Three days before my senior year officially started, I was doing fine. I was the stereotype of every teen everywhere – my parents didn't understand me, and I liked it that way. I had my friends; I had my group chats, a job and a hook-up app. I'd had some times I definitely didn't want to tell my parents about – like ever. We got along fine, but I think we all understood that not knowing everything madeasier – well, my dad did. My older brother was the jockstrap of the family. My sister was just hitting puberty and showing my parents the truth about girls being harder to raise than boys.
I was the average middle child. Five-foot-seven with brown hair and eyes, I ran track and cross country and pulled decent grades. I wasn't anyone's favorite anything, and I didn't mind – favorite things can be pretty temporary anyway. Like, once curly seasoned fries were my favorite, but then I ate too many and threw up – now, not so much a favorite.
Three days before my senior year I was looking ahead to being done with high school. I was eyeing a computer graphic arts degree and dreaming about writing my own web comic – except I'm not that funny. Or insightful. I don't know how people come up with new ideas every day for things like web comics. What if you want to take a vacation? Are you supposed to store up completed stuff so you can take a break?
Three days before my last year started I got up around ten, went down to make an iced coffee and mixed some of our leftovers into a plastic bowl – some chicken, a little rice and some beef with noodles. I know it sounds gross, but it wasn't for me. I crossed our back porch, which my dad had enclosed a few summers ago so you could sit outside and not get eaten alive by mosquitoes, to the back yard and crossed the cool grass; the blades whispered against my bare feet.
Bruno whined as I approached, and I smiled at him. I have no idea what his actual name is, but I called him Bruno. He was a mutt and probably pretty average as dogs go – except he wasn't treated like a dog in the United States. He was left outside on a chain twenty-four seven. We've called the cops, but somehow nothing ever happens. Bruno is sweet. He would probably be damn skinny if I didn't come see him in the mornings after his...owner...left for the day.
“Hi, Bruno!” I said in a chipper tone. Bruno's butt wiggled, and he whined a little harder. “Want some breakfast? Hungry, Bruno?” I set the bowl down, and he bumped up next to me, tail wagging as he chowed down. I petted him, stroking his dirty fur as he ate. I talked to him for a minute until the bowl was clean, then took it to the hose, rinsed it out, and refilled it with water. I put the bowl down and Bruno drank, while I sat beside him sipping my iced coffee and petting him.
If it weren't for the fact Bruno has to be mistreated in order for me to start my day like this, I'd say it was the perfect way to start a day. Bruno was straightforward – if you love a dog, it will usually love you right back. Our street was nothing special – just a block out in the 'burbs. On one side we had Travis Thatcher, who didn't say much, but the way he treated Bruno spoke pretty loudly. The house on the other side of us had been sold, and there had been workmen coming by there all summer. I'd heard it had a problem with the foundation and an old septic tank that had collapsed and had to be filled in. Now they were putting on a new roof. I had no idea if new owners were paying for it or the Forresters, who'd retired and left for Florida.
Three days before senior year started my...besties, Marc and Kendra, wanted to go to a party. They needed a driver so they could get their whatever on. Well. I could have said no. Could have said I was all good with parties. We three had a complicated past. The summer I turned sixteen was the summer Marc did everything with me. Everything. I thought I loved him, although maybe I just liked the attention and sex. It's hard to know. I hated him for a while when he suddenly stopped doing what we'd been doing and started dating Kendra. Kendra who liked Marc so much that she didn't mind what the sex of his ex was, even if we never were official. Or were we? No. We hadn't been. It had taken a while before I could hang out with them, and it wasn't always comfortable. Even worse, my little sister overheard me and wanted to be bribed. I gave her an old gift card to buy skins for the game she liked to play with her friends.
Marc and me...never said the 'L' word. We never called each other a boyfriend. We just...hooked up a lot and hung out in between hooking up. Me and Marc are old news, and I'd had a year to get past that, which I had. Mostly.
I'd hooked up a few times this summer with this black-haired guy named Victor, and I might have had incentive to go to this party if he'd have been there, but he had only been visiting his grandparents for the summer to help them move stuff and pack up, since they were downsizing into a condo somewhere. Victor was nice. Sweet. He paid attention to things. He liked to say details matter. He got my details pretty quick and then got into my pants, not that I minded. It was nice to have someone interested in all my details. At least it was for a little while.
So there I was at this stupid party, watching some drunk kids dancing, trying to dance or trying to look cool enough to attract whoever they were after. That part was kind of fun. But there's always someone that takes it too far, someone that gets too drunk. This time that person was Corey Smalls, who played sports ball and was supposed to keep playing sports ball in college somewhere, but right as I was thinking I might try and hook up with this decent looking fellow who had a glow up over the summer, Corey comes charging up to me in just his boxers and one sock and tells the whole party he's gay and he's in love with me.
First was the laughing. I mean, if it was a video it'd be funny – as long as I wasn't in the video, and sure as fuck someone was recording this. Second was Corey was obviously drunk. He obviously lifts weights more than he sleeps; his muscles are uncomfortably large.
“Hah,” I said, trying to roll with the joke. “Thanks, Corey.”
“Really,” he said, his tone desperate. “Noah, I've waited too damn long. I'm gay. Date me.”
I was so uncomfortable I can't even find the words. It was like every dream anyone ever had of being naked in front of your class or if you suddenly pissed your pants in a public place. I just wanted to shrink.
“Bro, you're drunk. Go home,” I said with a nervous grin, hoping he'd find something else to focus on.
“Hand to God, haven't had a drop,” he said, raising his hand as if he were swearing.
I shook my head. “Seriously.”
He shook his head. “Nope. I'm doing this. I will show you.” He was shaking his head and smiling, and I felt a little sick. Corey isn't a bad guy – I'm just not interested. The last thing I wanted to do was say that in front of a crowd, but I was feeling stressed, considering he'd decided now was when he was going to have his say – in front of a bunch of people. Fortunately for us both, he went back to whatever he was doing, kind of hopping a little as he did. I'll be honest – I wasn't sure if any of that had been real or if it was just for some dare or a laugh online.
Well, it was over.
“That was...something,” Kendra said. I glanced at her and rolled my shoulders.
“You going to nail him?” Marc asked.
I frowned. “No.”
He shook his head. “He'd just bend over. Doesn't have to mean anything.”
“Does anything mean anything to you?” I asked with a snort.
“Ugh, not this again,” Kendra said with a sigh. “C'mon, I need a drink or drama.” Marc trailed behind her, holding his hands up and pushing his finger through the hole made by his thumb and finger. I fake-laughed at him and rolled my eyes as I went to try and find something to pass the time.
I was groggy the next morning. I'd had a hard time finding Kendra and Marc when I was done with that party, and Kendra had been hammered. I've never understood people that get intentionally messy. I liked a nice buzz as much as anyone, but the goal was to walk that line without turning it into an Instagram Moment. I rolled out of bed and washed my face, figuring I'd shower when I got back from work, and ran outside to fed Bruno. After pulling on my uniform I was headed out the front door when I heard loud noises coming from next door. The neighbors had a crew replacing their roof. I was mildly surprised that they were working through the weekend, but what did I know about roofing crew scheduling?
I hurried to my car, noting the mess of roofing material that had been dragged down to a dumpster placed at the curb. What a mess.
The only good thing was my shift was late morning at the Fast 'N Speedy, one of two in town. They were the last two stores left of a failed attempt at building a chain. We sold gas and convenience store stuff, but we also had a coffee counter meant to compete with big coffee chains – spoiler alert, we didn't. Locals seemed to like us enough to keep us in business, but not enough for us to prosper.
When I arrived I was introduced to a guy who was new to me who had started earlier in the week. Darrion had dark skin, curly hair that was swept back and up from his face, square faux diamonds in his ears and the nicest butt I'd seen in a while. Our manager asked me to show Darrion the coffee side of the store. He was a fast learner, soon more of a help than not.
“You done coffee work before?” I asked at one point.
“Yeah,” he replied, flashing a large smile. “I was over at the Dippn Donut for almost a year.”
“Huh. Why'd you come here? Don't they pay more?” I asked.
“Yeah, little bit,” he said, turning and leaning against the counter. “But this manager over there, he's a little on the old side, yeah? He was a little too nice to me. Like,” he said, smiling again and holding his hands up, “I got nothing against an older man. But if a man says no, he means no. This man couldn't take the no. He kept thinking it sounded like ‘maybe later’ or some shit.”
“Damn,” I said. “Never dealt with anything like that.”
“It's some weird shit,” he said with a nod. “It got bad, though. He was calling me into work, tryin' to take me out places, and I just wasn't into it. He didn't wanna be friends, that wasn't enough. That's the part that kind of messes with my head, though. He didn't know me. I mean, not really, you know? Like, I'm all okay with hooking up, but that's what it is - a hook up. It's not dating - it's just a hook up. It don't mean you have to start saving for anniversary presents or some shit.”
I laughed and he joined me. “So wait, though. Did you hook up with your old manager?”
“Naw,” he said, pushing off from the counter and heading to the register. “Just sorta friends. He just couldn't be just friends.”
We got a small rush, a group of ladies that were all together, and then some lady in a dress with two frilly bits running around the bottom – like a cocktail dress or something someone would wear out to something fancy. She came in the store, looking like she was going out to dinner somewhere fancy in the middle of the afternoon, but she was just there to complain about too many cars being at the gas pumps and she couldn't pull up. She was questioning people in case they left their car at the pump while they came inside to shop for a drink or whatever.
People are weird, and they are double weird when they go into any retail store. It's like it's hardwired into people – 'Oh, I'm in public. Time to act like I have never been in public before.'
“Have you ever thought of doing your nails? I know this drag queen – I met her over at Nirvana in the city – and it's actually kind of amazing what people can do with some fake nails and polish.”
I shook my head. “Nah. Not really my thing.”
Darrion raised an eyebrow. “Don't like the fem guys? Typical.”
I frowned. “No. It's just not for me.”
“Let me guess – you like straight acting guys?” he asked, sneering a little.
I'm not sure who clued him in that I was gay, but his attitude was definitely putting me off. Screwing up my face, I replied, “I have no issues with how anyone expresses themselves. That doesn't mean it's for me or that I have to find them attractive. Honestly? Assuming I'm a douche makes you look like a douche.”
I turned and grabbed a coffee basket, dumping the grounds and old filter before refilling it and setting the water to run. Darrion started to say something, but he was interrupted by the lady in the sort-of-cocktail dress coming back in and walking up to my counter.
“I need my receipt for pump...uh, the one with that little black car.”
“Sorry, ma'am. You'll have to go to the convenience counter; they handle gas,” I told her.
“What's convenient about that? What's a convenience counter?” She paused and turned her body, almost dramatically. “Also, after I filled my tank, I pulled up to let other people get to the gas pumps, unlike some people that come here.”
“Well, thanks, but-”
“My mirror was off so I spent a minute adjusting it, and I saw I had...” She paused and glanced around to see if anyone was listening before looking back to me. “I had a little breakfast in my teeth. But then I remembered my gas receipt, and do you know the person that came up after me took my receipt? I need that back.”
“The convenience side of the store can help you,” I said, but got no further.
“They have my personal information,” she said indignantly.
I stared for a moment. “You mean they know how much it costs to fill your tank?”
“Who says I filled my tank?”
I stared for a moment again. “Uh, you did.”
“I did not!”
I blinked a couple of times. “Ma'am, that counter over there,” I said, pointing, “will get you a reprint of your receipt. I can't help you.”
“But you just lied to me!”
I sighed. “Over there. That counter has your receipt.”
“I want that other person to give back my receipt!”
I gritted my teeth. “I can only help you if you want coffee. Otherwise, you have to go to the other counter.”
“I want my receipt back,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
I pursed my lips briefly. “Did you see who took your receipt?”
“Well...it was a man. His car was white.”
I nodded. “Well, if you're not wearing heels you might be able to catch him. If you start running now.”
She stared at me for a moment before frowning. A tall guy with blond hair with a center part who looked vaguely familiar touched her elbow, interrupting whatever was running through her head.
“I got the receipt, Aunt Erica,” the guy said. “It was stuck in the printer.”
She turned back to me. “You lied to me,” she said, her tone venomous.
“Let me make it up to you with a free coffee for you and your grandson,” I said with a tight smile.
Her eyes got wider, and her nostrils flared. “My grand-”
“We're already late!” the guy said, pulling on her elbow. “C'mon, Aunt Erica!”
She shook her elbow free and gave me a haughty look. “I'll be back to see your manager!” She turned and stomped out.
From my side Darrion let out a low whistle. “That was a real Karen. Biggest I've ever seen.”
He leaned up next to me. “About what we were talking about? You're right. My bad. I've run into too many gays who can't let go enough to try new things, who are afraid of their feminine half.”
I rolled my eyes. “I'm not repressed. I just never wanted any of those things. It doesn't make me a bad gay because I don't do something. It's not like I'm stopping anyone else from doing what they want.”
Darrion nodded slowly. “Maybe you're right.”
I decided not to tell him I didn't need him to agree with me, but at least we could get along at work. Darrion and I talked on and off through the shift, but I kept thinking about his manager. My manager was Francine, and she looked like she was just tired. Not just that she needed a nap or a fresh cup of coffee – she's just tired of everything. I can't imagine her hitting on me or worse, stalking me like some psycho.
At the end of my shift I walked slowly out to my car looking at my phone. From the corner of my eye something looked wrong. I glanced up and saw Corey standing by my car, smile on his face, flowers in one hand and his phone in the other.
“Hey, Noah,” he said cheerfully.
I looked from him to my car – and the tire that was nearly flat on my passenger front side.
“Day two – date me?” Corey asked, holding the flowers out.
“Day two?” I asked, shaking my head. “Flatten my tire and offer me flowers? Are you for real?”
Corey looked mildly confused and looked behind him, then down to my tire. “I didn't do that,” he said quietly.
“Dude,” I said with a sigh. “Please stop. I have to fix my tire and go shower.”
“I can help change the tire,” he said, smiling.
I shook my head. “I'll put a can of foam in it and get it looked at later.” I paused. “Corey. Go home.”
I went back into my store and bought a can of tire foam to inflate and seal the tire enough for me to get home. I was mildly relieved to get out to my car and see that Corey had left. I sighed as I saw he'd left the flowers on my hood.
“Wow. Pretty,” Darrion said, picking up the flowers and tipping them to his face, sniffing. “Not much of a scent.”
“You can have them,” I said, bending down to screw the can to my tire.
“So...is that your type? That big...muscled guy?”
“No,” I said, listening to the hiss of the foam leaving the can.
“Huh,” he said. “He's not that bright.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“Well,” he said with a chuckle, placing the flowers back on my hood. “First of all, talking to you makes me think flowers aren't the way to your heart.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled wryly. “Gee, you think?”
“He reminds me of this guy I met in the GSA last year at college. He was kind of dumb, but harmless.”
“Oh?” I asked as I stood up and tossed the can into the trash. “What about him?”
Darrion smiled. “He was straight. He was there because of a friend of his. But...I guess he forgot if a girl was there, she could be a lesbian.” He chuckled, and I smiled, shaking my head. “I guess sometimes people just...skip over some logical things so they can see what they want.”
“Maybe,” I said.
After I got home and showered, I went to scrounge something to eat. My mom was cooking, and my little sister was sitting at the kitchen table, arms crossed and a pissed look on her face.
“Uh oh,” I said with a grin. “Looks like someone isn't happy.”
“How could you tell I was unhappy?” my mother said, turning and fixing me with a look that was, well, unhappy.
“I, um, was talking about...Sandy,” I said, coming to a stop. Whatever my mom was cooking was sizzling on the stove top.
My mom turned and stirred whatever she was cooking – which smelled delicious – and I glanced at Sandy, who pursed her lips but that was all.
“Yes, Sandy isn't happy. I asked her where she got the card to buy those things on her game,” Mom said.
“They're called skins, mom!” Sandy said sullenly, but I had a creepy-crawly feeling going up my spine.
My mother turned back toward me. “It turns out she was covering for her brother, since she knew he was going to a party?”
Shit. She'd spilled her guts.
“I was the designated driver, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my tone dull. “I got home late, but I was just making sure everyone got home safe.”
“That's my job. I've always told you you can call for any reason,” she began, but I cut her off.
“Yeah, but doesn't it make more sense to not get into that situation, and help others who don't have understanding parents?”
“Oh no, don't you try that,” she said, turning back to the stove and turning the burner off. She looked back to me. “You had no permission to be at any party at all. You might be a senior, but that doesn't mean you're an adult.”
“I know. I just thought-”
“That you'd go to a party and I'd never find out?” she prompted.
“Well, I mean yeah, but I was going to say – again – that I was the DD. My friends wanted to party, and I made sure they got home. That's all.”
“And I'm going to repeat myself – you had no permission to be at any parties. I should probably point out that when you turn eighteen there will still be rules in the house – and running off to parties will not be one of those things you can just decide to do.”
I knew this wasn't the time, even though I felt aggravated with her words. She was already angry that Sandy was running interference for me – only because she planned to rat me out if I hadn't bribed her. My mom and I had gone over this argument, more or less, for a while. If I pushed at the edges of the boundaries she'd set, she would clamp down. Most of the times I got caught, Sandy was involved.
“I'm sorry, Mom. I did think I had a good reason, even though I should have cleared it with you,” I said. It was largely true, except my mom was the kind of person to have called Marc and Kendra's parents to let them know their kids wanted to go to a party and were they aware? My mom knew that and I knew that, but here we were, dancing our dance.
“Uh huh,” she said with a trace of disbelief. “Sandra, set the table. Noah, go tell Dad dinner is ready – he's in the garage – and wash up.”
I turned and went into the garage, hoping this whole thing was going to be over with her giving me a piece of her mind. If I was quiet, it might be. My parents aren't bad people by any stretch, but as I get older, we tend to disagree on some things. My dad says there are things that will make more sense to me when I'm living on my own but will just piss me off in the short term.
Dad was at his workbench, tinkering with an old alarm clock. He had the little motor that goes in it, that he calls a rotor, sitting on his test platform and running – I could see the little gear turning. He glanced at me, smiled and looked back to the spinning gear.
“I got it going again,” he said with a hint of pride.
“Yeah? How old is that one?”
“Nineteen-forty-seven,” he said, still sounding proud. “I wish these things had some kind of odometer equivalent just to know how much work they've done.”
I shuffled my feet. “Mom says dinner's done.”
He nodded and glanced at me. “A party, Noah? I'm disappointed.”
Ah, fuck. Now I actually did feel a little guilty. “I was the DD, Dad.”
He sighed. “Well, that's something.” He unplugged the test rig and pulled the rotor free. “It's normal, you know. It's axiomatic. Teenagers do dumb things, ergo you do dumb things. You're separating yourself, developing who you are. Sometimes that requires a certain level of stupidity.” He glanced at me over his glasses. “Just be sure you don't become a dumbass.”
I rolled my eyes as I turned from him.
“I heard you roll those eyes, mister,” he teased. “Noah,” he said and I paused in the doorway, looking back to him. “I'm glad you did the right dumb thing.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Is that your way of saying you're proud of me?”
He chuckled. “I'm always proud. Just...some times more than others.”
We sat down for dinner, and I was careful not to antagonize my mother or poke at my sister and her foul mood. My older brother, Ian, had never learned to let a thing be. It didn't mean you'd forgotten it or gotten over anything, just that there was a time and place to turn the screws and a time and place to back the fuck off before you landed in deep shit. Keeping with that idea, I spent the evening in my room, badly drawing on my tablet and not aggravating anyone.
The next morning, just a single day before my last school year began, I spent a leisurely half hour with Bruno before I walked out and discovered my front tire had gone flat – I'd forgotten all about having put the foam in it the day before. I groaned and texted my dad about needing to got my tire fixed, but I had no idea where to go. He told me to go to a place called Shade Tree Mechanic and speak to the owner, Ansel. I babied my car over to the shop, which wasn't really that far away, but I was stressed out about the idea of doing even more damage.
I pulled up to a small shop that looked like it had been a gas station at one time. I got out, checked my tire to ease my paranoia that I had ruined the tire or the rim on the way, then walked to the front door of the garage. An electronic bell went off as I pushed the door open, and a guy hollered “Be right there!”
“Okay,” I called back and glanced around. There wasn't much to see – a desk and office chair and two small chairs with a nightstand between them in front of the plate glass window by the front door. I sat down and looked at my phone, answering a text from my dad that I'd arrived at the mechanic.
“Hey there. How can I help you?”
I glanced up to see a guy with sandy blond hair in a work uniform of dark blue pants and shirt, wiping his hands on a rag.
I stood awkwardly, my foot catching on the leg of the chair. “Uh, my dad told me to stop by. I have a tire with a nail in it. Are you Ansel?”
“I am, and you must be Noah,” he said with a smile. “Let's have a look.”
I trailed behind him as he walked to my car and squatted down, feeling around the outside of the soft tire.
“It's a nail. The people next door are putting on a new roof – I think it was one of their nails that got me.”
“Well,” he said as he stood. “Normally a tire would survive a nail puncture, but...your tires are shot.” He shook his head. “I'll call your dad, but you're going to need new rubber on this beastie.”
“New tires?” I asked, feeling bummed. “How much will that be?”
“Well,” he said as he walked around my car, squatting to touch each in turn. “Probably about five to six hundred, depending on which tires. See the little rubber hash marks between the treads? When tires are new this little hash mark is down low, but see how it's almost even with your treads? That's when you know these things are totally done in.”
I frowned. “Okay. I see what you mean. I just wasn't expecting that much,” I said with a sigh.
Ansel smiled. “Don't worry – your dad said to get you tires if you needed them. Safety first, you know?” Ansel leaned closer. “But I bet he gets the cost out of you later, huh?”
I chuckled. “Yeah. It may not be cash, but....”
“Yeah. Mowing, shoveling, college tuition...parents are the worst,” he said and laughed. He was right, I guess, so I laughed a little too. Maybe I just laughed because he did – who the hell knows. “Anyway. Have to order the tires, so let me plug this one gratis, and we'll book an appointment for your new tires.”
Twenty minutes later I was back on the road, glad he hadn't wanted to keep my car right then. I needed it for school and work, so that would have sucked.
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