Sticks And Strings. Part 9

The walk home from the cafe holds a few more surprises in store for the aspiring Systex vocalist.

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Wandering up and down the multiple rows of overpriced, unappetizing junk foods and boring looking magazines, (5 SECRETS TO 6 PACK ABS IN JUST 30 DAYSyeah, right) was really just a stalling tactic while the middle aged man behind the counter assisted the scruffy looking man in front of him with his purchase. Almost five minutes of pacing around the store and making believe I was actually going to buy something and no sign of Mitchell. He did say he worked weekends, I kept reminding myself. The lingering and odor of stale hot dogs and floor cleaner caused a stirring upset deep in the pit of my stomach. A wave of nausea built up at the tip of my throat, I resisted the urge to gag. How anyone could tolerate this ungodly stench for hours on end was a mystery.

Is there something I can help you find? the clerk asked while the scruffy customer in front of him dropped a crumpled wad of bills on the counter, snatched a stack of cigarettes off the counter with a greedy hand and took his leave without a word, only a dismissive wave to the few pennies in change, which the clerk promptly dropped into the take-a-penny tray.

Actually I was wondering if Mitchell was working today, I said, flicking the crisp corner of a magazine.

The clerk eyed me with a quizzical look and asked, And who are you?

His friend Richard and I wouldn't be bothering him at work if it wasn't important. I tried to sound polite yet urgent without giving off an air of life or death and opening the door to more questions that would only waste more time answering. The man slowly stepped away from the counter and walked towards a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, all the while keeping a suspect eye on me as though he expected me to leap the counter and raid the till while his back was turned. I tried to smile in good faith and got a narrow-eyed stare. Fine, be that way, I thought and my smile disappeared at once.

The clerk opened the door, poking his round head inside. Mitchell? I heard him call, you in here? When no answer came, he asked again and paused a moment before closing the door. He lifted a hand to his face and checked his watch. Hmmph, that slacker's probably outside having a cigarette, he said, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling and mouthing a word I couldn't quite make out, though it was a good guess it likely wasn't polite.

Do you know where I might find him? I asked.

Out back, near the dumpsters, the man replied. He stepped back behind the counter, letting his tanned arms hang by his sides while he watched me, his eyes nothing more than two narrow slits trained on me. Now are you going to buy something, kid?

Uh no, sorry, not today, thank you, I said, moving to the sliding glass doors, feeling an accusing stare nipping at the back of my head as I exited the store and cleared the line of fire.

Two huge dumpsters sat parked in front of a chain link fence with lids propped open like two hungry mouths. They looked eager to swallow up somebody's trashor an unsuspecting hobo fishing for cans or a half-eaten pizza. A small puff of smoke drifted around the corner, rising upwards in a grey cloud and eventually fading into oblivion. Mitchell, I decided, walking up to the cornerdirectly into an oncoming cloud that swallowed my face; my lungs swallowing the rest, making me cough. It came out as more of a series of strangled barks which broke the cloud, sending the remnants off into the stratosphere in a sea of thin wisps. This smoke was not the skunk-y yet sweet kind I'd encountered in the school's smoke pit. It smelled bitter and tasted of wet charcoal.

Mitchell stood pressed against the wall with palms flat on the brick, half a cigarette pinched between his fingers, caught in a fit of chuckles that quickly became a fit of shrieking laughter. Ha-ha-ha-ha; oh gee Richard, I-I'm so soroh ha-ha-hasorry, totally didn't see you there, you came from out of nowhereha-ha-ha. He roared again, his wide belly heaving and falling like a wave lapping against the shoreline. His eyes shimmered, brimming with tears. He caught a stray one rolling down his cheek with the back of his wrist while I stood there coughing and rubbing smoke from my own eyes, not finding this anywhere near as funny.

When the hysterics died down, he asked if I was alright. I assured him I would live. He asked if I wanted a smoke. I declined.

That was quite a surprise I came across.

I'll say, Mitchell said, taking a long pull at his cigarette. You should've seen your face. The expression was priceless.

I don't mean just now, I said. I meant the certain surprise I found while reaching for my notebook last night.

A coy look came across Mitchell's face as he blew the smoke out in a long ribbon. Oh-ho, he smirked, grinding the butt out against the wall and flinging it at one of the open-mouthed green behemoths. It sailed through the air in a smooth arc, landing well shy of its intended target, which didn't seem to bother him. You like my little present, eh? Not quite the word that came to mind, but I nodded anyway.

Definitely got my attention, that's for sure, I said. You did a good job hiding it, never saw you slip it in when you returned my notebook. Mitchell looked rather pleased and smirked again without saying a word, grabbing a nearby bottle of water and taking a large swig. I looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot. Why? I asked, lowering my voice.

Telling me about your writer's block yesterday, I figured you could probably use a little inspiration,' if you know what I mean. He sounded askance as if I should've known better than to ask what he seemed to think a silly question.

Inspiration yeah but that wasn't what I was expecting at all; thank God my dad didn't come across it or I might not have survived the night.

Nah, that'd never happen.

What makes you so sure?

He doesn't even know that notebook of yours exists, he said, waving a dismissive hand. That took me aback. He was right. Nobody in my family didhow the hell did he know that? Mitchell seemed to find my surprised expression very funny; he laughed again when I asked him.

Simple. If you were that hesitant to hand it over to me yesterday, given how unfavorably you speak about your dad, why would he even know about anything to do with Systex, writing or otherwise?

Wow. Game, set and match goes to Mitchell. Before I could think of an answer, he continued. What are you doing here anyway?

Oh. For some reason I suddenly felt very small inside as my face began to warm. I was looking for you.

You were?

Yeah, the guy behind the counter said you were probably out here. Got real mad when I didn't buy anything, he even called you a slacker.

Mitchell snorted and made a rude gesture. Yeah, Arthur can be a bit crotchety, just grin and bear it. So what did you want to see me about?

My mind drew a blank. What did I want? I no longer knew. The reasons for my being here made so much sense a few minutes ago. Now, there was nothing. Why am I really here? I asked myself. Am I really going to try and score pot off someone I've known for only a few weeks and turn my back on my real friends at the same time; all for the sake of getting a song or two written? The more I thought about it, the crazier it sounded. Or perhaps it was being so obsessively worried that was truly crazy.

Richard? Hallo in there! Mitchell's pudgy hand came up and tapped the side of my head as though he were listening for a hollow sound. I swatted his hand away and told him to stop it. Hey, I had to check you were still alive, he said. You went dead quiet, spaced out on me.

Sorry, I said, feeling about two inches tall. I wasthinking. You need to think about why you wanted to see me? Mitchell looked rather clueless. I couldn't blame him.

It sounds a lot crazier than it is, I tried to explain. I don't know what was in the J you gave me yesterday, but last night I lit up and next I knew, it was morning and my notebook was full of lyrics.

No kidding. That's great, man.

I know, right? My hand instinctively went for my bag. Check it. It's grown a lot from the few measly squiggles you read before.

Mitchell took the book from my hand, opened it up and read, muttering to himself as he went. Oh hell yes, he said, nodding and grinning from ear to ear. That's real good, the rhythm will definitely work with that chord progression me and Kayla came up with the other day.

Thanks, I said, taking the book back from him and replacing it in the bag.

And you're telling me that little joint pulled those words out?

Yeah... I don't know. I mean, I'm no stranger to the green leaf but I don't want it to do my writing for me, you know? And besides, there are

those in the band who don't dig the wacky tobaccy? Mitchell interrupted. Jason's made his views about the stuff rather clear; same with Adam. Thanks to his accent, Adam came out sounding like a dam.

I blinked. You know? And in spite of that, you still blaze?

Well, yeah. Mitchell spoke in a way that made me think well yeah was a polite substitute for Duh!' I like all you guys, don't get me wrong, I'm stoked you asked me to be in the band; we make some kickass music. What I choose to do alone in my private time, that's my choice. If people don't like it, I'm sorry they feel that way but tough titty. I can respect their wishes though, and it's not like I'm ever gonna show up at practice completely ripped outta my fking mind.

No. Of course not, that's all we need. We both laughed. Then from out of the blue I said, Mitch?

Hallo?

You can tell me to fk off, but you aren'tthat is, you don'tdo you?

Do I deal? Mitchell finished the sentence for me with a stern shake of his head. Hell no, what I smoke, I get from a friend, that's it. Good enough for me. We sat in silence, just being in the moment; one of those rare instances where nobody says a word and you don't mind. Just so you know Richard, I'm sure as hell not going to force you into anything you're uncomfortable with. I'm just saying if you ever want something different from those Number Sevens, you just gotta come to me.

I smiled and nodded a little. I hear you.

Cool beans. Mitchell then looked around at the front of the store and said, Aw I'd better get back in before Arthur blows a fuse.

Alright man, I'll let you get back to it. Time I was on my way, anyhow.

Okay, buddy. He started to walk back, and then stopped, turned and looked at me with a raised eyebrow. Here, he said, reaching a hand into his pocket, pulling a red square from it. There's only one left anyways. He tossed it to me and I caught it with cupped hands. The words Du Maurier, King Size' stared up at me. One for the road.

Aw Mitch, man, I couldn't.

But he insisted. Go on, he urged. I'm going to buy another pack after my shift anyways, what's one less to me?

Wow! Thanks! was all I could say.

No problem. Stay cool brother. Mitchell smiled one last time as we knocked fists.

You too man, you too. He went back inside the store while I headed off down the street in the direction of home, looking down at the little red pack in my hands. Premium brand too, score! I felt excited at the prospect of not having to shell out more cash to replace my Number Sevens for at least one more day while I stepped off the curb to cross the street, shaking the box and listening to the lone occupant rattle around against the thin cardboard walls. I lifted the lid for a peek and almost dropped the whole thing. A small, twisted end of paper stuck out from the foil-lined interior, the tip dipping slightly like the small tail on the top of an ice cream cone. It seemed to wave at me.

That was no cigarette.

Barely a second passed when the sharp blare of a car horn brought me back to reality, along with the shrieking squeal of tires. My head snapped up just in time to see a shiny chrome bumper belonging to an equally shiny top-down convertible on a collision course with my hip.

Time slowed to a crawl. The Du Maurier packet flew from my hands as I felt my feet leave the pavement, my body falling backwards as though being yanked by the scruff of my neck before colliding with something solid and coldA lamppost I thought it was hard to tell with my attention being focused on the convertible and its furious driver; a dark-skinned ogre of a man busy shaking his fist at me and shouting an oath that was sure to shock even the coarsest of sailors; driving past me in slow motion, continuing down the street and seeming to disappear off the edge of the horizon. It was the only car on an otherwise empty road.

That idiot almost creamed me, was my first thought. Pain was the second; hot, pulsing streaks racing down my back like electricity. I soon realized that I was in fact standing there shaking; gripping the pole in a sort of backwards hug with the sound of blood pounding in my ears like a metronome gone haywire. The shaking traveled throughout my body, turning my knees to jelly. Down to earth I went, my back sliding against the pole, landing on a patch of yellowing grass surrounded by dirt, a dust cloud rising up from the spot where my ass had planted. And there I sat in bewildered silence.

Yo! Richard! a shrill voice called behind me, followed by a long scraping noise. Turning my head a little to the right, I saw a thin body mounted on a skateboard, clad in threadbare jeans and an old hooded sweatshirt with the hood up come to a sudden stop beside me, jump off the skateboard and plop down next to me with the agile grace of a gazelle.

I recognized the strands of blond hair dangling over the lip of the shirt collar. Kayla?

Jesus dude, ya got a death wish or something? Her face bore a striking resemblance to the tortured soul from Edvard Munch's The Scream;' her mouth an open oval, her eyes solid and wide, not with terror, but utter shock.

My mouth seemed to still be paralyzed, I had to work hard to force out a sentence. What what are you doing here?

I was just out skating when I seen you coming from the Seven, she gestured to the store behind us, when you just stepped right off the sidewalk and just stand there in the middle of the road with that guy honking at you, fk, I thought for sure you were gonna be crushed. Then you made that vault right into the lamppost and just went thud to the ground. I had to make sure you were alive.

Wait, what? The thought struck me like a slap in the face. No way, did I really just stop in front of a car?

Uh, yeah! Kayla said in the same Duh!' tone Mitchell had used not five minutes ago. How could you not see that coming?

I was distracted. The words sounded wimpy and halfhearted, even I didn't buy it and I was the one standing there.

Kayla stared at me and then planted a flat palm across my forehead. I felt my cheeks flush at her cold, yet soft, touch. You must be sick or something, she said. You just don't stop in front of moving cars. Cue up another slap. It sounded too fantastic. A small part of me wondered if I suffered an out of body experience, even though I didn't really believe in such things.

I'm not sick, I said, pushing her hand away. Of course I had no other plausible explanation for this apparent act of idiocy. The event replayed in my mind like a tape loop; there I was on the sidewalk, no cars coming in either direction, I've just lifted up the lid to peek inside the pack

Crap! The pack! In the ensuing madness, I forgot all about it. Ignoring the pain in my back, I sprang to my feet, my head whipping back and forth, left and right while my eyes tracked the ground all around me. No pack to be found.

Richard?

Oh where is it?

What?

Where could it be? Damn it!

Where's what? Kayla repeated a little less patiently. Did you lose something?

Yeah mycigarette pack, I was holding it when I bailed, must've flown somewhere. A weak lie at best but after the scare I'd just had, no way was I in any mood to re-justify having a joint in my possession, not today.

It's gotta be around here somewhere, Kayla said, moving her head about without getting up from her spot on the curb. It can't have gone too far.

I sure hope so.

Oh hello, is that it? Kayla looked to her left, reaching a skinny arm out to the recessed part of the curb where the storm drains run parallel beneath the lip.

Du Maurier? I asked.

Yep. She stood, bent over to pick it up when a puzzled look came over her. Looks kind of empty, she said, pursing her lips and squinting with one eye as she moved to pass it to me. My hand moved to take it and then I watched in horror as a long, white object fell from the open pack and rolled along the bumpy surface of the sidewalk, coming to rest at the toe of her shoe. Whoops. I froze watching Kayla pick it up, holding it in front of her squinting eye between pinched thumb and middle finger, like it was a delicate object requiring only the gentlest of touch.

Huh, interesting, she said. You roll your own? I felt a wave of relief begin to wash over me as it began to look like I might just escape that unpleasant confrontation after alluntil she held it up to her nose and snuffed deeply, turning relief into panic in the blink of an eye.

Kayla stood in front of me with one hand on her hip, waving the joint in the air like a conductor waving his baton. Her squinted eyes turned onto me while pressing down on the lip of the skateboard with her foot, tipping it up on its back wheels. Interesting smelling cigarette you got here, Richard, she said.

Oh if only magical powers were a reality, how I would've loved to turn invisible.

Apparently fate had decided I wasn't going to dodge the bullet this time.

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