Gull Island Wreck
Faith Meredith dragged herself onto the beach, her waterlogged skirt an iron band around her legs, her shins scraped and bruised from stumbling along the half submerged rocks. Her hair dripped down over her sodden shoulders, tangled with salt and strands of bladderwrack.
"We could have DROWNED!" she shouted, red in the face with exertion and fury.
"I'm sorry, alright!" Jem answered, collapsing in the sand at her feet and breathing hard. "What else do you want me to say?"
"I told you that you were too close to the rocks!"
"And you were right. Congratulations!"
Faith looked out to the end of the natural breakwater that formed the tip of Gull Island, where the splintered remains of Owen Ford's sleek new sailboat were slipping beneath the waves.
"Mr. Ford's boat!" she moaned. "And after we promised we would be careful!"
"I know. I know!"
"I can't believe you, Jem! What were you thinking? What did you . . ."
"Could you please stop yelling at me for just one minute! God!"
Faith blinked. She had never heard Jem swear before, even in moments of especial pique. He must be uncommonly upset now. Faith felt that perhaps she should be offended by this transgression, rather than exhilarated.
With an effort, she stifled a retort.
Jem dropped his head. "I'm sorry. Alright, Faith? I'm sorry."
Faith swallowed. She had been scared — it was no easy thing to half-wade and half-swim fifty yards in skirt and petticoats, even with Jem behind her, catching her when she slipped. But she was safe now, and the shrillness of her fear was ebbing. Looking at Jem's blanched face, it occurred to Faith that he might have been scared, too.
She sat down in the sand beside Jem, not quite touching, but close enough that she could feel little vibrations as he breathed.
"Alright," she said.
Jem looked up, hazel eyes anxious, checking to see if she meant it.
Faith caught her breath. This close, he was overwhelming. It was easy to forget, in their many moments of relaxed camaraderie, just how handsome he was, even with his red curls salt-matted, how tall and broad-shouldered. Captain of the Redmond football team and all that. Faith Meredith rarely felt insignificant, but there had been a few times this summer when she had wondered, with a fluttering of her heart, why Jem Blythe bothered to seek out her company. After all, he must have all the Kingsport girls eating out of his hand.
But it wasn't a Kingsport girl he had invited for a sail on the harbor, and it wasn't a Kingsport girl he was looking at now, beseeching eyes begging her forgiveness.
"It's alright, Jem. I'm fine. We're fine."
He exhaled, seemed to deflate a bit.
"I really am sorry," Jem said. "I wanted . . . nah. Never mind."
"What?" Faith asked gently. "What did you want?"
"Forget it. It's stupid."
Faith's stomach felt oddly twisted, but she wanted to know what he had meant to say. "Why are we out here, anyway, Jem?"
He snorted. "I had a plan."
"What sort of plan?"
"Well, I was going to get you out on the water. I had a picnic basket and everything! You know, I go back to Kingsport next week . . ."
Faith's heart was skidding, not quite sure if it wanted to rush along madly or stop altogether.
Jem gave a little breath of a laugh. "I wanted to tell you before I left. That . . . I love you, Faith."
Stopping. Definitely stopping.
"Oh?" was all she managed to say.
Jem barreled along, the worst of it over. "And I wanted to ask permission to . . . write to you."
"Write to me?" Faith echoed in amazement.
"Yes," he said, looking suddenly nervous. "Well, you still have another year at Queen's and I thought . . . I thought I could write you letters."
"Oh," Faith said again, befuddled. "Alright."
Jem grimaced. "Not quite the enthusiasm I was hoping for."
"No," Faith shook herself. She had not often found herself tongue-tied and this was not the time to start. "No," she said, more decidedly. "Writing is fine. I just thought . . . you were going to ask permission to . . . kiss me."
Jem let out a sound that might have been a laugh and might have been a sob. "That, too."
Faith felt herself smile. It wasn't voluntary — she could no more have stopped herself from grinning in that moment than she could have stopped the sun from shining down on the sparkling harbor.
"Well," she said, more steadily than she felt, "don't keep me in suspense."
Jem's own smile was dazzling. Faith Meredith was not a girl to go weak in the knees, but she was very glad that she was sitting, nevertheless.
Despite drenched clothes and damp hair, his lips were impossibly warm and soft against hers. Faith reached up a tentative hand, half afraid to caress the subtle roughness of his jaw, and half afraid she might push him over in the sand. This was . . . was . . .
After several minutes, coherent thought resumed. Faith pulled back slightly, breathing harder than she had been when she emerged from the sea.
Jem gave a little shudder of laughter. "Faith?"
Faith let out an hysterical giggle. She crumpled against Jem's shoulder, helpless, shaking with hilarity. He laughed, too, until they were both in tears.
"We're going to have to build a shelter," Faith gasped, wiping her eyes. "Re-invent fire. Learn to forage."
Jem reached out long, flexible fingers and brushed sand from her cheek. "Honestly, that sounds wonderful."
"Good. I do hope Redmond won't miss you."
"It will just have to get along without me."
Jem put a strong arm around Faith's waist and squeezed gently. "It seems we have a lot of work to do. But first . . . do you want to take off your skirt to let it dry?"
Faith pushed him away, giggling anew. "You're as soaked as I am."
"Yes," he said, unleashing another stunning smile. "And I'll be happy to take off anything you'll let me. I'm so cold!"
Faith reached out, grabbed him by the front of his frigid, sopping shirt, and pulled him in for another kiss. Someone would rescue them, eventually. But they were in no hurry.