“Not as long as you don’t load it up with too many people,” he said. “We’ve gotten it going at a decent clip before. Especially if Irv’s here.”
“Can’t get drunk, have to push the merry-go-round,” Irv’s baritone came from the darkness. “Don’t know why I even hang out with you guys.”
“Because you love us,” Layla, who had also now walked over, called out to him. She looked up at Eric. “Your phone’s beeping, just FYI.”
“Oh, that might be about this gig next weekend. I should take it.” Eric patted my shoulder. “Back in a sec.”
Layla watched as he went around to the other side. Then, without comment, she followed, leaving me and Mac alone. We were quiet for a moment. I could hear Layla talking to Irv and another beer popping. Finally I said, “I wish I’d found something like this when I used to walk in the woods.”
He looked up at it. “Yeah?”
I nodded. “The coolest thing I ever found was an arrowhead. Oh, and a bat skull.”
“Sounds like you were out there a lot.”
“My brother and I were. When we were kids.” I looked up at the ring again. In the right light, with the moon hitting a rust hole just near it, you could see it perfectly. I took a drink. “He was the explorer, really. I just tagged along. I wanted to do everything he did.”
Another silence. I heard Layla laugh. Then Mac said, “I heard about what happened to your brother. I’m sorry.”
“It didn’t happen to him,” I said. “He did something. There’s a difference.”
As soon as I said this, I realized how angry it sounded. He said, “I didn’t—”
“No, you’re fine,” I said quickly. “It’s just . . . a tender spot. I guess.”
Immediately, I was horrified. What possessed me to use the word tender in any context around a cute guy I barely knew, I had no idea. I took a big gulp of my beer, then another.
“Well,” he said after a moment, “everyone has one.”
He was looking up at the trees as he said this, his face brightened by the moonlight. Maybe it was the beer, or the fact I’d already said the wrong thing twice. But I figured I had little left to lose. So I said, “Even you, huh?”
Now he did look at me. “I was the fat, pimply kid up until pretty recently. You don’t just forget.”
I shook my head. “I still can’t believe that.”
“It’s documented.” Another sip. “Despite my best efforts to destroy any and all evidence.”
Distantly, I heard Layla laugh. “I would think you’d want the proof. That maybe it might, you know, make you proud. Seeing where you came from.”
“I’d be prouder if I had never let myself get to that point,” he said.
“Can’t change the past.”
He reached up, sliding his finger under the chain around his neck. “Doesn’t mean you should dwell on it.”
Eric wasn’t the only lightweight: the beer was hitting me now. I finished it off, then put it down beside me. “What’s the story with that coin?”
“Coin?” I nodded at it, and he looked down. “Oh. It’s actually a pendant of a saint. My mom gave them to all of us when we were kids.”
“Yep.” He pulled it out, angling it to the moonlight. “Bathilde. Patron saint of children. I guess she figured we’d need all the help we could get.”
I moved closer, barely able to make out a figure and some tiny words on the pendant. “It’s nice.”
“Yeah. But it’s also a reminder.”
“When I was at my heaviest, this thing choked me. I mean, seriously. It left welts. I didn’t want to take it off. I wouldn’t. I needed all the help I could get.”
“Protection,” I said.
“Something like that.” He let it drop. “Now I keep it on so I don’t forget what I lost.”
It was weird, hearing this. Like no longer having something could be a good thing, and the proof of it as well. I was used to the opposite, when absence equaled heartbreak. Suddenly, I had a million questions, and between the beer and the dark, I felt like I could ask them. But then Eric came around the corner, his guitar in hand.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. I heard a slur in his voice. “But you’re kind of being impolite all sequestered over here.”
“How many beers have you had?” Mac asked him as I slid off the carousel, taking my can with me.
“An infinitesimal amount,” Eric replied. But I noticed, as we fell in behind him, that his steps were anything but sure.
“Eric’s using his big words,” Mac reported to Layla and Irv, who were now sitting opposite each other in a chariot. She had plenty of room next to her; he barely fit, as if the metal might give way at any moment.
“Dead giveaway,” Layla said. “No more beer for you, Bates.”
“He gets super verbose when he’s buzzed,” Irv explained to me. “One of his many tells.”
“I am perfectly compos mentis,” Eric protested, sitting down a bit bumpily on the grass. He strummed his guitar. “I’ll prove it by entertaining you with a musical interlude. Sydney, come join me here on the terra firma and tell me what you want to hear.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Layla held up a hand. “Please stop before you embarrass yourself.”
“Too late,” Irv said.