‘Hey,’ I said as I came up on the counter. My voice sounded loud and ragged, rushed, and I told myself to take a breath. Which got considerably more difficult as he turned around to face me.
‘Hey.’ He was looking at me with a wary expression. ‘What’s up?’
In a perfect world, I would have eased into what I had to say gradually. Worked up to it, phrasing it neatly and succinctly with all the right adjectives. As it was, I just blurted out, ‘Do you remember that first time we went bowling?’
Eli raised his eyebrows. Then he looked in the repair room behind him, where, distantly, I could see Adam and Wallace, standing in the door that led out to the back alley, their backs to us. ‘Yeah,’ he said after a moment. ‘Why?’
I swallowed, the sound seeming incredibly loud in my own ears. ‘I was all annoyed, because I wasn’t good at it. And you said I shouldn’t have expected to be, because I’d never done it before, and what mattered was that I keep trying.’
‘Right,’ he said slowly. ‘I remember.’
I knew I was on the verge of losing my nerve. I could literally feel it slipping away, second by second, like a wave slowly pulling itself back out to sea. But I kept going anyway.
‘That’s what happened with us,’ I said. ‘With me. What we were doing… what we had… it was my first time. You know, where it mattered. And I wasn’t good at it. I sucked, actually.’
He narrowed his eyes. Oh, Jesus, I thought. That didn’t come out right.
‘At being with you,’ I added quickly. ‘I was bad at, you know, us. It was all new to me. I screwed it up because I didn’t know what I was doing, and that scared me so I didn’t even want to try. It’s like the bike. Which you were also right about, by the way.’
It was very, very quiet in the shop all around us, which made all of this sound that much more loud. In fact, I probably would have been completely humiliated, if I’d let my words catch up with me. All the more reason to keep going.
‘What I’m saying,’ I said, because God knew I needed some clarification, ‘is that I’m sorry. You can call it crazy, or call it chicken salad, or whatever. But I want to do what you said, keep trying. So I’m doing that by coming here and asking you to go to the prom with me tonight.’
‘Yo, Eli!’ I heard Wallace yell, suddenly, from behind him. ‘Train’s leaving. Time to go!’
Eli didn’t respond, though. He was still looking at me, his face serious. As I stared back at him I tried to remember all those hours we’d spent together, and how they’d begun and ended in pretty much this very same space. Because of this, it seemed more right than ever to be there now, when I’d know for sure whether we’d continue, or end for good. I knew, too, that these were the two possibilities. But for some reason, I figured he’d pick the other one.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. And the thing was, it seemed true as he picked up his bag, slinging it over one shoulder. ‘But I can’t.’
I felt myself nod stupidly. And then, with one last look – intense, and almost sad – he was gone, turning his back and walking through the office, past Adam and Wallace, and out of sight. A second later, the door banged shut behind him. Done.
‘Auden!’ I turned my head, still stunned, to see Adam coming toward me. ‘Are you looking for Eli? Because he just –’
‘No,’ I said too quickly. ‘I’m not.’
‘Oh. Okay.’ He glanced at Wallace, who shrugged. ‘Well, is there something else you needed?’
I was really just looking for a way to save face, to get out of there gracefully. But then, I looked down again at the sign still in my hand – ENJOY YOUR RIDE! – and it seemed, suddenly, to be just that. A sign.
‘Actually,’ I said. ‘There is one thing.’
‘Call it chicken salad?’ Esther laughed, clapping her hands.
‘That is so retro! I haven’t heard that since grade school.’
‘I,’ Leah said, ‘never understood what that meant.’
‘So that’s how you ended up with the bike,’ Maggie said.
‘Bike?’ Leah said. ‘What does a bike have to do with any of this?’
‘I just bought one,’ I told her. ‘Apparently.’
‘Because she also just learned how to ride one,’ Maggie explained. ‘I’ve been teaching her every morning, on the sly. She never knew before.’
‘Really?’ Esther looked at me. ‘Wow. That’s impressive.’
‘That I didn’t know, or I learned?’ I asked.
Esther considered this. ‘Both,’ she said finally.
‘People! Let’s stay focused.’ Leah turned to me. ‘Okay, so Eli shot you down. It’s not the end of the world.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just incredibly humiliating, and now I can never face him again.’
‘I wonder why he said no?’ Maggie mused.
‘Because he’s Eli,’ I told her.
Leah rolled her eyes. ‘That’s a statement, not an explanation.’
‘What I mean is,’ I said, ‘I know what he’s like. I had my chance with him, and I blew it. So he’s done.’
‘Wait.’ Esther held up her hand. ‘Back up. When were you and Eli an item?’
Once again, I had everyone’s attention as I said, ‘Um, we were hanging out a lot, a few weeks back.’
‘Doing what?’ Leah asked.
I thought of Eli and me, in the car, driving through the dark streets of Colby, alone and together, all those nights. Shopping, eating, talking, questing. We’d done so much it seemed impossible to narrow it down to any one word. So instead, I decided to go with the one thing we hadn’t done, at least until the very end. ‘We couldn’t sleep,’ I said. ‘So we were just up, together.’
‘Until you blew it,’ Esther said, clarifying.
‘What’d you do?’
I looked down at my cold coffee. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Something happened, and I got scared and pulled away.’
‘Okay, well, that’s not vague,’ Leah said.
‘Leah!’ Esther said.
‘What? “Something happened”? What does that mean?’ They all looked at me again, and under their gazes I realized that this, too, was a point where I usually pulled back. Folded into myself, hiding away. But considering what I’d already been through that day, it seemed only fitting to go for broke. ‘My dad and Heidi separating,’ I said. ‘It… it kicked up a lot of stuff for me. And I dealt with it the way I did when my parents split.’