Chapter 1: What Would You Like, Sir?

"See? I told you! Look. There's no update yet. Those are the same skins." Caden slapped the back of his younger brother's head.

"Ow! You didn't need to do that!"

"Don't give me that BS," Caden replied. "You prank me every morning."

"Yeah, but you deserve it." He slapped him again.

"Ow!"

"Just play your game," said Caden. But his brother didn't hear him. A loud cheer emerged from the bleachers above them. No one could hear the repetitive music from the Nintendo Switch. Caden's eight-year-old brother would wear earphones if their mother didn't believe they caused deafness.

Fernando was on the left side of Caden and Jeremy was on the right side. There was hardly any room on the picnic table beside the concession stand. It didn't help that the table was next to a concrete wall. Jeremy was being sandwiched between his overweight best friend and an immovable surface. Caden and his brother Fernando would often fight over space, and Jeremy would stretch his shoulders whenever possible. They fought a lot as siblings do. He was glad the people on the bleachers were drowning their back-and-forth insults. It wasn't quite enough though. Soccer was a low-scoring sport.

Jeremy began to wonder if going back to the bleachers was good for him. Caden wasn't a sports guy. Neither was little Fernando. But their sister, Angela, was on the team. Their mom was a Spanish dictator who valued non-American football as much as Ronaldo. Coincidently, Jeremy had a sister on the team too, a younger sister. Fort Kaegan Middle School had their home games in the stadium of Fort Kaegan High School.

He came to watch her play, but he felt a little bad for his best friend. He hoped hanging out with him underneath the bleachers would lift his spirit, but it seemed Cadan was only interested in annoying his brother. He was a wiz at Minecraft, and watching his brother die over and over again in the game cheered him up more than Jeremy ever could. "No! No! Don't wield your diamond sword against the zombie! You want to minimize the wear and tear!" Caden would yell. Jeremy was going to give himself a few minutes before he would head up back the stairs to his parents. Suddenly his right pocket vibrated. On the lock screen was a message from his mom.

Want something? it read.

im right next to the stand, he texted back. Caden had looked at Jeremy's phone and added:

"Give me some of those purple Doritos while you're at it," he demanded jokingly.

"You mean the Spicy Sweet Chilli?"

"Yeah."

"I only have a Lincoln."

"Oof, that's okay," Caden replied. He then yelled at his brother in Spanish, presumably to tell him to go get ask their mom for money. Back and forth they went again, and Jeremy simply left his seat, which Caden filled up promptly. The concession stand was just around the corner of the concrete wall. Jeremy knew his mom wanted a corn dog. It was the one thing everyone in his family looked for whenever they were at outdoor events. It was the Richardson way.

He entered the line and waited fifteen minutes. All the while he eyed the workers, volunteers raising money for a proposed garden in front of the high school. He knew all of them.

Trevor Reynolds was the comic relief of forensics class. He had a dark sense of humor. Edith Baker was the straight-A student with blue highlights who always bragged about being woke. And one of the cashiers was Tiana Harold. She was the de facto leader of the school's most popular rap group. Though Jeremy always found their freestyles in the gym to be mediocre at best.

He knew all of them, or at least he thought. One person in the back, way behind the registers, didn't look familiar. Dark hair. Freckles. Short height. To him, she stuck out like a sore thumb, but he didn't think too much of it. People always came and went at Fort Keagen. It wasn't really a special town.

Despite all of the billboard advertising in its neighboring cities, Fort Keagan was one of many of the Commonwealth's urban communities. It was old, and the infrastructure was crumbling as fast as the weeds were growing in the crevices of the sidewalks. A year ago, a paraplegic broke her arm after falling off a ramp near the front entrance of the high school. The rusted guardrails had fallen off a few weeks prior. If there was anything special about Fort Kaegan, it was how old it was. After all, they were within two hundred miles of the late great Jamestown. However, there were always new people every year, increasingly non-white, probably because the minimum wage of the town was the highest in the state.

Jeremy had quit his job as a cashier at Pete's Meats to focus on his senior year before midterms. Not enjoying the smell of beef and pork was hard to swallow. Originally he doubled as a butcher, but upon Thanksgiving approaching, he was glued to the register. It didn't help that Pete's Meats was attached to the supermarket, so dozens of people were always lined up. He didn't hate it. He liked moving his hands around whether it was dividing the loins or fiddling through nickels and dimes. Nickels and dimes were always mistaken for each other.

The girl who he had never seen seemed to be the opposite of finicky. When he became first in line, Tiana Harold left. It became clear there was some miscommunication as everyone inside the stand was questioning where she went. One of the school counselors, Ms. McKurd, who operated the stand, quickly told the girl to fill in for the missing cashier until she returned. She took the sudden news nervously but agreed to do it.

"Um, what would you like, sir?"

"Two corn dogs, please," Jeremy answered. As she searched for the corn dog maker, he placed a five-dollar bill next to the donation bin. She struggled to locate the grill.

"Goodness gracious, where is it?" Jeremy pointed to his left. It was in plain sight, sitting a few feet from the register.

"Is this it?"

"Ugh. Thank you. Sorry, I forgot my glasses at home."

"It's okay," he replied. "It happens."

The corn dog maker resembled a waffle maker. It was small and had a top flap and open spaces on the bottom where the sausages cooked in cornmeal. She took out two of the premade corn dogs and carried them to the deep fryer in the back. In the center of the busy room was an island counter topped with boxes full of chips, including the purple Doritos. It reminded Jeremy. "How much do those bags of Doritos cost? The purple kind?" It was the wrong time to ask her though.

"Where's the oil?" she asked her coworkers.

"There's no oil?" said Ms. McKurd. She inspected the empty fryer. "How is that possible?" She poked the premade corn dogs. "Just as I thought: they're ice cold. This must be the first time anyone has ordered corn dogs today, so we didn't notice that the fryer was unprepared before now." The unknown girl threw the premade corn dogs away and went back to the register.

"I'm so sorry, but our fryer is lacking oil."

"It's fine. Just um... get me a Hersey bar, please. Actually, get me two."

"Okay."

"Busy day?"

"Violin practice keeps everything tight."

"Huh, at least you'll survive, right?"

"Three ninety-nine."

She handed him the chocolate bars before taking the bill.

"It better be some garden," Jeremy added, "if they're charging this much. No offense."

"None taken," she replied. She then handed him the change, a one-dollar bill. Then, to her surprise, Jeremy laid a bar on the counter and pushed it closer to her.

"Keep it."

"What makes you think I like chocolate?"

"Nothing. You can give it to your grandma or something. I want anybody to appreciate your hard work."

She chuckled briefly.

"I'll let you appreciate it." She pushed towards him.

"But I already have a chocolate bar. I don't need it." He pushed it back. "Here." He then placed the dollar on top of the Hershey logo. "Look, now you have a golden ticket. You can't refuse."

"Hm. I guess you're right." She put the items in the giant pocket of her green apron. They exchanged smirks. "Thank you."

"No problem."

Jeremy exited the line and walked past the picnic table. As expected, they were still fighting. He continued his way, going up the stairs and onto the bleachers. His mom was waiting for him on one of the middle rows. He sat next to her and explained why he had no corn dogs.

"Why didn't you take the premade ones?" she asked.

"You want a cold corn dog?"

"I don't discriminate. It's much better than chocolate."

"I assume you don't want your bar then."

"Nah, save it for your sister. She scored while you were gone."

"She did?! As a matter of fact, I will," he declared.