I took another step forward, leaning out a bit more into the store. I couldn’t see any customers, although the boardwalk looked crowded, lots of people passing by. I’d just decided to go back to the office and wait for the silence to return when Esther popped up from behind the bathing-suit rack, this time doing a step-slide, step-slide move, her hair swinging out to the side. She reached out a hand to Leah, pulling her into view, then spinning her out and back toward her as they both laughed. Then they split, and Maggie moved in between them, shaking her hips as they circled around her, still dancing.
I didn’t realize I was standing there just staring at them until Esther saw me. ‘Hey,’ she called out. Her cheeks were flushed. ‘It’s the nine o’clock dance. Come on.’
Instinctively, I shook my head. ‘No thanks.’
‘You can’t say no,’ Leah yelled as she grabbed Maggie’s hand, then spun her out and back again. ‘Employee participation is mandatory.’
Then I quit, I thought, but already they were moving on, back to the conga line, this time with Maggie in the lead, bouncing up and down, Esther snapping her fingers behind her. Leah, bringing up the rear, glanced back at me one last time. When I didn’t say or do anything, she just shrugged, following the others as they wound around the displays, and headed toward the door.
I went back to the office, sitting down at the desk. I was sure they thought I was a total stick-in-the-mud, not that I cared. It was just like all the activities I’d walked past at my old schools during lunch – fake sumo wrestling, pie-eating contests, mass games of Twister on the quad – always wondering how, exactly, you did stuff like that. Maybe if you’d done it as a kid, it was all nostalgia, and that was the appeal. But I hadn’t. It was all new to me, and therefore more intimidating than anything else.
I picked up my pen, going back to my 1099s. A moment later, the music stopped, as suddenly as it had begun. Another hour passed, in the silence of numbers, and then there was a tap on the door.
‘Closing time,’ Esther said as she came in behind me, a bank bag in one hand. ‘Can I get in the safe?’
I pushed out my chair, making room as she dropped down to a squat, sticking the key she was holding into the lock. I watched as she put the bag in, then swung the door shut before pushing herself up again.
‘We’ll be out of here in about ten minutes,’ she told me, brushing off her knees. ‘You coming with us, or staying late?’
I wanted to tell her that, to me, after ten wasn’t late. But I knew she wasn’t really looking to make conversation, so I said, ‘I’m almost done.’
‘Cool. Just come out front and we can lock up when we’re all out.’
I nodded. She left the door open behind her, so as I finished up the last few things I had going, I could hear her and Maggie and Leah, out by the register chattering.
‘Where did these Skittles come from?’ Esther asked.
‘Where do you think?’ Leah told her.
‘Really.’ I could tell by her voice, slightly teasing, that Esther was smiling. ‘So, Mags. More candy from Adam, huh?’
Maggie sighed. ‘I told you guys, it means nothing. He’s a store-goer, just like all those boys.’
‘That may be true,’ Leah said, ‘but just because he goes to the store doesn’t mean he has to buy something for you every time.’
‘He doesn’t do it every time,’ Maggie grumbled.
‘Sure seems like it,’ Esther said. ‘And with a store-goer boy, that is the first sign, anyway. It’s how you know.’
‘True,’ Leah agreed.
‘Not true,’ Maggie said. ‘It’s just candy. Stop reading so much into it. You guys are ridiculous.’
I could second that. It amazed me that they’d been together all night, and yet they still, seemingly, had something to talk about. Even if it was, predictably, candy and boys.
When I came out, they were all by the front door, waiting for me. ‘I understand if you don’t want to get involved with him,’ Leah was saying. ‘I mean, he is a high school boy.’
‘He graduated just like we did, Leah,’ Esther told her.
‘True. But he’s not a college boy yet. There’s a big difference in that one summer.’
‘How would you know? You refuse to date anyone but college guys.’
‘Why does that bother you so much? I mean, in college, we’ll all be dating college boys anyway. So what’s the harm in starting early?’
‘It’s not that it’s harmful,’ Esther replied as we all filed out, Maggie swinging the door shut and pulling out her keys. ‘I just think that maybe you missed something, you know, by refusing to date anyone your own age.’
‘What would I have missed?’
‘I don’t know.’ Esther shrugged. ‘There is something kind of nice about having the age thing in common.’
‘Says the person who hasn’t dated in over a year,’ Leah said.
‘I’m choosy,’ Esther told her.
‘Picky,’ Maggie said. ‘Nobody is good enough for you.’
‘I have high standards. It’s better than dating just anyone.’
There was a sudden, awkward pause, noticeable enough that even I felt it. Maggie, putting her keys in the door, stiffened. Esther said, ‘Oh, Mags. You know I didn’t mean Jake.’
‘Okay, okay,’ Maggie said, shaking her off. ‘Let’s not even talk about it.’
This wouldn’t be easy, though, as I realized when I looked to my right, to the bike shop, where I saw the curly-headed guy, sitting on a bike and talking to two boys I didn’t recognize. Right behind him, pulling a jacket over his shoulders, was Jake. When he turned, he looked right at me.
Great, I thought, hurriedly turning my back, which left me facing Esther and Leah, who were trying to decide where to go from here. ‘There’s always the Tip,’ Esther was saying. ‘I heard something about a keg there tonight.’
‘I am so tired of the sand and flat beer.’ Leah groaned. ‘Let’s go to a club or something.’
‘You’re the only one with an ID, remember?’
‘I can get you guys in.’
‘You always say that,’ Esther told her. ‘You never can. Mags, what do you want to do?’
Maggie shrugged, dropping her keys into the bag she had slung over her shoulder. ‘I don’t care,’ she said. ‘I might just go home.’