‘Get what?’ Leah asked him, sipping her beer.
Jake looked at her, then at Wallace, who shrugged. ‘Lovely to see you as always,’ he said to Leah, then walked past her and us, heading to the kitchen. I glanced sideways at Maggie, but she was staring straight ahead at her beer on its coaster, her expression unreadable.
‘It’s not too late to hit the clubs,’ Leah said to her. ‘New boys, new chances.’
‘Grill’s on!’ Adam hollered from the back door. ‘Who wants the first dog?’
Maggie stood, picking up her beer. ‘Me,’ she called back, walking past Jake, who was leaning against the bar, sniffing the candle. ‘I do.’
An hour later, I’d had one beer, two tofu dogs, and, despite my efforts to keep up with the party and conversation around me, entirely too much time to run over what I’d seen on the boardwalk with Eli and Belissa. I looked at my watch: it was almost midnight. This time the night before, Eli and I had just been leaving Clyde’s, where he’d done a load of whites and we’d shared a piece of butter-scotch almond tart. I looked down at the bowl of nuts, untouched on the table in front of me, and took another sip of my beer.
Really, it had been stupid to expect anything anyway. A few late nights does not a habit, or a relationship, make.
Just then, my phone rang, and I felt stupid by how quickly I jumped to answer it, thinking it might be Eli. Who, I realized a beat later, did not have my phone number. I flipped it open, only to see the number of another man who always seemed to keep me wondering: my brother.
‘Aud!’ he said as soon as I answered. ‘It’s me! Guess where I am?’
As we’d played this game before, and I’d always lost, I just said, ‘Tell me.’
At first, I thought he’d said Rome. It wasn’t until I asked him to repeat himself, and he did, that I realized he was two hundred miles away instead of however many thousand.
‘Home?’ I said. ‘Since when?’
‘About two hours ago.’ He laughed. ‘I am jet-lagging like crazy, let me tell you. I have no freaking idea what time it is. Where are you?’
‘At a party,’ I said, standing up and walking to the front door, pushing it open.
‘A party? Really?’
He sounded so shocked I probably should have been offended. Then again, a few weeks earlier, I would have been surprised, too. ‘Yeah,’ I said, walking down to sit on the bottom step. ‘So… what brings you back?’
There was a pause. For dramatic purposes, as it turned out. ‘Not what,’ he said. ‘Who.’
‘Aud.’ Another pause. Then, ‘I’m in love.’
As he said this, I was looking up at a streetlight, bright and buzzing overhead. A few bugs were circling it, tiny specks up high. ‘You are?’ I said.
‘Yeah.’ He laughed. ‘It’s crazy, I know. But I’m sick with it. So sick I cut the trip short and jumped a plane to follow her back here.’
The trip had been going on for a couple of years, which I wouldn’t exactly have called short. But with Hollis, it was always about the bigger picture. ‘So,’ I said, ‘who is she?’
‘Her name,’ he said, ‘is Laura. She’s amazing! I met her at a youth hostel in Seville. I was there for this big three-day festival-slash-rave…’
I rolled my eyes at no one, there in the dark.
‘… and she was there for some genetic conference. She’s a scientist, Aud! Doing grad work at the U, of all places. She was studying in the library where I was sleeping. Said my snoring was disturbing her research and I needed to get up and get out. Crazy, right? It’s the story we’ll tell our grandchildren!’
‘Hollis,’ I said, ‘you’re messing with me right now, aren’t you? You’re in Paris, or somewhere, and just –’
‘What?’ he replied. ‘No! God, no. This is the real deal. Here, I’ll prove it.’
There was a muffled noise, followed by some static. Then, I heard my mother recite, at a distance, in her most droll, flat tone, ‘Yes. It is true. Your brother is in love and in my kitchen.’
‘Hear that?’ Hollis asked, even as I sat there, startled at her voice. ‘It’s no joke!’
‘So…’ I said, still grappling, ‘how long are you home for, then?’
‘As long as Laura will have me. We’re looking for an apartment, and I’m going to sign up for fall classes. Might even hit up the English department, you never know.’ He laughed. ‘But seriously, before then I want to come down, visit you and Dad and Heidi and the munchkin, introduce my girl around. So let them know, okay?’
‘All right,’ I said slowly. ‘I’m glad you’re back, Hollis.’
‘Me, too. See you soon!’
I hung up, then looked out at the quiet street, the ocean somewhere in the dark beyond. It was so early and yet, between what I’d seen with Eli and my brother’s strange homecoming, I felt, for the first time in a long while, like all I wanted to do was go crawl into bed. Pull the covers over my head, finding my own dark, and wake up when this night was over.
Thinking this, I went inside to say my good-byes, but the living room was empty, stereo still playing, beer cans scattered – mostly uncoastered – across the coffee table. I picked up my purse, then walked through the kitchen to the back door. Through it, I could see everyone gathered on the back deck: Adam at the grill with Maggie beside him, Leah and Esther sitting side by side on the rail. Wallace was opening a can of baked beans while Jake looked on from a nearby rusted lawn chair.
‘You knew he probably wouldn’t show,’ he was saying to Adam, who was busy turning dogs over the flame. ‘He’s been antisocial ever since it happened.’
‘It’s been over a year now, though,’ Adam said. ‘He’s got to start hanging out again sometime.’
‘Maybe he is hanging out,’ Maggie said. ‘Just not with you.’
‘Meaning what?’ Wallace asked. I stepped back behind the open door, waiting for Maggie to respond, but she didn’t. ‘Belissa? I can assure you, that is not happening.’
‘No kidding. They’ve been broken up for months, idiot,’ Jake said.
‘Yeah, but she’s still been hung up on him,’ Wallace replied. ‘But then tonight, she came by the shop to tell him she’s got a new boyfriend. Some guy from the U, down for the summer working at the Cadillac tending bar. Said she wanted to tell him in person, so he didn’t find out from someone else.’