Chapter 11

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The bamboo torches fenced in the festival area, illuminating the gathered faces in a way that made them look both frightened and frightening. The beach was completely consumed by the hometown carnival atmosphere. Food and drink vendors stationed themselves by the tall grass, each surrounded by a cluster of eager customers.

A sand sculpture competition had taken place before sunset. Young families were now working their way around sea serpents, mermaids, fortresses, and other entries, using golf pencils to scrawl their votes for "Most Original" and "Best Creation" on tiny ballot sheets.

A few docked boaters relaxed in a nearby cove, drinking wine while a weird shirtless man with a python wrapped around his neck danced hypnotically. Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" played over the stage's sound system, clashing with the man's writhing movements.

Nearby, teenagers squatted on rock formations, pretending to be uninterested in the proceedings despite the fact that they'd spent five minutes carefully navigating to the best seats at the festival. Older couples on the bleachers sat just a few yards away, huddled up in shawls and blankets.

And Clara took it all in, surprised that the night had actually lived up to her expectations – at least, it had so far. She took a quick look around and realized that there were easily fifteen hundred people in attendance already, with more streaming in from the path over the dunes. Clara could see why the town looked forward to an event like this – it literally brought them together. And it was fun.

She walked along the edge of the festival, trying not to look out of place. Lilianne's rejection e-mail had arrived earlier. She wrote that she wasn't interested in visiting because Clara had ignored her ever since she'd decided to move to Breach Point. They'd made plans to go to a concert in July, and now Lilianne was mad that Clara wouldn't be around for it. She didn't care about the band nearly as much as Lilianne did, but she originally agreed to go because it sounded like a fun time. And she hadn't even thought about breaking the plans when she told Lilianne about moving in with Aunt Maureen for the summer – which seemed to be at the heart of the complaint. Clara understood. That was pretty thoughtless.

Reading that e-mail had ruined Clara's morning to the point where she'd almost decided not to come to the festival. But then she realized she'd talked about it so much to Aunt Maureen and her co-workers that she'd have to explain herself if she didn't go, and she didn't want that. Not to mention Nicholas – she'd practically made him promise that he'd be there. She didn't want to back out after that. Especially with Lilianne's words still bouncing around in her head.

Clara decided to get something to drink before looking for Nicholas. She got in line at a tropical refreshment stand. While waiting to order, the conversation from an older couple in beach chairs nearby drifted over. She heard the man say something about insurance, and the woman mentioned a test. Clara got the sense that they were discussing some kind of medical issue.

Then she heard a younger male voice say, "I was at the bait shop when I heard. I was hoping I'd have time to catch up with you here. I got worried about you, Emily." Clara figured it must be an acquaintance offering concern.

The woman said, "That's very sweet of you, Kevin, but my doctor tells me that worrying does nothing to improve my health – so I'll say the same to you!"

Clara inched closer to the person in line ahead of her – a slobbish man busy chowing down on a tub of mozzarella sticks. Peeking out from behind his head, she was able to get a better view of the older couple. And crouching between them, barely recognizable in a skeleton costume and makeup, was Nicholas' uncle Kevin. She thought she wouldn't have noticed him at all if she'd only seen him from a distance, but the glare in his eyes and growl in his voice gave him away.

Kevin adjusted his position next to the old woman. Clara backed off again so she could remain unseen. The old man reached over, resting his hand on his wife's knee, and said, "Emily and I like having you to keep our spirits up, Kevin. We've been looking forward to seeing your group perform again – that's what got us out of the house tonight."

Clara heard Emily add, "I always enjoy your skits!"

"Jeez," Kevin said. "Talk about pressure!" The old couple laughed, and Clara thought about how much different this conversation would have seemed if she hadn't met Kevin earlier. He clearly has a warm side – he just chose not to show that side to her at the Giant Brine.

The line moved forward and Clara ordered her drink – a "Berry Buccaneer" – from a vendor wearing an authentic-looking pirate hat. As she paid, she made sure to keep her face at an angle so that Kevin wouldn't see her – assuming he'd even remember her. As she held the cartoonishly large faux-alcoholic plastic mug in front of her face, Clara heard Kevin tell the old couple, "I hope you like the show tonight. And try not to worry about your health – from my experience, sometimes those things have a way of working themselves out." Clara thought that was rude – giving the couple false hope. Maybe Kevin's warm side wasn't as warm as she thought.

She headed back toward the rock formations, thinking that Nicholas might be sitting on one of the clusters. The weird python guy was still doing his thing. For as much as she ducked away from him, his whirling kept bringing him closer until she had to step into the crowd to avoid making physical contact with him. She worked her way through the people, checking out the faces on the rocks, when she heard a voice from behind call her name. She turned to see Nicholas walking behind her.

"Nicholas!" she said, pointing toward the rocks. "That's funny – I was just going over there to see if I could find you."

"Ha! No, I've been following you for almost a minute," Nicholas said. "But I couldn't catch up. I thought that freaky guy with the snake was going to grab you and ask you to dance."

"So did I!" Clara said. They both instinctively looked toward the writhing snake man, who was now doing an eighties-style pop and lock move as his pet hung over his waist. They laughed.

"Please tell me the play is going to be better than this," Clara said.

"Definitely," said Nicholas. "That I can guarantee."

"Well, I'm glad I was able to find you," Clara said. "It's much more crowded than I expected."

"Yeah, me too," said Nicholas. "I didn't know if you'd come."

"I wouldn't have missed it," Clara said. She thought about telling Nicholas what happened with Lilianne, but she stopped herself. She didn't want to come off as a flake. Better that Nicholas didn't know that she'd considered staying home.

He waved at a group of kids sitting under a tented area that Clara hadn't noticed until now, then looked back at her.

"So do you want to go meet my friends?" he asked.

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