"Stop," she said, laughing. "God."
From outside, we could suddenly hear more feedback, followed by booing. "Hopefully, they're cutting that set short," Ted said. "Would anyone else like to perhaps, I don't know, get ready for our show?"
"No," the redhead said.
"Absolutely not," the other guy added.
Ted glowered at them. Then he put down his beer on the table with a clank, walked to the door, and pulled it open. Once he was out in the hallway, he slammed it behind him. Hard.
The redhead threw down his cards. "Gin!" he said, lifting his hands over his head in a victory salute. "Finally!"
"Aw, man," the other guy said. "I was close, too."
"Off," Remy said, and Dexter disentangled himself from her lap, getting to his feet. In the process, he dropped his phone again. This time, though, the battery stayed put.
"Ted's right," he said, although Ted was now gone. "We should get organized. Owen, you guys sticking around after?"
Owen glanced at me. "Sure," he said.
"Cool. We'll catch up with you then, all right?"
Then, everyone was suddenly in motion: Dexter sliding his phone into his pocket, the redhead pushing out his chair while the other guy gathered up the cards. Owen led me back into the hallway, where we passed Ted, who was leaning against the wall, still looking annoyed. Owen told him to have a good show as we passed, and he mumbled something in return, but I couldn't make it out.
On the way back to our booth, I glanced over at Clarke's table. She was still there, looking at the stage, but Rolly was gone. Oh well, I thought. I tried.
"All right," Owen said as we sat down. From the stage, I could hear the openers winding up their set. "Now comes the real music. You'll like this."
I nodded, leaning back against the wall and tucking a piece of hair behind my ear. When I glanced over at Owen, he was staring at me. "What?" I said.
"Okay," he said. "Something is up with you. What's going on?"
I froze. Here it was, the direct question. Maybe I could answer. Just say something, spit it out, finally. Maybe—
"I mean," he said, "when have you ever just assumed you'll like what I like? This could be Ebb Tide Two about to come on here. You have a fever or something?"
He was smiling as he said this, and I tried to smile back. Deep down, though, I could suddenly feel the weight of all my withholding, so many lies and omissions.
"I'm fine," I said as someone played a few guitar chords. "Stop distracting me. I need to concentrate on the music."
The crowd was huge now, much bigger than for the previous band, and pretty soon all I could see was backs and shoulders. Owen got to his feet. "You should stand up," he said.
"I'm okay," I said.
"Part of seeing a band live is actually seeing them," he said. And then he held out his hand.
Ever since I'd left the mall I'd been trying to forget about what had happened between me and Emily on the runway. But looking up at Owen, it all came back. Not just the day that led up to this, but all the ones since he'd done this the first time, offering not only his hand but a friendship that had saved me. I'd been so alone and scared and, yes, angry, and somehow Owen had seen it, even when everyone else had chosen to look away and act like it wasn't happening. Just like I'd done, and was doing, to Emily tonight.
He was still holding out his hand. Waiting.
"I'm, um, going to go to the bathroom," I said, pushing off the wall and out of the booth. "I'll be back in a second."
"Wait," he said, dropping his hand. He glanced at the stage. "The band's coming on…"
"I know. I'll be right back."
Then I started walking before he could say anything else. Mostly because I couldn't bear to lie again. But also there was that sourness in my mouth, something rising up. I had to get out of there.
The crowd was impossibly thick now, body after body in my way as I tried to get to the door. Meanwhile, Truth Squad started with a song that, judging by the amount of people who immediately began to sing along, a lot of the crowd knew; the lyrics had something to do with potatoes.
I kept pushing on, moving sideways through a crowd of people all facing forward, just one profile after another after another, some turning slightly, annoyed as I pushed past, others ignoring me entirely. Finally, the crowd began to thin. I was almost to the door when someone grabbed my arm.
"Annabel!" It was Rolly. He was smiling, his grin wide, and carrying an armful of bottled waters. "I'm in!"
I just looked at him as the crowd suddenly burst into cheers and applause. "What?"
"In," he said, holding up a water. "I went to get her a drink, even. It's working! Finally, it's really happening! Can you believe it?"
He was so happy, his face flushed. "That's great," I managed. "Actually, I was just—"
"Here," he said, cutting me off. He stuck one of the waters it in his shirt pocket, another under his arm, and then handed me the remaining two. "For you and Owen. Tell him I said he was right. About everything. Okay?"
I nodded, then he flashed me a thumbs-up and was gone. As I watched him disappear into the crowd, I wished I'd thought to give him a message for Owen, as well. I looked across the crowd, knowing he was somewhere on the other side, waiting for me. But now the distance seemed so vast and impossible, too much in between. So with my mouth sour and palms wet, I headed for the door.
Once outside, the cold air hit me like a smack, gravel crunching beneath my feet as I left the building behind me. It was all too familiar, this bubbling up inside me, my throat burning, never enough time to get away. I barely made it to my car before I was dropping to my knees, the waters spilling to the ground as I smoothed my hair back with my hand. This time, though, as I felt my stomach clench, my body retch, nothing came up. All I could hear was the raspy sound of my own breathing, my heart thumping in my ears, and in the distance, barely audible but still somehow playing, music.
"Okay," my mother said, loosening a cart from the row in front of the automatic doors. She set her purse in the front, then pulled out her list, unfolding it. "Here we go."
It was the second week of December, and we were at Mayor's Market, where I'd been recruited to help with the grocery shopping for Kirsten's homecoming dinner. It was not something I was all that excited about, unlike my mother, who was in full-on holiday mode. But still, as she pushed the cart toward the doors, smiling at me, and they slid open, I tried my best to smile back. It was all about trying, these days.