“I’m telling you,” she said to me again as I ate my pasta, “your mother is a miracle worker.”
“She grounded me an entire month,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I can’t even go out later.”
“This is a very nice party,” she said. “Noah looks especially happy for you.”
“Shut up.” I was already sick of my birthday.
“I’d like to propose a toast.” My mother stood up at her seat, holding her glass of wine, with my father smiling from where he sat beside her. “To my daughter Halley, on her sixteenth birthday.”
“To Halley,” everyone else echoed. Noah still wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“May this year be the best yet,” my mother went on, even though everyone had already drank. She was still standing. “And we love you.”
So everyone clinked their glasses again, and drank again, and my mother just stood there with her cheeks flushed, smiling at me, as if yesterday had never happened.
When we got home we opened presents. I got some clothes and money from my parents, a book from the Vaughns, and a silver bracelet from Noah, who just stuffed the box in my hand when no one was looking and ignored me for the rest of the evening. Scarlett gave me a pair of earrings and a keychain for my new car keys, and when she left to go home she hugged me tight, suddenly emotional, and told me how much she loved me. As I hugged her back I tried again to picture her with a baby, or even just pregnant. It was still hard.
I was getting ready for bed around eleven when I heard it. The slow, even rumble of a car passing slowly on the street, then pausing, the engine humming. I went to the window and watched, my eyes on the stop sign that faced my house. A few seconds later the car slid back into sight, facing my window, and blinked its lights. Twice.
I put on my shoes and crept down the stairs in my pajamas and jacket, past my mother’s half-open bedroom door, past where my father was dozing on the couch in front of the TV. I opened the back door, mindful to go slow because of the creak it made halfway. I slipped outside, across the deck, and down around the house to the side yard, past the juniper bushes, to the sidewalk and across the street.
“Hey,” Macon said as I leaned into his window. “Get in.”
I went around and climbed into the passenger seat, pulling the door shut behind me. It was warm inside, the dash lights giving off a bright green glow.
“Ready for your present?” he asked.
“Sure.” I sat back in my seat. “What is it?”
“First,” he said, putting the car in gear, “we have to go someplace.”
“Go someplace?” I took a panicked look at my house. It was bad enough to sneak out, but the further away I got the better chance I had of getting caught. I could see my father sticking his head in my room to say good night, seeing me gone. “I probably shouldn’t.”
He looked at me. “Why not?”
“I mean, I’m already in trouble,” I said, and I sounded like a wimp even to myself, “and if I got caught—”
“Oh, come on,” he said, already starting to head out of Lakeview. “Live a little. It’s your birthday, right?”
I looked up at my dark house. I had just an hour left of my birthday, and I had the right to celebrate at least that much of it the way I wanted.
“Let’s go,” I said to him and he smiled, hitting the gas as we took the corner, tires squealing a little bit, carrying me away.
He took me all the way out to Topper Lake, a good twenty minutes from my house. We stopped about halfway and I drove, watching him as he squirmed, just like my dad, as the speedometer edged higher and higher.
“You nervous?” I asked him as we went across the bridge, the water black and huge all around us.
“No way,” he said. But he was, and I laughed at him. I was barely doing the speed limit.
We passed all the boat ramps and docks, all the tourist traps, and finally went down a long dirt road that wound through woods and potholes and NO TRESPASSING signs into complete darkness. In the distance I could see the radio towers of my father’s station, blinking red and green against the sky.
We got out of the car and I followed him through the dark, his hand holding mine. I could hear water but I couldn’t make out where exactly it was.
“Watch your step up here,” he said as we climbed a steep hill, up and up and up with me barely able to keep from falling. I was cold in my pajamas and jacket, disoriented, and out of breath by the time the ground beneath my feet got more smooth and stable. I still had no idea where I was.
“Macon, where are we going?” I said.
“Almost there,” he called out over his shoulder. “Walk right behind me now, okay?”
“Okay.” I kept my eyes ahead, on the blond of his hair, the only thing I could make out in the dark.
And then, suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks and said, “Here we are.”
I wasn’t sure where here was, since I still couldn’t see anything. He sat down, dangling his legs over the edge in front of us, and I did the same. I could still hear water, louder now.
“So what is this?” I said, shivering in my jacket.
“Just this place I know,” he said. “Me and Sherwood found it, a couple of years back. We used to come out here all the time.”
It was one of the only times he’d mentioned Michael, ever, in the whole time I’d known him. Michael had been on my mind a lot lately, with the baby. Scarlett said she had to get up her nerve to write his mom; whether she had moved to Florida or not, she had a right to know about a grandchild. “I bet you miss him,” I said.
“Yeah.” He leaned back against the thick concrete behind us. “He was a good guy.”
“If I lost Scarlett,” I said, not knowing if I was going too far or saying the wrong thing, “I don’t know what I’d do, I don’t think I could live without her.”
“Yeah,” he said, there in the dark. He turned his head, not looking at me. “You think that, at first.”
So we sat there, in the pitch black, the sound of water rushing past, and I thought of Michael Sherwood. I wondered how this year would have been different if he hadn’t taken that road that night, if he was still here with us. If Scarlett would be keeping that baby, if I’d ever have met Macon or come this far.
“Okay,” he said suddenly, looking down at his glowing watch. “Get ready.”
“Ready for what?”