Lightning Bay (Love's Battlefield): Episode 1
Everything is Different Now
"It's good to be home."
The lie doesn't exactly roll off my tongue, but it's much easier to tell my friends this than the truth – that home is the last place on earth I want to be.
"Well, what should we do first?" Evan asks.
The Lightning Bay Festival is in full swing. Between the delighted squeals of the people riding the rollercoaster, the blaring pop music, and the smell of burgers and popcorn travelling on the saltwater breeze, this moment reminds me of every summer I've spent in the Bay. And yet, it's nothing like it. How can it be when Cam isn't here to laugh with me and put his arm around me?
I lean back on the railing of the boardwalk and look at Jo and Evan's expectant faces. I'm still incredibly jetlagged after arriving at seven this morning, and the Aussie heatwave is killing me after spending the past few months freezing my butt off, but when my friends begged me to come out with them tonight, I couldn't bring myself to say no. I did at least warn them there was a strong chance they'd have to carry me home if I fell asleep.
"I could go for some fairy floss," I say. "That is if you guys aren't too grown up for fairy floss these days?"
Evan grins. "It's good to know you haven't completely outgrown us now that you're all worldly and experienced."
"Please. You two are way ahead of me in the game of life."
I have a little bit of cash saved but no job to speak of. And just like before I left, I'm back living with Mum. I have a long way to go to catch up to where my friends are. Despite the fact I've experienced a lot while travelling through Europe with my cousin, I fell behind in the ways that matter. Especially when I consider the fact I'll be two years older than most of the first-year students starting at Patterson's Cross University in March.
Is it any wonder Mum insisted I come home? “You have to stop running, Saskia. You can’t put your life on hold any longer. Please come home. Your family needs you.”
Jo puts her hand on my shoulder. "Hey, you know how jealous I am that you've been out there living and seeing the world while we've been studying."
"I wanted you to come with me," I remind her.
"I know, I know. And I've been saving every spare cent, hoping I could meet up with you at some point, but most of the money I make goes towards bills, my car, and the rent."
Jo doesn't look too upset about missing her chance to travel with me. Instead, she seems happy. Really happy. Her pixie face glows with contentment, and if her hair is anything to go by, she's enjoying the experimental nature of college. Her once strawberry blonde hair is now a bright copper colour, cut short in the back, with a longer fringe that frames her face. She looks stylish and oozes confidence.
Evan still has the same long sandy blonde hair curling over his forehead and lopsided grin.
The two of them don't look all that different. Their faces are both so familiar to me, and I talked to them nearly weekly while I was away. Yet now that I'm home, they feel like strangers to me. It's bizarre and unsettling.
"Well, I guess I have that to look forward to this year," I offer lamely. "The life of the poor uni student."
Jo shakes her head and smiles knowingly. "Uni is one long party. You're going to love it."
"Besides, it's about time you become that world-famous artist we know you're going to be," Evan says.
I force a smile. "Yeah."
After everything that happened with Cam, I rarely pick up a paintbrush or pencil anymore. He was my muse and the person who encouraged me the most. Without him, I just feel empty. Whoever says that grief inspires great art hasn't met me. How can I call myself an artist when I rely on another person to make me feel everything I paint?
And yet, an artist is all I've ever wanted to be. The only thing I've ever thought I'd be truly good at. If I'm not an artist, who am I?
I actively avoided thinking about it while I was away. Now I've been home for less than twenty-four hours, and I'm already stressing about it.
I'm so not ready for this.
Jo links her arm through mine. "Come on. Let's get some Jervis & James fairy floss. It's a tradition."
A flashback of sharing a stick of fairy floss with Cam sneaks up on me and flings me back in time. Because that was the tradition.
Travelling through parts of the world I'd never seen before meant I didn't always have to deal with these flashbacks. Now that I'm home, I see him everywhere I look. The memories have been doing a number on me since I left the airport.
Evan hooks his arm through my left, and the three of us begin walking towards the festival grounds. The happy Katy Perry song belting out of the speakers set up around the rides is a stark contrast to the emptiness and sadness rolling around inside me at the thought of what I've lost.
"My shout," Evan says, pulling out his wallet as we reach the first vendor we can find.
Knowing Jo and I will make it up to him by buying the next round of food and drinks, I don't protest.
"Do you want to walk up to the Cove?" Jo asks once we have our three sticks of Jervis & James fairy floss.
I freeze. Cam and I used to spend a lot of time at the Cove. It was where I first realized I'd fallen in love with my best friend. I'd been sick to my stomach with jealousy because Cam insisted on bringing his latest girlfriend to the Cove with us on New Year's.
Jo's expression is sympathetic as she reaches out and touches my arm. "If you're worried about Cam being there, don't be. He's working every day this week."
I nearly double over as his name socks me in the stomach. The whole time I've been gone, Jo and Evan never discussed Cam when I approached the subject.
The four of us were on the athletics team in high school, and we were all good friends. Still, I seem to have deluded myself into thinking the three of them wouldn't talk so much with me gone. It's something of a shock to hear that my friend knows what Cam is doing tonight.
"I didn't realize you still spoke with him," I say, trying to sound casual.
Jo looks down, shifting her weight and fidgeting.
"It's not like we hang out with him," Evan says. "But we don't…we don't ignore him."
"Of course not," I say hastily. "I never thought you should. It's me he hates, not you guys. It's just that neither of you mentioned anything about him whenever I brought him up."
Jo raises her eyes to meet mine. "He was the reason you left. We thought it would just be painful for you to hear about him and what he's been up to."
"Right," I sigh. "So, how is he?"
Many times over the past two years, I've wanted to know what was going on in his life. Now that we're finally talking about him, I can't hold back.
"Where is he working? What's he up to? How is he? Is he going to uni?"
"He's…okay," Jo says cautiously. "He's been working at the cinemas in Pattern's Cross. His sister is finally starting to clean up her act, but his father still has his moments."
"If he's working in P.C., he's going to Uni there, right?"
"He deferred for a year and then started his degree last year."
I try to ignore the way my heart is beating too rapidly. We'll be on the same campus in a couple of months, and even though we won't be in the same year, he'll be around. I won't be able to avoid him.
"Is he studying Health Science like he wanted to?" I ask.
Jo nods. "He likes it from what he's told us."
"Does he…?" I break off suddenly, trying to decide if I really want to know. "Has Cam ever asked you about me? Where I was or what I was doing?"
Jo and Evan's faces are matching expressions of sympathy. Clearly, Cam's hatred towards me hasn't waned in the slightest over these past two years. I ceased to matter to him the moment he found out about my part in the accident. Am I surprised? Not really, but I'll be lying if I say I'm not devastated that he doesn't care about me at all anymore.
I start walking towards the beach, determined not to indulge in any more self-pity tonight. "C'mon. Let's go to the Cove."
"We can stay here at the festival," Evan offers, falling into step with me. "If you think it'll be too difficult."
The Cove is about a fifteen-minute walk from the pier, where the festival is taking place.
"No. I want to go," I say. "Let's go."
It's probably a good idea to spend some time in the place that reminds me so much of Cam. It's the best way to prepare myself for seeing him again. Lightning Bay is too small a place to avoid him forever, and I have to ready myself, especially since we'll be at university together soon.
Jo and Evan fill me in on all the gossip as we walk down the beach. The water laps at the shore on one side of us. I'm doing my best to stay in the present – to listen to what my friends are telling me, nod and laugh in the right places – but I'm off with the fairies because Jo scares the crap out of me when she jumps in front of me, blocking me, and forcing me to a standstill.
"We should head back," she says.
"Yeah, why?" Evan asks.
The desperate look Jo shoots Evan makes my stomach drop to my toes, and when Evan looks past Jo and swears, I feel sick.
I shade my eyes and look over Jo's shoulder, studying the group in front of us. Even though it's getting late, and the sun is setting, the sunlight glares off the water, making it difficult to see into the distance.
"Who are they?" I ask. "Are they from our high school?"
Bumping into people from Lightning Bay High School is something I'd prefer to avoid at all costs. My family and I were outsiders when we moved to the close-knit town halfway through my first year of high school. Thanks to my position on the track team and the fact that Cam took me under his wing, people eventually accepted me.
Then the accident happened.
As soon as Cam's sister told everyone I was to blame for her mother and sister's deaths, I became a hated outsider once again. And the people I'd gone to high school with – friends of Cam and his sister? Well, they were the worst. High school might have finished, but the three weeks between graduation - the night of the accident - and my departure had been horrible. As if the grief and the guilt I felt weren't bad enough, everyone in town suddenly hated me as much as Cam did.
The faces of the people in front of me don't look all that familiar, though. My gaze skips from one to the other, trying to figure out who has Jo and Evan so wigged out.
After a moment of searching, my gaze snags on a tall, dark-haired guy towards the back of the group. His back is to me, but I can tell he's physically more impressive than the other males in the group. Tattoos cover one of his arms and one side of his back. The vivid colour and bold outlines are visible from my vantage point, but I can't see any of the details. I'm about to walk closer to him so that I can remedy that when he turns sideways and recognition hits me.
"Cam," I whisper.
I thought I'd watched him grow from a boy into a man in our teen years, but the transformation wasn't complete by the time I left. Dressed in only a pair of board shorts, I can see how much taller and broader he is. I always thought of him as the best looking boy in our year – in our school, actually – but he's no boy now.
And now that I know who I'm looking at, I'm confident that two of those tattoos are the names of his mother and sister. He would ink their names on his soul if he could.
My heart hammers, and my knees tremble as my eyes trace every part of him.
It's so, so good to see him. I've missed him more than I thought possible. Losing him has torn me apart. When he withdrew his friendship, it shattered something inside me, and I've felt fragmented ever since. Now that he's in front of me, it's like finding the missing part of me. The ache and emptiness that reverberates through me threaten to move me towards him.
"He's not supposed to be here," Evan mutters.
"Kia, let's go," Jo says, pulling on my arm.
I'm glued to the ground, however, incapable of movement.
Over the past two years, I've tried hard to move on from loving Cam. It seemed pointless to harbour such strong feelings for a guy who made it clear he hated me and wished I was dead. So, when my cousin suggested she set me up with a guy she knew, I agreed. Unfortunately, I couldn't generate much interest in him, and when he started pushing me for sex, I told him I wasn't ready. Sleeping with him would never have helped me get over my best friend.
Jealousy stabs through me as I watch a slender woman wrap her arms around his neck from behind. She presses her body against his, commanding his attention. Cam turns in her arms, and they share a kiss so full of passion and heat and desire that my heart rips apart in my chest.
Years ago, I promised myself I wouldn't be one of those girls I always read about in romance novels – the ones who never told their best friend how they felt, but every time I tried to tell him I was in love with him, he told me he had a new girlfriend. I never made it out of the friend zone back then, and now I'm not even his friend.
"Who's that?" I ask Jo.
Acid burns my stomach and throat as the mystery woman moves, and I see more of her face. I take in the long red hair tumbling down her back and her delicate, beautiful features.
"Oh, my God. Please tell me that isn't-"
"Brooklyn Bishop," Jo says reluctantly. "She and Cam are…together."
"Together?" I choke out. "As in, she's his girlfriend?"
"I'm sorry, Kia. I should have told you, but honestly, I didn't know how."
Jo is the one person who knows exactly how I feel about Cam. She's the only person who can truly understand the betrayal I'm currently experiencing. Brooklyn was my arch enemy in high school. I believe she hated me because she was jealous of my friendship with Cam. At every opportunity, Brooklyn went out of her way to humiliate me in front of him. I can't believe he's with her now and that she finally has what she wanted for so long.
"How long have they been seeing each other?" I force out.
"About six months," Evan says disgustedly.
"Six months?" I repeat.
God, this is so much worse than I ever thought it could be. To know he's with someone is bad enough. But to hear he's been dating Brooklyn Bishop for six months is far more than I can handle right now.
He's had numerous girlfriends over the years. Many of them bothered me, but he never dated them long enough to be considered serious – and deep down, I always felt like part of Cam belonged to me. That he was mine and I was his, and that we would happen when the time was right. Now, that's about the farthest thing from the truth. And every time I think I've accepted the fact I'll never be with Cam and that he'll never love me the way I want him to, I continue to be knocked off my feet by the pain that thought brings me.
"I'm sorry, I don't think I can walk past them," I say quietly.
"Of course," Jo says quickly. "We'll head straight back."
"Let's get out of here," Evan says.
I'm taking one long last look at Cam when he suddenly turns towards us and catches me staring at him. He frowns as he takes me in from a distance. I know I look different. My hair is shoulder length now, wavy and fluffed around my face instead of hanging down my back. And it's my natural light brown colour instead of bleached blonde.
Maybe if I wasn't standing with Jo and Evan, our hands full of fairy floss, Cam might have mistaken me for someone else. But as his gaze narrows and he shrugs off Brooklyn's embrace, I know he knows it's me.
My heart begins to race as he stalks towards us. It's like I'm waiting for the plane to touch down all over again. Adrenaline rushes through me as I wait to have him near me.
Once he's standing in front of us, his cobalt blue eyes flecked with black dots lock with mine. For a moment, he doesn't say anything, and neither do I. I soak him in quietly, afraid that if I say anything or reach for him like I want to, I'll remind him just how much he hates me.
Unfortunately, he remembers anyway.
His eyes are hard and full of ice as he stares at me. "What are you doing here, Saskia?"
The tone he uses is as controlled and icy as his eyes are, but it's the way he says my name that causes me to shiver. He always called me Kia, never Saskia.
Not that I needed it, but this is all the proof I need that things will never, ever be the same between us.