Eli looked up, his face wary. When he came closer and saw it was me, he didn’t really look relieved. Or surprised, actually. He unlocked the door, pushing it open. ‘Let me guess,’ he said. ‘You want to learn to ride a bike, and it can’t wait until morning.’
‘No,’ I said. He dropped his hand from the door, and just stood there, looking at me. I realized he was waiting for me to explain myself. ‘I was in the neighborhood, saw the light.’ I held up my coffee, as if this proved something. ‘Long night, and all that.’
He studied my face for a moment. ‘Right,’ he said finally. ‘Well, come on in.’
I stepped through the door, and he shut it, locking it behind me. I followed him through the dark shop to the back, which was some kind of repair area. There were parts of bikes up on stands, wheels leaning against workbenches, a pile of gears on a table, tools everywhere. In one corner, where a bike was partially assembled, a handwritten sign said ADAM’S WORKSPACE – TOUCH AND DIE! with a skull and crossbones underneath it.
‘Have a seat,’ Eli said, waving a hand at a stool right beside this.
He glanced at the sign, then rolled his eyes. ‘It’s not.’
I sat down, my cup in hand, as he slid behind a nearby cluttered desk, which was piled with papers, various bike parts, and, not surprisingly, a collection of empty soda bottles and various convenience-store items. ‘So,’ he said, picking up an envelope and glancing at it, ‘you say you’re not here for a bike.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Then what? You’re just out walking the boardwalk in the middle of the night?’
Eli doesn’t talk, Leah had said. To anyone. Ever. But he had to me, and maybe that did mean something, even if it wasn’t clear just what.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I just… I thought you might want to talk, or something.’
Eli shut the drawer, slowly, and looked at me. The click noise it made seemed very loud. ‘Talk,’ he said, his voice flat.
‘Yeah.’ He was just sitting there, staring at me, expressionless, and I felt not unlike when my mom got me in her sights, a serious squirm coming on. ‘You’re up, I’m up. I just figured…’
‘Oh, I get it,’ he said, nodding. ‘Right. You know now.’
‘Know…’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘I should have known when I saw you at the door. Not to mention at that party. Maggie isn’t exactly known for holding back information.’
I just sat there, not sure what to do. I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. I just thought…’
‘I know what you thought.’ He picked up a stack of papers, rifling through it. ‘And I appreciate you wanting to help me, or whatever. But I don’t need it. Okay?’
I nodded numbly. Suddenly the room seemed too bright, illuminating every single one of my failings. I slid off the stool. ‘I should go,’ I said. ‘It’s late.’
Eli looked over at me. I remembered how that first night, I’d thought of him as haunted, before I even knew this was true. He said, ‘Do you want to know why I talk to you?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I do.’
‘Because,’ he said, ‘from that first day on the boardwalk, you were different. You never tiptoed around me, or acted all weird and sorry for me, or gave me that look.’
‘That one,’ he said, pointing at my face. I felt myself blush. ‘You were just… normal. Until tonight.’
Until tonight, I thought, hearing Maggie and Esther saying these same words, only an hour earlier. Eli was still rummaging around in the drawer, his head ducked, and I thought of him that day on the pier with Thisbe, how easily he’d reached down to pick her up. There are a lot of ways to comfort someone. The elevator was only one of the unexpected ones.
‘You know,’ I said, leaning against the doorjamb, ‘I’m actually really relieved to hear you say that. Because I don’t want to feel sorry for you.’
‘You don’t,’ he said, not looking up.
‘Nope. The truth is, I’m actually kind of angry with you.’
‘Angry?’ I nodded. He lifted his head: now, I had his attention. ‘And why is that?’
‘Because you almost got my ass kicked tonight.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Like you didn’t know that was your girlfriend I was talking about,’ I told him. ‘Not to mention looking at while I was talking about.’
‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘She’s –’
‘You just let me stand there and shoot off my mouth,’ I continued, ignoring this, ‘and then, when she came after me…’
‘She came after you?’
‘She poked me in the chest and called me a skank,’ I said. He raised his eyebrows. ‘And meanwhile, you’re off eating cupcakes somewhere.’
‘Excuse me,’ he said, pushing the drawer shut, ‘but you were the one who told me to eat the cupcakes.’
‘When I didn’t know my life was in danger!’ I sighed. ‘All I’m saying is that you kind of left me out there to fend for myself. Which was not very cool.’
‘Look,’ he said, ‘Belissa is not my girlfriend.’
‘You might want to tell her that,’ I replied. ‘If you can, you know, make time during all that cupcake eating.’
Eli was just looking at me, his expression hard to read, and again I felt like squirming. But not for the same reasons. At all.
‘What are you really doing out so late?’ he asked.
‘I don’t sleep at night.’
‘It used to be because my parents were up fighting,’ I said. ‘But now… I don’t know.’
This answer was like a reflex, coming without thinking. Eli nodded, then said, ‘So what do you do to pass the time? Other than not riding bikes.’
I shrugged. ‘Read. Drive. At home, I have a twenty-four-hour diner I really like, but here there’s only the Wheelhouse, which is less than ideal.’
‘You’ve been going to the Wheelhouse?’ He shook his head. ‘The coffee there is terrible.’
‘I know. Plus the waitresses are mean.’
‘And it’s not like you’re taking up a table someone else wants.’ He sighed. ‘You should be going where I go. Open twenty-four/seven, great coffee, and pie.’