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Kandi Steiner

“Okay. Tonight will be great, so I don’t have to worry about it.”

“Mm hmm.”

I drug myself up the stairs unwillingly and followed Willow back to my bedroom. She already had the suitcase open on my bed with everything inside it sprawled out on the white and gray comforter. I fell face-first onto the puffy goose down comforter and sighed, letting my hot breath warm the cool fabric.

“You have ten minutes to mope before I start curling your hair,” Willow said, popping into my bathroom to plug in her iron. She brought a small makeup mirror, too, which was smart because she knew I didn’t have any in my room or bathroom.

I never was a fan of mirrors. I didn’t particularly like to stare at myself, especially since I could look down at my body and see quite enough.

Willow sat down next to me, braiding her hair over her shoulder before placing a hand on mine. “Talk to me.”

I sighed again. “Mom is disappointed I lost Mason.”

As much as it stung, it made sense. After all, his family was one of the most well off in Poxton Beach other than ours. He was heading to college in a couple of months to take the same path to being a lawyer as his father did. And after graduation, he’d be right back here in Poxton Beach until the day he died. To my mom, that sounded like the ideal situation for my future marriage.

But I didn’t care about any of that.

What I did care about was that Mason would no longer be kissing me. He wouldn’t be holding my hand as we walked the beach with our friends. He wouldn’t brush my hair behind my ear or wrestle me for the remote on a Friday movie night at my place. I may not have agreed with my mom about why I should be with Mason, but we did both feel the same. I wasn’t the same without him — that much I could tell in just the week it had been since he broke up with me. For the first time, I was trying to figure out who I was as a solo entity, as Natalie Poxton without Mason Carter as my boyfriend. And I was failing.

“She’s not disappointed, Natalie, she’s sad for you. We all are. Which is why I’m going to get you super dressed up and take you out to show him what he’s giving up.”

“I think he knows.”

She sighed. “Do you really not want to go?”

Chewing my lip, I thought hard about her question. Did I want to see Mason? Of course. Still, my stomach felt like it was being squeezed by Hulk fists anytime I thought about it. Because if I saw him, I would want him, and for the first time in two years he wasn’t mine.

But I couldn’t spend my whole summer mourning him, even if that was the easy thing to do. I’d have to face him sometime, and maybe he would see me and realize he’d made a mistake.

“You have any magic makeup in there to make me look better than his new girlfriend?”

Willow grinned, waving her hand at me. “Oh please. Like anyone can out-makeup me.” She winked and grabbed my hands, pulling me up off the bed and into the bathroom. I stared at the photographs I’d taken on our family vacation to Hawaii a few years ago as she prepped everything on the counter. The images of the straw huts and fires on the dark beach always soothed me.

Photography was my passion. It had been for longer than I could remember. I was the lead photographer for the yearbook all through high school and I had more digital files of my friends and hometown on my computer than I had hard drive space to store it. It was the one and only thing that made me feel comfortable and safe.

Other than Mason.

Who I didn’t have anymore.

“Can I take my camera tonight?”

Willow dabbed foundation below my eyes. “If you want to. You have about a million photos of all of us out at Hay Stacks, though.”

“I know. It just makes me feel better to have it with me.”

She chuckled. “You’re kind of weird, Nat. But I love you anyway.”

“I love you, too. Thanks for this,” I said, gesturing to her spread. “I know you guys are right. I’m scared, but I know I can’t hide forever.”

Willow smiled, outlining my eyebrows with a light pencil. “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine.”

I tried to return her smile, but it fell flat and I settled my vision on a photo of Mauna Loa, instead.

That was the first moment where I felt the shift.

There was something about that summer that would change me, it was already beginning, and a part of me knew it. It was like I was walking in the dark toward a distant light, but I couldn’t drag my feet fast enough to figure out what it was. I could only think about one thing at a time, and that night, it was about being in the same place with the boy who had broken my heart just one week prior. I wanted to be prepared, I wanted to be confident, I wanted to be okay, but the truth of the matter was that I just wasn’t.

I was far from okay.

Two hours later, I wiped my sweaty palms on the harsh fabric of my jeans as Willow and I weaved through the weekend crowd to Hay Stacks. Crowds were never my thing, but I felt particularly uneasy that night and Willow sensed it. She held out her arm and I looped mine through hers, clinging to her like a lifeline the closer we got to the bars.

The Crawl was a small strip of clubs, bars, and restaurants near the Poxton Beach boardwalk and pretty much the only place to go out within a thirty mile radius. It was always crawling with tourists, but locals were there in heavy crowds, too. Poxton Beach was the second best tourist spot in South Carolina, right behind Myrtle Beach, and The Crawl was just about the only adult entertainment in the town. Everything else was very family-focused, just the way Dale’s ancestors wanted it.

Even though I had just turned eighteen in November, I had been to The Crawl more times than I could count. Hay Stacks and a few other bars were eighteen and up, which made them favorite spots for my group of friends on the weekends. When we weren’t at The Crawl, we were throwing house parties or bonfires on the beach.

Still, on that night, my stomach lurched when the neon sign for Hay Stacks came into view. It was the only country bar at The Crawl and though I loved country music, I was the exact opposite of excited to be there. I knew Mason would be inside, probably at the same bar he had kissed me at the night after homecoming, and I had a pretty good hunch he wouldn’t be alone. Willow tried to soothe me with her never-ending flow of wise words and clichés, but nothing she could say could make me want my couch any less.

“If you don’t loosen your grip, I’m not going to have an arm left for them to slap a wristband on,” Willow said as we reached the doors. The twangy music was spilling out onto the strip and I swore I heard Mason laugh through the noise.

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