Cole had only been in front of the TV for a few minutes when the doorbell rang. He’d spent the last hour fiddling with the stove, and hopefully the leak was fixed. Now they could enjoy the holiday in peace.
Stretching, he turned down the volume and got up to answer the door. He considered stopping by the refrigerator to grab a beer first, but decided against it; he should be polite and help his company with their things. Besides, if it was who he thought it was at the door, chances were they’d have more than enough.
Sure enough, as Cole opened the door, Nick greeted him with an aggressive, slightly tipsy bear hug. He carried a beer in one hand and a suitcase in the other, while Jen stood behind him, struggling to balance her three bags in addition to another case of beers. There was even a faint smell of beer in the doorway.
“Are you ready to party?” Nick asked, raising his beer in the air as a toast.
“Definitely,” Cole said. He returned Nick’s greeting but then turned away to give Jen a light peck on the cheek. “Did you find the place okay?”
“Yeah, I just had trouble getting past security. I don’t think they believed me when I said we were staying here.”
Cole laughed. “Sorry about that. It’s my parents’ condo, so I usually come with them. They probably saw two teenagers they didn’t know and thought they were trying to sneak in.”
Nick didn’t seem to be bothered by this. “This is gonna be awesome!” he said. “Everyone’s gone for the holidays. Now I can go surfing naked and nobody will say a word!”
“Why would you want to go surfing naked?” Jen rolled her eyes and heaved her suitcases through the doorway. “It’s freezing out there.”
Nick turned and pointed to her with his beer bottle. “Because…I can.” He attempted to take another step forward but tripped and nearly broke the bottle over her head.
Jen groaned. “Don’t tell me you’re wasted already. Thank god I didn’t let you drive. We’d probably be in the ocean already, drowning.”
“Come on, put your stuff up so we can eat,” Cole said. “I’m starving.” He pointed to a hallway by the marble countertops. “Bedrooms are that way. There are four. Take your pick.”
Jen set the beer case on the kitchen cabinet and grabbed the handle of Nick’s suitcase. “I’ll take this back there for you babe.”
Doing the most sober — and tactful — thing he’d done since their arrival, Nick cooed “Aw, thanks hon,” and kissed her forehead before she disappeared down the hallway. Despite this, Cole couldn’t help but notice Jen scowl. He smiled at her briefly and she returned it, as well as a wink, before heading down the hall.
Nick plopped down on the couch, made a face at the news program and changed the channel. He turned the volume back up and music blared through the speakers, accompanied by a shirtless man on the screen wearing gold chains and surrounded by dancing, scantily clad women.
They sat in comfortable silence for several minutes before Jen walked back in. “Hey Cole, do you want me to make up another bed for Tessa?”
“Tessa?” Nick raised a nostril. “Who’s Tessa?”
She put a hand on her hip. “My lab partner in chemistry. She wasn’t doing anything for New Year’s so I told her she could stay with us. I just told you all this yesterday.”
“Oh…is that the girl that sat by me in algebra last year and would never help me?”
Cole snickered. “You didn’t exactly want her help. You just wanted a cheat sheet.”
“Hey, you’re supposed to be on my side!”
“Oh come on Nick, be nice to the girl. She’s not so bad. In fact, she’s kind of cool.”
“Yeah, you would say that,” Nick responded. “She always used to look at you with dreamy eyes.”
“Did she?” Cole looked away.
“Oooooh…I think someone’s in love.” Nick made slurping noise in Cole’s ear.
“Gross! Stop it.” Cole pushed Nick away. “I don’t like her like that. She’s just really nice.”
Nick shrugged and took another swig of beer. Cole didn’t reply, but turned his eyes back to Jen, who caught his glance for a moment and smiled again before turning away.
* * *
The knock on the door came as they were finishing dinner. “Must be Chemistry Nerd,” Nick mumbled under his breath. Cole gave him a warning look, the kind teachers give to students acting out in class, but said nothing and got up to answer the door.
The first thing he noticed about Tessa was her hair. Normally frizzy and pulled back off her face in a scrunchie, it was now straight and hung down her back. The next thing he noticed was her bright pink sundress that matched the color of her suitcases and brought out her tan. She must have already been on the beach over winter break. When his eyes wandered down and caught the silver necklace that settled near her cleavage, his breath caught in his throat. Hadn’t he just told Nick he didn’t feel that way about her?
“Hey Tessa,” he said. “Come on in.” Jen greeted Tessa warmly as she entered the kitchen, but Nick kept his post by the refrigerator until Tessa turned to him.
“Hi there Nick,” she said with a possibly insincere smile. “Remember me?”
Nick returned the smile. “Who could forget you?” He took a swig of beer and half walked, half stumbled out of the room.
The girls stared awkwardly at one another for a moment before Jen finally spoke. “Don’t pay him any attention. Somehow when he drinks, he loses his manners along with his brain cells. But I wouldn’t have expected any more from him anyway.”
* * *
Nick had gone through two more beers by midnight, at which point he turned the stereo on full blast and dragged Jen to the middle of the living room. Cole watched them from the corner of the doorway that separated the living room from the kitchen, Tessa by his side. After ten minutes of Jen attempting to free herself from Nick’s grasp, Cole watched as Tessa groaned and headed down the hall. After another minute of watching Nick and feeling a pain in his gut, he ran to follow her.
He found her in a bedroom, supposedly the one she’d chosen to stay in. It was the smallest bedroom, with only two double beds and a thirteen inch TV. She’d laid her drink down on one of the nightstands and sat on top of the sheets, her head buried in a marine biology book.
“Are you all right?” Cole asked cautiously.
Tessa shifted to face him. “I’m fine,” she mumbled. “Idiots getting wasted and falling off the balcony isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, that’s all.”
“Hey, nobody’s fallen off the balcony…yet.”
Tessa smiled faintly.
Cole bit his lip and sat on the edge of the bed. “Look,” he said, “I know this probably isn’t your ideal way to spend New Year’s. But you should give Nick a chance. Try to get to know him. It might make your time here a little less miserable.”
“He hates me,” Tessa protested. “He thinks I’m a loser just because my IQ is higher than that of a kitchen sponge.”
“No Tessa. If he hates you it’s because you decided to hate him before you even gave him a chance.” He pointed to the book. “What are you reading?”
She smiled and folded back the book to reveal the cover. “It’s about different types of sea creatures in the panhandle. I thought it would be relevant to this trip, obviously.”
“Nice. Do you like marine biology?”
“It’s my major.”
Cole blinked, not sure how he missed that information. “Well then, this trip could actually be perfect for you.”
She nodded. “That’s the main reason why I decided to come. I just think sea creatures are so fascinating.”
“Really?” Cole said. “They kind of scare me.”
“Well, they are scary. But that’s what’s so interesting about them. Animals are violent sometimes, but usually for a good reason. Not like people, who sometimes attack each other for stupid stuff. It’s weird…sometimes animals attack and it ends up being a good thing.”
She shrugged. “I’ve heard about dogs protecting their owners from people who broke into their house. It sounds weird, but sometimes when animals are violent, they’re protecting humans.” She closed the book. “This is kind of random, but…do you surf?”
“Of course!” he replied. “Want a lesson tomorrow? You’ll have to get up early, though.”
She shook her head. “Oh, I don’t mind at all. I’d love a surfing lesson. I’ve always wanted to do it, but just never got the chance.”
“Great! I’ll see you in the morning.”
Cole didn’t fall asleep until well into the night but managed to wake up at the crack of dawn, thinking he would find Tessa still in bed and have to drag her out. To his surprise, she was already sitting at the dining room table.
“I couldn’t sleep,” was all she said.
They ate in silence and Tessa finished first. As she rinsed her bowl in the sink, she turned back to Cole. “What’s that on the ground? Is something leaking?”
Cole turned to see a familiar liquid on the floor. “Dammit,” he muttered. “I thought I fixed that stove yesterday. All right, I’m going to try this again. I’m not sure how long it’ll take, but if I’m not done by the time Nick and Jen are ready to go out, you can just go with them. Jen’s the one who taught me how to surf. She’s a pretty good teacher.”
Tessa looked disappointed, but didn’t protest. “All right, “she said. “Guess I’ll see what’s on TV.’
Tessa found surfing to be both frustrating and exciting. Jen was a good teacher, but when Cole came out and took over she was even more excited. She ignored her body’s initial pleas to rest but finally ate lunch with the others. After about three hours of surfing after lunch, she decided she needed a break and collapsed in the sand next to Cole.
She finally woke up around late afternoon, the taste of cotton in her mouth. She opened her eyes to find herself staring at Cole’s bare chest, his arm draped loosely around her. Smiling, she wiggled out of his embrace. He stirred and opened his eyes.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “Did I wake you up?”
“Yeah,” he grunted. “But I needed to wake up anyway.” He checked his phone. “I’m going to head back. You coming?”
“Okay. But I need to get my surfboard, so I’ll meet you up there in a minute.”
Cole smiled. “I’ll see you inside then.”
Tessa propped herself up and scanned the area for her borrowed surfboard but didn’t see it. She fumbled around under the blanket and heard a grunt from underneath her hand. A figure emerged next to her.
“Nick?” she said.
Nick sat up, the blanket falling off his body. He looked as if he’d been sleeping for days; his hair stuck out in nearly every direction possible and he had massive purple bags under his eyes.
“Tessa?” he mumbled.
“Where’s my surfboard?” she asked.
For a moment, Nick stared at her as if she had sprouted another head. Then a lightbulb apparently went off. “Oh yeah…I sort of borrowed it after you went to sleep. I wanted to take another ride and couldn’t find mine.”
“Where is it now?”
Nick said nothing; he just nodded his head out toward the ocean.
Tessa’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me! What the hell were you thinking?”
Nick seemed unfazed. “Relax. I see it floating out there. Why don’t you go get it?”
“Excuse me? I’m not getting it. You’re the one that took it out there — you get it!”
“Why?” Other than his mouth, no part of Nick’s body moved; he wasn’t budging.
Tessa screamed in frustration. “God dammit, I knew there was a reason I didn’t like you! You only care about yourself. If it doesn’t affect you — well screw it, who cares? Those people aren’t important. Just me.”
Nick’s mouth closed slightly. He looked down at the sand and shook it off his fingers, sighing. “Tessa, that’s not true.”
“Oh please. Of course it is. And if not — go out there and get my damn surfboard.”
“All right, fine. I’ll get it. But come with me.”
Tessa scoffed. “I’m not coming with you!”
“I’m not going out there alone. It’s freaking dark.”
Tessa scowled at Nick, but climbed up and headed for the water, making sure to kick as much sand as possible in his direction with every step.
The condo was quiet when Cole first stepped back inside, and he shuddered as he listened to his footsteps echoing off the marble floor. “Jen?” he called out. “Jen, are you in here?”
He heard the sound of a chair moving and a door opening. Jen stepped out of the hallway and her face lit up. “Cole!” she whispered. “Where are Nick and Tessa?”
He smiled. “Outside, still surfing.”
“Thank god you found something that keeps them busy,” Jen said. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him gently. His tongue found hers and he sank into her.
After a moment, he broke away and frowned, thinking of something. “Jen…what if they come back inside?”
“They won’t.” She leaned in to kiss him again, but he turned away.
“I’m serious! What if they come back in and see us?” They’d barely even touched around other people, keeping their relationship as secretive as possible.
Jen opened her mouth, but closed it quickly and approached the sliding glass door. She moved the blinds and pointed out to the beach, where Nick and Tessa were headed for the ocean. “See? They’re still surfing. They’re not coming back any time soon.” She moved the blinds back and leaned in to kiss his neck. It didn’t occur to Cole that neither Nick nor Tessa were carrying surfboards.
Tessa waded into the water, followed more closely than she would have preferred by Nick. He soon caught up with her and grabbed the surfboard before she could get to it. He bumped into her on his way back to the shore.
“Dammit Nick, watch where you’re going! Isn’t it enough that…” She couldn’t finish her sentence, couldn’t even continue walking.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Don’t move,” she whispered.
“What do you mean ‘don’t move’? I was about to —”
“There’s a shark right behind you.”
“What the…” Nick stopped in his tracks, a few inches from Tessa. He slowly turned his head to face the gray blob that now circled them. Tessa followed the shark’s movement as it swam up to Nick and bumped its nose against his leg. Nick whimpered.
Tessa sighed in relief. “It’s just curious. If we’re really still, it might leave us alone.”
“If we’re still? It might leave us alone?” Nick’s voice grew higher with each word, even though he was clearly trying to stay quiet. “What are we supposed to do, stand here until it goes away?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’ll probably leave soon when it realizes we’re not food. Everything will be fine.”
Jen took a final look around the living room. She knew Cole was prone to losing things in the couch cushions, though there was nothing there but a few coins. Everything that was his, even his DVD’s, were all packed up.
They had left a note for Nick and Tessa, scrawled in Cole’s nearly illegible handwriting. Jen had tried to write it herself but couldn’t. As much as Nick annoyed her, they had been together since high school, and now she might never see him again.
“Do you think this is too harsh?” she asked. “Just leaving like this, with nothing but a note?”
Cole sat his arms around her neck and kissed her gently. “Trust me, this is for the best. Nick really cares about you, and Tessa clearly has a thing for me. We shouldn’t make them have to face us again. It’ll be easier this way.”
He started to kiss her again, but stopped when the hissing from the kitchen began again. “Shit,” he muttered. “That damn stove just keeps on breaking.”
The shark had circled around Nick and Tessa again and was headed back toward Nick’s legs. He tried his best to stay still but his body shook so hard it made little ripples in the water. Careful not to make any sudden movements, Tessa slid over an inch to take his arm. She leaned in closer to him; she could hear his short, panting breaths and his beating heart.
“Why the hell did I come out here?” she whispered. “I knew there were sharks out. They’re always out at dusk. But I was so focused on getting my stupid surfboard that I wasn’t thinking.” She shook her head. “Why did you have to lose my board? None of this would have happened if you had been more careful.”
“Hey, you can’t pin this all on me. I didn’t ask the shark to come.” He sighed. “I swear, it’s like no matter what happens, it’s always my fault.”
Tessa scowled but said nothing.
For the next few minutes, both of them watched the shark. There was no movement or sound for several miles, it seemed.
“Why do you hate me so much?” Nick finally asked.
Tessa frowned. “What?”
“You’ve been nothing but shitty to me since we got here,” he said. “And you were never really nice to me in class. What did I ever do to you?”
Tessa’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding? You’ve never been nice to me!”
“Only because you weren’t nice to me,” Nick insisted. “Ever since we met, you’ve always acted like you were better than me or something.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Nick sighed. “Look, my family…they’re a lot like you. Super smart, big on school and academics and stuff. But I was never very smart. I tried to do good in school, I really did. But no matter what, I just never could. I kind of got over it in high school, learned to play sports. But then when I met you, you just reminded me so much of all the kids I knew back then who called me stupid and acted like they were better than me.”
Tessa didn’t know what to say. She shifted her weight in the sand, and the shark’s fin flicked toward them. She gasped, but then it circled around them again and started to swim away.
Tessa let out a long sigh. “I think we can go back now.”
But they had only taken a few steps forward when Nick screamed and fell into the water. He surfaced a moment later, surrounded by a cloud of red.
“It came back!” Tessa squealed. “I thought it was gone. Why did it come back?”
But she didn’t have long to think about it. A few yards away, the shark had retreated but swam in for another attack. “Fight it!” she cried. “Punch it as hard as you can!”
Nick attacked the shark with his fists, and Tessa kicked it hard. With every touch, she prayed the shark would leave him alone. She hadn’t prayed in years. Finally, the shark let go of Nick’s leg and swam away.
She reached for Nick’s arms, but he sank back into the water. Her breath caught in her throat. He was conscious, but barely. Would the shark attack again — or would Nick drown or bleed to death first?
She pulled him up again and heaved him a few more yards as he used his uninjured leg to help propel himself forward. He was heavy and they were both weak but, working together, they managed to pull themselves to shore.
Tessa looked down at Nick’s wound and nearly dropped him in shock. An entire chunk of his left leg was missing and blood poured freely from the wound. Her eyes scanned up and down the beach, but there was nobody there.
“Dammit,” she muttered, more to herself than him. “We’ve got to get you to the emergency room.”
Cole’s eyes scanned the hallway. Jen had gone back to the bedroom to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind. It’s not like he was abandoning the place — surely he’d come back one summer with his family. But after today, he got the feeling it wouldn’t be the same.
He paused when he realized he smelled gas. He’d just fixed up the leak again, albeit rather haphazardly. And it was hissing again, even louder this time — too loud to ignore.
He pulled out his phone and headed toward the bedroom Jen and Nick had shared. “Jen!” he cried. “Jen, we’ve got to go! Right now!”
She’d been stuffing a few last minute snacks into her bag, but looked up. “What? Why? Are Nick and Tessa coming back?”
“No…I think there’s a gas leak.” He pulled open the keypad. “I’m calling 911.”
But it was too late. As she pushed the bedroom door open, the explosion ripped through the building before either of them had time to scream.
Nick and Tessa were barely halfway up the beach when it happened. She had stopped at the shore to put pressure on his wound, then moved him a few minutes later when the bleeding slowed. As they shuffled forward awkwardly, there was a light and noise so loud and bright they both fell over.
“Look out!” Nick cried. Even though they had no time to move, he wrapped his hands and arms around Tessa’s head to shield her from the blast. Fortunately, they were far enough away that most of the debris came nowhere near them.
Tessa looked up as soon as the noise of the blast died down, letting Nick’s arms fall away. Other than a scrape on her shoulder, she was unhurt. “We have to call Cole and Jen,” she said.
“Tessa, I don’t know. They were in…” He reached behind him. “Shit, I left my phone on the beach.”
Tessa swore. Twisting her body around, she pulled out her own phone and dialed Cole’s number. It went straight to voicemail.
“Dammit!” she cried. People were starting to emerge from the nearby condos, spilling onto the beach and parking lots. Most of them held their own phones to their ears, screaming and crying into the speakers.
She slipped her arms around Nick. “I’ll try them again later,” she said. “But we’re going to the hospital now.”
She woke to the distant sound of someone calling her name. “Excuse me?” the voice said. “Your friend is awake.”
She stirred and opened her eyes. She was lying on a cold, hard bench in a white hallway. A man in a lab coat and stethoscope around his neck helped her up and led her to a nearby room.
Nick lay in a hospital bed, a heart monitor beeping steadily by his side. The bottom of his left leg was covered in a cast and propped in a sling. He appeared to be asleep, but as soon as Tessa walked in he stirred and opened his eyes.
“Hey,” he whispered.
She approached the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Spectacular.” He smiled faintly.
“Is there anything you need?”
Nick shook his head. “I’m fine.” He hesitated. “Any word on Cole and Jen?”
Tessa shook her head. “The police said…” Tears brimmed in her eyes and spilled over quickly.
They didn’t need any more words. Nick nodded and slinked his arms around hers, not bothering to untangle them from the IV that dripped pain medication into his body.
When Tessa’s tears had dried, she looked back up at Nick. “All I can keep thinking about is how lucky we were that we weren’t in there. If that shark hadn’t come and attacked us when it did, we could be dead by now.” She chuckled. “Sounds weird to say.”
“No, it really doesn’t.” Nick pushed back a lock of Tessa’s hair that stuck to her face. “I know exactly what you mean.”