“Shane, you’re late.” Mr. Kaufmann was standing in the office doorway when I walked into the warehouse Friday after school. He had a scowl on his face, and his hands on his hips, and it didn’t take a genius to know he wasn’t happy.
“Yeah, I know I’m late. But—”
He turned his back on my explanation and walked into the office.
I started to follow, but he returned almost immediately.
“I was going to wait until tomorrow,” he said, “but there’s no point. Here’s the money we owe you. You’re fired.”
He held out an envelope, but I didn’t take it.
“I said you’re fired,” Mr. Kaufmann repeated. “The only reason I’ve kept you on this long is that you worked well last summer when you were here full-time. But since school started and you’ve been part-time—well, it just hasn’t worked out.”
“I don’t get it. You’re firing me because I was late today? I can explain that.”
“It isn’t just today. It’s your attitude. You do the least you can get away with. You really don’t care if you do a good job or not. And some of the new kids are copying you. I can’t have that. So here’s your money.”
He held the envelope in front of my face and this time I took it. But I felt more like stuffing it down his throat. What was to care about in moving boxes and loading trucks? I’d been doing the job, hadn’t I? Spending every day after school and all day Saturday in this useless place!
He went into the office and shut the door, so there was nothing for me to do but leave.
I knew the other people in the warehouse were watching. Well, I didn’t owe them anything. They were no friends of mine—just people I worked with.
I swore under my breath and walked back the way I’d come, grabbing my jacket off the hook as I went by.
And then I noticed the small tear on the sleeve.
How had that happened? Last night when I’d put my car in the shed and brushed against the wall? I’d bought the jacket, an expensive black leather one, in the after-Christmas sale only a couple of weeks ago. Because of all the repairs to my car, and other expenses, the jacket had taken the last of my money. Now the jacket was already torn and the pay packet I was holding contained all the money I had left after working like a mindless robot all summer and fall!
Anger surged through me. There was a stack of boxes near the doorway. I kicked them over, feeling a small amount of satisfaction when one of them opened and a bunch of small ball bearings went rolling all over the floor. I yanked open the side door and slammed it behind me as hard as I could.
The January cold cooled me off fast. I stopped to put on the jacket.
This was all my dad’s fault! Just because I’d had another speeding ticket, he’d taken the keys to my car and told me I couldn’t have them back for two weeks. And because I’d had to walk to work, I was late. So I was out of a job and it was all his fault.
I texted Cole to see if he was alone. He was, so I headed over to the apartment he shared with his dad, which wasn’t far. Cole and I had been hanging around together a lot since last summer. He’s a bit like me—eighteen and tired of being treated like a little kid. But we look kind of funny together. I’m blond, six-two, fairly muscular, and, they say, good-looking. Cole’s short, maybe five-seven, and skinny—about a hundred and thirty pounds dripping wet. He has long, brown hair and a thin face with sharp features. Probably not the guy you’d bring home to meet your favorite sister.
Our backgrounds are different, too. I’ve got a dad who’s worked for the same construction company since he was my age, a mom who works part-time at the library, and a twin brother, Scott. Cole just has his father, who’s had a ton of jobs and right now is a salesman for a men’s clothing manufacturer. That means he travels a lot, which means Cole gets left alone a lot, which he likes.
Cole’s kind of strange. His marks in school are terrible, but his street smarts would put him at the top of the class. He thinks life should be one big party, but, despite his size, he can defend himself pretty well when he has to.
His apartment is on the top floor of an old four-story building. Honestly, it’s kind of dreary, with old, banged-up furniture, and the place is always messy, but neither Cole nor his dad is what you’d call fussy.
When I got up to his door, I knocked, and I heard him yell, “Who is it?”
I heard him pulling back bolts. Then the door opened.
“I thought you worked today.”
“Must have heard wrong.”
I didn’t bother to fill him in. Talking about it would only make me madder than I already was. I just wanted to forget everything.
We spent several hours watching a movie and drinking a couple of cans of beer. Then we ordered pizza. Stupid on my part because I should have saved what money I had left. Also stupid because if I didn’t go home for supper my dad would be mad.
But sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow, and this was one of those times.
So we ate pizza, had a couple more beers, and watched TV until my phone beeped and I glanced at the text.
“Oh, man! It’s 8 o’clock! Madison wants to know why I’m not there to pick her up!”
I stared at Cole. “What do you mean—how?” Then I remembered I had no car. And I hadn’t arranged for a ride. I hit my forehead with the palm of my hand.
“Get a ride with somebody.”
“Yeah.” I quickly texted a couple of kids and finally found somebody who’d pick me up and drive me to Madison’s. Then I texted her to say I’d be right there.
Cole came, too.
Most Friday nights, and some Saturday nights, there’s a party at Jason’s house.
Jason is another friend—well, sort of a friend. His parents are away a lot, so Jason has parties at his house frequently. I don’t know if his parents are so stupid they can’t tell, or if they just don’t care.
Anyway, they never get in his way, so he keeps on having parties.
And that’s where I was taking Madison, the girl I’d been going out with since last September.
Madison is really something. Hard to believe she’s actually been going with me that long. That’s a lot longer than she usually gives one guy.
She wasn’t too pleased when she came to the door of her house. “You’re late.” The tone of her voice made her sound a lot like Mr. Kaufmann.
“Where’s your car?”
“I told you my dad took my keys.”
“You mean you really can’t drive it?”
“I told you this morning.”
“Well, I guess I didn’t quite believe it.”
“Now do you?”
She handed me her long, white, furry coat and I sort of held it for her to get her arms in. I’m not very good at things like that, but she got it on in spite of my help, and soon we were in the back seat of the car.
I pulled her closer, but she pushed me away.
“You’ve been drinking,” she said.
“So, nothing. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Are you sober enough to listen?”
“I only had a couple of drinks.”
“I don’t want to talk here.”
“Neither do I.” I pulled her close again, and this time she let me kiss her a couple of times. But she wasn’t into it.
We arrived at Jason’s, but instead of going in, Madison walked around to the side of the house. She stepped carefully, keeping to the dried brown grass and avoiding the patches of snow and mud. I figured this must really be important for her to walk on the lawn in her stiletto heels, so I followed.
“So, what do you want to talk about?”
“I think it’s time,” she said.
“We’ve been together nearly four months.”
“You were a lot of fun.”
“That’s right. Were. You aren’t any more. In fact, lately you’re boring.”
“So you’re tired of me? And that’s it? Just like that?”
She elaborated on the subject, but I barely heard. I felt a bit like I was watching a show on TV. Like I wasn’t really part of it. All I could concentrate on was Madison herself, and not what she was saying. Her silky, blond hair, which fell loose to just below her waist, shimmered as she spoke. One of those crazy four-inch-high heels she wears lifted and stamped impatiently now and again. Even with those heels, she’s so tiny the top of her head barely comes to my shoulder. And the figure under that coat! Madison wears crop tops and short tight skirts and looks the way most girls just dream about.
But I couldn’t see her figure right now. All I could see were her hands, punctuated with blue nail polish, moving rapidly to emphasize the words she was saying. And her animated face, with its black lashes, blue eye shadow, and red lipstick, looking up earnestly, innocently, at me, as if I should understand and be happy to do this for her.
As I watched her, I realized how little she cared about me. Shane Donahue was just one more in a long line of admirers. She’d given me all her attention for several months, but I was no longer entertaining her, and I had no car, so it was time.
I stood there, leaning against the wall, waiting for her explanation to end. I don’t know how I should have felt. Angry, sad, whatever…. All I really felt was numb. Added to the rest, what difference did it make whether Madison dumped me or not? It was just another pebble to add to the pile of things that hadn’t worked out for Shane Donahue. That pile was getting pretty high.
Through the mist I heard Keith’s name, and something triggered my tongue.
“Keith?” I echoed.
“Yes. Do you have a problem with that?”
“You’re going to go out with him?”
“Why not? I probably should have long ago.”
Yeah. It made sense.
Why not Madison and Keith? Why should the fact that Keith and I had been good friends since last summer mean Keith would stop at stealing my girl?
“Are you angry?” she asked.
I thought about it for a moment. Was I angry?
“Where’s Keith?” I asked.
She shrugged. “In the house, I expect.”
I remembered the first time I’d gotten up enough nerve to ask Madison out. She’d been going with Rory Jefferson at the time, and she said no. I asked her again a week later, and this time she said yes. But Rory objected and I ended up fighting him. Keith had been there, impartial since Rory was a friend of his, too. But when I won, Keith slapped me on the back and laughed and told me I deserved her.
Was I supposed to fight Keith for her now? And if I won, would I get her back?
Was that what she really wanted? Guys fighting over her?
I don’t know what she was expecting me to say. I guess she thought I’d make some effort to convince her to change her mind. But I didn’t. I walked away without a word.
When I looked back, she was staring after me, her mouth open.
I found Keith sitting at the kitchen table by himself drinking beer and looking at a magazine. And waiting.
Keith is sort of a big shot. Not at school, where he’s short on ambition, and not with the “in” crowd that Scott hangs out with, but with kids like Cole and me.
Keith is a little taller than me and at least forty pounds heavier. But he’s not fat. In fact, he’s put together like an armored tank. Like Cole, he’s always willing to party, but if he had a choice he’d take a good fight. And he usually wins. He looks the part too, with partly shaved black hair, swarthy skin, large tattoos of dragons and swords on his arms, and a prominent nose that was broken once and not put back quite straight.
I stood in front of him, waiting, and at last he looked up. “Well?” he challenged.
“Thanks, dawg,” I said.
“All’s fair in love and war,” Keith retorted. “You’d do the same to me.”
He pushed his chair back. “So? Are you going to be reasonable or do I have to fight you?”
I considered. I’d never fought Keith. Was I afraid to? Maybe, but I didn’t think so. More important, did I want to fight him? To give Madison the satisfaction of seeing us down on the floor kicking and gouging each other because of her? And what difference would it make, anyway? Even if I won, did I want her that way?
“Well, Blondie?” Keith knew I hated that nickname. He was grinning, and I knew he’d love to fight me just for the excitement of it. So why give him the satisfaction?
But the anger that had been building up inside me all day took over and I knew I’d feel a lot better after a good fight.
Cole came into the kitchen. “What you two doing? Where’s Madison?”
I ignored him.
“What you up to? Trying something new?” Cole grabbed my sleeve.
“Well?” Keith repeated.
I pushed Cole away and unbuttoned my jacket.
“What are you doing?” Cole asked for a third time.
I shook my head and handed him my jacket. “Here, take this and get out of the kitchen.”
He took the jacket, but continued to question me. “What are—”
As I let go of the jacket, Keith’s fist struck my jaw and only the presence of the kitchen table kept me from going down. Keith stood in front of me grinning. I came up slowly, my eyes on him. For all his size, he was like a cat, and I knew I had to watch for my opportunity.
“Come on, Blondie. What’cha waiting for? Scared?”
In an instant, the doorway into the hall had become crowded with kids. Cole and Madison and others stood there jostling each other, egging us on, anxious for the fight to continue.
Keith glanced sideways and I threw a right that should have done some damage. But he’d been toying with me, and my punch glanced off his cheek as he dodged to the left and sent a fist into my stomach. Again, I was off-balance, and he followed up with a left to my chin. I knew I had to forget about my anger and concentrate on what I was doing.
Keith was enjoying himself. “Hey, Blondie, I thought you could fight. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.”
“Come on, Shane, you’ve got him,” someone urged.
“You can take him easily, Keith.” Madison’s voice.
“Two to one on Keith,” Jason yelled. “Any takers?”
I blocked out the voices and began moving sideways, pushing a kitchen chair out of the way, moving around Keith the way a boxer does his opponent in the ring, looking for an opening in his defense. I was focused now. First Keith. Then everything else.
He had his fists up, protecting his face. The last thing he expected was for me to charge in, grab him around the waist, and drag him to the ground. So that’s what I did. Hey, nobody laid out any rules, did they? I tackled him hard, and I heard a big, “Oof!” as we landed on the beige tiles, me on top.
He grabbed my hair and I gave him what in boxing would have been called a low blow and disallowed. But we had no referee. While he was yelling in pain, I followed up with a right to the nose that brought blood gushing out. He yelled and pulled my hair and tried to get a thumb in my eye, but I moved away and got to my feet. Warily, he started to get up. I waited till he was half-way, then tackled him again, throwing him to his stomach and grabbing his leg. I twisted it up behind him and he yelled and swore.
“Give up?” I asked.
He swore again, and tried to grab my leg, but I tightened my grip on his ankle until he stopped.
I’d always suspected I could beat Keith. Okay, maybe not if we had a referee and rules and all. But in a situation like this, where you could do anything, I’d thought I might have the advantage. Maybe it was because I didn’t care what I did so long as I won.
“Do I win?” I asked again.
Keith nodded. His face was red and he looked as if he was in some pain.
“I didn’t hear you,” I said.
“You win.” His words were slurred. Probably because his nose was still spilling blood all over. If it was broken, as I thought it might well be, I hoped they set it straight this time.
“Madison?” I asked.
“You—you can keep her.”
“That right, Madison?” I twisted to look at her where she was standing in the doorway.
“You beat him,” was all she said.
“Yeah, but does that mean I get to keep you?”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
Reluctantly, she pushed past Cole and Jason and came to within a foot of me. She had taken off her coat, so I could see that terrific figure.
I let go of Keith’s leg, and stood up. Keith collapsed on the floor, moaning. Jason rushed over with a towel to stop the blood from getting all over the floor tiles. “Idiots,” he said cheerfully.
“Way to go, Shane!” Cole yelled. Several other people called out congratulations to me or sympathy to Keith.
I put one arm around Madison’s tiny waist. “So what happens now?” I asked.
She reached up to put her arms around my neck and started to kiss me, but I put my free hand over her lips.
“I changed my mind.”