The morning dawned bright and the heat built fast, ripping up the previous day’s rain from the ground in misty shreds. Steve told his folks that he was going to an all-night party with Rei. They told him to have a good time. If it had been anyone else, they might have made trouble, but in six years, Rei’s stock as a mild, responsible kid had grown solid.
Steve drove. He’d kept his black Mustang in good order, and not having anything better to do, he’d washed and waxed it up during the afternoon till it gleamed like jet. When he picked him up, Rei whistled appreciatively at it as he loaded in his sleeping bag and pack tent.
“She’s gonna love this.”
“What do you mean, ‘she’?” said Steve.
Rei got a cagy look and said, “You know, Tighe’s girlfriend, what’s-her-name.”
Steve felt his pulse tap below his ears. Rei was a terrible liar. For a moment, he thought he’d have it out, but he realized — given how he suddenly felt, so full of hope and longing that if he tried to eat anything he’d puke — he didn’t want to know what his stupid game really was. He couldn’t take the disappointment. “Yeah, okay. Whatever,” he said.
Tighe’s family lived off Division on the east side of the river, and Piper was already there, so after picking them up, he headed out the back way into Gresham through the rolling hills of Clackamas and Damascus. The broad, gorgeous face of Hood loomed around every turn. Rei bounced his foot up and down the whole way in the passenger seat, unusually nervous, and finally Steve said, “Either you know something you’re not telling me or you need to piss.”
“I drank a few Jolts before you got me. It’s the caffeine.”
Steve met Piper’s gaze in the rearview mirror and she gave him a dubious smile. “Well sit still,” he said. “You’re distracting me.” But the anger was a relief from nervousness. If he had to bottle himself any tighter, he’d break and go even spazzier than Rei.
They reached the country road to Shane-the-Student-President’s house about seven-thirty, turning down a long slope bordered by several-acre fields gone to seed, with here and there a large, ranch-style home. They turned away from the base of hill, and its shadow stretched down the road before them. Up ahead in the sun, lines of parked cars on either side dwindled off in perspective. The slope opened an excellent view to the east, and the face of Hood, just beginning to show pink, beamed across a thirty-mile gulf of estates, small towns, woods, and foothills. A breeze rippled through the grasses. In the ditches, blue-flowered stalks of lupine waved amid their palmate leaves. Steve had the window down, and the chirping of tree frogs and crickets swelled above the basso growl of the Mustang’s engine, and the warm air smelled of fresh-mown hay. It was Jane’s smell—after they’d rolled on the lawn in the heat. His heart spread a sad warmth. “Goodbye, Jane,” he murmured. “And thanks.”
He parked behind a sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle. A minute later, as they retrieved sleeping bags from the trunk, a jeep rolled up, and three pretty girls and a buff guy jumped out. One of the girls was thin, pale, and dark-haired, and Steve’s throat went tight, but the resemblance to Tess was superficial. She had compact, tight features. She couldn’t look sardonic if she tried. As she passed, she smiled and allowed her glance to linger, mistaking his attention for interest, and he smiled back feebly.
Tighe leaned in and whispered, “It’s gonna be a hot night, buddy.” Steve looked over at Rei, who didn’t say anything. His face was oddly flushed, even for the heat, and he made an obvious effort to keep it blank.
Shane’s house was a long, gray rambler seated well back from the road behind a broad stretch of lawn. Shane himself sat in a deck chair to the side of the house, at the head of a line of partygoers. A gangly kid in mirrorshades, with a blond buzzcut, he presided over a stack of airport tags, a mug full of pens and pencils, and a five-gallon bucket into which each driver relinquished his keys before passing by. They had to wait about a minute for the line to clear. Rei made introductions, but Shane merely nodded, distracted, as Steve filled out his personal info, tagged his keys, and dropped them to the bucket.
“Huh, he didn’t say anything to you guys,” said Rei.
“Probably because he trusts you so much,” Steve said with thick sarcasm, and Piper burst out laughing. Rei grew sullen. Steve had his sleeping bag draped on his shoulder like a serape, and he came over and gave Rei an awkward one-armed hug. “I’m just giving you shit, buddy,” he said. “Once we get some beer, I promise I’ll stop being such a prick.”
Rei grinned. “Oh, you just wait.”
“For what, Rei?”
But Rei closed down again, and his brows knit together.
* * *
The field behind the house stretched for several acres, and the tall grass had been mowed to a semblance of lawn in a half-acre square. A pit was dug deep in the middle, with stacked cordwood nearby. Beyond, a sea of tents filled the lower yard, almost to the end of the mowed area, and past that, the uncut grass waved feathery seed tips chest high, toward another estate far off.
A picnic table near the firepit held plastic cups and bags of chips, and a crowd had gathered at one end. Now and then a kid would shoulder his way out with a cup in each hand dripping foam.
Rei stopped and scanned the crowd. He looked frustrated. “Let’s go set up the tents, and then we’ll fight the idiots for the beer.”
* * *
They made camp in the light, and walked back under shadow, the sun a blazing crown sliding behind the hill. A house light sparkled under the hill’s brow like a dragon’s eye. Steve chatted with Piper and Tighe and watched a couple of meaty guys prepare the fire pit. Rei came back and put a beer in Steve’s hand. Within minutes, the beer started to hit him, and the inane talk and the fading light seemed to fit the inexorable turning of the world, sweeping them toward adventure, or more meaningless talk, or sleep. And it didn’t matter, because he felt indifferent and content. He’d let Rei keep the secret of his stupid surprise, whatever it was, because it obviously wasn’t happening. He could see that by the concerned expression on his face, and Steve felt a rush of condescending affection for silly old Rei. He left Piper and Tighe and ambled after him, but Rei asked him to stay put, and so Steve watched the sky and saw it purpling, and what was that, a star already? And Rei dropped another cup in his hand, and he drank it in one long pull and gave it back, and pretty soon, as if by magic, he looked down to see it had somehow gotten full again.
The fire leapt up, and the night tightened around the crowd and Steve walked up and stared into the dancing flames. The wood had the broad grain of old fir, and one of the chunks suddenly popped like a firecracker, scaring back a few onlookers. He scanned the faces, slack from drink, and he didn’t recognize a single one. There was a guy with brows like a caveman’s and his girlfriend seemed to have red hair and a little kid’s face and her mouth pulled back in a rictus smile at some joke and her teeth were small and almost all the same size so that they looked like the teeth in a zipper. And there was a honey-blond with sharp cheekbones and dark eyes to die for, and she stared off into the middle distance with an expression like curiosity, not for the outside world but for the thoughts in her head, and looming above her and giving Steve the serious stink-eye was a handsome athletic dude, his solid 110 IQ stamped on his proud forehead, and Steve gave him an apologetic shrug. Not far from him, close to the pit, there was the dark-haired girl he’d seen, and …
Tess was staring at him, Tess as a woman, her face longer and leaner than the last time they’d met, the intelligence blazing out of her dark eyes, dancing with flames, ardent, or sympathetic, or appraising. What was it? How was she here? Oh shit shit shit. He was drunk.
He stared and she stared back. He could feel all the nearby male faces turned toward her, magnetized, but her gaze didn’t waver. His heart beat in his ears. Longing and the strain of watching made his eyes water, and finally she gave him a sign. A single tear dripped down onto her cheek, and then her brows, those thick, expressive arches, rose, questioning or even imploring. And she turned away and pushed back through the crowd, while other people, eager for the fire, pressed forward. And he couldn’t be sure he’d seen her, and his chest and throat ached, and the tears streamed down his face. And what a pathetic son of a bitch he was.
“Tess!” He twisted between people, seeking space to move. “Tess!”
“Hey, watch it, dude!” Beer sloshed down his arm, but he’d gotten free, out into the grass and he looked this way and that, but he couldn’t see her; everything was so indistinct. He ran around the press gathered to the fire. “Tess!” He made a whole circuit. “Tess! For Christ’s sake!”
A hand touched his shoulder, and he turned, and there she was. She’d grown tall —taller — but his eyes were on a level with hers. Her hips had filled out some. She wore jeans that fit like paint, a dark blue blouse. Her luxurious black hair had been swept into the familiar ponytail. Her cheekbones were sharper, her nose a little longer, mouth full and beautiful. He dropped his gaze, self-conscious, and saw the necklace he’d given her, the final proof that it was really her, after all. Rei appeared and put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. Tess kissed Rei on the cheek, gave him a significant look, and he withdrew, chuckling into a cup of beer. A short blonde followed him, and Steve watched in surprise as Rei reached back and they joined hands.
Tess smiled at this, and her wet eyes glinted from the stray firelight. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“I’m drunk, Tess.”
She made a sound between a chuckle and a sob. “Anything but that.”
“I love you, Tess. I loved you the moment I saw you, and you gotta believe me, please believe me, that I love you.”
She stepped forward then, until their noses almost touched. A tear dripped between them, maybe hers. Then she threw her arms around him and buried her face into his shoulder and breathed deep, and at first he thought she might be crying, but then realized she was breathing him in, and he tried to hold the moment forever, and he felt the lean tightness of her body, her small firm breasts against his broad, hard chest, her hair — there always seemed to be that one loose strand — tickling his nose. And then she pulled back and found his mouth, and she kissed him, hungry and languid. He closed his eyes, and seemed adrift in a warm, trackless sea. A minute later, she slipped beside him and laid her head on his shoulder, and at some telepathic direction, he began to walk, over the fields, away from the fire, into a clear warm night spread with stars.
A sudden thought alarmed him. “You aren’t going away again, are you?”
“I’m transferring to the University of Oregon.”
“I’m going there.”
“I know, silly.”
“Just for me?”
She hugged him tight. “Rice wasn’t my scene. It’s cheaper, too, or will be when I get residency. I might take a year off and just hang out, get a job, find us an apartment.”
“You mean it?” he said. His head seemed abruptly clear.
“One time, I think you wondered if I’d give you a chance someday…”
“Is that what this is?” he asked. “My chance?”
“Steve O’Reilly, sometimes I wonder about your brain. Your chance? I was hoping it was mine.”
And they strolled past the tents, out into the cool high grass, and they lay down together and the Milky Way blazed above. “I have so much to tell you,” she said. “Will you listen? Will you still love me, after you’ve heard the worst?”
“I’d follow you to Barathrum if you were the devil’s own whore.”
She laughed. “Man, you are drunk, you silly gamemaster dude.”
And they talked and loved each other until morning broke over the fields.