My best friend brought a psychopath to my house.
A quick look through the car’s back window told me King’s minions, Levi (A.K.A. beanpole, a senior who was as skinny as a starving skateboarder) and Dylan (otherwise known as Shorty, the definition of a perfect millennial) were tagging along too.
The entire S.B.U. gang was at my doorstep.
I almost had to shove my mouth closed my jaw had dropped so low. Should I stroll forward like this was all normal or run back into the house and prepare for the apocalypse?
I settled for something in between and edged up to James’ window. I tapped on the glass.
James rolled down the window and jerked his head back toward Shorty and Beanpole. “Get in Sam.”
“Hey Glitter Kid.” King’s smirk matched how I would imagine a hip lion would smile before he pounced on you.
“King, is that something in your teeth?” I asked. King immediately flipped down the car mirror to check. I leaned close to James. “I thought you were bringing friends, not…not them!” I hissed.
James raised an eyebrow. “Sam, we’re just hanging out. You know, having a little fun before the big game tomorrow.”
“Since when did you hang out with a bunch of guys with bottomless pits of slime for souls?”
“They aren’t that bad,” James said.
I shook my head. James possessed the backbone of a sand dune. The wind came along and his opinions changed, slowly at first, but by the time you realized what was going on, he’d already crossed lines and values.
“Really? You know what they almost did to your phone last month?” I gripped the window frame. King picked at his white teeth.
“Come on, Sam. Brittney is King’s girlfriend, and she’s a good person. King can’t be that bad.”
Ugh. He had to bring up the one reason I believed a little light might exist in King’s dark being. I eyed King. I was pretty sure that if he had the chance he’d squash me, but I was James’ friend. Even though James’ didn’t stand a chance against King’s quarterback body, his reputation as one of the wealthier, more influential kids in town should keep me safe.
And I wanted those Cheetos.
“Swear you’ll protect me,” I whispered. King dropped his hand, seemingly satisfied with his perfect teeth.
James rolled his eyes, “You’re being dramatic.”
“Fine, bro. I’ve got your back.” James knuckled my shoulder.
“Are we ready yet?” Dylan (Shorty) whined from the back. I gave James one last pointed gaze, then slid into the back seat beside Levi (Beanpole).
Beanpole flashed an off-center grin and nodded like he was either really tired or slightly tipsy.
Dylan crossed his arms and slouched deep into his seat. Poor kid probably had some kale to go home and eat. Perhaps he was grumpy because he was on a juice cleanse. Or maybe his supply of essential oils had run out. Wait, did guys use essential oils?
I pressed myself against the door, trying to create a larger space between me and Beanpole. I stared out the window, mentally praying: Don’t let them eat me. Don’t let them eat me. Don’t let them eat me.
Funny how prayer takes priority when you think you’re going to die.
We backed out of the driveway and headed south. Other than King’s occasional leer no one addressed me.
My heart had calmed down just enough to maintain a normal rhythm when we hit town, and I remembered how much I hated James’ driving. James is a good kid, but when he drives he acts like he’s a bank robber and the cops are on his tail. We were zipping in and out of lanes so close to the other cars that if I lowered my window and reached, I could touch them.
I didn’t try. I was too busy changing my prayer from: Don’t let them eat me, to: Don’t let us crash and die.
I’m telling you God listens ’cause we reached Walmart without death.
We slid into a parking space and James switched gears. By now the sun had completely dipped behind the horizon, casting the parking lot in a yellow afternoon haze.
I stumbled out of the car.
Snickers floated out of the back seat. I looked up, staring at the large, rounded letters on the side of the store. We made it. I shoved my hand into my pocket.
My pocket was empty. Oh snap. I’d forgotten my wallet.
I dropped my face into my hands. I’d endured James’ driving and the S.B.U. gang’s presence all to reach the store as dry as a cow skull in the middle of Death Valley.
James stared at me expectantly.
“James, do you have like, ten bucks?” I turned toward him. James reached into his pocket.
King held out a hand to stop him, and I instinctively stepped back.
“I’ve gotcha,” King said.
I snorted. There was no way I was taking money from him. It was like asking a mob boss for a housing loan.
“Yeah, no thanks. I think James has me, right buddy?”
King glared at James. James returned the look, and the two had a silent eyeball conference as if I wasn’t there to witness the whole thing.
“Come on, let me help the kid out. To make up for last month,” King said, sending me a wink that again reminded me of a hip lion.
James slowly withdrew his hand.
No don’t do that!
King fished out a twenty, and shoved it my direction. I hesitantly took it, though my run-and-prepare-for-the-apocalypse instinct was screaming at me not to.
“Tha…Thanks,” I stuttered, though I wasn’t very thankful. I would have rather robbed the store than borrowed from King. My subconscious must have known I needed the money, for I numbly pocketed the bill before I could give it back.
What had I just done? I stood, nailed to the ground. The street lamp above me flickered on with a hum. Beanpole and Shorty stared at me, grinning.
I shuddered and circled the car.
“Hey Glitter Kid,” King said. I was tempted to ignore the name but knew if I did I’d pay for it later, so I turned around.
“Yes?” I almost added your ugliness but decided I wanted to live another day.
“While you’re at it, could you pick up three or four big cans of spray paint? The pink, sparkly kind?” King asked.
I hope the descending darkness hid the terror on my face. Shorty and Beanpole snickered again.
I raised my eyebrows. “Wh…why would you–”
“Sam, go ahead and pick some up for him,” James said calmly, though he was still giving King a glare that could endure a staring contest with the Eye of Mordor.
I shrugged, trying to act like everything was cool, but my insides were quivering like a terrified, three-legged fawn. Was King going to use the paint on me?
What had I ever done to him?
Walmart’s sliding door now seemed a thousand light-years away. I forced myself forward. I swear the darkness deepened three shades. Every trashcan could hold a mugger after my newly acquired twenty dollars. A cat scampered out of the nearby ally.
I glanced over my shoulder, no longer feeling like a manly sixteen year old.
James’ arms were crossed, his jaw tight. King waived his hands in the air. They were in some sort of argument. I wasn’t close enough to decipher what it was about, but I knew James wouldn’t stand his ground. I turned back to the store. James would have come with me if it was only the two of us.
A group of noisy teenagers in black karate uniform things poured out of a nearby van. I took a wide berth, because, people.
Unfortunately they followed me in. I couldn’t decide if I was safer because they followed or if I was in more danger.
Once I made it through the entrance I ditched them and headed toward the produce, gathering the groceries as I went.
The scuffed linoleum floor reflected the long ceiling lights. Their reflection moved forward with every step I took. All the people, most of whom were in their pajamas or work attire, were pretty occupied. I tried not to pass anyone ’cause of the awkward eye contact thing where you don’t want to meet their gaze but then feel bad for ignoring their existence.
I grabbed everything on the list but the paint and the Cheetos. I was closer to the paint, so I meandered toward the craft section. On the way one of my favorite songs burst through the speakers, and I almost started dancing.
But then I tripped trying to step to the beat and decided to ignore the tune.
I turned into the paint aisle and my heart jumped into my throat.
A girl, one of the karate children, was flipping through the art pads, her black hair frazzled and pulled back in a long ponytail.
RUN AWAY! Hide! She can’t see you! I stepped back.
The cans of spray paint sat right beside the art pads.
Oh why was I given such a fate! I stared up at the florescent lights, as if God could see my exasperated expression better if I looked up.
I had to grab those spray paint cans or King would rip my head off. I’d been gone long enough as it was.
I started pacing. I couldn’t ignore her, could I? Perhaps if I flipped up my hood she wouldn’t recognize me. I had some pretty dark shades on too.
I pivoted and moseyed to the right, shaking my head as I responded to my own argument. I couldn’t risk offending her if she realized I was ignoring her.
I have no idea how she didn’t see me with all my nods and waving hands. I glanced at her. She had moved down a little, setting down the first art pad and picking up another.
I shoved my sunglasses up my nose and set my shoulders. If I couldn’t ignore her, I’d have to play it cool.
Panic squished my heart at those words. When had “playing it cool” ever worked?
Perhaps today would be different.
Who was I kidding?
I reminded myself that I was sixteen and quite cute according to my mother, then walked over to the art pads, pretending to read their covers. I slid beside Brittney and bumped her.
We turned toward each other. “Hi, Brittney, I didn’t…”
The girl faced me and I realized she was not Brittney in any remote sense of the name.
Thanks for reading! Come back next week for the next part of Cheetos, Kittens, and Paint Cans.
-Gabrielle Pollack (A.K.A. The Great Rising Puzzlement)