Wes pulled open the door for me, holding it as I climbed in, then sliding in beside me. The car smelled like cigar smoke and motor oil, and as the man began to drive I could make out his profile: he had white hair and a crook nose, and drove slowly, almost as slowly as Bert. It was amazing we hadn’t seen him coming. He’d just appeared, as if he’d dropped out of the sky or something.
As I leaned back against the seat, my heart felt like it was shaking: I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. There was no way to take the story back, folding it neatly into the place I’d kept it all this time. No matter what else happened, from here on out, I would always remember Wes, because with this telling, he’d become part of that story, of my story, too.
“That you?” the man asked, glancing back at us in the rearview mirror as we passed the Wish van.
“Yes, sir,” Wes replied.
“Well, you had no way to know, I guess,” he said, and I wasn’t sure what he meant until about a minute later, when we crested a hill, took a corner, and there was a gas station, all lit up. The neon sign in the window said, almost cheerfully, OPEN. “Had no idea how close you were.”
“No,” Wes said. “I guess we didn’t.”
As we pulled up to the station I turned to look at him, to say something, but he was already pushing open the door and getting out of the car, walking around to the trunk, where the man had a gas can. I sat there, the fluorescent light flickering overhead, as the man went inside to buy cigarettes and Wes pumped gas, his back to me, eyes on the numbers as they clicked higher and higher.
I turned my head and saw he was looking at me. In this, my first true glimpse of his face in over an hour, I braced myself for what I might see. After all, with Jason, anytime I’d opened up, he’d pulled back. I was prepared, even expecting it to happen again.
But as I looked at Wes, I saw only those same familiar features, even more so now, that same half-smile. He motioned for me to roll down the window.
“Hey,” he said.
I waited. What came next? I wondered. What words would he say to try and make this better? “I thought of one,” he said.
For a second, I just blinked at him. “What?”
“Iceberg lettuce,” he said. Then he added, quickly, “And don’t say it’s not a food, because it is. I’m willing to fight you on it.”
I smiled. “No fight,” I told him. “It’s a keeper.”
The pump stopped then, and he hung the hose back up, screwing the top on the gas can. “Need anything?” he asked, and when I shook my head, he started toward the store.
I heard a buzzing under my feet: my phone. I unzipped my purse and pulled it out, hitting the Talk button as I raised it to my ear. “Hel—”
“Where are you?” Kristy demanded. I could hear party noises behind her, music and loud voices. “Do you know how worried we are? Monica’s about sick, she’s almost inconsolable—”
“We ran out of gas,” I told her, switching the phone to my other ear. “I left you a message. We were stuck out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Message? I didn’t get any—” A pause as, presumably, she actually checked for the first time. “Oh. Well. God! Where are you? Are you okay?”
“We’re fine. We got a ride and we’re getting gas for the van right now.”
“Well, thank goodness.” I heard her cover up the phone and relay this information to Monica, who, upset or not, I imagined would receive it with her same flat, bored expression. Then Kristy came back on. “Look, I gotta tell you, if I were you guys, I’d just go straight home. This party is a bust. And I was totally misled. There are nothing but ordinary boys here.”
I turned and looked into the gas station, where Wes was now paying, as the man who’d driven us looked on. “That’s too bad,” I said.
“It’s okay, though,” she assured me. “Someday I’ll show you an extraordinary boy, Macy. They do exist. You just have to believe me.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I do.”
My mother was stressed.
Truthfully, my mother was always stressed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her actually relax and sit still in a way that made it obvious she wasn’t already thinking about the next six things she had to do, and maybe the six after that. Once, she’d been a pro at decompressing, loved to sit on the back deck of the beach house in one of our splintery Adirondack chairs for hours at a time, staring at the ocean. She never had a book or the paper or anything else to distract her. Just the horizon, but it kept her attention, her gaze unwavering. Maybe it was the absence of thought that she loved about being out there, the world narrowing to just the pounding of the waves as the water moved in and out.
Everything about Wildflower Ridge led back to my mom. The original proposal for the development, the floor plans for each phase, the landscaping, the community organization; every decision was hers. So I was used to her cell phone joining us for dinner every night, sitting on the third place mat, accustomed to her being at the model home office late into the night, entirely unsurprised when I came home to find contractors, local business owners, or prospective home buyers sitting in our living room listening to a spiel about what makes Wildflower Ridge special.
Her current project was the townhouses, and for my mother they were especially important. She’d taken a risk by going for luxury, adding all kinds of fancy accoutrements like heated garages, marble bathrooms, balconies, and high-end appliances, all for the discerning, affluent professional. But just as she began building, the economy took a slide: there were layoffs, the stock market plummeted, and suddenly everyone was tentative with their dollars, especially when it came to real estate. Since she’d already started, she had no choice but to keep going, but her nervousness had driven her to work harder at making contacts and sales. Considering how many of her waking hours (i.e., all of them) were devoted to this already, it seemed close to impossible. Hence stress. Lots of it.
“I’m fine,” she said to Caroline one morning a couple of days after my late night with Wes, as the three of us sat at the kitchen table. My sister was spending most of her time shuttling between her house in Atlanta, making sure Wally was eating enough vegetables while he battled some corporation in his law case, and the coast, where she conferred with the carpenter, dickered over fabric and paint chips, and, by the looks of the receipts I’d seen, bought up most of the inventory at Home Depot. In between, she’d taken to dropping in to show us pictures of the progress, ask for our opinions on decorating decisions, and tell my mother, repeatedly, that she needed to relax and take a vacation. Yeah, right.