“Why we gotta be out here so darn early, Ricky?” Jeannie says. The sun has just come out, the full circle of its shape is still partially behind the horizon.
“’cause.” Her brother says. “You know how momma gets. Besides, it’s better than being stuck inside.”
“That’s true.” She says, thinking of having to share the TV with momma. She always watched the soaps. “What do you think the other kids are doing?”
“Sucking on their thumbs. Who cares? They’re boring.”
She doesn’t respond because there’s nothing to add. He’s right. She looks back down to the concrete, nudging cigarette butts with the toe of her shoe. All these have been sucked dry, there’s nothing left of the white part, which might as well be gold as far as she’s concerned. Downtown is the worst place to go butt diving, almost as bad as back behind the Dogged Oxen—a steakhouse that specializes in pork and beef. Her brother calls those people brown burners, the kind of person that smoked all the way down to the filter. The trick is checking out stations: bus and train. And sometimes the long stretch of Main, where people would hail one of the two taxi’s in the town. People in a hurry always left part of their cigarette left.
She peers into an ash tray next to a garbage bin. With her nose scrunched up, she pitches a few of the smashed cigarettes, checks for tobacco and places a couple of them in the plastic grocery bag hanging from her arm.
“Ricky, do your hands smell weird?” she asks, sniffing her fingertips.
“Of course they do, I tell you every time you ask.” He says, adding a handful into his own bag. “It’s what being grownup smells like. It’s part of being big and strong.”
“If this smells like being a grownup, I think I want to stay as a kid. Being strong is overrated.”
“Maybe.” He says. “Think of us like treasure hunters. Sometimes you gotta get dirty and smell weird to find gold.”
He picks up a few more cigarette butts and places them in his bag then weighs the contents with his hands. “This is a good start. Come on, let’s go get Craig and grab a couple snacks at the store.”
“Snacks?” she says. “Momma just told us to get her papers.”
“Papers aint gonna cost all the money.”
“She’s gonna know…”
“She accidentally gave me an extra dollar.”
“I don’t know…”
“I’ll buy you a Charleston Chew.”
That had the effect on her he was hoping.
He grins, “I’ll race you there.”
Craig is where he always is, sitting on the cracked sidewalk near the playground. He’s got Pokémon playing cards on the ground, facing one another as if he were dueling someone. But there’s no one opposite of him; he wouldn’t let something as small as not having an opponent stop him from playing. They can see him from a few blocks off, he ponders before every move, places a card then moves to the other side and does the same. He looks up and spots the two of them walking towards him, grocery bag swinging in their hands.
“Hey guys.” He says.
“Hey, Craig.” Jeannie says back. “We’re gonna go to 7-11 to get some snacks, wanna join?”
He looks back down to his cards, still stilling on his knees. “I just started this game though. You two wanna play one?”
“No.” Ricky says. “I’m hungry. And besides, you only just started.”
“I’ll play with you after,” Jeannie says.
Craig sighs, looks as if he’s going to refuse, but he starts packing up his cards. Their corners of the cards have long since lost their edge, they’re frayed and a few of the pictures on the cards have lost their color. He reaches into his zip up hoodie and pulls out a plastic bag, carefully places the cards in as if they were made of porcelain.
They start back down the sidewalk. Craig looks to their bags. “You done for the day already?”
Ricky holds his bag up, “Should be good for today I think. We hit the ashtray at the bus stop on our way here and got a lot.”
A tone beeps when they enter the 7-11. Her brother walks in with the confidence of a man who’s turning in the winning lottery ticket. The cashier gives them a look, then goes back to reading his paper.
“We can’t forget the papers” she says.
“I know it.” He says. “You don’t have to pester me.” He’s made his way to the comic books in the back of the store. Grabbing an issue of Wolverine off the rack, he flips through the first few pages.
“Buy it or leave it.” The man from behind the counter calls, not looking up from his paper.
Her brother repeats him in a quiet but not kind tone and places the comic book back.
“I don’t have any money.” Craig says.
“It’s fine,” Her brother responds.
In the candy isle, he grabs a Snickers, some M&M’s, then a Twix bar.
“Which chew do you want?”
“Ugh.” Her brother makes a face, but grabs the strawberry chew anyway.
He leads them to the Slurpee station, and grabs the biggest cup there is: 32oz.
“Snickers first,” he says and places it in the cup. Every other candy bar follows suit, except for the chew of course. He takes a quick glance at the man behind the counter, his nose is still buried in his newspaper. Ricky turns back to the Slurpee machine.
“What flavor do you guys want?”
“Strawberry.” She says.
Her brother grimaces again and pulls the lever for the Blueberry Blitz Slurpee. The blue sugary sludge fills the cup, covering the candy bars.
With the Slurpee and chew, they walk up to the counter. The clerk looks up from his paper just enough to see them dropping their items on the glass case.
“A pack of papers too.” Her brother says.
The clerk grabs the smoking papers and adds them to their pile. Her brother drops the cash on the counter.
“You’re thirty-five cents short.” The man says, eyeing them from above his cheaters.
“Maybe we should just put everything back.” She says.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll put the chew back.” He says. She opens her mouth to protest, but he stomps on her foot. “What’s that put us at?”
“$2.79.” The man says, then points a finger. “Now you put that bar back, I don’t want you pocketing it when you’re walking back down the aisle.”
“Mister, I aint stolen a thing in my life.”
“That’s what they all say.”
The clerk watches her brother walk all the way back, only after the boy drops the candy bar in its box does he seem satisfied.
The tone beeps again when they leave. Jeannie trails behind Craig and Ricky, who have opened the top of the Slurpee and started to pull out the wrapped candy bars.
“Ah stop your moping.” Ricky says to her.
“But you said I could have a chew. Now I got nothing.”
“And who says you aint?” He reaches into his sweatshirt and pulls out the long candy bar, holds it out to her.
“How’d you do that?!” She says. “I saw you put it away.”
“I picked it before we even went up there.” He takes a pull from his Blueberry Blitz Slurpee, then pulls out the Snickers for himself and the M&M’s for Craig. “Trick to lying is convincing them they’ve seen the real thing.”
They walk down the sidewalk, candy in one hand, grocery bag of cigarette butts swinging in the other.
They take the long way home, they’re not really in a hurry to get back. Spring had sprung and with it the first hints of a real blue sky peers from behind clouds. Their path takes them through the bike trail, a system of old, long forgotten concrete paths that weave in the background of the city. The pathway is cracked from growing trees, pink spray paint highlights the bumps in the path for bikers and walkers. She likes to jump from pink bump to pink bump.
But the way the trees frame the path delights them, even if they don’t fully know it.
She carries grocery bag in one hand, her chew in the other. The trees look like old gods, hanging their branches into the walkway.
“How old are they?” She asks.
“What?” Ricky asks.
“The trees, how old do you think they are?”
“Probably hundreds of years old.” Craig says.
“Dang.” She says in whispered awe. “I bet they’ve seen a lot.”
Her brother wants to make a comment about trees not having eyes, but instead looks to a big one on the side. “I bet this one is the oldest.”
“Older than cars?”
“Older I bet.”
“Older than Momma?”
He smiles, “Maybe not quite that old.”
“I’d give anything to know their thoughts.” She looks to the bag in her hand. “Well maybe not anything. Wonder what it’s like being a tree.”
“Lot’s o’ standing around I guess.”
She takes a bite of her chew, and regards the tree. It’d take three or four of them to get their arms around the entire trunk. She rests a hand on its thick bark, closes her eyes as if communicating with it, listens to the birds high in its branches. If she concentrates, she thinks she can hear the bugs crawling insides its trunk, can feel its roots slowly inching through the ground, hear the creak of it branches extending outward.
“I think I’d want to be a tree if I was born again.” She says, listening to the branches sway in the wind.
“I’d want to be a bird.” Her brother says.
“How come?” Craig asks.
“Nothin’ would really bother you, except maybe a cat here and there but I’d be smart. I wouldn’t hang out on the ground. It’d be nice to fly.”
He looks to the sky, watching a flock of something fly high above them.
“And if you didn’t like somewhere, you could just fly away.” She says.
“Yeah.” He says, “That’d be nice.”
“Hey, Jeannie, wanna play that game now?” Craig asks.
She agrees. They squat beneath the shade of a large tree. Ricky posts up on the trunk of the same tree, sitting in the shade, never keeping his eyes of the open blue sky for long. Craig doles out the cards to Jeannie, who only has the vaguest idea of how to play, but it doesn’t bother her.
“Be careful with them.” Craig says to her when she picks up her cards. “And make sure there’s no chocolate on your fingers.”
She examines all ten fingers, then picks up the cards, holds them as if they were a national treasure.
He cleans her up and only loses one card in the process. He smiles at the victory, but she does as well. It’s not often that she gets to play, let alone take a card off Craig. It’s best when Ricky is a little melancholy, it meant she got to be like an older boy: playing card games and the such.
They walk down the path some more, she picks up a dandelion and closes her eyes before blowing its seeds into the air. Ricky walks over and does the same.
“I wished for a lifetime supply of cigarettes.” she says.
“Why would you do that?”
“So we don’t have to go out no more and get ‘em.”
“Just wish momma would stopped smoking, you dummy.”
“Oh.” She says. “What’d you wish for?”
“Well I can’t tell you, ‘cause if I do it won’t come true.”
“I’ll tell you what he wished for.” A voice calls. “He wished for a sister that wasn’t such an idiot.”
They turn to the voice and see three boys standing in the walkway ahead of them. Tyler and a couple of his friends.
“Shouldn’t you be at home suckin’ on your thumb?” She says to them.
“Shut it, let me do the talking.” Her brother says, after pulling her back. “We’re just walking home, Tyler. We don’t want any trouble.”
“Trouble?” Tyler calls back, looking to his friends. “Who ever said anything about trouble? We’re just walking too.”
“Come on.” Her brother says, taking her hand. He finds a bit of courage and tries to walk past them.
“But you’ll have to pay the toll.” Tyler says, his hand placed on her brother’s chest.
“We ain’t payin’ no toll.” She says. “Especially not to a turd like you.”
Her brother grabs her arm hard.
“Your sister has a mouth on her.” Tyler says. “Don’t she know how to count? There’s three of us.”
“Don’t you know how to count?” She retorts. “There’s three of us too.”
“Hey, Dummy, I only see a squirt, his sister and their faggot friend.”
Craig moves his bag of cards into his jacket, as inconspicuous as possible.
“Don’t you go anywhere,” Tyler says to Craig.
“We just wanna go home.” Her brother says.
“And we just want the toll. Empty your pockets.”
Ricky turns to her, “Give them what you got.”
“No buts, just do it.”
They do, and hold them out for Tyler to see.
“21 cents and a few candy wrappers?” He laughs. “I shoulda known trash like you wouldn’t even have something worth stealing.”
“It’s all we got.”
“What’s in the plastic bags?”
“Nothin’.” Ricky says.
“No,” her brother says, pulling the bag.
Tyler’s friends jump in and grab her brother’s arm.
“Get off him!” she shouts and throws a punch, but her tiny fist simply bounces off the boy’s shoulder.
Tyler wrestles the bag free and opens it up, peers inside and makes a face.
“Jesus Christ. Take a look at this, boys.” He shows the bag around. “I bet you got garbage running through your veins.” He laughs, “It’s true what they say about your family: if you want to know the age of a Spelding, just cut them in half and count the trash rings.”
“Give it back.” Ricky says, reaching out.
“What, these?” Tyler turns the bag over.
“Why’d you go and do that?” she yells, her fists clenched in tiny balls.
“Shut it.” Her brother says again.
“We’re gonna have to teach you a lesson, show you what happens when you can’t pay the toll.”
Craig starts backing away, but one of Tyler’s friends grabs him, reaches into his sweatshirt and pulls out the bag of cards and throws it to Tyler. They toss it back and forth between the two of them, just out of reach of Craig’s hands. They make sure to grip the bag hard, crumpling up the cards inside.
Ricky intercepts the bag out of the air, throws them the opposite direction of the boys for Craig to grab. Craig runs to them and picks them up and runs without looking back. A smile creeps up Tyler’s face, he theatrically cracks his knuckles.
Her brother sweeps her behind him; stands strong and tall like one of their trees on the side of the path.
Tyler and his boys pile on him, grabbing at his arms to pin him, but he wrenches free and lands an open palmed hit to Tyler’s face who steps back, presses a hand to his reddening cheek. “You even hit like a girl.”
“Get out of here.” Ricky says to Jeannie, his fists are clenched now, his stance wide. “Run! I’m right behind you!”
She listens, she moves her feet as fast as she can. The trees blend into a blur of green and brown, she can feel her heart pounding on her chest in tandem with her feet pounding on the pavement, she hears the echo of footsteps behind her. She takes the shortcut home, jumps the short fence and cuts through a neighbor’s yard.
“Almost there.” She calls to her brother when she sees the house, she hears his steps right behind hers.
She runs up the stairs to the porch and collapses in a heap on the bench out front. “We made it.” She says breathlessly.
But her brother doesn’t answer. She looks up and doesn’t see him, looks down the road and doesn’t see him there either.
It’s almost been an hour by the time she spies her brother. He doesn’t jump the fence like he usually does because he’s limping. She doesn’t run out to him, but she doesn’t go inside either. She watches him walk all the way up to the house, it’s not until he’s walking up the porch stairs that she goes to him.
“Leave me be.” He says. His eye is pink, a line of red splits his lip and he clutches his ribs with an arm that holds the plastic grocery bag that looks considerably lighter than the last time she saw it.
She lets him go inside and sits back on the bench, and doesn’t have to wait long for the shouting to start. Their mother raises holy hell, says he’s lucky because it aint right to kick a boy’s ass twice. Says she should find the boys who did this and thank them for doing her job. Says maybe he could avoid this from happening if he wasn’t such a fuck up. Says no wonder his daddy got up and left.
She cringes at the words and gets up when the door opens again. Her brother drops the bag on the porch and sits down. He dumps the cigarette butts and puts a sheet of paper on the ground. Picks up one of the butts and pinches, rolls it between his fingers until what’s left of the tobacco is on the paper then moves onto the next.
She gets down next to him and takes a handful and begins to do the same.
“Thanks.” She says, thinking of the boys on the path then their momma inside. When he doesn’t say anything she gets up, walks around their pile of treasure, and hugs him hard. “Thanks for saving me.”
He lingers for a moment, then lays his head into the crook of her neck, leans into her embrace and lets out a heavy sigh.
“You smell nice.” She says.
He looks up at her as she grabs his hands and brings them to her nose.
“Like a grownup. Big and strong.”