“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.