Everything started with a tiny little accident, followed closely by a high-pitched scream.
"SKITTLES! I'M GOING TO KILL YOU! THAT STUPID—"
The rest of the furious rant consisted of curses that would've shamed every sailor and trucker alive, which I'll leave up to your imagination. Next there came the sound of little clawed paws rapidly pitter-pattering across hardwood floors. A red and black blur darted past my bedroom's open door, there and gone quicker than the eye blinks. The pitter-pattering ended when Skittles escaped into a carpeted room.
Hershey the black cat returned to playing with his pop can's pull-tab a moment after the commotion subsided. He had never expressed much sympathy for his canine friend.
Ten seconds later Hershey darted under my bed, tin pull-tab forgotten. Three seconds after that, I heard my elder sister's unmistakable footsteps; like thunder from a distant storm rolling in. Kay was never one much for subtlety. Even her walk was overdramatic.
She stopped outside my bedroom, peering in with hate-fevered eyes. The effect was much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining sticking his head through the bathroom door and declaring to his terrified wife, "Herrre's Johnny!"
My sister snarled, pausing after every word for effect, "Where—is—he?"
Used to some level of daily drama, I barely looked up from my essay. Meanwhile, an angry rumbling noise like a failing car engine began to emit from under my bed. Hershey, while unsympathetic toward Skittles' plights, had his own reasons to hiss at my sister. Kay never really appreciated cats, or any sort of pet in particular now that I think of it. She called Hershey every demeaning name but his own, her favorite being Gay Boy. This earned Kay no brownie points with Hershey, who was already picky about the people he didn't hiss at.
"Not in here," I said.
My lack in helpfulness earned me the stink eye, shared by a glare shot at Hershey's noisy hiding place.
But it did not make her go away as I'd hoped.
"Do you know what that stupid little mutt did?" Kay demanded. The way she phrased it made it clear she thought I'd put Skittles up to doing whatever it was he did. She continued as if I had shown any hint of curiosity, which I knew I hadn't. "He peed on my pillow! Can you believe it, Jackie? That damn idiot dog peed on my stuff! I'll friggin' kill him!"
Even I had to admit that, despite being spayed, the stupid little mutt had balls.
Or he was just suicidal.
Yet the accident on Kay's pillow was only the beginning. Within that following week it quickly became clear that Skittles either had a bladder problem, or he was deeply psychologically damaged. Kay threw out her old pillow and got a fluffy feather down one, which Skittles wasted no time peeing on the first time my sister turned her back and forgot to shut her bedroom door. He performed the same service on the next three pillows Kay purchased to replace the feather down one. At this point, Kay was losing what little calm she ever originally possessed. Instead of throwing away money on new pillows, Kay took to stealing everyone else's pillows; discarding one after the other after Skittles had marked his territory.
Skittles was never physically harmed in retaliation. He always managed to vanish directly after the crime, and turned up again only when Sarah (his soul ally and protector, seeing as she claimed total ownership over the stray she brought home five years ago) returned home from work or some social activity. Sarah, being the eldest, was the only person besides our mother who held any sway over Kay's actions; and even then, their battles of words, wits, and once in a while fists, were often traumatic.
"Stop stealing my pillows!"
"Stop your stupid dog from peeing allover mine, then!"
Eventually this was all the conversation that passed between my eldest sisters. It lasted a couple months, until Skittles was finally put on permanent detainment in a kennel placed in Sarah's bedroom. He was allowed out only to go on walks outside with whoever had the energy to take him, or when Sarah was home—and even then Sarah was to keep him in her room.
All of this led to why, months after the initial accident, I was out shopping with Kay for new pillows. These were not to be just any pillows, but nice ones; meaning that they were meant to last. Kay hated nothing more than wasted money.
Coming in close-second on Kay's Most Hated list was shopping with me.
So then why was I the one chosen for accompaniment on this outing?
"I'll give you the money before we get to the cash register, that way you can get your discount without getting in trouble." My discount for being an employee of Marshall Field's department store, of course. "And, God, don't wander off like you usually do. I hate it when I have to spend an entire hour in gay stores like this because I'm looking for my little sister."
She made being her little sister sound like a curse—which is sometimes is, so I let it go.
Although I was a little miffed about the barb at my place of work. "If Marshall's is so bad, why do you buy all your clothes here?" I asked.
"God, you're annoying," was her only reply.
Twenty minutes later, having wandered off, I was browsing the clearance racks in the juniors' section. I'd just found the ugliest yellow sweater not even a grandmother in the midst of her menopausal-midlife crisis would haggle after, when I heard an annoyingly familiar nasal voice behind me say, "Just where I'd expect to find someone like you, Valrico, in the clearance section. And look, you even managed to find the one scrap of fabric in this store that suits you."
I debated just walking away without looking back. That would be the wise thing to do.
Unfortunately I've never been too keen on the whole 'wisdom' thing.
"Marie!" I said, turning to beam at the short brunette. She was actually about average height, but everyone seems short next to me and my freakishly tall family. "Marie Mattson! Wow, I haven't seen you all summer. You're looking…" I let my gaze travel over her less-than-fit form, letting my words trail off. Finally I concluded, "Well, chubby, still." I feigned disappointment. "I guess that All-Star Camp you were bragging about earlier this year didn't have anything in the rules about those double-stuffed Oreos you're so fond of."
That was all it took. Marie went for my throat, literally.
In all fairness, Marie Mattson isn't actually fat, and she can't eat Oreos. I probably weigh more than her by a good ten pounds if just for the seven solid inches I've got on her 5'4" frame. She just has one of those chubby-cheeked faces, and since she's shorter it gives her average build a kind of stubby appearance, like a toe. Her face more than makes up for it. Although her parents and both her younger and elder brother are all butt-ugly, somehow Marie ended up with a face that would give a young Marilyn Monroe a run for her money.
"Aargh!" Marie screeched. "Let me go!"
It took me a second to realize she had not made impact with me yet, even as she had pounced a good thirty seconds ago. I cracked an eyelid open to peek at the scene before me.
I'll admit, I faltered. Just a little.
"Easy now, Mare. You know what angry spurts like this do to your blood sugar levels."
Marie is type 2 diabetic. How the lanky stranger holding her back knew this when it took me until the seventh grade to figure out (and almost nobody else at school knew to this day), I didn't know but wholly intended to find out.
While Marie continued to twist and turn in the tall guy's awkwardly long arms, attempting to claw at me every so often, I watched his blue eyes turn up to look me over. He was at least a head taller than me, putting him somewhere around 6'5" – an identifying characteristic I'd found in no one besides my dad and one of my two uncles in all seventeen years of my life. This guy didn't look half as old as my dad or either of my uncles, though he could easily pass for a couple years older than me.
His blue eyes were disapproving.
"You've got some nerve insulting my cousin like that," he stated.
I lifted my chin rebelliously, despite feeling like a chastised five-year-old. "She had it coming."
"Bitch," Marie spat at me.
I glanced at her before pointedly returning my gaze to Marie's cousin. "Told you so," I told him.
"Say that shit to my face!"
As I looked at her again, I heard my sister's voice behind me say, "I believe she just did."
At which point Marie took one look at my sister, shut up and settled down. Kay Valrico is something of a legend around Eagle Heights High School. I don't really see why—sure, Kay was really popular back then, but that was three years ago. Two years before her there was Sarah, who was also supremely popular in her prime. I didn't see how being popular in high school made you legendary, unless one or the other (or more likely both of them) had done something nobody saw fit to mention to me, seeing as how I'd most likely rat them out to our parents.
"Come on, Jackie. And, sick, put down that God-awful sweater. I can't believe you even touched it." As if ugliness was contagious.
Hearing myself sigh, I dropped the sweater onto a rack and turned from Marie and her cousin. Kay piled the new pillows she'd been carrying around the store into my arms, and then we set off for the check-out.
I couldn't help turning back a last time before leaving the juniors' department.
Marie's cousin was kind of cute, if you were into the lanky cousins of creatures spewed straight out of Hell.
On the drive home I had Kay drop me off at the only local restaurant that was not part of a national chain. My friend Daniel's grandparents had founded Fender's Diner back in the mid-1950's, and when they died they left the business to their son Michael and his wife Sheridan—Daniel's parents. Michael and Sheridan had since divorced, leaving father and son to run the show.
Daniel didn't seem to mind. He worked in the restaurant after school and on the weekends, getting paid only minimum wage but working three times more hours than any other server, bus boy, or cook. His dad owned the apartment above the diner, where they lived as bachelors are expected to live. The first time I spoke to Daniel—in kindergarten—I'd noticed that he always smelled faintly of greasy food and what I later identified as cigarette smoke; a perfume as much a part of him as he was to Fender's Diner to this day.
I walked in the back way, into the kitchen. The four cooks spared me a glance and three waved before they returned to their work. It was a slow Saturday afternoon, so mostly they were just pretending to work. I noticed the forth cook's glower in my general direction, but put Carlos out of my mind as I went in search of my friend.
Through an unremarkable door and up a set of creaky wooden stairs, I found him hunched over some papers on his desk in the den.
"What are you doing?" I plopped into the leather recliner not far from the desk.
Daniel had a soft, almost girlish voice, which matched his somewhat femininely slender build. "Taxes."
I did some basic calculating.
"I'm no big math whiz," I started, "but isn't tax season, like, next year? It's August. Nobody does their taxes in August."
"Smart people keep their tax information updated throughout the year, so that when tax season does come around there's no big kafuffle about getting their shit together."
"Overachievers like you, you mean." I paused, and then grinned. "Did you just say 'kafuffle'?"
Daniel finally looked up and over at me. As usual, his gaze appraised my outfit before anything else.
And just as routinely, he asked, "What the hell are you wearing?"
Looking down, I tried to see myself from my friend's impersonal point of view. It didn't really matter what I wore; Daniel could always find something wrong with any wardrobe but his own. What probably got his panties in a bunch this time was not the denim shorts, which he had plenty of other issues with, but the red tee shirt I was wearing that read in bold black print across the front Save the Chickens. But what would really stain his satin underwear was that the shirt didn't even match my lime green flipflops.
"Do you own nothing but tee shirts with ridiculous sayings on them?" Daniel demanded.
He already knew the answer, seeing as he had given me the address of the website where you could get anything printed on any article of clothing for a minimal fee plus shipping and handling. I ignored the barb.
"Want to go get ice cream?" I asked instead.
Daniel eyed my long, long, long, yet thin legs. "I don't see how you can eat ice cream every ten minutes all summer long and not gain an ounce of fat," he grumbled, more to himself. He continued, "And no, I'd like to get this tax shit updated. Then I have to go over some school stuff before I have to work until ten tonight."
I tried not to pout.
"School doesn't start for another two weeks! You have plenty of time to go over whatever school stuff."
"I also have plenty of time to spend with you." His stony expression softened. "Just not right now. Okay?"
"Guess this means I have to face Anthony all by my lonesome."
Daniel paled as his eyes darted to every dark corner in the vicinity, as if expecting his dad to be there eavesdropping. Anthony was Daniel's boyfriend of two years. We didn't get along nicely; which isn't saying very much because I don't get along with anyone nicely. Anyway, to make a long story short, Daniel was still in the closet about his homosexuality, at least where his dad was concerned. Just mentioning Anthony's name aloud when his dad could be nearby always sent Daniel into mild cardiac arrest.
It was fun to watch.
"Shut up," Daniel instructed me. I smiled innocently. He looked at me another minute before asking, "What are you doing here, anyway? You knew I had to work tonight. I told both of you I'd be busy all day."
'Both of you' referring to me and Anthony.
I shrugged and lied, "Just bored." Unwilling to admit I felt lonely.
Unsympathetic, Daniel turned back to his work. "Well shoo. I've got shit to do."
So I shooed. Or I would have, except that I shooed right into Carlos on my way out the back door. Judging by the stench of smoke wafting off his white cook's uniform, I assumed he'd been out on a cigarette break. He was about half my height but approximately six times my weight, and only five years older than me. We did that awkward dance in the doorway where we both tried moving aside so the other could pass through, only we both moved in the same direction and ended up just as stuck as before.
Carlos put his mustached face close to my ear, which he had to stand on tiptoe to achieve. He whispered lovingly in Spanish.
Creeped out beyond words, I backed up so fast I fell backward. Laughing, Carlos stepped over me and continued into the kitchen. I flicked him off behind his back and shouted in my most disgusted tone of voice the only words I knew in broken Spanish, which I got off the dollar menu at Taco Bell. Carlos replied only by flipping the bird at me over his shoulder.
As I left, he was still chuckling.
I headed out with no particular destination in mind. I was feeling more down than before I saw Daniel and couldn't figure out why. It wasn't Daniel himself that put me in a miserable mood. We always sniped back and forth like that. I was used to him making fun of my wardrobe and never having time for me. No, it was even before I saw Daniel that I became miserable.
Was it the encounter with Marie and her cousin? While true that any confrontation with Marie Mattson was exhausting, even at a distance, I didn't see why it should suddenly make me feel so lonely and unwanted. Yet that was as far back as I could trace the feeling.
Oh well. Dropping by Coldstone Creamery and bugging Anthony at work would cheer me up. Causing Anthony any sort of grievance, even minor, was always a treat.
Anthony looked up at my voice from helping a customer, and scowled. I grinned.
"Oh God, it's you again," he spat.
The customer he was currently concocting an ice cream sundae for was about ten years old and looked totally bewildered, seeing as he couldn't see over the counter and therefore didn't realize that Anthony was referring to me.
"What do you want?" Anthony continued as I hopped up on a tall stool at one of the freakishly tall tables. It was the perfect seat for me, and I had a Goldilocks moment while I settled in. He handed over the elaborate sundae to the ten-year-old and the kid proceeded to the cash register, where Anthony's female coworker rang up the purchase. In the mean time, Anthony looked me over suspiciously. "You're not carrying a purse, so I take it you're not here to order the most expensive thing and then pay in nickels again. Or dropping pennies in the tip jar and demanding we sing for every single one."
I smiled at the memories.
"No," I finally conceded. "I'm just bored." Well, lonely, but Anthony didn't need to know that. Same difference anyway. "And since Danny is busy all day, I figured you could use some company. What time do you get off?"
Anthony looked warier than before. "Why do you want to know?"
"I told you, I'm bored. I want to do something."
"Together?" His expression showed shock, but his tone remained distrustful. Then the shock drained away as understanding dawned. "Come on, what's really up, Jacquelyn? When you're bored, you come here armed with these big plans on how best to annoy me. Like the whole penny thing. You've never wanted to just hang with me."
I was saved from answering by a group consisting of three girls and two guys, one in a wheelchair, coming in just then. They were noisy about it. The girls giggled and chattered in high-pitched squeals. I was disgusted to realize they were my age and I knew them from around school. The two guys looked a little older and talked amongst themselves; the one not in a wheelchair had an obnoxious voice that got louder when he grew excited. Neither of the young men looked remotely familiar.
The girls stopped squealing in order to consult the menu of flavors posted up on the wall behind the counter where nobody could miss it. Only the obnoxious guy kept up, as if they had quieted for his benefit. The guy in the wheelchair looked around disinterestedly, eyeing the weirdly tall tables and probably thinking about how dumb he would look parked next to one. There were two short tables near the entrance, which were already taken. The only other short tables were on the sidewalk out front.
While looking over the taller tables, his gaze caught and lingered on my legs. Eventually he followed my legs up to my torso, read my tee shirt, and then he was looking into my face while I blatantly stared right back. He didn't look away quickly like most guys do when I catch them.
Instead he flashed a flirtatious little smile.
My face instantly felt hot and I became that much more aware of my fair complexion, which when compared to my scarlet hair probably looked violet right now. I was used to people doing double-takes of me in passing because of my height, my apparel, or because of my reputation as "one-of-the-Valrico-girls"—but flirting was on an entirely different plain. Kay might have flipped her hair or Sarah might have batted her eyelashes, and who knew how my other two sisters would have handled the situation.
But me? I'm totally clueless when it comes to being nice to the opposite sex, or anyone else for that matter.
Anthony's malicious little smirk from behind the counter distracted me. When he saw I had refocused on him, he mouthed, "He's cute, go for it." Then he frowned at the squealing girls as they started up again, each telling him their order all at once.
I looked back at the guy in the wheelchair, who had forsaken me in order to observe the patio tables out on the sidewalk. I figured they would end up sitting out there, unless the group took their ice cream elsewhere. I looked him over and hated to admit that Anthony was right about the cute factor. He had a deep summer tan and longish black hair that stuck out everywhere. His eyes were almond-shaped with the hint of something Asian, but the rest of his features were decidedly Caucasian. I couldn't begin to guess his height, but his back was straight and his shoulders broad. His arms were thickly muscled.
To Anthony he was just cute, but to me he was scrumptious. The wheelchair didn't take away from any of that.
I slid off my stool and sidled down the counter to Anthony's coworker. She was younger than me by at least a year and despite her having worked here over a month, her name escaped me.
"It's going to take Tony a while to get those guys' orders," I told her. "Do you mind ringing up my usual and getting it for me?"
"Are you going to pay in nickels again?"
Grinning, I showed her a solid five dollar bill.
She didn't look happy about it, but she did it. 'My usual' consisted of nothing more than a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the littlest available bowl. Anything more and she probably would have made me go to the end of the line. If Anthony had been the one getting my usual, and I was condescending enough to pay in something other than loose change for once, I would have made him add a little bit of every topping; but I took pity on her. It wasn't the girl's fault she had to work with Anthony.
I paid and dropped the rest in the tip jar. The girl looked horrified, but I waved it off.
"You don't have to sing," I told her.
Anthony didn't look at me, but upon hearing this I saw his eyebrows rise. I turned to leave, deciding that irritating Anthony just wasn't as much fun as usual today.
"Yo, Jackie!" I glanced over my shoulder at Anthony. He was glowering at me, but he kept his tone light, "I get off in an hour."
I rolled my eyes and tripped over something remarkably big and solid.
And I looked up into a set of mismatched eyes. One was solidly brown, the other blue with circles of brown closer to the pupil. It took me about three seconds after that to realize I'd fallen right into Mr. Wheelchair's lap and those very surprised eyes belonged to him.
A/N: I wasn't going to post this. I'm not sure why I am. Masochism, maybe? If you like it, let me know and I'll continue. Get me more than 5 reviews and I'll post character photos. Thanks for reading :)