Hollis thought for a second. ‘The Chain Gang or the Crankshaft,’ he said. ‘Overdrive is boring, Colby Cycles too corporate…’
‘That’s what I said!’ Wallace said, pointing at him.
‘And Pedal to the Metal… I don’t even know what to say about that.’
Adam sighed. ‘Everyone hates it. The only reason it’s still on the list is that it’s my favorite. Auden, what do you think?’
I was still watching Eli, though, as he bent over the pink bike, adjusting one of the pedals. The little girl for whom it was clearly intended, a redhead wearing blue shorts and a T-shirt with a giraffe on it, stood holding her mom’s hand, looking apprehensive.
‘Like I said,’ he was saying, ‘this is a really good starter bike.’
‘She wants to learn,’ her mom was saying, running a hand over her daughter’s head. ‘But she’s kind of nervous.’
‘Nothing to be nervous about.’ Eli stood up, then looked at the girl. ‘The training wheels will keep you up until you get the hang of it. And then one day, you just won’t need them anymore.’
‘How long does it usually take, though?’ the father, who had on a baseball cap and leather sandals, asked. ‘What’s the norm?’
‘Different for everyone,’ Eli told him. ‘When she’s ready, she’ll know.’
‘What do you say, honey?’ the woman asked. ‘Want to try it out?’
The girl nodded slowly, then stepped forward. I watched as Eli held out his hand, helping her onto the bike, then strapped the helmet on her head. She reached for the handlebars, carefully stretching her fingers over them.
‘All right, sweetie,’ her dad said. ‘Just pedal, like you do on your trike.’
The girl put her feet down, tentatively pushing on the pedals, and moved about a half an inch forward. She glanced back at her parents, who smiled at her, then tried again. After another incremental budge, I watched as Eli put his hand on the back of the bike, nudging it forward just slightly. She was still pedaling and didn’t even notice. But when she really began to move, she looked back at him, grinning.
I turned my head to see Adam looking at me, his face expectant. ‘Um,’ I said, ‘I don’t really like any of them that much. To be honest.’
His face fell. ‘Not even the Crankshaft?’
I shook my head. ‘Not really.’
‘I told you they all sucked,’ Wallace said.
‘He liked two of them!’ Adam shot back.
‘Not that much,’ Hollis said.
Adam sighed, flopping back down on the bench, and I waved good-bye as Hollis and I started walking again toward the Last Chance. After a few steps, though, I looked back at that little girl again. After that initial push, she’d gotten going for real, and now had passed two storefronts and was almost at Clementine’s. Her mom was trailing behind her, close but not too close, as she slowly made her way, all on her own.
The Last Chance was empty for once, and we got a booth right by the window without having to wait. As Hollis perused the menu, I looked out on to the boardwalk, watching the people walk by.
‘So, Aud,’ he said after a moment. ‘I gotta say, I’m really happy you did this.’
I looked over at him. ‘Did what?’
‘This,’ he said, gesturing around the restaurant. ‘Coming here for the summer, hanging out, making friends. I was worried you’d spend this summer like all the others.’
‘Like all the others,’ I repeated.
‘You know.’ He picked up his water, taking a sip. ‘Hanging out at the house with Mom, refilling wineglasses at her little superior get-togethers, studying for classes that haven’t even started yet.’
I felt myself stiffen. ‘I never refilled wineglasses.’
‘You get the idea.’ He smiled at me, clearly unaware that he might have offended me. Or at least hurt my feelings. ‘My point is, you’re different here.’
‘Hollis, I’ve only been here for a month.’
‘A lot can happen in a month,’ he replied. ‘Shoot, in two weeks I met my future wife, changed my entire life’s trajectory, and bought my first tie.’
‘You bought a tie?’ I asked. Because honestly, this was almost the most shocking part.
‘Yup.’ He laughed. ‘Seriously, though. Seeing you here, with your friends… it just really makes me happy.’
‘Hollis,’ I said. Now I was uncomfortable again, but for different reasons. My family was a lot of things – and changing daily, or so it seemed – but sentimental was not one of them. ‘Come on.’
‘I’m serious!’ He looked down at his menu again, then up at me. ‘Look, Aud. I know the divorce was hard for you. And living with Mom afterward had to be even harder. She’s not exactly kid-friendly.’
‘I wasn’t a kid,’ I told him. ‘I was sixteen.’
‘You’re always a kid around your parents,’ he replied. ‘Unless they’re acting like children. Then you don’t get the chance. You know what I’m saying?’
I realized, suddenly, that I did. Just about the same time that it hit me why my brother had stayed gone for so long, careful to keep an ocean and a telephone line between us and him. It was the reverse of most families: to be a kid, you had to leave home. It was returning that made you grow up, once and for all.
Just as I thought this, Adam and Wallace whizzed by on a pair of bikes, zigzagging through the pedestrians. Hollis said, ‘Speaking of which, it’s not too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘To learn to ride a bike.’ He nodded back at the shop. ‘I bet your friends could teach you.’
‘I can ride a bike,’ I said.
‘Yeah? When did you learn?’
I just looked at him. ‘When I was six,’ I said. ‘In the driveway.’
He thought for a moment. ‘You sure about that?’
‘Of course I am.’
‘Because all I remember,’ he said, ‘is you getting a bike, falling off it right away, and then it sitting in the garage and slowly rusting until Dad gave it away.’
‘That,’ I said, ‘is not what happened. I rode all over the driveway.’
‘Did you?’ He squinted, thinking hard. ‘Well, you’re probably right. God knows I’ve killed a few brain cells in the last few years.’