The Edge of Summer
Slice of Life/Teen/Romance
The late spring air held the weight of an oncoming thunderstorm. Summer could feel the building humidity; it stuck to her pores and made even the light coating of foundation on her face feel greasy and unpleasant. Up the street, she could hear the high school marching band playing at the start of the last football game of the year. It wasn’t her thing, never really had been. She was focused on something bigger.
She toyed with the letter in her hand; it arrived yesterday but it was already looking worn from the number of times she had read it over.
“Hey! Tree girl! You not going to the game?”
Shane waved at her from across the street then hobbled over on crutches, his right foot in a boot. His dark hair was cropped short and spiked back and he was wearing his football team jacket.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Tree girl? Really?”
“Ah, well, you always study under that one big tree by the library so…”
“You don’t know my name, do you?” She asked, giving him a flat look.
He grinned, a disarming and harmless sort of grin, and shrugged. One of his crutches toppled to the ground. “Is it Hannah?”
“Summer. Right. Sorry. Would you mind getting that thing for me? I’m… not really used to them.” He gestured towards the fallen crutch. “This shattered ankle is a real bitch.”
Part of her wanted to say no, because he was the star player on the football team and he’d never even bothered to learn her name. Let him struggle to do something for once in his life. She picked it up and handed it back to him.
“Hey, you wanna hang?”
“Oh, come on. I can get us booze. Plus, I hear I’m great company.” Another grin.
Summer rolled her eyes and kept walking. “Look, I’m busy, okay?”
“Okay, sure, no problem. If you change your mind, you know where to find me.” He jerked his thumb back toward the small, weathered house behind him.
The guilt started nagging at her after she’d walked a few more blocks. Just because she was in a bad mood didn’t mean she had to take it out on the quarterback hopping around with a broken foot. Maybe she’d apologize after her walk. She opened the letter again and stared at it blankly; she’d gone over it so many times that she no longer needed to read it. Rejection. From Stanford. Her dream school had reviewed all her effort—all those countless hours of advanced coursework, those honors and achievements she’d sacrificed her social life for, the letters of recommendation, and the essay she had ripped her soul out writing—they’d looked at it all and had found her lacking.
For an hour she walked aimlessly through the town, the houses quiet in the evening air, save for the bouts of cheering that undulated in waves of humanity from the football stadium. There was the sound of shattering glass. She was back at Shane’s house again. The back gate stood open as if inviting her in; her insides too numb to feel nervous, she walked over to see what had broken.
Shane was sitting in a lawn chair, his head buried in his hands. Brown glass from a shattered beer bottle flickered in the light of a bonfire that was burning merrily in his backyard firepit. When she saw him, she felt as if she had intruded on something personal. This was not the grinning boy who had asked for his crutch an hour ago. She tried to turn away, intending to leave him to whatever this private moment was, but he looked up and saw her; their eyes locked. The smile he shoved on his face was so forced that it hurt her to see it.
He gestured toward an empty chair. “Two people makes a party.”
“That’s what you were doing back here? Partying?”
He stretched his injured leg out, propping the boot on a nearby stump. “Something like that.”
“Anyone else home?”
He snorted, as if she had made an unfunny joke. “You want a beer?”
“Wine? My sister left a bottle. Girls like wine, right?”
She almost said no again, but the weight of sitting alone at home was too much. “You know what? Yeah. Sure.”
He limped up the porch steps and into the kitchen, returning with a screw-top bottle. The smile on his face was a little less forced now. “One bottle of the finest… uh…” he looked at the label, “…Merlot. Whatever that means.” He handed her the bottle.
“M’lady fancies herself a connoisseur?” He tried to bow when he said it but lost his balance. In a sweep that was less than graceful, he caught himself on the cracked lawn chair. It creaked as he landed heavily in the seat, grinning as if that's what he’d meant to do all along.
She laughed. “I just wanted a cup! But fine… whatever.” She unscrewed it, took a sip from the bottle, and sputtered. “It tastes like boiled tree bark!”
“You try it then!”
She shoved the bottle into his hands, his calloused fingers brushing hers. She pretended not to notice how warm they felt.
He took a big swig and started coughing. “See. Totally great. No idea why my sister left this bottle when she moved out.”
“Maybe I can make it as a comedian.” The forced grin was back on his face. Talking about his future had made him look brittle again.
“I didn’t get into my dream college,” she said, holding the letter out and flipping it open for what felt like the thousandth time.
He took another pull from the wine bottle and was silent for a moment. His voice came out in a nearly inaudible whisper. “There’s a recruiter at today’s game.”
She looked down at his foot and winced. The football game. Of course.
She leaned over, propped her head on his shoulder, and stared into the crackling flames. Summer grabbed the bottle back from him and drank more. He put an arm around her. She was still staring at the letter but it felt less heavy, sitting there with him.
The paper trembled in her fingers. “It’s shitty, you know? I thought I had it all figured out. I thought they’d take me. I worked so hard.”
His hand squeezed her arm.
“Yeah. Me too.”
They sat, letting the crackling fire fill the warm silence that hung between them.
“Sorry about the ‘tree girl’ thing earlier. I know your name. I was being an idiot.”
“Hey, no need to rub it in!”
She smiled. “You know what? Screw it. Maybe I didn’t get Stanford, but I’ll get in somewhere.” She tossed the paper into the flames and watched it curl and shrivel into ash. She looked up at Shane. “You too. You aren’t stuck here forever just because you broke your ankle.”
“You think so?” He asked. “I don’t know what else…” He trailed off, a red blush creeping up the side of his neck.
He really thought he was stuck here. That he had nothing to offer besides football. To him, his future had pivoted on this single game and bad luck had blown it. “Yeah. I think so.”
“Well, this sucks.”
“You’re still leaving for college next year, right? I should have asked you on a date ages ago.”
“A date… what? Earlier today you were calling me Hannah!”
“Look, I told you already! I know what your name is! It’s Hannah! And this is a date!” He tried to keep a straight face, but when he said the wrong name, he’d broken out into a grin— at around the same time she’d started scowling.
“That’s the only thing I don’t like about you,” he said. “You’re too serious.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Well, I think you joke around too much.” She was annoyed at him again. She thought about walking away, but the buzz of the wine and the warmth of the fire made her want to stay.
He shrugged. “I guess you’re right... I don’t want anyone to know how seriously I take myself.”
With the firelight dancing around them, she felt like his reflection. The boy who pretended his future was a joke. The girl who pretended that being social was excess. Yet here they were, wrung empty, staring into a fire and drinking cheap wine.
A distant rumble rolled over them, the air thick with moisture. The cars driving by on the main street let out a sigh of intention as they passed—coming home from the football game, maybe headed to the nearest drive-through. The team usually did that after a game, she’d seen them there, laughing and crowding the tables while she walked by on the other side of the street.
His brows furrowed at the fire. He was thinking about it too; them celebrating a game without him. “You want a beer?”
“Uh, no, we have a lot of this… very fancy Merlot.” She twirled the bottle in front of him, the screw-top pattern on the glass lip flickering in the firelight. “Isn’t wine supposed to have a cork?”
He shrugged again. “I didn’t buy it, ask my sister. You want a burger? I can order delivery.”
“She coming back from the game?”
“No. She left a few months ago. Burger?” He pulled out his phone, face glowing in the crackling firelight.
He looked offended. “Uh… yeah? Why would I offer burgers and not put out?”
She sputtered on the next sip. “Put out?”
“I don’t promise what I can’t deliver!” He was almost defensive about that punchline, but it made her smile. That was the type of joke he would have told his friends.
“Sure… double onions, double tomato, add pickles, no lettuce.”
He stared at her. “Double onions? No lettuce?”
“Yeah, and add pickles and double the tomato. Weren’t you listening? Thought I was ordering my burger, not yours.”
He punched in the order on his phone, dramatically wincing as he checked off the boxes for her request. “One… personalized burger coming right up.”
They sat there with the wine and the fire, hands nearly touching but not. The future seemed as vastly uncertain as ever, an unknown she had been so sure she could touch until she’d gotten that letter. But this moment was real, as real as the paper that she had consigned to ashes. As real as the boy with a broken foot that had offered her wine and ordered her take-out so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
He reached out, linking his little finger around hers. “Summer, we’re gonna be fine, right? Pinky promise?”
She wanted to call him a child, but it felt wrong to do it. The way he said her name made the words that came after hang heavier than the distant thunder.
“Yeah. We’re gonna be fine.”
After she spoke the words, it felt like an incantation. A childish declaration whispered while balanced on the knife’s edge of adulthood. She laughed and kissed the top of his pinky—still wrapped around hers—as if it sealed their contract.
Evening had fallen more completely now, and the lights of the delivery car shone brightly as the vehicle rolled into the driveway. Shane got up and limped over to meet the driver. Summer watched the light from the flames cast shadows across his back.
The fire popped and danced, orange and warm in the cooling air of oncoming night, determined and wavering all at once.