I found her on her back in her crib, red faced, hair matted down with sweat. When she saw me lean over her, she yelled louder, waving her arms madly in front of her face. When I picked her up, cradling her against me, she quieted down, emitting only a bunch of little gasps, like hiccups.
‘You’re okay,’ I told her, jiggling her slightly as I stuck my head out in the hallway. No sign yet of Heidi, which was sort of worrisome, so I went back in and changed the baby’s diaper, which cheered her up considerably. Then I swaddled her up and headed downstairs, where I came upon Heidi sitting at the kitchen table, boxes of prom favors stacked all around her, the phone to her ear.
‘Yes, Robert, I understand your predicament,’ she was saying as she fiddled with a coffee mug in front of her. ‘But the truth is I was counting on you, and I don’t know if I can find someone else on such short notice.’
I could hear my dad’s voice, distant, replying to this through the receiver. It made me realize how long it had been since I’d spoken to him: a week, maybe even two. He’d finally got the message of my not replying to his messages, though. My voice mail had been empty for a while now.
‘You know what,’ she said suddenly, ‘it’s fine. I’ll just find someone. No, don’t worry about it. Really. But I need to go now. I have a ton of stuff to do today, and…’
She stopped talking, and I heard my dad’s voice again. Whatever he was saying, it elicited nothing from Heidi but a sigh and a shake of her head.
I hesitated, wondering if I should just go back upstairs. But then Isby let out a squawk, and Heidi turned, spotting us.
‘… I have to go,’ she said, then hung up without a goodbye. She pushed out her chair. ‘Oh, Auden, I’m so sorry she woke you up! I thought I heard her, but I was on the phone and…’
‘It’s fine,’ I said as she reached for the baby, smiling at her as she lifted her from my arms. ‘I was kind of up anyway.’
‘You and me both.’ She tucked Isby over her shoulder, patting her back as she walked to the coffeemaker, pouring herself a fresh cup, then one for me. As she handed it over, she said, ‘I jolted awake at four, thinking about everything I had to do in the next fifteen hours. And of course, then when I was feeling just a little bit on top of things, your father called to say he can’t watch the baby tonight after all, because he’s got to jet off to New York to meet with his agent first thing Monday morning about his book.’
I considered this as she sat down at the table again, arranging Thisbe in her lap. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘I can stay with her, if you want.’
‘You?’ She shook her head. ‘Of course not! You’re going to the Beach Bash.’
‘I don’t have to.’
‘Yes you do! You have a date and everything.’
I shrugged, looking down at my coffee.
‘What’s wrong? I thought you were excited.’
I wasn’t sure exactly how to explain the hesitation that had come over me ever since I’d found my dress. It was just this weird sad feeling, like the prom had already fallen short before it even happened. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I guess it’s just that it’s not the real prom, you know? I mean, it’ll be fun and everything. But it won’t be the same as if I’d gone the first time around, to the real one.’
Heidi considered this, still patting Isby’s back. ‘Well, I guess you could look at it that way,’ she said. ‘Or, you could realize you’re lucky to have another try, and that it’s up to you to make it memorable.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘Look,’ she said, putting down her cup. ‘The basic fact of the matter is that no, this isn’t ideal. Very few things are. Sometimes, you have to manufacture your own history. Give fate a push, so to speak. You know?’
Right away, I thought of me and Eli, working our way down my quest. Each of those things – bowling, food fights, tossing newspapers – had happened late and out of order, not exactly as they probably should have. But the memories and experiences were no less real because of it. If anything, they were more special, because they hadn’t happened to me, but because of me. And him.
‘You know what?’ I said to Heidi. ‘You’re absolutely right.’
‘Am I?’ She smiled. ‘Well, that’s a nice thing to hear. Especially considering the day I still have ahead of me.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ I told her, drinking down the rest of my coffee and going for a refill. On the way, I picked up her cup, taking it with me. ‘I’m up and ready to help. What can I do?’
She groaned, pulling a yellow legal pad out of one of the favor boxes and flipping up a page. ‘Well, there are favors to bring to the hall. And the punch bowl to pick up. And the DJ to meet at ten A.M. for a sound check. Oh, and the balloon people are demanding payment before they’ll do anything, and now I have to find a babysitter…’
I slid her now-full mug in front of her, then took my seat again. In her arms, Isby looked at me, and I reached out, running a hand over her head. Her skin was warm and soft, and she kept her eyes on me for a moment before tucking in tighter to her mother’s chest and closing them, drifting off even in the midst of everything.
By noon, I’d dealt with the balloon people, made two trips to the hall where the prom was happening, and pulled a muscle in my shoulder helping Heidi move the photo backdrop – a large, wooden fake wave dotted with fish made by the local senior arts group – into place. I was sticky and sore and on my way back to the house to pick up a box of punch glasses when I saw Jason.
He was getting out of his car, which was parked right by the top of the boardwalk. When he turned and saw me, he stiffened, then lifted a hand to wave.
‘Auden,’ he called out, hurrying closer. ‘I’ve been trying to call you.’
I had a flash of my phone, which I was pretty sure I’d left on the kitchen table. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’ve been running around all morning.’
‘Your stepmother said,’ he replied. ‘I finally looked up your dad’s home number. Luckily there are only a couple of Wests here.’
Behind him, I could see Adam coming out of the bike shop, wheeling a red bike with a sign that said READY TO GO! hanging from its handlebars. He parked it by the bench, then went back inside, the door banging behind him.