Forever & Always: The Ever Trilogy (Book 1) (3 page)

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He shrugged, which made his duffel bag slip, and he hiked it higher. “A little. Not too bad.”
 

After a too-short walk, we came to cabin number ten. I couldn’t figure out how to delay him without sounding clingy or desperate, so I let him set my suitcase just inside the squeaky screen door, then waved as he shouldered his bag and strode off, rubbing the back of his neck in a way that made his bicep stand out.

I watched him go, and then realized several girls were clustered around the screen door as well, ogling him. “He’s hot!” one of them said. They asked me who he was.

I wondered if the strangely possessive feeling in my gut was jealousy, and what I was supposed to do about it. “His name is Caden.”

For the first time in a long time, my mind was occupied with something other than painting.
 

That afternoon there was a get-to-know-you thing, which was stupid, and then dinner and some free time, all of which passed in a blur. I didn’t see Caden again that day, and as I slid into the thin, uncomfortable bunk bed, I wondered if he was thinking about me like I was him.
 

Somewhere out there, maybe a boy was thinking about me. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean, but it felt nice to imagine.
 

goodbye is not forever

Caden
 

Between art classes and the requisite camp activities—which were stupid bullshit—the first week of camp passed in a blur.
 

It was Monday afternoon, all-camp free time, so most everyone was gone somewhere—into downtown Traverse City, to Sleeping Bear Dunes, canoeing on one of the two lakes, swimming at Peterson Beach. There were a few students on campus, most of them doing the same as I was, finding a solitary place to play an instrument, paint, draw, or dance. I had found the perfect spot overlooking Green Lake, sitting with my back to a pine tree, sketchbook on my knees, trying to capture the way a duck’s wings curved for landing as they floated over the rippling surface of the water.
 

I’d been there for over an hour already, the bark scratching my back through my T-shirt, earbuds in and playing my current favorite album,
Surfing With the Alien
by Joe Satriani. I’d drawn the same picture six times, each one a quick, rough sketch, capturing the outlines, the curves, the angle of the bird’s body and the delicate arch of its neck. None of them were right, though. Like with my work on human hands, one particular detail was eluding me. This time, it was the pattern of the pinfeathers as the duck fluttered its wings, the way each feather rounded into the next, layered yet separate, while its green head and yellow beak thrust forward, the wings creating a bonnet around its body. I’d stuffed each failed sketch under my foot, using the last as reference for the next. My pencil went still as another duck approached the water. Its wings curved to slow its descent, orange feet outstretched, and then at the very last moment it reared back and flared its wings, braking to a stop and settling on the water with barely a sound or splash. I watched intently, my eyes and mind capturing the moment of wing-flare, watching the tips of its wings, then I glanced down and erased frantically, redrawing, pencil moving furiously now, line overlaying line, adjusting the curve and angles.
 

“You’re really good,” a voice said behind me.
 

I knew without turning who it was. “Thanks, Ever.” Had I really remembered her voice after that one conversation?

I wished I didn’t feel so self-conscious all of a sudden. Would she think I was stupid for drawing ducks? Watching them land had been fascinating when I was alone, and drawing them had captivated my focus for the last couple of hours, but now that a pretty girl was standing behind me…I was pretty sure it was the nerdiest thing ever.
 

I closed the sketchbook and set it on top of the pile of discarded sketches, standing up and brushing off the seat of my shorts. When I finally turned my gaze to Ever, I had to blink several times. I hadn’t seen her since the day we arrived, despite looking for her in the visual arts classes and at meals. She’d been pretty then, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt. But now…she was so beautiful it made my stomach flip and tighten.
 

She was wearing a pair of khaki shorts that barely made it to mid-thigh, and a rib-hugging green tank top that matched the emerald of her eyes perfectly. Her hair hung in loose spirals around her shoulders, and she had a bulky easel under one arm, a canvas under the other arm, and a wooden carrying case for paints in her hand. A smudge of red paint stood out on her forehead, matching a similar smudge on her left wrist, and green paint was smeared near her right cheek and earlobe.
 

I felt an absurd compulsion to wipe away the paint with my thumb. Instead, I reached for the easel and took it from her. “Were you just setting up? Or heading back?” I asked.

She shrugged, and the strap of her tank top slipped over the round of her shoulder, revealing the white strap of her bra. “Neither. I was kinda just…walking around. Looking for something to paint.”

“Oh. I was just…sketching. Ducks. Obviously.” I felt myself blushing as I mumbled, forcing my gaze away from the overlapping green and white straps and the hint of pale skin as she brushed the strap back in place. “I don’t really like ducks, I just…I thought the way they looked when they landed was kinda cool, and I—do you want me to carry your easel?” I felt like a spazz, shifting tracks so suddenly and blurting like an idiot.

Ever shrugged again, and the damn strap of her shirt slipped again. I wished she would stop shrugging so much, because it was wreaking hell on my ability to not stare at her. It wasn’t just the strap, though, it was her chest, the way it lifted and settled along with her shoulders. I felt my cheeks burn and wondered if my thoughts were visible somehow, like I had a digital marquee on my forehead, announcing the fact that I was staring at her boobs.

“Sure,” Ever said, and I had to refocus to remember what we were talking about. “It is kinda heavy.”

Oh. The easel. Right. I leaned down and scooped up my sketchbook and papers, then adjusted the easel under my armpit more securely. “Where to?”
 

I was sensing a pattern now, and managed to avert my gaze
before
she did the shrug.
 

“I dunno. I was thinking somewhere on that side over there.” She pointed to a not-too-distant portion of the Green Lake shoreline.

We traipsed through the woods along the shoreline, chatting about our art classes, comparing notes and complaints. Every once in a while, Ever would move ahead of me, and the way her shorts clung to her backside was so distracting I almost dropped the easel a few times.
 

This was new territory for me. Girls were just girls. There’d never been one who had grabbed my attention like this before, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Of course, there were hot girls at school, and I looked at them, ’cause duh, I’m a guy. But this was different. Ever was someone I could see becoming a friend, and it was tricky having a friend you couldn’t stop staring at like some wonderstruck moron. I felt like she had this power of reducing me to a mouth-breathing caveman.

Ook. Me Caden. You woman.
 

I trotted up to walk next to her, which was only nominally better. The problem was that anywhere I looked, there was something I shouldn’t be staring at.
 

Eventually, she came a stop on a little knoll surrounded by trees with a stunning view of the lake. “This is good,” she said. “I could paint this.” I set the easel down and unfolded it, then moved away and watched her arrange her canvas on the easel, open her paint case and select a pencil. “You can’t watch over my shoulder. That’s weird and creepy, and I won’t be able to think.” She gestured off to one side. “Find your own spot, and we’ll critique each other’s work when we’re done.”

“So we’re both drawing the same basic landscape scene?” I asked.

She nodded. “Well, I’ll paint it. You draw it.”

I found a place off to Ever’s left, framing the lake between two huge jack pines. I set my pad on my crossed legs and started sketching, and pretty soon disappeared into capturing the scene before me. I didn’t entirely forget about Ever, because she was hot even while painting—especially while painting, really. She was messy. She had a tendency to use her fingers as much as the brushes. She would swipe her bangs out of her face and get paint on her forehead and cheeks and nose. Even as I tried to force my attention back to the sketch in my book, she scratched her wrist with one hand, smearing orange paint on her wrist, and then rubbed her jaw with the same wrist.

I must have laughed out loud, because she glanced over at me. “What?” she asked.

“It’s just…you have paint all over your face.”
 

“I do?” She wiped at her cheek with one hand, which of course only smeared it worse.
 

I set my pad and pencils down and moved to stand next to her. “Yeah, it’s…everywhere.” I hesitated, then dragged my thumb lightly across her forehead and showed her the paint on my thumb.
 

She frowned, and then lifted the bottom edge of her shirt to wipe her face. At the sight of her stomach and the hint of white bra, I turned away. “Is that better?” she asked.

I turned back around. She had paint all over her shirt, but her face was clean. “Yeah, you got it off your face. Except…” I took a strand of her hair between my finger and thumb, and it came away green. “You have it in your hair, too.”

“I’m a messy painter, I guess. I like to use my hands. At home, I don’t even use brushes. But the teachers here want me to try and expand my ‘vocabulary as an artist’ or some bullshit like that.” She put air quotes around the phrase, mocking it. “Mom was the same way.”
 

Something in her eyes and voice when she mentioned her mother, along with the fact that she’d used past tense, had me on alert. “She’s a messy painter?” I didn’t want to ask, or assume anything.
 

“Was.” Ever turned away from me and focused on her canvas, dabbing her brush into a glop of green on her palette, darkening the shade closer to the green of the pine needles.

“Why ‘was’?”

“Because she’s dead.” She said it calmly, matter-of-factly, but too much so. “Car accident. Not quite a year and a half ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I mean…yeah. I’m sorry for your loss.” That was a phrase I’d heard before, but it sounded awkward when I said it. Fake and empty.

Ever glanced at me. “Thanks.” She wrinkled her nose. “We don’t have to talk about it. It happened, and that’s it. No point in getting all weepy about it.”

I felt like she was putting on a brave face, but I didn’t know how to tell her she didn’t have to do that. If she wanted a brave face, what business was it of mine to say she shouldn’t? I took a few deep breaths and then changed the subject. “I like your painting. It’s not quite realistic, but not quite abstract, either.”
 

It was an interesting piece. The trees were thick, blurry, smeared representations of trees, browns and greens that barely seemed like anything at all, but the lake beyond and between them was intensely realistic, each ripple detailed and perfect, glinting and reflecting the sunlight.

“Thanks,” she said. “I wasn’t sure it would work when I started, but I think I like it.” She stepped back, rubbing the side of her nose with her middle finger, blotting brown on her skin, then realized what she’d done and sighed. “Lemme see yours.”

I hated showing people my drawings. I drew because I loved drawing. I drew because it just seemed to come out of me whether I intended to do it or not. I doodled all over my textbooks and notebooks at school, on my desk calendar at home, even on the leg of my jeans sometimes. I didn’t draw to impress people. Letting someone see my work was like showing someone a part of me, it felt like. I showed my dad my drawings sometimes, because he was an engineer with a background in drafting and knew what he was talking about. And he was my dad and wouldn’t be too harsh or critical.
 

What if Ever thought I was shitty? I liked her and wanted her to think I was cool, talented.
 

Before I could rethink the decision, I handed her my sketchpad. To disguise my nerves, I picked up a thick stick from the ground and started peeling the bark off it. Ever stared at my sketch for a long time, looking from it to the lake, and then walked to where I’d been sitting when I drew it. After what felt like a thousand years, she handed it back.

“You kick my ass at drawing. That’s really amazing, Caden. It almost looks like a photo.”
 

I shrugged, picking at the bark with my thumbnail. “Thanks. It’s not really all that photorealistic, but…it’s not bad for a quick sketch.”

She just nodded, and neither of us knew what to say. I wanted to be calm and cool and confident, make casual conversation and impress her with my wit. But that just wasn’t me.
 

I was a bark-picker and a dirt-kicker, words sticking in my chest and tumbling around each other.
 

“We should draw each other. Just pencils and paper,” Ever said, breaking the awkward silence.

“Sure,” was all I could say. I flipped the pages of my book to an empty one, then realized she’d only brought her canvas, so I carefully ripped the page out and handed it to her. “You’ve got a pencil, right?”

Ever lifted her pencil in response, and then sat down cross-legged in the dirt. I sat facing her and tried to pretend that my eyes weren’t drawn to her inner thighs, bared and looking softer than I could possibly imagine. I ducked my head and regrouped, then forced my gaze to her face. I started sketching, getting the basic shapes down first. By the time I’d finished the outline of her face and shoulders, I had an idea. I wanted to mimic her own style, mixing realism with abstraction. It flowed easily once I had the concept down. We were companionably silent then, glancing up at each other every now and again, but focused on our work.
 

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