He was right, of course. He was always right. But I still wasn’t looking forward to it.
Once I got to the garage, I went to the shelves where my mom kept her work stuff, moving a stack of FOR SALE and MODEL OPEN signs aside to pull out another box of fliers. The front door of the house was open, and I could hear voices drifting over, party sounds, laughing, and glasses clinking. I hoisted up the box and cut off the overhead light. Then I headed back to the party and bathroom duty.
I was passing the garbage cans when someone jumped out at me from the bushes.
I shrieked and dropped the box, which hit the ground with a thunk, spilling fliers sideways down the driveway. Say what you will, but you’re never prepared for the surprise attack. It defines the very meaning of taking your breath away: I was gasping.
For a second, it was very quiet. A car drove by.
“Bert?” A voice came from down the driveway, by the catering van. “What are you doing?”
Beside me, a bush rustled. “I’m . . .” a voice said hesitantly— and much more quietly—from somewhere within it. “I’m scaring you. Aren’t I?”
I heard footsteps, and a second later could make out a guy in a white shirt and black pants walking toward me up the driveway. He had a serving platter tucked under his arm. As he got closer he squinted, making me out in the semi-dark.
“Nope. Not me,” he said. Now that he was right in front of me, I could see that he was tall and had brown hair that was a little bit too long. He was also strikingly handsome, with the sort of sculpted cheekbones and angular features that you couldn’t help but notice, even if you did have a boyfriend. To me he said, “You okay?”
I nodded. My heart was still racing, but I was recovering.
He stood there, studying the bush, then stuck his hand right into its center. A second later, he pulled another guy, this one shorter and chunkier but dressed identically, out through the foliage. He had the same dark eyes and hair, but looked younger. His face was bright red.
“Bert,” the older guy said, sighing, as he let his hand drop. “Honestly.”
“You have to understand,” this Bert said to me, solemnly, “I’m down in a big way.”
“Just apologize,” the older guy said.
“I’m very sorry,” Bert said. He reached up and picked a pine needle out of his hair. “I, um, thought you were someone else.”
“It’s okay,” I told him.
The older guy nudged him, then nodded toward the fliers. “Oh, right,” Bert said, dropping down to his knees. He started to pick them up, his fingers scratching the pavement, as the other guy walked a bit down the driveway, picking up the ones that had slid there.
“That was a good one, too,” Bert was muttering as I squatted down beside him to help. “Almost had him. Almost.”
The light outside the kitchen door popped on, and suddenly it was very bright. A second later the door swung open.
“What in the world is going on out here?” I turned to see a woman in a red apron, with black curly hair piled on top of her head, standing at the top of the stairs. She was pregnant, and was squinting out into the dark with a curious, although somewhat impatient, expression. “Where is that platter I asked for?”
“Right here,” the older guy called out as he came back up the driveway, a bunch of my fliers now stacked neatly upon the platter. He handed them to me.
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem.” Then he took the stairs two at a time, handing the platter to the woman, as Bert crawled under the deck for the last few fliers that had landed there.
“Marvelous,” she said. “Now, Wes, get back to the bar, will you? The more they drink, the less they’ll notice how long the food is taking.”
“Sure thing,” the guy said, ducking through the doorway and disappearing into the kitchen.
The woman ran her hand over her belly, distracted, then looked back out into the dark. “Bert?” she called out loudly. “Where—”
“Right here,” Bert said, from under the deck.
She turned around, then stuck her head over the side of the rail. “Are you on the ground?”
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Bert mumbled.
“Well,” the woman said, “when you’re done with that, I’ve got crab cakes cooling with your name on them. So get your butt in here, please, okay?”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m coming.”
The woman went back inside, and a second later I heard her yelling something about mini-biscuits. Bert came out from under the deck, organizing the fliers he was holding into a stack, then handed them to me.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “It’s just this stupid thing.”
“It’s fine,” I told him, as he picked another leaf out of his hair. “It was an accident.”
He looked at me, his expression serious. “There are,” he said, “no accidents.”
For a second I just stared at him. He had a chubby face and a wide nose, and his hair was thick and too short, like it had been cut at home. He was watching me so intently, as if he wanted to be sure I understood, that it took me a second to look away.
“Bert!” the woman yelled from inside. “Crab cakes!”
“Right,” he said, snapping out of it. Then he backed up to the stairs and started up them quickly. When he got to the top, he glanced back down at me. “But I am sorry,” he said, saying the words that I’d heard so much in the last year and a half that they hardly carried meaning anymore. Although I had a feeling he meant it. Weird. “I’m sorry,” he said again. And then he was gone.
When I got inside, my mother was deep in some conversation about zoning with a couple of contractors. I refreshed the fliers, then directed a man who was a bit stumbly and holding a glass of wine he probably didn’t need to the bathroom. I was scanning the living room for stray empty glasses when there was a loud crash from the kitchen.
Everything in the front of the house stopped. Conversation. Motion. The very air. Or so it felt.
“It’s fine!” a voice called out, upbeat and cheerful, from the other side of the door. “Carry on as you were!”
There was a slight surprised murmur from the assembled crowd, some laughter, and then slowly the conversation built again. My mother smiled her way across the room, then put a hand on the small of my back, easing me toward the foyer.