The crowd roars.
I crush my doughnut in my hand. “Holy shit,” I say in amazement, then apologize, then say it again several times, but no one is listening or cares.
Mr. Roth turns around, grins at the crowd—grins!—and kisses his wife before running down the other side of the dune to greet his son. Mrs. Roth picks me up in a bear hug. For a woman who isn’t an athlete, she sure is strong. When she puts me back down, she cups my face in her hands and, shockingly, kisses me straight on the lips. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I knew you could get him out here.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I say, flushing with excitement and a little embarrassment.
“Oh baby, yes you did,” she says, her eyes shining. “He hasn’t surfed like that since the shark.”
Porter surfs nearly a dozen more big waves. He screws up once, falling off his board pretty hard trying to pull an aerial “alley-oop.” Mrs. Roth blames the wipeout on the wind. But otherwise, he’s pretty much a demon. He and Lana engage in a friendly sibling competition, and it’s awesome. After a couple of hours, word has spread, and a hundred people or so line the beach. My throat goes hoarse from cheering.
When it seems as though they’re slowing down—both the waves and the surfers—Mrs. Roth tells her husband to call her “babies” back to shore soon. She doesn’t want Porter overdoing it and injuring himself. Mr. Roth grunts and seems dismissive, but he slowly makes his way back down the dune. I guess Lana was right when she said her mom wears the pants in their family.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. “How are they doing?”
I turn around to find Grace, dressed in a magenta jacket and oversize gold sunglasses. Her mouth is arrow-straight, matching the tense line of her shoulders. She is not a happy camper.
“Grace,” Mrs. Roth says cheerfully. “You should have come earlier. Porter was on fire.”
Grace smiles at her, and it’s almost genuine. “Is that so? I’m sorry I missed it. Took me a bit to find out where they were surfing.”
“You could have called me,” Mrs. Roth says absently, only halfway paying attention.
Grace aims two bladelike eyes on me. “It’s fine. I texted Porter and he was more than happy to let me know.”
Oh, God. “Grace,” I whisper. “I totally forgot to text you back.”
“No big deal. I’m not exciting enough, I suppose,” she says, and walks away.
My heart sinks. The Artful Dodger in me whispers to let Grace go, but another part of my brain is panicking. I get Mrs. Roth’s attention. “Sorry, but I need to talk to Grace.”
Mrs. Roth makes a shooing motion. “Go on, baby. They’re just about done. I’ll send Porter to find you after he’s back to shore.”
Quickly, I follow Grace away from the small crowd on the beach, down the sand dune, calling her name. She stops near a rock with a clump of yellow lupine scrub growing out of it. My throat is tight, and I can’t look her in the eyes. She’s so agitated, I can almost feel the emotion radiating off her like heat from a furnace. And she’s never been upset at me. Ever.
“Why do you want to talk to me now?” Grace says. “You didn’t bother to answer my texts this morning.”
“I’m sorry!” I blurt out. “I was going to text you back, but—”
“I called two times”—she angrily claps along with her words to drive her point home—“after the texts. It went straight to voice mail.”
I wince. My fingers itch to dive into my pocket and check my abandoned phone, but I resist. “It’s just—”
“Easy to forget about your friend when your boyfriend is suddenly back in the picture. When he was moping, you had all the time in the world for me. But the second he calls, you throw me away faster than yesterday’s news.”
Shame and regret roll through me. “That’s not true. I just got distracted. I didn’t throw you away.”
“Well, that’s what it feels like. Don’t think I haven’t been here before with other friends. The second they fall for someone, they forget all about me. Well, I’ll tell you what, Bailey Rydell. I’m tired of being the placeholder. If you don’t want a real friendship with me, then find someone else who doesn’t mind being disposable.”
I don’t know what to say. Don’t know how to make this better. I’m a surfer, wiping out and drowning under one of those monster waves. Only, I don’t think I’m skilled enough to get back up again.
After a long, awkward silence I say, “I’m not good at this.”
“Being close to people.” I gesture at her, then me. “I screw it up. A lot. It’s easier for me to avoid things than deal with confrontation.”
“That’s your excuse?” she says.
“It’s not an excuse. It’s the truth.”
Why did I do this? If I could wind the clock back to this morning, I’d text her back and everything would be fine. Whether I actively or passively avoided Grace’s texts, forgot them on purpose or unintentionally, none of it matters. I failed her. And maybe in doing so, I failed myself a little too.
I don’t want to lose Grace. Somehow, while Porter barged in my front door, she sneaked in the back. I try the only thing I have left: the truth.
“You’re right,” I tell her, words tumbling out. “I took you for granted. I forgot about you this morning because I assumed that you’d always be there, because you always are. I can count on you, because you’re dependable. And I’m not. I wish . . . I wish you could count on me like I can count on you. I want to be more like you. You’re not a placeholder for me, Grace.”
She doesn’t say anything, but I can hear her breathing pick up.
“I guess I told myself you wouldn’t miss me,” I say, picking at the yellow lupine shrub. “That’s how I justified it.”
“Well, I did miss you. You picked a fine day not to show. Because I really could have used a shoulder today,” she says, still somewhat upset, but now moving into another emotion I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s hard to decode people when they’re wearing big sunglasses and their arms are crossed over their chest.
A wind whips through my hair. I wait until it passes, then ask, “Did something happen?”
“Yes, something happened,” she complains. But now I can hear the distress in her voice, and when she lifts her sunglasses to rest them atop her head, I see it mirrored in her eyes. “Taran’s not coming back. He’s staying in India for the rest of the summer. Maybe for good.”
“Oh, God. Grace.” My chest constricts painfully.
Slow, silent tears roll down her cheeks. “We’ve been together for a year. We were going to attend the same college. This isn’t how life is supposed to work.”
Tentatively, I reach for her, not sure if she’ll accept me. But there’s not even a heartbeat of hesitation, and she’s throwing her arms around me, crying softly as she clings. Her sunglasses fall off her head and land in the sand.
“I’m sorry,” I choke out, surprised to find that I’m crying along with her. “For everything.”
My old therapist warned me that avoidance is a dysfunctional way to interact with people you care about, but now I’m starting to understand what he meant when he said it could hurt them, too. Maybe it’s time I figure out a better way to deal with my problems. Maybe Artful Dodger isn’t working so well for me anymore.