The weekend before Jason and I left for college, the Shermans threw a huge beach party to celebrate. We dug a huge circular trench in the sand, sculpting seating around the edges, then built a bonfire in the center.
The party was fun, but I was always painfully aware of Elsie, of where she was and what she was doing. When the sun was beginning to set, I noticed that she was missing, so I went looking for her.
I found her by the water’s edge, walking alone with a sweater wrapped around her shoulders.
“Hey,” I said, approaching her with my hands in my pocket. It was getting cold by then and I only had on a t-shirt.
She looked up at me and smiled. “Hey, I have something for you.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, wondering if I was going to get to kiss her for the first time. Spoiler alert: I don’t actually get to kiss her until years later, but at the time, I thought for sure what she was going to give me was a kiss.
“Hold out your hand,” she said and placed a damp pebble on it. Damn it.
“A wonky rock?” I asked, turning it over and over.
“It’s sort of shaped like a star,” she said, touching it with her finger. “I just found it.”
I wrapped my palm around it and stuck it in my pocket. “Uh, thanks.” I didn’t get it, but whatever floated her boat.
She laughed. “I know it’s silly, but I wanted to give it to you so you can remember me when you’re in college.”
“I don’t need a rock to remember you,” I said. “My head could be filled with rocks and I would still remember you. You could hit me with a huge rock and give me amnesia and I’d still remember you.”
She snorted. “Well, if nothing else, you are that rock. You can look at it and know that even though the elements can change your shape, you’re still you at the core.”
I fisted that rock tighter, a lump growing in my throat. “Okay.”
She stepped into my space and wrapped her arms around me. “I’ll miss you so much, Henry,” she said then, as if realizing what she’d done, pulled away. She was blushing.
My chest felt tight at the knowledge that this was the end of our times together. I decided right then that I’d show her how much she meant to me. As if reading my mind, she closed her eyes and angled her face up as I leaned down towards her.
Jason chose that same moment to come ruin the moment. “Guys, we’re breaking out the smores,” he called.
“All right,” I said, jumping away from his little sister. “We’ll be there in a second.”
Jason just shook his head and left.
I looked at Elsie and imagined her life if I kissed her now then left for college. What I saw was a vision of her pining for me, refusing to date anyone because she was waiting for my return. It was romantic as hell but it gave me a bit of an ache in the pit of my stomach. There it was again, the salmonella poisoning of guilt.
So I decided to make our lives simpler and give her a chance to enjoy the rest of high school. “Elsie, I can’t give you what you want.”
She was taken aback by my words. “Huh?”
“You want me to kiss you then you’ll want me to be your boyfriend, but that’s not going to happen.”
“Because!” I said, throwing my hands up. I searched for a reason that would effectively close the door in her face. “Because you’re like a little sister to me.”
Her face fell, and my stomach hurt even more. “Oh.”
I looked out over the ocean, at the orange sun dipping below the horizon. It was such an appropriate symbol for us right then. “But I really care about you,” I whispered, kicking at the sand. I felt like such a jerk.
“Yeah, whatever,” she said through pursed lips. “I didn’t want anything from you, Henry. I just wanted to give you that rock.”
I watched her retreating figure, wishing I hadn’t had to be a dick. I wanted to run after her and kiss her silly, but then what would that accomplish? I was leaving. There was nothing for us right then.
I never realized until now how I had saved her from that fate once, but it happened years later anyway, when I made her love me then left for Afghanistan.