“Stop,” I said, waving this off as ridiculous, which it was.
“You still see him,” she said, holding up a finger, counting this off.
“We work two feet from each other, Chloe.”
“You’re talking to him,” she said, holding up another finger. “I bet you even have driven past his house when it wasn’t even on your way home.”
That I wasn’t even going to honor with a response. God.
For a minute or two we just sat there, as Truth Squad played a rousing medley of “Cars,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Born to Be Wild.” There were only a certain number of songs related to automobiles, but already they seemed to be grasping a bit.
“So, fine,” I said finally. “Tell me about these guys.”
She cocked her head to the side, suspicious. “Don’t do me any favors,” she said. “If you’re not ready to be out there, it’ll show. We both know that. It’s not even worth the trouble.”
“Just tell me,” I said.
“Okay. They’re all going to be sophomores, and…”
She kept talking, and I half listened, noticing at the same time that Truth Squad was stretching the theme considerably as they started playing “Dead Man’s Curve,” not exactly the kind of song that fired anyone up to plunk down five figures on a shiny new car. Don picked up on this too, glaring at Dexter until the song was cut short, just as the curve was about to get really deadly: instead, they segued, a bit clumsily, into “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”
I could see Dexter rolling his eyes, between verses, back at John Miller, and felt that twinge again, then quickly shook it off, not wanting to risk another set of told-you-so’s from Chloe. It was time to get back on that horse, before I’d done permanent damage to my reputation.
“… so we set it up for tonight, seven o’clock. We’re all meeting at Rigoberto’s for dinner. It’s free breadstick night.”
“Okay,” I said. “Count me in.”
The thing about Out There that you always forget is how, at times, it can really suck.
This is what I was thinking that night around eight-thirty, as I sat at a table at Rigoberto’s, chewing on a stale breadstick and wishing my date, Evan, a chunky guy with tangled shoulder-length hair that desperately needed washing, would shut his mouth when he chewed.
“Tell me again,” I said under my breath to Chloe, who was already cuddled up close with her date, the only good-looking one in the bunch, “where you found these guys?”
“The Wal-Mart,” she said. “They were buying trash bags, and so was I. Can you believe it?”
I could. But this was because Evan had already told me that the day they’d met Chloe they had been on their way to pick up litter. Their fantasy game club had adopted a stretch of highway and spent one Saturday a month cleaning it up. The rest of their time, apparently, was spent drawing up sketches of their game “alter egos” and combating strange trolls and demons by rolling dice in somebody’s basement. In just an hour, I’d already learned more about Orcs, Klingons, and some master race invented by Evan himself called the Triciptiors than I ever cared to know.
Chloe’s date, Ben, was cute. It was clear, however, that she had not taken the trouble to look past him when making these plans: Evan was, well, Evan, and the twins David and Darrin both were sporting Star Wars T-shirts and had spent the entire dinner so far ignoring Lissa and Jess completely while discussing Japanese animation. Jess was shooting Chloe death looks, while Lissa just smiled politely thinking, I knew, about her KaBoom coworker, P.J., and the crush she had on him that she thought wasn’t obvious. This, basically, was Out There, and I realized in the last four weeks I’d not missed it one bit.
After dinner the brothers Darrin and David headed home with Evan in tow, clearly as smitten with us as we had been with them. Jess begged off by saying she had to put her little brothers to bed, and Chloe and Ben stayed at the table, feeding each other tiramisu, leaving just me and Lissa.
“What now?” she asked me as we climbed into my car. “Bendo?”
“Nah,” I said. “Let’s just go to my house and watch movies or something.”
As we turned into my driveway, the headlights curving across the lawn, the first thing I saw was my mother sitting on the front steps. She had her shoes off, her elbows on her knees, and when she saw me she stood up, waving her arms, as if she was in the middle of the ocean clinging to a life raft instead of twenty feet from me on solid ground.
I got out of the car, Lissa behind me. I hadn’t taken two steps when I heard someone off to my left say, “Finally!”
I turned around: it was Don, and he was holding a croquet mallet in one hand. His face was red, his shirt untucked, and he looked pissed.
“What’s going on?” I asked my mother, who was now coming across the grass to us, quickly, her hands fluttering.
“What’s going on,” Don said loudly, “is that we have been locked out of the house for the last hour and a half with no way of gaining entry. Do you realize how many messages we’ve left for you on your phone? Do you?”
He was yelling at me. This took a moment to compute, simply because it had never happened before. None of my previous stepfathers had taken much interest in the parenting role, even when Chris and I were young enough to actually have tolerated it. Honestly, I was speechless.
“Don’t just stand there. Answer me!” he bellowed, and Lissa stepped back, a nervous look on her face. She hated confrontations. No one in her family yelled, and all discussions and disagreements were held in controlled, sympathetic, indoor voices.
“Don, honey,” my mother said, coming up beside him. “There’s no need to be upset. She’s here now and she can let us in. Remy, give me your keys.”
I didn’t move, keeping my eyes on Don. “I was at dinner,” I said in an even voice. “I didn’t have my phone with me.”
“We have called you six times!” he said. “Do you have any idea how late it is? I have a sales meeting at seven A.M. tomorrow, and I don’t have time to be standing around out here trying to break into my own house!”
“Don, please,” my mother said, reaching out a hand to touch his arm. “Calm down.”
“How did you get home if you don’t have your keys?” I asked her.