“Yeah, I bet. That has to be really rough.”
“His mom called me crying on Tuesday, asking me if I knew anything about it, and then the cops questioned me the next day.” Alex didn’t say anything for a minute, so Harper reached out and touched his shoulder gently. “I didn’t know what to tell them. I don’t know where he is.”
As he walked with Harper, his dark hair cascading across his forehead, he looked the same as when he’d been twelve and his beloved dog had gotten hit by a car. Underneath his new foxy exterior, he was the same sweet Alex.
A twinge of guilt gripped her heart. As soon she found out Luke had gone missing, Harper should’ve talked to Alex to find out how he was doing. Instead she’d been too wrapped up in her own drama, and she’d ignored her oldest friend.
“I’m really sorry,” Harper said again, but this time she was apologizing for not being there for him.
“It’s okay. I’m sure he’ll turn up.” Alex took a deep breath. Then he glanced over at Harper, forcing a smile. “So what about you? How’s your summer going?”
“Uh, pretty good,” she said, and she wasn’t sure if that was true or not. So far, everything had felt a bit chaotic.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Alex asked.
“What?” The question startled her, and she tripped on a crack in the sidewalk because she wasn’t paying attention. “Why would I be seeing anyone?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Gemma mentioned something about a guy on a boat.”
“What?” Harper quickly looked away, hoping that Alex didn’t notice the color on her cheeks. “Daniel? No, he’s just … he’s … no. Nope. No way. I mean, I’m leaving in a couple months. And with everything that’s been going on with Gemma, I don’t have time for that. So. No. I’m not seeing anyone.”
“Oh.” He paused. “Yeah. That makes sense.”
“Yeah.” Harper chewed her lip and twisted her ring again. “How … um, how are things with you and Gemma?”
“Good.” He nodded. “Great.”
“Glad to hear it.” She let out a deep breath and stared up at the sky, wishing a few clouds would come in and blot out the sun.
“Actually…” He stopped walking and looked over at Harper. “Honestly, I have no idea how things are with Gemma.”
“Really?” Harper asked, and hoped she didn’t sound too eager for information. “Why? How do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head, then he started walking again. “I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you about this.”
“No! I mean, of course you can.” She hurried to catch up with him. “We’re friends.”
“You promise you won’t say anything to her?” Alex asked.
“I promise. We aren’t really talking right now, so it shouldn’t be that hard.”
“You guys are fighting?” Alex asked, sounding genuinely distressed by it. “I’m sorry to hear that. I didn’t know.”
“No, we’re not fighting, exactly. I think she’s just…” Harper waved her hand. “Never mind what I think. You were telling me about you and her.”
“Oh, yeah, right.”
Before Alex could say more, Harper pointed to a trail cutting through the park and leading into the woods. “Let’s go that way. It’ll be cooler.”
It was a thick wooded area filled with cypress trees and maples. The trail that went through it wasn’t an official hiking trail, but one that had been worn down by kids making a shortcut to the bay. It actually went right up to the water, so the bugs would be much worse, but it would be worth it to be out of the sun.
“The thing about Gemma is…” Alex shook his head and seemed to struggle for the right words. “I like her. I do. Really.”
Harper nodded as they walked into the trees. “I know.”
“And I think she likes me. Well, I’m pretty sure, anyway.”
“No, she definitely likes you.”
“Really?” His head shot up, and he smiled a little, looking relieved. “Good.”
“You couldn’t tell?” Harper smirked.
“That’s the thing. Sometimes she’s pretty obviously into me. And then other times it’s like she’s not even there.” He looked over at Harper. “Do you know what I mean? She’s with you, but her mind is a million miles away.”
“Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”
“And now all this stuff with those weird girls.” He shook his head. “She won’t tell me what she’s doing with them or why she keeps hanging out with them.”
“She won’t tell you?” Harper asked, not bothering to hide the disappointment in her voice.
“No.” He looked over at her. “She’s not telling you, either?”
“She’s not telling me anything, remember?”
“Oh, yeah,” Alex said. “And those girls are just so … creepy.”
“I know,” Harper agreed, remembering the way they’d left Gemma on the shore. “I swear, they’re evil.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it. And Gemma’s not evil. She really isn’t. So I don’t know what she’s doing.”
“I know! It doesn’t make any sense at all!” Harper was excited to have somebody to talk about this with, somebody who really knew and understood both her and Gemma. “I just wish this all wasn’t happening right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m leaving at the end of August for school, and then it’ll just be Gemma and my dad. And she’s getting all wild and crazy now, and soon I won’t be around to deal with it.”
Alex didn’t say anything to that, probably because Harper had just reminded him that his time with Gemma was limited, too.
As the trail wound closer to the bay, the bugs got thicker, swarming around them. Harper waved her hand, trying to shoo them away.
“The bugs are ridiculous this year,” Alex commented, and Harper had to agree.
The trees had begun to buzz with the sound of them. Then Harper saw them. Big black flies were hovering in a cloud a ways off the trail, where ferns and weeds had overgrown a rocky area near the ocean.
“Ugh.” Alex groaned. “What’s that smell?”