She rolled over, snuggling closer to him and resting her head on his chest. He put his arm around her, holding her against him. He kissed the top of her head, then breathed in deeply.
“You always smell like the sea,” he said, his voice quiet.
He pulled her even tighter to him, but it was a good tight. It only made her feel safer.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you, and I don’t know why you can’t tell me. I wish you could. But whatever it is, I’ll be there for you. Whatever you’re going through, I’m here. I want you to know that.”
Gemma didn’t say anything. She just closed her eyes and held on to Alex as tightly as she could. At that moment, she vowed that nothing in the world would take her away from him. Not even sirens or age-old curses.
The wall between them was almost visible. Whenever Harper even tried talking to her sister, Gemma would shut down. It didn’t matter what it was about, either. Gemma just didn’t want to say anything to her.
After her talk with Daniel on the boat, Harper wanted to approach their relationship from a different angle, but it was as if Gemma didn’t want a relationship of any kind.
Even when Brian came home, her attitude didn’t get much better. Dinner conversation was stilted and tense. The sad truth was that it was actually a relief when Gemma excused herself and went to her room.
Harper had the next day off, so she drove Gemma to swim practice. Gemma’s car still wasn’t fixed, and with the way she’d been behaving lately, Brian had no intention of fixing it anytime soon. She didn’t seem to care all that much, though. But then again, Gemma didn’t seem to care about much of anything anymore.
After she dropped Gemma off, Harper did something she never thought she’d do—she rummaged through Gemma’s stuff. In a way, Harper almost hoped she’d find drugs. At least that would explain what was going on.
But other than a weird green fish scale tangled up in her sheets, Harper didn’t find anything at all. As far as her room was concerned, Gemma was normal.
Gemma might not have been talking to her anymore, but she had to be talking to someone. Sighing, Harper went next door to talk to the guy whom she still considered one of her best friends.
“Hi,” Harper said when Alex opened his front door.
He leaned in the doorway, his T-shirt pulled against his broad chest in a way that Harper still wasn’t completely used to. Alex had always been tall and lanky, until the beginning of their senior year when he had a somewhat miraculous growth spurt, and even though Harper didn’t care—not the way Gemma or some of the girls at school had started to care—it was still weird to her that Alex was so foxy.
Thankfully, Alex didn’t seem to notice. He hadn’t figured out that he’d gone from geek to hot, and that was good. Harper didn’t think she could’ve handled being friends with him if he’d given up nights playing video games in pursuit of cheerleaders.
“Hi,” he said. “Gemma’s not here.”
“I know. She’s at swim practice.” Harper rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. “Wow. I just realized how sad that is.”
“What?” Alex asked.
“The only time we talk anymore is when I’m looking for my sister.” She rubbed the back of her neck and looked away from him.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” he agreed.
“Can I be honest with you?”
“I always thought you were.”
“It’s weird to me that you’re dating my little sister,” Harper admitted, her words coming out in one breath. “I mean, I never liked you, not like that, you know. But … you were my friend, and she’s my kid sister. And now you’re into her.” She shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s strange to me.”
“Yeah.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down at the steps. “I know. And I felt like I should’ve talked to you about it first before I asked her out.”
“No, no.” Harper waved her hands. “You didn’t need my permission or anything. I just … I feel weird hanging out with you when Gemma’s not around. Like I’m betraying her somehow.”
“No, I get that.” He nodded. “Because you’re a girl, even if you’re not a girl I was ever interested in.”
“Right. Yeah. I’m glad you get it.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
“But … I guess the thing is, you’re my friend.” Harper fidgeted with the ring on her finger, twirling it around. “And I want to be friends again.”
Alex stared at her, looking confused for a moment. “I didn’t know we’d stopped.”
“We haven’t, not really, but it’s been ages since we’ve hung out,” she said. “I think the last time was right after graduation, and that was weeks ago.”
“So … you’re asking to hang out?” Alex asked.
“Yes.” She nodded once. “I am.”
“Like right now?”
“If you’re not busy.”
“I’m not.” He stepped back. “Did you want to come in or something?”
“Actually, do you wanna take a walk? I could really use the fresh air.”
“Uh, sure. Yeah.” He glanced around, as if he thought he was forgetting something, then he stepped outside and shut the door behind him. “Let’s go.”
They walked almost two full blocks before either of them said anything. Harper tried a few times, but she only managed to make sounds and squinted up at the sun. She’d thought a walk would be easier because there would be movement to distract them.
In reality, she didn’t understand why things were so awkward between them. She blamed it partially on Alex, since he was uneasy in normal situations. But a big part of it was her, too. She felt nervous around him.
“So,” Harper said finally. “How is your summer going?”
“Good, I guess.” He shook his head. “I mean, other than what happened to Luke.”
“Oh, yeah.” She grimaced and looked over at him, trying to get a read on how much it upset him, but he just stared down at the sidewalk. “I heard about that. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry. It’s not your fault.” He kicked a rock with his shoe. “I just feel so horrible for his family and everything.”