The trek across the asphalt and brutal heat coming from the sun made the sliding doors ahead appear as a mirage. New Mexico. New Mexico. Arizona. New Mexico. New Mexico. New Mexico. One out-of-state car in the entire row of parking spots. Probably one in the entire lot. I walked past my therapist’s office and other stores to the Wal-Mart. Cool air slammed into me as I entered. I wandered through the aisles of electronics and stopped at a large television playing a loop of a children’s movie. It was loud and vibrant, opposite of the ocean CD that played in the waiting room for comfort. My guilt dissipated into relief.
In my peripheral vision I saw a guy approaching, his dark hair cropped close to his scalp and blue Wal-Mart shirt partially untucked from his khaki pants.
“Can I, uh, help you find something?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said.
“All right.” He stood near, making no attempt to leave. I recognized him; he’d graduated when I was a sophomore. He and his friends smoked weed behind the locker rooms.
I waited for him to leave, go to the pet aisle and help some old lady lift cat food into her cart. Instead, he leaned against the display, slipped a hand into his pocket, and pulled out a scuffed, gray flip phone. I pretended to study the movies in front of me.
“I know who you are, you know,” he said, his eyes trained on the ancient cell phone.
“So? You don’t need to be Sherlock to know who’s who around here.”
“You’re the girl whose friend died riding her bike,” he said, as though he was telling me it was hot outside. I knew I should’ve been horrified, or upset, but I couldn’t form the appropriate response. He was the first person to say it. Everyone else treated me that way. I knew they thought it, pitied me, but they never said it. My brain took too long to process his words, but he waited.
It’s funny. When we’re younger, that’s all we want: parents to stop grounding us. When we’re older we finally realize why it’s important. Too bad letting you get away with everything won’t work.
“Actually, most people call me Shy,” I finally said.
I turned away, not wanting to hear what always came next.
“Yeah, I guess Shy is simpler. I’m Wes,” he said.
“Yeah, I know, the town screw-up,” I said. The words were sharper than I intended.
“It’s actually just Wes.”
“Whatever. Don’t you have diapers to restock?”
He raised one eyebrow and nodded to himself before he shoved his weight off the display and walked away.
“Wait, where are you going?”
My question was ridiculous, but he didn’t point it out.
“Outside, it’s my break,” he said.
I followed him to the “employees only” door. He held it open for me. I wondered if this would get him fired. Standing hesitantly between the time-card holder and the lockers, I was unsure if I needed to look out for other employees. He pulled a lighter and a pack of cigarettes from a locker, returned his time card to its slot, and led me out the backdoor. He pulled out a cigarette, offered me one, and smirked when I shook my head.
Wes rolled the unlit cigarette between his thumb and index finger and we both hovered close to the wall to avoid the sun. We stood in silence for a few minutes before he finally lit it. I tried not to cough, not wanting to be rude. Worrying that I couldn’t think of anything to say to him in the growing silence, I became aware of every breath I sucked in. I stepped away from the wall and instantly felt the dry heat of the sun. I thought my makeup was going to slide off my face with the drops of sweat that formed around my hairline.
“Where are you going?”
His tone didn’t reveal if he wanted me to stay.
“To my therapy appointment. You know, because I’ve got a dead friend?” I tilted my head in the direction of the office.
He nodded a bit before replying, “You ever notice how therapist reads the ‘the rapist’?”
“Can’t say I have. But thanks for that interesting thought.”
“My break is almost over anyway,” he said. “It’s this time every day, in case you ever wanna rebel and smoke.” He raised one eyebrow again and it seemed like a challenge.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said.
I trudged across the asphalt, my t-shirt sticking to my lower back from sweat by the time I arrived. I knew Dr. Anderson would let my late arrival go.
My mom picked me up after she got my sister, Lorraine, from swim practice and took us home. I went straight upstairs to take a shower before Lorraine.
“Shy! Come on, I need to get the chlorine out of my hair! I don’t want it to turn green!” Lorraine said after I already had the water running.
“You could have showered at the pool!”
I heard Lorraine stomp away. Two months ago she would have broken down the door if I tried to shower before her when she had chlorine in her hair.
My shirt was plastered to my back from my still-damp hair, the smell of cucumber soap and coconut conditioner surrounded me and I felt refreshed after scrubbing the sweat from my body. Lorraine jumped into the bathroom with the steam from my shower still pouring out. Mom was in the kitchen leaning against the counter and flipping through a magazine when I entered. She looked up and set down the magazine.
“The guy who hit your friend with his car, he lives here.” He pulled a carton of eggs from the backseat. “I thought you should have the chance to blame him.”
“Come here,” she gestured to a chair. I sat down and she pulled my hair over the back.
“Look at how long this has gotten.” She combed her fingers through sections and I felt my muscles relax at the sensation.
“You look just like a princess out of a fairy tale. Long hair like gold.” Her fingers twisted the pieces closest to my scalp, French braiding hair that went past my waistline. While she braided, she talked about SAT’s and college applications. I let her talk without responding.
* * *
Two days later, I went straight to the side of Wal-Mart after my mom’s car was out of sight. The side door opened after a few minutes and Wes settled against the wall, setting a Monster Energy drink down beside him. He didn’t look surprised to see me. He offered a cigarette and huffed a laugh when I shook my head.
“I prefer my lungs cancer-free,” I said.
“Does your mom drop you off really early for therapy or something?” he asked.
“No, I was late last time.”
“And this time?”
“This time I’m not going.”
“It’s in a great location, isn’t it?” Wes asked.
“The therapist’s office. Far enough from the hospital to take comfort in the fact that you aren’t crazy enough for a padded cell, close enough to remember that it’s still a possibility.”
“You really know how to give a girl butterflies.” I scuffed my sneaker on the asphalt.
“And you’re still here talking to me instead of your therapist. He must be really terrible.”
“It’s just… bullshit really. Like talking to some shrink is going to make your problems disappear.”
I wondered if he’d rather be collecting carts and greeting pajama-clad customers but not knowing didn’t stop me. Words spit out, things I would have told Sydney, had she been here.
“Seriously though, how sick is that? ‘Oh, your best friend died? Sit here, talk about your dream, pay me, and you’ll feel better.’ I just want everyone to stop seeing me as the girl with the dead best friend. It’s bad enough she’s gone. Do I have to be gone too?”
A car backfired, making me jump. I kicked my foot against the wall before leaning back again.
“You ever light the extra lint on your socks on fire?” Wes finally asked.
I looked over at him. The unlit cigarette in his hands, forgotten as he waited for my reply.
“No, but I’m guessing you did,” I said.
“What was your childhood? Let me guess, you never even crashed a party either? Or. . .”
“Skipped homeroom to get Slurpee’s at the 7-11? No, sorry to disappoint. Ditching therapy session are about as ‘badass’ as I get,” I said.
“Ah, see that’s where you don’t get it. Doing those things are not about being badass, it’s about living. You’re doing life wrong.”
“And working at Wal-Mart right after high school instead of going to college or getting a real career is living? You’re right, I am clearly the one ‘doing life wrong’.”
Wes didn’t flinch. I couldn’t have been the first one to say it. I didn’t mean to say it. But he had yet to censor himself around me, and I found it easy not to either.
“So, when do you think your parents will notice you aren’t going to therapy?” Wes asked, picking up the Monster Energy drink from the ground after placing his unused cigarette back in his pack.
“No idea. But I doubt they’ll get mad when they do.” I felt certain that they’d conveniently accept that I no longer followed every rule.
“Ah, they’re letting you get away with everything so you’ll get better.”
“Pretty much,” I asked.
“It’s funny. When we’re younger, that’s all we want: parents to stop grounding us. When we’re older, we finally realize why it’s important. Too bad letting you get away with everything won’t work.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You’re a former goody-two-shoes who’s ditching therapy to talk to a cigarette-smoking Wal-Mart employee. Why?”
“I needed to talk to someone.”
“You have a shrink. A family. And other friends, I’m sure, who all want to talk. That’s not it,” he said. He was right but I didn’t admit it. “What are you going to do after you graduate? Take a year off, go to Europe and ‘find yourself’?” he asked. I appreciated the subject change.
“College, not sure where though. Probably Southwestern. It’s where my mom went; I know she wants that.”
“And good girls like you always listen.”
“And impulsive ‘living life’ people like you smoke outside of a Wal-Mart.”
He ignored the jab and jumped away from the wall, spreading his arms out from his sides. “That’s what you need!” he said.
“A Monster or a job?”
“Impulse! What do you want to do? Something you didn’t plan to do today, didn’t plan to do this month? Something that you know might even upset your parents?”
“I don’t want to go to therapy.”
“Seriously, something you were never brave enough to do?”
“I—,” I couldn’t think. My life was a series of checklists, not spontaneous decisions. Get good grades. Crush on the football captain. Watch horror movies with Sydney. Go to college. I was a walking stereotype, a parent’s wet-dream. I never even snuck out. I raked loose flyaways of my hair out of my eyes. “I want to… to cut my hair. I want to cut my hair, short.”
His arms dropped a bit but he still smiled. “Okay! That’s what we’re going to do. Not what I had in mind, but if that’s what you wish, Rapunzel.”
“That’s what I want to do.”
“Is this like the biblical thing? Cut your hair and it shall set you free? Should I call you Samson instead?” he asked.
“Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut. So I’m gonna go with no, this isn’t a biblical thing,” I said.
“Sunday School attendance was never a specialty of mine.”
“I don’t think any form of attendance is a specialty of yours,” I said, nodding back to the store where I was sure his second shift would be starting soon. He shrugged but kept leading me to his beat up Honda Accord that was three different colors between the hood and two front doors.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
* * *
When I got home I almost ran straight upstairs. I didn’t think I would actually go through with it. I thought my parents would find out and my mini-adventure would end before it started, but I mentioned hanging out with friends and there were no more questions. My mom heard me close the front door and was in the foyer before I could reach the stairs.
“Oh! Shy… you cut it. Your hair, you… cut it?”
I could tell she was sad, but she tried to hide it.
“Well. Well, I imagine it’s a lot nicer for the summer. Cooler, right?” she said.
“Yeah, it’s lighter. I feel lighter.”
Her shoulders went down a bit and she even smiled.
“It looks nice, it really does.”
I smiled back and went up to my room, enjoying the way the feathery layers brushed against my cheeks with each step. But I had to wonder if she meant it.
* * *
A few days later I met Wes outside the Wal-Mart, and he didn’t even bother to pull out a cigarette. Instead we went straight to his car.
“Where are we going?”
“Where do you want to go?” He opened the passenger door for me but I didn’t get in.
“You really should be here for your second shift.”
“I don’t have a second shift.”
“Well, I have studying to do, so I need to stay here.”
“Studying? It’s summer, how could you have studying?”
I was already pulling a stack of flashcards from my bag. “SAT studying. You know, for those of us who want to do something after high school?” I wondered how long it would take for him to stop being nice to me and why I wanted to push him until I found out.
“Well, you can do that on the way. Or later. Or never. Come on, I got my second shift off and my job is not in danger, now will you get in the car? You’re in training, remember?”
I got into the car and he went around to his side and got in.
“Training? For what, cart returning—”
“Shut up. Training for impulsive decisions.” He had excessive energy as he maneuvered the car out of the parking lot and for a moment I worried that he was on drugs, but then I realized he was happy. Maybe even excited.
“Ah, but training implies a schedule, which implies a lack of impulsive decision-making.”
“Alright, whatever Miss SAT. What do you want to do today? Get a tattoo? Join a nudist colony?”
He shifted the car in park in the middle of the street. I looked around us, afraid that at any moment a semi would slam into us but no one was around.
“Seriously? You are failing as my prodigy.”
“I’ll consider that a compliment.”
“Come on, Shy. Anything. As stupid as burning ants with magnifying glasses or as big as flying a hot air balloon, just something.”
“Fine. I want to… learn to drive stick.” I noticed the way he pumped the extra pedal with his left foot and slid the stick over the first time riding in his car and something about it made me want to try.
“Okay. Okay! Um, do you know anything about driving stick?”
“Other than that you drive a car that is, no.”
He blew out a breath.
“You know what, never mind, I need to study anyway.”
“Hang on, I was just thinking about where to start, relax. Okay, well first watch me drive and listen. Listen to how the engine sounds right before I switch the gears.”
We drove around for two blocks before he pulled over. I felt my heart thud the way it did before I got on a roller-coaster as we switched seats. I fell in, far from the wheel and couldn’t reach the pedals even with my toes pointed. Wes laughed.
“Reach under the seat, there’s a bar to slide the chair forward with.”
After I was close enough, he started to get into the numbers and position of the gears.
“Hold up, André the Giant, I’m still looking through the steering wheel center, not above it.”
“That’s as high as the seat goes.”
“Seriously. It wasn’t made for nine-year-olds.”
“I’ll be eighteen in two months. That still doesn’t change the fact that I can’t see out the window.”
“Okay, hold on.” He got out, went to his trunk, grabbed something and came around to my door.
I stepped out to find him holding two thick Yellow Books.
He set both down on my seat.
I picked one of the books up and handed it back to him. “I don’t know how short you think I am, but I’m pretty sure four inches will work.”
Once we settled back into the car, he lectured on the gears and how to let off the clutch slowly. He didn’t mention the clutch punched back, and it got stuck before second gear if you didn’t slide it just right. We stalled every six feet. Slowly, every six feet turned to every block, and then only when I stopped. When I was comfortable, he read my vocab words, but stopped when I let the car drift over the center divider if I couldn’t remember the answer. When my phone rang, I realized the time.
“Mom?” I said after pulling the car over.
“Oh thank… where are you?”
“I thought I told you I was hanging with my friend again today?”
“No. I don’t think you did.”
“I’ll be home soon. We were just talking. Catching up before school starts.”
“Okay, be home for dinner.”
I heard her sigh on the other end and tell my dad what was going on.
I hung up and closed my eyes until I heard Wes laughing.
“I guess I’m back in high school?”
“I didn’t say that. I didn’t even lie.”
“Uh uh. Not lying. Just impulsively deciding to not give the full truth, right?”
* * *
Wes had almost become an agreement. We’d be each other’s companion, so neither of us had to focus on reality. We’d hung out together for three weeks, and now I could drive his car without even stuttering at a stop sign. But I didn’t have any more ideas on what to do.
I arrived at the Wal-Mart and waited at the side door, but Wes didn’t show. I didn’t see him gathering carts so I went inside and found him in the car section helping an older man pick out an As-Seen-On-TV headlight cleaner. When he saw me, he quickly helped the man by putting the two bottles in his cart and sending him on his way.
“Did you finally decide to join a trapeze act? Are you coming to say goodbye?”
I laughed and shook my head.
“I came in late today. I’ll be off in five minutes.”
I nodded and waited for him outside.
“So what’s the plan?”
“Come on, Shy, don’t be shy.”
“Clever. I don’t have one.”
“Not even robbing a casino? Finding Atlantis? I guess we can just talk. I have another shift today that I probably shouldn’t miss.” He pulled out a cigarette and I held out my hand for one, too.
He raised his right eyebrow. I realized that was his way of calling bullshit.
I took it and he pulled out another for himself.
“I thought you liked your lungs cancer-free?”
“I don’t know what I like. I’ve always liked what my parents liked.”
Wes didn’t reply.
“I’m no expert, but aren’t we supposed to light these?”
He pulled out his lighter, lit mine and watched as I put it between lips and inhaled. It burned like I was swallowing embers, but I was determined not to cough. My eyes watered and my brain felt fuzzy, but I didn’t cough. Wes lit his own and we fell back into silence.
“Guess I’m fired,” Wes said eventually.
“What? It hasn’t been fifteen minutes.”
“From being the person you talk to. You haven’t said anything.”
“I’m sorry. I just,” I struggled with my words. “One person is responsible for my life basically turning to shit and I can’t even fight for justice because it was an accident. My life is irreversibly changed, and he gets to live unaffected by it all. I mean, I’m sure he feels bad, but—”
“But it’s not enough. Want to egg his house? Slash his tires?”
“No. Yes, but no. I mean, it’s not his fault. It is, but…”
“Well, maybe something bigger’ll get him. He’ll go skydiving in celebration and get taken out by a blimp.”
“Yeah. Maybe. Maybe I do want to egg his house. I don’t know, I just—”
“Need someone to blame.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think I do,” I said with an exhale.
We finished the cigarettes, mine burning out while I talked. Wes tossed his on the ground to join the countless others, but I took mine to the ashtray attached to the trashcan.
* * *
The next day when I met Wes, he was already in his car with the air on.
“Where are we going?”
I closed my eyes as we drove. When the car slowed to stop and Wes nudged my arm I reopened them. He pointed out the window to the only house I could see. It was a small, ranch style home that looked out of place in the dirt landscape. It had no driveway, only a little patch of grass close to the front door.
“Where are we?”
“The guy who hit your friend with his car, he lives here.” He pulled a carton of eggs from the backseat. “I thought you should have the chance to blame him.”
I eyed the carton.
“I—I can’t. I can’t do that to him.”
“It’s okay, I get it. You don’t have to convince me. We’ll head back, it’s fine.”
Wes didn’t push me. He let it go. He became my parents. He became my sister. Dr. Anderson. He was everyone but who I wanted, who I needed him to be.
“No. You don’t get it. You can’t get it. I want to, but… I want.” I was furious with him; the emotion was so overwhelming that all I could concentrate on was the tingling sensation behind my forehead. “I just want everything back! I want my best friend back. I want everyone to stop watching me. I want my sister to start fighting with me again, my parents to punish me when I do something wrong. I want to be able to talk and not be judged or monitored or labeled. And it’s his fault she’s gone! Why did she die? Why am I stuck here, in this shitty town, where everyone is fine with never amounting to anything more than a Wal-Mart employee? Why am I stuck here with you and not the one person who wanted to leave as much as me?”
Wes was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke his words were slow and forced.
“You don’t want to be labeled Shy, but you give me a label every fucking day. Listen to yourself, you think you’ve got shit figured out, you think you’re better than everyone? You label every person who stays in this town a loser. Look around, Shy, you’re one of us too.”
I finally got him to snap.
“Well I’m not the only hypocrite, Wes! Insisting that life has no meaning, there is no value in the structured things, and then lecturing me on how life’s about the impulsive and experimental. So which is it, Wes? Does life have a meaning or not? Are you a loser or a genius?”
Wes didn’t reply. He threw the stick into gear and drove to my house. I got out and slammed his door, our front door, my bedroom door, and they all echoed in my head.
For the first time in three months, I didn’t know exactly why I needed to cry. Mom let me sulk. I watched three foreign documentaries on Netflix until the subtitles made as much sense as the language being said. I paced, reorganized my CDs alphabetically, and refused to go downstairs for meals.
The next day I tried to do the same but I was woken up at seven by my mom. Once I was showered and dressed, I met her in the kitchen.
“Your father and I aren’t going to make you attend therapy. It seemed like the right decision because you were hanging out with friends again. But if you think you can mope for the rest of the summer, you’re wrong.”
She pointed to the table where an SAT practice test sat with a timer and pencil.
After three days of cleaning and SAT preparation I wasn’t angry or even sad, just lonely. I felt pathetic, but I was too stubborn to admit that I enjoyed Wes’ company. But I was too busy to mope.
“We’re out of bleach,” my mom said, her voice muffled because she was looking under the kitchen sink.
“Well, I think that’s a good place to stop, when you run out of cleaning supplies.”
“Or it’s a good time to run to Wal-Mart,” she said. “Go freshen up. We’ll leave in ten minutes.”
I thought about venturing out to Wal-Mart several times but never had the courage. At least if Wes ignored me I had a logical reason for being there, now.
The minute the blue sign appeared, I felt nervous. I didn’t even know if I would see him and I was torn wishing I would and hoping I wouldn’t.
We went down a few aisles without any sight of him. I helped my mom grab laundry detergent and led the way to the next aisle when I saw him re-stacking napkins. I stopped walking and my mom rounded the corner with the cart and ran into me. My knees hit the linoleum tile and a jolt of pain went up to my hips.
“Shy, are you okay?” I heard Wes ask as my mom said something similar.
“I’m fine. I’m all right.” I tried to stand without making a face and wished my hair was still long enough to hide my blush.
“Why were you just standing there?” my mom asked, her voice taking on the sharper tone it always had when Lorraine or I almost hurt ourselves.
“I didn’t want to get in his way. Here,” I said as I grabbed the first set of paper towels I saw and tossed them into the cart. I pulled the cart forward to get us to the next aisle.
“You sure you’re okay?” Wes asked as I passed.
“I’m fine. Thanks.” I tried to say it nicely. But I was also trying not to cry. From embarrassment, from the ache already forming behind my kneecaps, from wanting him to say something rude or irrelevant just to make me laugh instead of being concerned like an actual friend would be, from all of it. My mom let me lead her past four aisles before she talked.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
I took a deep breath and was impressed that it was not the shaky kind that always came with a sob. I nodded.
“Because if you’re not, I’m sure you can ride around in one of those little Rascal carts they have for injured or elderly people. I promise to only take a few pictures.”
I laughed and shook my head.
“He went to your school, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
* * *
We finished unloading groceries from our shopping trip and even did a little cleaning after getting home. Two hours later we were putting a dinner roast in the oven when the doorbell rang. She answered it while I doodled on the notepad that sat next to the phone until she called me over.
Wes stood at my front door and smirked when he saw my face. He’d shaved the patchy scruff that normally shadowed his chin and traded his khakis for jeans. It was strange to see him out of his uniform. The fact that seeing him had me in a better mood annoyed me. I only expected to feel mild amusement and irritation from him.
“Where exactly were you two planning on going?”
“Just a get-together with some friends. There won’t be any alcohol and Shy will be home no later than eight.”
I thought I had no chance of going, but she proposed a deal.
“If I let you go, you have to take an ACT exam as well.”
Wes’s smirk grew and I almost said no just to see him lose it.
“Home by 8:30,” she said to Wes.
“Where are we going that ends earlier than eight?” I asked when we got in his car.
While we drove, I programmed a radio station that wasn’t Screamo.
“Now when you pick me up, you can turn this on so I don’t have to listen to guys go hoarse screaming into microphones.”
I could tell he got my pathetic apology.
We pulled up to the only banquet hall in town.
“What are we doing here?”
“You’re still in training. We’re gonna crash a party.”
I looked at the sign that displayed the events.
“Bingo? We’re crashing the senior citizen’s bingo?”
“I figured we should start small. But just a warning, they do make you wear those ‘hello my name is…’ name tags. We may want to use code names.”
I laughed and shook my head, leading the way to the entrance. He wasn’t lying, a little table with name tags and markers and refreshments was just past the entrance. Most of the guests were already seated. Wes stopped at the table and grabbed a name tag and marker.
“So, what’s your code name gonna be? Samson?” he asked.
I thought for a moment before writing ‘The Girl with the Dead Best Friend.’ He laughed.
Wes wrote ‘The Loser’ on his.