Bert was sitting on the back bumper of the ambulance, scanning the crowd, and I joined him, letting my feet dangle down. Most of the faces here were new to me, which made sense, since this was more of a Talbert High crowd, while I went to Jackson, on the other side of town. Still, I did recognize a few people I knew from school. I wondered if any of them knew me.
I looked across the clearing then, and saw Wes. He was standing with a group of guys around an old Mustang, talking, and seeing him I felt that same sort of lurch in my stomach as I had the first night I’d met him, and the night he’d pulled me out of the hole, and just about every time we’d crossed paths since. I couldn’t explain it, had never felt it before: it was completely out of my control. So idiotic, I thought, and yet there I was again, staring.
After a minute or two he broke off from the group and started across the clearing. While I was making a pointed effort not to watch him—or, okay, not watch him the entire time—it was hard not to notice, as I took a quick glance around the circle, that I was not alone in my observations. I counted at least three other girls doing the same thing. I wondered if they felt as stupid as I did. Probably not.
“Hey,” he said. “What took you guys so long?”
Bert rolled his eyes, nodding toward Kristy, who was now coming back toward us with Monica. “What do you think?”
“I heard that,” she said. “You know, it takes time to look like this. You can’t just throw this sort of outfit together.”
Bert narrowed his eyes, looking at her. “No?”
Ignoring this, she said, “A fat lot of good it’s doing me here, though. There aren’t any good prospects.”
“What about that guy at the keg?” Bert asked.
“Please.” She sighed. “Can’t a girl have high standards? I don’t want an ordinary boy.”
There was bout of laughter from the jeep parked beside us, and a second later a blonde girl in a halter top suddenly stumbled over. “Hey,” she said, pointing at me. “I know you. Don’t I know you?”
“Um, I’m not sure,” I said, but I did know her. It was Rachel Newcomb: we’d run middle school track together. We hadn’t spoken in years.
“I do, I do,” she said, snapping her fingers, hardly seeming to notice everyone else looking on. Kristy raised her eyebrows.
“You know me, Rachel,” Bert said quickly. “Bert? I tutored you last summer at the Kaplan center, in math?”
Rachel looked at him briefly, then turned her attention back to me. “Oh shit, I know! We used to run together, right? In middle school? And now you date that guy, the one who’s always yelling at us about bicycling!”
It took me a second.
“Recycling?” I said.
“Right!” She clapped her hands. “That’s it!”
There was hysterical laughter from the jeep, followed by someone yelling, “Rachel, you’re so freaking stupid!”
Rachel, hardly bothered, plopped herself down between me and Bert. “God,” she said, tipping her head back and laughing, “remember how much fun we used to have at meets? And you, shit, you were fast. Weren’t you?”
“Not really,” I said, instinctively reaching to smooth my hair before realizing it wasn’t even parted. I could feel Kristy watching me, listening to this.
“You were!” she poked Bert in the arm. “You should have seen her. She was so fast, like she could . . .”
There was an awkward silence as we all waited for whatever verb was coming.
“. . . fly,” Rachel finished, and I heard Kristy snort. “Like she had freaking wings, you know? She won everything. You know, the only way anyone else ever got to win anything was when you quit.”
“Well,” I said, willing her to get up and move on, before she said anything else. Whatever anonymity I’d enjoyed so far this summer had been based on everyone from Wish not being from my school and therefore not knowing anything about me. I had been a clean slate, and now here was Rachel Newcomb, scribbling out my secrets for everyone to see.
“We were the Running Rovers,” Rachel was saying to Monica now, slurring slightly. “I always thought that name was so dumb, you know? It made us sound like dogs. Go Rovers! Woof! Woof!”
“Good God,” Kristy said, to no one in particular. Still, I felt my face burn, and that was even before I glanced up to see Wes looking at me.
“Look,” Rachel said, slapping a hand on my knee. “I want you to know something, okay?”
Even though I knew what was coming—how, I have no idea—I could think of no way to stop her. All I could do was stand off to the side and watch everything fall apart.
“And what I want you to know is,” she said earnestly, as if this was private and we didn’t have an audience, “that I don’t care what anyone says, I don’t think you’re all weird since that thing happened with your dad. I mean, that was messed up that you were there. Most people couldn’t handle that, you know? Seeing someone die like that.”
I just sat there, looking at her: at her flushed face, the sloshy cup of beer in her hand, the white of her tan line that was visible, just barely, beneath the straps of her halter top. I could not bring myself to look at the others. So much for my fairy tale, however brief, my luxury of scars that didn’t show. Somewhere, I was sure I could hear a clock chiming.
“Rachel!” someone yelled from the next car over. “Get over here or we’re leaving you!”
“Oh, gotta go!” Rachel stood up, flipping her long hair over her shoulder. “I’m going,” she said, redundantly. “But I meant what I said, okay? Remember that. Remember what I said. Okay?”
I couldn’t even nod or say a word. Rachel stumbled off to the jeep, where she was greeted with more laughter and a few bicycling jokes. Then someone turned up the radio, some Van Morrison song, and they all started singing along, off-key.
It was one of those moments that you wish you could just disappear, every particle in you shrinking. But that, I knew, was impossible. There was always an After. So I lifted my head, and looked at Kristy, seeing Bert watching me, Wes and Monica’s faces in my peripheral vision. Then I took a breath, to say what, I didn’t know. But before I could, Kristy had walked over and sat down beside me.
“That girl,” she said, wrapping her hand around mine, “is as dumb as a bag of hammers.”
“No kidding,” Bert said softly, and when I looked at him I saw not The Face, but instead a good-humored sort of disgust, not directed at me, not about me at all.