“So, what’s the 411?” Em asked as he shimmied up to Andrew’s side.
“On where did she come from?” He took a sip of wine and gave Harriet a look over the glass. She was talking to some of the other Octet members who were out mingling. She had taken an interest in Marina Seabic, probably because of her young age. Harriet had told him that she started college at fourteen. Andrew was in high school at that time and waging a war against pimples.
Andrew shrugged it all off. “I met her at the beach this morning. She’s a med student.”
“Doctor?” Em raised his brows at Andrew. “Not your usual type of girl.”
Andrew felt himself turn red and shook his head, trying to put on a face of affront. “She’s just a friend, an acquaintance really.”
“You two didn’t seem like acquaintances when you were dancing together.” Em smiled that mischievous smile that he’d had since middle school, the one that was only made even more wicked by the scar. They had always called him the Joker when they were younger. It fit him in more ways than one. “You’re welcome for that, by the way.”
“Oh, shut up.” Andrew shook his head. It was true though. He knew Em had thrown in that extra song just to make a nuisance of himself as per usual. It had worked.
“All I’m saying,” Em exchanged his empty glass for a new one as a server passed by. "Is that you better scoop her up before someone else does because she is fiiine”
Andrew was two seconds away from karate chopping his best friend in the throat. “So how’s it going with the fiancé?”
Em’s whole demeanor changed and he slicked back his hair with one had as was a habit of his. “I don’t know man. I mean she was all salty before she left to her parents’ house in Montana for the month.”
“How long ago was that?” Andrew asked. He was trying his best to make it look like he wasn’t starring at Harriet as she started up a conversation with Gus Conner, the clarinetist. Thankfully Em didn’t notice how bad he was failing.
“Two weeks ago.” Em finished off the entire drink in one gulp. “She’s crazy man. I mean, I love her, but she’s trippin. Girls man.”
Andrew snorted and finally tore his gaze away from Harriet to face his friend. “Hey, are there Rice Crispies?”
Em still looked miserable, but he said. “You think I’m going to through a party and not have Rice Crispy Treats?”
Andrew laughed and dragged his friend off to go find some food. He looked like he needed some good desert.
The garden was absolutely beautiful. Andrew would have said Em outdid himself, but he knew that this garden roof top had existed for years. It started out as some weird inner-city vegetable garden thing, but they started planting flowers after a while and it wasn’t took long before it was all flowers and shrubs and ponds and gazebos and lights were added. The botany club at the university worked endlessly to keep so many different plants in one place and keep them all thriving. But apart from those dozen or so students, most people didn’t even know this place existed. And it would continue being this way. Em only invited those who knew how to keep a location secret.
They stopped to chat here and there as people approached Em, but they eventually found the server with the Rice Crispy Treats. They were cut into fancy shapes with M&M’s on them or chocolate chips. Andrew snorted at the finery, but Em gave him a look that told him to keep his mouth shut. Andy took one off the platter and held the star shaped treat to his chest.
“Officer.” Em said and tipped his invisible hat to him and they both chortled. Em was tipsy and Andrew was being weird. It was like junior high all over again.
“So how’s Quinn doing?” Em asked as they continued their way through the garden. “It’s a few weeks into school now, right?”
Andrew nodded and shrugged and pursed his lips all at once. “Same old, same old. Better in some ways, worse in others. He prattled off endlessly to Harriet earlier.”
“Did she bug out like the other ones?” Em asked, referring to the way his lady friends always acted around Quinn. They were always creeped out by him, even if he was just a kid.
“Not at all.” Andrew said, looking for Harriet among the foliage. She was nowhere to be seen. “She went along with it. I think he really took to her.”
“Hmm.” Was all Em said, but his scar scrunched up the way it did whenever he was trying to hide a smile. Andrew rolled his eyes. Em could be so annoying sometimes, but he was one of Andy’s only true friends, so he had learned to stand it. And besides that, Andrew knew he wasn’t much better. They’d been so close as kids that they had learned to act and talk and even eat the same way.
Things were different now though. Em was always so busy with the Octets and Andrew, despite his careless mannerisms, worked hard in school. Not to mention assisting Mr. Montgomery, his mentor in the world of designing. He knew just what that internship meant for Harriet. He had been lucky to get a job with Mr. Montgomery, even if it only meant getting his coffee and running to grab bolts of fabric. Andrew had always loved the feel of all kinds of material and the bright colors and the way seemingly random shapes could become the closest cut dress. But despite all that, he learned a long time ago that dressing like he loved clothes was unacceptable in high school locker rooms.
He and Harriet had more in common than she knew.
As if she could read her mind, Harriet Thatcher appeared in front of them as they turned around a corner. She flinched in surprise and a hand flew automatically to her chest.
“Sorry,” She said and the realized it was him. “Oh, I was just looking for you.”
“Rice Crispy Treat?” He said and offered her the last bite of his little dessert.
She looked at the bite-marked edges and went, “Uh, no thank you. I had a couple of those finger sandwiches a couple minutes ago. They were divine.”
Em bit his lip and wiggled his brows slyly at Andrew before giving Harriet a little bow and excusing himself. Harriet watched him walk off before turning back to Andrew. “It’s getting late.”
He glanced at the large clock on a pole wrapped in closed morning glories a few yards away. “It’s eight fifteen.”
She sighed. “I know, but I should probably be getting home.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want to go home.” He didn’t know what to do with the last bit of treat, so he shoved it in his mouth. Harriet watched him do it and though she didn’t have a visible reaction, he instantly regretted it.
She tore her gaze away from him and sighed. “I don’t, but I have nowhere else to go. And besides, I have that—”
“That thing tomorrow.” Andrew finished and she blushed.
He glanced at the clock again. “What time does it start?”
“Four.” She tucked a strand of her beautiful hair behind her ear. “They, uh, they like to dine early.”
Andrew looked at her for a heartbeat before bursting into laughter. “What, so you can’t stay because you have to get sleep so you can go to dinner with a bunch of old farts? Why would you want to do that?”
She looked entirely flustered and didn’t say anything.
He stopped laughing then. He didn’t know why, but something about her face or her hair or something brought up a memory from years and years ago. Probably the most important moment of his entire life.
So he just stood up straight and said, “I know where we’re going.”
Andrew drove right at the speed limit, but it felt to Harriet like they were going one hundred at least. She gripped her seat and sat back, starring ahead at the road as if she could detect every obstacle ahead and somehow avoid it.
“Do we really need to be going so fast?” She asked after a few minutes of him driving at the same speed.
He glanced at her and winced at her posture. She sighed in relief as the car slowed down just enough that her heart settled back into its normal place in her chest.
“Sorry.” He said. “We need to beat the sun.”
She felt her brow wrinkle up. “Why?”
He smiled, but continued looking at the road. “You’ll see.”
God, but this man was frustrating. He was goofy and weird and flirty and funny. And she was how he was with Quinn, so patient and loving, yet able to interfere when he needed to. Now they were hurdling along the coast to an unknown location for an unknown reason. It wasn’t like Harriet could get out of the car, so she just went along with it. She wasn’t scared of him, nor did she think he would try anything with her, but she knew she should really be going home. She would have to face her dad sooner or later.
It wasn’t even her fault, after all. They decided on someone else before Harriet had gotten her chance. And the lady had seemed genuinely impressed with her. The internship she was going for her was the most sought after in LA and if the interviewer for that had been impressed with her, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find another good place. Right?
She hoped he would be able to see it the same way. Hoped that she herself could see it that way because even though she knew it was true, she couldn’t stop the feeling of failure coursing through her body.
Harriet didn’t realize that they’d driven into a parking lot until the car shut off. She blanched and looked around, remembering where she was. There were a few other cars, but this was one of those rare beaches in LA that the tourists didn’t know about, so it was usually only the locals out walking their dogs and children. It was the same beach she was at this morning. God, could it really have only been a few hours since she’d met Andrew? The sight of him throwing himself into the waves for her paper had already been sorted and filed into her memory. It seemed like it had happened a lifetime ago. So long ago that Quinn should be in college and she and Andrew should be in some old folks home somewhere.
That’s how long it felt she knew him.
She shook her head and climbed out of the car and nearly twisted her ankle on a loose piece on concrete.
”Leave them in the car." He said, looking at her shoes. “I come here all the time without shoes.”
She stared up at him like he’d grown a second head. He expected her to just walk around without shoes on?
“The pantyhose too.” He said. “Unless you want them to get ripped up.”
She felt herself turn beat red and he chuckled and rolled his eyes. “You want me to what?”
“It’s not like you’re naked. There’s no one even around.” He turned around as if that made it better and shut the door, leaning up against it.
She took a deep breath. Her shoes were killing her. And her pantyhose were sticking to her skin in an uncomfortable way. She always wore pantyhose with a dress this short. God, the hem was already past her knee! A bold move—her mother’s idea, of course. Her father barely let it pass. But Andrew was still leaning against the car, giving absolutely no hint that he was going to turn around.
So she groaned and took off the heels. Well, wasn’t that a relief? Then she began the process of shucking off her pantyhose. The stretched and rolled and refused to come off her feet until Harriet found herself sitting awkwardly with her foot in the air. She swallowed the embarrassment and quickly pulled it off her foot and put her leg back down. She glanced out at Andrew. He was staring at a couple of seagulls fighting over a scrap of food. She took a deep breath and knocked her knuckle once against the window. He stepped aside and she opened the door and climbed out.
The feeling of her bare feet on the cooling concrete was wonderful. She hadn’t realized how little movement she had in this damn dress until she almost fell flat on her face and Andrew caught her just in time. He straightened her up and she looked down in embarrassment.
“Again, gentleman status.” He reminded her.
“Yes,” She admitted. “You are.”
He smiled broadly at that and he offered her an elbow. She rolled her eyes and linked arms with him.
They walked for a few minutes through the picnic area that was completely unfamiliar to her. It must have been a new addition from her childhood days out here. There were brass railings alongside one of the paths and a sign on the lamp post that had just flickered on that said DO NOT CROSS. So naturally, the first thing Andrew did was leap over it like a cowboy mounting a horse. He held out a hand to her in a way that was becoming a bit of a theme with him.
“But the sign says—”
“Puh-lease.” He went. “I used to play here all the time when I was little and I promise you, I never once died.”
Sometimes she really wanted to smack him. But instead she assessed the height of the rail and decided that it would be better—in her current dress—to go under it. When she emerged on the other side, Andrew led her through a maze of eucalyptus trees and minuscule sand dunes. When they popped out on the other side, something flickered in Harriet’s mind but she ignored it as she took in the great pile of granite boulders. They were covered in sand and smoothed over by both waves and the scrambling hands and feet of children. The waves splashed up against them and mist sprayed up around them.
“Come on.” Andrew said and pulled off his own shoes and socks and left them on the ground before bolting toward the pile.
Harriet followed slowly after him.
The sun was setting out beyond the waves and golden light filled the world. The only sounds were the waves crashing around them and the cries of far off flocks of birds as they took wing. They would all fly south soon in search of warmer weather, but for now the fading sun was enough for them. Andrew scrambled up the rocks like he had spent his entire life doing it, not faltering even once. He stopped about half way up and looked back at her, waiting.
She followed him daintily. It was hard to climb properly in a dress, but it cost a lot of money and she didn’t want to ruin it. So she took her time finding easier paths than those Andrew had taken. It took a couple minutes, but she found herself crouching beside him on the uneven footing.
“Look.” He said, pointing down into the space between two rocks. Harriet’s heart pounded and she felt herself drawing back, wondering if a snake or something was about to jump out at her. She opened her mouth to scream as she saw something emerge, but it was cut off before it had time to escape. Andrew just gave her a wicked look and went, “Scared doctor?”
She glared at him. A little squirrel had popped its fuzzy little head out to look at them. Harriet found herself smiling as another head popped out, their beady eyes taking them in.
“That’s why this is sectioned off.” Andrew explained. “There are various near-endangered species living under these rocks.”
“Oh god.” Harriet gasped and stood up quickly, glancing around. “Then we shouldn’t be here.”
He laughed softly and reached out to the squirrel. Harriet squealed and would’ve pulled his hand away if she weren’t so scarred of being that close to it. “Andrew, don’t.”
“Do what?” He asked and reached out to stroke the little beast. “Don’t do this?”
She watched in amazement as the squirrel allowed Andrew to brush a finger down its head and over its back to its fluffy tail. It rubbed its face with enjoyment before they both slipped back into their den. Andrew smiled as he stood up. Harriet just stared at him.
“What?” He asked. “I come here all the time. Apparently squirrels really like carrots.”
Harriet laughed despite herself and shook her head. “Gentleman and animal charmer?”
“Of all species, yes.” He told her and continued up the rocks. He called back to her, “Hurry up.”
When she had almost reached the top, she found him standing upright on the large, flat rock that made up the peak. She knelt on the rock just beside it, a couple feet lower and she just stared at him. His curly hair was blowing back in the breeze and his entire body was outlined in shimmering gold. He stood with his head back, breathing in the salty sea air and his arms were raised up and out. He looked like he was hugging the sun.
“What are you doing?” Harriet asked.
“I’m becoming one with the universe.” He told her, his head still tipped back to embrace the warmth and light.
Harriet’s heart froze.
“When I was a kid,” He said. “I saw a little girl doing this up here. She looked so peaceful and wild and free. She was everything I wasn’t. So I copied her and… I don’t know. I’ve been doing it ever since. All you have to do is breathe.”
Harriet took that final step up and stood before Andrew. When he glanced down at her, she reached up on her bare toes and kissed him.