Eric, undeterred, patted the grass beside him. “Come. Enjoy my aural stylings.”
I felt so bad for him that I actually went. As soon as I sat down, he leaned into me, strumming the guitar. “I once knew a girl, Sydney was her name . . . She was so pretty, she drove me insane . . .”
“Can I have another beer?” I asked. Irv snorted. Mac tossed me one.
“Met her at school, there on the wall,” he crooned. “Sat down beside her, gave it my all . . .”
“O-kay,” Layla said, getting up from the chariot. “I think it’s time we head back. Mom’s going to be wondering where we are.”
“I’m in the middle of an original composition,” Eric protested.
“You’ll thank me later,” she told him as Mac picked up the duffel bag, filling it with our empty cans. Irv stepped off the carousel, and it made a sound like a sigh of relief. Beside me, Eric had thankfully stopped singing, although he was still picking out a few sloppy chords. “Before we go, though, one ride?”
“One ride,” Eric mumbled. “On the inside. Be my bride and let it ride . . .”
Irv looked at Mac, who shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “Climb on.”
Layla clapped her hands, then got back on the carousel, hoisting herself up onto one of the horses. “Come on,” she said to me. “You have to try this.”
I was buzzed now, feeling the beer and a half as I walked over and joined her. My horse was a small one, and I felt unsteady as I got on, trying to remember the last time I’d ridden a merry-go-round.
“Ready?” Irv said.
“Ready,” Layla shouted, turning around to grin at me. I felt myself smile back, even though nothing had even happened yet.
Mac and Irv got on opposite sides of the carousel and began pushing. It turned slowly at first, with a fair amount of creaking, but within a minute or so we were moving at a good clip. As my horse rose, I could feel the wind in my hair; up ahead, Layla reared back, laughing. We moved quickly, then faster still, the night and woods big and wide all around us. It was one of those moments that, even while it was happening, I knew I would remember forever, even before the ring came into view and my grasp. I didn’t reach for it, though; I didn’t need to. I felt like I’d already won.
* * *
We could hear the music before the house even came into view. One moment, the only sound was our footsteps, crunching across the leaves. Then we heard instruments and a single, haunting voice.
Layla stopped just at the edge of the tree line, listening. “Rosie’s singing. Wow. Wonder how they swung that.”
Up ahead, the house was all lit up, and through the open back door I could see the living room was crowded with people. Meanwhile, the voice continued, high and sweet. I couldn’t make out the words, but it still gave me chills.
“Okay,” Mac said. “What’s the plan here?”
Layla looked at Irv, who was carrying a now-asleep Eric on his back. Halfway through our return journey, he’d started to really stumble, then announced he needed to rest before lying down on a bed of pine needles. Apparently, like the verbosity, this was not an unusual occurrence, so Irv scooped him onto his back without comment and we carried on. Now, his face against Irv’s sweatshirt, Eric looked almost sweet, like the miracle baby he’d once been.
“He can sleep it off,” Layla said. “He’ll come find us when he’s up.”
I followed her as she walked toward the shed they’d rehearsed in earlier, clearing some papers and a pair of drumsticks off a rumpled sofa there. Irv deposited Eric onto it, and she covered him with a sleeping bag. As she tucked it around him, he mumbled something in his sleep. The others were already heading to the house, so I was the only one who saw her smooth his forehead with her hand, lingering there as she shushed him.
The house wasn’t just crowded: it was packed. We had to squeeze in, then apologize and avoid feet and elbows all the way to the kitchen, where there was more breathing room. Once there, I looked back to see Mrs. Chatham in her recliner, her husband on the couch, head ducked down, a banjo in his lap. He was flanked by two other men, also playing, and a redheaded woman sat in a nearby chair, a violin on her shoulder. But it was Rosie everyone was watching.
She was standing at the edge of the couch, wearing jeans and a tank top, sporting her trademark ponytail. Her eyes were closed. I didn’t know the song she was singing, as I knew none of the ones I’d heard on the Seaside jukebox. But it was haunting, about a girl and a mountain and a memory, and it wasn’t until it was over that I realized I’d been holding my breath.
“Wow,” I said to Layla as everyone applauded. Rosie, her cheeks pink, gave a rare smile, then leaned against the wall, crossing her arms over her chest. “You weren’t kidding. She’s amazing.”
“I know,” she said. “She doesn’t agree to sing much. But when she does, she blows me away.”
Behind us, the guys were more focused on food, busy rifling through the cabinets. “I need something good,” Irv said. “And a lot of it.”
“Carrot sticks?” Mac said. “Vegetarian jerky?”
Irv, staring into a collection of spice jars, turned his head slowly, looking at him. “Are you serious right now? Do I look like a vegetarian to you?”
“How do vegetarians look?”
“Not like me.” He shut the cabinet, then opened another one, revealing a box of Pop-Tarts. “Okay. Now we’re talking.”
“I want one!” Layla called out. “Let me see if we have any frosting to put on them.”