I darted forward, knocking my hand against the back of Owen’s knee as he turned for a moment. He went down, but caught himself, shaking his head.
That was the old Charlie. I did annoying stuff like that, but it was payback this time.
I glared as I tried to keep breathing. Nostrils, open on my command.
“You fuckers,” I finally managed.
They bent over in laughter. Hadley was leaning on Owen’s arm.
“The look on your face.” She pointed at me.
I whipped out a hand, knocking it aside. “What’s your favorite sexual position—” I caught myself. “Please don’t answer that.”
She just pointed again and smiled. “We never do. We ignore your questions.”
Years of friendship here. We were past what was polite. It was like the eight-year absence never existed, and then I was laughing too. I mean, I was trying not to think about who was out there—and maybe now standing in the front office’s hallway—because if I did, it’s straight to the language of the Arguchamites.
“What’s going on?” came another voice from the kitchen. There was an attached doorway between the two.
I didn’t even look at Trent. He’d been in on it too.
“She found out who the campers are,” Owen reported.
“Oh.” Trent laughed. “That’s fucking awesome.” He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees and raised his voice. “Can you hear me, Charlie?”
I glared at him. “If everyone was deaf, would anyone speak?”
“She started hyperventilating.”
I shot Hadley a dark look. I was still hyperventilating. There were birds in the room. Goddamn birds.
One of them flew through Trent’s head. He didn’t notice. It came out the other side.
A cocky smirk tugged at his mouth. “Live, Charlie. Live. Are you going to live? Do I need to give you a motivational talk on how to soothe your inner fan?”
I punched him in the stomach.
He dropped. “Oomph.”
Owen and Hadley started laughing all over again.
“Can animals besides parrots and elephants dance?” spilled out of me.
I couldn’t think about who was in the hallway. If I did, the walls in my brain started bending and everything flipped upside down. So therefore, we had normal, wealthy-prick campers out there. I was just here to waste some time, write a little for a novel I’d probably never finish, and deal. I was here to deal. That was it.
As I repeated that, I felt myself calm down.
I could breathe normally. My chest wasn’t threatening to cave in.
I started feeling my feet and legs again, enough where I could stand up.
My three A-hole friends all stopped laughing and moved forward, their hands out to catch me. I was tempted to flip them off. That’s the least they deserved for laughing at me in my moment of stupidity.
“You better now?”
Aw, Hadley. She was nice, and tenderhearted.
Trent snorted. “You mean is she more sane now?” He gently rapped his knuckles against my head. “Did you scramble these tonight?”
Hadley started laughing.
I take back the tenderhearted part.
Owen lifted his shoulder, knocking it back in place. I swear, that wasn’t even about his injury anymore. It was his “we need to get going” signal. That or his “I’m uncomfortable; let’s change the subject” signal.
We all did—the two other A-holes quieted too.
“If they’re all here, we should start checking that the food’s still heated.”
On cue, we all moved.
Hadley and Owen went to the kitchen to do their thing.
Trent went out the regular office door. I didn’t know what he was doing, but I figured it had to do with the job he’d been hired to do here. And me? My job didn’t start—well, shit. I didn’t know. Tonight? Tomorrow morning?
I went to the kitchen.
Owen was checking the thermometers.
“Do I open the courts tonight?”
“Yeah. I think so.” He was distracted, going through all of the steam drawers. “Keith didn’t say?”
Hadley came from the dishwashing area carrying two serving spoons that were still wet from being cleaned. She waved them in the air, helping them air dry. “He mentioned that after dinner they’d do the opening reception with Trent,” she said. “Then maybe they’d all want to congregate on the courts after.”
No way I was going to ask Keith about this directly. “You’re thinking I should open it after the welcome ceremony and close it at midnight?”
Owen pop-locked his shoulder back. “Yeah. I think that’s a good idea. You can close them if no one shows up.”
I clipped my head in a nod. I almost saluted him—I was that grateful he hadn’t told me to go to Keith.
I glanced around.
I was still pretending I didn’t know who was filling up the cafeteria, but we were all hearing their voices.
“What can I do to help?” I asked.
Owen was already moving around me toward the door.
Hadley eyed me. “Are you going to be okay? Got your question habit in check?”
I nodded. “I’m working on it. I used to have it in check.”
She nodded. “You always did like the dishes?”
It was said as a question, but also a suggestion. And she was right.
There was a whole mess of dishes already there, asking me to clean them. I could hear their voices. “Charlie. Wash us. Make us shine again. Pleeease.”
Okay, that was creepy, but there’s something about holding a power washer in your hand and aiming at any surface you want to punish.
The window to the cafeteria was open, where the dishes would be stacked, but I wasn’t paying attention. I wouldn’t pay attention. Walls. I needed them up and erect in my brain. I reached for that powerful nozzle.
The handle felt like it’d been waiting for me all these years. I almost heard it saying, “Welcome back, my little Charlie.”
And I smiled.
There was Garth Carzoni.
I almost fell into the dishwasher.
I should’ve stopped gawking, but I couldn’t.
The randoms were bouncing in my head, though I’d put a block on them. Every time I felt one coming, I bit down on my lip. I’m pretty sure I was bleeding, but what else could a slightly stalkerish-girl do to keep sane?
And ignore the one player I’d probably pee myself if I saw. I couldn’t handle knowing whether he was here, so he was locked in that special place in my mind.
They had all eaten, and Keith and Trent were at the front giving everyone the run-down on the campgrounds and rules. I knew this routine. When they stepped away, the coaches would step up and continue with whatever needed to be said.
After that, I didn’t know.
But until they took off, my inner basketball fan was melting down inside.
I made a weird-sounding gurgle. It started as a sigh, but I caught myself and barked out an alien something again. I wasn’t sure what it was.
I couldn’t breathe. My heart nearly stopped working as he leaned over and whispered something to Matthew Crusky.
Matthew Crusky, everyone! The Cruskinator. The Cruskimachine.
Double-down on the weird alien sigh.
I sagged again, but grabbed for the sink and caught myself.
Look away. Brain walls. Brain walls. They needed to be erect.
Standing upright and ready.
I felt my knees going.
I couldn’t stop myself.
I went back to my stalker/gawking mode.
The crowd surges to their feet and gives a standing ovation. Ahhhh. Ahhhhh.
And he was sitting next to Juan Cartion.
Juan Cartion. Juan the Speedster Cartion! His other nickname was the Chia Pet because his hair would frizz up during every game. The announcers loved teasing him about it. He wasn’t the Chia Pet here, though. His hair had been slicked down and combed to the side. He was the shooting guard, and—I was about to embark into Pure Insanity Mode, so I had to guard myself, ram up the shields—he was Reese Forster’s best friend.
My mouth dried up, just thinking of him, thinking his best friend was in the room. His best friend was twenty feet from me.
Me. From me!
“Settle down, Cherry Popper.”
“Cherry Popper?” I turned around and raised an eyebrow. “Are you using reverse psychology on me? Hoping I’ll want to pop your cherry.”
Trent laughed. “I was hoping for projection. I’m projecting my fantasies onto you.”
I snorted. “Hate to break it to you, but my cherry was popped long agooo…oo…oh shit.”
Keith stood on the other side of the dish window, a scowl on his face.
The dirty bastard was going to take it and run. I knew how he worked.
But he just grunted, waving that B-oss mug in the air. “Trent, we’re going to start.”
Damn. He was all business. I was slightly disappointed… Slightly. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself.
But I couldn’t help it. “Hey, Keith?”
He paused and looked back.
“If you needed to confess one sin to save your life, what would it be?”
“Keep it up, Charlie. We have other alumni staff we can call.” He turned away.
“Oh yeah? How many of them can ask you—” A hand clapped over my mouth.
“Keep walking, Boss,” Trent called. “I got her handled.”
No one handled me.
Well, except Trent just now, and I needed it.