He glances at me and then squints back out to the woods. “You have the agility of a boulder. We should probably stay put.”
I reach out and kick him, tickled when he grunts in feigned pain.
Because we’re just squatting here, hiding from a group of aggressive pubescent boys, I’m tempted to strike up conversation, but hesitate, immediately second-guessing myself. Do I want to get to know Ethan? I used to think I already knew the most important thing about him—that he’s a judgmental dude who has a thing against curvy women eating high-calorie State Fair food. But I’ve also learned that:
1. He does something math-y for work.
2. To my knowledge, he’s had one girlfriend in the time since I first met him two and a half years ago.
3. He is very good at frowning (but also great at smiling).
4. He insists he doesn’t mind sharing food; he just does not eat at buffets.
5. He often takes his younger brother on expensive, adventurous trips.
The rest of the list slides into my thoughts, uninvited.
6. He’s actually hilarious.
7. He gets seasick.
8. He seems to be made of muscle; must confirm somehow that there are actual organs inside his torso.
9. He’s competitive but not in a scary way.
10. He can be exceedingly charming if bribed with a comfortable mattress.
11. He thinks I always look great.
12. He remembered my shirt from the third time we met.
13. From what I can tell, he has a nice penis in those pants.
Why am I thinking about Ethan’s penis? Super gross.
Obviously, I came here with what I thought was a pretty clear picture of who he was, but I have to admit that version seems to be crumbling.
“Well, since we’ve got some time to kill,” I say, and move from more of a squat to a sit, “can I ask you a totally personal and invasive question?”
He rubs at the spot on his leg. “If it means you won’t kick me again, yes.”
“What happened between you and Sophie? Also, how did you two happen in the first place? She is very . . . hmm, 90210. And you seem more . . .”
Ethan closes his eyes and then leans to look outside the barricade. “Maybe we should just run for it—”
I pull him back. “We have one more life each, and I’m using you as a human shield if we leave. Talk.”
He takes a deep breath and blows his cheeks out as he exhales. “We were together for about two years,” he says. “I was living in Chicago at the time, if you remember, and went to the Twin Cities to visit Dane. I stopped by his office and she worked in the same building. I saw her in the parking lot. She’d dropped a box full of papers, and I helped her pick them up.”
“That sounds like an incredibly clichéd beginning to a movie.”
To my surprise, he laughs at this.
“And you moved there?” I ask. “Just like that.”
“It wasn’t ‘just like that.’ ” He reaches to wipe some mud from his face, and I like the gesture, the way I can tell it comes from vulnerability during this conversation more than vanity. In a weird burst of awareness, I register this is the first time I’m really talking to Ethan. “It was after a few months, and I’d had a standing job offer in the Cities for a while. Once I was back in Minneapolis, we decided, you know, why not? It made sense to move in together.”
I pull my jaw closed once I register that it’s been hanging open. “Wow. It takes me a few months to decide if I like a new shampoo enough to stick with it.”
Ethan laughs, but it’s not a particularly happy sound and makes something squeeze inside my chest.
“What happened?” I ask.
“She didn’t cheat or anything that I know of. We got an apartment in Loring Park, and things were good. Really good.” He meets my eyes for a brief pulse, almost like he’s not sure I’ll believe him. “I was going to propose on the Fourth of July.”
I lift a brow in question at the specific date, and he reaches up to scratch his neck, embarrassed. “I thought it might be cool to do it while the fireworks were going off.”
“Ah, a grand gesture. I’m not sure I would have pegged you as the type.”
He laugh-groans. “I got that far, if that’s what you’re wondering. A friend was having a barbecue, and we went over to his place, hung out for a while, then I took her up to the roof and proposed. She cried and we hugged, but it registered later that she never actually said yes. Afterward we went back inside and started to help him clean up. Sophie said she wasn’t feeling great and would meet me at home. When I got there, she was gone.”
“Wait, you mean like gone gone?”
He nods. “Yep. All her stuff was gone. She’d packed up and left me a note on a dry-erase board in our kitchen.”
My brows come together. “A dry-erase board?”
“ ‘I don’t think we should get married. Sorry.’ That’s what she said. Sorry. Like she was telling me she splattered tomato sauce on my favorite shirt. You know I cleaned that board a hundred times and those damn words never went away? And I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. She used a Sharpie, not a dry-erase marker, and it literally stained the words into the board.”
“Oof. That’s awful. Why not just burn the board?”
He shrugs with a self-deprecating grin. “I’m cheap.”
This makes me laugh, but I sober quickly at the thought of being dumped that way. “You grand-gestured, and she dry-erase-boarded you? God, no offense, but Sophie is a giant dick.”
This time when he laughs, it’s louder, lighter, and the smile reaches his eyes. “None taken. It was a dick thing to do, even if I’m glad she did it. I thought we were happy, but the truth is, our relationship lived on the surface. I don’t think it would have worked much longer.” He pauses. “I just wanted to be settled, maybe. I think I grand-gestured for the wrong person. I realize I need someone I can talk to, and she doesn’t really like to go too deep.”
This doesn’t entirely mesh with my image of him as a jet-setting daredevil, but then again, neither did the vision of him on the plane, clutching the armrests. Now I have new Ethan Facts to add to the list.
14. He’s frugal.
15. He’s introspective.
16. As much as he would probably deny it now, he’s a romantic.
I wonder whether there are two very different sides of Ethan, or I’ve just never looked much deeper than what Dane and Ami have told me about him all this time.
Remembering the way he froze when he saw Sophie on our way back to the hotel, I ask, “Had you seen each other since then? Before—”
“Before dinner with Charlie and Molly? Nope. She still lives in Minneapolis. I know that. But I never saw her around. I definitely didn’t know she was engaged.”
“How do you feel about it?”
He taps his finger on the edge of a stick and stares off into the distance. “I’m not sure. You know what I realized on the boat? We broke up in July. She said they met while he was stocking school supplies. That’s August? Maybe September? She waited a month. I was such a mess after—like big time. I think a part of me thought we might actually get back together until I saw her at the hotel, and it all hit me at once that I was being totally delusional.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, simply.
He nods, smiling at the ground. “Thanks. It sucked, but I’m better now.”
Better now doesn’t necessarily mean over her, but I’m kept from asking for clarification when shots ring through the air, too close for comfort. We both jump, and Ethan pushes himself up to peek over the edge while I stumble to stand next to him. “What’s happening?”
“I’m not sure . . .” He moves from one side of the enclosure to the other, watching, his finger resting on the trigger.
I clutch my own gun to my side, and my heart is pounding in my ears. It’s just a game, and I could technically surrender at any time, but my body doesn’t seem to know that it isn’t real.
“How many shots do you have left?” he asks.
I was a little trigger-happy at the start of the game, firing off in random bursts without really focusing on aim. My gun feels light. “Not many.” I peek inside the hopper, where four yellow balls roll around in the plastic canister. “Four.”
Ethan opens up his own hopper and drops two more into my gun. Footsteps pound on the dirt. It’s Clancy, still shirtless and nothing more than a pasty, skin-colored blur. He fires off a shot and ducks behind a tree. “Run!” he shouts.
Ethan reaches for my sleeve, tugging me away from the wall and pointing toward the woods. “Go!”
I break into a sprint, feet pounding against the wet ground. I’m not sure if he’s behind me but I race for the next tree and duck behind it. Ethan slides to a stop across the clearing and looks back. A single player is just wandering around.
“It’s that big, mouthy kid,” he whispers, grinning. “Look at him all alone.”
I peer into the woods around us, uneasy. “Maybe he’s waiting for someone.”
“Or maybe he’s lost. Kids are dumb.”
“My ten-year-old cousin built a robot cat out of some gum, a couple of screws, and a Coke can,” I tell him. “Kids these days are way smarter than we were. Let’s go.”
Ethan shakes his head. “Let’s take him out first. He only has one life left.”
“We only have one life left.”
“It’s a game, the object is to win.”
“We have to sit down the entire drive back. My bruised ass doesn’t care if we win.”
“Let’s give it two minutes. If we can’t get a shot, we’ll run.”
I reluctantly agree and Ethan motions for us to cut through the trees and surprise him on the other side. I follow closely, watching the woods and keeping my steps quiet. But Ethan is right, there’s nobody else around.