Widows who lost their husbands to the sea used to waste away on the beach, staring out, half with longing and half with despair, at the waves that had stolen their love away. Nico had lived on the New York coast for long enough to hear the tales of Wailing Sarah and Mad Charlotte; of the Lighthouse Keeper’s Second Wife and the Nameless Lover who drowned mere months after losing her betrothed to the same ocean. They were the kind of sad, mournful stories that his sister Bianca would have loved--she had always been more enchanted with the idea of romance than the actual thing.
Nico was different. Nico hated the legends, hated every word and name and place they contained. He didn’t see the kind of beauty he was sure that Bianca would have--all he saw was the immense suckiness of life after you lost everything that was precious to you. He liked stories with happy endings, where the heroes won and everyone went for coffee at the end, even the bad guys. He didn’t like the idea of pining after someone who was gone until you yourself disappeared, which just made his current situation all the more ironic.
He slept at the cape, mostly, wrapped up in a thousand blankets and waiting for summer to come back to the coast. The sky was always gray, the sea choppy and uninviting. The drafty cape house was never warm enough, and the salt-soaked wood wheezed in protest every time the wind blew, and all of the pipes froze sometime in October and he was forced to get water from the ancient pump well in the backyard and heat it up on the gas stove. There was no electricity. He had to hike down the cliff to the beach to use the toilet at the surf shack, which he only kept heated out of sheer stubbornness to not leave the sea.
He wasn’t some sea-robbed widow, anyway. He wasn’t lovelorn or desperate or wasting away, or anything that romantic. He just stayed at the cape because someone had to. Even if everybody else had long since left, he knew that someone had to stay behind. Someone had to wait for Percy.
The strangers came to town at the beginning of November, when it was getting truly cold and Nico went around with not-quite-frostbitten ears and numb toes most of the time, except in the surf shack, which was where he met the first of the newcomers.
He ducked in the door just before Nico was about to close the shack, bringing the frigid wind inside with him. It lingered for a second too long after the door was shut, and Nico, who had shed his bulky coat and two sweaters as soon as he’d gotten in that morning, shivered in his shirtsleeves. The boy looked at him apologetically.
He was taller than Nico by at least a foot and a half, if not more; bulky like a football player, with short blond hair and a wide smile. He looked a little too . . . all-American . . . for Nico’s taste, but his eyes--a marbled blue like the sky on a sailing day--were rather like Nico’s cousin, Thalia. “I’m looking for hand warmers. And blankets. And pretty much every other damn thing you have to help us crazy tourists keep warm,” he said, that smile never wavering, even in the face of Nico’s death-warmed-over appearance and impassive stare.
In summer, the shack sold surfboards and wax and sunscreen, and a few emergency supplies in the back with the life preservers and safety jackets, but when the weather turned cold, Nico had stocked it with dried foods, thermal blankets, and lots of other things he ordered off of a wilderness survival site. The extra products had been just enough to keep the store afloat during the slow season, and when all else failed, Nico could always eat the spare MREs.
The boy bought six blankets, Nico’s entire stock of hand warmers, two emergency kits, and a bottle of Coke. He paid in quarters that he dug out of his pockets with agonizing slowness. “Sorry,” he muttered, sheepishly pushing the handful of grimy change across the counter. A stray gum wrapper was trapped between two coins, sticking up like a neon pink battle flag. “This sort of was an . . . unexpected trip.”
Nico made a polite noise of disinterest and counted up the change. Somehow, the boy seemed to think this was encouragement to go on.
“I have this friend who’s looking for her brother,” the boy said, his blue eyes following Nico’s fingers as they stacked quarters in neat dollar piles on the counter. “He’s supposed to be around here, I guess? Anyway, Hazel--that’s my friend--she sort of coerced Frank--uh, that’s another friend of ours--to take her on this road trip. And I went after them, but I wasn’t prepared at all and . . . well, here I am.”
Nico hummed another non-reply and shut the cash drawer. He’d heard far more interesting, not to mention better articulated, stories. “Sixteen cents is your change.” He handed the trio of coins over, doing his best not to flinch when the skin of his hand brushed the other guy’s warm palm. He hoped the customer would leave soon.
“You wouldn’t happen to know of a guy around here with a sister, would you?” the boy asked, and gave a sorry kind of laugh, sheepishly running a broad hand through his hair. “I guess that’s kind of a broad criteria.”
“There aren’t any guys around here,” Nico retorted. “Everyone left for the summer.”
“You didn’t,” the boy replied. Nico didn’t answer.
The guy was back the next day, this time for Mallowmars and a half-gallon of milk. “We’re renting the gable house up on the cliff,” he said, and Nico tried not to look surprised. The house the boy was talking about was only a ten minute walk from Nico’s own; they were practically neighbors. Of all the vacant houses along the beach, what were the odds that the newcomers would pick that one?
“You’re staying?” he asked, not sure why he cared. Crazy tourists on crazy impromptu quests--none of his business.
“We have to find Hazel’s brother,” the boy said, so full of earnestness and wide-eyed optimism that Nico wanted to puke. “I’m Jason, by the way.” He stuck his big hand out over the counter.
Nico stared at it and arched one eyebrow. He grabbed Jason’s hand with two fingers, as if it was a piece of garbage he was too disgusted to handle, and pointedly moved it away from himself, back across the counter. Jason laughed. “Usually, you’re supposed to just shake. Cool eyebrow trick, though.”
It had been a long time since someone had laughed at his attitude. Nico didn’t like it.
Jason leaned on the counter, making it clear he wasn’t going anywhere, and said, “You’re turn. What’s your name? I won’t try to shake your hand again, promise.”
“Nico.” It was habit, built in from years of his sister prompting him to introduce himself, lecturing him on proper manners, telling him--again and again--that if he couldn’t learn to be social, he’d never get a boyfriend. Bianca had been a stickler for manners. Bianca would have liked Jason. She would have shaken his hand.
“That sounds foreign,” Jason said. Prying. All people pried; it was a fact. It was impossible, or nearly impossible, to have a conversation without someone prying, under the guise of being polite. That was the main reason Nico had stopped talking to people, long before he’d taken up with his self-imposed solitude. Still, he found himself giving the boy the information he was asking for.
“I’m half Italian. I moved here when I was eight.”
“Dude, awesome,” Jason said, sounding like he really did think that was awesome. It wasn’t surprising. He struck Nico as the type of guy who got unnaturally enthusiastic about things like Pop Tarts and meeting new people. “Can you, like, speak Italian?”
Nico gave him the same response he gave every person who asked him that dumb question--a long line of Italian curses that basically insulted the hearer, the hearer’s family, the hearer’s pets, and the Chinese food guy that never had an order ready on time. The language flowed easily off his tongue, but only because he’d rehearsed it a dozen times with a dozen other idiots. He hadn’t held a true conversation in Italian in years; he wasn’t sure if he still could.
“Now teach me what it means,” Jason commanded, and then laughed. “You probably just cussed me out or something, right?”
“Right,” Nico said, but it was getting harder and harder to not be drawn into conversation. The boy was so animated, it was like being pulled into an irresistible rip tide.
It had been a long time since Nico had felt like that.
They both stuck around the shack for long enough that it was evident they were making excuses to stay, but when the sun started to go down, Nico had to give it up. “I have to go.” He wasn’t too concerned about walking back in the dark; there weren’t enough people around for the coast to be considered dangerous; but it would only get colder from here, and he wasn’t so crazy about being found in the spring, frozen on the path up the cliff like a badly dressed popsicle.
“My friends are probably worried,” Jason admitted. “But, hey, you should come over for dinner.” He paused. “We haven’t really settled in, so it might be canned salmon, but you should still come.”
“I eat salmon,” Nico said.
He shut off the lights and locked the door, and Jason helped him unroll the shutters over the two wide windows, the sliding sand giving way under their sneakered feet so that their walk was as rollicking as if they were at sea. It only took a few seconds to close up, much more quickly than when Nico had to struggle with the task himself.
They walked the few yards from the shack to the end of the beach, where the sand faded into a packed dirt path that wound its way up the side of the cliff overlooking the sea. At the top of the cliff was Nico’s cape, but the two of them didn’t go that far. They stopped at the gray gable house with its unfinished wooden porch and tall, Colonial-style windows on each of the three floors. There was an old, obviously secondhand car parked on the lawn in front, and Jason navigated around it to get up the steps. He beckoned for Nico to follow him, and then pulled a chain out from under his shirt. On it was strung a dull bronze key that he used, after a second of awkward stooping and fumbling, to unlock the door with.
Jason’s house still had electricity, and heat, and Nico nearly sighed in relief as he went in and was engulfed with warmth and the sharp, comforting smell of roast tomatoes and garlic. The wind still bruised the walls and seeped in through cracks, but it was hardly noticeable when there was a fire crackling in the grate and a curly-haired girl coming out from the kitchen with the words, “I’ve made spaghetti,” on her lips.
It didn’t feel like home, exactly, but it reminded him of summer.
“Oh, this is Hazel,” Jason said casually, gesturing to the girl as he kicked off his sneakers and shed his coat. “Hazel, this is Nico. He works down at the surf shack.”
Nico ducked his head. He felt too salt-crusted and rusty to smile, fiddling nervously with the hem of his ratty black sweater, but Hazel beamed at him anyway and took his cold hands in hers. “You look skinny,” she said reproachfully. “Come on into the kitchen, and we’ll get you a proper meal.”
Hazel gave him a big bowl of spaghetti and sat him down at the wooden kitchen table, sliding his well-worn bomber jacket off of his shoulders to hang up by the door. Her eyes--brown and wide--reminded him of Bianca’s. She smiled a lot, but it never really took to her face, hanging there like a lopsided wall decoration. She asked lots of questions, just like Jason had. Nico had forgotten how much people liked to talk.
“I live in the cape,” he said when she asked, and she nodded once and pursed her lips. He felt the need to add, “It isn’t usually empty. My friends are coming back.”
“When?” she asked.
He twirled strands of thick spaghetti around his fork, and shrugged.
“You seem awfully young,” she pressed, and Nico looked up sharply.
“How old are you?” he retorted defensively, and there was that smile again--a little too tight, a little too shadowed.
“I’m sixteen,” Hazel said tightly. A year older than him; hardly in a position to be lecturing him about his choices, especially considering what Jason had told him about this half-assed trip.
“Don’t grill him, Haz,” Jason said, sitting down next to Nico and giving him a reassuring grin. His smile was all-too-believable. “He came for a meal, not the third degree.” He reached over Nico’s bowl to grab a pepper shaker and doused his own portion, digging in as if he hadn’t eaten in a month.
Hazel sat down, too, but her gaze never left the pale boy sitting across from her. She folded her hands on the table. “I’m just curious,” she defended herself, and then raised her voice to call, “Frank, for heaven’s sake, come in and get your food.”
A boy--taller than Jason, and nearly twice as broad--lumbered into the room. His short, dark hair was mussed as if he’d been napping and forgot to straighten it, and his eyes were an even darker brown than Hazel’s, nearly black. He reminded Nico of a vaguely Asian Incredible Hulk. Big as he was, he looked at Nico nervously, as if afraid the shorter boy would bite.
“Aaand, finally making an appearance,” Jason said good-naturedly, “our boy, Frank.”
Their boy Frank seemed even more antsy than Nico felt, and busied himself with his bowl of spaghetti almost immediately, sitting down next to Hazel as if expecting her to protect him, which was ridiculous but kind of cute.
“Frank, this is Nico. He’s our neighbor,” she said. She reached over with a napkin and wiped splattered sauce off of Frank’s chin. He turned bright red.
Jason winked at Nico. “Frank’s had a crush on Hazel for ages, and she’s pretending she doesn’t know.”
Frank spluttered and Nico, to everyone’s surprise--including his own--laughed.
The cape was cold when he returned to it. Nobody was back; he hadn’t really expected them to be. It had been weeks.
Nico wasn’t one to sit around feeling sorry for himself. For the first time since summer, he kindled a fire in the main room; digging out dry wood from the box by the door, pulling the well-used tinder box from its place on the mantlepiece. He had to stand on a chair to get to the silver container, tucked out of reach behind an ancestral urn and a statue of a hawk. He remembered Percy retrieving the box every night, before every fire, using his stupid lanky height to reach things that Nico, still in the five foot zone, could not.
He laid out the supplies, just like Percy used to, closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of ash and must and chocolate, preserved in the tinder box from its last use. The smell brought the summers back to him, the long months of just the right balance of heat and sea air, the nights when the cousins would crowd around the grate he was sitting in front of now. He could almost hear Percy’s girlfriend, Annabeth, scolding them to be careful, and Bianca’s bright laughter as she recounted--for the thousandth time--how Nico nearly burned down their house once because he wanted to recreate a scene from Transformers with his Monster Truck. He could almost feel the brush of a warm hand against his as they both reached into the box at the same time.
“Why can’t I start the fire tonight?”
“Maybe when you’re older, little dude.”
“I’m older now,” Nico muttered rebelliously, and opened his eyes, dispelling the memory. He picked out a few pieces of tinder, scattering them among the twigs in the fireplace and snapping the box closed again. It only took a few strikes on the flintstone to ignite the small pile, and before long he was adding bigger and bigger logs to the blaze.
The fire was the most life that the cape had seen since August. Nico drew closer to it, sitting on the floor with his back resting against the coffee table, and wrapped a blanket around his knees. It was hard not to remember, especially when he was in a mood to.
That last night, it had been Percy’s birthday. Annabeth had found “Ring of Fire” on her hand-me-down laptop and they’d all been drunk enough to think it was a good idea to play it on repeat, again and again and again. The fire had burned twice as high as it ever had, and Percy’s brother Tyson, who was visiting from college, started waltzing with himself in the middle of the living room. Everyone had laughed, in that good-natured, loving way that families did, and Nico had been happy. Nico had been really happy.
He stayed watching the flames until they had burned out and the sun peeked over the horizon, turning the black sky gray. He saw only the past; heard only the echoes of words spoken long ago. The sirens in the distance were nothing but background noise.
“Frank’s in the hospital!” Jason cried, blocking Nico’s attempt to open the surf shack for the morning. Nico had seen him pacing in front of the shack from yards away, the shock of blond hair and bright green sweatshirt like a neon sign against the pale sand, pale sky, gray sea.
“He is?” Nico asked impatiently, not sure why this was any of his business or why the boy was under the impression that one dinner made them the kind of friends who cared about this sort of thing. Jason ran both of his hands through his short hair, prowling in circles like a lion caged against its will. “Hazel’s with him now; he collapsed last night. I went looking for you.”
If there had been pounding on his door, Nico had ignored it. Or maybe he hadn’t heard it at all. He was unsure; he’d been in and out of consciousness, his thoughts like dreams and his dreams like thoughts and the line between awake and asleep as blurry as the fire he gazed into. “I wasn’t home last night,” he said. It wasn’t a complete lie.
Jason reached into the pocket of his baggy jeans and pulled out a set of car keys, jangling them in his hand. “Well, you’re here now, so come on. Let’s go.”
“To the hospital,” Jason said impatiently. “Frank needs his friends right now.”
Nico stared at him. “I’m not his--”
“Come on,” Jason interrupted him, grabbing his arm and dragging him away from the shack. Nico stumbled in the sand, crashing into Jason’s broad back, and the taller boy seized him by the hood of his parka to upright him, not slackening his pace until they crossed over the path that led up the cliff and into the lot set aside for day-tourist parking. He piloted Nico towards the only car, the old Ford Taurus that had been parked in the yard of the gable. In the daylight, Nico could see that it was a rusted, faded blue, with several scrapes in the paint and a missing hubcap.
The inside was littered with McDonald’s bags and Burger King boxes, which Jason shoved impatiently aside before starting the engine. Nico hesitantly climbed into the passenger seat, and Jason pulled out of the lot before either of them had locked a seat belt in place.
Nico might have worried about kidnapping, but he didn’t. Instead, he just watched the dunes fade into scrub and the occasional stand of trees. The nearest town--a tourist trap named Bath--was only a few miles away, just far enough to not be visible from anywhere but the roof of the cape, the highest point in the area. It only took ten minutes to get there by car--seven if you were speeding, as Jason was--, and the Taurus pulled onto Main St. before Nico could change his mind and demand for Jason to take him back to the coast.
Bath was a small town, even by Long Island standards. There was one road for houses, one for tacky shops, and one for the state facilities--post office, school, town hall, and hospital. That was it. Jason pulled onto State Rd. and nearly crashed into a car that was parked in a handicapped spot outside of the town hall. Correcting himself, he resumed his breakneck speed until they reached the St. Cross Hospital and Hospice.
Nico fumbled with his seatbelt, eager to get out of the madman-piloted car, legs shaky as he stepped out onto solid ground in relief.
Jason was already sprinting up the hospital steps, one-two-three at a time, and Nico felt he had no choice but to follow, no matter how much he hated St. Cross, with its bleach-scrubbed halls and rooms with natty pink and green blankets, smelling of medicine and iodine and death. He’d come along, after all.
Later, when Jason and Hazel were nodding somberly and the doctor was throwing around words like “remission” and “radiotherapy” and “carcinoma”, Nico sat in a chair with his hands clasped between his knees. He was sweating in his bulky jacket, but he didn’t dare take it off for fear of losing the one good coat he had. The waiting room smelled like peppermints. The magazines on the table in front of him were all crap, and the cautionary pamphlets freaked the hell out of him. He knocked one combat boot against the heel of his other, twined his fingers together and separated them, looked up, and saw an intern staring at him.
He was blond, like Jason, but his hair was longer and curly, held in a small ponytail at the base of his neck with an elastic. It wasn’t a very efficient style; most of his hair was too short to reach the tie, and danced around his cheeks and forehead in a shaggy mess. He didn’t look old enough to be volunteering at a hospital, but his scrubs and name tag said differently. He was carrying a plate of cookies, and wearing battered DCs, which couldn’t be standard protocol. He was also walking in Nico’s direction.
Nico looked at him.
He looked back, gaze as blue as the ocean that had stolen Percy away.
“My--someone I know is sick,” Nico said stupidly, stilling his restless feet. He laced his fingers together and muttered, “I hate hospitals.”
The intern offered him a cookie off of the plate. “Everyone hates hospitals, sunshine. Heck, I hate hospitals, and I work here. Sort of. Anyway, I’m sure your friend will be better soon.”
Nico bit into a cookie. It was slightly burnt; it broke like a gingersnap. “I’m not so sure.”
The intern snorted. “Points for optimism.”
“I’m going to be optimistic,” Hazel told him, the smile on her face every bit as forced as it had been since the first moment he’d met her. She browsed idly though the rows of fake flowers, trailing her fingers over the plastic blossoms as she walked, swinging her purse in her other hand. She looked casual and unworried; Nico didn’t buy it. “He went into remission once--it can happen again.”
Nico refrained from pointing out that Frank’s chances of survival would be higher if he had kept up with his scheduled treatments back home, instead of running off to the seaside in the middle of winter.
“And it’s only been a week,” she went on. “We need to be patient.” As if it was Nico who had been on edge for that week, showing up at his door every day with a new question, new worry. He didn’t know why Hazel turned to him for support; he just knew that she did, and he felt compelled to give it, even if the idea of him helping anyone was ironic.
Nico picked out a few fake hydrangeas.
“Not those, they make Frank sneeze,” Hazel said testily.
Nico cocked an eyebrow. “They aren’t real, Haz.” He’d picked up Jason’s affectionate nickname for her as easily as he’d picked up the role of her confidante; he’d fallen so effortlessly into their group that some days he wondered if he wasn’t just having a crazy dream in which his personality had been swapped for that of a person who bonded quickly with other people.
Hazel blushed, set down the handful of flowers she was picking out, and scrubbed at her face with her sleeve. “I knew that,” she muttered, clenching her free hand around the hem of her sweatshirt.
He looked away, and pretended not to notice the fresh tears spiking in her eyes as he patted her back.