Packing was the hardest stage of any trip. It signified the last chance to turn back. It also served as a depressing reminder of just how many pills, salves, and electronic devices Amarie relied on.
She rolled her hand over the steroid pills that her primary care doctor had reluctantly prescribed rattled in their bottle. They were tiny. How such a small, foul-tasting white pill could make her feel better so quickly mystified her. It stumped her doctor, too. Even worse, it would stop working just as quickly when she finished the prescription.
Amarie closed her eyes, pushing the negative thoughts away. She should be excited. After all, it wasn’t often that her entire group of friends got together anymore. Not since they’d graduated high school and all gone their separate ways, to colleges scattered across the country.
She was almost done with her own degree. After that, she had no idea what was next. For all she knew, the last-minute camping trip could be the last time she’d see her friends for a while.
Glancing over at her neatly written checklist, she ran through it again, eyeing the items on her bed. Pillbox, check. TENS machine, check. Thank goodness it was the size of a TV remote—unlike the giant units in physical therapy that they had to roll around on carts. Prescriptions in their bottles, in case anyone questioned her—check.
She moved aside hoodies and tiny travel bottles of shampoo. She’d forgotten that—and sunscreen. Even though she’d been blessed with a rich, tawny complexion that could tan to a deep bronze in the summer, her mami had never let her forget that even the darkest of Dominicans could burn, too.
As if summoned, Paloma knocked on the open door and stuck her head in. “Did you pack your sunscreen?”
“Ay, Mami.” Though Amarie rolled her eyes, a smile touched her lips. If ever the day came that her mother stopped, well, mothering her, Amarie would be struck dead with disbelief. Not to mention a smidge of concern.
Paloma held out a plastic grocery bag. “Your bathing suit was hanging in the shower.”
Taking the proffered bag, Amarie peered inside. Nestled among the strings of her bikini was a neatly folded giant beach towel—and two different bottles of sun lotion.
“One’s for tanning, the other for protection. So you can alternate,” her mother explained. “Use the 30 SPF on your face, mi amor. You don’t want that leathery look.”
“You mean wrinkles,” Amarie corrected.
“No.” Paloma shook her head. “I mean leather skin.” She made a face. “Like your bad cousin Jaime. All those tattoos, now ruined by wrinkles and rough skin. Speaking of, make sure you use the 30 on your tattoo.”
Amarie stifled a laugh. “Mami, we’ve been through this. I don’t have any tattoos.”
“That’s right. You don’t. My good girl doesn’t even dye her hair.” Paloma beamed.
“You know, dying my hair or getting a tattoo wouldn’t make me bad,” she said, thinking of all the times she’d snuck out to get drunk with Lucas and their friends.
“No, but it would set a bad example for your students.”
“My future students, Mami.” Amarie arranged her face into what she hoped was a pleasant expression. Behind that face, swirls of doubt shadowed her mind. The fall semester was going to be her last, and then she’d be a teacher—just like her mother, and Paloma’s mother before her. Except Amarie wouldn’t be an elementary school teacher.
Paloma’s face softened. “You’re going to be a wonderful pre-school teacher,” she said.
Amarie nodded. She didn’t say that she hoped so, that it’d be a miracle if she got through her last semester and found a position that didn’t mind her missing time for doctor’s appointments.
“How long are you staying, again?” Paloma asked.
“Just the one night.” Amarie surveyed her bed again. To anyone else, it might look like an awful lot of things to pack for just one night of camping.
“And you’ll be okay sleeping on the ground?” Paloma pressed the pads of her fingers to her face, fretting. “Do you want your Papi’s old air mattress? It still holds air. You just have to refill it now and then.”
Amarie smiled. “No, Mami. I’ll be okay.” She hoped. More than likely, she’d be too busy making out with Lucas to notice. Besides, the guys were bringing plenty of booze, and her best friend Neve always had a blunt tucked away, ready to go. She’d be fine.
“I’ll leave you to it, then.” Her mom smiled, then turned, her footsteps down the hall as light as a fairy floating through the woods.
Taking a deep breath, Amarie removed the bottles of shampoo and conditioner from her bed. It was only one night. She didn’t need them. Everything else, though, she’d have to fit into one bag. Lucas would kill her if she made him schlep all of their gear and three bags of her own.
She put aside the heating pad, too. It’d be too hot, and besides, there wouldn’t be anywhere she could plug it in. She’d have to hope that her joints behaved for the one night. If all else failed, she could just go home. It wasn’t as if they were even going out of town. Black Rock State Park was less than five miles away from her parents’ house.
She was going to try to enjoy herself, though. She rarely got to see Neve anymore, and Lucas wouldn’t be happy with her if she took off early.
Subtracting her extra pillows, instant ice packs, and a few other things from her bed, Amarie shoved the remaining items into her tote.
“Thank goodness for obnoxiously large Victoria’s Secret totes,” she murmured.
She was going to have fun, she told herself. Everything would be just like normal: the guys cracking open cheap cans of beer and shotgunning them; Neve braiding her hair while they tanned on the small lake beach; the group sharing silly ghost stories around the fire as they passed the blunt back and forth.
Still, even as she added one more pillow to her tote—just in case—Amarie wished that, for once, things could be a little different.
* * *
Because their campsite was so small, the group decided to bring as few vehicles as possible. Amarie hated the idea of leaving behind her little blue Hyundai Accent. If she needed to leave, she’d have to talk someone sober into bringing her home. Or, she surmised with a grimace, she’d have to call her parents like a stranded teenager. She propped an elbow on her big ass tote and rested her head on her hand.
Lucas was late—as usual. She’d been sitting outside for fifteen minutes, not that she minded. The sun was warm on her skin and, despite the humidity, there was a regular breeze that made the air bearable. What was bugging her was her empty iMessages.
He hadn’t even texted to give her a heads up.
A pristine white SUV pulled into her driveway. Her best friend leaned out of the open driver’s side window. “Need a ride, little girl?”
“Aren’t creepers supposed to drive white vans?” Amarie grinned and stood, hefting her ginormous tote with both arms. Her elbows ached in protest.
Neve pressed a button and the door to the trunk lifted open, its air compression mechanism hissing softly. “True,” she agreed, “but beggars can’t be choosers.” She patted the dashboard.
Amarie fit her tote into a nook between a packed tent and several folded camping chairs. Then she joined Neve inside, the cold air conditioning a relief. “I can’t believe your parents let you drive this thing.”
“Me either.” Neve flipped on the rear camera and began backing out of the driveway.
“Then again,” Amarie said, “I guess it’s harder to total a vehicle when you have cameras helping you.”
“In my defense, someone T-boned me while I was parked.” Neve eased the SUV—which reminded Amarie more of a spaceship than a car—onto the road.
“Excuses, excuses,” she teased. “So, while I’m super happy to see your face in person, I’m a little confused. I thought Lucas was picking me up.”
“I know you were looking forward to making out with your boyfriend,” Neve said, slipping on sunglasses against the glare, “but you’re stuck with me.” She puckered her lips, and Amarie laughed.
“You’re too straight for me,” she said. “Seriously, though. Where’s Lucas?”
“The guys couldn’t fit all of their gear in one car, so they asked me to be the transporter. Matt is coming later in his truck with the rest of it.” Neve jerked her head toward the back seat, her delicate but tightly coiled curls bouncing with the motion. Though her skin was a few shades lighter than Amarie’s, she had her beat in the hair department.
“Oh.” Amarie eyed Neve’s hair, mentally comparing it to her own spirals for probably the millionth time. While her curls would weigh heavily against her neck during the hottest part of the day, Neve’s floated in a cloud around her face.
“I know what you’re doing,” Neve said. “Not all of us can be this blessed. Thank goodness for my beautiful African genes.” She patted her hair.
“Rub it right in,” Amarie said with a smile. She scrolled through her texts again. “I just . . . I’m sorry for obsessing, but he didn’t even text me.”
“You’re like a conversational ping pong ball.” Neve glanced at her over her sunglasses. “Boys, hair envy, and then boys again. If I promise to braid your hair and feed you wine coolers, will you relax?”
She sighed. “I’ll try. It’s just, I thought he was coming.”
“You’ll see your man soon enough,” Neve said. “God, you guys are so gross. You’re like the power couple of the group. He looks like a model, and you ain’t so bad yourself.”
Amarie pictured Lucas’s full, sensuous lips and sensitive brown eyes. He was gorgeous, and she did like him, but being Lucas’s girlfriend felt more like the right thing to do rather than the thing her heart desperately needed. He was her best friend’s boyfriend’s friend—not to mention studying to be a special needs teacher—and it’d just made sense. When they both started working at the same Dunkin Donuts together, it sealed the deal.
“All right, girl, quit spacing out and pouting, and help me sing this embarrassingly catchy ESX song.” Neve turned the volume to the XM radio station up. She definitely had the comfortable lifestyle of a doctor down. By the time she graduated Stanford, finished her residency, and started practicing, Amarie mused, Neve’s life wouldn’t be much different.
She wondered, in ten years’ time, where she and all of her friends would be. Despite how easily the group had fallen into place, they were all going in completely different directions. Even she and Lucas couldn’t possibly withstand the test of time. Especially not with her deteriorating mystery illness.
She was going to be lucky if she made it long enough to gain tenure as a teacher.
“Okay, you asked for it.” Neve turned the volume higher and practically screeched the annoying but catchy boy band song.
Rolling her eyes, Amarie obliged her friend. She was supposed to be having fun on this trip, after all.
* * *
Amarie snuggled into her cozy sweats, enjoying the way the combed cotton caressed her body. The sun had dipped below the tree line a while ago, and even though it wouldn’t set until around 8:30 p.m., the pines overhead made their campsite chilly.
“We’re almost out of wine coolers,” Neve lamented. She closed the cooler and joined Amarie, settling into her camping chair. She handed Amarie a bottle.
“You two are a pair of lushes,” Jason said from his position by the fire pit. He squatted next to it, stacking kindling around balled up pages of newspaper and a few candle stubs. For a guy with such a cherubic face, he was far handier than Lucas.
Amarie supposed that, out of the trio, Matt and Jason were more the outdoorsmen than her guy.
Jason swore in Portuguese. Amarie looked over just in time to catch him sucking on a finger.
“Maybe we should wait for Matt,” she said.
He shot her a dirty look. “I can build a fire.”
“Clearly,” Neve said, arching an eyebrow at him.
Despite the ribbing, Jason looked at her tenderly. He returned to his task, striking another match and holding it to the newspaper.
Amarie wished that she and Lucas had the same connection that Neve and Jason seemed to have. Even as Lucas scooped her out of her chair, settling her into his lap, she didn’t feel the butterflies in her tummy that she should have—though things much lower heated and clenched.
With Lucas, things were purely sexual. Her heart just wasn’t in it, no matter how hard she tried. She snuggled into his arms, willing herself to feel it. His arms wound around her, holding her close, but the only warmth she sensed was body heat and lust.
She wanted that great love, the kind that would knock her off her feet, sending her life careening off track. Even Matt had found it—the only one of them that rarely dated, dedicating most of his time to his mother and little brother. If he could, surely so could she. So far, though, the longer she waited to fall in love with Lucas, the more she realized that their relationship was seriously lacking.
The sound of tires rolling over the dirt road snagged her attention. Matt’s truck backed into the campsite. The party would really be starting soon.
She craned her neck, trying to get a glimpse of Matt’s new girl. Her name was something uncommon, something that started with an R. Rosalie or Rhiannon or something like that. Her eyebrows scrunched together as she fought through the brain fog to remember.
The girl who hopped out of the truck first wasn’t anything like she’d expected, though. Her heart hitched, catching mid-beat. Wild, teal hair framed her face, contrasting lush red lips. Bright, round blue eyes surveyed the campsite.
She looked nothing like Amarie had pictured. She certainly didn’t look like Matt’s type. When her gaze lighted on Amarie and she smiled, Amarie’s heart actually fluttered.
“Guys,” Matt said, drawing her attention. “This is Rowan.” He gestured to another girl standing shyly next to him. A pretty girl, but Amarie’s gaze immediately flickered back to the other woman. “And her friend Charlotte.”
Charlotte, she mouthed, tasting the name on her lips.
From across the site, Charlotte’s eyes met hers. She held her gaze. Fireflies drifted through the purple-streaked twilight, their lights flashing gently as they called to each other: Be mine, be mine, be mine. Amarie’s hands trembled on the arms of her chair. The soft breeze that had caressed her skin all day stroked Charlotte’s hair, moving it away from her face.
Those cherry lips parted, and the campsite around them disappeared.
“Hi,” Charlotte said, wiggling her fingers. “Nice to meet you.” Those eyes never wavered, trained solely on Amarie.
“You too,” Amarie whispered. She drank in those eyes, mind flipping through all of the colors she knew, trying to remember the name of the exact shade of Charlotte’s eyes. They were somewhere between cyan and gray, a blue bright and pale, like the spot where the sky met the ocean on the horizon.
“Call me Char,” Charlotte said, and it was as if she was speaking directly to Amarie. Every time her lips moved, Amarie strained to memorize them. They were so red and plump, as if they were made especially for kissing. She had to restrain herself from imagining exactly how swollen she could make them if she ever had the chance to kiss Char.
“Welcome to our humble gathering,” Lucas rumbled from underneath Amarie. The vibration of his voice through her body snapped her out of the trance that Char had put her under.
She yanked her eyes toward the flames licking the newspaper, igniting the sticks. Jason stacked skinny logs in an upside down V around the flames.
Matt laughed. “Dude, are you drunk? You’re supposed to set up the teepee shape before you light the kindling.” He shook his head. “Let me get our tents pitched, and then I’ll take over fire duty.”
Amarie straightened, wondering where Char was going to sleep. Since Matt and Rowan were together, that made Char the seventh wheel. Surely Rowan wouldn’t leave her friend to sleep alone in the woods. She opened her mouth, ready to make rearrangements so that she, Neve, and Char shared a tent, leaving Lucas and Jason in the third tent.
Rowan pulled a tent of her own out of the bed of Matt’s pickup, though. To Matt’s dismay, she and Char began pitching it.
Amarie pressed her lips together, feeling a bit sorry for Matt—and herself. She had a boyfriend, though. She snuggled into Lucas, closing her eyes. Besides, even if she was single, it wasn’t as if Char would actually be into her. Their “connection” had simply been a product of all of the booze floating through her veins. Nothing more.
Still, all throughout the night and the rest of their camping trip, she couldn’t get Char out of her head. If she took a leap and broke up with Lucas, she might find herself in the kind of love that swept her away. Or maybe she would be living yet another fantasy.