Alex, Approximately: Chapter 13


“Nobody ever lies about being lonely.”

—Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity (1953)


I don’t work with Porter on my next shift. In fact, I’m not scheduled to work with him again until Saturday—not that I’ve obsessively checked the schedule. But the level of disappointment that hits me when I pick up my till and see Mr. Pangborn’s white hair instead of Porter’s tangle of curls is so crushing, I have to give myself a mental shake. Why am I getting so worked up over a boy? This isn’t like me. At all.

“We’re still on for tonight?” Grace says when Pangborn is escorting us to the Hotbox, merrily whistling what I think is a Paul Simon song. When I hesitate too long, she grabs my orange vest. “Don’t you bail on me, Bailey Rydell.”

“I’m not,” I say, laughing as I push her away. “It’s just complicated. I might need to fib a little to my dad about who we’re hanging out with, so when you pick me up, don’t mention any surfers.”

She wrinkles up her face, and then gives me a whatever look. “Eight o’clock.”

“Eight. I’ll be ready, promise.”

Pangborn does a little shuffling dance outside the ticketing booth door, one hand on his stomach, singing about some guy named Julio down by the school yard. “Yaa da-da-da-da!”

Grace grins. “That must be some fine chronic you got your hands on this morning.”

“Nature’s medicine, my dear,” he corrects, making a quieting signal with his hand as he glances around—probably looking for Cavadini. “Never know who’s listening around here.”

A terrible thought crosses my mind. “You guys don’t have sound on the security cameras, do you?” All the things Porter claims Grace tells him about me . . . what if he’s been listening in on our conversations inside the Hotbox?

“Sound?” Pangborn chuckles. “We barely have sight. No, there’s no sound.”

Sweet baby Jesus. I sigh in relief.

“Why?” he asks.

“Uh . . . I just wondered if you guys were listening in while we gossiped in the Hotbox,” I say, trying to cover up as best I can—and doing a crap job of it.

He chuckles. “No, nothing like that. We can’t hear unless you call us, so gossip away. The system’s old. Hasn’t been upgraded in a decade, in fact. They’re going to have to spend money soon. The offsite company that monitors the alarm system went out of business two weeks ago. Now if anything goes wrong in the middle of the night, all we can do is call the local police.”

“Just call Bailey,” Grace says. “She’ll chase down criminals and jump them.”

I bump her shoulder. “Shut it, Grace Achebe, or I’ll start counting change as slow as Michelle.”

“Noooo!” She waves her hand at Pangborn. “Hey, you gonna let us in any time soon? Not all of us have the luxury of your natural medication to make the day pass by faster.”

The old security guard smiles goofily and knocks on the door, announcing, “Team Grailey reporting for duty, boys. Open up. I seem to have misplaced my key again. . . .”

After we’re situated and on a roll, Grace turns off her mic and says, “Why were you asking Pangborn all that stuff about listening in on our gossip?”

“It’s nothing, really,” I say, but she’s not letting it go. “I was just worried that Porter might be hearing our conversations.”

“Why?”

“Because of some things he said a couple of days ago. It’s nothing. Stupid, really. He knows I have a sweet tooth—”

“I told him that.”

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

“He’s been asking about you lately. Quite a bit, in fact.”

“He has?”

“Uh-huh.” She glances at me from the corner of her eye.

“Like what about?”

She shrugs. “Just things. He’s curious. That’s his personality.”

“Like a cat, huh?” So this is nothing out of the ordinary. She doesn’t offer anything more, so I say, “Well, anyway. That’s all there is. He was just teasing me with these muffin things on the Bees, and—”

I feel rather than see Grace’s head swing in my direction. “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?”

“Oh my God, Grace. My ear holes. I didn’t know you could be so loud.” We still have a line, so I plaster a fake smile on my face and pass tickets through the tiny hole in the window. “That actually hurt my eardrums.”

“But that’s what you said, right? You said you were on the lifts with Porter? Why were you on the lifts with Porter?”

“It’s a long story.”

“We’ve got six hours.”

I sigh. Between customers, I give her the short version of the story. I don’t tell her about my ongoing hunt for Alex, because that seems too personal—I just tell her that I met Patrick and didn’t realize I was barking up the wrong tree.

“Patrick Killian?”

I sigh. How small is this town, anyway?

“He should have told you,” she says.

“I should have picked up on it.”

Grace shakes her head. “I still say he should have made it clearer. No way both of you got signals crossed. Shame on him.”

“I don’t know about that,” I say, but I appreciate her show of support.

She gives me the hurry-up signal.

I keep going with my story, leaving out most of the details, especially any details with secret feelings and legs touching. “He was just trying to cheer me up,” I say, when I tell her about Porter and the Bees. “It was no big deal.”

“Hmm,” is all she says.

“What does that mean?”

“It means, that’s all very interesting.”

“Why?”

Four quick raps on the Hotbox door. I startle. Grace squeals. Four knocks only means one person. My nerves go crazy as Grace opens the door.

“Ladies,” Porter says.

“Why, speak of the bloody devil,” Grace says, giving me a smile that is so wicked, I can hardly believe it’s on her sweet little face. I immediately regret I told her anything and try to signal back with my eyes: IF YOU GIVE AWAY ANYTHING, I WILL STRANGLE YOU IN YOUR SLEEP.

Porter glances at her, then me. I catch his gaze and try to look away, but it’s like honey. I’m stuck. I can feel my insides melting and my heart trying to outrun a horde of zombies. I can’t seem to inhale enough air. Stupid Hotbox. It’s sweltering. I feel physically ill and fear I’m going to pass out.

“Hey,” he says in a soft voice.

“Hey,” I say back.

Somewhere in the distance, I hear a light tap-tap-tapping.

“Bailey.” I really like it when he says my name. God, how silly is that?

“Yep,” I answer.

“Customers.”

Dammit. I manage not to say that aloud, but I do, however, spin around on my stool too fast and bang my skinned-up knee— which still hasn’t completely healed—and yelp. The pain helps to break whatever crazy hoodoo spell Porter’s got over me. Until something warm touches my hand.

I glance down. Porter’s trying to hand me a folded-up tissue. My knee’s bleeding again. I mutter, “Thanks,” and press it against the newly opened scab while juggling the ticket window one-handed.

“You going to the bonfire tonight?” Porter says. He’s talking to Grace, not me.

“Yep. I’m taking Bailey, if she doesn’t lose her leg before the end of our shift. You never know in the Hotbox. It’s a war zone in here. Better get out while you can.”

“I’m getting, I’m getting,” he says, pretending to be grumpy. Do I detect a jovial tone in his voice? Is he happy I’m going to the bonfire, or is that just my imagination? “Guess I’ll see you both tonight, unless someone needs an ambulance first.”

 

Grace shows up at my house promptly at eight. I’ve barely had enough time to change out of my work clothes into what I’m assuming is appropriate for a bonfire party on the beach, which for me means I’m dressed like Annette Funicello in one of the Beach Party movies from the 1960s: ruched red-and-white polka-dot top that fits me like a glove, scalloped white shorts, wedge espadrilles. When Grace sees what I’m wearing, she looks me over and says, “Cutest thing I’ve ever seen, truly, but you’re going to freeze to death and then fall and break your neck. Ditch the shoes and find a proper jacket.”

Crud. I trade the espadrilles for red sneakers. Meanwhile, my dad has fallen hard for Grace’s charm and is trying to convince her to stay awhile and order pizza, play a game of The Settlers of Catan. She has no idea what that is, and he’s doing a terrible job explaining. He’s a long-winded talker when he’s excited about stuff he likes, and I need to get us out the door, but now he’s breaking out the ancient board game box. God help us all.

“Dad,” I finally say. “We’re meeting Grace’s friends. No time for sheep trading.”

He raises both hands in surrender. “Understood. You girls have fun. But, Grace, please bring her home at midnight. That’s her curfew.”

“It is?” I ask. We’ve never discussed such a thing.

“Does that work for you?” he asks. Now he’s unsure too.

“Well, it doesn’t work for me, Mr. Rydell,” Grace says, “because that’s my curfew too. So I’ll have her home by a quarter of, because it takes me fifteen minutes to drive to my house from here. How’s that, yeah?”

“Perfect!” Dad says, beaming. He’s made the right parenting choice that syncs up with the choices of other normal parents. Life is good. And it’s good for me, too, because now I can sneak out of here like some horrible juvenile delinquent daughter and go do something he wouldn’t want me to do, while I’ve lied and told him we’re going to the boardwalk. Before I lose my nerve, I grab a hoodie, tell him good-bye, and rush Grace out the door.

Grace drives a cute two-seater with a sunroof. All the way to the beach, she tries to give me the lowdown on who will be there and what the party could be like, but I’m still unprepared. The setting sun is turning the sky magenta as we pull off the road, well north of the cove, and park with a hundred other cars every which way alongside the highway, half in the scrabbly sand. Rocky cliffs rise up from the ocean, turning into mountainous coastal foothills in the distance. And the surf slams so hard here, it almost sounds like ominous music—only, there’s that, too, pumped in from someone’s car speakers. It echoes around a crescent-shaped bowl of jagged rock, a couple hundred yards or so below the road. And inside this crescent is a hollow sandy pit, where several dozen teens are congregated around a massive bonfire that throws wildly flickering light around the craggy walls.

The Bone Garden.

Grace and I make the downhill trek on a well-worn path through coastal grass. As we do, we’re greeted by a motley array of scent and sound. Roasted marshmallows and skunky beer. Laughing and shouting and roughhousing. A boy crying in the shadows and another boy telling him he’s sorry and please don’t leave. Me too, dude, I think, because I’m having the same panic attack.

“Too late now,” Grace says, sensing my need to flee. “It’s a long walk back to civilization, anyway.”

Like this calms me down?

Before I know it, we’re leveling out, and she’s seeing people she knows. And Grace knows everyone. She’s hugging necks and waving at people. If there were any babies out here, she’d probably be kissing them. She’s a natural-born politician, this girl. And she’s introducing me to so many people, I can’t keep up. Casey is a cheerleader. Sharonda is president of drama club. Ezgar was in juvie, but it wasn’t his fault (I’m not sure what, but it wasn’t). Anya is dating Casey, but no one’s supposed to know that. And in the middle of all this, here’s a surfer, there’s a surfer, everywhere there’s a surfer. Oh, a few skaters and bikers. One paddleboarder, because “that’s where it’s at,” apparently.

There are just so many people. Most of them don’t seem to be doing anything wrong, so as we wind through the crowd, I feel a smidge less guilty about lying to my dad tonight. Sure, I see a few people drinking beer and smoking, and I smell the same sweet scent that clings to Pangborn’s clothes, so someone’s passing around weed. But for such a big group, nothing crazy is going down. I mean, no sign of Davy and his bunch so far, fingers crossed. No sign of anyone else, either . . .

At some point during all this meeting and greeting, I lose Grace. I don’t even know when it happens. One minute I’m listening to a confusing story about a fender bender involving an ice cream truck and an electrical pole, and the next thing I know, I’m surrounded by people whose names I only half remember. I try not to panic. I just quietly slip away and pretend like I know where I’m going while I search for Grace’s cropped hair, turning on my dazzling Artful Dodger charm: look casual and bored, but not too bored. Keep moving. That’s the key to no one taking pity on you, the strange new girl. Because there are certain gregarious types who always will try to take you under their wing—the drama kids, for sure—and I can spot them circling like vultures. Must avoid.

But there’s only so much pretend mingling you can do before people realize that you’re just walking around doing nothing—not talking to anyone, not lining up at the keg that’s sticking out from a pit in the sand, from which people are constantly pumping red plastic cups of nasty-smelling beer. So I finally make myself scarce and find an empty spot on a piece of driftwood in the shadows. The seating situation is a mishmash of rusting lawn chairs, wooden crates, flat rocks, and a couple of ratty blankets. It looks more haphazard than organized, like maybe some of this stuff just washed up on the beach earlier in the day, and I’m regretting I wore white shorts. It’s probably cleaner sitting in the sand.

“Are you: (A) mad, (B) sad, or (C) lost?”

My stomach flips several times in quick succession.

Porter, or the silhouette of Porter, because he’s standing in front of the bonfire, hands in the pockets of his jeans.

“C, lost,” I tell him. “I had no idea Grace was so popular. She’s also compact, so it’s possible she’s in the middle of one of these groups and I just don’t see her. I was going to give her five more minutes to surface before I texted.” I wasn’t really, but I didn’t want him to think I was going to sit here for hours alone.

“I think she was a fairy in a previous life. Everyone believes she’s going to grant their wishes or something.” He gestures at the empty space on my driftwood log. I gesture back, Please, be my guest. The fragile wood creaks with his weight. He mimics my pose, digging his heels into the sand, folded arms on bent knees. Firelight dances over the patchwork of his scars, etching shadowy patterns over his shirt. Our elbows are close but not touching.

I’m relieved he’s not partaking in one of the various vices floating around. At least, he seems his normal sober self. No plastic cup in hand, no reek of smoke. Actually, he smells nice tonight, like soap. No coconut, though. I’m almost disappointed.

His head dips closer. “Are you sniffing me, Rydell?”

I rear back. “No.”

“Yes, you were.” He grins that slow grin of his.

“If you must know, I was just curious if you’d been drinking.”

“Nah, I don’t drink anymore.” He stares into the bonfire, watching some idiots roasting marshmallows whose sticks catch on fire. “I remember being a kid and my parents hauling Lana and me over to my grandpa’s house, and he’d have these wild parties on the patio. Surfers from everywhere came. I’m talking crazy stuff went down there. Drugs everywhere. Free-flowing booze. People getting naked in the pool. Famous musicians dropping by and playing in the living room.”

“I can’t imagine growing up like that.” It seems weird. Foreign.

“Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t like that in my house, or anything. My parents are the exact opposite. My pops, especially. I guess because he saw his dad partying all the time, he got sick of it. He’s insanely competitive and everything is about surfing, so that means staying at the top of your game. No drugs, no drinking, staying in shape. Imagine an army drill sergeant and multiply that by fifty.”

His dad and my dad couldn’t be more different. I’m completely thankful for that and once again feel a pang of guilt for lying to him about being out here.

“As for my mom,” he continues, “she’s just trying to keep the shop afloat, because after everything that’s happened, she’d rather have us all at home than on the water.”

I can understand why. “Do you . . . plan on surfing professionally, like your sister?”

“That’s a sore question, Rydell.”

“Sorry, never mind.”

He shakes his head. “No, it’s cool. It’s not that I can’t do it, physically. I’m pretty good.” He smiles a little, giving me a sideways glace, and then shrugs. “It’s just that for a while, after the shark, I had The Fear. And you can’t have The Fear. The ocean will eat you alive.” He blows out a hard breath, lips vibrating, and cuts his hand through the air as if to say, The end. “But I eventually powered through that. Funny thing was, once I did, I wasn’t sure if I cared about it anymore. I mean, I still like surfing. I hit the waves almost every morning. But I’m not sure if I want to compete anymore. I want to surf because I enjoy it—not because I have to, you know?”

“I know exactly what you mean.” And I do, because he doesn’t light up about surfing like he does when he’s talking about ocean currents and weather patterns.

Someone hollers Porter’s last name. He glances up and curses under his breath. A towheaded figure strides around the bonfire.

“Hey, cow patty.”

Oh, terrific. It’s Davy. I think he’s loaded. Not like he was that time in the crosswalk, but he’s definitely been drinking, because he stinks, and he’s got that stuttering laugh that stoners have when they’re high. He’s also not limping, which makes me think he’s not feeling much pain right now.

“What’s going on over here? You two look awfully cozy.”

“We’re just sitting here, talking, man,” Porter says, highly irritated. “Why don’t you go see Amy and we’ll catch up with you.”

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“What are you talking about, Davy?”

“Trying to get me back for my past sins? Because I invited her here”—he nods lazily toward me—“but looks like you’re making a play for her, which isn’t cool.”

Um, what? Grace invited me, but no way am I getting in the middle of this.

“You’re wasted,” Porter says carefully, pointing an unwavering finger in Davy’s direction, “so I’m going to give you five seconds to get out of my face.”

I’m getting worried now. Porter is more than intimidating: He looks scary as hell. I’ve never really known many guys like this, more on the man side of the sliding masculinity scale. Not up close and personal, anyway.

Davy does something with his face that might be classified as a smile. “Hey, relax, man. It’s cool. Forget it. Brotherhood over Bettys.”

Gross. Am I the “Betty”? Porter’s knuckles press against the side of my thigh—a warning. I guess he’s got this.

“Besides, I’ve been planning something special for you. You know what today is, right? Anniversary of Pennywise’s death, man. I’m giving him a salute. Check it out.”

Davy marches off around the bonfire, calling out for somebody to bring him the “salute,” whatever that means.

“Idiot,” Porter mumbles. “It’s next month, not today. He’s such a waste of space.”

I’m just relieved he’s gone and that no one’s punching anyone, but when I see Porter’s brow lowering, I know it’s not over. There’s a loud noise, and sparks shoot in our direction. We sway backward as the crowd o-o-ohs! Someone’s hauling more wood onto the bonfire on the other side. Several someones. Wooden crates, pieces of chairs, driftwood—all of it’s being tossed into the sandy pit. The fire roars up like a beast. The partygoers gasp in delight. In no time, it’s twice as tall as it once was.

Loud cheers fill the beach. Fire big. Fire strong. The horde is pleased.

Well, not everyone. Porter, for one. He’s pulling me to my feet and cursing a string of obscenities near the top of my head. “Do they ever learn?”

“What’s the matter?” I say, and it’s then that I notice the fringes of the crowd beginning to unravel: here and there, several people are starting to pull away and head up the trail to the parked cars.

“It’s the bonfire,” Porter says. “When it’s too high, everyone can see it from the road. People who live around here tolerate it until they can see it. Then they call the cops. It’s like a goddamn Bat Signal. Morons!”

But it’s not just that. Something else is happening across the bonfire from us. I get Porter’s attention and point to where two boys are lifting Davy onto a large, flat rock on the edge of the beach. The surf crashes into the rock, spraying his legs with foam. He doesn’t seem to care or notice. He’s too busy holding something up in his hand that looks like a big stick, and when he shouts for everyone to shut up, the crowd quiets and listens.

“In honor of all our fallen brothers who’ve bashed their bones against these rocks in the garden of good and evil, tonight, on the anniverseary-rey,” he stumbles, and then gets it right, “anniversary of Pennywise’s death, I’m doing a military-style three-volley salute. Ready?”

What the hell is he talking about?

“Oh, God,” Porter says.

Davy turns to face the wall of rocks, perches the stick on his shoulder, and then—

My world changes.

I’m . . .

Not on the beach.

I’m fourteen years old, and I’m standing in the living room of our old house in New Jersey. I just walked home from school. And there’s broken glass and blood dripping on the expensive carpet. And my mom is screaming, but I can’t hear anything at all.

Then the carpet turns back to sand and the crowd’s roaring gleefully and everything’s back to being okay. Only, it’s not.

“Bailey!” Porter is shouting in my face, shaking me.

I swallow, but my throat is too dry.

“Bailey?”

I really am all right now. I am. It’s okay. I’m mainly afraid I’m going to cry in front of him, and that would be humiliating. But it’s too late, because I check my face and a few tears have already leaked out. I swipe them away and take a few breaths.

Boom!

The terrible memory flashes again, but I don’t disappear this time. It just rattles me, hard. Maybe it wasn’t Porter shaking me before. Maybe I’m just shaking.

“Jesus, what’s the matter?” Porter says. He’s pushed hair away from my forehead, trying to check if I’m running a fever.

“I’m okay,” I finally say, moving his hand away. Not because I don’t want his help, but I need to see what Davy’s doing. He’s reloading. Three-volley salute, he said, so there’s still one more. I think he’s got a shotgun. It’s hard to tell from here.

I hate this. Hate being like this. It hasn’t happened in a long time. And I wasn’t prepared. If I know it’s coming, I can brace myself. But this . . .

Davy puts the gun against his shoulder. Final one. I cover my ears with both hands. For a brief moment, I see Porter looking anguished and confused, then he pulls my head against his chest and wraps his arms around me. Boom! I jump against him, but he doesn’t let go. And it helps. The explosion is muffled. I have a solid anchor, and I don’t want to let go. It’s embarrassing how hard I’m clinging to him now, but I don’t even care, because he’s safe and warm. It’s just that he’s prying me off him, trying to tell me something, and I really should be listening.

“We have to go, Bailey,” he’s telling me. “Now.”

I see why.

Red and blue lights. The police are here.


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