I was trying to picture Hollis behind a desk at a bank, or anywhere. But all I could see was that shot of him grinning in his backpack in front of the Taj Mahal. This was the best of times?
‘So, Aud,’ he said. ‘I’ve only got a few minutes before I go back in. What’s up down there? How’s Dad and Heidi and my other sister?’
I hesitated, knowing I should tell him about my father moving out. He had a right to know. But for some reason, I didn’t want to be the one to tell him. It was like my dad trailing off another sentence, leaving me to do his dirty work. So instead I said, ‘Everything’s all right. How’s Mom?’
He sighed. ‘Oh, you know. Crabby as always. Apparently I have disappointed her beyond belief by turning my back on my independent spirit and joining the bourgeoisie.’
‘And she misses you.’
Honestly, hearing this shocked me almost as much as hearing his new job title. ‘Mom doesn’t miss anyone,’ I said. ‘She’s completely self-sustaining.’
‘Not true.’ He paused for a second. ‘Look, Aud. I know you guys have had your issues this summer, but you should really try to talk to her. She’s still having all this drama with Finn, and…’
‘The graduate student. Car sleeper? I told you about him, right?’
I thought of those black-framed glasses. ‘Yeah. I think so.’
‘You know the drill. He’s in love with her, she won’t commit, blah blah blah. Usually they scare off easy, but this one, he’s tenacious. He is not giving up. It’s kicking up all her issues.’
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Sounds intense.’
‘Everything is, where she’s concerned,’ he replied. ‘Look, Aud, I gotta get back inside for this brainstorming session. But seriously. Give her another shot.’
‘Hollis. I don’t…’
‘At least consider it, then. For me?’
I didn’t feel like I owed Hollis all that much, to be honest. So I suppose it said something about his people skills that I still heard myself say, ‘All right. I’ll think about it.’
‘Thank you. And hey, call me later, all right? I want to hear what else is going on.’
I assured him that I would, and then he was gone, back into his meeting. And I kept my word, and did think about talking to my mom. I decided against it. But I did consider it.
Then it was back to the same old, same old. I tried to steer clear of Heidi, who had thrown herself full throttle into planning the Beach Bash. Ignored my parents’ messages. Read another chapter, did another set of study questions. Turned off the light when I felt my eyes get heavy and then lay there in the dark, never believing that sleep would come until the exact moment when it did. The only time I let my mind go to anything other than school and work, actually, was when I was on the bike. And then, I thought only of Eli.
Since that day we’d blown past him on the boardwalk, I’d seen him a handful of times. He was passing by the front windows of Clementine’s as I took stuff out of the register, or standing in front of the shop, showing a bike to a prospective customer. It was easy to tell myself that we were only not talking because we were so busy with other things, and I could almost believe that. But then I’d remember what I’d said to him about slacking off, and the look on his face just before he’d walked away from me, and I knew otherwise. This was my choice, my decision. He was the closest thing I’d ever had to something, or someone, that mattered. But in the end, close didn’t count. You were either in, or you weren’t.
What I thought about most, though, when I was on the bike, was my quest. At the time, it had seemed like a silly little game, something to pass the time, but now, I was understanding it was so much more than that. Night after night, task after task, he’d helped me to return to my past and make some things – if not everything – right. Eli had given me all these second chances, presented like a gift. In the end, though, I was one short. Still, as I pedaled around the jump park lot, Maggie either holding on or right behind me, I wished I could just show him this one thing. I knew it wouldn’t make up for everything else. But for some reason, I wanted him to know anyway.
So in the mornings, I practiced my riding, slowly gaining speed and confidence. At night, I sat in front of my laptop, searching for clips on LiveVid of him in one competition after another. Watching him move across the screen, so quick and sure, it hardly seemed like they could be related, my fledgling efforts and his complete skill and mastery. But at their core, they were the same thing. Each was about propelling yourself forward, into whatever lies ahead, one turn of the wheel at a time.
First, there was squealing. Then, giggling. But it wasn’t until I heard the music start up that I put down my pen and went to investigate.
It was ten fifteen, and I was doing what I always did in the evenings, these days: getting ready to do some school-work. After finishing up the books at Clementine’s, I’d grabbed a sandwich from Beach Beans, which I ate alone in the kitchen, savoring the fact that I had the house to myself. Once I was settled and ten minutes into World Economic Theory and Practices, though, I suddenly had company. The loud kind.
I went halfway down the stairs, then peered into the kitchen to see a crowd. Heidi, in shorts and a black tank top, was piling plastic bags on the kitchen table as Isby, strapped in her stroller, watched. A blonde Heidi’s age was popping a beer as another girl, a brunette, dumped some tortilla chips into a bowl. Maggie, Leah, and Esther were all seated around the table, more plastic bags piled up in front of them.
There’s a certain sound that can only be made by a group of women. It’s not just chatter, or even conversation, but almost a melody of words and exhalations. I’d spent a lot of my life listening to it from just this kind of distance, but still, it never failed to make me acutely aware of every bit of the space between me and its source. At the same time, though, this was where I preferred to be, which was why it was so unsettling when Heidi looked up and spotted me.
‘Auden,’ she called out as someone turned up the music, which sounded like salsa, fast with a lot of horns. ‘Hey. Come join us!’
Before I could react, everyone had turned and looked at me, making a fast retreat not just awkward but impossible. ‘Um,’ I said. ‘I –’
‘This is Isabel,’ she continued, pointing at the blonde, who nodded at me. Then she gestured to the brunette. ‘And this is Morgan. My oldest friends in Colby. Guys, this is Auden, Robert’s daughter.’