The next day, Jen came into the bookstore. It was my last shift of the summer, and the owner had gone for the day.
The Book Nook was a small store in the center of town that sold used and new books. It had a sort of musty smell to it. The carpets were beige Berber that were worn down and permanently gray. The store had been there for twenty years, started by the current owner’s father. Mr. Robinson Junior was a kindly man, portly, short, and single. He spent every morning at the bookstore and left me to tend it during summer afternoons. I had often wondered where he went and what he did during those afternoons. Bingo? Golf? Horse racing? He never said and I never worked up the pluck to ask.
It had all started my last year of junior high. I made a habit of browsing his store for cheap paperback books whenever I was in town with my parents for errands. He got used to seeing me there, and one day when I was in browsing he asked if I wanted a summer job. As a result, I had been his summer help through four years of high school. In the afternoons it was my responsibility to bring the books that were arranged on a table outside on the sidewalk into the store, cash the register out, lock the doors, and walk the deposit, if there was one, to the bank next door. I could read all I wanted, as long as I kept an eye on the front of the store.
I imagined I would have my job back the following summer, when I would be home from college, but Mr. Robinson Junior and I had not discussed that.
That afternoon was slow, and the shop was empty. I was sitting behind the counter reading a Riordan novel, trying to escape the previous night’s jolt. The image of Eva on the boat launch had been persistent in my mind, causing my heart to skip a beat every time I remembered it.
“Hey, Rowan,” Jen’s crisp voice startled me out of my book and into the present as she came through the door, ringing the little brass bell that hung there.
“Hey.” I put the book down. I didn’t feel happy so I didn’t smile. Definitely no need to keep up appearances with Jen.
“Ready for school?” She sounded sarcastic.
“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I guess so. Mom seems to have it all under control. There’s a mountain of crap in my room. I have no clue how she expects to transport everything. No doubt she has a plan.”
Jen grinned. “I hear you. My mother’s already got everything but the kitchen sink in the van. We’re bringing my little brother to carry it all.”
Jen was going to Johnson and Wales, a small professional school in Rhode Island, where she planned to study the hospitality industry. It was a perfect course of study for her. With an excess of energy, a social temperament, and a matter-of-factness about her, I had no doubt she would be successful.
I, on the other hand, was without direction. I looked at the counter, feeling sorry for myself.
“Remember the time we all went up to Hampton in the Banana Boat?” she asked.
Her parents’ yellow VW van. The Banana Boat.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. Jen and Keith, Eva and Rob, me and Marc, Ronnie and Mike. We went up to Hampton Beach one Friday night in early May, as a kind of birthday celebration for Jen, Eva, Ronnie and me. The beach was about an hour northeast of where we lived, a place frequented by people who lived in southern New Hampshire. The beaches there were nice, and there was plenty to do. Shopping, restaurants, arcades for the younger kids.
At dinner, Keith, Rob, Mike, and Marc sang Happy Birthday to us; we were all turning eighteen within a few days of each other. My birthday was thethird. Eva’s was theninth, Ronnie’s was thetwelfth, and Jen’s was thenineteenth. The matter of our shared birth month was a kind of joke because my sister Kori was born in early May as well, on theseventh, and Beth, Marc’s sister and our friend, was born thefifteenth. As a final irony, when Eva discovered this synchronicity, she revealed that her sister, Celeste, was also a May baby, born thefourteenth of the month. And so we called ourselves the seven sisters, all Taurus girls, like the Pleiades.
“Anybody want ice cream?” Eva asked after we’d eaten.
“We’re going for a walk. You guys go have ice cream. We’ll meet you in an hour,” Jen said, taking Keith’s hand. Keith raised his other hand in feigned helplessness and followed her off in the direction of the sand dunes.
Eva looked at the rest of us, a playful smile on her face. “Poor Keith,” she said mirthfully. “What’s it going to be? The beach or ice cream?” she asked, likely guessing our response. I looked at Marc, who didn’t answer or indicate a preference.
“The beach. I’m full,” I said, smiling. “An hour. What’s that? 10:00?” Rob looked at his watch.
“All rightee, then. See you in an hour!” I called over my shoulder as I pulled Marc in the direction Jen and Keith had gone, leaving the four of them to their decision. When we got to the beach, we took our shoes off to walk along the water, not worrying whether Eva, Ronnie, Mike, and Rob had gone to have ice cream or were off playing in the dunes.
An hour later, Marc and I made our way back to the meeting place, still shaking sand out of our hair and clothes. Jen and Keith arrived just after we got there, equally uncomfortable.
“The price you pay,” Jen said, as she shook sand out of her shoe.
But no Eva, no Ronnie. No Mike, no Rob.
They didn’t come.
“Let’s walk and see if we can spot them,” Jen said. “Maybe they lost track of time.” We started to walk, looking for them. 11:00 came and we still hadn’t found any of our missing friends. We were starting to feel worried, so I approached a police officer.
“Excuse me, officer?” I asked. The officer was red-faced and portly. He had a nightstick hanging from his belt. He turned to look at me, chin lifted as he peered past his bulbous nose.
“We’re looking for our friends. We’ve looked up and down the boardwalk and can’t find them. I’m a little worried that maybe something’s happened. I wondered if you could help us?”
“I’m not sure what you want me to do. How long have they been missing?” he asked, looking at my friends suspiciously.
“About an hour,” I answered.
“They’d have to be gone longer than that,” he laughed. “Maybe they’re off walking the beach.” I shook my head no. “I guess I could radio into the station and see if there’ve been any reports,” he said with a sigh. “What do they look like?”
I described Eva and Ronnie as best I could. Blonde, medium height and weight, wearing a pink skirt and shoes; dark hair and big brown eyes, wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt with a kitty face on it. And Marc described Rob, tall, dark hair and eyes, thin frame, glasses; and Mike, medium height and build, light brown hair, khaki pants.
We waited while the police officer radioed into the Hampton police station from his cruiser, which was parked nearby. He came back from his car, his nightstick swinging as he walked toward us.
“There are some kids that fit your descriptions at the station. Eva Verdano and Rob Johnston. Those your friends?” he asked.
“Yes!” I answered, relieved to have found them, but confounded at their whereabouts. “And Ronnie and Mike?” I asked.
“There are four kids there, but I only got two names.”
“Why are they at the police station, sir?” I asked.
“They prevented a robbery earlier,” he answered, his expression registering more respect than he’d shown previously.
Marc, Jen, Keith, and I exchanged looks of confusion.
“Prevented a robbery?” Marc asked.
“Yes. At an ice cream stand earlier, apparently. Don’t know the details, but you can pick them up at the station. I think they’ve finished giving their report.”
We thanked him and drove the Banana Boat to the police station. There we found Eva, Ronnie, Mike, and Rob drinking soda and having a good laugh in the waiting room.
Rob had chocolate ice cream all over his shirt and pants. Eva, Ronnie, and Mike still looked clean and intact.
“What have you guys been up to?” Jen demanded when we came in.
“Rob fell on top of some guy who was trying to rob the ice cream stand,” Eva said laughing.
“I didn’t fall on him,” Rob said. “He hit me.”
The story came out. Rob had just ordered a chocolate ice cream cone for Eva and a sundae for himself, and was turning to bring it to where she was sitting at a picnic table with Ronnie and Mike, when the would-be robber jumped the counter and took cash from the open register. The clerk was busy putting the money Rob had given him into the register and didn’t see the attack coming.
The thief secured the cash and jumped back over the counter, but Rob had turned to see what the commotion was about and stood in the attacker’s way. He plowed into Rob, knocking both ice creams into Rob’s shirt and Rob to the ground.
Rather than letting the attacker past him, Rob grabbed the attacker’s shoe as he stepped over Rob’s head, leaving the thief with one sneaker. The attacker kept going, and Rob jumped up, sneaker in hand, and chased him. There was a policeman in a nearby arcade who heard all the yelling, and came out in time to see Rob running up the street, still holding the sneaker, and the young man running from him, one foot bare. They caught the young man and asked Rob and his friends to come to the station to file a report.
Truly, Jen, Marc, Keith, and I felt like we’d missed something good. Months later, standing in the bookshop sharing the story, we were laughing.
“Crazy,” Jen said, shaking her head. “That was something.”
“Yeah, really it was,” I said. We sat together for a minute with our memory, not speaking, shaking our heads.
“I wanted to say goodbye,” she said. “I’m on break. Today’s my last day at the insurance office,” she said.
I realized that we hadn’t really spent any time together since the accident. “I’m sorry we haven’t seen each other much this summer,” I said, looking at the counter.
“I know. No excuses either, except that we’ve both been busy.”
I looked up from the counter. Her big green eyes were fixed on mine. She was right. We’d been caught up with school preparation, our summer jobs, our boyfriends. Jen worked a block away at Donnelly’s insurance company. It made it easy to jump back and forth between offices on breaks, but we hadn’t been doing that.
“I know it’s been a rough summer. You were closer to her than anybody. I still can’t believe this whole thing.”
She pulled a spare stool up to the counter.
“You have a roommate at UNH yet?” she asked.
“Apparently,” I said. “The school called this week to say they had assigned someone to our room,” I frowned, not sure what that would be like.
As if she were reading my mind she said, “It’ll be all right. Don’t worry.”
“You around tonight?” I asked, hoping she would grab an ice cream with me after work.
“No. Keith is taking me out. That’s why I came by, I’m leaving tomorrow.” She leaned over and hugged me. “Call me when you get to school,” she said.