PART 1 - Chapter 1
“Listen. A new fresh pack of condoms. They’re yours for free,” Riley said into his cell phone as he stood in his small apartment’s kitchen.
There was a silence on the other end. Jay’s voice came through hesitantly, “What, are they weird flavours?”
How Riley had ended up on the phone offering his friend a pack of condoms wasn’t a long story. It was just a strange one.
Not too long ago, Riley had been standing in a large convenience store, watching two middle schoolers in the adjacent aisle suspiciously jab each other. From behind a fairly tall wall of snacks and perforated metal, he could hear one hiss, “Chips would make too much noise, dumb ass.”
Well at least they’ve got that figured out. From their angle, they couldn’t be seen from the register, but they were doing it all wrong. Light-fingered himself (though now preferring pick-pocketing), Riley couldn’t help but be irritated by their technique.Whispering so loudly, they’re going to get caught… Should I warn them? Give them some tips?
Riley heard footsteps approaching the boys.
Or I could watch them get caught. That sounds more fun.
He moved closer to the opposite aisle to get a better view. After pushing a bag of chips to the side, he was surprised by the sight. That was definitely not the cashier standing between the boys. It didn’t look to be the manager either. They’d been caught by another customer.
His profile was all that Riley could see, but it was all he really needed to tell that this guy, however old he was, didn’t look much older than Riley.His eyes were unemotional. The boys looked at him nervously.
“Kids have it easy,” the guy spoke low enough for the cashier not to hear. ” Stupid things like stealing make you cool when you’re a kid.” The children stiffened when they heard the word ‘stealing.’
“Umm—we don’t know what you’re talking about...” Chip Boy offered. “Sir.” The other tried to escape by walking away quietly, but the guy pulled him back by the hood of his jacket.
The elder looked down at the boy with the calmest face of contempt. The kid pressed his lips together and darted his eyes.
The guy continued with a rather flat voice, “But by the time you get to high school, those stupid things make you look pathetic.” He paused for a moment. Suddenly he gave a genuine-looking smile that even reached his eyes as he turned towards the boys. “Well,” his voice sounded normal now. “You’ve got one or two years until then, right? But, since you got caught this time, I guess you should just hand them over to me.”
The guy offered his hand and the boys gave him a wrapped piece of jerky. He continued to smile. They turned their pockets inside out and one kid gave him two packs of gum.
The hell?Riley mouthed, amusement quickly dissolving. Gum was about the least ballsy and most ridiculous item to steal—on the same level as swiping sugar substitute packets from a diner.
Before he could be spotted by the awkward thieves or the man lecturing them, Riley turned to the next aisle. After glancing down the aisle, his eyes caught the cashier’s. Just when he thought maybe the cashier had figured out what was going on, he realized the man’s eyes were boring intoRiley.
Seriously?The irony—he was the one getting suspicious looks.
Riley ignored the hawk-like eyes and made his way over to the next aisle. He started to pick up a box of condoms. Maybe the cashier would attribute whatever suspicious behaviour he was sensing to embarrassment from trying to buy a condom? Riley’s hand froze and he glanced at emblem on his uniform blazer.Maybe it’s too much for a high schooler to be embarrassed…He decided to pick up a bottle of lube too for good measure. Afterwards, he went to pick up the item he’d come for in the first place: instant ramen.
By the time he was done, the kids were just walking out of the store and the guy was standing nearby, watching them leave.
Riley could see him more clearly now. He was a bit short, maybe around 5′8”. Though his hair was messy enough to add an inch. He rubbed the back of his head as if reading Riley’s mind. Riley recalled a Renaissance painting he once saw. Skin several shades lighter than his own, with a hint of pink in the soft cheeks, strawberry blonde hair defying gravity... Simple features, but somehow you couldn’t look away. Riley caught himself staring and put the lube and condoms on the shelf closest by, deciding it didn’t matter what perceptions the cashier might conceive. It wasn’t likehestole anything. With only the ramen in his hand, Riley took a step towards the counter.
At that moment, the guy looked towards him and Riley froze. Yeah, his face was definitely young, but his aura seemed so mature.Why is he looking at me? I put the lube and condoms away before he could have seen them. Riley caught himself feeling self-conscious.
The guy frowned for a second, either sadness or hate marking his eyes, before he returned to looking expressionless. He glanced Riley up and down. Their eyes met and Riley’s breathing halted. Suddenly, the man turned away, but Riley was able to catch a faint smile pass his lips. It had all happened in a flash, within just a few seconds. But to the person being evaluated, it’d felt like much longer.
What the hell was that?Riley couldn’t stop his eyes from following the guy as he walked towards the refrigerated drinks and out of sight. Eyes refocusing, Riley was forced to look at the shelf where he’d put the lube and condoms. His eyes widened,W-What if he sees them?Trying to think quickly, Riley grabbed the items and went to the counter.
He watched the cashier’s hands move, willing them to move faster. Before the total even appeared, he handed the cashier a bill. The bag of condoms, lube, and ramen was put on the counter and the man handed him his change. Riley said thanks and left the store as casually as he could manage. He unlocked his bicycle in 2 seconds.Thank you god for making me a pro at unlocking with speed. As firmly as possible, he clenched the bag between his teeth, and then sped down the street.
It wasn’t until minutes later, when he entered his apartment, that Riley finally felt safe. “I’m home,” he greeted.
Of course, no one else was there. His dad was doing work in another country, and his mom... who knew when or if she would ever come home. The small, stark apartment felt huge with only one person living there.
Even if his father was working overseas, Riley wasn’t anywhere as well-off as people thought. The private school accepted him through scholarship, and now he only worked enough to keep himself from being kicked out.
Riley turned on a single lamp to light the living room. He tossed his bag and uniform blazer onto the stiff sofa and pulled out his phone. As it rang, he walked the few steps to the kitchen then grabbed the electric kettle by the sink. The kitchen light switch wasn’t worth flipping—the light coming from the living room was enough to see as he turned on the faucet.
“What’s up?” Jay finally answered.
Riley needed to get rid of those things that reminded him of the awkward store encounter, and he wasn’t going to use them himself. And that was how he ended up on the phone mentally begging his friend to accept free condoms.
“They aren’t weird flavours,” Riley mocked, setting the filled kettle on the clean laminate counter. “Just regular.”
“They’re smalls then?”
Riley tried pushing the kettle’s plug into the socket, but it wouldn’t go in. “Oh, you’re a small?”
“F—no, asshole. Why the hell are you giving away condoms for free?”
Why is he being so difficult?“Okay, I get it. $2 then.” After rotating the plug, it slid in easily.
“Fine, whatever, I’ll take the fucking condoms. Why don’t you use them though?”
Riley walked back to the living room and sat down on the sofa, trying to think of how best to phrase his words. “I’m on vacation from that right now.” He dug into his book bag and pulled out his homework. It was Riley’s policy to get unpleasant things out of the way first so that free time could be fully enjoyed.
“Vacation? Why? When’s the last time you did it?”
He spun a pencil in his fingers. “I dunno. Three, four mon—”
Riley rolled his eyes. Of course that seemed like ages to Jay. “I was never a whore like you.”
“I’m not. I have a serious girlfriend now.” Riley could hear the smirk in his voice.
“I’m almost out of smokes.”
“You’re totally ignoring me,” Jay observed. Like Riley, Jay didn’t do serious relationships. So, even if he was telling the truth, it wouldn’t last long.
Riley sighed.This conversation has gone on too long.
His friend spoke in a more serious tone, “Three or more months is a really long time... Did... you stop liking women?”
“No! No!” The image of the guy from the convenience store appeared for a half a second in his mind. “Shit!” He fell onto his side and buried his face into the sofa’s decorative pillow.
“D-don’t take it so seriously, Riley...” It was obvious though that his way of denial had made it more suspicious.
Removing his face from the pillow, Riley calmly apologized. “Sorry, I’m not angry.”
“I know. You didn’t soundangry.”
Riley covered his eyes. “Look, I have lube. It’s not a weird kind. Do you want it?”
Jay paused and began to speak very carefully, “Uh,no. I have enough. Wh—”
“Are you sure? If it’s too much, you could even maybe use it as drain cleaner... Can that work?”
“I’m sorry, no thank you. Try another house.” On the other side of the line, Jay worried about his friend. Riley was acting really weird.
Whatever is wrong with me needs curing. “Maybe... this weekend... I’ll come off vacation?”
“Okay! Clubbing this weekend. I’ll talk to the others then text you the details.”
“Uhn,” Riley agreed then hung up. Standing up, he groaned in frustration. Loud music, alcohol, and girls was once the perfect cocktail to keep Riley content, but now it was sounding more like a chore.
Back at the kitchen counter, opening his bowl of ramen, he recalled the event in the convenience store.“Why did I care? I wouldn’t usually care, but I didn’t want him to see it,” he voiced his thoughts aloud. As he was distracted, the stream from the kettle missed the bowl by a centimetre. “Why did he matter?”
As if he could cook the ramen with his eyes, Riley stared at the resting bowl. He kept replaying the event at the convenience store: from the guy’s first appearance behind the boys to his disappearance behind the shelves near the drinks.
“Ah!” he slammed his fist on the counter in revelation. Soup spilled over the edge and landed on his hand. Quickly, he pulled it away as it burned him, though it didn’t really hurt. “It’s because he’s older. And maybe I thought he was gonna scold me too!” It was an explanation that satisfied Riley’s worry.
His mind lingered on the part where the guy looked at him strangely.He was weird. I acted even weirder.“But I’ll probably never see him again,” he muttered aloud. Only days later would Riley find out how wrong he was and how much stranger he’d become.