“I’m not hungry,” Gemma said, causing the girls to erupt in laughter again.
“You’re a truly beautiful girl,” Lexi commented once she’d stopped laughing. She leaned in closer to her, resting her hand on Gemma’s leg, and stared up at her. “You know that, right?”
“I guess.” Gemma pulled the shawl more tightly around her, relieved to have it covering her. She didn’t know how to take Lexi’s compliment, but it left her feeling both flattered and disturbed.
“You’re a big fish in a small pond, aren’t you?” Penn paced on the other side of the fire, keeping her eyes on Gemma.
“How do you mean?” Gemma asked.
“You’re gorgeous, smart, ambitious, fearless,” Penn explained. “And this is just a seaside attraction. A small town that would dry up if it weren’t for loud tourists wreaking havoc on it every summer.”
“It’s nice in the off-season.” Gemma’s defense of Capri sounded lame even to her own ears.
“I doubt that.” Penn smirked. “But even if it is, you’re still more than this bay will ever be. I’ve seen you out in that water. You swim with strength and grace and unbridled determination.”
“Thank you,” Gemma said. “I’ve been training a lot. I want to go to the Olympics.”
“The Olympics are nothing compared to what you can do,” Penn scoffed. “You have a natural aptitude that is almost impossible to come by. And believe me, I know. We’ve searched.”
That struck Gemma as odd, alarmingly so. To calm her, Lexi began singing again. It was little more than humming this time, but it was enough to keep Gemma sitting on the rock. Her concerns remained, though, even if she didn’t run away.
“Why did you invite me out here?” Gemma asked. “And why’d you want me to swim with you so badly yesterday?”
“I just told you,” Penn said. “You are something rare and special.”
“But…” Gemma furrowed her brow, knowing there was something off about this that she couldn’t pinpoint. “You’re way hotter than I am. You’re more of everything you said I was. What do you need me for?”
“Don’t be silly.” Penn waved her hand. “And don’t worry about any of that.”
“Don’t worry about anything,” Lexi added, and as soon as she’d said it, Gemma felt her worries slipping away, as if she’d never even had them.
“We wanted you to come here and have fun.” Penn smiled at Gemma. “We wanted to get to know each other.”
“What did you want to know?” Gemma asked.
“Everything!” Penn spread her arms widely. “Tell us everything!”
“Everything?” Gemma looked at Lexi uncertainly.
“Yeah, like what you’re doing with that dolt you hang around with,” Thea said from beside her, and Gemma snapped around to look at her. “He’s way beneath you.”
“Dolt?” Gemma bristled when she realized that Thea meant Alex. “Alex is a really fantastic guy. He’s sweet and funny and nice to me.”
“When you look like us, every guy is nice to you,” Thea countered with an even stare. “You realize it doesn’t mean anything. Guys are shallow, and that’s all.”
“You don’t know Alex.” Gemma shook her head. “He is the most genuine person I know.”
“Why don’t we talk about boys another day?” Penn interjected. “They’re too much drama for tonight. Lexi, why don’t you lighten the mood?”
“Oh, right.” Lexi reached down the front of her dress and pulled out a small copper flask. “Let’s have a drink.”
“Sorry, I don’t drink.”
“Penn told me you weren’t afraid of anything,” Thea said, provoking her. “And now you’re scared of a little drink?”
“I’m not scared,” Gemma snapped. “But I’ll get kicked off the swim team if I get caught drinking. I’ve worked too hard for that to throw it away.”
“You won’t get caught,” Penn assured her.
“You guys go ahead and drink,” Gemma said. “It’s more for you.”
“Gemma,” Lexi said, her voice a song again. She held out the flask, but Gemma hesitated to take it. “Drink.”
Then Gemma didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t even think about another option. Her body moved automatically, taking the flask from Lexi, unscrewing the top, and putting it to her lips. It all happened the same way that she took a breath. Motions without thought or reason or control.
The liquid was thick, and it tasted bitter and salty on her tongue. It burned going down her throat, almost as badly as the time she ate too much wasabi. When she swallowed, she nearly gagged. It felt too heavy and hot to get down, but she forced it.
“That’s horrible!” Gemma coughed and wiped her mouth. “What was that?”
“My special cocktail,” Penn said with a smile.
Gemma held the flask away from her, not wanting the stuff anywhere near her. Thea snatched it from her hands, moving quickly, as if Gemma would try to stop her. She threw her head back and swallowed it down in a few big gulps. Just watching Thea drink it like that made Gemma gag for real this time.
Penn shrieked. She ran over to Thea and smacked her across the face, sending the flask flying. Dark burgundy liquid splattered all over the walls of the cove, but the waste didn’t seem to bother Penn.
“That’s not for you! You know better!”
“I needed it!” Thea snarled.
She wiped her mouth, then licked her hand, making sure she got every drop she could. For a second Gemma was afraid Thea might crawl over and lick the liquid off the dirt.
“What was that?” Gemma asked, her words already coming out in a slur.
The cove suddenly pitched to the side, and Gemma grabbed on to Lexi to keep from falling over. Everything swayed around her. She heard Penn talking, but her voice sounded like it was coming from underwater.
“That’s not…” Gemma struggled to talk. “What did you do?”
“You’ll be all right,” Lexi said. She got up and tried to put her arm around Gemma, maybe meaning to comfort her, but Gemma pushed her off.
She stood up and nearly tipped forward into the fire, but Penn caught her. Gemma tried to fight her off, but she didn’t have the strength anymore. All her energy had left her body, and she couldn’t keep her eyes open. The world was fading to black around her.