I swallowed, then looked over at the register. Mac was tossing the crust now, using both hands to shape and thin it. I watched him, drawing something like comfort from the repetitive movements, and then he suddenly looked at me. For once I stared back, if only for a second, before turning away.
At five thirty, the phone started ringing and business started to pick up. The bluegrass, which apparently played nonstop whether anyone inserted coins or not, went from clearly audible to faint to silenced as more people came in. By quarter of six, when Layla and I gathered up our stuff and vacated the booth, there was a line at the counter, the evening shift guys had come on, and Mac was zipping pizza boxes into warmers, getting ready for deliveries.
“I guess you’re going?” I said to Layla as he headed to the truck, parked outside at the curb.
She glanced at the counter, where her dad was making change for someone. “Looks pretty busy, so I’ll probably stick around until Mac’s heading in my direction.”
“I can take you home,” I offered.
“Nah, my dad probably wants me to take orders. But thanks. I do want to ride in your car sometime. I bet it’s amazing.”
I was so desperate to avoid what awaited me, I almost offered the car to her, just to stall. But she was already heading back behind the counter. “I’ll see you Monday, okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, pulling my bag over my shoulder. “See you then.”
As I pushed out the door to the parking lot, Mac was piling the warmers into the truck. As I crossed in front of him, he called out, “Be safe.”
I turned, looking back at him. This was what you said to someone getting into a car or leaving for the night. It carried no great meaning or symbolic importance. But even so, hearing him say it, I felt tears prick my eyes.
“Thanks,” I replied. “You too.”
He nodded, then went back to what he was doing. I got into my car, buckled up, and started the engine. Like the first time I’d come to Seaside, I ended up behind him at the light, and for two blocks, then three. At the next intersection, he put on his right blinker and turned. As he did, he waved to me out his window. Just a flutter of fingers, an acknowledgment. I was on my own now.
* * *
When I walked in my house, the first thing I saw were the candles. They were the ones my mom only pulled out for special occasions, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, kept stored in the sideboard behind the liquor. If you didn’t know this, you’d have to search for them. They sat on the table, not yet lit.
“Hey there,” Ames said, appearing in the kitchen doorway. He was wearing a button-down shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and holding one of our wooden spoons. “How was school?”
It was all just so weird, the juxtaposition of this question, which my mom asked me every day, and the candles, which indicated something almost romantic.
“Where’s Marla?” I asked. It wasn’t like she had a presence that filled a room or anything, but I could just feel there were only two of us there.
“Sick,” he replied. “Stomach flu. Poor kid. Sucks, right?”
By the way he turned, walking back into the kitchen, I could tell he expected me to follow him. But I stayed where I was, feeling my face grow flushed. Marla wasn’t coming? At all?
“You didn’t have to cook,” I said.
“I know. But you haven’t lived until you’ve had my spaghetti with meat sauce. I’d be doing you a disservice not letting you experience it.”
“I’m actually not that hungry,” I said.
At this, he turned, a flicker of irritation on his face. As quickly as it appeared, though, it was gone. “Just have a taste, then. You won’t regret it, I promise.”
Everywhere I turned, I was stuck. I wasn’t prone to panicking, but suddenly I could feel my heart beating. “I’m, um, going to go put my stuff away.”
“Okay,” he said. “Don’t be too long. I want to catch up. It’s been a while.”
I took the stairs two at a time, like someone was chasing me, then ducked into my room, shutting the door behind me. I sat down on my bed, pulling out my phone, and tried to think. A moment later, I heard music drifting upstairs, and somehow, I knew he’d now lit the candles. That was when I looked up a number and dialed it.
A man answered. “Seaside Pizza. Can you hold?”
I’d been expecting Layla. Now I didn’t know what to do. “Yes.”
A click, and then silence. I thought about hanging up, but before I could, he was back. “Thanks for holding. Can I help you?”
Shit. “Um . . . I want to place a delivery order?”
I could hear talking in the background, but none were a girl’s voice. “Go ahead.”
“Large half pepperoni, half deluxe,” I said.
I took a breath. “It’s 4102 Incline—”
There was a clanging noise in the background. “Sorry, can you hold another minute?”
“Sure,” I said. Downstairs, the song had changed, and I could smell garlic, wafting up under my closed door.
“Sorry about that,” a voice said on the other end of the line. It was a girl. Oh, my God. “So that’s a half pepperoni, half deluxe, large? What’s the name?”
A pause. “Yeah?”
“Oh, hey!” She sounded so pleased to hear my voice that I almost burst into tears. “What’s up? Regretting you only had one slice this afternoon?”