Chapter 1: The Best Friend
Silence followed that question, and I could only assume Mary-Jane – because that was who Bertha had been talking to – was pointing or blushing or simply doing nothing, as she was wont to. I was back-facing them and didn't want to turn around. I had the feeling they exactly didn't like me. It would seem overly forward to intrude into their conversation.
After a moment, Bertha spoke again. "The new lifeguard? Good pick."
I almost dropped the tray I'd been holding. What the hell?
"Hey, you know him, don't you?" Bertha was suddenly by my side, leaning against the counter and studying me through the gobs of thick eyeliner she slapped on every day. Her gaze wasn't friendly, but it wasn't unfriendly either. "Maybe you can put in a good word for Mary-Jane here."
I shoved an empty tray back into the pile. "We... don't really talk."
"Really?" Bertha pursed her lips. "Shame... he's..." Then she grew silent, and I looked up to see what had caused that uncharacteristic behaviour. And groaned inwardly.
The aforementioned lifeguard - Dylan Ainsworth - had his elbows propped against the counter, and he was staring at me unsmilingly. His shirt was unbuttoned, showing off a broad strip of tanned skin and lean muscles. A part of me wondered if he'd done it on purpose. Then again, he'd probably just thrown it on before entering the diner. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been shirtless and sitting in the lifeguard chair on the beach just a few feet away. What drew my gaze, though, had nothing to do with his very fine body. It was the automatic chronograph watch on his left wrist. He was always wearing it – even when he was working as a lifeguard, because the watch had been made for diving purposes and was, quite naturally, water resistant.
"Tara," he greeted me softly. I marvelled at this anomaly. In the short time I'd been working here, he'd come in several times with his friends, but had never sought me out for anything more than a brief nod. Beside me, Bertha's eyes about popped out.
I cleared my throat. "Hi, Dylan."
"I'm hungry," he said.
"I kinda figured," I replied drily. "What do you want?"
He shrugged. "You know what I like."
Yes, I did know what he liked, but I didn't think he would want it right here, right now. He gave me a look that told me he knew what I was thinking, and I said, "Come back in five minutes."
I shrugged and turned away. Ignoring the vicious glares Bertha was sending me, I stuck my head into the kitchen at the back and hollered for a chicken and ham sandwich, with extra cheese and no olives. While waiting, I turned back to look towards the counter, where Bertha was trying her hardest to chat Dylan up.
"So, you're the new lifeguard they hired for the summer, huh? I've seen you come in here a couple times." I could've told her not to bother. Her flirtatious tone was wasted on him.
True enough, Dylan simply glanced at her, smiling distantly. This was what his smiles always looked like these days. Distant. "Oh?"
"I'm Bertha. I'm a full-time waitress here." Bertha smiled winningly at him. That smile had felled a couple of suckers in her time, but not this one.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Dylan." He dropped her hand pretty quickly after the handshake, as per his habit. One would think he had a phobia of skin-on-skin contact.
Hah. What a joke.
"You're in high school, aren't you?" She really was persistent; I'd give her that. Then again, it probably had something to do with his personality, that innate aura of indifference that surrounded him. He always seemed so uninterested in what was happening right in front of him that it made people want to try to reach out and grab his attention – to make him react, to break that smooth, impassive mask he usually had on. What they didn't realise was that their efforts tended to be wasted on him. Dylan had very clear ideas on what he did or did not care for, and not many things or people made the cut.
He smiled politely. "Tara and I just graduated." Bertha's smile widened, because this was the longest statement he'd contributed to the mostly one-sided conversation so far. But then he looked past her at me, and Bertha realised that she was losing his attention. As a last ditch effort at matchmaking, she pounced on Mary-Jane as the girl passed by.
"Hey, have you met Mary-Jane? She's a junior at St. Helen's." That was the prestigious private academy for girls on the other side of town. No wonder she was a wreck around Dylan. That, and she didn't seem to know a thing about Dylan's no-date rule, which had basically been common knowledge at Northridge.
"Hi," Dylan said, reaching out to shake Mary-Jane's trembling hand briefly. "I'm Dylan," he repeated politely, except I knew him, and I knew he was already mentally tuning out.
Mary-Jane was blushing to the roots of her hair. "Hi," she mumbled, before grabbing a tray and shooting off into the kitchen.
I frowned. She was like a nervous rabbit. Even under normal circumstances, she would never catch Dylan's attention that way.
A holler from the kitchen told me that Dylan's order was ready. I grabbed it and shoved it in his direction. "Here."
Dylan took the sandwich, his fingers wrapping around it with a slowness that was frustrating.
"Bye now," I said, just to get rid of him more quickly. He didn't take the hint.
"So..." He was still leaning over the counter, watching me. He didn't complete his sentence.
I glanced at the clock. It read two. Time always crawled when you were at work. Unless there was a long queue, and then suddenly all the hands you had weren't enough. "What do you want, Dylan?" I asked tiredly.
He just stared at me silently. I felt a tremor start up in the region of my stomach.
"Tonight," he said quietly.
"Dylan." There was now a warning in my tone. Just a few days ago, we had agreed that this dysfunctional relationship needed to end. And yet...
A big part of me was tempted. Very much tempted.
He held eye contact but I saw no hint of the pain he had to have been feeling, to issue that almost-invitation. Whatever he saw reflected in my eyes must have been answer enough, because he flashed a grim sort of smile before he turned and sauntered off. Despite myself, I watched him until he was out of sight. I couldn't have torn my eyes away if I'd had to. Judging from the sudden silence from behind me, neither could the rest of the waitresses.
Once she was also done watching him walk away, Bertha spoke up. "Don't talk, my ass."
"It's okay if you're with him, Tara. You didn't have to hide it," Mary-Jane, emerging from the kitchen now that the danger was over, piped up. She scurried off without looking at me.
"I..." About to insist that I wasn't with him, per se, I changed my mind and clamped my jaw shut. What did I need to explain myself for? My relationship with Dylan was none of their business. Besides, Mary-Jane was definitely not Dylan's type. He would get bored with her within the day.
An unfriendly silence settled over Bertha and me when she realised that I wasn't even going to pretend to make an excuse. It was so awkward, standing at the counter with her at the next register, that I was almost grateful when a couple came over to place their orders. Almost, because I recognised Rick Williams when he was just a few steps away. He met my eyes and balked, but it was already too late to turn back without incurring the suspicions of the girl beside him.
Rick cleared his throat when he reached me. "Uh, two hotdogs, please."
"Toppings?" My tone was indifferent – bored, almost.
"Mayo," he responded, relaxing a little when I didn't say anything else. The girl leaned up and whispered in his ear. Why didn't she just speak up? Under my sardonic gaze, he flushed and amended his order. "Uh... Make that one with mayo, and one plain."
I raised an eyebrow. Someone was over-dependent, was she?
But I verbalized none of that, just a, "Coming right up."
Rick paid, taking care to ensure that our fingers didn't touch. He was being so careful that it pissed me off, just a little. The hand he kept wrapped around his girlfriend's waist also pissed me off. Just a little.
When the hotdogs were done, I handed both to Rick. "Here you go," I said, and just because I felt like it, "Rick."
He glared at me.
"You didn't say you knew her, Ricky." The girl finally spoke up. Her voice was breathy and high, all feminine-like.
"Yeah, well... We had the same Calculus class last year, is all."
Liar. I was in all honours classes and had never shared a class with him. Ever.
I smiled nicely, "I thought we were in the same Biology class, too?"
Rick looked about ready to kill me. "I didn't take Bio," he said through gritted teeth.
I turned to his floozy, "Hi. I'm Tara."
"Melody," she said with a shy smile, shaking my hand. "It's nice to meet you."
"Oh, the pleasure's all mine," I said, and in a tone filled with a wealth of meaning, "I've heard so much about you."
The stupid girl was blushing. "Nice things, I hope?"
I flicked a glance at Rick, one side of my mouth curving up into a half-smile. "But of course."
"Let's go, babe," Rick said, handing the girl her hotdog and all but ushering her away.
"Bye!" I chirped brightly. Rick turned and glared at me again. I narrowed my eyes at him.
Of course, he would pretend not to know me. He'd been with his girlfriend, after all, and we hadn't exactly parted on the most amiable of terms. And now, seeing him again, I was pissed off.
In a demonstration of very bad decision-making behaviour, I'd let him stick his tongue down my throat at Mario Gonzalez's party at the beginning of summer. He might've gotten more from me, too, except I'd discovered that he had a girlfriend who had been off cruising in the Caribbean with her parents. It hadn't been one of my prouder moments – discovering that I had been an accomplice in helping him cheat. After that, I'd extracted myself with as much dignity as possible and hoped never to meet him again. Apparently my wish hadn't come true, but then they hadn't for a long time now.
My bad mood was obvious for the rest of my shift, and Bertha probably thought that it was directed at her – self-absorbed, much? – because she started scowling every time we crossed paths. And working in a small place like that – we crossed paths a lot. How I managed to keep from snapping at her I didn't know, but the moment the hour hand hit six, I was gone.
I passed by Dylan's house on my way home. It would've be a little difficult not to, considering the fact that we were practically neighbours. He lived just two doors down. It was clichéd, but our geographical proximity had been a huge factor in establishing our friendship as children. That, and our mutual love of mud and toy cars – one that my sister hadn't shared, which was why she hadn't been part of our twosome as kids. I hesitated at the gate, then strode past determinedly.
"I'm home," I said, when I unlocked the door and stepped in. The house was dark, but I knew she was home. She always was these days. When there was no reply, I flicked on the lights and meandered upstairs.
The master bedroom door was slightly ajar. I hesitated as I passed by, then resigned myself and slowly pushed it further open. I had to check. I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I hadn't checked and something had happened.
"You're back," my mother said, a little too late, a little too slowly. Her eyes were red as she stood unsteadily from the bed. The empty vodka bottles that littered the room spoke for themselves. She looked at me and then almost instantly looked away, like the sight of me had hurt her. I understood perfectly. The sight of me hurt me. There was a moment of silence in which she looked bewildered, as if trying to remember what a mother should do. "Have you had dinner?"
"Yeah," I lied. "I'll just be in my room." Without waiting for a reply, I headed down the corridor. I had a chocolate stash in my drawer – tonight's dinner would have to be that. For a moment, I wondered if I should have gone to Dylan's, after all. His parents were never home, so Dylan had learnt to cook. There would have been dinner at his house.
Dylan showed up a little after seven. The doorbell rang twice, which meant that it could only have been him. Nobody else ever visited anymore. When neither my mother nor I paid it any heed, I knew he would try the door handle and find it unlocked. I had probably been anticipating his arrival subconsciously. I waited until I heard footsteps sound along the hall outside – I counted twenty-four in total. Then came the knock at my door.
"Come in," I sighed.
The door swung open. "You didn't come," Dylan said, poised at the doorway as if unsure whether he was welcome.
"I know," I said. I didn't give an explanation, and he didn't ask for one. He moved forward, and, when I showed no signs of resistance, stepped into my room entirely. I watched him shut the door and blurted, "Mary-Jane is interested in you."
He stopped and slowly turned to look at me. "Mary-Jane?"
"You met her today... remember? Petite, long blonde hair..."
He cut me off. "Tell her I'm not interested."
I remembered the look of scorn on Bertha's face and the tone of reproach barely detectable in Mary-Jane's voice. "Tell her yourself."
It was Dylan's turn sigh. "I don't want to date, Tara." Left unspoken were the words 'anyone else'.
"I know," I said. It had been that way for close to a year now, and I was reminded of the reason every single day.
We both stood watching each other. "What's wrong?" Dylan said, after a long pause. He had always been so damned perceptive when it came to my moods. I still wasn't sure if that was a curse or a blessing.
"Ah, screw it," I finally muttered, striding up to him and grabbing him by the collar. Then I yanked his head down and kissed him fiercely. I knew he had been waiting for it, because he reacted instantly, his hands reaching up to cup my face as he kissed me back.