Day 1: The Attack (Matt)
Matt and Pete sat on the curb at the side of the road, their backs to the forest, watching the grownups huddle around the grill Heather’s dad hauled out. It reflected its owner: loud, over-sized, and dominating. Beside them, wires from underneath the street spewed from a hole where the city was performing maintenance. Both boys had been warned several times not to go near it, so instead, they leaned against the empty metal junction box that would eventually cover the wires.
Matt scanned the crowd. About thirty neighbors gathered at this end of the crescent to talk about taxes and laundry detergent, or whatever dumb things adults discussed. While he couldn’t remember everyone’s name, especially the people who lived closer to the top of the street, he knew most by sight. Kate and her family were making a rare appearance, and from time to time, she’d glance at him and smile, but he flushed with embarrassment and pretended not to notice.
Mr. Keene stood in front of his flame-spitting barbecue and waved at people with his spatula, like a King granting an audience. Do you want a burger? Supplicate before your ruler and provide homage. I offer thee one pop from the cooler.
Matt’s dad chatted with Mr. Gardner, the old British guy who lived next door by himself since his wife died a few years back. His mom said he was ‘having a rough time’. She made Matt take him casseroles or cookies she somehow found time to cook on the weekends. Matt liked him okay, although he would go on with dull stories from when he was Matt’s age that always seemed to involve ‘scraps’ with other kids or something. He’d laugh about it with Pete, but Mom said he needed to be kind.
Down the road, his little sister Abby was playing a game with Deidre, Pete’s sister. It involved squealing, a rope, and lots of running from one end of the court to the other. Abby had her hair tied up in a bandanna, a look she’d borrowed from his mom. They both had that same dark, curly hair that resisted all attempts to control.
“Are you going to talk to her?” Pete asked, gesturing to Kate.
“There’s a hashtag trending on Instagram. MadPuker.”
“Seriously?” Matt pulled his phone out and checked. He’d been avoiding social media since this morning for this reason. “Who started it?”
“Kate told Steve Paulson.”
“Figures. That prick. I wasn’t even mad.”
“Mad puker. I wasn’t angry. The name implies something irritated me, or I was frantic with puke. Neither of those things is true. Run-chucker would have made more sense.” Matt glanced over where Kate and Heather were laughing at something, probably vomit-related.
“Well, Steve’s a Neanderthal,” Pete said. “Regardless, you’ve got to do something soon. You’ve been screwing around for too long. You’ll end up in the friend zone.”
Pete had a whole theory on how it all worked with girls. You needed to stay out of the friend zone, was the thing. It’s where you are friends with a girl for so long, she stops seeing you as possible dating material, i.e., hot, and only sees you as a good friend or maybe even a brother, i.e., not hot.
“I don’t get why it’s bad to be friends with a girl,” Matt said. He complained, but Pete had so much more experience with this than him. Science projects and grades consumed most of Matt’s high school life. He couldn’t wait for college and the new start that would come with it. Two months left.
“If you like her it’s bad to be friends.” Pete steepled his hands in front of his face and nodded wisely.
“But you and Liz were friends for years before you dated. We’ve all known each other since we were kids, except Heather.”
“That’s true. That’s true. But,” a finger in the air, “if you’re too good of friends, then it’s bad again.” Sermon delivered, Pete leaned back against the curb.
Matt feared that if he asked more questions, Pete would think he knew nothing about girls. This was the problem with high school. Everything changed. He turned eighteen this year, and already the dynamic was fracturing. Pete was growing apart from him, eclipsing Matt in looks and popularity. He had an easy way that made girls take notice. Not that it did them any good. Pete had been dating Liz for months now, and they seemed serious.
“I think my parents are friends.” He threw the comment out, seeing if Pete would pick it up.
“Sure. Once you get married and you have kids, you’re not even a couple anymore. What’s left except being friends?”
Dating was more complicated than the theory of relativity.
“So, you need to start as not-good friends, so you can date and stay not-good friends, so when you marry you can become great friends?” Something seemed off with that sentence, but Pete only took a deep swallow of his drink and snapped his fingers.
Matt shook his head. None of this mattered right now. The only thing that mattered was getting his courage back up to talk to Kate although he didn’t have a clear plan on how to recover from the vomiting. Nothing with the weather helped his mood either. The strange purple clouds had faded, but the sky remained striated with dark, unnatural streaks. Everyone seemed on edge. Even his planned approach seemed off now. He’d gone over a few opening lines in his head, but none seemed right. He ran through them.
Nice run this morning, sorry about the puke. Hey, there’s a movie playing this week, we should go together. No, that was too casual, she might mistake it for a friendly gesture. And it would be best not to draw attention to the madness of his puking.
Maybe: We should see a movie together in the specific context of a romantic date. Too clinical.
Or: We should go to a movie together, and I like you and your smile gives me butterflies. No, too crazy.
How about a movie? Maybe the Exorcist? I can give Linda Blair some pointers. That was it. The perfect combination of assertive and self-deprecating. That was the one.
“I’m doing this.” He stood up, and Pete clapped him on the shoulder.
“Good luck, man.”
Before he could make any movement, old Mr. Gardner from next door jogged over with a football.
“Ahoy, lads!” he called with his distinct British accent, throwing the football back and forth. “Let’s have a catch before dinner. Go long, and I’ll pass it to you.”
“Oh god,” Pete said, low enough that only Matt could hear. Mr. Gardner loved himself a good catch. Every barbecue, he made it his mission to ‘toss the ole pigskin’ around. Pigskin, ha. Matt researched and learned modern footballs were made from vulcanized rubber. Sporting equipment notwithstanding, Mr. Gardner wasn’t giving up, and he mimicked throwing gestures at them.
He seemed in good shape for a guy his age, with a lean build. Matt thought he was in his sixties. His thinning white hair blew in the errant breezes that continued to crop up, blowing both hot and cold air at the same time. Matt rolled his eyes at Pete, and they both got off the curb. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Kate and Heather giggle into their hands.
“Buddy, I can handle this one,” Pete said. “I’ll take a few throws, and you go talk to her. Remember to be confident. Girls like that.”
“I thought girls like it when you aren’t pushy?”
“They like lots of things. They’re people. Hustle.” Pete slapped him on the shoulder and ran to the top of the street to take a pass.
“Look alive, Pete.” Mr. Gardner threw a wobbly spiral that sailed well over Pete’s head. “You gotta hustle, son!”
Helpful advice. Hustle. He’d best get to it.
The neighborhood crowded around the giant barbecue in front of Heather’s house. He thought there must be ten pounds of meat on the folding table beside it. Matt had to force himself to put one foot in front of the other to approach the girls and kept wiping his sweaty palms on his shirt. He passed Pete’s parents, who were swinging Deidre between them.
“Hey Matty,” Pete’s dad waved. “We’re going for a walk before dinner.”
“I thought you burned off calories after the meal?” Matt said.
“We’ll do that, too.” Pete’s mom smiled at him. He spent so much time with the Carters, they were like his second family, and in his secret heart, he thought Mrs. Carter made better cookies than his Mom. He would never, never, tell anyone that.
“Abby wants to play tag.” Deidre stopped her swinging to stand in front of Matt. “She says you never play with her and you’re a bad brother who is not fun.”
“Those are some serious accusations, Matty.” Mrs. Carter smiled behind her hand, and Matt sighed. Abby and Diedre were only ten, and the age gap meant he sometimes played more of a parent role than a big brother role.
“Tell Abby I’ll play with her after dinner, okay? When you all get back, we’ll have a huge game of tag.”
“Maybe Kate can play too,” Pete’s dad said, winking.
Did everyone know about her? Was there some Facebook group he didn’t know about? Were they sending each other updates?
“You guys enjoy your walk. You need to get Pete away from Mr. Gardner first if you want him to come. They’re playing catch.”
They waved and continued their walk, leaving Matt free to pursue his mission. Everyone was out of his way. This time, nothing would stop him.