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I know what those three little words mean. At sixteen, I'm not supposed to, but I do. They've been so diluted by music and television and movies that it seems pop culture's most touching uses of them is how they get substituted with little codes like "I know" and "Ditto." They still do mean something. I'm not stupid, you know.

Sometimes they're used to manipulate; my friend Hakim does that. Sometimes guys say them to each other when they're too drunk to know better; my friend Dusty does that with his frat brothers. Sometimes they're used to stop an argument; my sister and her boyfriend do that. Sometimes they're used as an apology; my step-uncle and aunt do that.

This is not what happened. She just whispered those three little words into my ear. Okay, it wasn't just those three little words. She started with three other words: "Maximiliano Alejandro Fuentes"--two big words and a medium-sized one, I guess, followed by those three little ones.

It started last night. Before that, it started in the afternoon, when I said, "I'm not getting naked. Not for anybody."

"Not even for Heather?" asked Hakim.

I did have to think about it. "Not even for Heather."

"Oh, come on!" he whined. "You made it to second base with her!"

I cleared my throat. "Third."

"So you've been naked."

"Well," I said, "we kept the rest of our clothes on."

"You must be the only sixteen-year-old who's never done it."

"Heather hasn't."

"I have," he told me.

"That's because you're a slut."

"Lisa has."

I stuck my fingers in my ears. "La, la, la-la, la!" Lisa has been my best friend since the first day she scrambled my huevos, so I wasn't going to think about her like that. Ever.

"Dude," Hakim insisted, "I'm not going skinny-dipping without you."

"That's wrong on so many levels."

He clarified, "I'm totally chickening out if you're not."

"But Ange and his girlfriend, Whatshername, said they'd go."

"Not the same."

"And..." I gulped. "... Lisa..."

"I get to see Lisa naked anytime I want."

"La, la, la-la, la!" I repeated.

"Come on, dude!"

"My name's not dude." And then, with utmost finality, I told him, "And I am not taking Heather skinny-dipping!"

And so last night I took Heather skinny-dipping.

Getting to that point was only a small challenge. The weaknesses in the security of the municipal swimming pool were the windows above the locker-room doors. These windows were really narrow, mind you, but, fortunately, Hakim was much, much narrower. He was tall enough that it only took the slightest boost to get him within reach, but, unfortunately, Hakim was as awkward as he was tall.

The only person with the strength and stubbornness to lift him up was Lisa, who steadied his legs with uncharacteristic patience. Her hands, perpetually grease-stained from the tune-ups she performed on her piece-of-shit truck and my piece-of-shit car, cupped his ass for balance, and her raised arms lifted the hem of her hoodie and turtleneck, exposing the bare skin of her hip as it thrust his weight upward.

"La, la, la-la, la!" I whispered.

"What the hell are you doing?" Heather whispered back.

"Did I just do that out loud?"

She giggled. "God, you are so weird." She gripped my cheeks in her palms and drew me in for a clumsy kiss, complete with anxious squirming. "Sexy and smart and totally weird." That's all it took to snap me out of whatever the hell that was.

A glance at Lisa stretching out her taxed limbs snapped me back into it.

In moments, Hakim cracked open the locker-room door, and we scrambled inside. Ange wasted no time stripping and getting into the water, which was just as well, since I had no desire to see him naked. His girlfriend, Whatshername, took her time, which was not just as well, since I had no desire to see her naked either. Teenage curiosity made me look anyway, though, and I was not happy about that.

Heather did a slow striptease for me. This would have been much more exciting had it not been for three things: the first was that, having rounded 75 percent of the bases, I was already very familiar with her long, creamy white torso--perfect for stroking with my tongue, and her barely swollen breasts--perfect for holding in my hands while my fingertips squeezed her nipples. The part of her I hadn't seen was covered by black denim, which she had yet to dispose of.

If she had gotten that far, I just might have missed the second thing, which was in my line of sight behind her. Hakim had removed his shirt to reveal the jutting ribs and shoulder bones I'd always suspected were hidden there. He'd peeled off his fishnet sleeves and half of his pants before he remembered he was also wearing tightly laced, calf-length leather and canvas boots.

The third was something I would not have missed, no matter how many girls might be rolling her hips for my benefit. And no amount of la-la-las could hide the way Lisa whipped off her hoodie and turtleneck and unhooked her bra in one smooth movement. I couldn't stop it--a teenage heterosexual boy was blessed and cursed with a photographic memory when it came to exposed female flesh, even if it was just an arched, muscled back.

And then, almost as if she could feel me fighting the urge to stare, she turned her head, smirked, and uttered to me three little words that seemed at the time to be just as--if not more important than--the earth-shattering three little words I would hear later. "Don't look now," Lisa said.

Just like that, a door slammed shut in my mind, reinforcing the wall of the status quo, echoing with the loudest la-la-la of them all.

That settled, I focused again on Heather, noting that most of her jeans were gone, and her thumbs were hooked around the elastic of her underwear. After they dropped down to her ankles, she kicked them over to the rest of her clothes and told me, "Your turn."

Home plate now in sight, I obeyed, with considerably less grace than she had shown.

"Wow," she said.

"Yeah," I repeated.

The other four were comfortable enough with each other's bodies to splash around the pool, squealing with the goofy innocence of five-year-olds. Heather and I, however, stared into each other's eyes in stunned silence. We drifted away, my arms holding her waist, her arms draped over my shoulders. After a romantic eternity, she leaned in close and said those three words--well, those six words. But it was those three at the end that were the most important. And though even though we're both only sixteen, we know they'll last forever.

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I knelt down, folded my hands, and told the person on the other side of the screen, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been four days since my last confession.

"Since then, I've smoked three cigarettes--which is up from last week, and it's only Wednesday. I also thought a whole bunch of impure thoughts. I don't know why that's a sin, you know? I'm fourteen. That's what fourteen-year-olds do. Oh, well, God's house, God's rules; you don't make them.

"Where was I? Oh, yeah. What commandment tells you not to draw schlongs in someone else’s textbooks?" I asked. "Either way, we also drew gross pictures of Sister Mary Sebastian in the margins and put it someplace where she could find it. I mean, it's not like I'm coveting Sister Mary Sebastian or anything, but I'm pretty sure framing Jimmy Emerson for that is bearing false witness against my neighbor."

I added, "Speaking of coveting, Heather Baruchel is still going with Alfred Nuñez, and I really want her to be going with me. It's not like they're married or anything, but I still think it would be adultery if I stole her away, so I'll go ahead and skip that one, I think. That's not my kind of sin. Besides, Alfred's kind of a..." I wracked my brain for a confessional-safe word. "... jerk-face. It's only a matter of time before she's single again.

"And of course, I skipped school yesterday..."

I straightened my back. "Actually, I'm not going to apologize for that. There's nothing to apologize for. I thought no impure thoughts, I didn't covet my neighbor's wife, and I didn't kill anybody. My friend had a crisis, and word got back to me--always does--and I went to her. That's what I do. Am I supposed to do anything less?

"She's lost. She's like a sheep in a briar patch or something like that, and I'm going to lead her out." I wanted to stand to emphasize my point, but that's not how things were done in a place like this. "Isn't that what Christians are supposed to do?

"Anyway, let me get back on script: Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest--"

I thought of something else. "And it's not like she makes it easy to lead her away from the thorns. One minute, she's like a puppy, you know? Following me around and attacking anyone who's being mean to me? And the next she's sulking and impossible. But I still look after her because she's a good person. She really is."

With a frown, I asked, "Could I get sainthood for that? How do you get sainthood anyway? Is there an application process? Because, believe me, if the pope ever met my friend, he'd fast-track me.

"Oh, and I can't forget to mention the reason I'm here in the first place: Darla O'Donnell hired Angelo Schaaf and me to steal the answers to her Anatomy final, and the Mother Superior heard us in the teacher’s office, and we took off, and I'm hiding in here until she stops checking out the chapel. Amen."

Just before I made the sign of the cross, I added, "Oh, and I played with myself at least ten times since my last confession."

"Jesus, Max!" hissed the screen.

"Priests don't say Jesus," I replied. "Taking the Lord's name in vain and all."

"I'm not a priest!"

"You're on the padre's side of the confessional, Ange;" I told him, "you're the padre."

"Fine," he said, "but I don't want to hear about you playing with yourself!"

"There are no secrets from the Lord."

He mumbled a bit until he stopped and opened the door a crack. He whispered, "I think she's gone, Max."

"Anyway, Lord," I said to the sky, "Got to go. Thanks for listening. I'll say Hail Marys and shit later." I made the sign of the cross, jumped to my feet, and ran for it.

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I hadn't been physically cornered, but I knew from experience that running would only hinder my escape. The only way out of this situation would be to stand still, remain calm, and keep talking.

The authority figure sipped his coffee and asked, "Aren't you supposed to be in class right now?" Given that I was a fourteen-year-old wandering around an empty high school hallway at ten thirty on a Tuesday, this was a fair question.

The answer was going to require a heaping helping of premium bullshit, which is best served wrapped in a thick layer of facts. In this case, I was supposed to be in class, so I said, "Yes." What I left out was that the class I was supposed to be in was located in the catholic school on other side of town.

"And why aren't you in it?"

"I'm running an errand." This was also true.

"Can I see your hall pass?"

"I don't have one." This honesty thing was a breeze!

The bearded teacher took another sip from his coffee with a grunt. "What's your name?"

There was no reason to start lying now. "Max," I replied. "Maximilian Fuentes."

"And who sent you on this little errand, Mr. Fuentes?"

Now I was going to have to start lying. "The principal."

"Which one?"

There was more than one principal? What was this nightmarish, tyrannical dystopia I'd stumbled into? The situation called for a Hail Mary—both the blind, desperate sports maneuver and the blind, desperate prayer to Jesus's mother. "The funny one?"

He grinned. "She is pretty funny, isn't she?"

I noted that the funny principal was female.

"Go on, run your little errand," he told me. "But when you get back to Mrs. Mihelcic's office, you need to remind her not to send students out to the hallways without a pass."

I noted that the funny principal's name was Mrs. Mihelcic.

He shook his head and resumed his walk to wherever it was he was going before I'd interrupted him, adding, "I'd hate for you to get written up for this."

"I'd hate that too," I said truthfully.

As soon as he was gone, I strolled around the corner and casually opened a classroom door. Whatever doodling, letter-writing, daydreaming, or, God forbid, note-taking was going on in the classroom came to a dramatic halt. I didn't know what the teacher had been doing, because I hadn't seen her at all until the moment she appeared in front of me, her eyes burning with rage and impatience. "Can I help you?"

With my cheeriest voice, I replied, "Hi! Mrs. Mihelcic sent me to pick up Lisa Green!"

"There's no Lisa Green here."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "My height? Light brown hair? Red hoodie? Kind of a mean look about her?"

"Do you see her here?"

I scanned the students' faces, taking care to wave at the really pretty ones, and turned my attention to the plaque on the door. "Oops!" I declared. "I should have looked more carefully! This is room C-101!" Smacking my forehead for emphasis, I added, "I have to learn to pay better attention. Thanks!"

Leaving behind handful of apologies, I slipped back outside, walked across the hall, burst into room C-102, and announced, "Hi! Mrs. Mihelcic sent me to pick up Lisa Green!"

It took me until D-112 before I had to move onto the next stage.

"And why does Mrs. Mihelcic want to see Miss Green here?" The teacher nodded his head in her direction.

I didn't look, because there was no way I could hide the inevitable, incriminating giggle that would spark with eye contact. Instead, I focused my attention on the teacher. "She didn't tell me, and frankly, sir, it's none of my business."

"Aren't you a little too young to be an office assistant?" he asked with a frown.

"I don't know how young that is, sir."

"Do you have a note?"

With a shrug, I replied, "You know how Mrs. Mihelcic is."

"I can't let her leave without a note."

"That makes sense. I'll just go back and tell her that I need a note. Is there a specific format or something, or should I just get a signed piece of paper?"

"I think that, as an office assistant, you'd already know the answer to that," the teacher snorted.

"I'm sorry, sir," I sighed. "I'm trying to learn but I just transferred in and Mrs. Mihelcic is so mad about something and I don't know for sure but I think it has to do with this Lisa Green person and I was afraid to ask too many questions and I know it was stupid and I'm trying to learn and if I have to go and come back with a note I just want to make sure it's the right one because I don't want to be yelled at again and if I learn to do it right I won't get yelled at so much..."

He shook his head, pulled a notebook of blue paper from his desk, and wrote on it. "I'm going to give you two a hall pass. The next time she sends you out, make sure you're carrying a slip of paper that looks like this, but in green. You got that?"

"I do, sir!"

"Go directly to the administrative office; no messing around."

"Okay," I said. "Thank you so much!"

As Lisa got up from her desk and sheepishly joined me in front of the room, it was more crucial than ever that we not look at each other. Her blushing alone threatened to melt my ruse.

As soon as we were alone in the hollow corridors, she grinned and punched me in the shoulder. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You're gonna get me expelled!"

"Come on, Green," I reminded her, "that was slick, you can't deny it."

She rolled her eyes and shrugged. "Should we grab Hakim?"

"Screw that guy," I told her. "It's just you and me today."

She blushed again. "What next?"

"What time does class let out?"

"About ten minutes."

"Then we're going to wait outside C-108," I said. "There's a girl there in black jeans I'm hoping to get to know better."

I heard her growl, but I didn't think anything of it. "Let's just go."

"Give me eleven minutes."

"We'll get caught."

I touched her cheek and looked her directly in the eye. "Trust me?"

"Yes," she sighed.

"Then trust me." Taking her hand, I led her toward the room in question.

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When people point at a teenager and say, "That girl is crazy!"; there are a handful of things to which they might be referring. They could be condemning her choice of fashion, hairstyle, piercings, and/or tattoos. They could be praising her willingness to drink a lot and dance topless on furniture. They could even be editorializing on the way she drives. They're not talking about any of these when they say that Lisa Green is crazy.

For a good example of what I mean, we need to look back onto the morning of my fifteenth birthday, when I was supposed to be asleep. I wanted to stay that way, but the hand slapping my face didn't seem to care. "Get up!" it yelled.

I tried to ignore it and drift off, but that hand slapped me again. "Get up!"

"I can't," I replied. "I'm dead."

After another slap, I opened my eyes to a set of swollen lips spread out over an excited grin and a pair of dilated pupils peeking out from a curtain of stringy brown hair.

That woke me the rest of the way up. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

Lisa bounced off of my bed and landed on her feet on the floor. "I broke in!"

I sat up and scratched my head. "You did what?"

"I broke in," she repeated. "Hakim told me how. With a screwdriver and a ruler. I'll show you!"

"That's okay," I mumbled. "I'm the one who taught him." Okay, that wasn't even remotely accurate; but it was my word versus Hakim's, and my lies were way more convincing than his truths. Oh, and: "Don't you think it's a bad idea to break into someone's house when their family might be home?"

She impatiently blew a greasy lock out of her face, crossed her arms, and leaned on a nearby wall. "Your parents are at work, and your sister is doing whatever she does."

I sighed. "So what are you doing here?"

"I'm going to cook you a birthday breakfast!"

With a laugh, I asked, "You know how to cook?"

"I'm learning," she said. "Come on!"

"I need to get dressed first."

"Nothing I ain't seen before."

"What did I tell you about that word?"

She rolled her eyes. "Nothing I haven't seen before."

"Better," I replied. "And you haven't seen it on me before, so turn around."

She rolled her eyes again and obeyed. "Ready?"

"It's been two seconds."

"How about now?"

"Go wait for me in the kitchen."

She sighed and left. I sighed in turn.

Unwashed, untidy, and uncouth, Lisa Green was seven years old and feral the day I met her. And so, even though we were the same age, I made it my mission to civilize her. It took a lot of work, for three main reasons.

First off, we were both trailer trash, so if I was going to teach her some class, I was going to have to learn some myself.

Second, she was a slave to her id. In the third and fourth grade, this meant she ate anything she could forage and beat up anyone who looked at her funny. As she approached high school, she smoked, snorted, drank, and fucked anything or anyone she wanted.

The third reason presented itself a moment later, just as I was pulling a wrinkled rugby shirt over my head, and something metal clatter to the floor. I winced. It occurred to me that my mother tended to pack the kitchen cabinets a little tightly, much to the surprise of anyone who wasn't prepared. The crash was immediately followed by a howl of rage and a solid thump.

I charged into the kitchen to the sight of a huge, fresh hole in the faux-wood-paneled wall, the frying pan lying beneath it, and Lisa, her teeth gritted and cheeks stained with furious tears.

"What the fuck did you do?" I yelled.

She took quick breaths, and the rage began to drain out of the room.

I groaned. "How am I supposed to explain this? Papa's going to kill me."

Behind me, she let out a little squeak. "I'm so sorry."

My eyes still on the damage, I sighed, "I know you are."

She began to sob, "I don't know why ... I'm so ... So ..." When I did turn around, she had backed into a corner and had begun to sink to the floor, trying to disappear into herself. "I didn't mean to ..."

I know she didn't. And I wanted to tell her it was okay, but it really wasn't.

I sat beside her on the floor and scratched her back. She lifted her head and rested it on my lap. As I'd done since we were in the fifth grade, I stroked her head and rocked her back and forth.

"What's wrong with me, Fuentes?"

We used each other's surnames because our relationship had begun with a business transaction; i.e., I'd hired her to beat up a bully. Even during raw, naked moments like these, and even though we were as close as people could get without one having given birth to the other, we still stuck to our professional monikers. It was our thing. "I don't know, Green," I replied, because I really didn't.

"Am I going to be like this forever?"

"I don't know."

"Is that why you don't look at me like that?"

"Like what?"

"Like the other boys."

So we were having this conversation again. "Because I don't think about you like that." And that was true. Admittedly, I did check her out, but I was a teenager, and she was a cute girl; although her oversized clothes made it difficult to tell.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm in love with my girlfriend." I was young. I didn't know what love meant. Still don't.

"She doesn't know you like I do, Fuentes," she said.

I chose to ignore the implication.

Taking a deep breath, she sat up, wiped the drying tears out from her cheeks, and got to her feet. "Let's see what we can do to fix this."

"We can't fix it, Green," I told her. "You broke the wall."

"I said I was sorry!" she snapped.

A moment passed, and she sniffled. After returning her attention to the damage, she concluded, "I can't make it perfect, but I can make it not look so bad. Maybe easier to explain that way."

"How?"

"I need some duct tape, a claw hammer, and a couple of rags."

And I'll be damned if she didn't make it look almost like nothing had happened. I still got in trouble, but I only had to explain a little ding as opposed to a fist-sized hole. The only thing we got for breakfast that morning was a pair of bagels from my refrigerator and a shared cup of coffee from the May's Cafe down the street. That episode, like the dozens before it, was never spoken of again.

Being her best friend took a lot of endurance. It was only a matter of time before it would run out.

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I knew it was time to flee when Ricky Ortega's roar shoved its way down the crowded hallway. It wouldn't be long before he calmed down enough to seek out the one who'd filled his locker with shaving cream.

In lieu of taking the bus home, I opted to walk. Sitting still, even in a moving vehicle, seemed like a bad idea. I only made it about halfway, though, before the ground trembled behind me. I turned around, resigned to fate.

If a bull had married an old-fashioned steam locomotive, and if the product of that union were to mate with an avalanche, that offspring would be slightly less intimidating than an angry Ricky Ortega. His tight jaw and bloodshot eyes told me exactly what would happen next. Frankly, I had it coming.

"I bet you think you're pretty funny," he rumbled.

"As a matter of fact," I told him, "I do." My reputation as an aloof trickster hinged on my bravado, and that bravado was important. See, all it takes to weaken the ironfisted regimes of such bullies is one person who doesn't fear them. Okay, that's not entirely accurate; all it takes to weaken the ironfisted regimes of such bullies is one person who acts like he doesn't fear them. The truth was, I was terrified of Ricky Ortega. More importantly, I was terrified of the pummeling I was about to receive.

I braced myself for it, but nothing could have prepared for what he said next. "I got a joke for you."

I blinked. "Really."

He grinned. "Wanna hear it?"

I nodded and muttered, "This should be good."

"Knock, knock."

Out of sheer instinct, I replied, "Who's there?"

"You're gonna get hit in the face."

"'You're gonna get hit in the face' who?" This part wasn't instinct. I really did want to know the surname of "You're gonna get hit in the face."

I found out the answer when my face exploded a half-second later.

I'd been beaten up so many times in my life that it was practically a hobby. As such, I like to think that I'd become an expert in the various punishments and humiliations inflicted upon smaller people. I'd been punched, slapped, kicked, tripped, shoved, wedgied, and, on one night of rare creativity, duct-taped to a wall. Therefore, what happened to me was just plain baffling.

For starters, I couldn't state with any conviction that it was Ricky who was responsible for my face exploding. It happened so quickly that I didn't see him move. Given the circumstantial evidence, such as his presence and the subject of his knock-knock joke, I felt it was a safe assumption.

I could only tell you what I thought happened. I thought someone had set off a firecracker in my sinuses. I thought someone had splashed a bucket of warm paint on my face. I thought someone had stolen my nose. Weirdest of all, I thought I heard someone crying.

It couldn't be me. I haven't cried while under assault since the third grade. I'd never give the bad guys the satisfaction. Besides, I was too busy collapsing to be crying. Still, it sounded like me, and more than just blood trickled around my cheeks.

On the other side of the pain from my freshly broken nose, Ricky Ortega's triumphant voice shouted, "What do you think about that joke?"

It was my sacred duty to defy him, but the only thing I could actually say was, "Good one, Ricky ..."

Jetsam

Mar. 20th, 2011 07:27 am
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There was nothing Lisa Green hated more than being a kid.

When she wasn't floating around this vast, barren trailer park in this vast, barren town in this vast, barren desert, she was wedged into her tiny, secret ditch far from her bed. When she wasn't hiding there, she was in her room, getting chewed out by her father's latest "aunt" for not being quiet enough. When she wasn't sitting through that, she was at school, getting chewed out for not learning hard enough. When she wasn't in class, listening to their bullshit, she was at recess, pretending not to hear what the other kids were saying about her when they followed her around. And when she wasn't getting tormented by them, she was home with her father. It got so all she wanted was to be left alone.

But even with the way things were in her seven-year-old life, she never believed for one minute that it could get worse; but there it was, in her hand: an F. Since she was in for a long, long weekend now, she figured she'd take her time getting home, and that's how she ended up in the catholic school playground. She went there all the time on the weekends because they had the cool, older-kid swings--the rubber ones you could jump off of, not the shitty baby harnesses they had at the public school.

As she sat there, swinging back and forth, imagining what it would be like to bring home an A, a pair of hands shoved her off the swing, into a puddle. She rescued the soggy report card and sat up in time to watch a chubby kid her age waddle over to his scrawny friend, who just stood there, wearing a wicked smirk.

Something in her snapped. Sure she'd been pushed to the ground more times than she had fingers, but this time she was getting even--just not yet. The coming revenge armored her up that night as her father punished her coming home late and soaked, and again when he came back for seconds because of the F. She had no intention of going after the kid who'd done the deed. It was obvious that shoving her wasn't his idea. Besides, she didn't know who he was. But his friend? Him she knew.

He was alpha dog to a pack of little shits that prowled her trailer park, breaking things and running away from grownups. His dad was her father's supervisor at the bottle factory, so he had a name: Fuentes. If he had a first name, she didn't give a fuck, especially now.

A few days later, she woke up early, and skipped breakfast so she could find him alone at his bus stop. She never said a word. She just snuck up behind him, kicked him in the balls, and made him eat two handfuls of dirt. That night, she slept like the dead, even with inevitable retaliation circling the sky around her.

A couple of Saturdays later, it finally swooped down to her secret ditch. Her face hot and her stomach very, very cold, she watched Fuentes, his chunky friend in tow, stroll up and look her in the eye. There was no fear on his face; just that predatory smirk. "Hi," he said, "I'm--"

"I know who you are, you fart!" she told him, balling up her little fists.

At that, the chunky one charged, but Fuentes held him back, saying, "I got this, Ange."

"But she called you a fart!"

"I said I got this!" To her, he said, "Sorry. He's still pretty mad about how you cracked my huevos."

In her toughest voice, she asked, "You want me to do it again?"

"Yeah," he replied.

She dropped her arms. "Huh?"

Ange frowned. "Huh?"

Fuentes's cheeks lifted with that dangerous smirk. "Not to me, you dummy. Simon Largo."

"Who the fart is Simon Largo?"

"He's in my class at the catholic school."

"And you want me to kick him in the balls?"

"You don't have to kick him in the huevos," he explained. "You can give him a black eye or a wedgie or make him eat dirt like you did to me; all I care about is that he knows he got beat up by a girl."

"Why?" she asked.

"He's a bully."

"So are you."

"I got better." Again, there was that cocky smirk. "Simon Largo and his friends need to know they can't get away with that kind of stuff anymore. You're the meanest, toughest person I ever met."

Ange growled.

Fuentes ignored him. "I need you to make an example out of him."

"Why?" she asked again.

"Name your price."

She thought of the most ridiculous one she could imagine so they would just go away. "Five Merde Bars."

"You're crazy!" shouted Ange.

"Let me handle this!" Fuentes barked. He turned to her. "Deal."

"How do I know you'll pay up?"

"If I don't," he replied, "you make scrambled eggs in my pants."

She couldn't stop herself from smiling. "Deal." They shook hands, and he passed her a slip of paper with Simon Largo's address on it. The following Monday, she snuck into the Largos' backyard, punched Simon in the face three times, and threw his action figures into the street. That Wednesday, Fuentes found her in her secret ditch. He was carrying a paper bag and that stupid smirk of his.

She snatched the bag away and looked inside, ready for one more disappointment in a long life full of them. Instead, she found six assorted Merde Bars, and not the mini ones either. "I only asked for five."

"I know," he replied, "but I threw an extra one in because everyone knows what happened to him, and no one knows it was me."

"Thought that was what you wanted."

"It was, but I didn't expect you to do it so good." Again he smirked that cute smirk.

She blushed. "So, ah, if you want me to, like, I don't know, beat someone else up, um ..."

"And if you ever, you know, want to throw rocks at stuff with me and Ange, like, whenever, you totally can." He added, "I'm Max."

Okay, so she was crushing on him then, just a little, but she didn't want to be too easy. "I don't give a fart, Fuentes," she replied.

"Suit yourself, Green." Right before he ran back to the vast, barren trailer park, leaving her alone, wedged in her tiny, secret ditch, he gave her one more dazzling smirk and told her, "I'll be in touch."

i_17bingo: (Default)

"I ain't goin' in there," Hakim told us.

I turned around to stare into his collarbone. Like the rest of us, he was eight. Unlike the rest of us, he was really, really tall. His growth spurt had kicked in about half a dozen years too early. You'd think the height advantage would have given him a little more courage.

"Fine," I said. "Angelo?"

"That place is haunted!" Angelo replied.

"I ain't goin' in alone."

"Get Lisa," Hakim said.

"So you're saying," I clarified, "that a girl's braver than both you guys, and you don't care that I'm gonna tell everybody?"

"That place is haunted!" Angelo replied.

"You people make me sick." I hopped on my bike and pedaled back to our neighborhood, seized by a bit more dread than I felt about that allegedly haunted house.

Lisa Green scared the crap out of me, and because she did, I could rest assured that I was perfectly sane. She was a sixty-pound bucket of undiluted viciousness, ready to splash on anyone standing too close.

What I'd discovered some time ago was that she was willing to splash on commission, and so we kept her on retainer at a cost of five stolen candy bars a week. The result was that we got a thug, and she got to eat chocolate and beat people up--her two favorite hobbies. Relationships didn't get more professional than that.

Usually she was wherever we needed her to be, like magic. This morning, though, she wasn't in any of the playgrounds she frequented, nor was she in her secret, special place in the desert hills that surrounded our trailer park. I had no choice: I had to go to her home, which I'd never been to before. Something about that scared me even more than she did.

The woman who answered the Greens' door looked tired. There was no other way to describe her. She was really pretty, and really young, like she was in high school or something. Maybe she was the babysitter.

"Um," I asked her, "can Lisa Green come out?"

The woman craned her neck inside and barked, "Kid!"

Lisa appeared instantly under the woman's arm. For the first time since I'd met her fifteen months ago, she actually seemed a little happy--maybe not happy; more like not pissed off. "Hey, Fuentes," she said.

"Hey, Green," I replied.

Before we could exchange more words, a hairy, meaty hand clamped down on her shoulder. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" it growled before yanking her inside and slamming the door shut.

I should have left, but my feet were stapled to their cinderblock steps by the words pouring out of the walls. Most I'd never heard before. Of those, I've since became fluent in all but one. To this day, I have never spoken that one word, nor do I intend to.

More jarring than all that shouting was the way it stopped without warning. My feet still couldn't move for the long-as-hell minute it took for the door to open again.

Lisa emerged, pulling on her enormous red hoodie, despite the fact that it was August. Through the curtain of her stringy, brown hair, I could see that her thousand-yard stare was bloodshot, and the snot trickling out of her nose was beginning to dry. "What do you want," she said.

I gulped. "I need your help with …"

"Don't care," she replied. "Let's get out of here."

Nothing was ever the same again after that.

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Jeremiah

January 2013

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