Chapter 1: Red Flags
Everly stepped inside the familiar lime-green house that contained so many of her fondest memories. She inhaled the salty air filling every crevice of the beachside home and savored the freedom she gained by walking through the doorway. Come hell or high water she’d never leave again.
Before she could make any other silent oaths, her fatigued best friend dropped the bags in her hands and huffed.
“Finally,” Cady threw herself onto the weathered sofa resting in the living room. The blindingly white walls made the inside of the house glow in the evening sunshine. Everly squinted to see Cady bury her face inside the couch pillows. “If we had to drive for another hour, I would have died.” Her muffled voice made Everly chuckle.
“It wasn’t as bad as the drive up,”
“Only because you didn’t throw up on the side of the road this time.”
Everly’s hand instinctively covered her stomach at the memory. That was the last time she’d ever eat at a seafood restaurant on the way out of town.
She grabbed a pillow from the couch and threw it onto Cady’s collapsed body, “Still an upgrade.”
Cady groaned in response before pulling herself out of the sofa’s gravity. Her hair formed a golden halo around the crown of her head and fell out of the loose ponytail she put it in that morning. She rolled her eyes at the ceiling, “We should ditch the party,”
Everly raised her eyebrow at the idea. Her best friend lived for the summer bonfire on the beach. Missing their annual tradition was never even discussed. Before she could respond, Cady crawled off the couch and groaned with each movement, “I just don’t know if I can go on.”
Her theatrics brought a smile to Everly’s face. “Yeah okay, drama queen,”
Cady bounced to her feet, “As if I’d pass up the first beach trip we’ve had in a year.”
Everly faked relief and brushed her hand over her forehead, “Thank God, I thought you were possessed.”
“Yeah, I’m sure demons are real party poopers.” Cady grabbed her abandoned bags and bounded up the stairs with Everly following close behind. Luggage in tow, Everly joined Cady in the neon blue bedroom where they took refuge throughout the years.
Cady laughed, “Remind me to buy paint this summer.”
“And cover this electric color?” Everly teased, “Never.”
Cady rolled her tired eyes and threw her bag onto the neatly made bed. Cady’s mom must have straightened up for us. In all the years they had known each other, Everly had never seen the room completely clean. She was in awe of the vacuumed beige carpet.
“Get dressed,” Cady tossed her top at Everly and dug her bathing suit out of the bundle of clothes now dumped onto her bed.
Everly sighed and followed Cady’s lead. Their drive down from school took much longer than either of them planned. After days on the road, they were finally home.
They could stand to be a little late to the party but instead, they raced to get ready.
Cady ran into the adjoined bathroom and stared at herself in the mirror. She pulled down the bags under her eyes and turned to Everly, “You see these? They’re from Chemistry.”
Everly pulled pieces of her messy hair over her ears and tied up the rest. She considered the auburn waves a lost cause for the night.
“I told you to let that guy help you,” She paused, “What was his name? Will?”
Cady covered the dark circles with concealer, “Warren.” Her voice lowered as she said his name but she recovered moments after. “I prefer to fail on my own.”
Everly shook her head and her ponytail bounced behind her. She tied on the top of her black bikini and lathered her pale skin with sunscreen. Cady cupped her hands for her own protection from the sun.
They learned early in life that a sunburn was never worth the few extra minutes it took to prevent it. Especially after they peeled for an entire month when they were twelve.
After getting rid of the white shimmer on their faces with powder, they grabbed their beach towels and slipped on their shoes.
“Oh, before I forget,” Cady walked through the bathroom and opened the door on the other side, “This is your room.”
Everly carried her bags to the connected room and glanced over the single bed and white walls. She had only seen it a handful of times and she remained unimpressed.
“Mom made the bed for you before she left,” Cady retreated back to her room and left Everly to drop her clothes by the door. She glanced at the neatly tucked comforter and almost felt bad knowing she wouldn’t make use of it that night.
“You coming?” Cady yelled from downstairs and told Everly to hurry up, “We’re going to be super late. We’ll miss the keg off!”
“Race you there,” Everly said as she bounded down the stairs two steps at a time. Her silver anklet around jingled with every movement. She passed a bewildered Cady and sprinted out of the house.
Cady swore behind her, “You’re not supposed to run in sandals you freak!”
Laughter filled the street as she pushed herself to keep running. The salty summer air whipped around her. Her skin warmed underneath the harsh sun and she slowed only when her lungs began to ache.
“Tired already?” Cady jogged beside her with a grin stretched across her face, “Coach Lager would be disappointed.”
Everly glanced at Cady’s green sandals and raised her eyebrow.
Cady, already knowing what she was thinking, scoffed, “Well, I wasn’t going to let you have all the fun.” She slowed to Everly’s pace.
“I had to let you catch up,” Everly cocked her head to the side and nudged her best friend. They had come a long way since running track together in school. Mainly, Everly’s endurance diminished during her freshman year at college.
The northern air did little to support a healthy running habit and over time, she stopped.
But Cady never could.
They rounded a corner and followed a stone path through the trees. The hideaway beach was familiar to all the locals and their adventurous teenagers. It only seemed fitting that the bonfire was held there.
“Think we missed anything?” Everly asked as they marched down the path.
“Other than a year’s worth of Jackson’s lackluster pranks?” They both snickered. Everly thought about how even he would be gone by the end of the summer.
The sun beamed onto their skin as they stepped out of the trees and onto the hot sand. Warmth. Sherfield island provided all of its inhabitants with an abundant supply of blistering weather. It was unmatched by any of the rare warm days at Hillview University.
Everly wanted to bask in it all evening.
They walked down the beach until they could see dark smoke rising up to the sky. Everly pulled off her sandals and ran to the party with Cady at her heels. The blaring music filled her ears as she ran.
Cady sped up and sprinted beside her with a gleam in her eye. The crowd danced around the secluded beach and cheered for the boy upside down on the keg. Everly raced there first and saw Jackson holding the stopwatch.
His soft blonde hair appeared darker than it had before she left for school and his shoulders stretched the light-blue t-shirt he wore. The once endearing roundness of his face had disappeared and left behind a perfectly sculpted jaw. What else is new?
Cady elbowed her and dipped her head in Jackson’s direction. Clearly, she was thinking the same thing.
The boy fell off the keg with an exalted cheer erupting through the crowd.
“Fifteen seconds!” Jackson announced as the boy struggled to find his balance. He wobbled over the sand but pumped his arm in the air regardless. “Who’s next?”
Cady pushed Everly forward with a mischievous look plastered onto her face.
Everly stumbled towards the front and mouthed for Cady to go fuck herself. The crowd buzzed as she raised her hand and joined Jackson by the keg.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” Golden freckles were splattered around his eyes and nose. A familiar glimmer appeared as he searched through the crowd, “Is Cady with you?”
“She’s hiding like a coward in the back,” Everly said loud enough that she could hear.
A single middle finger rose from above the horde of tipsy teenagers.
Jackson chuckled, “Right, let’s see if college has improved your score or not.”
Everly grabbed the handles of the keg while the spotters grabbed her legs. In an instant, the world was upside down and blood swirled to her head. She parted her lips for the spout and waited for Jackson to start the party.
The timer beeped and beer flooded her mouth with no intention of slowing down. Everly swallowed the brown liquid before it could fill her mouth and ruin her score. Focus. Her head buzzed from the rush and heat beaming down on her upturned body.
She could hear Cady shouting over the rest of the party like a mad man.
“Fifteen seconds!” Jackson’s voice sunk down to her ears while she concentrated on sucking down the beer.
Her wrists burned underneath her weight and her dull red hair fell onto the keg. Ten more seconds. The beer slowed as she chugged. A wave of pride rushed over her the longer she stayed on. The world faded into the distance but the keg continued pouring into her.
Her mouth filled after a second of hesitation. Fuck.
Everly tapped her fingers against the handle and the timer peeped. Jackson shut off the valve and the spotters lowered her to the ground. The beach spun around her like a nauseating carnival ride.
Damn. She groaned at her short-lived success. Jackson leaned down and stared into her eyes, “You good?”
Everly nodded and wondered when he got so tall. “Just spinning a little,”
“Are you going to throw up?”
She hesitated and considered the possibility. Her head ached from the sudden rush but her stomach began to settle. “Me?” She tossed back her head and laughed despite the discomfort that came with it, “I would never.”
Jackson rolled his eyes, “Alright, big shot.” He turned his attention to Cady who was already approaching.
She nodded at Everly, “Time to break that record.”
Cady winked and bent over the keg. The spotters grabbed her at the knees and helped her into position.
After years of practice, drinking became an art.
Jackson whistled, “Someone’s been practicing.” His eyes hovered over Cady’s stable figure. Gravity pushed her chest toward her face and strained the orange string bikini tied around her.
Everly cleared her throat with humor in her eyes. Everyone knew Jackson was interested in Cady. Especially after senior prom.
He snapped out of the trance and placed the spout into her mouth. “Ready?” He asked with his hand on the valve.
Cady mumbled something along the lines of get on with it before Jackson rolled his eyes and started the timer.
The heat bared down on Everly while she cheered for her best friend.
Her thoughts were slow as if they were moving through syrup. The summer bonfire was a Sherfield tradition. She glanced around the beach and recognized almost every face.
She glanced back just as Cady tapped her fingers against the keg handle. Fuck.
Cady came down from her perch and braced herself against the keg.
“Twenty-one seconds,” Jackson said while checking on Cady. Her eyes were shut tight and she was sucking in deep gasps of air.
Sand slung around Everly’s feet as she rushed to Cady’s side.
Her eyes opened and she turned to face Everly’s concerned expression, “I need to work on my swallow game.”
Jackson and Everly shook their heads. A smile crept up on Everly’s face as the color came back to Cady’s cheeks.
“Don’t scare me like that,” Everly reached out her hand to support her friend, “If you pass out I’ll have to carry your ass home.”
Cady winked, “Don’t act like you don’t want to take me home.”
“Get a room.” Jackson said before pulling the stopwatch out again.
Cady’s slender fingers wrapped around Everly’s with a gleam in her eyes, “Don’t mind if I do.”
Everly followed Cady's rushed footsteps through the sand. She had seemingly recovered enough to make a dramatic exit.
Her skull buzzed as they approached the growing fire. Heatwaves wiggled through the air and fading sunlight. Cady lifted her arms and twirled in loose circles. She fell to the ground in a fit of giggles.
Before Everly could join her, a pair of arms wrapped around her bare waist and lifted her off the ground.
“Thought you’d never come back, Evie.” A familiar voice said as she was spun around. The faded orange sky blurred into the distant trees.
“Evan,” Everly’s laughter mixed with his, “Put me down already.”
The arms loosened and her feet hit the sand. She spun around to face the freckled fiend behind her. His grin stretched from ear to ear, “You missed my graduation, asshole.”
“You missed mine.”
“I had to get my wisdom teeth taken out and you know it.”
Everly’s eyes rolled, “Excuses.”
“What’s yours then?”
“Calculus,” She wiped away the sweat forming on her brow, “It was life or death.”
“Excuses excuses,” Evan mimicked her in a shrill voice. She couldn’t help but smile.
“Listen here, bitch,” Everly spun on her heels in time to see an old friend running towards her, “You can’t just leave for a year and not come see us.”
The spirited powerhouse tackled Everly before she could dodge the attack. They landed in the sand with several fits of laughter filling the peach-colored sky.
Everly sucked in a breath, “Cady left too you know. You’re not going to tackle her?” She turned her foggy attention to Cady. The vibrant kegger sat in the hot sand while craning her neck in order to talk to Evan.
Daniella rolled her eyes, “She came back for Christmas, duh.” The dark green flecks in her eyes brightened with every begrudging smile she gave in to.
Everly pushed away the memories of her Christmas. Her emotionally distant parents made their disdain for her life choices painfully obvious and with the new baby that was all the attention they had to offer.
“Sorry,” Everly forced out a laugh, “My parents called dibs.”
Daniella nodded at the mention of Everly’s withdrawn parents. When growing up on a small island, everyone was privy to the frequent drama.
That was a part of the reason they remained so close.
Before Everly could change the topic of conversation, Jackson loomed over the group with a goofy smile on his face. He whipped his arm around Evan’s shoulders before declaring that the annual capture the flag game was about to start.
“Already?” Everly reached her phone to check the time but swore when she couldn’t find it in her pockets. It must have fallen into the sand. She dug through the area around her as panic set in.
“What’s wrong?” Cady furrowed her eyebrows.
“My phone is missing,”
“Did you get it off the bed before we left?”
Everly paused, “I don’t think so.”
“See? No big deal.” Daniella rolled over on the sand so she could get to her feet. She offered a hand to Everly.
Everly shrugged off the residual panic and accepted Daniella’s help.
“Now that that’s been settled,” Evan laughed, “I’m pretty sure it’s time to pick teams.” He pointed to the ballcap resting on one of the speakers. Everly and her friends hurried to put their names into the drawing.
After years of uneven and disadvantaged groups, the kids of Sherfield Cove decided on a method to secure fairness.
Everly dropped her name into the hat and waited between Cady and Jackson.
A girl from her graduating class was the last to put in her slip and shuffled the pile.
“Red team to the left and Blue team to the right,” She motioned towards the corners of the speaker before pulling the first name. “Davis. Blue.” She set the crinkled paper onto the left corner.
Gwen continued announcing names, including her own, and small piles formed on top of the speakers.
Everly glanced at Daniella and earned a wink.
Everly grinned despite knowing that the opposing team had the island’s fastest runner. The bonfire flickered into the night sky as the crowd organized themselves into their teams. Gwen shook out the netted bag that held the flags and grabbed hers from the bundle.
Daniella nudged Everly’s bare arm, “Think you can outrun Cady this year?”
Everly smirked, “If she’s distracted.”
Before Daniella could share her diabolic plan to infiltrate the blue team’s base, Evan tossed them their flags.
“Alright, let’s kick some ass,” He clipped the faded red flag around his waist.
“Hey!” Cady shouted from her side of the beach, “I’m coming for you, Evan Cooper.” The sharpness in her tone cut through the crowd.
Evan turned to face her, “I’m not scared, Ross!”
“Nice going,” Everly shook her head, “We need to keep you as far away from our flag as possible.”
Evan rolled his eyes as Gwen walked towards them.
“Dani, you and Kaden are in charge of protecting the flag.” Daniella saluted their self-elected captain.
Gwen looked to Everly, “Meanwhile, I need you and Evan to get their flag and bring it back to base.” Everly locked eyes with a more than thrilled Evan.
“Got it, chief.”
If Gwen picked up on the sarcasm, she wasn’t about to pay it any attention. No, she had a friendly game of capture the flag to win. After she left to dole out the other assignments of the team, Daniella shook her head.
“Of all the people who graduated on the island,” She sighed, “Why was she the one who stayed?”
Everly tucked a loose piece of hair behind her ear, “She isn’t awful.”
“That’s not all bad,” Evan winked.
Everly and Daniella gagged and pretended to throw up in the sand.
Before they could recover, Jackson lifted an airhorn above his head and signaled the start of the game. Red flagged teens sprinted into the trees to hide their prize.
“Guess that’s my cue,” Daniella whipped her dark hair into a bun before following the team into the woods. Each group had five minutes to hide their flag. Then the hunt would kick-off.
Everly glanced over the ocean and wondered where Jackson would decide to hide the flag. His team hadn’t lost since he was in middle school. She redirected her attention to Cady, now regaining her balance, and hoped the beer would slow her down.
She ignored the buzzing in her head and forced herself to concentrate.
Jackson lifted the airhorn over his head for the second time.
“I’ll distract her,” Evan said as the horn filled the air, “You get their flag.”
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