‘It’s just,’ I said to Eli, pushing the cart forward to follow him out of the grocery section and into sporting goods, ‘she’s really different from all the other girls Hollis has dated.’
‘And what were they like?’
A blur of gorgeous, friendly faces appeared in my mind. ‘Nice,’ I finally said. ‘Sweet. More like Hollis.’
Eli stopped to check out a camping stove, then moved on. ‘He didn’t want to marry any of the others, though. Right?’
I considered this as we passed a collection of catcher’s mitts. ‘Not for more than a few minutes.’
‘But this girl he says is the one.’ We were coming up on the bike section now, several lined up in a row, from kids’ sizes to adult. He pulled a midsize bike off the rack, bouncing it on its front tire. ‘So it seems to me, it doesn’t matter what you or your mom or dad think. Relationships don’t always make sense. Especially from the outside.’
‘But this is Hollis,’ I pointed out. ‘He’s never been serious about anything.’
He climbed onto the bike, then rose up on the pedals, moving slowly forward. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘maybe he just found the right person. People change.’
He was riding around me and the cart, and as I watched him I thought of my mother, saying these same two words with a don’t between them, with equal conviction. ‘You know,’ I said finally, ‘everyone thinks you never ride anymore.’
I rolled my eyes, since he was passing me again as he said this. ‘Then how come I’m watching you do it right now?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What do you think?’
The truth was, I wasn’t sure. But I wanted to keep believing people could change, and it was certainly easier to do so when you were in the midst of it. The way I imagined I was as I stood there, aware of a slight breeze each time he passed, like a wave, the feeling of motion.
I’d been at Clementine’s for over an hour, catching up on paperwork, when I got the distinct feeling someone was watching me. And that someone was Maggie.
‘Hi,’ she said when I looked up to find her standing in the half-open doorway. She had on a white eyelet sundress and orange flip-flops, her hair pulled back at her neck, and was holding a pricing gun. ‘Got a minute?’
I nodded, and she glanced back out at the store before taking a step inside, then clearing a stack of catalogs off a nearby chair and sitting down.
She didn’t say anything, and neither did I. All I could hear was a pop song, playing from the sales floor. Something about roller coasters and sweet tangy kisses.
‘So, look,’ she began. ‘About you and Eli.’
This wasn’t a question. Or even a statement. It was a fragment, and this was my justification for not responding. How can there even be a whole answer to a part of something?
‘I know you guys have been hanging out all night, like, every night,’ she continued. ‘And it’s not exactly my business, but…’
‘How?’ I said.
She blinked at me. ‘How is it not my business?’
‘How do you know?’
‘I just do.’
‘What, you’re all-knowing and all-seeing now?’ I asked. ‘Who are you, Big Brother?’
‘This is a small town, Auden. In many ways, minuscule. Word gets around.’ She sighed, looking down at the gun. ‘Look, the thing is, I’ve known Eli a long time. I don’t want to see him get hurt.’
I’d honestly had no idea what she was getting at. None. But when I heard this, I felt like a fool for not having seen it coming. ‘You think I’m going to hurt Eli?’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. After what happened with Jake…’
‘That was totally different,’ I said.
‘See, but I don’t know that.’ She sat back, folding her legs. ‘All I have to go on is what I’ve seen. And while the thing with Jake pissed me off because I was jealous, it was also somewhat karmic. He had it coming. Eli doesn’t.’
‘We’re just…’ I trailed off, not sure how much I wanted to explain this. ‘We’re friends.’
‘Maybe so.’ She looked down at the gun again, turning it in her lap. ‘But we both know you’re the reason he showed up at the party the other night. I heard you call him.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘You are like Big Brother.’
‘I was in the bathroom. The walls are so thin there! I sometimes can’t even pee if anyone’s in the kitchen.’ She waved her hand. ‘Anyway, then there’s the bike thing, and the fact that you threw beans at him and he didn’t completely go ballistic –’
‘It was just a food fight.’
‘You don’t understand, though,’ she said. ‘Eli hasn’t done anything since Abe died. No parties, no hanging out, hardly even any conversation. Definitely no food fights. He’s been under this cloud. And then suddenly you show up, and all that changes. Which is great.’
‘But,’ I said, because there is always a but.
‘But,’ she continued, ‘if you are just jerking his chain and playing around, he might not just bounce back like Jake did. There’s more at stake here, and I just wasn’t sure you knew that. So I wanted to tell you. Because that’s what friends do.’
I considered this as the music outside changed to something slower, more dreamy-sounding. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess he’s lucky he has you. As a friend, I mean.’
‘I wasn’t talking about Eli.’
I looked up at her. ‘What?’
‘We’re friends,’ she said, moving her hand back and forth between us. ‘And friends are honest with each other. Even if the truth hurts. Right?’
I would have agreed with this, but my own truth was that I really didn’t know. All of this was new to me. So instead, I said, ‘You don’t have to worry. Nobody’s getting hurt. We’re just… we’re hanging out. Nothing more.’
She nodded slowly. ‘Okay, then. That’s all I need to know.’
There was a beep from the sales floor, signaling a customer entering. Maggie got to her feet, then stuck her head out the door. ‘Hi,’ she called out. ‘I’ll be right with you!’
‘No worries,’ a voice I recognized replied. ‘Just tell Auden to get her butt out here!’