Beach Read

Page 8

“Everett!” as Pete was calling affectionately from behind the desk.

My neighbor, the Grump.

I did what any reasonable adult woman would do when confronted with her college rival turned next-door neighbor. I dove behind the nearest bookshelf.


The Mouth

THE WORST PART of being college rivals with Gus Everett? Probably the fact that I wasn’t sure he knew we were. He was three years older, a high school dropout who’d gotten his GED after spending a few years working as a literal gravedigger. I knew all of this because every story he turned in our first semester was part of a collection centering on the cemetery where he’d worked.

The rest of us in the creative writing program were pulling fodder from our asses (and childhoods: soccer games won in the last instant, fights with parents, road trips with friends), and Gus Everett was writing about the eight kinds of mourning widows, analyzing the most common epitaphs, the funniest, the ones that subtly betrayed a strained relationship between the deceased and the person footing the headstone’s bill.

Like me, Gus was at U of M on a slew of scholarships, but it was unclear how he’d gotten them, since he played no sports and hadn’t technically graduated from high school. The only explanation was that he was atrociously good at what he did.

To top things off, Gus Everett was stupidly, infuriatingly attractive. And not the universal kind of handsome that almost dulls itself with objectivity. It was more of a magnetism he emanated. Sure, he was just barely on the tall side of average, with the lean muscle of someone who never stopped moving around but also never intentionally exercised—a lazy kind of fit that came from genetics and restlessness rather than good habits—but it was more than that.

It was the way he talked and moved, how he looked at things. Not, like, how he saw the world. Literally how he looked at things, his eyes seeming to darken and grow whenever he focused, his eyebrows furrowing over his dented nose.

Not to mention his crooked mouth, which should’ve been outlawed.

Before she dropped out of U and M to become an au pair (a pursuit soon abandoned), Shadi would ask me nightly at dinner for updates on Sexy, Evil Gus, sometimes abbreviated as SEG. I was minorly besotted with him and his prose.

Until we finally spoke for the first time in class. I was passing out my latest short story for critique, and when I handed it to him, he looked me dead in the eyes—his head tilted curiously—and said, “Let me guess: Everyone lives happily ever after. Again.”

I wasn’t writing romance yet—I didn’t even realize how much I loved reading romance until Mom’s second diagnosis two years later, when I needed a good distraction—but I was definitely writing romantically, about a good world, where things happened for a reason, where love and human connection were all that really mattered.

And Gus Everett had looked at me with those eyes, deepening and darkening like they were sucking every bit of information about me into his skull, and he’d determined that I was a balloon in need of popping.

Let me guess: Everyone lives happily ever after. Again.

We spent the next four years taking turns winning our school’s writing prizes and contests but managed to barely speak again, unless you counted workshops, during which he rarely critiqued anyone’s stories except mine and nearly always showed up late without half his stuff and asked to borrow my pens. And there was one wild night at a frat party where we’d … not quite talked, but definitely interacted.

Frankly, we crossed paths constantly, partly because he dated two separate roommates of mine and plenty of other girls on my floor—though I use the term dated loosely. Gus was notorious for having a two-to-four-week dating shelf life, and while the first roommate had started things up with him hoping to be the exception, the second (and plenty of the others) went in fully aware Gus Everett was just someone you could have fun with, for up to thirty-one days.

Unless you wrote short stories with happy endings, in which case you were apparently far more likely to spend four years as rivals, pass another six occasionally Googling him to compare your careers, and then run into him here while dressed like a teen cheerleader at a car wash fundraiser.

As in, here. Now. Walking into Pete’s Books.

I was already planning what I would text Shadi as I power walked down the side of the store, chin tucked and face angled into the shelves like I was casually browsing (whilst practically jogging, as one does).

“January?” Pete was calling. “January, where’d you go? I want you to meet someone.”

I’m not proud to admit that when I froze, I was looking at the door, judging whether I could make it out of there without responding.

It’s important to note that I knew for a fact there were bells over the door, and I still couldn’t make an immediate decision.

Finally, I took a deep breath, forced a smile, and stepped out from between the shelves, clutching my god-awful latte like it was a handgun. “Hiiiiiiiiii,” I said, then waved in a distinctly animatronic way.

I had to force myself to look directly at him. He looked just like he did in his author photo: all sharp cheekbones, furiously dark eyes, and the leanly muscled arms of a gravedigger turned novelist. He was wearing a rumpled blue (or faded black) T-shirt and rumpled dark blue (or faded black) jeans, and his hair had started streaking through with gray, along with the just-past-five-o’clock shadow around his crooked mouth.

“This is January Andrews,” Pete announced. “She’s a writer. Just moved here.”

I could practically see the same realization dawning on his face that had just crashed down on mine, his eyes homing in as he pieced together whatever bits of me he’d caught in the dark last night.

“We’ve met, actually,” he said. The fire of a thousand suns rushed to my face, and probably my neck and chest and legs and every other exposed inch of my body.

“Oh?” Pete said, delighted. “How’s that?”

My mouth fell open silently, the word college somehow evading grasp, as my eyes shifted back to Gus’s. “We’re neighbors,” he said. “I believe?”

Oh, God. Was it possible he didn’t remember me at all? My name was January, for shit’s sake. It wasn’t like I was a Rebecca or a Christy/Christina/Christine. I tried not to think too hard about how Gus could have forgotten me, because doing so would only take my complexion from overcooked lobster to eggplant. “Right,” I think I said. The phone beside the register began to ring, and Pete held up a finger excusing herself as she turned to answer it, leaving us alone.

“So,” Gus said finally.

“So,” I parroted.

“What sort of thing do you write, January Andrews?”

I did my best not to glance sideways at the stadium of Revelatories curling around the table behind me. “Romance, mostly.”

Gus’s eyebrow arched. “Ah.”

“Ah, what?” I said, already on the defensive.

He shrugged. “Just ‘ah.’”

I folded my arms. “That was an awfully knowing ‘just ah.’”

He leaned against the desk and folded his arms too, his brow furrowing. “Well, that was fast,” he said.

“What was?”

“Offending you. One syllable. Ah. Pretty impressive.”

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