or definition, just an anxiousness that I couldn’t seem to dispel. I snuck out of the cabin and went down to one of the docks.
It was a clear night, moonless and dark, lit only by a sky full of stars. The air held a touch of coolness, whispering over my skin. I hadn’t bothered to put on a shirt, wearing a pair of gym shorts and sports sandals as I stepped lightly on the creaking wood of the long dock.
I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I didn’t see or hear her until I was nearly on top of her.
Ever sat on the edge of the dock, feet dangling. I opened my mouth to speak, but then I saw that her shoulders were shaking. She was crying.
I didn’t know what to do, what to say. She’d come down here to be alone—I mean, that much was obvious, right? And asking her if she was okay seemed stupid. I hesitated, turned to leave. I didn’t know how to even begin comforting her, but I wanted to try. So, I sat down next to her, dangling my feet over the black, rippling water.
She wasn’t sobbing, just quietly crying. I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed, a gentle touch that let her know I was there. A short hesitation, and then she turned into me and my arm went around her and held her. I felt wetness touch my shoulder, her tears on my skin. I held her, let her cry, and wondered if I was doing it right. If there was something I was supposed to be saying that would make it okay.
“I miss her, Caden.” Her voice was tiny, barely audible. “I miss my Mom. I—I miss home. I’m homesick. But most of all, I wish I could go home and see Mom again. Dad doesn’t talk about her. Eden doesn’t talk about her. I don’t talk about her. It’s like she died and now we pretend like she never was.”
“You can talk to me.” I hoped that didn’t sound too cliché.
“I don’t know what to say. She’s been dead a year and a half, and all I can really say is…I miss her. I miss how she made our family a family.” She sniffled and straightened away from my shoulder, although our bodies were still flush against each other, hip to hip. I left my arm around her shoulders, and she didn’t seem to mind it. “Now it’s just each of us by ourselves. Eden and I…we’re twins, did I tell you that? We don’t even really talk about her, or about missing her, or anything. And we’re twins, we almost share a brain sometimes. Like, legit, we can read each other’s thoughts sometimes.”
“Nothing like that has ever happened in my family. I don’t know how we’d handle it if it did. I know my dad probably wouldn’t talk about it. My mom might. I’m like Dad, I think, and I’d have a hard time talking about things. I already do. I’m sure you can tell. I never know what to say.” We were quiet for a while. But Ever needed someone to talk to. And I thought about last week, the two of us sitting by the lake, drawing—both of us knew how to speak with our hands and pencils. An idea came to me, and I said it without thinking. “What if we were pen pals?”
God, that sounded stupid.
“Pen pals?” At least, she didn’t laugh at me outright.
“I know that sounds dumb, or whatever. But it can be hard to talk on the phone. And we don’t really live close to each other, and…I just thought maybe if we wrote letters, we could talk about whatever we wanted, but on our own time.” She hadn’t said anything, and I was starting to feel intensely self-conscious. “I guess it’s dumb.”
“No, I…I like the idea. I think it’s awesome.” She turned and looked up at me. The starlight shone dim silver in her green eyes, and I felt like I could fall into her eyes if I stared long enough. “Like, we’d write actual paper letters? Every month?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Or it could be more frequently, if we wanted to. Whenever, you know? Whenever we needed to say something.” I ran my thumbnail in the grooved grain of the faded wood.
“I really…I think that would be awesome.” She rested her head against my bicep.
We sat like that in the silence of a northern Michigan summer midnight, close and touching, but not embracing, not talking, lost in our own thoughts.
I heard voices behind us, turned to see two flashlight beams bobbing toward us. “We’ve been found,” I said.
Just before our respective cabin staffers found us, Ever clutched my hand in hers. “Promise me you’ll write?”
“I promise.” I squeezed her with my arm, an awkward hug. “Good night, Ever.”
“’Night, Caden.” She hesitated a beat, and then turned into me, makin it a full fledged hug, bodies pressed against each other.
Totally worth the trouble I got in.
Pick-up that Saturday was chaotic, a thousand cars, parents and campers reuniting. I found Dad leaning against the door of his truck, arms crossed. I spotted him from a distance, held up a finger to signal “one minute,” then wove through the crowd, duffel bag on my shoulder, looking for black hair and green eyes and a body that had featured in more of my dreams than I cared to admit.
Ever was standing in the open door of a boxy silver Mercedes SUV, looking around almost frantically. She saw me and flew toward me, slamming into me and hugging me. I was so surprised that I didn’t react for a moment, and then I dropped my bag and my arms went around her shoulders and I was hugging her back, holding her, smelling the shampoo in her hair and the faint, indefinable scent that made a girl smell like a girl.
When we pulled apart, I handed her a folded slip of paper on which I’d printed my name and address as neatly as I could. The paper she handed me had a heart on it, my name written in a curving, looping script within the heart. Did that mean something? Was the fact that she put my name inside the heart significant? Or was that just something girls did? I wished I knew and I tried not to read too much into it.
“You better write me,” she said.
“I will. I promise.” I held onto the folded square of paper, not wanting to put it in my pocket in front of her. That would just feel rude, somehow.
“Good. And I promise I’ll write you back.”
“You better.” I heard her father say something to her sister Eden, and I shuffled back a few steps. “Good luck. You know, with…everything we talked about.”
“You too.” She gave me a half-wave, a stiff semi-circle of her arm. Her eyes were on me, and her lips were smiling, and it was all I could do to tear myself away, grab my duffel bag and trot back toward Dad and the truck. My head was spinning and my heart was doing strange sideways cartwheels.
Dad was waiting for me in the driver’s seat, the engine idling, staring off out his window. His expression was pensive, brooding, and dark. I made sure to wipe the goofy grin off my face as I tossed my bag into the bed of the truck and ran the aged black rubber bungee cord through the handle, slipping the hook securely under the lip of the bed rim. I had Ever’s note in my palm, and I slid my hand against my thigh to hide it.
“Got a number, huh, bud?” Dad’s voice was amused.
I glanced at him, stifling the urge to roll my eyes. “Sort of.”
“How do you ‘sort of’ get a number?”
“It’s not her phone number, it’s her address.”
“Her address?” Dad sounded incredulous. “You must have some serious game, Cade. Where does she live?”
Serious game? My dad was trying to be hip again, apparently. I lifted one shoulder in a shrug, not wanting to tell him about the pen pals idea, but knowing he’d pester me until I did. “I dunno where she lives, I haven’t looked at it yet. Somewhere in Bloomfield, I think.”
“Bloomfield, huh? The ritzy area. Her pops must be loaded.”
I shrugged again, my standby response to pretty much everything. “I guess. I think he works for Chrysler or something. An executive or vice president. Something like that.”
Dad huffed in sarcastic laughter. “‘Something like that.’ How informative. Did you learn anything definite about her?”
“Her name is Ever Eliot. She lives in Bloomfield. She’s into painting and sculpture. She has a twin sister named Eden.” I wasn’t going to mention the fact that her mom had died in a car accident. It seemed like it would be a breach of confidence to tell him. “She’s beautiful.”
“You like her?”
I shrugged yet again. “I guess.”
“You guess.” He shook his head in frustration and then turned up the radio as “Springsteen” by Eric Church came on, and we both tuned in to listen. When the song ended, he turned it down again. “So this Ever girl aside, how was Interlochen?”
“It was good.”
He waited a few beats, glancing at me expectantly. “Thousands of dollars and three weeks, and all I get out of you is “it was good’?”
Ugh. Adults always wanted more information from me than I ever knew how to give them. “What do you want, Dad, a day by day breakdown? I don’t know. I learned about all sorts of artistic bullshit. Angles, shading, perspective, composition. I tried my hand at oil painting and watercolor. Even tried clay sculpture, which I suck at. I took a class on drawing anatomy, which was pretty awesome. It was camp. I swam. Played basketball with some of the guys from my cabin.”
“And met a pretty girl.”
“And that. Yeah.”
“Sounds like a great time.” He grabbed my shoulder in his iron-hard fist and shook me, which was meant to be affectionate, but ended up feeling rough, like he was trying to be casual, or playful. “Think you’ll go back next year?”
I’d been thinking about that a lot the last few days. “Maybe? I don’t really know. I’m torn. I did have a good time, and I learned a lot, but…it was like a whole extra summer of school, just for art. Summers at the ranch with Gramps…it’s just…different. “
Dad nodded. “Well, think about it, I guess. You’ve got a year. I know Gramps would happy to have you back next summer, but do what you want for you.”
We kept quiet after that, listening to country and classic rock as the miles passed. The closer we got to home, the more pinched and worried Dad’s expression became. I opened my mouth several times to ask him what was wrong, but never actually spoke. He’d pass it off, brush it off, say it was nothing for me to worry about. But if he was still acting stressed or worried after three weeks, there was something going on that my parents weren’t telling me.
At home, I tried to ignore it, but as the summer days dwindled, bringing me closer to the start of ninth grade and my fifteenth birthday, I couldn’t help noticing the whispered conversations while I was watching TV, the increasingly frequent times they left together on mysterious “errands,” or the way Mom seemed to be withdrawing into herself. But when I walked into a room or started to ask Mom if she was okay, she pasted a smile on her face and changed the topic to some variation of whether I needed any more school supplies.
When I got home from my absolutely shitty first day of ninth grade, I sat at my desk in my room with the door closed, dug my American Literature notebook from my backpack, and sat down to write to Ever for the first time.