I frown. “Why?”
“I was planning on rock climbing, and my friends don’t climb, so…” He shrugs like it’s no big deal.
I’m still stuck on the ‘rock climbing’ bit. “You rock climb?”
“Since I was six. I loved everything about it, and I spent hours at indoor climbing gyms. I remember I’d beg my mom to let me go before school even though I spent all day there the minute the bell rang to release class. My mother hates it, so she put me in track to see if I’d stop, but I didn’t. I just found two things that I love instead of one. She was ecstatic when I told her I changed my plans this week.”
“Do you climb actual mountains?” I squint, trying to picture him harnessed and dangling from a slab of rock.
“Yes, Lily, I climb mountains.” He shakes his head like that’s such an inane question.
“What? You could have spent your whole days in the gym.”
“I would have been bored,” he says. “I climbed so much that I kept pushing myself for something new and challenging. That’s what my trip was supposed to be about. I was going to free solo climb Half Dome at Yosemite. I’ve free soloed El Capitan in the same National Park a couple times before, but never Half Dome.”
I have no idea what those mountains are or what they look like, but if he’s been climbing since he was six and for so many hours, he must be pretty good.
“My mother has been freaking out about it for the past month, but the weather turned out to be bad in California anyway. I would have had to reschedule, even if I didn’t come here.”
If I had a son, I would be freaking out too. “What’s free solo climbing?” I mean, obviously, solo entails being alone, which sounds dangerous enough. If I had the guts to shimmy up a mountain, I’d want someone there to catch me if I fell.
“No ropes,” he tells me. “Just me and the mountain and some chalk.”
My mouth slowly hangs. “Wha…that means…if you…no.” I shake my head at the image of Ryke losing his grip and splatting on the hard ground. “Why would you want to do that?” I pause in thought. “Is it the adrenaline rush?”
He shakes his head. “No, everyone asks me that, but I don’t get that feeling like I do when I run. If you have an adrenaline rush when you’re climbing, it probably means you’re falling off the mountain. When you feel fear, your chest constricts, and you’ll probably slip and die.”
I gape. “Are you serious? You don’t get scared? Not even a little bit?” How is that possible?
“Nope,” he tells me. “You have to be calm, and I love raising the stakes and trying to overcome them. Like I said, it’s a challenge.”
I stare at him like he’s an alien species, but I guess plenty of people free solo climb or maybe not. “Do many people die climbing without ropes?”
“Maybe a little less than half of people who free solo.” He shrugs again.
He smiles. “So my mother tells me.”
The pack of girls suddenly filters onto the deck in varying shades and styles of swimsuits. Most are string bikinis, but I see a few cut-out one-pieces that expose h*ps and lower backs. Half of the girls run to the padded chairs on the sun deck, trying to fight for ones with the best light. A few meander over to our lounge area and plop on seats around Ryke and me.
I’ve met most of the girls before since the majority have grown up with Daisy since preschool, but I can’t recall half their names. The strawberry blonde with fair skin and a light layer of freckles is Daisy’s best friend: Cleo. Then there’s Harper, the Native American girl wearing a black-studded bikini. I can’t place the third girl that sits with us. She’s already so tan that anymore sun may cause her instant skin cancer. She also wears bright pink lip gloss that matches her neon-blue string bikini, ready to be inserted into a Katy Perry video.
Daisy slides closer to me on the couch. I notice that she wears a string bikini with tons of layered straps, the dark green color matching her eyes. “We need to get some snacks. I’m starving.”
At the command, a female server in a white shirt and black pants peels away from the sliding glass door. She hands Daisy a menu with tons of items and a line at the bottom says: if it’s not on the menu, ask us and we may be able to make it.
“I want chocolate,” Cleo says to the server. “How about…chocolate covered strawberries?”
The server nods. “Anything else?”
“I can’t have chocolate…so…” Daisy hums to herself as she slides her finger down the menu. Her features progressively darken, as though frustrated with what she can and cannot eat.
I practically feel Ryke seething beside me. But he needs to shut his trap. She doesn’t want chocolate, and he shouldn’t pressure her to eat it like he did at the Fizzle event.
I do have some sisterly sway, and I know there are some foods that will be good for her to eat. I lean closer and point to a tuna sandwich. “That’s healthy.”
“Mom said no mayo,” she says softly.
“Well, Mom isn’t here.” Jesus, my mother has seriously crossed a line somewhere. It’s Daisy’s birthday. Does she expect her not to eat cake too? That’s sacrilege.
Daisy stares off for a long second, thinking about the consequences of cheating, no doubt. She’s already a size 2 at 5’11’’ which is f**king madness, but until the high fashion industry stops seeking these types of girls, I don’t see my mother changing.
“Get the f**king sandwich,” Ryke tells her. “You’ll burn it off swimming.”
“Don’t do tuna,” Cleo suddenly says. “Your breath will reek.”
“Yeah, I hate the smell,” Harper agrees.
I already want to strangle them.
Daisy tenses at all the voices. She hands the menu back to the server. “I’ll have the tuna, thanks. My friends will have to deal with the smell.” She shoots Cleo a look. “It’s my birthday, after all.”
Cleo shrugs. “Just trying to warn you. What if we meet some hot local boy? You’re going to scare him off with bad breath.” God, they’re already planning on picking up guys. This just turned from slightly fun to terrifying. I hope I’ll be equipped to handle them. Please, let me be equipped.
“Even better,” Daisy says. “The guy will run over to you. See, I did you a favor.”
Cleo purses her lips and then her eyes slowly trail over to me. “So Lily…”
I brace myself.
“…How did you get so skinny? What are you, a size zero?”
Great, she asks me a question I’m not really sure how to answer. The truth—I spend more time consumed by sex than I do taking care of myself. In my defense, I am short. If Daisy became a size 0, she’d fade away and need to be hospitalized.
“She’s always been skinny,” Daisy answers for me with ease.
“You know, I’ve never been able to tell if guys are into the whole size zero skinny look,” Cleo says with a false politeness. She might as well have said “emaciated” instead of skinny. She has to know her words are beyond rude.
Her pretty blue eyes flash to Ryke, who’s pretending to be busy watching a basketball game on the hanging television. “Right, Ryke?”
His eyes stay glued to the screen as he confirms with a simple “yep.”
Cleo holds onto the word like it’s bait. “Are you into size zero girls?”
This is so f**king awkward! I shift uncomfortably in my seat, and Daisy lets out a long exasperated sigh. “Cleo—”
“What?” Cleo says with a nonchalant shrug. “I just want a male perspective on the situation. I only have younger sisters, okay? I’m curious.”
Ryke turns a fraction, his gaze still hidden behind wayfarers. “My brother loves her, so obviously some guys are into skinny girls. Everyone has a different preference.”
Harper interjects with a little too much eagerness. “What’s yours?”
I imagine he’s rolling his eyes right about now. Damn, sunglasses, I’d actually like to see him break in front of a few girls. How is he going to handle all twenty together?
He doesn’t miss a beat. “I like women. Big br**sts, curvy waists, an ass I can grab.” He keeps steady, unflinching. I am cringing inside and slightly aghast that he even responded back. Daisy’s friends look around at each other, realizing that they all have tiny hips, decent-sized boobs and no butt.
Daisy scrutinizes Ryke for a while and then says, “How big of boobs?” Ohmygod.
“How about we change the subject?” I say.
“Big,” Ryke tells her.
“You like to grab those too?” Daisy tries. Her friends literally gasp out loud.
Ryke’s lip twitches, but he holds back what I think is a smile. I’m glad he finds this amusing. I do not. At all. This is like…no. If Lo were here, he’d have yelled at his brother for flirting back with an almost-sixteen-year-old. That’s what Ryke’s doing. Even if his intentions are to start an argument or make someone uncomfortable, it looks like flirting. “Only if I hear a woman moan when I do it.”
“Ryke!” I shout at him. I mouth, enough. My eyes widen to emphasize the severity. I know he’s not intentionally trying to flirt back, but he’s about to cross a line. And I suspect he knows it exists, and that he’s crossed many in his life. Maybe he thinks traditional rules don’t apply to him. Or maybe, he just doesn’t care.
Daisy opens her mouth to say something back, but he cuts her off, “There’s your male perspective.” He turns back to the television, closing off to the girls.
Cleo isn’t finished harassing me though. “About Loren Hale, he’s in rehab, right? My parents heard from some family friends.” She nods to the Katy Perry girl. “You remember Greta? Her parents found a dime of coke and she got sent to rehab. It’s like they don’t understand that we’re young, and we want to have some fun. They’ve done it before.”
“Yeah,” Katy says. “It’s so hypocritical.”
I hate that they’re comparing Lo to a teenager screwing around. That’s how it starts, sure, but his problem has exceeded a small dose of adolescent rebellion. It’s not a shame that he’s in rehab. It’s what my father said…admirable.
“He chose to go,” I defend my boyfriend, heat gathering in my eyes. “He wants to get help.” Which is a better place than where we were before.
The lounge silences in this awkward layer, and Cleo presses her lips together, avoiding my narrowed gaze. Thankfully, the snacks parade over on a tray, rescuing me from the tense situation. The girls start chatting again, and I look to Ryke. He gives me a supportive nod, which means more to me than I’ll ever let on. I want to do this right. I want to be strong and fight, and being on this boat is a big step.
Last time I was here, I was a mess. This is my redo.
Daisy grabs her sub, and her long hair sticks to the tuna that squeezes from the sides. She plops the sandwich back on the tray and uses a napkin to wipe the strands. “I hate my hair,” she mutters under her breath.