Saturday mid-morning found the sky without a cloud. A hot sun burned a yellow hole in the rich blue background, promising thunderstorms by late afternoon if the heat kept up. The corner parking lot of Dangerous Dan's Used Cars was marked by little red and yellow plastic flags on a string that ran from light pole to light pole, giving the school car wash the feel of a circus. A four foot mock blimp, and a number of colorful balloons hovered fifty feet above the asphalt in an effort to catch driver's attention. That was also the job of the girls at the stop light who wore jean shorts and bikini tops and held a sign proclaiming: ALL-STATE GIRLS' CARWASH-$5.
The older model Hyundais, Fords, and Buicks had been parked to the side, leaving a large area now covered with hoses, buckets and lots of white foam, as skinny girls wearing their wet swim suits struggled to scrub, polish and shine the cars that lined up for the five dollar wash. Most of the time the process included a water fight, or a bucket brigade, the general chaos kept under control enough to be fun for all, even on-lookers like Phen.
A rumor swept through the kids that during a private party inside the Magic Kingdom the night before someone had vandalized It's A Small World and that the ride would be closed for a week or more.
Phen stood away from the water with his friend Willard Cole who had taken the occasion to borrow one of his father's Hawaiian shirts. Several sizes too large, even for the robust Willard, the shirt hung on him like a tent, and Phen thought he looked stupid wearing it.
At once, Phen spotted her. She'd been at the table collecting the money all this time, which explained to him how he'd missed her in the first place. Phen had been distracted watching the wet washers, but now Jez was one of them. She kicked off her pair of shorts—she wore a dark purple one-piece Speedo—and jumped right into the middle of a water fight that had broken out by a Volvo. Suds flew. Girls giggled. Slowly but surely the car was hosed down, scrubbed and dried. It was then, and only then, as dripping wet, her hair slicked back and her tight suit clinging to her, that Jez glanced over at Phen, aiming her gray eyes at him like the pirate had aimed the laser.
"Woah!" Willard remarked, once Jez had gone back to cleaning. "Did you see the look she just gave us?"
"Us?" Phen asked.
"Looked like us to me."
"It was me, you moron. She's who invited me."
"But look at her!" Willard said, a little loudly. "She could be a junior or senior."
Willard's jaw dropped. "And she invited you? What's up with that?"
Phen slugged him in the arm, and none too gentle.
"She must have half the high school trying to date her!"
"Drop it, would you?"
"This is some kind of joke, man. I mean you are being so set-up. Get a clue, Sherlock. A girl with that body is going to invite you to a wet swim suit contest? I don't think so!" Willard's next comment was "OUCH!" as Phen hit him in the exact same spot for a second time.
The next time Jez looked over, Phen felt it to his toes.
"Oh... my... gosh..." Willard said, for that time he saw that Jez meant the look only for Phen. "One thing to consider here," he said, his voice a little strained. "She is a girl."
"And you're saying that counts against her?" Phen inquired. "I don't think so."
"Since when do you like girls?"
"Since he met me," came the voice from behind the two.
Phen spun around to find himself face to face with Amanda. She wore a white T-shirt and blue jean cut-offs, and Phen could see she wore a colorful top to a swim suit beneath the shirt.
"Hey, Amanda," Phen said.
Willard tried to say hello, but a frog caught in his throat. He'd never been much around girls.
Amanda dug into the pocket of what turned out to be very tight-fitting jeans, and pulled out several bills. She handed Willard one dollar. "Willy," she said, a little coyly, Phen thought, "would you might getting me an orange soda?"
"No… no… no…" he stuttered. "Happy to."
Phen slapped a dollar into Willard's hand as well. "And me a cola."
Willard looked a little put off, but didn't complain. He took off toward the office of Dangerous Dan's Used Cars.
Amanda said, "The nearest orange soda is the gas station, across the street on the south corner. It'll take him a while."
"Do we need a while?" Phen asked.
"More fun without him," she said. "This way I get you all to myself." She leaned on those last words to drive home her point.
"She's just a friend," Phen said.
"Who?" Amanda asked.
"Yeah… Okay." Phen finally stopped watching the car washing and kept his attention on Amanda.
"The thing at Small World?" she asked. "Was that you?"
Phen nodded. "How'd you know?"
"Do I look that stupid?"
In fact, she looked anything but stupid, Phen thought. Willard looked stupid. Willard was stupid. But Phen liked him just the same. Amanda looked exotic, unusual, in a good way, and there was concern and care and friendship and loyalty in her eyes in a way that Phen couldn't fully explain to himself, but made her special. She was younger than Jez—a lot younger, to look at her. But she felt like a safe friend, and Jez felt a little dangerous—the kind of girl who got guys to do stupid things to show off, things that later got them into trouble with school or their parents, or both. Even knowing this, Phen still could hardly keep his eyes off her.
"She only invited you down here," Amanda said, "so you'd see her in her swim suit. You do know that, don't you?"
"I hardly know her."
"You know her better now."
"Just because you don't like her—"
"I didn't say I don't like her. I don't even know her." Amanda hesitated and then asked, "Do you?"
Phen had heard stories in the hallways about jealous girls before, but he'd never been in the middle of it. He actually didn't mind it all that much. He then admitted to himself that, as usual, Amanda was right: he didn't know Jez well at all.
"Last night," Amanda said, "you ditched us because you had to get there. The park," she added.
"Yeah," Phen admitted. "Sorry about that."
"No problem. I thought that was what was going on."
"And Jez? How'd she take it?"
Amanda grinned slightly but didn't answer him directly. She said, "You know I want to help you if I can. Right, Phen? You do know that?"
"Hey!" Phen said, also not answeing her. Two could play this game. "That's—"
"Terry Maybeck," Amanda answered, seeing him, too. "Ah!" she commented, right as Jez turned and flashed Maybeck an equally engaging and welcoming smile—as if she'd been just waiting for him.
"What's going on?" Phen wondered, though thought better than to actually say it. Since when did Maybeck even know Jez?
But Maybeck strode over to the Jez and the Volvo as it was being dried, and the two engaged in laughter and conversation, with Jez playfully shoving Maybeck, and Maybeck shoving her right back. In the midst of all this, Jez made a point to glance over at Phen and meet eyes. She seemed to be challenging him, teasing him.
Seeing this, Amanda said, "Don't look now but you're being played."
Jez took Maybeck by the arm—Maybeck had strong arms, Phen noticed—and led him over to a lemonade stand that was also in operation. Jez snatched up two cups of lemonade, turned her back on Maybeck and then swiveled around, passing him one of the cups.
Only then, as he peered over the rim of the paper cup, did Maybeck spot Phen and Amanda. His eyes went wide with recognition, and he gave a half-wave. He took two steps toward Phen, but Jez caught him by the arm again, tipped his cup to make him finish his lemonade and then whispered something in Maybeck's ear that caused him to crumple up his cup and throw it at her. Jez did the same, throwing her cup at Maybeck, and within seconds another water fight broke out, this time with Maybeck in the center of it.
"Go on," Amanda said, seeing how intently Phen was staring, and believing him envious of all the fun.
"Do you see her?" Phen asked.
"How could I miss her? She's half naked, if you ask me."
"Not Jez," he chastised. "It's that black four wheel drive that just pulled up in line."
"Oh her," Amanda said.
The vague figure of a woman, an adult, sat behind the wheel of the SUV. But then Phen realized the car was not in line at all, as it pulled up to the curb.
The events that played out startled Phen, for Jez, her back to the curb, broke away from the others in the water fight, turned and headed straight for the SUV. At first Phen thought the woman driver must have called out to Jez, although he'd heard nothing, but then, as the passenger window went down electronically with Jez's arrival, he realized she could not have called out, and yet Jez had known she was there.
Both Amanda and Phen studied the exchange between Jez and the unseen driver.
Phen felt goosebumbs run up his arms. Amanda crossed her arms as well. He looked up at the sky to see if a cloud had interfered with the sun, only to see the deep blue of an uninterrupted sky.
"Her mother?" Amanda asked.
"You can't believe how cold I just got."
"Me, too," Amanda said.
"Probably the mist from the water fight." There was more water in the air than on the ground with all the hoses and buckets of water being tossed.
Though neither believed it.
"How much do we know about Jez?" Amanda asked.
"What's to know? She's nice," Phen said.
"Interesting timing, don't you think? Her making friends with you?"
"I… actually, it was me making friends with her."
"I was there, remember?" Amanda asked. "At Wide World of Sports? And believe me, she was the one who instigated that. I saw the whole thing."
"But why so cold?" Phen said, now shivering. He experienced this intense chill as the SUV pulled away from Jez and the curb, briefly drawing closer to him and Amanda as it hurried through a light.
In that fleeting second, as the car passed and the passenger window was in the midst of going up electronically, Phen caught a brief glimpse in profile of the driver. As beautiful a woman as Jez was her daughter. She had salt-and-pepper grayish hair. But the really strange thing, in this heat was –
"Gloves?" Amanda said.
"Yeah, I saw that too. What's that about?"
"Probably one of those spa women. You know, you put all this cream inside the gloves and it softens your skin as you go about your day."
Amanda straightened up and grinned at him. "I'm telling you, Phen: There's a lot about women you don't know."
"There's a lot about women I don't want to know," he fired back. "Cream in your gloves? Yuk!"
Amanda ran her fingers across Phen's cheek. It gave him another round of shivers.
"But just think," she said, "how soft her hands must be."
Phen ran his own fingers along Amanda's jaw. For a moment he was no longer cold, but flooded with heat. "That," he said, "or her hands are butt ugly."