And with that, Maggie was yanking my arm again, dragging me down the nearby stairs. She continued her death grip on me as we followed Leah down to the beach, around a dune, and then over a public walkway, back to the street, not letting go until we were back at the car, where Esther was waiting.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ Leah demanded. ‘We could have used you back there.’
‘Let me guess,’ Esther said as Maggie and I got in the backseat. ‘Something undignified happened.’
‘If you call Auden just about getting all our asses kicked undignified, then yes,’ Leah told her. She slammed her door shut, then turned around in her seat to look at me. ‘Are you crazy? Flirting with Eli Stock in front of Belissa Norwood, in Belissa Norwood’s house, while eating Belissa Norwood’s cupcakes?’
They were all looking at me now. I said, ‘We weren’t eating those cupcakes.’
Leah threw her hands up, turning back around as Esther cranked the engine. Maggie, beside me, said, ‘You guys, she didn’t know about any of that.’
‘She didn’t know about you and Jake, either,’ Leah said. ‘But that didn’t stop you from wanting to flatten her when she hooked up with him.’
‘True,’ Maggie said. ‘But, like Belissa, I was in the wrong. She and Eli are broken up. He can talk to whoever he wants.’
‘But that’s just the point,’ Leah told her, turning to face me. ‘Eli doesn’t talk. To anyone. Ever. So why is he talking to her?’
No one said anything. Finally, I cleared my throat and said, ‘Well, I don’t know. He just does, ever since this one night when I saw him riding his bike.’
Silence. They were all staring at me, even Esther, who used the rearview. Maggie said softly, ‘You saw Eli on a bike? What was he doing?’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Tricks? He was jumping around, at the end of the boardwalk.’
Maggie and Leah looked at each other. ‘You know,’ Leah said, ‘I think maybe…’
‘Agreed,’ Esther said, hitting her turn signal as the Gas/ Gro came up in the distance. ‘We definitely need some snack bang for this one.’
‘The thing is,’ Maggie began, ‘if we’re going to tell you about Eli, first we have to tell you about Abe.’
We were at the very tip of the pier, lined up on a bench and looking out over the water. On the way out to the end, we’d passed several fishermen, standing with their rods leaning over the side, focused on the water. Here, we were all alone, except for the wind and the splashing below.
‘Abe and Eli,’ Maggie said, ‘were inseparable. Best friends since, like, kindergarten. You hardly ever saw them apart.’
‘But they were totally different,’ Esther added. ‘You know, Eli’s got that dark, quiet thing going on. And Abe was…’
They were all quiet for a moment. Then Leah said, ‘A total goofball.’
‘Total,’ Maggie agreed. ‘Like, the silliest person you have ever met. He could make anybody laugh.’
‘Especially Eli.’ Leah smiled. ‘God, do you even remember what Eli was like before Abe died? He was actually… funny.’
‘Abe died?’ I said.
Maggie nodded solemnly, opening up a pack of gum. ‘It was May of last year. He and Eli were down in Brockton, at this event at Concrete Jungle? They were both sponsored, had been for a couple of years now. They both started out straight BMX, you know, but then Eli took up the half-pipe, and Abe stuck more to flatland, at least in competition. But they were both really good at urban, although that’s not surprising, considering where we’re from.’
I just looked at her. Leah said, ‘Maggie, nobody here but you understands all that bike shit. Speak English.’
‘Oh, sorry.’ Maggie pulled out a piece of gum, popping it in her mouth. ‘Eli and Abe were both really, really good at riding bikes. So good they got paid to go around and compete at various events, and that’s why they were in Brockton.’
‘And it was after the event,’ Esther said, ‘when they were driving back from a party, that the accident happened.’
‘The accident,’ I said.
Leah nodded. ‘Eli was driving. And Abe was killed.’
I heard myself gasp. ‘Oh, my God.’
‘I know.’ Maggie folded the gum wrapper she was holding, first once, then twice, down to a tiny square. ‘I was with Jake when Eli called. We were at his house, and I could hear Eli on the phone. He was at the hospital, and he was trying to talk, but all I could hear was this awful sound he was making…’
She didn’t finish, instead just looked out over the water, dark on either side of us. Esther said, ‘It wasn’t his fault. They were going through a four-way stop, and someone just ran it and hit them.’
‘A drunk,’ Leah added.
Esther nodded. ‘It tore Eli up, big-time. It was like Abe took some part of him when he went, you know? He’s never been the same.’
‘He gave up all his sponsorships, the riding, everything,’ Maggie said. ‘He’d gotten into college at the U and deferred to keep competing, but he didn’t go there either. He just got a job managing the bike shop and stopped riding altogether.’
Leah glanced at me. ‘Or so we thought.’
‘I just saw him doing it that one night on the boardwalk,’ I told her. ‘It was really late. Or early, actually.’
‘Well,’ Maggie said, ‘I guess that means something. What, I don’t know. But something.’
There was a sudden burst of noise from behind us: when I turned, I saw one of the fishermen pulling something over the rail of the pier. It was flopping, catching the light here and there, before he eased it down behind a tackle box, out of sight. The other people fishing took note, then returned to their own lines.
‘And Belissa,’ I said, warming my hands around my cup. ‘What’s the story there?’
‘They’d dated since sophomore year,’ Leah told me. ‘She stuck with him through the funeral, and a couple of months after, but eventually things just fell apart. She dumped him, is what I heard. Although apparently she sees it differently.’
‘Apparently,’ I said.
Leah smiled, shaking her head. ‘I swear, when she asked you what kind of a name that was, and you were about to answer her… I almost just took off running and left you there to fend for yourself.’