“Boys! Come help your father!” Marilyn called. She was standing at the top of the stairs that led from the pool of their Hilton Head home down to the beach.
Clay Maxwell looked to his older brother, Brady, for confirmation that they could ignore their mother and keep hanging out at the beach. They always came down here for the Fourth of July celebration with the Atwood family, but a couple of days ago, they had finally made friends with a group of kids nearby. Clay was even more excited because some of them were his own age. One of the girls was pretty, too.
While it was fun, hanging out with Brady and Chris Atwood, Brady’s best friend, all summer, they would treat him like a baby even though they were only three years older. Clay would turn thirteen next month and he’d already dated and dumped a number of girls in his grade. He wasn’t a baby.
“Coming, Mom!” Brady yelled back.
Clay slumped his shoulders. Why did Brady always do the right thing? For once, couldn’t he just ignore our mother and pretend like he hadn’t heard her?
“Let’s go, Clay,” he demanded, all high and mighty.
Brady, the perfect.
Clay rolled his eyes. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Brady fixed him with one of his best death stares. Clay snorted and turned away. Brady could just stare at his back for all he cared. I’d be there in a minute! Just like I’d said. Geez!
“You should probably go,” the girl in front of him said. She smiled sweetly.
She was better than pretty, he decided.
She had the biggest blue eyes ever, her hair was almost platinum in the bright afternoon sun, and her sun-kissed skin looked hot in her skimpy blue bikini. A soft layer of sand clung to her from playing in the water and messing around on the surf all afternoon.
“Yeah,” he agreed.
“Maybe I’ll see you later?” she asked hopefully. Her cheeks turned crimson, and she looked away.
Clay stood a little taller, unconsciously mimicking the way Brady would talk to girls he met on the beach. “Definitely. We’re here the rest of the week.”
“Okay!” Her face brightened.
“Clay!” Brady yelled. “Don’t make Mom repeat herself.”
“Jesus, I’m coming!” he yelled back. Clay groaned. “He’s so annoying.”
She giggled. “I’m an only child. I think it might be nice to have someone nag me.”
“It’s not. Trust me.”
“I’ll take your word for it. See you later, Clay.”
“Bye, Andrea.” He nodded his head and then jogged after Brady and Chris, who were waiting impatiently a few feet away.
“Look, I’m coming,” he said. He spread his arms wide to indicate he was heading toward them.
“About time,” Brady said.
When Clay reached them, Brady immediately pulled him into a headlock. He roughly rubbed Clay’s hair with his fist.
“Brady!” he cried, trying to get loose. “Let go!”
Clay punched him in the stomach as hard as he could, but he might as well have been fighting with a brick wall. Even at sixteen, Brady played an endless amount of basketball and worked out relentlessly when he wasn’t studying. He was solid and much bigger than his gangly younger brother who hadn’t grown into his body yet.
In fact, they had always been night and day in looks as well as personality. Brady was tall with dark brown hair and even darker eyes. He looked just like their father. Clay, on the other hand, resembled his mother’s picturesque beauty with dark blond hair that lightened under the summer sun and blue eyes. Brady was the golden boy. He had played varsity basketball as a freshman at a private high school in Chapel Hill and had been on a state traveling team for years before that. He was smart and active in student government, and everyone liked him. Growing up, Clay had preferred lacrosse and soccer but had never liked either as much as Brady liked basketball. His parents had told him he would find his thing when he got older, but he knew he wouldn’t measure up to Brady, no matter what he did.
Brady shoved him away, and Clay tumbled forward, landing on his hands and knees in the sand. He glared up at his brother.
“Sorry,” Brady said.
He offered his hand, but Clay pushed it away.
“I don’t need your help!”
“I was just messing around, Clay. Don’t take everything so seriously.”
“Whatever,” he grumbled.
Chris clapped him on the back when he stood.
Clay wasn’t sure how Chris could stand being around Brady all the time. He was such an asshole. He liked everyone to walk in his shadow. As far as Clay could tell, Chris would have been a much better older brother.
Clay followed Brady and Chris up the stairs. His mother was lying on a lounger and only half-watching his six-year-old little sister, Savannah, splash in the pool with Chris’s younger brother, Lucas, who was the same age as Savannah.
“Mom! Look what I can do!” She jumped up and down in the pool. “I beat Lucas in racing!” Savannah yelled. “Mom!”
“Yes, dear. That’s lovely. Keep at it, and you’ll be an Olympic swimmer someday.”
Savannah beamed even though Clay was sure she had no idea what that meant, but it quelled her curiosity, and she went back to playing. His mother was talking to Chris’s mother, Gina Atwood, who had a one-year-old Alice bouncing on her lap.
“Mom, what did you want?” Clay asked. “I was hanging out with my friends.”
Marilyn looked up at him but turned her smile toward Brady. “There you are, boys. Your father is about to start grilling and wants your help.”
“Got it,” Brady said. “Is he in the study?”
“He wants all of us to grill?” Clay asked, exasperated.
“Your father is very busy, but he wants to spend time with you on our family vacation, Clay. Give him a chance, would you?” she asked. Her tone said there was to be no arguing, and she was irritated with him to boot.
“Don’t listen to Clay. He’s just in a bad mood because he had to leave his girlfriend behind,” Brady teased.
“Another one?” Marilyn asked.
“She’s not my girlfriend. She’s just a friend.”
“Right,” Brady said under his breath.
“Well, if you want to invite your…friend over for dinner, there’s plenty to go around.”
“Girlfriend,” Brady repeated.
“She’s not my girlfriend!” he yelled, punching Brady in the shoulder. “Stop being such an asshole.”
“He started it!” Clay yelled back.
“Enough. Both of you. Can’t we just have one day of peace without you two bickering?” she asked. She turned to Chris’s mother, apologetically saying, “I’m sorry, Gina. Boys, you know.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice. I get it.”
She sighed and shook her head. “Now, go in and help your father. And I don’t want to hear any more complaints from you, Clay Alexander!”
Clay cringed. He knew she meant business when she used his full name. “Fine.”
He sulked past Brady and into the overly air-conditioned house. He found his father with Chris’s father, Matthew, in the study. By the time Clay got up the nerve to walk through the door, his shoulders were straight, his chin was raised, and he held all the confidence his father, Jeff, expected of a Maxwell son, all the confidence that had been instilled in him from a very young age.
“Dad,” Clay said, “Mom said you needed us.”
Brady and Chris showed up a minute later. They were laughing boisterously at something Brady had probably said.
But the laughter cut off abruptly when they walked into the study.
Their father wasn’t uncaring or unkind. He was a great dad actually. He’d just had a strict upbringing, and even when he tried to relax his standards toward his sons, he never seemed to manage it. The only one who got away with anything was little Savannah, and she got away with everything. His little angel could do no wrong.
“Come in and have a seat, boys. It’ll just be a minute while I finish up this memo,” Jeff said.
“Chris, why don’t we go get the steaks out of the refrigerator?” Matthew said. He walked around the desk and moved over to Chris.
“Sure thing. You’re going to let me grill yours this time, right?” he asked, elbowing his dad in the ribs.
“I don’t want mine black and burned!”
“Aw, don’t be so hard on me. That was my first time, and Pepper loved it,” he said, referencing the Labrador they had at home.
“Well, Pepper isn’t here, and I don’t want her to have any more of my choice sirloins!”
Chris cracked up.
Clay could hear them joking back and forth all the way down the hallway. He wondered what that must be like as he turned back to his own father. He was handwriting the memo that he would mail off to his secretary in D.C. to type out and deliver for him.
It shouldn’t matter that Clay couldn’t joke around with his dad. He was important. A sitting senator in Washington. He drafted bills and created legislation, turning the tide of the country. It made his absences in their lives acceptable. And as Clay’s mother continually reminded him, they were incredibly fortunate, and he should act like it.
Brady and Clay took the open seats in front of their father’s desk. His leg bounced impatiently. If we were going to have to sit there for another half hour, waiting for him to be done with his paperwork, why had he bothered to call us to help him grill?
“Sorry,” Jeff said. He pushed the paperwork away from him. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. One day, you’ll understand.”
“I already understand,” Brady said.
His father smiled a politician’s smile. “I believe you do.”
“I get it, too,” Clay said immediately. He didn’t. Not really. Sure, he understood the work his dad was doing, but he thought it was crappy that it came before his family.
Clay didn’t want a family. Then, there would be no one in his life to disappoint.
“One day, Clay. One day at a time,” his father said.
Clay’s face fell.
“Now, tell me about your day while we go get the grill started.”
Brady launched into a story about the day’s events. He had a knack for telling stories in a way that made the listener feel like they were actually there. Even Clay could get engrossed in his brother’s stories, but he saw the fabrications and exaggerations for what they were.
As such, Clay was mostly ignored the rest of the afternoon as they spent time around the grill and then throughout the rest of the afternoon while they ate the delicious food they’d made and lounged around the deck until the sun disappeared over the horizon.
“Jeff, that’s your last one,” Marilyn prodded her husband, trying to urge Savannah upstairs to go to sleep.
Gina was doing the same to Lucas while she held a passed out baby Alice in her arms.
His father laughed and held the beer out to his wife. “I’ve only had a couple, Marilyn.”
“Don’t get sloppy,” she warned with a glint in her eye.
“Never. I’ll come tuck in Savannah in a minute,” he promised.
When she left, he conspiratorially leaned forward toward his sons. “Find a woman like that, boys. She’ll make you happy forever.”
Brady listened, enraptured by their father’s attention. Clay just thought talking about his mom like that was disgusting.
“Let me tell you something, son,” he said, placing his hand on Brady’s shoulder.
Clay couldn’t help feeling a pang of jealousy.
“Once you’ve found that woman, everything will fall into place. I just know it. Then, one day, you are going to be president of the United States.”
Brady smiled triumphantly. “President?” he asked with longing in his voice.
“You’re on the right path.”
Brady as president? Clay almost snorted in disbelief. Yeah, right. Brady would make a terrible president. All he cared about was himself and how many people he could charm to be his admirers. Clay didn’t wish his brother’s form of coercion on anyone.
“And what am I going to be?” Jealous, he couldn’t help but ask.
He hated that his father had just given his egotistical brother even more motivation to act like he was above everyone else, but still he hoped that his father would say the same for him. That Clay could be president. That Clay could achieve any dream he set before himself.
His father turned to him with a thoughtful smile. “Hmm…Clay, you’re going to be the attorney general.”
Clay raised his eyebrows. “What’s an attorney general?”
“You’re the number one lawyer in all the country. Top of your class at Yale, clerked for the Supreme Court, federal judge. Then, when the time is right and Brady has become president, he’ll appoint you as attorney general.” His father shrugged. “It worked for the Kennedys.”
He and Matthew laughed at whatever joke he’d just made, but Clay didn’t find it funny. He didn’t find it funny at all.
Clay slouched back into his chair and turned away from the rest of the conversation. He didn’t need to hear any more to know what his father thought about him. Apparently, his second son wasn’t good enough.
A short while later, Brady and Chris got permission to ride their bikes to a friend’s house as long as they would be home by midnight. Chris grumbled, but Brady agreed easily. He didn’t break rules, and Clay was sure that he would be back at precisely midnight.
“Hey, can I go with you?” Clay asked hopefully.
Chris looked uncomfortable.
Brady frowned. “Sorry. It’s a high school party. You wouldn’t fit in.” He sure didn’t sound sorry.
He didn’t want Clay to go with him. It was so obvious.
“Yeah. Sure. Of course. I’ll just sit here by myself and die from boredom,” Clay said dramatically. “Have a good time.”
“It’s not like that, Clay,” Brady said. “It’s just that no one your age will be there.”
“Whatever. I’m going to the beach.”
“Don’t be gone long,” his mother said, having come downstairs after laying Savannah down.
His father had disappeared right after her to tuck his youngest in.
“Yeah, yeah. I got it.”
He trudged down the steps and through the sand. Fury was building in his gut. All he wanted to do was pummel something into oblivion. He’d gotten into a few fights in school because he couldn’t control his ever-present temper. But he was getting better at it.
He ground his teeth together, balling his hands into fists at his sides and kicking at the sand. He was concentrating so hard on trying not to be angry that he didn’t even see the figure sitting on the beach a few blocks away until he almost toppled over on top of her.
“Oh, hey,” he said.
Andrea Billings scrubbed her face with her hands and then looked up at him. Her cheeks were splotchy, and her eyes were puffy, like she had been crying. “Hey, Clay. Sorry”—she hiccuped—“I’m a disaster.”
He stood there uncomfortably for a minute. “Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?”
She shrugged. “Just my parents arguing again. Doesn’t matter. What about you? Why are you out here by yourself?”
He plopped down in the sand next to her. “Had to get away.”
“Your brother bothering you again?”
He had only known her a couple of days, and already, she just seemed to get it.
“My dad said something that just—ugh! It’s so typical Brady, the perfect-son bullshit.”
She laughed. “What’s the fun in being perfect anyway?”
“Right?” he yelled.
“What did your dad say?”
“That he knew Brady was going to be the president one day. When I asked him what I would be, you know what he said?”
She shook her head.
“The attorney general. Like I want to be some stupid lawyer appointed by my brother. I’d rather be president myself.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to be president! Can you imagine how much work it all is? My dad said the president never sleeps.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said, momentarily relieved.
“Though I guess there are perks,” she said, giggling. “The president did get a blow job in his office.”
Clay’s eyes lit up. “That is a perk I could get on board with.”
And then, without thinking about it, he leaned forward and kissed her. It was soft and unexpected. He didn’t even know why he had done it. It just felt right. It felt like their moment.
When he pulled back, they both looked away, a little embarrassed at his brazenness. She stayed sitting there, staring out at the ocean, for a little while longer before saying anything else.
“Just so you know, I don’t think you have to be the president or the attorney general or anything. I just think you have to be you, and that will be enough,” Andrea said.
He smiled at her words. It was the first time anyone had said something like that to him. If only it were true.
He would die before remaining under Brady’s shadow for the rest of his life. Maybe one day, he would outshine the golden boy.