“Hey, Matthew,” someone says. “It’s Matthew, right?”
You look up from where you are sitting. It’s the girl from first period.
“Are you okay?” she asks. “You’ve been sitting here for a while.”
You’re on one of the benches that line the hall next to your book locker. “I have?” You don’t remember how you got here.
“Yes, you have,” she says. “I’ve been watching you.”
“The bell rang, you know.”
“It did?” You look around. Besides the two of you, the hallway is empty.
“Yes, a long time ago.”
She sits down next to you, close, her hip touching your thigh. You turn and stare into the brown of her impossibly large eyes. She leans toward you. “Hey,” she whispers. “Are you high?”
“No.” You shake your head, embarrassed, and look away. “I’m just, out of it, I guess.”
“Did something happen?”
You remember the blood pooling on the floor and how careful you were to step over it. “Maybe.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“No,” you say, inhaling slowly through your nose, but instead of wetness and rust, the bubble-gum spice of her perfume fills your lungs. “But thanks, you know, for asking.”
She leans forward on the bench, her head still turned in your direction. “Do you want me to go?”
“No,” you say, too quickly.
She smiles and takes your hand. “C’mon then,” she says, standing and tugging you to your feet. “I know just the thing.”
“Where are we going?”
“To find my boyfriend,” she says, and pulls you with her down the hall.
Uh, no thanks, you want to say, but she’s still holding your hand, so you follow.
At the end of the hall she let’s go. “Always act like you know exactly where you’re going,” she says, peering cautiously through the doorway. “Not too fast or too slow. Got it?”
“Got it.” She starts walking and you fall in beside her, just like this morning. Only now, the school is quiet, everyone else behind closed doors. You head toward the girl’s gym, then past the music rooms, and around the back of the auditorium. “So, where are we going again,” you finally ask.
“The parking lot.”
At the end of the building she again stops to check around the corner.
She turns to look at you. “Yes?”
“Uh, that’s your name, right?”
She smiles. “Yes, Matthew. That’s my name.”
You feel your face get hot. “Okay.”
She seems to consider you a moment longer, as if she’s going to say something, but then, still smiling, she turns back to face the front of the school. “Stay close,” she whispers, and bent low at the waist, she makes a run for the parking lot. You crouch down and do the same.
Three rows in, she stops next to a dark brown, Firebird Trans Am. Not that you know that much about cars, but this one has a giant, golden bird painted on the hood and Trans Am written on the side.
The door opens and her boyfriend, a grinning, square-jawed jock, leans his head out. His name is Tony Rodriguez, and supposedly he’s already signed with the major leagues. Not that you know that much about jocks, or baseball, but you read it in the newspaper and it’s pretty much common knowledge at school. As soon as he sees you, his smile disappears. “What the hell, Ruthie?”
“Don’t be rude,” she says, pushing the back of his seat forward and motioning for you to get in the car. “Matthew’s my friend.”
“Another friend,” he says, eyeing you up and down. “This one better be gayer than the last one.”
“Hey, uh, Ruth,” you say. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“No, really, Matthew,” she says, but she’s looking at him, not you, when she says it. “Get in.”
He doesn’t respond, but pushes his door open wider and leans forward in his seat. She climbs in and, once again, you follow.
“Hurry up already,” says another jock sitting in the front passenger seat. “Someone’s going to see you.” You don’t know this one’s name, but he’s just as big and just as good-looking as Ruth’s boyfriend, so what does it matter?
“Hey, Ruthie,” the second jock says.
“Hey Bobby,” she says, sliding into the bucket seat behind his. “Where’s Joanne?”
“On her way, I hope.”
You look up from your own low, but surprisingly comfortable seat to find Tony eyeing you in the rearview mirror. “You better be gay, dude,” he threatens.
Bobby laughs. “Dude, do you know how gay that sounds?”
Tony gives him a sideways look.
Ruth reaches forward, grabs hold of the back of Tony’s headrest, pulls herself up to lean between the two front seats, and kisses her boyfriend firmly on the mouth. “I said, stop it, Tony. You have nothing to be jealous about.”
The car gets quiet and you look away, but even if you closed your eyes you’d know they were still kissing. You smell pine car-freshener and a double-dose of men’s cologne, something expensive, probably Polo by Ralph-somebody, more expensive than your bottle of English Leather anyway. There is also a sweetness in the air, a softer smell that you recognize as Ruth. You try not to think about it.
“Here she is,” says Bobby and you feel Ruth drop back into her seat just as his door opens. “I was getting worried.”
Suddenly, a girl in a striped blouse and matching red pants squeezes through the door and tumbles into the back seat onto Ruth before she has time to move out of her way. “Sorry!” the girl yelps as Ruth, laughing, scrambles out from beneath her, sliding one leg over next to yours so she can straddle the carpeted hump between the back seats.
“Joanne,” Ruth says. “This is my friend, Matthew.”
She leans forward to get a better look at you and then smiles. “Hey, Lil’ Boot.”
“Hey Joanne,” you say, smiling back.
“Little Boot?” asks Tony.
“Oh, shit.” Bobby turns in his seat to look at you. “It’s Boot’s little brother, man. You don’t see the resemblance?”
You feel his gaze through the mirror again. “Shit,” is all he says.
Joanne had been over to your house at least a few times last year. She even stayed for dinner once. You guessed they were dating, but with your brother it’s hard to tell.
“How are your parent’s Lil’ Boot?”
“Uh, they’re good, thanks.”
“His mom makes the best, what’s it called? Chicken and what?”
“Dumplings,” you say. “Chicken and dumplings.”
“Yes. That shit’s the bomb, man, the bomb.”
Ruth is smiling at you. “Lil’ Boot, huh?”
You hope she won’t start using it too. You like it when she says your name.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” asks Joanne. “Let’s go.”
“Security,” says Tony. “Jesse’s not very regular, but once he makes his first round through the parking lot, we know he won’t be back for a while.”
“Well,” says Joanna, reaching into the purse in her lap and pulling out a rolled joint. “How ‘bout a little something to pass the time?”
“Now you’re talkin’,” says Bobby, twisting around in his seat again. “Light it up.”
Joanne produces a purple Bic lighter and does just that. She takes a couple short puffs as the tip ignites and then a longer one before passing it to Bobby. She’s still holding it in her lungs and doesn’t exhale until he’s taken his hit and passed the joint to Tony. The inside of the car is already filling with smoke, the pungent tang of the burning weed tickling your nose. Ruth gets it next, does the same, and then hands it to you.
This isn’t the first time you’ve done this, it’s the second, but still you’re nervous. You don’t want to cough and you definitely don’t want to drop it. The tips of her fingers brush yours as you take it and put it to your lips. You inhale slowly and deeply, just like the rest of them, until you feel a sudden prickle in your throat. Holding back the inevitable as long as possible, you quickly give the joint back to Ruth as you turn to cough in your other hand.
No one laughs or even seems to notice, and the joint continues its journey around the car. By the time it gets back to you there isn’t much left. This time you don’t cough. You pass it back to Ruth, she gives it to Joanne, and that’s the last you see of it.
For a while, no one says anything. You stare at the back of Tony’s seat and think about Ruth’s sandaled foot pushed up against the outside edge of your blue topsiders. Despite your cramped quarters, your own seat is unexpectedly comfortable and you are suddenly feeling very relaxed. You reach down to stroke the caramel colored upholstery beneath you and think about asking Ruth if she wants to trade places. She can’t be very comfortable sitting over the driveshaft like that. Though how you would physically accomplish this you can’t imagine, not without pissing off her boyfriend, so you keep the thought to yourself.
As long as it’s someone else’s weed you’re okay, you remember Eric telling you the first time the two of you smoked a joint stolen from his older brother. When you have to pay for your own shit, that’s when you know you have a problem. He was a good friend, Eric, and wise. If he was here, he would know what to say.
Joanne laughs, a soft chuckle. “Hum? Am I right?” she asks.
“Not bad, Jo-Jo,” says Tony. “Not bad.”
Ruth turns to smile at you. “Better?”
You nod and return the smile.
“Dude,” Bobby says. “Put on some tunes.”
“The engine’s off, man. It’ll run down the battery.”
“A few minutes won’t hurt.”
“Fine, but you’re pushing if it doesn’t start,” he threatens, but then laughs. “You and Tennis Shoe back there.”
Suddenly Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” starts playing. The sound is incredible, the piano, the bass chords. You’ve heard this song a hundred times before, but never like this.
“Just a small-town girl,” sings Bobby, and suddenly everyone joins in, even you. Now he’s playing air guitar in the front seat and Tony comes in on the cymbals, crash-crash, in perfect time.
Just as the guitar solo finishes, Ruth says, “Turn it down, turn it down!”
“What?” asks Bobby. “No. Why?”
“Don’t you hear it?”
You do. It’s the sound of a siren, and it’s getting louder.
Ruth leans forward, reaching between the seats to switch off the stereo. You twist around just in time to see the flashing lights come wailing into the parking lot.
“Oh, shit!” says Bobby as both he and Tony slide down in their seats.
Ruth is leaning over you to see out the side window. You inhale her perfume. “It’s an ambulance,” she says. “It stopped in front of the gym.”
“Took them long enough,” you say, not meaning to be heard.
“Fuck,” says Bobby. “I thought they were here for us.”
“Took them long enough for what?” asks Tony. “What do you know, Shoe Boy?”
“At PE,” you say, without intending to. “There was … a fight, in the locker room. Some dude got his ass kicked. I think he broke his leg.”
“Broke his leg?” asks Bobby. “Who was he fighting, Bruce Lee?”
“It wasn’t really a fight. There were three of them.”
“Three?” asks Tony. “So, they jumped him?”
“Sort of.” You can feel Ruth’s eyes on you. “The first two kind of stood guard, and then the third one came in and started punching him before he could even get up.”
“Frankie. His name’s Frankie, I think.”
Tony seems to be considering this. “Don’t know him. What about the other guys?”
“I only really saw two of them.”
“Well, what they look like?”
He and Bobby exchange a look.
“Little guys?” asks Bobby, “curly hair?”
“Boxers,” says Tony. “You don’t want to mess with those dudes.”
“Boxers?” asks Joanne. “Like with the gloves, in the ring and all that?”
Bobby looks her way and nods. “Exactly.”
“Good thing they weren’t pissed at you,” says Tony. “Right, Baby Shoe?”
Bobby turns to him, eyes wide. “Dude, now’s our chance. Jesse will be with the ambulance.”
“Yeah, Tony,” says Joanne. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” you ask, hoping only Ruth will hear.
“Drive around,” she says, “maybe get some food.”
“Maybe score some more … weed,” adds Joanne, stretching the word. “Come with, Lil’ Boot. It’ll be fun.”
You feel the engine start.
“In or out, Baby Boot,” says Tony. “Last chance.”
What do you do?
(A) Dude, have some fucking pride and get your ass out of the car. Yes, you really, really like her, but what exactly are you hoping will happen here? Either she’s feeling sorry for you and just being way too nice, or she’s using you to make her boyfriend jealous. Neither one is good. Get out!
(B) Come on, man, stay, see where this goes. What else do you have to lose? It won’t be the first pathetic thing you do today. And besides, you’ve already followed her this far. She must have invited you for a reason, right? It’s obvious she likes you. Maybe she’s not sure how to show it. Maybe things aren’t that good between them and she’s looking for an out? Maybe she needs you.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.