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SUMMER OF SLOANE by Erin L. Schneider
The condom must’ve broke.Her words, not mine.They belong to McKinley—or Mick, as I’ve called her for as long as I can remember.We stand together near the swings at our favorite park. Fifteen years, we’ve known each other. Fifteen years we’ve been best friends. Our moms met during a playdate at this very park when Mick and I were two, and the rest, as they say, is history.“Wait, what? How? . . . When? . . . Who?” It all stumbles out of my mouth, tripping over my tongue in one incoherent string. But somehow my best friend understands exactly what I’m trying to ask.“Believe me, I know.” She clenches her eyes shut and rubs at a spot on her forehead that creases under her fingertips.“Everything, all of it, it’s such a mess. But I need you to understand—I need you to know—that I never, ever meant to hurt you.”I start to open my mouth to console her, to tell her everything’s going to be okay, that I’m not going to leave her side just because she’s pregnant. But something makes me hesitate, just for a second, as her words begin to register in my head.“What do you mean, you never meant to hurt me?” I stare at her, but now she won’t look me in the eye. In fact, she looks everywhere but at me, and it triggers something inside, some mental warning that’s shouting for me to run, duck, cover . . . anything.That’s when my surroundings turn fuzzy and the playground and all its toys move in and out of focus. I hear little kids playing, enjoying one of the first sunny days of summer vacation here in Seattle. Everyone so happy to be outside after months and months of nonstop rain. They run around the playground laughing and squealing as they swing on the swings and slide down the slides. But I only stand there. Numb. Frozen in place as I try to understand what Mick is saying.And that’s when she unloads the truth. The real zinger, the stab to the heart, the pièce de résistance.“It’s Tyler’s.”Tyler, as in my boyfriend.Oh my God, I can’t breathe.It’s such a simple act, mindless even. We learn to do it the very second we come into this world. But right now it’s anything but simple.I press my hands tight to my chest like that will help. It won’t. The weight of what Mick has just told me settles heavy on my chest and slowly presses down on my lungs.“You’re kidding, right? This is all some big joke?” I stare at Mick as my vision blurs, creating a second version of her in front of me. “When the hell did this happen?”She stares up at the sky like some divine intervention is going to save her. “Last month, at one of Jansen’s parties. You left early because you weren’t feeling well. I think you had the flu or something.” She fights back tears of her own but loses, and quickly scrubs at her cheeks to wipe away any trace of them. “I’m so, so sorry—please . . . please don’t hate me. Oh God.”“Are you serious? I was there for almost the entire party—and afterward, I was literally sick for like an hour!” I close my eyes and try to take in deep, even breaths. But instead, all I get are short, ragged stutters of air. And it’s not enough.Asthma is bad enough on its own, but I’m the lucky victim of these stupid attacks brought on by my own anxiety. There’s a mental trick to combating them, something that took several visits to my doctor to figure out and involves visualizing a swimming pool. My home away from home. I have to build the image in my head from scratch, piece by piece, drop of water by drop of water. Right down to the red-and-white plastic lane lines that float effortlessly on the surface, their only job to divide the pool into equally measured sections.But I’m having a hard enough time focusing on anything, let alone fabricating some pool in my head.Because Tyler and I slept together for the very first time less than three weeks ago. A few weeks after Jansen’s party. Which means Mick and Tyler slept together before that.Before me.Panic sets in as the familiar freeze from lack of oxygen takes over my limbs, one creeping inch at a time, and I close my eyes to try to rein it back in. To try to get some sort of handle on a situation that is clearly out of my control.When my knees hit grass, I know it’s too late. And I can’t stand how humiliating and out of my control all of this is.I try to focus on the image in my head. It’s blurry at first, but before me is an empty pool, with its cool white cement and painted lane lines that race along the bottom, from one end to the other. As the image begins to take shape, drains form along the floor and caged-in metal lights ring the outer rim.I force the pool to fill itself with water, and for a moment, it falters and the pool is empty again. I clench my eyes tighter and focus and watch the water level rise and rise, until it’s right below the lip of the edge, right where it’s supposed to be. Calm turquoise water laps against the side of the pool, the red-and-white lane markers bobbing along the surface.I build the cement pathway around its edges next, then the bleachers one at a time—filling each bench with a crowd that’s silently cheering around me. With every deep, even breath, the scent of chlorine stings my nose, as I focus on the path of water in front of me that’s all mine. Light glistens off the surface, rolling with each ripple like beckoning fingers, taunting me to dive in and go.Fluid. Tranquil. Soothing.“Where’s your inhaler? Mack, your inhaler?”The image of my pool breaks into a thousand tiny shards and is replaced by Mick standing over me, concern pinching the small space between her eyes. I see her mouth moving, but I can’t hear a word she’s saying. I stare at her lips and blink. She’s swiped my bag off my shoulder, but I have no idea why. Something hard and plastic is pressed into my hand and forced to my mouth.My autopilot kicks in, and I suck in two long drags and try to inhale a deep breath through my nose. Around me, the park begins to fall in place, one blade of grass at a time, one giggling toddler after another.After a few more deep breaths, everything snaps back into a hard, sharp focus, and around us, people have stopped and are staring. I can feel the heat flood my cheeks as a few of them ask Mick if we need help. But she only brushes them off. She’s been around me long enough to know exactly what to do.“That’s it, Mack. . . . You’ve got this.”Mack. I’m the other half of Mick and Mack. Nicknames her older brother, Bryson, gave us years ago, a play on her first name McKinley and my last name McIntyre. Nicknames given when everyone realized how inseparable we were. When we ourselves realized that while we may look nothing alike, Mick has always been the left to my right. And I the right to her left.In fifteen years, there hasn’t been a single day we haven’t been there for each other. When I was in the fourth grade, she brought over her favorite stuffed bear and hugged me tight when I found out my parents were getting a divorce and my mom was moving back home to Hawaii. She stood by my side when I was twelve, as I mumbled to my dad that I needed to go to the store for some, er, female products—and then two weeks later, I stood by her when she had the same conversation with her mom. We were together the first time we ever snuck out to toilet-paper Tyler’s house in the ninth grade. And of course as soon as I got my driver’s license, I drove us everywhere, from the mall to all things ballet. . . . Not that I minded; it wasn’t her fault her mother would never let her get her license, let alone a car.When I think back to everything we’ve been through—from the swim meets and the recitals, to the double dates and the dances—there isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for Mick. She’s my best friend.But now I can’t help but wonder if she feels the same way.“Why . . .” My voice catches. I can’t imagine there’s an answer she could give me that would be good enough, but I have to know. Anything that would justify why she slept with my boyfriend of almost a year. Or better yet, explain how she could betray our friendship. “What did I do?”She shakes her head and covers her mouth with an unsteady hand. When she looks away, I know I’m not going to hear a good reason . . . at least not today. And out of everything, her silence is what makes the biggest impact.Then she clears her throat.“Mack, you didn’t do anything. I . . . It just sort of . . .I think . . .” When she takes a deep breath and reaches for my arm to help me up, I can’t help but flinch, like her touch has somehow become electrified. I rise slowly and move away from her. “Mack, please.”I try to swallow the bitter taste my inhaler has left behind, and I hesitate, just for a moment. A fraction of a second where I remember how many times the two of us have been there for each other, no matter what.No matter what.“Tyler and I, we never meant for this to happen. We never meant to hurt you.”And just like that, the feeling is gone. “On what fucking planet do you think the two of you belong together in the same sentence?”She looks as if I’ve slapped her, as tears begin to slide down her cheeks. She reaches for me again, but I take a step back, leaving her hand outstretched.“Don’t . . . don’t touch me.” I reach into my bag to snag my sunglasses and slide them into place.And then I realize something.“Oh my God. The other day when you needed me to take you to the doctor because you weren’t ‘feeling well,’ but didn’t want your mom to know because she’d freak out over nothing.” She only nods, but her lips stay sealed. “Jesus, Mick—I skipped school to take you. I missed my calculus exam. And then you lied and told me it was only some stupid stomach bug. God, you used me.”“No, Mack—that’s not it at all. I needed your help. I still need your help. Please don’t do this.”I can’t help but laugh, even though it feels so out of place. So wrong in this moment. Rubbing my forehead, I try to make sense of anything I’ve just heard, but it’s all one giant and twisted mess that has no answer. “I can’t believe this is happening. . . . I can’t believe you’d do this to me.” I start walking backward. “Just stay away from me. Just leave me the fuck alone.”I turn and leave her standing there and don’t look back. Thank God I’m leaving for Hawaii in the morning. Because, suddenly, I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.
My hands shake as I grip the steering wheel, and I force myself to calm down and release pressure off the gas. The last thing I need right before I leave is a speeding ticket, or worse.I have the strong desire to hit something really hard, but using my car is not the solution. Then I near my house and see Tyler’s car parked in the driveway.I used to get so excited when I saw his car. It was the same feeling I’d get right before a huge swim meet, my nerves a swirling chaos of excitement. But somehow with Tyler it was always ten thousand times better than even that. And I’d actually find myself looking for his vintage gray Mustang wherever I went—school, football games, swim meets.It was even better when I’d spot his car somewhere I wasn’t expecting him to be. Then my stomach would practically turn itself inside out.But now I have to fight back an entirely different feeling brewing deep down inside. It doesn’t help that Tyler is leaning against his passenger door, arms crossed over his chest, waiting for me.I slide my car into the space in the driveway next to his, as he reaches forward to open my door. I resist the urge to climb out the passenger side instead. He can’t see my eyes because of the sunglasses I’m wearing, but I know he doesn’t need to.“You have no idea how sorry I am. Please . . . I can—”“After everything. Everything. I can’t believe you’d do this. And with my best friend!” An almost laugh escapes from my lips as I hear exactly what I just said. “You know what? Forget it. I have absolutely nothing to say to you.” Chin lifted, I walk toward my house, hoping he doesn’t see my bottom lip quiver. He’s an easy foot taller than me, having breached the six-foot mark his sophomore year, but he lags behind as if afraid to keep up.“Sloane, wait—I know you’re pissed, but you have to let me explain.” Oh, he’s going for the full first name right off the bat. Not “Mack” like everyone else here calls me. Not “Slo” like he normally does. But Sloane.“Oh, I don’t have to let you do anything. Besides, I’m pretty sure you’ve done enough.” I’m up the three steps and on the path that leads to the front door when he grabs my arm, forcing me to turn around and face him. I’m almost as tall as him now as I stand on the top step, and he’s below, on my driveway.“Could you please take off your sunglasses?” He holds my elbow, his fingers softly pressing into my skin like he’s trying to keep me from slipping away. I cross my arms tight over my chest. “Come on, Slo.”He reaches up and grips the back of his neck, then slides his fingers up and tugs at his hair. His hair distracts me. It always has. It’s this tangled mess of blond that has the unique ability to tweak in a variety of directions, but still appear amazingly soft. What stops me from wanting to run my own fingers through it like I’ve done countless times before is thinking of Mick doing the very same thing only a month ago.“I don’t know what I can do to prove how sorry I am. And I’m sure there’s nothing I can say—but you need to know, I never, ever, meant to hurt you.” He holds a steady hand near his brow to shield him from the glare of the sun as his gray-blue eyes lock on to mine. He almost seems convincing. Almost. “She doesn’t even matter to me, and you know how much I love you. Shit, I’ve pretty much been in love with you since kindergarten.” He waits a second for me to respond. “Sloane, please—I’ll do anything. Anything you say. Please just forgive me.”My insides churn, and my hands start to shake as I ball them tightly into fists. I open my mouth to tell him exactly what I think, but that’s the very same moment the garage door opens and my dad pushes the lawn mower out. He sees us, smiles, and raises a hand in a wave, then slowly lowers it when neither of us turns his way. He takes the mower and quickly retreats to the side yard.“Come on, Slo, would you just say something?”I wait to respond because I want my dad to be out of earshot before I unleash the real fury. As he disappears out of sight and before I can open my mouth, stupid falls out of Tyler’s.“Sloane, it was only those two times, I swear.”My lips part slightly, and I scoff in utter disbelief. Tyler’s face falls, and I know he now realizes his mistake. That I didn’t know they’d done it twice.I feel the immediate crunch of something breaking, as my fist makes contact with his face, and my hand explodes in pain.“Holy shit that hurts!” I yell, shaking my hand at the same time Tyler cries out, “Jesus Christ!” He’s clutching his nose between his fingers, as blood oozes down the length of his arms and sprinkles the driveway.Red is everywhere. My own hand. Tyler’s face. His T-shirt. The ground around us. I stare at it all, then back up at Tyler, stunned.Oh my God, what did I just do?My dad reappears, whistling, from around the corner. But then the whistling stops.“What the hell’s going on here?” My dad races over and rests a hand on Tyler’s shoulder to stop him from swaying. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to justify what I’ve just done . . . let alone to my father.“I . . . I’m sorry.” I say this more to my dad than to Tyler as I cradle my hand to my chest.“Son, I think it’s time for you to leave.” He goes to the garage and grabs a roll of industrial blue paper towels, then returns and shoves them against Tyler’s chest. “You’re in no shape to drive, so I can either take you home myself or call your mom.”Tyler brushes him off, holding a wad of paper towels to his nose. “I’ve got it, Mr. M.” He looks at me one last time, at first with narrowed eyes, but then they soften. He’s pissed at what I’ve done, but he knows what he did was worse anddoesn’t want to leave it like this. Sometimes it sucks how well I know him. “Sloane . . . ?”“Let’s go, Tyler,” my father says quietly.Without waiting to watch him leave, I turn and walk away.And for the second time today, I don’t look back.
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