‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I’m fine.’
This should have been true. After all, I’d had the same night as Eli, and he’d woken up with a whole new attitude. I should have been just coasting and happy, more ready than anyone to jump into kickball, especially with Eli there. And yet, as the nine o’clock dance passed and the minutes of the next hour ticked down, I could feel my stomach getting tighter and tighter.
At ten on the nose, Maggie appeared in the doorway to the office, keys in her hand. ‘Come on,’ she announced. ‘The second base drawing is in five minutes, and believe me, you don’t want to get stuck with it. You’re basically in the water.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘actually, I think I’m going to stay late tonight. I have this payroll to do, and some filing…’
She looked at me, then at the pens arranged neatly in the jar next to my elbow. ‘Really.’
‘Yeah. I’ll be along eventually.’
‘Eventually,’ she repeated. I nodded, then turned back to the desk. Her voice was flatter as she said, ‘All right. We’ll be waiting for you.’
Finally she left, and I busied myself labeling some file folders as she and Esther shut down the registers and headed outside. Once the door was locked behind them, I pushed back from my desk. After fifteen minutes of just sitting there, I went out to the now dark store, walking up to the front windows.
Everyone was gathered just down the boardwalk, at the main entrance to the beach. I could see Maggie sitting on a bench next to Adam, with Esther beside him. Wallace and some other guys from the bike shop I knew by sight if not by name were milling around, joking with one another: I watched as they said something to Leah when she showed up, and she rolled her eyes, swatting at them before Maggie slid over to make room for her. More and more people came along, some I recognized, others I didn’t. But then suddenly everyone began to move in closer, converging, and I knew Eli had arrived.
He had on the same blue hoodie he was wearing the first time I saw him, the red ball tucked under one arm. His hair was loose, blowing over his eyes, and as he approached he bounced the ball once, catching it as he turned his head, scanning the assembled group. When he turned, looking behind him right at Clementine’s, I stepped back from the window, out of sight.
After a moment of discussion, teams were organized, and some sort of decision was made. From the looks of it, Adam came out on the losing side, if the jeers and pointed fingers in his direction were any indication. Then, en masse, everyone headed onto the beach, with one group assembling by the dunes while another spread out across the sand. Adam, I saw, took his place right by the surf itself, reaching down to roll up his pant legs, while Eli moved to the center, the ball still in his hands. He was just rolling out the first pitch when I turned and went back to the office.
An hour later, I went out the back door, then made my way across a parking lot and down two alleys before finally popping out by the Gas/Gro. I’d been planning to just go home, thinking Heidi might need the company, but instead I found myself walking back to the boardwalk. I sat down on a bench in front of the Last Chance, which was still bustling, to watch the game from a distance. Just as I arrived, Leah was up: she kicked the ball far and long, out into the water, and a guy I didn’t recognize, now at second base, dove in after it.
I jumped, then turned slowly, bracing myself. Of course Eli would sneak up on me, especially when I was doing my best to stay lost. But as I turned, I saw instead the last person I ever would have expected: my former almost-prom date, Jason Talbot. He was in khakis and a collared shirt, hands in his pockets, smiling at me.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘What are you doing here?’
He nodded back at the restaurant behind him. ‘Just finishing up some dinner. I’ve been sitting in there for the last fifteen minutes, wondering if that was you, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think I’d seen your name on the list for the conference, but…’
‘The FCLC? It just started today. Isn’t that why you’re here?’
‘Um,’ I said. ‘No. My dad lives nearby.’
‘Oh. Right. Well… that’s great.’
There was a sudden burst of voices from down the boardwalk. We both looked over, just in time to see Maggie running the bases, laughing, while Adam started to wade out into the water. ‘Wow,’ Jason said. ‘Kickball. Haven’t seen that since third grade.’
‘So what’s the FCLC, again?’ I asked.
‘Future College Leadership Course,’ he replied. ‘It’s a month-long series of lectures, workshops, and symposiums, with incoming freshmen from schools all around the country. It’s basically designed to give attendees skills they’ll need to make an impact on their campuses from day one.’
‘Wow,’ I said. There was another round of cheering from behind him, but this time I didn’t look. ‘That sounds great.’
‘Oh, I think it will be. I’ve already met, like, twenty people from Harvard who are already involved in campus leadership,’ he said. ‘You know, you should check it out. I know you weren’t that into student government, but it’s a great networking opportunity. It’s not too late to sign up, and there are tons of people from Defriese there.’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m kind of busy.’
‘Oh, tell me about it,’ Jason replied, shaking his head. ‘I got the syllabi from my fall classes and have been reading already, and it’s really intense. But everyone I’ve met is doing the same thing.’
I nodded, even as I noted that my heart was already beating a bit faster. ‘I bet,’ I said.
‘That’s really what I’m hearing again and again. That you can’t just come in on the first day of the semester and hit the ground running anymore.’
‘Oh, yeah. You need to prep early, and seriously.’
‘I’ve been doing my reading, too,’ I said. ‘I mean, between working and everything else…’
‘Working?’ I nodded. ‘What are you doing? Like, internship stuff? Service projects?’
I thought of the office at Clementine’s, all that pink. ‘More business-related. I’m working for a small business that’s in the process of expanding, helping with accounting and marketing during the transition. I figured it would be a good way to experience some real-time economics while at the same time studying the larger trends.’