On the Fence

Page 5


I held my hand above the fence, then he walked straight to me. “You okay?”
He sat down and leaned his back against the boards. I did the same. “My dad just came home . . . drove home . . . drunk out of his mind. I almost wish your dad had seen him driving so he could’ve hauled him in.”
“Why does he feel the need to wake you and your mom up when he’s like that?”
“Because apparently he remembers everything he hates about us when he’s drunk and has an overwhelming desire to share his feelings.”
“That sucks.” The night was warm, and I let it fill my lungs. I pulled on a string hanging off the bottom of my cotton pants. “So you come outside when he’s like this?”
“Usually. I find that if I walk away he eventually cools down. My mom still hasn’t learned that lesson after all these years.”
We went quiet, leaving only the sound of muffled yelling coming from his house. “Is she . . . he won’t hurt her . . . will he?”
“No,” Braden said darkly.
I leaned my head back against the fence. His parents either went to bed or stopped screaming because I couldn’t hear them anymore.
Braden’s voice was lighter when he asked, “And what brings you out on this fine evening?”
“Couldn’t sleep.”
“Really? The soundest sleeper in the universe couldn’t sleep? Why?”
“Stupid job messed with my schedule. I didn’t get a chance to run tonight.”
“Oh yeah, the job. I heard about this miraculous event. How did it go?”
“It was sheer torture. I’m counting down the days until I earn the five hundred bucks necessary to be done with this sentence.”
“Didn’t your dad say something about a hundred bucks a month after that too, though? For insurance or something?”
I groaned. “You’re right. I guess I’ll have to earn another couple hundred and hope I can plea-bargain after that. I think when school starts, that will be a huge argument against having a job.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure out something.”
Stillness took over for a while, and just when I started to think he’d fallen asleep there against the fence, he said, “You playing ball tomorrow?”
“Of course. You?”
“Yeah. Are you playing for the team this year at school?”
I nodded, even though he couldn’t see me. “Uh-huh. Can’t wait for it to start. Talk about exhaustion. School, basketball, gym, homework, bed—now that’s a schedule my body likes.”
Crap. The problem with talking to his disembodied voice was that it made me less guarded. It didn’t feel like I was talking to anyone but the sky. “I just like to sleep good. None of this waking-up-at-three-a.m. crap.”
“Heck yeah,” he said in his best imitation of me (which wasn’t very good). Every time I substituted a bad word with a milder one, he made fun of me by doing his own bad-to-less-bad word substitution. His taunts weren’t going to pressure me into changing things. I was more scared of my dad’s no-cussing rule than I was of Braden laughing at me for it.
“I knew you were going to say that,” I said.
“Oh, really? You knew I was going to say ‘Heck yeah’?”
“Well, some variation of it.”
“You think you know me so well, huh?”
“Yep. Every last annoying habit.”
He gave a single laugh. “Well, it goes both ways. Actually, I probably know you better.”
“You think you know me better than I know you?”
“Yes,” he said confidently. “Because I see you every day, and when I don’t see you, I hear Gage talk about whatever lame thing you guys did.”
“And you don’t think Gage talks about all the lame things you guys do without me?”
“Okay, game on.” That was his competition voice. As he said it, I realized I knew it so well. His voice in general was so familiar to me. I was surprised I could picture his expressions as I listened to him talk. Right now he’d have a smug smile on his face. “We will prove who knows more about the other. We go back and forth stating facts. Whoever runs out first loses.”
“You’re on. I’ll start. You have swampy brown eyes.”
He laughed. “Oh, wow, you’re really starting with the basics.”
“Yep. I said I knew everything. That’s part of everything.” The truth was, I wasn’t sure I did know everything about Braden. As Gage’s best friend, he was as familiar to me as a brother, but in some ways, he was a mystery to me. But I assumed I was the same for him, so I had confidence that I knew him at least as well as he knew me.
“Swampy? Really? You make them sound nasty.”
“Yes, they are swampy.” His eyes were awesome—brown interlaced with green. It was like they couldn’t quite decide which color team they wanted to play for. “Your turn.”
“Fine. You have steel-gray eyes.”
“Oh, I see how you are. Stealing my facts.”
“Yeah, we should be able to match the other person’s fact. If I didn’t know your eye color and you knew mine, I should’ve lost right there. So now you have to match my fact.”
I nodded. “Okay. I get it. Evolving rules. So you’re up then.”
“Right. You suck at math.”
I gasped in mock offense. “Rude . . . but true.” Okay, so I needed to think of a subject in school Braden was bad in. Problem. Braden was an excellent student. So my match could’ve been that he didn’t suck at any subject, but I didn’t want to praise him after he just slammed me. “Oh! Got it. You suck at choir. Supporting evidence: You volunteer for the solo in the seventh grade Christmas program. You forget the song. You sing the few words you remember completely off-key.” I laughed, remembering the cringe-worthy moment. “I think we still have that on home video somewhere.”
“Ouch.” He probably grabbed his chest then, but he had at least half a smile on his face. Braden was good at crooked smiles. “For the record, your brother volunteered me for that solo when I was absent and I beat him for it after the fact. But yes, I suck at choir.”
“My turn,” I said, conjuring up a mental picture of Braden so I could think of my next fact. I almost said he had a scar through his right eyebrow, but that suddenly seemed so personal. Maybe I shouldn’t know that about him. Especially since it was barely noticeable. “You hate to lose.”
“That’s a wash.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, so do you, so those facts cancel each other out. Well, actually, you really don’t like to lose and I just sort of don’t like to lose, so you’re probably right. I should probably think of something you just sort of don’t like.”
“Whatever, punk! You know you hate to lose as much as I do. And the proof of that will come when I beat you at this game and you cry like a baby.”
The arguing renewed in his house and we both fell silent. He sighed. “I guess I should probably go back inside and try to steer him toward sleep.”
“Does that work?”
“Good luck.”
“Yeah.” After he walked a few shuffling steps away, I heard him whisper, “This isn’t over. I will beat you.”
“Never,” I said with a smile.
The next morning when Braden walked in the back door and through the kitchen, where I sat eating breakfast, we both pretended the night before hadn’t happened. I picked up the basketball I had been propping my feet on and threw it at the back of his head as he walked by. He turned around and walked back to where I sat at the bar. He smeared his finger across the top of my peanut butter toast and then stuck the big glob in his mouth as he walked away.
“Gross,” I called after him. I wasn’t sure why we’d both decided to pretend it didn’t happen, but I was relieved he didn’t mention the late-night chat by the fence. It almost made it seem like it took place in a different reality.
Chapter 8
Saturday morning at work was busier than I would’ve liked, but I didn’t see anyone I knew, so that was good. Linda taught me to use the register, and by Tuesday she had the nerve to leave me alone for an hour while she had dinner. I told her if I gave away all the money in the register it was all on her. She told me she trusted me and my math abilities. I didn’t mention that I sucked at math.
Thirty minutes into my alone time with the register, Skye came running in from the back. Her hair was now platinum blond with streaks of green. She had on a flowy, robelike shirt, much like one of the shirts Linda had me buy that I hadn’t dared to wear yet, and was holding a pair of boots in her hand, calling, “Mama Lou!” She slid to a stop on the hardwood floor and looked at me. “Hi, Charlie. Where’s Linda?”
Her shoulders slumped. She held up one of the boots. “Do you see that?”
I wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted me to see. I obviously saw the big black boot she held up, so there must’ve been some detail about it I was supposed to notice, but for the life of me I didn’t see anything but a boot. “Uh . . . no?”
“I tried on the left boot at the thrift store. This is the right boot. I didn’t even notice it was missing two lace hooks right in the middle. A total rookie mistake.”
I smiled at her use of a sports analogy.
“You don’t know how to fix it, do you?”
I still didn’t even know what she was talking about. “Duct tape?”
She laughed.
“Linda can fix shoes?”
“I don’t know. She always has some creative solution for my problems. How long has she been gone?”
“About thirty minutes.”
“Maybe I’ll wait.” She wandered over to a hutch and started squirting herself with a glass bottle that I thought was just for show.
I straightened some hanging shirts. “I think I saw you the other day, walking with someone holding a guitar case.”
“Henry. My boyfriend. He plays for a local band. Well, I shouldn’t call them local anymore—they’re getting some statewide gigs. It’s pretty amazing. They still play here sometimes, though.” She picked up a different glass bottle and walked over to me. “Can I use your arm? I don’t want to mix scents.”
I held up my arm and she twisted it, palm up, then sprayed a small amount on my wrist.
She put her arm next to mine. “You’re tan.”
“My mother was Mexican.” I bit down on my tongue, hoping she didn’t catch the was I threw in there. I didn’t want to have to explain that word. Especially not when I kind of told Linda my mother was alive.
“Ah. Well, that makes sense.” She smiled, then smelled my wrist and curled her lip. “No on that scent.” She replaced the bottle, then sighed. “I think I will try the duct tape idea after all. It could look really good with these boots.”
“Will you be able to get them off?”
She laughed. “Eventually.” She headed toward the back.
I wondered why she always came that way. She obviously had a key, but if she was coming from her shop a couple of doors down, wouldn’t it be just as easy to walk in the front door?
“Thanks for the good idea, Charlie.” She paused for a moment. “By the way, you look really cute.”
She left, and I looked down at my outfit—a pair of jeans and a satiny black shirt with a little lace around the neckline. I had worn my tennis shoes in to work and Linda immediately called a friend, who brought over a pair of black sandals. Apparently I had committed a fashion foul with my shoes. All I cared about was that the sandals were super comfortable.
A while later, Linda came back into the store carrying a handful of colorful leaflets and ads.
“What are those?”
She spread them out on the counter next to the register. “Makeup ads.” She held one up. “I think I’m going to carry some designer makeup in the store. A girl came by the other day and asked if I’d be interested. I think it will drum up some business. What do you think?”
“I have no opinion in these types of matters. I’m clueless. But I guess it can’t hurt to offer a bigger variety of items.”
“Exactly. Hopefully we’ll get crossover traffic. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. The girl is going to come in and do a demonstration. She’s thinking about offering weekly makeup classes to draw people in. You get to be her blank canvas for the class.”
She said it so casually that I didn’t catch the meaning at first.
When I realized what she’d said, my hand froze above the ad it had been reaching for. “Wait, what?”
“You’ll just have to sit there. You won’t even have to say a word.”
“No way. Nuh-uh. You should have Skye do it. She was just in here a little while ago.”
“I would, but Skye works on Saturdays. Plus, I think you’d be better at it.”
“In what universe? No way.”
She took a breath and then closed her eyes. Holding her hands about an inch from her body, she ran them from her head to her waist, then opened her eyes like nothing had happened. “Just think on it. I will give you a split commission for whatever we make from the class.” She swooshed her hands back and forth in front of me as though clearing away some invisible dust, hoping to give her idea a clear lane to my brain. “Just think on it.” She handed me one of the makeup pamphlets.