Pupils, Pennies, and Pastries
By Luke Upchurch
It was the beginning of May, and only a month of school remained. That day Anthony got off the bus and walked across the cracked parking lot. He stepped over the weeds that forced their way through the veins that riddled the asphalt. Anthony climbed the stairs that led to the front door. As he lifted himself up each step, he saw the message saying, “The system can suck it,” in black spray paint on the wall with an arrow pointing to a crudely drawn penis etched into the stonework. He also noticed for what had to be the five hundredth time the two pock marks just above the advice to the system from when Evan Culling shot Lisa Carmichael for whoring around on him two years ago.
Anthony opened the door and walked down the hallway. He kept his head down to avoid making eye contact with anyone and made his way to his locker. When he turned the corner, there was Carl with Shyla.
Anthony saw Carl lean toward Shyla, the greasy sheen in his brown hair reflecting the light from the softly humming florescent bulbs above. “Hey Shy, come on. Don’t be a prude.”
Shyla backed against the lockers and placed a hand on Carl’s chest to keep the current distance between them from closing any further than it already had. “You know, Carl? You really have no idea how to treat a woman, do you?”
“What are you talking about? I’ve got a treat for you, all right.”
In less than a second Carl’s hand was between Shyla’s legs. Before his fingers could reach his goal, Shyla’s knee found hers.
“Aw, Jesus!” Carl immediately grabbed himself and threw his body sideways so as to slump against the lockers rather than fall on the floor.
Shyla shut her locker door and rounded on Carl. She reached forward and raised Carl’s head up to force him to look her in the eyes. Carl’s head shot back, trying to avoid the tiny spear of a nail that Shyla always filed down on her index fingers. As she held his head up by the point of her nail like a sticky caramel apple, a crimson gleam trailed down her finger. Anthony slid backward and watched from around the corner. Carl pushed with his legs, sliding up the lockers in an attempt to escape Shyla’s nail. Her finger followed him all the way up until he was on his tiptoes.
“Look at you. Pathetic. If you try to touch me again, I’m going to pierce your testicles.”
Carl gulped, pushing his chin down further on the nail. A whimper escaped his throat as the stream of blood on Shyla’s finger thickened.
“Do you understand me, Carl?”
When Carl tried to open his mouth to answer, Shyla raised her finger a bit more. “Do you. Under. Stand?”
Carl nodded, stabbing himself with Shyla’s fingernail.
Shyla released Carl and said, “Good.”
When Shyla started to walk away Carl got up and rubbed the blood out from under his chin. “Crazy bitch.”
Before Shyla could turn around to address Carl’s outburst, he had his arms under her pits and laced his fingers against the back of her neck, pushing her head forward and forcing her to double over at the waist. As her rear pressed tighter against him, he said, “Now see, this is more your place. That stunt you pulled earlier? Don’t do it again or I’ll pierce you.”
No matter how hard she struggled, Shyla couldn’t break Carl’s hold on her. “You dirty bastard. What’s the matter? Too chicken shit to take me on face to face?”
Carl pushed harder on Shyla’s head to suppress a fit of bucking. When she calmed down, he said, “We’ve got to do something about those nails of yours, girl. You be a living weapon.”
As Shyla tried to struggle out of Carl’s grip, Anthony slipped away from the other hallway. “Oh, man. Why do they have to do this in front of my locker? Come on.”
Anthony peeked around the corner to see Carl swirl Shyla around and slam her head into the lockers. “Someone’s gonna learn how to behave. You let me know when you’re sorry for earlier, and then we can talk about how you can make it up to me after school.
Shyla tried to scratch Carl with her talons, but her arms were bent at awkward angles that prevented her from putting up a proper fight. Carl had her and he wasn’t letting go.
Anthony listened to the sound of Shyla’s head bashing into the lockers and rattling the metal. She refused to give up, but Carl wouldn’t relent until he had his way. Anthony slammed a fist against the wall and rushed around the corner. Carl saw Anthony coming in his peripheral, but all he could do was turn around without letting go of Shyla. “Anthony? What the hell do you thin—”
Anthony’s fist collided with Carl’s nose with a wet sounding pop. Carl let go of Shyla and fell backward. He held his nose and tried to stem the blood that was gushing forth. Once Anthony saw Carl’s blood, the realization of what he had done hit him. “Oh shit. I didn’t—”
Carl stood up and faced Anthony, open mouthed. “Anthony? The fuck? You punched me? You? Aw, man. You fucked up.”
Anthony backed away from Carl, but before the bloody bully could reach him, Shyla greeted Carl’s boys with the toe of her left boot.
With little more than a barely audible squeak, Carl Dodson went down and stayed down. As he curled up and pressed his knees against his forehead, cupping himself with both hands, head soaking in a spreading puddle of his own blood, a cocktail of emotions roared up within Anthony, colliding with one another in a furiously churning blender and making his stomach lurch. “There is no way we’re going to get away with this. We’re in so much trouble. I can’t believe I just did that.”
Shyla grabbed Anthony by the shoulders and flipped him around. “Hey, Sine. Quit freaking out. It’s not like we killed the S.O.B. or anything. It’ll just take him a couple of days to find his nuts. I’ll vouch for ya. It was self-defense. Isn’t that right?”
Anthony nodded his head, going along with the idea.
“Awesome. And by the way. Thanks for the help.” Shyla then gave Anthony a punch in the arm. When she saw him grimace and rub the spot, she said, “You’ve gotta be kidding me. Don’t be a pussy now. You just saved me from this meat gazing cock bite. Be a man.”
Anthony dropped his hand, letting the sore spot pulse with his heartbeat. “You didn’t have to hit me so hard. I was trying to help.”
“Fine. I’m sorry. Geez. Look, I have to go to class. See ya around, Sine.”
It was then that Anthony decided to seize an opportunity. “Wait.”
Shyla twirled around on her heel and stomped her other foot down. “What? What do you want? Speak.”
“Go to the dance with me on Friday.”
Shyla let out a snort. “What? With you? You’re joking.”
“Give me a chance. I’ll treat you better than Carl. I promise.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Shyla leaned down and patted Carl on the back. “Sorry, Carl, but I’m thinking about taking things in a different direction. Shyla Incorporated is downsizing and I’m afraid I’m gonna have to let you go. You know how it is. Hard times.”
Shyla straightened up and faced Anthony once more. “You’d better surprise me, Sine. I don’t usually like the quiet nerdy types, but I’m giving you a chance because you helped me out, and I guess you’re a pretty sweet kid.”
Later that day, Anthony was called into the principal’s office. Mr. Ashley, Morosville High’s principal was a giant of a man. When he spoke with students who displayed delinquent behavior, he towered over them at six foot ten. He could cup the top of a basketball with one hand, and once, when Steven Cox pulled a knife on Mitchell Pope for taking the last slice of pizza during lunch period, Mr. Ashley picked him up by the wrist of his weapon arm with one paw and lifted him off his feet, dangling him in the air until he dropped the knife.
When Anthony entered the office, he stopped just inside the door. Mr. Ashley was typing away at his computer and glancing down at some notes neatly arranged in two piles before him. When Mr. Ashley noticed the visitor, he spoke to Anthony without looking away from the screen. “Have a seat, Mr. Sine.”
Anthony did as he was told, crossing the room and settling down on a stool with a tan leather seat barely big enough for him and no back. While he waited for Mr. Ashley to speak again, Anthony inspected the desk between them. The computer that Mr. Ashley worked on sat off to the side on what was more of an end table next to the desk. To Anthony’s right was a tray filled with papers that was labeled “DO.” To the left of this next to the computer was another tray of papers labeled “DONE.” Apart from a mug filled with pens and pencils, a pencil sharpener, and several manila files, the only other object on Mr. Ashley’s desk was a picture that faced away from Anthony.
Mr. Ashley tapped the enter key with a flourish of finality and turned around. He took off his reading glasses and leaned back in his swivel chair, lacing his fingers together and forming a steeple with his thumbs. “Mr. Sine, I’ve never had to call you in here before. Nearly four years of no trouble and then today happens. Talk to me.”
Anthony looked down at the files on the desk. One of them was considerably bigger than the others. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Don’t jerk me around, Mr. Sine. You and I both know why you’re in here. I just want you to tell me what happened.”
“I got in a fight with Carl Dodson.”
“Now why would you do that? You’ve never been the type. What possessed you to break the boy’s nose?”
“It was self-defense.”
“Carl was,” after a pause, he said, “Carl was being Carl. I had to defend myself.”
“What was Carl doing, Anthony?”
“I don’t know, okay? He was going to hurt me. I had to defend myself.”
Mr. Ashley glanced past Anthony to the doorway where Shyla stood propped against the frame. “Who told you that you could come in?”
Shyla held her hands up and said, “Easy there, Mr. Ashley. I’m just telling it like it is. Carl used to be my boyfriend and today he found out Anthony and I are going out and he got jealous. He thought he could take a girl and a nerd down and we had to defend ourselves.”
Mr. Ashley raised an eyebrow at Shyla’s explanation and nodded in Anthony’s direction. “You’re dating him? Really?”
Anthony raised his hands up with his palms in the air. “Why is that so hard to believe?”
Mr. Ashley placed his glasses back on his face and said, “Because, Mr. Sine, you’re far too sensible a choice for Miss Christy.” He began to tap away at his computer again, addressing the children without looking at them. “So that’s what happened then? Mr. Dodson acted violently due to a bout of jealousy, and you two had to defend yourselves?”
“That’s right,” said Shyla from the door. She then made her way across the room and wheeled Anthony around. She leaned forward and gave him a kiss. Now that she was closer, Anthony could actually smell her. She was surrounded by a faint aura of cake mix. Her lips were scratchy and tasted like pennies. And her eyes. Throughout the duration of the entire kiss, she never once looked away from his. When she pulled back, she gave him a thin smile. “Isn’t it, Anthony?”
“All right. Save it for after school,” said Mr. Ashley. “No public displays of affection are allowed during school hours.
The rest of the day happened around Anthony as if he was encased in his own bubble of suspended animation. No matter how many spit wads hit him in math class or how many times someone tried to trip him in the hallway, he couldn’t shake the thoughts of sugary sweets and loose change out of his mind.
When he got off the bus after school, he ran inside his house and threw his backpack on the mountain of clothes that gathered at the foot of his bed. He pulled one of his desk drawers open and rooted his way past useless old papers with scribbled drawings that looked amazing when he was five years old. At the bottom of the drawer he found what he was looking for. Anthony pulled out a handful of coins and picked out the pennies, throwing the rest back into the drawer.
He made his way into the kitchen and pulled out one of the table chairs to use it as a stool so he could reach the spice cabinet that no one ever took anything out of. It took several seconds for Anthony to make his selection. He found a bottle of tabasco sauce and shut the door. After climbing down from the chair he shoved it back in place and tore a paper towel off the roll by the sink. Anthony unscrewed the lid on the tabasco and upended it on the paper towel. He then placed a penny in the red goop and rubbed vigorously, but slowly so as not to tear the towel. One by one, the pennies came away clean, the black grim eaten away by the tabasco. Once the pennies were clean, Anthony rinsed them off with water from the sink and took them back to his room.
It was only three. His parents wouldn’t be home for three more hours. Anthony closed his eyes and placed the first penny to his lips. He slipped the coin between his teeth and maneuvered it under his tongue. This was it. This was what it had tasted like. Anthony lined his lips with the rest of the pennies, keeping them halfway in, testing them with the tip of his tongue. They weren’t the right texture; they were too smooth. Shyla’s lips had been so rough. The flat features on the face of the coins were too miniscule to emulate the feeling, but the taste was perfect. Still, it wasn’t enough.
Anthony spit the pennies out, placed one in his pocket, and grabbed his wallet off his dresser and ran down the hallway, skidding to a halt in his socks on the kitchen linoleum. He snatched a pen off the table and wrote his parents a note saying that if he wasn’t back before they got home, he had just left for a bite to eat. He taped the note to the fridge and he was on his way.
After half an hour of walking down the sidewalk, Anthony stopped at the corner of Bates and Sterling and waited for the crosswalk to change. Once it did so, he crossed Sterling and headed to the bakery on the corner, Christy Creamery.
A tiny bell at the top of the door jingled when he entered. There were donuts and cakes of all sizes and flavors. Anthony had never been in here before, but he passed it every time he went to the movies. The place smelled like a child’s paradise. There were enough sweets in the shop to send an entire village of kids into a sugar induced coma.
It reminded Anthony of the time his Aunt Jessie had come over for Christmas when he was ten. She hadn’t taken her meds in a while and brought over three cakes, a container of chocolate éclairs, a five gallon drum of her special homemade cookie dough ice cream, a dozen dozen of peanut butter cookies with the little Hershey’s kiss in the middle, and a bowl of her famous banana pudding. Anthony’ mother couldn’t get him to sleep that night, and he finally found out that Santa wasn’t real because he peeked down the hall and saw his mom putting the presents under the tree, but he didn’t care because he already had a feeling Santa’s exploits weren’t physically possible and because sugar.
As Anthony inspected the inventory, he took a deep breath. He held it for as long as he could, and slipped the penny from his pocket back under his tongue. Now he was getting somewhere. The taste, the smell, everything was there. Except for one thing.
“Oh my God. What are you doing here?”
Anthony whirled around to see Shyla staring at him from behind the counter. “What am I doing here?” Anthony tried not to spit the penny out as he spoke. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh, I work here? This is Christy Creamery, the family business.”
“Oh,” said Anthony. “That explains a lot, actually.”
“You never answered my question. What are you doing here? I’ve never seen you come in here. Are you stalking me or something?”
“No, no! Nothing like that. I was just, uh, in the mood for something sweet.”
“’K, what’ll it be?” Shyla leaned down to look through the glass counter. “We’ve got all kinds of crap that’ll rot your teeth and give you diabetes.
Anthony spit the coin out of his mouth and dropped it in his pocket while she wasn’t looking and moved closer for a better look. “What’s the matter? Haven’t got a sweet tooth?”
“You wouldn’t either if you made and sold the stuff every day after school.”
“I guess not,” said Anthony as he pulled his wallet out to give the impression that he was a serious customer. “I guess I’m asking the wrong person then, but what’s the best thing here in your opinion?”
Shyla wordlessly reached down and grabbed a handful of truffles. She set them down on the counter and slid one to Anthony. “I like these the best. They don’t lose their charm as quickly as everything else in here.”
“What about chocolate peanut butter fudge? That’s got to be my favorite dessert.”
Shyla said, “You have good taste, but that stuff wears on you way fast. It’s too rich to eat it more than a couple days out of the month.”
“You sound like a real connoisseur.”
“And you sound like a real nerd.”
“And how exactly is that a complement?”
Shyla teeth poked out from behind her upper lip as she said, “Relax. No one said being a nerd is a bad thing.”
Shyla popped one of the truffles in her mouth and chewed it up. “You gonna eat that free sample or what?”
“Oh, thank you.” Anthony set the truffle in his mouth. He sucked on it for several seconds before letting it sit still in his mouth. “It’s bitter.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Do you have some furniture polish I can wash it down with?”
“Don’t be an ass. Chew it. The coating on the outside is dark chocolate you nub.”
“Did you just call me a nub?”
“What’s a nub?”
“You’re a nub.”
Anthony chewed the truffle as he was told and a mural of flavors painted his tongue all at once. Shyla nodded in victory as Anthony’s entire face almost puckered. When the truffle was no more, he said, “Wow. That was awesome. How much are these?”
“Ten bucks a pound. But for you? Half off.”
“Really? You can do that?”
“My parents aren’t here to say no,” said Shyla. “Besides, even if they were, I imagine they’d let me give you the discount seeing as you saved me from some serious shit today.”
“You know, that took some balls, punching Carl out like that. I didn’t think you had it in ya, Sine.”
“Thank you,” said Shyla.
Anthony paid for the truffles and Shyla boxed them up for him and put the box in a plastic bag. “There ya go. Need anything else?”
Anthony looked down at his shoes as if to ask them if they had any business to conduct at the shop. “About earlier.”
“What about earlier?”
“You know. In Mr. Ashley’s office.”
“What about it?”
“You know. What you did when he questioned us.”
“What? The kiss? You’re asking me about the kiss? I did it to convince Mr. Ashley about our story. I didn’t want you getting in trouble if he found out you intervened in our little dispute. You didn’t do anything wrong, but the system will screw you if they found out you played hero. They don’t care who starts a fight. If someone gets more hurt than the other, the winner better have a good reason for doing some damage. Self-defense is the only defense.”
“Thank you, but why,” Anthony paused to think the question over before coming right out and saying it. “Why do your lips taste like metal?”
“Do all girl’s lips taste like that?”
At this question, Shyla leaned forward and pulled herself up onto the counter. “Wait, wait, wait. Hold up. Are you telling me that that was your first kiss?”
“No,” said Anthony far too quickly.
“Unbelievable. What are you? Eighteen? We’re in the same grade.”
“I was born November eighth. How about you?”
“Fourth of July.”
“You’re kidding,” said Anthony with a hint of laughter.
“Nope. I was born with a bang, bitch.”
“That’s pretty cool. I never would have guessed.”
“So what up with never kissing a girl? Have you been saving yourself or something? Sorry if I blew your first time.”
“No, I’ve just never had a chance with a girl before.”
Shyla watched Anthony stare back down at his shoes. She hopped off the counter and walked back around, grabbing Anthony and kissing him again. This time there was a fire to the kiss that hadn’t been there before. This wasn’t like the one in the principal’s office at all. This was a real kiss. This was the kind of kiss that ripped your soul out of your body and fitted it for war, the kind of kiss that made you feel like taking on an entire army and returning home a hero, the kind of kiss that wrested your armor off, leaving you defenseless for the coming ravaging of your very being, turning you into a husk, drained of all your bodily fluids yet feeling fuller and more than ever a victorious man.
When she pulled away, Shyla took a breath and said, “There you go. A first kiss should be special, but since it wasn’t, I owe ya a real one.”
“That was,” Anthony looked Shyla in the eyes and said, “something.”
“Eh, I’ve had some practice. For a first timer, you weren’t so bad yourself, but you kind of failed to reciprocate.”
Anthony let out a snort.
“Nothing. It’s just, I wouldn’t expect someone who calls me nerd every chance she gets to say a word as big as reciprocate.”
“Oh, shut up. You know what your problem is, Sine? You don’t keep your inner nerd at home. You take him to school with you. Like I said, no one said there’s anything wrong with being a nerd, but that shit makes you a target at school.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I sharpen my nails and fuck up anyone who tries anything on me.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“Law of the jungle.”
“Well, the way you move when you’re not snuck up on from behind, you’re like a God damn panther.”
“Thanks, Sine. Now that’s one hell of a compliment. You know, you’re not so bad. This kinda makes me wish I took the time to get to know you sooner.”
“What do you say we make up for lost time?”
“Sure thing. I’m busy today. Lots of homework. But come back tomorrow.”
Anthony did go back the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. The week went by faster than any other as far as Anthony could remember. The days were slow during class, but when he got home, he immediately dropped his stuff off and walked to the Christy Creamery. Anthony and Shyla spent hours just talking, interrupted only by the occasional customer.
When Friday night arrived, Anthony showed up to the shop in his father’s old suit his mother gave him from when his dad was around his age. The sleeves were too long and had to be rolled up multiple times and the belt he wore was pulled through all the way to the last notch, but it didn’t look too bad if Anthony said so himself.
Anthony rang the bell and waited for two very long minutes for Shyla to come down from the upstairs apartment above the bakery where she and her family lived. What he got instead when the door opened was a stocky man that reminded Anthony of the pictures of Napoleon in his history textbook. However, Mr. Christy was nice enough, only telling Anthony that he wanted his daughter back home by ten.
After Anthony assured him that Shyla was in good hands, Mr. Christy stepped back and allowed Shyla to step outside. She wore a simple red dress that wouldn’t make her stand out in a crowd, but didn’t look at all bad on her by any means. Anthony held his arm out, ready to go. “Shall we?”
Ten minutes later they signed in at the table leading into the gym and made their way inside. The room was filled with many of their classmates, all of whom were thrashing their bodies about in a giant crowd that appeared to be packed with people seized by a violent fit of death throes. Anthony took one look at the crowd and glanced over at Shyla, who was giving him the same look of disappointment. Two minutes later they were sitting on the front steps of the school, looking up at the sky and wishing it was possible to see stars in Morosville.
“Well, that was a huge let down,” said Anthony.
“No kidding. Did you see that mess? What a disgrace. You couldn’t pay me to jump in there. I didn’t come here to make a fool out of myself.” Shyla traced her index finger across her bottom lip and started sucking on it.
Anthony watched her do this and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Huh? Oh, this? Sometimes I like to suck on my blood. There’s something about the taste that makes me feel better.”
“What? That’s so—wait. That’s why your lips taste like metal. You cut them. But why?”
Shyla slapped a hand down on Anthony’s knee and said, “I have no idea. Just a bad habit, I guess.”
They both watched the sky, willing the street lamps and the neon lights of the bar across the street to go out so they might have a chance of glimpsing the faintest glimmer of a star. Anthony kicked a tiny piece of loose concrete free from the step his feet rested on and said, “Sorry this date was such a bust. I know you wanted me to show you a good time.”
A quiet squelching sound filled the space between them as Shyla let go of her bottom lip. “I said you needed to surprise me. You’ve yet to do that.”
Anthony looked to Shyla and leaned forward to look her in the eyes. “Surprise you? How can I do that?”
Shyla sucked on her lip again and said, “If I told you then it wouldn’t be a surprise now, would it? Why don’t you try being spontaneous for once in your life, Sine. Just do something that’s not so fucking typical. Women like surprises.”
“I guess Carl never surprised you with anything, did he?”
“I didn’t care much for any of Carl’s surprises. Also, a word of advice. It’s kinda ill form to bring up someone’s ex on a date.”
“Sorry,” said Anthony. He watched as Shyla stood and brushed herself off. She let out a sigh much like those his mother always heaved when his father obliviously turned down one of her hints that they should go out and do something.
Anthony stood immediately and grabbed Shyla’s hand, pulling her toward the sidewalk. “Whoa, hold up, Sine. Where do you think you’re taking me?”
Anthony gave her a grin and said, “If I told you then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Several minutes later, Anthony was pulling Shyla in the direction of the movie theater. She eyed the building and said, “Anthony, the movies? Nice try, I guess, but the movies are such a typical—”
“I’m not taking you to the movies.” Anthony continued pulling Shyla past the movie theater, down the sidewalk.
“Then where are we going?”
After a couple more minutes they were nearing Bates and Sterling. “Anthony, are you taking me home? That’s not exactly the kind of surprise that gets a girl excited.”
“No, I’m taking you here.”
They stopped in front of the one arcade in Morosville. The corners of Shyla’s lips twitched upward. “What makes you think I’ll like videogames? Not really a girly thing to like, don’t you think?”
Anthony turned to Shyla and said, “You don’t have to be a guy to like videogames. I wouldn’t take you for a sexist. So what you’re saying is that there are things that all women in general dislike?”
“Shut up, Sine. It’s just a ballsy move to take a girl to an arcade on a first date is all I was saying.”
“Good.” Anthony pulled her inside. He reached into his pocket and threw everything he had at the guy at the counter. When they had their one hour passes, Anthony held a hand out toward the game floor. “Where to first, M’lady?”
Shyla grabbed his hand and nearly jerked him off his feet in her mad dash to one of the racing games. She picked the one with motorcycles and swiped her game card before climbing atop the stationary vehicle, ignoring the fact that she was wearing a dress. At her command, Anthony climbed on the back and leaned to the side to view the screen. Shyla whipped the wheel to the right and picked the hardest course before punching the start button and gripping the handlebars with both hands. As a woman in a skimpy bikini at the side of the track waved a flag, Shyla hit the gas and the bike jerked backward, forcing Anthony to wrap his arms around Shyla’s waist. Shyla let out a whoop of glee as she barreled down the track, earning the bonus speed boost for timing the gas at the start just right. They rocketed past the rest of the competition and made their way through twists and turns that had them smashing into rocks and trees and other motorcycles the entire time. By the end of the race they had slipped into third place.
When Shyla hopped off the bike, she let out a deep breath she had been holding in and said, “Not bad. Not my best score, but that was way more fun with you yelling at my back.”
Anthony just stared at Shyla for a moment. “How are you so good?”
“Come on, Sine. This place is right across the street from my house. I come here practically every day.”
Anthony marveled at Shyla’s taste in entertainment and together they rushed through the arcade, playing every game that caught their fancy. They flew an airplane and shot bogies out of the sky, they drove a jeep that tried desperately to escape from a t-rex that chased them down, and they went hunting in the woods and cussed out the does that kept running in front of the bucks. Toward the end of their hour, Anthony looked over to Shyla where she stood next to him as he held a plastic gun to the screen and used a pistol to blow an enemy soldier’s face off. Shyla switched to the grenade launcher and neutralized the helicopter shooting at them from above. When the helicopter went down, she turned to Anthony. “This is the most fun I’ve had in forever. You’re the man, Anthony.” Together they stormed the fort and killed all of the guards before double teaming the final boss and ending the game.
Anthony walked Shyla across the street and stopped at the door to the bakery. “That was way more fun than some stupid dance.”
“For sure,” said Shyla in agreement. “You know, this was the best date anyone has ever taken me on. This whole week has been, I don’t know, different. You’re different. What do you say, Anthony? Same thing tomorrow at one? It’ll be on me this time.”
Anthony nodded vigorously and wrapped his arms tightly around Shyla’s waist. She then patted him on the back and pushed on his shoulders. “Alright, don’t fuck it up. It’s still the first date.” When Anthony let go and backed up a step, Shyla said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“I can’t wait.”
“Me either. You make a great partner. “Okay, it’s ten. Got to go.”
“Bye!” Anthony waved Shyla goodbye as she closed the door behind her.
One o’clock arrived mercifully fast. Shyla answered the door and pulled off an apron. She looked over her shoulder and said, “All right mom. Be back at some point today. Don’t know when. Love you!”
Shyla shut the door and took Anthony’s hand, eyeing the arcade across the street with an excitement that was making her chest swell. “Are you ready?”
“Ready,” said Anthony as he cocked an imaginary gun with his free hand. They walked several feet to the corner and waited. Anthony stood on the sidewalk with Shyla, waiting for the orange hand barring the way forward to turn into the little white guy hurrying off to wherever the hell he had to go all the time.
While they waited, a blazing red El Camino drove up to the corner and the window rolled down. There, in the driver’s seat, was Carl Dodson. Without a word, he held a Slovak semi-automatic pistol out the window and pulled the trigger. Anthony watched as Shyla fell as if the world had been put on pause and God was tapping the forward button on his universal remote to find a specific screen shot. It wasn’t until the moment when she actually hit the ground that Anthony finally realized that he couldn’t breathe. He looked down and placed a hand on his chest. When he pulled it away and looked at his palm, dark blood that almost looked black ran down his wrist and between his fingers.
Anthony looked back at Carl. He tried to ask ‘why,’ but the words wouldn’t come. Carl turned around in his seat and drove away. Silence filled the world as if someone had pulled a cosmic plug and let all of the sound leak out of the universe. Being unable to breathe made it too difficult to stand, and Anthony drifted down, landing on the concrete next to Shyla. It felt fuzzy and insubstantial, like the ground was too thin to keep him from bursting through and falling forever. Even though summer was fast approaching, a cold much like that of what Anthony imagined Antarctica to harbor began to creep up his toes and fingertips. All feeling drained out of him wherever the cold advanced. It was as if the range of control Anthony’s brain had over his body was receding.
He flicked his eyes up from the little black spot on the sidewalk where someone had spit a piece of gum who knows how long ago. Shyla stared back at Anthony, every bit as incapable of movement as him. He stared into her eyes. Though they were tearing with pain and twitching in fear, she refused to close them. The twinkling lights that filled her irises like grains of sand were winking out one by one. Eventually, her eyes would be as starless as the night sky in Morosville.
An involuntary cough wracked Anthony’s body. He felt like he was blowing bubbles in his throat. Seconds later, more coughs escaped him, sounding like someone sucking the remainder out of a glass with a straw. A thick, warm liquid splattered his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Anthony summoned all of the energy he had left into his tongue. He slowly licked the back of his teeth and spread the liquid life around on his tongue.
Out of the corner of his eye, Anthony saw a shadow hovering over him. Shyla’s mother was wailing a phantom scream that almost broke through the silence in Anthony’s world. As the outline of the middle aged woman began to blur, Anthony’s eyes flitted back to Shyla’s face. Her stars were numbered now, counting down the seconds with each one that dimmed away. Anthony hated to see them go, to watch her leave.
Shyla had entered this world with a bang, and now she would leave with one, too. But she wouldn’t be going alone. Anthony would keep her company on her journey out of this world. He had always thought that dying would hurt, and it kind of did, but it was okay. At least like this. Because Shyla was right there with him, staring him down, eyes unblinking. His lips tasted like pennies and the world smelled of pastries.
Luke Upchurch spent the majority of his childhood reading books since he lived in a house in the woods with no cable, internet, or other children his age to occupy his time. Each world he delved into was an inspiration to start creating worlds of his own. He will be graduating from IUPUI with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing in May 2014.