I’m sitting slightly apart from Mini on a bus bench in front of Carl’s Jr. and trying very hard not to notice how good the food smells every time someone picks up their order from the drive-through window. The fact that I’m not dressed for the cold doesn’t help.
“I thought you were from Brno,” Mini says.
“I am,” I reply, shivering.
“Isn’t it cold there?”
“In the winter, yes.”
“Shouldn’t you be accustomed to the cold, then?”
I pull my cell phone out of my pocket. “Cold is cold. Just because I’m used to it doesn’t mean I like it.”
Mini looks at me with that same “I knew that” expression Theo gets whenever he asks an obvious question. After a moment: “You have a cell phone?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Oh. I just assumed…I mean, no offense, but I didn’t think you could afford one.”
In fact, I can’t afford a cell phone. That’s why this is a prepaid. That’s why it took me two weeks of saving my lunch money to buy a cheap Tracfone from Wal-Mart. When my parents asked me where I’d gotten it from, I told them Theo bought it for me. When they insisted that I reimburse him, I took the money and bought more minutes. That’s how you do it when you’re poor and you don’t want to resort to out and out theft. Like, ski mask and crowbar theft.
I try calling my parents. Neither of them answers. Maybe they’ve turned their phones off, or forgotten to charge them, or simply left them inside our apartment before uploading to another of their all-day poker parties at Uncle Martin’s.
“Well?” Mini asks expectantly.
“They’re not answering,” I tell him.
“Call Theo, then.”
I scroll down my contact list, highlighting Theo’s number, hesitating. I know we’re friends, but that doesn’t make it any easier to admit to destitution.
Mini climbs onto my leg, tries to peek at my cell phone. “What’s the matter? Ran out of minutes? Low battery? Don’t tell me you don’t have his number stored—”
“I have his number,” I say, shooing Mini away. “It’s just…”
I sigh. “It’s embarrassing, you know?”
Mini shakes his head. “Dude, now is not the time to be grappling with your pride.”
“That’s easy for you to say. Your nickname isn’t ‘The Poor Kid.’”
“Your only other option is to ask someone for bus fare.”
“I’m not begging for change.”
“Fine. Ask for it. Borrow it. But whatever you do, make it quick—the next bus gets here in five minutes.”
I fret, looking up and down the sidewalk for prospective contributors, but there’s no one else walking about—everyone’s in their cars and headed home for the night. At least, on my side of the street. Across the way, next to the flower shop, a homeless man has just convinced someone to drop a dollar into a tattered hat resting at his feet. He thanks the guy, then looks over at me. He smiles and gets to his feet, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a giant magic marker, which he uses to draw an equally giant scoreboard on the wall of the vacant suite behind him. When he’s done, the scoreboard reads:
“What a dick,” Mini murmurs. “Come on, Jan. You can totally earn more than that threadbare jerk-off in the next five minutes.” He glances down the sidewalk; an attractive-looking woman has exited the nearby drug store and is walking our way. “Quick, take off your shirt and flex for the lady.”
“I don’t think she’s going to give me money just for taking my shirt off.”
“Wait till she sees those heaving pecs!”
“Well, at least offer to help her cross the street or something.”
“She’s perfectly able to cross the street on her own.”
Mini goes quiet as the woman passes the bus stop. For a moment I think he’s let the matter drop—that is, until I spot him toddling directly in front of her. Not expecting to cross paths with a doll, she trips, stumbles.
“Ma’am!” I shout, instinctively darting forward, catching her in mid-fall. Her momentum takes us both down onto the sidewalk where, for a brief but utterly embarrassing instant, I’m lying on top of her, my front pressed against her backside, my hand inadvertently (I swear!) wedged beneath one of her breasts. Worse, in the midst of my unplanned assault from behind, I drop my cell phone. It slides across the sidewalk and goes tumbling into the storm drain.
“Oh, my God!” screams the woman, beating at me with her elbows and fists as she wriggles free. “Help! Rape!”
I quickly roll off her. “Ma’am, I’m sorry—”
“Creep!” she yells, getting to her feet, adjusting her skirt, her bra strap. She gives me the finger, then turns and stalks away.
“You big lug,” Mini says.
I prop myself on all fours, gaze wistfully in the direction of the storm drain. “My phone…”
“When I threw myself in harm’s way, I meant for you to help her regain her balance, not get your babies up inside her from behind.”
“Quiet. You’ve caused enough trouble.” I pick myself up off the ground and glare at Mini as I take my seat on the bench once again.
Across the street, the homeless guy updates his scoreboard:
Mini joins me on the bench. We sit together in silence and watch as the homeless guy makes ten dollars in five minutes, updating his scoreboard along the way. I’m considering finding a less-competitive bus stop to wait at when a Geo Metro with Oregon license plates pulls up on my side of the street. The window rolls down and a fortyish guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt leans over from the driver’s side, smiles at me.
“You need a ride?” he asks.
Hm. Geo Metro; unshaven stranger wearing a Hawaiian shirt; unsolicited offer for transportation—this is everything they warn you about in stranger danger class. But it’s late, it’s cold, and I’m hungry. My brain is absolutely willing to loosen the rules by providing me with plenty of positive hypotheticals. I start thinking about the statistics and whether or not I actually know anyone who’s ever been kidnapped. Not that kidnappings don’t happen all the time. It’s just…cold. And late.
I look down at Mini, who shrugs and mouths, “It’s your call.”
Across the way, the homeless guy looks a little disappointed that I’ve got a ride.
That settles it.
I scoop Mini up and get into the car.
On settling into the passenger seat, I notice three things. One, the entire backseat is piled high with honey bun boxes and what look like camping supplies; two, Justin Bieber is playing on the stereo; three, a printout of Ernie’s SuperMegaNet profile pic is taped to the dashboard.
Whew. That’s a load over my shoulders. I pay Hawaiian Shirt Guy another glance, and though I don’t recognize him, I assume he must be a relative of Ernie’s—an uncle or something. That would explain the honey buns and total lack of fashion sense (though not necessarily the Justin Bieber thing). And maybe that’s why he stopped to pick me up: he knows I’m a friend of Ernie’s.
“So, where are you headed?” he asks, pulling away from the curb and easing into traffic.
I freeze up, realizing that I don’t know exactly where Theo lives.
“San Joaquin,” Mini offers, scooting off my lap and lowering himself onto the floor. “Take the twenty-two to the fifty-five to the five and get off at Buckaroo.”
I look over at Hawaiian Shirt Guy; he’s still waiting for me to answer.
“You’ll have to do the talking,” Mini says. “I don’t think he can see or hear me.” He disappears beneath the passenger seat.
I repeat Mini’s directions.
Hawaiian Shirt Guy nods. “That’s a good half hour drive. What are you doing all the way out here without a ride? I’m Rob, by the way.”
Rob. Why does that sound familiar? “I, er, my ride canceled at the last minute.”
“Well, lucky for you I pulled up when I did, huh?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Rob…Rob. I don’t know any Robs, but I feel like I should know this Rob somehow. I glance at him sideways.
He starts tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “So, how about that Justin Bieber? ‘Your lips, my biggest weakness…’”
Mini tugs on my pant leg. He’s crawled out from underneath the seat, and is holding something in his hands—a JCPenney kids’ catalog.
I frown, using my foot to shove him back under the seat. I don’t need to see that—I don’t want to see that.
“You into movies?” Rob asks.
“Have you seen Super 8?”
“Great flick. I have the Ultimate Edition on Blu-ray. That Riley Griffiths is hilarious. Best thing since Jeff Cohen from The Goonies. Well, before he lost all that weight. I tell you, twelve to fourteen—that’s the age to be.”
Mini reappears, this time with what looks like a candy wrapper—
—it’s Kinder Chocolate.
And blackjack. Geo Metro, Hawaiian shirt, the incessant talk of boy singers and overweight child actors, the piles of honey buns in the backseat, Ernie’s profile pic, the irrefutable Kinder Chocolate—I now know why Rob is so familiar to me: this is Robbie, Ernie’s Robbie, the pervert dude who used to supply him with junk food. Milý Bože na nebesích—
—I’m hitchhiking with Robbie the Friendly Pedophile.