From the moment that Robert tells me about Alycia, my thoughts can hardly stray from her. As I let him know that I understand, my thoughts are already reeling. What does she look like now? Why hadn't she contacted me before? Where had she gone? Why did she leave? Does she still remember me? Does she still remember our kiss?
My mind is elsewhere as I finish up for the night at the store. Manny meets me after counting the tills and changing into his favorite torn jeans and a green Abercrombie polo. I barely hear him come in and pay no attention to his speech for the evening plans as I remember Alycia's easy smile and confidence. She was like no other ten year-old girl that I knew at the time.
"You listening bro?" Manny is asking me, slapping my back a couple of times to get my attention.
I shake my head, clearing away my thoughts before looking back at him. "No, sorry," I say quickly grabbing a yellow t-shirt with a surf board on the front out of my locker. "What's up?"
Manny looks irritated for a split second before jumping back into his story. "Kylie stopped by," he says, winking.
"I know," I laugh and take off my shirt, feeling my back muscles tense from the day. "I saw."
"Great, then that means you know we have plans for the night?"
"Damn straight I do," I say while reapplying some deodorant. I put the clean shirt on and look in the small locker mirror. My curly hair is impossible to tame.
"So, I was thinking," Manny says, sitting down on the wooden bench in front of the lockers, "maybe we could go for a bit, you know make an appearance, and then see what else is happening tonight."
I nod, trying to tame some of the wilder curls with some gel.
"You can call Angela and get her to invite her friends... unless they already know about the barbecue, and we can end the night at your parents' hot tub."
I turn around after shoving my gel back in my bag. "You've really thought this through," I smile slowly. "You crushing on one of Angela's girls?"
Manny gives me a knowing look and I shrug, closing the locker tightly before we head out. Since the store is so close to his place, Manny always leaves his car at his place when he has to work, so I welcome the sense of walking after being cooped up for long hours of the day. When we get to his house, I drop my bag off in his room, while he applies the finishing touches to his appearance before heading out again.
His dad is watching some old football match on T.V. with a beer and some chips. I've always respected Mr. Lopez because he runs the store like it's a breeze and has a family that he can be proud of. He never shows anyone any disrespect, so no one has the right to not respect him. He has Manny's blond hair and his medium height build, but that's where the similarities end. While Manny is outgoing, determined, and outspoken, his dad is decided, quiet, and respectful.
"Watching a good one, Mr. Lopez?" I ask before sitting down on the couch beside his LA-Z Boy Recliner.
"The best," he smiles warmly at me. I can smell food cooking in the kitchen and I close my eyes for a brief moment, taking in the scent of my heritage. "Smells good, huh?"
"Yeah," I smile and wipe back the hair from my eyes. "What's Linda making tonight?"
"The best damn pork in this town," he says and we both laugh almost simultaneously.
The front door opens and Mr. Lopez looks up at someone standing behind me. I turn and see Manny's twin sister Gabriella. She's always been pretty, but being my best friends little sister (he's ten minutes older) makes it too awkward to think of her in any other way. She smiles warmly at me before heading up to her room.
"Where you headed Ella?" Mr. Lopez yells up the stairs after muting the game.
"To a barbecue dad," she says, peering over the upstairs landing. "Everyone's going to be there." Before letting her dad respond, Ella is gone into her bedroom. "You going to this thing?"
"Yes sir," I respond. "It should be fun."
He eyes me quietly.
"No drinking, no drugs, no sex," I say dutifully.
"Good," he says and smiles. "I trust you boys."
Ella is back downstairs within a minute or two and she puts a plastic bag on the coffee table. "I forgot to tell you daddy," she says before turning around, "Robert Fuentes"--I flinch--"says that they will be in by tomorrow and if they aren't in to tell him so all hell can break loose."
Mr. Lopez nods. "Thanks baby," he looks down at the bag that Ella has put on the table.
"Mom said you needed some things, so I got them when I went to the stores," she kisses him on the cheek quickly before turning to leave. "I won't be back late!"
Angela meets me and Manny at the beach with several of her friends, who are talking non-stop with Manny. I have my arm swung loosely around Angela's shoulders, feeling her long black hair brushing softly on my forearm, and we're all about to go to where the coolers are to get some drinks when I hear someone calling me. Angela takes my hand off her shoulders and yells to her friends that they should wait a minute. She's wearing a beautiful red summer dress that highlights her curves.
"I'm going to go see if anyone else from our group is here," she smiles up at me as I search for whoever is calling me. "I'll see in you a bit, okay?"
I nod and she kisses me gently. Her lips taste like coconuts, my favorite.
There are so many teens here from school that it is enough to give me a headache. Guys with dates and others that are shirtless or drunk walk past me, patting me on the shoulder as a way of greeting. Behind me, Manny is telling one of Angela's friends about the time we went surfing and thought that a shark was close by. The memory of that time always makes me feel uneasy.
I finally spot Ella, who is waving her hand frantically and calling my name. She stops as soon as she sees that I've noticed her and her smile is bright across the sand. She is with her two best friends, Anna and Joanna, as well as with a new girl that I don't recognize. I wonder what her urgency is to get my attention, but as soon as Ella stops calling to me, the new girl turns her face away.
Even from here I can see her green eyes, tanned skin, and brilliantly long blond hair. She is petite, five-foot-three or four, at the most. It feels like forever when the idea finally clicks in my head and I remember everything in one large burst.
Overhearing my parents the week after our kiss. Mom telling dad that Alycia's mom had done something extreme. At the time, I was worried about Alycia. I was scared that she wasn't okay, that she needed me.
I remember knocking on the door for what felt like hours, until my parents found me. That was the only time I cried for Alycia being gone. I walked past her old house whenever I went to school and came back home that year. I always wanted to knock again, but I was afraid that the reminder of her not answering would hurt twice as much as before. My best friend was gone and as a kid, I could do nothing about it.
Now Alycia stands almost in front of me, separated by a dozen or so people who are now strangers to her. From the quick glimpse that I catch of her before her quickly turning away, I see that she's changed. Her face is older, not as optimistic or naive. One thing is certain though, she's still beautiful.
I think of all of this for a second before turning away quickly, wanting to leave the shoreline as soon as possible. Behind me, Manny senses my panic and abruptly leaves his conversation. Out of the corner of my eye I see him turn back to his sister, who is now talking again with her friends. And Alycia.
"What's wrong, man?" he asks, finally catching up with me.
"I need to leave," I respond.
"I have to go."
"But we just got here," he argues, signalling to someone behind me.
"What's up?" Angela touches my shoulder and I flinch. She puts her hand down and looks at me hurt. "Sorry. Are you alright, Dyl?"
I look at her, wondering if I should tell her. "Don't call me that," I say instead.
"What's wrong with you?" she asks and I can hear the hurt in her voice.
"I'm sorry," I say quietly. "I just need to leave."
"Dyl," she says and then sighs. "Dylan, what's wrong? You can talk to me."
I shake my head and kiss her cheek quickly. "I'm sorry, I can't."
I leave my friends behind and make my way up past the sand dunes and beach grass, towards my house.