Paige jumped at the sound of bike tires on the back porch. Footsteps followed. Then a tap-tap-tap on the back window.
Robyn Valdez sat on her bike and waved when Paige glanced at her.
“Come outside!” she called.
It was a habit that they’d picked up in middle school. Sundays they would bike into town and explore the tiny shops and boutiques in the square. Now fifteen, license-less, and bored with life, the practice was yet to cease.
Winter days had the tendency to be sporadic in Florida. One day they would enjoy temperatures near the eighties, and the next could dip below thirty. Today, the cold lifted for the most part. The air retained a cool mist, but nowhere near the famed ‘tropical’ for which the region was known.
Paige’s eyes teared as wind slapped against her face. Her hands gripped the bicycle handles, and her feet pedaled fiercely. She thought of the neighborhood kids, teens from Lincoln, her old high school. She imagined their faces sticking out of windows, yelling what a dork she was. She hadn’t even bothered to change. The ends of her boy shorts flapped in the wind as she stood up on her bicycle. Her jacket was unbuttoned and her hair in a sloppy ponytail.
Robyn pedaled ahead, her curly hair bouncing behind her. They passed fields of high grass and deserted buildings, little streets and the houses and owners that they’d known for years. Most people had gone to the mid-day service, gone to the casino, to the beach, to visit family, to—any number of places.
The main road was just ahead. Robyn’s bike swerved off the curb and into the road.
“We’re supposed to wait at the cross walk!” Paige shouted.
Robyn collected herself on her bike, pulling up the pink suspenders holding her denim shorts. “We can cross anywhere.” Nevertheless, she brought her bike back to the sidewalk.
“And get killed!” Paige shouted. She gripped tighter on the handles. They stood and waited for the crossing signal, though the road looked clear from all directions. Minutes passed before the signal arrived.
“That was a waste of time,” Robyn mumbled.
Paige ignored her.
Robyn had always been careless. They’d both been in theater class in first grade. Mrs. Valdez had been driving them to the opening night of the play Peter Pan. The vehicle was still in transit when, out of curiosity, Robyn had opened the car door and rolled right out. Thankfully, she’d rolled away from traffic and into a ditch. They’d missed the play, and Robyn had gotten eighteen stitches.
Middle school and puberty resulted in Robyn’s brush with kleptomania. She shoplifted costume jewelry, pens, and things of small value—
—until she’d been busted by a mall cop her freshman year. Paige had the misfortune of being there when it happened.
Paige remembered crying as she tried to explain to her grandmother that she hadn’t taken anything, that it had all been Robyn — promise!
And wasn’t it only last week that Robyn informed her that she’d smoked a bong for the first time at Cedric’s party?
“But I’m never going to do it again, I swear!” Robyn said in her defense.
Paige’s uncle had a premonition against Robyn. “She’s going to die young.” Paige chose that time to remind Robyn of that prediction.
Robyn brushed it off. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Yeah?” Paige asked. She gained ground on Robyn and was ahead.
“Haven’t you heard the phrase, ‘a little dirt won’t hurt’?” Robyn asked. They entered the square. The streets were paved with brick. Shrubs grew along the path.
Paige detested hackneyed sayings. “Yeah, though it is yet to be proven.”
“It means,” Robyn continued, “that taking some risks in life is a good thing. It may actually help you develop immunity.”
Paige looked back. “So doing stupid things makes you less prone to get hurt when you do stupid things?” she asked.
Robyn was baffled.
“You make it sound simple,” Robyn said.
“I’m just repeating what you said.”
“I did not say that.” Robyn regained momentum.
“Where are we going?” Paige asked.
“To the buffet. I really wanted a smoothie.”
They arrived at the Lake Avenue shopping plaza. Green awnings hang over the store windows. Palm trees grew in fenced railings. The shopping plaza had a computer store, a Chinese restaurant, specialty clothing stores, a bookstore, and of course…
Nick’s Tropical Buffet!
Flowery shrubs grew around the buffet’s front entrance. Paige stopped to tie her bike to the rack. Robyn hadn’t even locked her bike properly before she abandoned it and disappeared behind the glass front doors. Paige scrambled to lock their bikes and followed her friend inside.
Robyn stopped so suddenly, that Paige nearly tripped behind her.
She turned around and ran a hand over her brown hair. “Um…how do I look?”
Perfect, as usual. “Why does it matter?” Paige asked.
Robyn shot her a look and went into the bathroom. Paige took a seat at the table and didn’t bother to eye the menu.
Every line and detail of the store was committed to her memory. She knew the diamond-shape of each tile, and the piquant mixture of grease and spices in the air. The humidity never changed in the restaurant despite its swinging fans. One could have beads of sweat on their brow in Nick’s no matter the conditions outside.
Paige stared at the television in the corner. Robyn returned five minutes later, smelling like she bathed in vanilla. She rested her purse down on the table.
“Watch this for me?” she asked.
Robyn went to order. Landon was counting the change in the register behind the counter. A nametag was pinned to his chest indicated that he was one of Nick’s Helpers. A black visor surrounded his dark, brown curls.
The boy used his hip to close the drawer. He looked up. “Robyn?”
“Hey, Landon,” she said, smiling.
The two exchanged pleasantries as Landon prepared her a smoothie. Paige shook her head. She would remind Robyn that she had a boyfriend, but that would be of little use. Paige flipped through her notebook of homework.
Robyn headed over to Paige’s table. Landon tailed behind her, his voice resounding across the restaurant. Robyn held a drink in her hand.
“Why are you just sitting here?” Landon asked. “You didn’t want anything?”
Paige sort-of-smiled. “I never do.”
“You have to buy something.”
She put her notebook aside. “I have a cup of water.” She tapped the glass. “That counts?”
Robyn sipped from her cup in silence. The Berry Medley smoothie: really just a bunch of berries and ground nuts added in for protein. Whether the drink was bought for her or Landon’s benefit was unknown. On more than one occasion, the manager complained that Landon ‘sat around and flirted’ on Sundays. The drink was evidence that a transaction occurred, and thus, Landon had fulfilled his duties as a cashier.
The manager should be glad we even come here, Paige thought. The restaurant had few patrons: a line-up of restaurant franchises took over across the street.
Landon pulled out a chair and sank down next to the two girls.
“Okay…” Paige said. “I think I’ll take the rice bowl.”
“Great, but I can’t offer you guys a discount anymore,” Landon said.
Paige stared at him.
“You’re our rivals,” he explained.
Robyn exchanged a look with Paige. “Glen Brook has a football team?” Robyn guessed. “When did they play against Bass?”
“Yeah, the Eagles.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” Paige said.
“Yeah, well they didn’t make it to the NFHS playoffs.” Landon said. “But try-outs are coming up soon.”
“You’re thinking of joining the team?” Robyn asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You think I should?” He turned his visor on his head and smiled and winked at Robyn.
“It’s kinda late for that,” Paige said. “You’ve never played before and you’ll be a senior next year.” He was weak and gangly besides.
“Ignore Paige,” Robyn said. “She thinks she is an expert on it because she wrote a few articles. I think you should try.”
“Thanks,” he said. Though both he and Paige knew he would do no such thing. He locked his hazel eyes on Paige.
“So journalism? You actually signed up for an extra-curricular activity?” Landon asked.
“Yeah.” She became screw-faced. “Why did you say it like that?”
Landon shrugged. “It’s just; you always seem to find a way to avoid social events.”
Paige crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s not true.”
“I don’t know, you did miss the last graduation Paige,” Robyn said.
“It wasn’t my graduation.”
“And remember Lincoln Memorial had that get-together for students after the school closed?” Landon asked. “Guess who one of the only ones not there was?”
“Something must have happened.” Paige stopped. “Where was that supposed to be anyway?”
“It was here, actually,” Robyn said, a bit sheepishly.
Landon leaned back in his seat, observing the redhead. “And ninth grade dance.”
“Only you would remember that.” Paige shot back.
“Or maybe you were my date and you didn’t show up.”
Oh. “You’re not still angry about that, are you?” Paige asked, chagrined.
“LANDON!” Nick leaned over the front counter. “You’re at the cash register?” A black apron was tied around the man’s large torso. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, showing off fleshy, hairy arms.
“Yeah, I’ll be in there in a minute,” Landon called. He turned back to Paige. “No,” he said, with a shrug. “But, it just proves my point. It’s like you are allergic to people.” His eyes danced under a set of brushy eyebrows. He smirked.
Nick disappeared back behind the WORKERS ONLY door.
Memory is a funny thing: Paige’s nostalgia was whitewashed. A loner at Bass Towers, she imagined she’d been more popular at Lincoln Memorial high school, at least a little. But when she was confronted with people who knew her all along, who knew how the past really was, the truth was plain. Her social ineptness hadn’t changed a bit.
I’m not a hermit,” Paige said taking a resolute sip from her glass of water. Feeling cornered, she stared down at the tablecloth. The shiny plastic finish glared under the restaurant lights.
He threw an arm over her chair and patted her shoulder. “Well, you’re all involved now. I must have influenced you?” Landon said.
“Hardly.” Paige brushed her hair out of her face. “Look, I don’t even like Bass. I just found some stuff to do in the meantime.”
Robyn slurped up the last of her smoothie. “The student editor likes her.”
“He does not like me,” Paige said.
“Somebody likes her?” Landon asked.
“What do you mean?” Paige retorted.
“He made her the layout and graphic editor for The Update,” Robyn said. “She gets to choose what goes in the school’s paper now.” Paige leveled Robyn a stare which Robyn met undaunted.
The announcement came last Wednesday during Journalism. A prank at the last pep-rally cost Paige her sports position. Now she was the graphic editor. The job required hours alone in front of a computer in a dimly lit room. In fact, Devon suggested her for the job; he hadn’t given it to her. Maybe it could be viewed as a step-up, if she didn’t suspect it was his last-ditch effort to keep her articles out of the paper.
“Mr. Ferguson gave me that position, not Devon,” Paige said.
“Wait, who?” Landon asked.
“You had help,” Robyn said, rolling her eyes.
“From the teacher, yeah.”
A customer wandered into to the restaurant. Landon put his palms on the table and stood up. “Talk to you guys later,” he said. He’d been thoroughly entertained.
Robyn sighed. Paige returned to her notebook, flipping through pages.
Robyn caught on. “C’mon, Paige,” she said. “You don’t know when a guy wants you?”
“Kinda like how you want Landon?” Paige said, without looking up. She has some nerve.
Robyn rolled her eyes. “Please. He’s just fun.” At the moment the boy was playing with the cash register. He was staring in their direction. Robyn gave him a short wave and boy waved back. “He’s a friend.”
“Does he know that?” Paige asked.
Robyn shrugged. “I don’t know. I do know Devon likes you.”
“You haven’t told anybody else about my new post, have you?” Paige was dating Matthew—and happy. She didn’t need a rumor, especially one that hadn’t any basis in reality.
“Is it a secret?” Robyn asked, digging through her purse.
Robyn looked up. Her grin stretched from ear to ear. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anybody.”
Paige sighed. “Can we talk about something else?”
The girls talked about school gossip while Landon worked the afternoon rush. The sun began to dim over the horizon when the boy clocked out for his break. He and Robyn went behind the restaurant to talk. Paige didn’t know how anyone could find riveting conversation in front of the WM Waste bins, but she wasn’t one to question things.
Cold air hit her skin when she exited the restaurant’s front door. She zipped up her jacket. The square was filling up. Families explored the boutiques and shops, and tourists took pictures next to palm trees.
Paige watched her feet walk against the pavement. Her shoes had seen better days. Her mind had thought better thoughts, and held greater hopes. But now…
Was it wrong to dream?
She stopped. She was next to the bookstore. A woman sat next to a fireplace in an ad on the window. In her lap was a book, and on her face was a smile. Her hair grayed at the edges, a sharp contrast to her black tresses.
BELIEVE. DREAM. ACHIEVE. FLY!
Ad from the Readers and Leaders Association of America. Seeking greater literacy at home and abroad!
Easier said than done. What if Paige had never been given wings to fly? Or was it that she was unaware of how to use them?
Paige pulled open the bookstore door. The clerk at the front desk acknowledged her with a nod. Paige walked straight into the Young Adult section and browsed the aisle until her found what she was looking for.
She turned the first page of Linda Davis’ Nighttime Enemies. Paige sat down on the floor and began to read. She was on the fifth chapter when she had a sudden realization.
She was not alone.
But by that time, she was spread across the floor, her head resting haphazardly against the lower shelf, her legs spread not so modestly and an ache growing in her spine. Paige rolled over.
Robyn, eyes squinted in curiosity, stood over Paige.
“What?” Paige asked. She put the book down.
“Landon, he’s going to bring us home.”
Paige looked toward the front windows. It was dark outside.
Landon loaded their bikes to the back of his silver Toyota Tacoma. Paige slid in the backseat. Landon and Robyn talked, sometimes in English; sometimes switching to Spanish, times when Paige was sure they didn’t want her to know what they were saying. Like a stranger who walks into a room after a joke, Paige could only hear the uproarious laughter, and was left to wonder about its cause and meaning.
I wonder what they talk about.
She was silent during the ride, well aware of her status as the third wheel. She chose instead to stare out the window. The windows of the vehicle were rolled down, and the night air rushed in. Above the treetops was a half-moon. Maybe this was good for her. Maybe it would get her to think about what she should do about her story.
They entered the neighborhood. Landon dropped off Robyn first. He walked her to her front door. They talked for a while on the porch until Mr. Valdez yelled at Robyn to come inside the house.
Landon said his final goodbye and the two hugged as though they wouldn’t see each other tomorrow. Then he turned to go.
“Remember, okay?” Robyn called after his retreating form.
Landon returned to his truck.
“What was that about?” Paige asked with a twitch of a smile. She moved to the passenger’s seat.
“Uh…nothing.” Landon said. He started up the engine, an uncharacteristic blush on his face.
Paige pretended to pay attention to the view outside her window. “I think she likes you.”
“Like hell she does.” He backed out of the driveway. He narrowly missed the Valdez’s trashcan.
“No, she does.”
Landon gave in. “Has she said anything?” he asked.
“Why don’t you ask her?” Paige said. “Winning her is going to take more than talking outside with her in front of garbage bins.”
Really? Landon shook his head. “That’s your way of saying she never mentions me.”
“If you want to take her away from Cedric, you’re going to have to do more.”
Landon laughed. “You’re like the sister I never had.”
Paige scrunched her face. “We look nothing alike.”
“Okay, you’re like the white sister I never had.”
“Um…thanks?” She managed a laugh, the first one of the night. The melancholia from earlier returned. Her eyes were sad.
“Uh, listen, those things we said at Nick’s, don’t take it to heart.” He removed a paper from the dashboard, and stuffed it in the glove compartment.
“What? That I’m the kid you’re mom tells you to talk to at the beginning of the school year? That I’m the socially inept friend you keep around for laughs?”
He sighed. “I can’t believe that you’re taking it so seriously.” The door of the compartment shut with some difficulty.
“Maybe I’m just tired of it, okay? Maybe I want to be the normal kid?”
“You wouldn’t be you.”
The girl you dumped and cheated on? Paige rested her chin on the window and let the wind rustle through her hair. “I guess that’s something.”
“Why are you so moody, really?”
“I’m trying to write a book.”
He looked at her.
She thought that was pretty self-explanatory.
They turned into Greenly Avenue. The headlights of the truck revealed the empty driveway and darkened windows of her house.
“Your grandmother isn’t home?” Landon asked.
“I don’t know,” Paige said. She got out of the vehicle. She read the note on the door. Ms. Langley never learned to use a cell phone.
Paige turned around and waved the note in the air. “Slight change of plans,” she said. She returned to the truck. “Dinner at your house.”
“Okay…” Landon looked in the direction of his house. The end of the street was lit up. Cars were parked in driveways and along the road. And the music…
She slipped into the passenger side. “I guess your grandmother is having another party.”
“Yeah…” Landon said. He sounded embarrassed.
“You should be glad you have such a fun grandma,” Paige said. There was some kind of reunion or anniversary this week. Every night the end of the street was lit-up and filled with cars.
“Sometimes you want people to act their age,” Landon said. But who was he to talk?
The ride was silent as they made their way to the end of the street, the bright lights, and country music.
Devon slept in darkness, or he thought he slept, maybe he was awake or maybe he was dreaming. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were opened or not, if he was in bed or not, though he was vaguely aware he’d passed out on his mattress hours ago.
Or was it minutes?
It felt like his head was separated from his body, though he could move both.
He thought of when he wrote. Inspiration for him didn’t come in flashes of light or in visions. They were jumbled words, whispered in the ear, shouted across a room, slurred together swears of drunk friends. They were everything dirty, unclean, impure, and human. They were his friends. They were his dearest companions.
A thousand birds flew in his room. Their wings beat against his ears, infested his mind. He reached out and imagined himself to touch every golden feather. But that wasn’t the beat of wings he was hearing, no. He listened closer. A little girl laughing.. His mother’s screams. Lyn’s sobs. Gun shots. The voice of the girl he loved. Cheering crowds. Applause. All that applause! And they were cheering for him. Sounds clumped together in a whirl pass his face and out his room. He felt his heart would swell with pride.
TIGERSSSS! WE’RE THE—
I’m the best.
The applause surrounded him. He could feel himself drifting, floating. The sound carried him above the earth. He grinned until his face hurt.
I’m so fucking high.
A rock fell on his chest. His lungs were being crushed. He couldn’t breathe. The pressure built. Pressing. Crushing.
He woke up.
Devon stared up at his ceiling. The pain in his chest continued to grow. Sharp. Stinging. His heartbeat echoed in his ears. The fluttering sound around his head sped. The voices melded together into one loud hum. He struggled to catch his breath.
God, I’m dying. I’m dying.
Devon closed his eyes and saw a face that looked like hell. He couldn’t scream; he couldn’t move. He didn’t know how long he stayed that way, caught between reality and this dreamlike state that refused to release him. He took ragged breaths of air and fought off the hand pulling him into darkness. That face haunted him well into the night hours.
Devon eyes opened. He was on his back. The sheets under him were drenched in sweat. Palpitations danced around his chest. He lay still and controlled his breathing. Sitting up, he brushed the hair out of his face.
The clock struck the hour. Seven. He peeled his shirt off. Outside his window rain came down in sheets. A very dark sky was covered in clouds.
He stumbled in the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. He turned his profile in the mirror. Normal enough. His hair fell in waves around his face and to his collarbone. His eyes looked more alert than they had been in days. Devon leaned against the sink.
Something had gone terribly wrong.
Devon took a shower and headed for the kitchen. He poured himself a glass of orange juice from a pitcher and bit into a piece of toast.
He hadn’t planned to try anything at the party the night before, but he wouldn’t do it again.
“Lyn!” he shouted.
“Lyn’s not here son,” Mr. Connors said. He thumbed through the pages of a crossword and took a sip of coffee. The table in the breakfast room was cluttered with papers he worked on.
“She’s with one of her boyfriends, I imagine.” Mr. Connors frowned, rested down his book, and looked at his son.
Devon returned the pitcher on the table. “And mom?”
“In her office.”
Devon let out a breath. Everything seemed okay. He finished off the last of his orange juice, grabbed his keys, and headed for the door.
“That’s all you’re going to eat?” Mr. Connors asked. His hair was smartly greased back and smelled of splash cologne.
Devon stopped at the door. “Yeah, I don’t want to be late.”
His father gestured to the plate on the table. “At least grab something on your way out. There are English muffins and eggs.” As usual, his father had made enough for himself and the rest of the family, though most days he ate alone.
Devon wasn’t hungry. He grabbed a plastic plate and some foil. Maybe he was motivated out of pity for his father. He grabbed more food than he intended to eat.
“I was about to leave myself.” Mr. Connors stood and straightened his tie. He adjusted the cross pin on his collar.
“Can I come to the hospital with you sometime?”
His father stared at him.
Devon continued, “I could volunteer. I really need the community service hours.” His heart was still pounding in his ears.
“Sure son, you can volunteer anytime,” Mr. Connors said. “Why don’t you tell your sister too? I think it would be good for her.”
School wasn’t school today.
The first bell had already rung, but the student body was frozen. They crowded in circles and whispered. Devon noticed several people giving him pointed looks as he entered through the front doors.
It wasn’t the usual mesh of gossip. They all seemed to be talking about the same thing. He found his friends gathered at the end of the senior hall. They were bunched in the center of the hall blocking traffic, much to the distain of the nerds hurrying to be the first seated in an empty class.
Cristina broke through the crowd and ran straight for Devon.
“Devon, good, you’re here.” The blonde hugged him. Startled, he patted her on the back. When she pulled away, her blue eyes were moist.
He was told the news. One of the football players, Steven Effers, died of a drug overdose.