Alex, Approximately: Chapter 17

“Fight back, you coward! Fight back!”

—Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

A couple of hours before my shift the next morning, sunlight is already breaking through the gray sky as I pull Baby into a narrow alley behind Penny Boards Surf Shop. Porter’s supposed to meet me here. He says his dad can fix the wonky lock on my seat, since it appears that Davy took a crowbar to it and screwed up the lock. I’m nervous about meeting his dad. Really nervous.

This is a mistake. That’s all I can think. I’m not sure how he talked me into coming here right now, but I didn’t really know what else to do about my bike.

My own dad was none too happy when he got home last night from San Jose and I told him the story of the stolen scooter. If he only knew the entire story, he’d have a heart attack—so really, he’s lucky to have a daughter who cares enough about the state of his ticker to make sure that he only got the bare details he actually needed. And those details were as follows: The bike was stolen from the Cave’s parking lot, but one heroic security guard, a Mr. Porter Roth, chased the unruly teens off the museum property, sustaining injuries in the process, and got my bike back. A shame that Porter couldn’t identify the boys who took it, otherwise he would have filed a police report.

“It all happened so fast,” I told him. “I’m glad he was there.”

“He didn’t see the thieves’ faces?”

Err . . . “It was raining. They hit him and took off running.”

“I still think we should tell Wanda.”

“The museum security is taking care of it, Dad. Let them do their jobs, okay?”

My dad raised his hands. “All right, Mink. I’m just glad you’re okay. And Grace knows someone in town who’s going to help you get the seat fixed?”

Another lie. But it’s necessary, because as great as my dad is in a lot of ways, he’s not handy. So he’s fine with letting this mystery person handle it; he’s even happy to lend me money for a new wheel lock. I don’t deserve him.

So that’s what started the stress train. What kept the train chugging along the track was knowing I had to face Xander Roth, son of Pennywise, survivor of the great white shark, father to the boy I made out with . . . and then went home last night and before I went to sleep did unspeakable things to myself under the covers while thinking about all that making out with said boy. Which is how teen pregnancies don’t happen, I’m fairly certain.

Then, what sped the stress train up to full speed was getting those stupid messages from Alex this morning. Because it sounded like he doesn’t want me to fly out here. I mean, of course I’m already out here, but he doesn’t know that. What if I’d already bought a plane ticket? And why did he suddenly get so freaking busy, anyway? Did he meet another girl? Because it sure sounds that way to me.

I don’t know why this bothers me so much. It’s not like I’m not doing the same thing (hello, double standard). And we never promised to save ourselves for each other. We might not even get along in real life. Isn’t that why I was being so cautious in the first place, drawing out my elaborate map legend of the boardwalk and carefully tracking him down, just in case we weren’t compatible?

It’s just that nothing is working out like I’d planned. Alex and I have a connection—at least, we’re simpatico on paper, but who knows about reality? On the other hand, Porter and I are simpatico in reality, yet we’re also opposites. His life is pretty messy, and I don’t like messy. Been there, done that. It’s why I left my mom and Nate LLC in the first place. And then there’s the small, eensie-meensie detail that I’m not even supposed to be anywhere near him, thanks to Wanda’s police warnings, ugh. But that’s part of the whole appeal, isn’t it? Because being with Porter is crazy and exciting. And much like a great thriller film, I’m not sure who’s going to end up dead by the closing credits.

A dark blue van pulls up behind me and parks in a space marked for the surf shop. But it’s not Porter’s van. And it’s not Porter driving—or riding, for that matter. Two people jump out, both eying me with great curiosity. The first is Mr. Roth, wearing a lightweight yellow Windbreaker, one sleeve sewed up, and the second is someone I recognize from photographs as Porter’s sister, Lana. They are both slightly damp, and, I assume from the droplets of water on the boards strapped to the van, have just come from the beach.

“Hi,” Lana says, chewing gum, super friendly and open. “You’re Porter’s girl.”

Am I? This makes my chest feel funny. “I work with Porter,” I say as she saunters around the van. God, she moves just like him, slinky, like a cat. And she’s wearing skintight long sleeves and shorts—whatever she’s put on after getting out of her wet suit, I guess, but she’s built like Porter too. Not model-thin, but muscular. Solid and shapely.

“Lana,” she says, joyfully chew-chewing her gum.

“Bailey,” I answer.

“Bai-ley. Yeah, I remember now,” she says, slowly grinning. She’s young and pretty, no makeup, long curly hair. Very laid-back. Open, like Porter. “He’s yapped and yapped about you. Hey, Pops, this is the scooter Davy jacked.”

Mr. Roth, who has completely ignored me up to this point, already has his hand on the back door to the shop. He looks at the scooter, then gives me a critical once-over. “You messing around with Davy?” he says brusquely. Not Porter. Davy.

Shock washes over me. “N-no. God no.”

“Because the last one was, and why did Davy steal this if there isn’t something going on?” He gives me a look like I think he’s an idiot. “You expect me to believe my son comes home with his face banged up for no reason? Like he’s just some hoodlum, fighting in the streets? I raised him better than that.”

“Dad,” Lana says, sounding almost as humiliated as I feel. “He was defending her honor.”

“Why did it need defending?” Now Mr. Roth is waving his arm at me, angry. “Why did Davy steal this?”

“I don’t know,” I bark back at him, surprised at myself. “Maybe because he’s a scumbag who thought he could make some quick cash. But I didn’t encourage it. I don’t even know him.”

The door to the shop swings open. Porter rushes out, breathless. He looks . . . awful. The cut on his cheek is dark red and swollen. The bump on his temple is now an ugly shade of blue and brown. His usually perfectly groomed scruff is darker and thicker.

“Pops,” he says. “This is Bailey Rydell. Remember, I told you about fixing the scooter seat last night? Like that one you fixed before, Mr. Stanley’s.”

Right now I’m wondering how a one-armed man is going to fix anything—and frankly, with his crummy attitude, I don’t think I want him to bother.

His father doesn’t say anything for several seconds. Then he looks at me. “I don’t know any Rydells. Who’re your parents?”

Before I can answer, Porter says, “I told you already. Her dad lives in the old McAffee place. He’s an accountant. He’s seeing Wanda Mendoza. Bailey moved here in May, from the East Coast.”

“Oh, yeah. Sergeant Mendoza. She’s all right,” his dad says, still gruff, but a little softer, like he only half believes Porter, but maybe he’s thinking about considering believing him one day soon. And—poof!—just like that, the interrogation is over. “Get inside and help your mom,” he tells Lana before turning to Porter. “Go get the green toolbox out of the van. I’ll also need the keys to her seat.”

Mr. Roth isn’t addressing me. I am dismissed. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Pretty lousy, I think. Porter used to think I was too fancy for him, but now his dad thinks I’m not good enough to date his son? And what was all that business about him assuming I was seeing Davy because “the last one” did? Is this the Chloe girl Porter and Davy were arguing about outside the vintage clothing shop on the boardwalk? Man. This guy is a piece of work. When Porter described him as a drill sergeant, he wasn’t kidding. I think Porter dropping Wanda’s name was the only thing that gave me a pass.

Coming here was definitely a huge mistake. I’m regretting it so hard and wishing I could leave somehow, but I can’t see a way out of it.

When I give Porter my scooter keys, he mouths, Sorry, to me and squeezes my hand, and just this tiny bit of skin-on-skin contact feels like when you wake up on the weekend and smell breakfast cooking: completely unexpected and delightful. One crummy kiss (okay, two—okay, AMAZING KISSES), and my body doesn’t even care that Porter’s dad hates my guts and I’m seconds away from a panic attack; it’s too busy enjoying all the actual, real, live tingles being generated by surfer-boy touch. Not good. I’m so terrified his dad will see me react, all I do is drop his hand like a hot potato.

Coward that I am, I’m about five seconds away from turning heel and running down the alley, never to return again, so when Lana nods her head toward the shop, I’m already in such a state of confusion, I just follow her inside. Better than staying outside with the drill sergeant. Or Porter—who I might swoon over in front of his dad. I can’t trust myself anymore. WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME?

“Pops doesn’t mean to come off like that,” Lana says as we head through a storeroom filled with shelves of boxes. “He’s just grumpy. I think he’s in pain twenty-four-seven, but he’ll die before he admits it. You ever hear about the whole phantom-limb thing?”

“Yeah,” I say. Vaguely. Amputees come back from war and still feel their missing limbs.

“I’ve heard him tell Mom that he still feels pain in the arm, even though it’s not there. He has a lot of nightmares and stuff. He won’t take pills or go see a doctor because he’s scared of getting addicted. Our grandpa was an alcoholic. Pops doesn’t want to turn into him.”

I don’t have time to process any of this before she pushes open another door and we’re blinking into the sunlit windows of the surf shop. Redwood and brightly colored boards surround the walls; music plays from speakers hanging from the ceiling. It’s not busy, but a few people mingle, looking at boards and wet suits, chatting around displays of gear.

Funny, but this is one of the places that was closed for lunch every time I came by to mark it off my Alex map; either that or I got distracted, because my favorite churro cart is outside—I can see it from here, along with the waves slamming against the pier—and it’s that churro cinnamon scent I smell now, mixed with Porter’s coconut wax. It’s a heavenly combination, almost erotic. Definitely not something I want to think about when I’m meeting his family.

Lana serpentines around the displays, cheerfully greeting customers, and heads to the back of the store. She leans over the counter and tugs on the arm of a bronze-skinned middle-aged woman with generous curves and a massive cloud of frizzy ebony hair. Lana pulls her away from a conversation, whispering in her ear. The woman is definitely Polynesian, and definitely their mother. Like, whoa, crazy familial resemblance. Mother and daughter look in my direction. Both of them smile.

“Hello,” the mother calls out, coming around the counter to meet me. She’s dressed in jeans and a loose top. Unlike the rest of the family, she’s not muscular and fit, but more on the soft and plump side. Her big cloud of hair is pulled behind one ear and hangs to her hips. “I’m Porter and Lana’s mom. You can call me Mrs. Roth or just Meli. Everyone does.”

God, she’s so pretty . . . so nice. Smiling so wide. It feels like a trap.

“Bailey,” I tell her.

“Bailey Rydell,” she says, surprising me. “Porter tells me you work with him at the Cave.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Pops was super mean to her,” Lana reports.

Mrs. Roth scrunches up her face. “I’m so sorry. He gets like that sometimes. The trick is to either play his junkyard dog game and show your teeth”—she imitates a snapping dog, which is kind of adorable—“or you do what I do and just ignore him.”

“And don’t let his big talk fool you,” Lana says. “My mom totally wears the pants in this family.”

“That’s right, baby.” Mrs. Roth wraps her arms around her daughter. “How’d you do this morning? Find anything good to surf?”

“Nah, just paddled. Porter was right, as usual. Onshore winds were crumbling the waves.” Lana looks at me and brightens. “You should come out with us one morning, watch us surf. Porter likes it when someone’s there to cheer him on instead of Pops yelling at him.”

Mrs. Roth nods, smiling. “And boy oh boy, would he show off for you, my dear. You tell him you want to come see him surf one morning when the waves are fine. He’d love that. Just say the word, and he’ll be texting you weather reports at the butt crack of dawn.”

“He’s obsessed with weather,” Lana tells me.

“I know,” I say too quickly, unable to stop myself.

They both grin back at me like I’ve solved some big family secret code.

Mrs. Roth glances over Lana’s head and raises a hand to a customer. “Hey, baby?” she says to Lana. “Can you do me a favor and help Mr. Dennis?”

Lana makes a gagging noise. “Maybe when you start paying me an actual salary.”

Mrs. Roth gives me a sheepish look. “Don’t spread that around, okay? We’re not forcing them into child labor; it’s—”

“Technically, you sort of are,” Lana mutters, giggling when her mom pinches her waist.

“—just that times are tight right now,” Mrs. Roth finishes explaining.

“And Porter and I are the only suckers in town who’ll work for free,” Lana adds. “I’ll go help Mr. Dennis, but only if you let me stay out an extra hour tonight.”

“Half an hour, and go, go, go. He’s got that pissy look on his face.” Mrs. Roth swivels toward the front door and makes an exasperated noise; someone’s unloading a stack of boxes by the front door. “Deliveries go through the back. How many times do I have to tell that guy? Oh, Bailey, I have to take care of this, I’m sorry. I wanted to do girl talk with you. Stay here.”

As she races away to redirect the delivery man, I watch Lana struggling to pull down a surfboard from a high-up rack, where it’s stacked in the middle of several others. She’s all muscle—no eyelash-batting doll—but it’s hard work, and she’s breathing heavy, shaking out her arm and joking that she nearly smashed her hand getting the board out. It strikes me that there’s no one else working here. It’s just the four of them, running this place? And with Mr. Roth’s limitations, that leaves all the physical stuff dumped on the mom and two kids, neither of whom are getting paid. And then Porter has to turn around and work full-time at the Cave.

This really, really sucks.

And what about when school starts in the fall, and when Lana and her dad go on the surfing tour? Is Mrs. Roth going to run the store by herself? How will Porter keep his grades up and help her and hold down his job at the Cave?

My phone buzzes with a text. Surprisingly, it’s from Patrick, as in, Patrick of Killian’s Whale Tours and my broken gaydar: Hey. You free? Wanna get coffee at the Shack? I’ve got new stuff from the film festival.

Well, what do you know? He doesn’t think I’m a total loser after our “date” fail in the video store. Before I can text back, the back door swings open and Porter breezes in, a huge smile on his face. Delight rushes through me until I see his father behind him . . . then I freeze up. “Pops fixed the seat. You’re good to go.”

Mr. Roth hands me my keys without looking me in the eyes. I think. I’m not looking him in the eyes either. This might work if we both keep avoiding each other. “Still dented,” he mumbles, “and it might stick when you unlock it, but there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“You’ll just have to wiggle the key some and knock it with your palm,” Porter volunteers cheerily.

“Or take it somewhere to get it fixed professionally,” Mr. Roth says. “But the worst problem you’ll have is locking yourself out, so you might want to carry your helmet inside with you until you’re more sure about it. And get a better wheel lock.”

“I’m headed to buy one right now,” I tell him. I scratch my hand, uncomfortable. “Thank you for doing this.”

Looking away, he grunts and shrugs the shoulder that doesn’t have an arm. After a few seconds of awkward silence, just when I think he might turn and leave without another word, he pins me with a hard stare and points a finger in my face. “You really want to thank me? Next time you see Davy Truand, you call me day or night and I’ll finish what Porter started. That boy is stupid and dangerous, and he’s obviously got you in his sights, so I’ll tell you what I tell my own daughter: You stay away from him as best you can, but if he comes anywhere near you, get your phone out and start dialing my number—hear me?”

Um . . . ?

I feel the rattle of the weird, low note that escapes the back of my throat. He’s sort of yelling at me again, but it’s in a concerned-parent way, and I’m not sure, but I think he’s offering to kick Davy’s ass for me now. I look at Porter for confirmation and he’s grinning.

So very confused.

All I can do is nod. So I do, several times. This seems to meet Mr. Roth’s approval. He nods back at me, also several times. And then he tells Porter to quit standing around like a lump and help his mom with the delivery that’s now coming around to the back door. I watch him head toward Mrs. Roth, and I’m stunned.

“He likes you,” Porter whispers near my ear, sending a small cascade of shivers over my scalp. It freaks me out that he has that effect on me in public, especially when his family is halfway across the store.

I find my voice and ask, “How can you tell?”

“For my dad, that was practically hugging and welcoming you into the family. He said you have grit.”

Artful Dodgers don’t have grit. Is this because I snapped at him outside? It’s hard for me to think too hard about it, because Porter is linking his index finger with mine.

“Hey, Porter,” a voice calls out.

I drop his finger and look up to see Mrs. Roth smiling sweetly from the door to the back room, her dark storm cloud of hair haloed around her shoulders. “Aw, I’m sorry, kids,” she says.

“You ladies met?” Porter asks.

“We did,” she answers, “And Bailey’s going to come watch you do your thing one morning.”

Porter raises both brows and has a look on his face that’s hard to decipher, like maybe he’s embarrassed, but kind of happy, too. “Yeah?”

“If you want,” I say.

“Yeah, maybe,” he says. “You should come see Lana, for sure. If you can get up that early.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I say, mimicking him. “I mean, I know nothing about tides and waves, and all that, so you’ll have to alert me when and where it’s going down.”

Mrs. Roth gives me an enthusiastic thumbs-up sign from the door and then quickly lowers her arm before Porter can see it. “Sounds like a plan to me,” she says. “And I’m sorry to break this up, but I really need some help back here—Porter?”

“Sorry, duty calls,” he tells me.

I shake my head, dismissive. I’ve got to buy that new wheel lock before work. There’s plenty of time for that, but he’s clearly got stuff to do here, so I don’t say that. I just tell him I’m busy too, thank him again, and ask him to thank his dad again, who has disappeared with Lana. Mrs. Roth waves good-bye over the top of a stack of boxes when I leave through the back door.

I still have a couple of hours to kill before work, plenty of time to buy my new wheel lock, so I text Patrick back and make plans to meet up with him at the Pancake Shack as I test out my newly repaired seat lock. As I’m doing this, high up on the gutter of the roof, I catch a glimpse of white fur: a cat. Two cats, actually. It’s my tabby from the churro cart, Señor Don Gato, and she’s stalking a big, fluffy white feline. I laugh out loud—I can’t help it—because it’s just like that children’s song. My Don Gato has found her true love.

“Don’t jump,” I call out to Don Gato. Both cats look down at me quizzically. “Trust me on this one, you’ll only break your leg and die. That stupid white cat is not worth it. But if you do jump, remember that during your funeral, the scent of fish will bring you back to life—or probably, in your case, the smell of churros.”

Don Gato plops down inside the gutter and starts licking his paw. She couldn’t care less about my warning. Well, I tried. Somewhere on this boardwalk, I silently hope that Sam-I-Am is living a smarter life than these two love cats, risking bodily harm on the roof . . . and then I remember Alex blowing me off.

“You know what? Screw it. You’ve both got nine freaking lives,” I call back up to the cats as I strap on my leopard-print helmet. “Live them a little.”


@alex: Hey, Mink? You’re not mad at me, are you?

@mink: And what would make you think that?

@alex: I don’t know. I was just worried that you might be mad when I asked you to check with me before buying a plane ticket to come out here. You haven’t messaged since then.

@mink: I’m not mad. I would have thought you knew me better than that.

@alex: Err . . . Is that a joke? I can’t tell.

@mink: Sometimes it’s hard to tell someone’s tone online. Anyway, too busy to talk now. Catch you later.


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