First Friend Cover

I glanced at the clock once more. Projects were due in 5 minutes.. I again checked the screen in front of me; the scene I imagined weeks ago was now displayed.

Often when we did these projects I fantasized about the result...the model rendered in front of the class, it's colors splashing across the floor as if the fantasy scene were destined to spill into reality. As with all my creations, it was based heavily off a popular character kids thought were cool...Lomoo. I mean, who doesn't like Lomoo? He's on cereal boxes, backpacks...and a feature movie is even on the way. The 3-foot purple-skinned weirdo with springy antennas filled my 12-year-old imagination back then.

I finished the last texturing, saved the project, and sent it to the queue. Mr. Garickson was seated in his chair, looking up at the queue filling with names. My normally animated and goofy teacher seemed almost pleased as he swiveled back and forth in his chair, each students' name popped up on the master screen. I was in position 5 out of 17 students.

Leo was number 4.

I met Leo in the 3rd grade and quickly discovered he was one to avoid . He was often mean to me. In the third grade he'd stand in my way in the hallway, then move, to get more in my way, and then laugh and say, “sorry, was I in your way?” When he got bored of that he'd tell my my shirt was stupid. Then he'd tell ugly girls at school that I wanted to marry them.

And worst of all he was a better 3D modeller than I was, as evidence by this project. I burned with jealousy.

His model was 2 ninjas fighting. It was even interactive, where anyone could control one ninja by mirroring movements. He invited Mr. Garickson to try. Although Mr. Garickson was in fairly good shape for his age, his futile attempt at faux martial arts brought the class to tears.

Leo walked past me. “Better not be more of that stupid Lomoo,” he taunted under his breath. I was already feeling jealous. Now I was feeling belittled. What came up was a sickening bile of mistreatment; with no one to save me.

Mr. Garickson invited me up. I swallowed and tried to push aside the thoughts of unfairness. After all, he seemed to like my projects. Isn't that all that mattered?

I showed the model. He just hopped around an environment I made. It definitely wasn't interactive—not like Leo's project. I didn't say much. I couldn't say much. One of the girls cooed. “Ooh, he's so cute.”

I sighed, but heard a raspy, “Nobody cares!” from Leo sitting at the back of the class. At that moment I really wanted to run out of the room and cry; but I already did that last week, so they already saw me as an emotional wreck. With a trembling voice I finished up, “...and that's it.”

If Mr. Garickson saw my mask of bravado, he didn't show it. Instead he nodded. “Thank you, Tony. Next...Morgan.”

I tried not to look at Leo, but I knew he was looking at me. Any time he wanted to bother me, he'd just look directly at me, staring into my soul, willing me to cry.

And it worked. I had to turn aside. My throat tightened. The sobs were coming to the surface. But I pushed them down, so only hot tears tinted my eyes.

I had to think of something else. What did I have to look forward to? English? Yeah because of—oh, I couldn't, no—she's too...oh, the play! Yes! The play. I forced my mind to focused on the school play. When I got the major part I fell on the ground in joy. How could I, as friendless as I was, get chosen to be a part of a play?

That's it, I thought hopefully with the emotions fighting to rise to the surface, I just need to rehearse my lines in my head....'Father, wake up...your customer's here'... as I continued to rehearse my lines my throat eased, the

Plus, after this period was lunch. I had a chance to get away from Leo, to sit by myself, and read my book. Usually, I sat by myself. The table I chose typically was in a corner and not too dirty. Whenever someone sat at the table they either put their head down in their phone, ignored me, or were special ed students, seemingly unaware of anything except their caretaker helping them eat lunch.

This time, I was sitting alone, engrossed in the pages of my book, afraid to glance at my watch to discover how much time had passed. Then I was interrupted by the sound of someone laughing musically, almost like a flute.

My heart fluttered and I looked in Becky's direction.

I couldn't comprehend how she even—well, existed! The way she looked was graceful, mature, but still youthful. I couldn't help but try to understand her. I had been aware of her since probably kindergarten, but as I saw hints of a woman in her appearance I couldn't help but feel warm. Her face was dark and mysterious, almost masculine. And I was ashamed to admit it...I liked the gap between her front teeth.

I would tell my dad about her sometimes. How I felt about her. He would laugh, as if reminiscing about days gone by. “Ah, girls. I remember.” And he'd often encourage me to just tell her how I felt about her. I don't think he ever understood how nervous I felt.

What would I say to her? That I liked her? Is that what they call it? It seemed so counter to the way books describe it. I wasn't carried away in fantasy. I wasn't showing how bravado I was in order to win her affection. I just felt—stuck.

The lunch bell rang, pulling me from my thoughts. And again I played in my head what it would look like if Becky and I were friends. But then I realized friends don't hold hands like I was imagining, or kissing like I was envisioning. That's what boyfriends and girlfriends do...that's what teenagers do who ride motorbikes and get in trouble for bringing beer in the house.

The nervousness ended as soon as I continued my post-lunch classes. I couldn't wait for play rehearsal after school. I felt like I was actually contributing, giving people a reason to laugh or cry. It felt good.

Classes ended, the last bell rang, and before long I was in a rough costume. The “real costume” was still in the works, and I'd wear that later. I was facing the “house,” as Mrs. Archer called it (where the audience sat), but at this point it was empty, save for Mrs. Archer, who sat in a front-row seat, the script in front of her, meticulous and cryptic notes scrawled on a sheet of paper.

The Maker, played by Chris, hobbled about, as only a young boy playing an older man could. He was pantomiming projects, only to be interrupted by Annie—played by Brooklyn—who exclaimed “knock knock,” in lieu of the door not yet set up.

Uh oh! I had a line, but I suddenly spaced on what it was. Stupid, too, because I had rehearsed this scene, out loud and in my head, even going so far as to use a line rehearser app on my phone, as a suggestion from my dad. As the other actors glanced at me, my stomach fell and I had no choice but to call out, “Line.”

”'Could that be Annie?'” Mrs. Archer read. But between that time, Leo—standing stage right—scoffed, and whispered snidely, “Tony, it's not that hard.”

The theater was silent. I imagined myself if I was performing. Everyone would be looking at me. Now it was just the entire cast, standing under the orange lighting; and Mrs. Archer, chin resting in her fingers, a bemused smile on her face so you were never sure if she was disappointed or pleased. And then there was Leo, offstage, smug; with Parker rolling his arm in an impatient “hurry up!” motion. Fully humiliated, I swallowed, took a breath, and continued, my voice coming out in a squeak “'Could that be Annie?'”

I felt sick. Everyone now felt I was holding up the show. The remainder of the scene was only a few minutes, but felt like an eternity, especially when Mrs. Archer had us go back a few lines, or encouraged a line to be said a little louder. But all I wanted to do was escape and have a moment to myself. Finally, the scene ended and I exited stage right. But I could still feel Leo eyeing me, ready for attack. As I was about to exit backstage, Leo stepped in front of me, just like he used to do in third grade. “Sorry, am I in your way?”

“Leo, leave me alone!”

“Gotta go somewhere?”

I felt tears coming to my eyes.

Leo rolled his and stared up at the ceiling. “Oh my God, now you're crying. That's why you don't have any friends. Grow up and stop crying.”

I suppose we were being way too loud, because Mrs. Archer told the scene to pause. “Is something going on back there? Leo?”

That was my breaking point. Tears came flooding out. I started to sob. I rushed past Leo, and flung the stage door open. I just wanted so much to be alone. No, I wanted a friend. Someone by my side. But being alone, ruminating on heartless words by ruthless bullies was more palpable than being in the throes of their arrows.

Finding a quiet corner near the band room, I sat down and hugged my knees. The band was currently in band practice, and they started up again, the muted drums and horns drowning out any sound coming from the theater. When I thought about the band, I was struck again with jealousy—they were a team. No one was an oddball, singled out. They all played together, even if—by the sound of it—a few were out of tune.

A door open down the hall and Mrs. Archer walked out of the theater toward me, her lips were taught. As the door closed I noticed the scene continuing without her direction. I felt a pit in my stomach. I was singled out. Mrs. Archer stood above me, staying silent for a few moments, allowing the moment to settle. The band in the other room paused for a moment as the band director gave directions. Finally, Mrs. she spoke in a soft tone, “What happened, Tony?”

I replayed the scene in my head and suddenly felt so stupid. I wished I wasn't there to be the target of humiliation. I wished I didn't exist. Other people—other boys—weren't as much of a cry-baby as I was. The only defense I had for my outburst was, they said mean things. Other teachers said I needed to toughen up. My parents said I needed to toughen up. I knew I needed to be stronger, but I couldn't muster the courage to stand on my own.

Mrs. Archer felt the silence. Whether she was growing impatient, I didn't know. To break the silence, she said again, “Tony?”

I knew I needed to confide in someone. Might as well be Mrs. Archer, I figured. I tried to speak, but the words caught in my throat. “Leo, he—” was all I could get out before bursting into tears once again. Mrs. Archer knelt down and put a kind hand on my shoulder. “I'll talk with Leo myself, Tony. I don't know what he said, but he had no right to talk to you that way.” She paused, probably seeing if that would help. I knew it was a way grown-ups tried to help me. But, like most adults, who didn't take care of Leo's constant bullying she just tired to tell me how to think of it.

“Don't worry about forgetting that line earlier. Happens to even seasoned actors on Broadway. You did the right thing by just moving on with the scene.”

I nodded. “I just want some friends.”

She softened further, and sighed. “I know. It's tough. My sister was the same way growing up.”

“Did she find friends?”

Mrs. Archer nodded, though not emphatically like I had hoped. She even looked a little grim. “It took a while. In her youth and even as a teen she had trouble fitting in. She wasn't the most popular girl, was chubby, and had really bad acne. I had theater to keep me occupied. She could never really find her calling anywhere. But I saw her grow and mature as an adult. It took a while, but soon she found friends that cared for her. She even got married to an amazing man. Mind you, she was almost 40 by the time she got married. But now she's happy...healthy...and has a lot of friends that support her. She reminds me a lot of you.”

I looked up at Mrs. Archer. She smiled. “We're about to do one of your scenes again. Are you ready to come in?”

“I don't think I can,” I said, burying my head in my knees again.

Mrs. Archer nodded, and then dispensed the advice I've heard from every adult before her. “Don't let Leo get to you, okay? Other kids have a lot of nice things to say about you.”

I nodded, pretending to take her advice to heart. I felt I'd been enough of a nuisance to her and the rest of the cast. Mrs. Archer sighed, then stood, and returned to the auditorium. The once theatrical troupe had now gone rogue, playing tag with each other and laughing. Before the door closed, Mrs. Archer clapped twice and called out, demanding an order to the chaos

I thought about going inside, but couldn't will my body to. But I also imagined Mrs. Archer reading my lines. The other kids would wonder if I was sick, or I'd gone home. Then kids would realize that Leo got to me and I'd run out, scared and crying. I shouldn't be this sensitive! I told myself.

Resolute, I stood from my corner. I didn't feel like crying anymore. I checked the time and saw it was 6:21. We probably weren't going to do another scene with me anyway. My dad would be by to pick me up soon, so I just stood outside the school, the cool night air drying my skin, warm and damp from crying. My dad soon picked me up; I spoke little, but my dad understood why. Later I found out he got a message from Mrs. Archer, explaining my trouble fitting in in play rehearsal.

That night, after my parents put me to bed, they lay in theirs, unsure what to say. My mom, the emotionally intelligent half of my parents, knew not to bother my dad if something was on his mind. She lay in silence, debating whether to pretend she was asleep.

“Mrs. Archer called after practice,” Dad finally said.

Mom didn't say anything. She forgot her sleep performance and began playing with her nightgown.

“I'm worried about him,” Mom finally admitted.

“He's young.”

“But he's at a pivotal age. He needs friends. Especially when he becomes a teen.”

“Is it really that important?”

“Well, yeah. Remember the Hendersons? How their son couldn't handle school and dropped out? Experts say making friends is vitally important, especially in your teens.”

Dad sighed. “We need to make our own decision, don't you think?”


Mom spoke. “You were sensitive as a kid, too, if I remember right. You had to toughen up. So did I. Kids are mean but you and I had to find friends.”

“And if we didn't—?”

“Tony needs to learn, Miles.”

“How can he learn if all the interaction he gets is from—from—Leo!” he spat in a whisper.

“What other options are there?” Mom hissed. “There's nothing we can do for him short of telling kids to be nice to him.”

Dad kept silent. In the darkness, he was probably scowling, thinking. “This has been going on a while,” he admitted.

“I'm trying to help him.”

“I know.”

“I realize you are, too.”

“I know.”

“You have something on your mind,” she suggested.

“First Friend.”

Mom scoffed. “We don't have the money for one of those.”

“We have Tony's college savings.”

“But, we—I mean—no. No!” Mom propped herself up on her elbows.

“How can he ever hope to go to college? Just think when he hits teenage years. The emotions raging. I just think—oh, God—I try not to imagine it, but could Tony get so depressed he kills himself? Then we'd have the college savings, sitting there. And we'd be blaming ourselves for not doing something.”

She let out a disbelieving laugh. “We're not getting a robot as a friend for our son.”


CW: violence, language, and brief sex


(feel free to skip to the story if you want.)

One day I was thinking about the common “girls like bad guys” trope often found in fiction. One prime example is an action/kind-of-romance film from the 70's Badlands. It does appeal to most people because it fits in with what society considers “masculine” and “feminine” traits.

At the same time, I also appreciate fiction that subverts common gender tropes. Wonder Woman subverted the “strong male hero must defend the feeble woman” trope effortlessly.

So I took it upon myself to do this with the aforementioned trope. In addition, within a compelling story, main characters must have an arc—each character has to come away with the story changed.

Using these rules, I explored this dynamic—a “good guy” is attracted to a “bad girl.” While I appreciate dark story tones, the tone of this story is darker than I anticipated.

Even so, I hope you enjoy it.

I rocked back and forth on my feet. My knees were cramping, too. I raised one leg behind me, and then the other. I didn't have the best shoes, but they were what the street ministry team encouraged. Why anyone in 2016 would want to talk with someone in a suit and tie was beyond me. I looked across at my partner, Amos. We both looked at each other uncomfortably and pinched our lips. He wore the same stiff suit that I wore, freshly bought from Brooks Brothers. I figured if this didn't work out I could use the suit for an interview—or a date with Jessica.

We simply waited (and prayed—right, I was supposed to be doing that) as people walked by, often quickly avoiding eye contact. This was day 2 of the ministry. I had the divine opportunity to witness to a homeless woman who I quickly found out was just talking to the air; and to engage in a heated argument to argue on the finer points of pre-mellenialism vs. post-millenialism with a grumpy old man.

Amos was able to talk with an Hispanic woman who spoke only a little English; he awkwardly invited her to the Spanish services Sunday afternoon.

I thought about Jessica. Her ministry. It sounded more practical than the one I chose. Even before she graduated high school she spearheaded an initiative working with the city to build houses for the homeless. Then she just basked in the glow of having done a good deed before the graduation ceremony.

We've gone on dates. Curly auburn hair, upturned nose. Slight frame. She spoke in a soft voice. Her temperament was even, because she said a Godly woman never raised her voice. “She's supposed to serve the church, her husband, and most importantly—God.” I have had moments where I've successfully broken through her humor wall. Just the other week during a grad party, I sat at her table, grabbed a powdered doughnut, then proceeded to puff the powdered sugar as I was chomping down on it.

Dating her wasn't a complete challenge: I felt a connection with her a few times. Mostly when we would hold hands. We both felt we were too young to kiss. But hugs were okay. And that cemented the connection. But most of our interactions involved deep philosophical discussion. A few times these even got heated. She wouldn't cry, but she would get very quiet. I would start to leave, then return and apologize.

“Will, you're out of high school. You need to set a direction in life,” my dad would tell me.

I knew it would be in ministry. But for the time being it was designing Fortnite skins. Too embarrassed to do it at home, I brought my laptop to a coffee shop, selling enough to afford a treat once in a while beyond my parents' allowance.

But here I stood in the middle of the city, and wondered if I could keep this up for the rest of my adult life. Did I care that most of these people were going to hell? Kind of...? If I was honest I was doing it mainly because I felt I should.

“Would you like a personal relationship with Jesus?” I asked a young woman who was walking with her husband. At least the ministry team encouraged creativity with the opener. I figured people liked relationships more than they liked hell.

The couple paused. The woman regarded me with intrigue, and used the free hand not holding a shopping bag to brush hair aside. The man shoved his hands in his pockets and strode behind his wife. “What?” the woman asked.

I swallowed. “Would you like a personal relationship with Jesus?”

“What religion are you?” the man asked directly.

“Um...Christian...Protestant. I belong to New Day, just down the road.” Without thinking I shoved a tract toward them. They stood there. I took the tract back. “Have you heard about Jesus?”

“Yes, plenty,” the man said, poison in his tone. The wife turned and put a hand on the man's chest to calm him.

I forced a smile and pushed. “And what have you heard?”

So many thoughts were bubbling to the surface of the man's brain, and he was having to sort out what ones to say while still maintaining his dignity. “I heard he cares about the poor, but he also wants money—like, three thousand dollars—that goes to prostitutes instead of the orphanage in Uganda.”

My face started to flush. “Oh,” was all I could say.

The man, confident in his argument, turned. His wife hid behind her hair and followed him.

I looked at Amos. He bared and gritted his teeth as if to say, “that was awkward.” I was too emotionally drained to answer back.

Fifteen more minutes went by. Three girls about my age walked past me. One had visible tattoos with brown hair highlighted with pink. Definitely unbelievers. I cleared my though. “Excuse me, would you like a relationship with Jesus?”

The one with dyed hair slowed down, stopped, and turned, causing the others to do so as well. She eyed me. I flushed. Her eyes were a friendly green, and her cheeks were fighting her coy smile. A distressed tweed jacket was unbuttoned, revealing a white tank top highlighting her youthful form. She wore leggings underneath her denim skirt. The girl approached me playfully. “Excuse me?”

The other girls stood nearby, eyeing their friend curiously.

Not used to this kind of attention, I suddenly felt warm inside. I couldn't feel my legs and I fought to gain control of my tongue. “Jesus—have you heard about him?”

With a very direct, solid tone she said, “Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”

I nodded awkwardly. “Uh, yeah.”

She turned to her friends. “I'll catch up with you.”

“Anna!” one of them scolded.

She raised her hand in a farewell gesture. They got the point and started walking off.

The girl turned back to me. “What about him?” she asked. She stood casually, her hands on her hips, never breaking eye contact.

“Um...he's God's son. He...uh, paid for your sin.”

“Oh, God, do I sin,” she said in a mocking tone, rolling her eyes. “I can tell you all the shit I've done. Wanna start at age three?”

“Well—I mean—I—”

“I called a boy a bitch. Started to go downhill from there.”

I laughed nervously. There was a time for grace, but there was also a time to stand on your own two feet. “I don't think you're taking this seriously.”

“You're right. Never could take things seriously. So, what about you? What have you done that'll send you to hell?”

In the workbook, we were encouraged to prepare our own testimony. I was a pretty good kid overall. There was a time when I was a bit rebellious with my parents, so I started to describe it.

“I murdered my dad,” she said solemnly.

I looked down, preparing a word of encouragement, about how no one is too far from grace.

“Haha! I totally got you!” She said. Then she put a hand on my shoulder. “But seriously, here you are in the middle of the fucking city, wearing clothes you stole from Abraham Lincon's grave, and you're wanting someone to talk with you?”

“Well, you're talking with me.”

She removed her hand from my shoulder. I secretly wished for her to do it again. “I felt sorry for ya.”

“I feel sorry for you,” I replied softly. I needed to maintain focus.

She smirked and shook her head. Her bangs fell into her face. “You're such a fucking liar.”

“I'm being honest.”

She stepped in front of my face. I smelled her—why? Why now? I needed to keep my head clear. “You're being religious.” I started to argue, but then closed my mouth. “Good boy—you're learning,” she said. She said it very flirtatiously, not condescending at all. “What do you do for fun? Do you have hobbies?”

“I—uh—sell Fortnite skins?”

“With crosses? Holding Bibles?”

I had to chuckle at that. “No, just weird creatures. Goblins. Werewolves.”

“I'm an entrepreneur,” she said, beaming. “Of sorts.”

“Oh, that's—cool.”

She paused, and looked into my eyes. Paused for a second, then said. “Get your head in the game. Life's too short to wear a suit.” With that, she walked away. I found myself not able to keep my eyes off her legs in the denim skirt. She walked with an attractive confidence that I craved.

My head still buzzing, I turned toward Amos, who had his eyebrows raised in a “how did that go?” expression. I nodded, unsure whether I felt guilty or alive.

The evening ended quietly. My phone chimed my alarm, indicating quitting time. We were supposed to do this all week, but in shifts. I was set to take the day off tomorrow. Amos collected the remaining tracts and put them in his car. “So what was the girl talking about?” he asked. “Didn't see you praying with her.” He save me a slight smile.

“'s—nothing. She was already saved.”

“Really? Wow, she seemed really friendly. Remember, don't mix business and pleasure,” he said, winking. Then he closed the trunk, and we both got in to drive back to the church. I was later picked up by my parents.

The next day I sat in the coffee shop, making more skins and checking the statistics to see what people liked most. I was suddenly aware of someone in front of me. It was the girl from yesterday. I looked up. Unsure what to say, I just looked into her eyes.

Today she was wearing a long-sleeved dark purple shirt and jeans. “Well, well, well,” she said. That same sly grin toward one cheek. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Yeah, I'm getting some work done today.”

“Oh, Fortnite skins?”

I nodded. She had a really good memory.

“Can I see them?”

I turned my laptop around. She took a seat beside me. I tried to hide my excitement. Tried to play it cool. It just felt so natural. I turned back to my screen. I had designed a creature that looked like a cross between a spider and a scorpion, walking like a human. Her face brightened. “That is so cool! How did you come up with that?”

I shrugged. “I guess when I was high.”

She shot me a look, snorted, then turned back to the screen.

I was unsure what to say in this situation. I then remembered Jessica. Were we exclusive? Would she accuse me of cheating if she saw me with this girl? Before I thought, I said, “Can I buy you a drink?”

“Mocha,” she said, interrupting me. “Peppermint. Extra sprinkles.”

I closed my laptop lid and ordered with the barista. With my heart pounding in my chest I hoped the baristas wouldn't see who I was with...and then tell my parents. Word would get around to the church that I was dating a sinner. Then my chances with Jessica would definitely be ruined.

Once the mocha was ready, I handed it to her and set it down.

“You're name's Anna, right?” I asked. That wouldn't hurt, right? I'm just getting to know her.

“You haven't tole me yours. You do have a name, right?”

“To be honest a crack in the earth opened up and hell spat me out just the other day.” She chuckled. “Name's Will.”

“Nice to meet you, Will.”

“Why do you want to talk with me anyway?”

“You're cute.”

I blushed.

“A girl's never told you you're cute before?”

Now that I thought about it, Jessica never acknowledged it. She liked that I was driven, and that I was (for the most part) respectful. Lots of “husbandly” qualities, but she never said I was cute. For that matter, neither did I. Seeing someone as “cute” was a matter of the flesh after all, right?

“No,” I said.

I'd been warned missionary dating. Clergy told horror stories of men who would try to minister to a woman whom he was also dating, and eventually they got involved in Wiccan chants and demon worship.

But this girl seemed different. I also knew I was strong. Maybe I could leader her to Christ. “Did you grow up around here?”

She set her coffee down and settled into her chair. Thus began a conversation, a conversation in which I couldn't take my eyes off her. I forgot about my Fortnite skins. I forgot about her tattoos and died hair (or at least the fact that they were an indication of her sins). I forgot about Jessica. I forgot about my parents, and Amos, and the ministry team. I even forgot about the coffee shop we were in.

I didn't want the day to end. Eventually, coffee customers filed out. 4PM. Closing time. Anna and I were the only ones left.

I packed up my laptop. Anna and I continued talking. We walked toward the door. I was about to open the door, like a gentleman, but she aggressively pushed ahead of me and opened the door herself.

I thought about scolding her. But after our talk, I realized that would be useless. Instead, I bowed deeply. “Why thank you, my dear,” I said in a fake British accent.

“My pleasure!” she yelled jarringly.

We both laughed. For once in my life I felt...seen. Like I was connecting with someone.

We were about to head off in different directions, but she stopped me. “Tomorrow, some of my friends are having a party,” she said. “End of the summer fling. You know. I want you there.”


She pulled out her phone. “I'll give you my number.”

I sent her a text so she got it. “Thanks,” she said, smiling. “I'll give you the details.”

Amos certainly noticed I wasn't in my suit. I said I accidentally spilled coffee on it and it was at the cleaners. “Souls are more important,” I said.

I'm not sure if Amos noticed me disappearing halfway through, dumping my handful of tracts in the trash, or when I boarded the bus, nervously riding my way to Anna's party.

The house was on a gravel road about a quarter mile off the bus route. By the time I got there the sun was starting to set.

I wondered if I'd miss the house number, but soon found out the house number was irrelevant, as loud music disturbed the serene nature of the rural gravel road.

I approached the rustic 2-level house. I slowed, peering inside the window. People were standing in groups holding red Solo cups. I heard loud talking. Occasionally someone would guffaw, throwing their head back, their laugh audible from where I stood.

I opened the door, and the already heavy atmosphere washed over me. Anna, in the middle of a conversation with friends, did a double take in my direction, then walked over, beckoning me as she did. “Will! Over here!”

She hugged me. But not like Jessica. She wasn't being careful with how I might interpret the gesture. Her arms formed to the crook of my back, and my arms flowed nicely over her nearly-bare shoulders. I felt a rush when my hands touched her tank top and bra strap.

The embrace lasted a moment, but the endorphins stayed with me. “Will, come on, I want you to meet some people.” She led me by the hand (we're holding hands!), and she introduced me to gamers. While I wouldn't consider myself a heavy gamer, I liked hearing about some of the campaigns the other gamers went on. Even so, my eyes kept darting back to Anna.

I soon found myself alone, out on the back porch with a drink in my hand (don't worry, Pastor's just grape soda), feeling the cool night air over my skin. I didn't know these worldly people could be so—so—loving. They didn't pray. They didn't talk about the Bible. But to them I was already family.

I smelled the sharp musk of a cigarette. Turning to my right, I saw a young woman pull a cigarette from her lips. I studied her profile in the moonlight. Anna.

She turned, flicking some ash of the end. She approached me, and I took a reserved step back. “You don't like cigarette smoke,” she proposed.

I nodded curtly. She extinguished the cigarette on one of the deck benches and left it there, then continued her progression over to me.

I took a step closer to her, too. What was I doing? I was praying. Or was I? What I was I praying for? For salvation from this situation? For God to miraculously part the ground and have us physically separate? God, please, don't let that happen. I just need a taste!

I fought my urges, and eventually held her shoulders. She closed her eyes and smiled. “Closer,” she whispered.

I stepped closer, my hands wrapping behind her small back. She reached up and put her hands around my neck.

Why was she doing this? Was she asking for—? Only one way to find out. Despite the smell of cigarettes lingering, I leaned in, placing my lips on hers. She didn't back away. Was this possible? Did she really want me to do this? I had to stop. I had to stop. This wasn't me. This wasn't me at all. But I had to keep going. I kissed her a few more times; by now alarm bells were blaring in my brain; I gasped and stepped away.

I've seen chick flicks where girls would be offended by men frightened by intimacy. Anna wasn't. She was amused, keeping her eyes one me, and maintaining a coy smile. “First kiss?”

She knew me too well. What would Jessica..?—oh, what the hell! I nodded and smiled. “I didn't know what to—think.” I turned. “Was it yours?”

Her smile turned into a smirk and she put one hand on her hip, as if to say, “Do you really need to ask?” “You're probably the four hundredth guy I've kissed. Just wait until you hear about the fucking.”

I didn't want to know. Or maybe I did. I wasn't sure anymore. I needed time to think. I eyed the grape soda, briefly wishing it was alcohol. I looked at Anna again, who was unmoved from her position. “It's getting late,” I said, “I think I need to head home.”

When I did head home, though, I was greeted by my parents, sitting on the couch. Whenever they sat on the couch past 8PM that was never a good sign.

“Amos said you left today,” my dad said.

My heart beat faster. I thought of Anna. Her lips.

“Okay,” was all I can muster.

“Did you leave?”

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“Where'd you go?” Mom asked.

“I said I don't want to talk about it.”

“William!” my dad said.

That made me stop. I should have kept going. A part of me still wanted to pay for my sins. This was my surely my penance. I feel I deserved it.

My dad continued. “Would where you went please God?”

“Dad, I'm eighteen.”

“You're still our son. We care about you. God cares about you.”

Mom tried to take a softer approach. “If there's anything you need to tell us—if you're doing weed or meth—we're here for you. We'll help you get out of it—without judgment.” My dad nodded in agreement.

“Thanks,” I said, and continued up the stairs. I felt like I was penalized enough for my sins for the night. I would just have to take a break from Anna. I mean, I could just limit our interactions to text conversations. In fact, I remembered we had a pizza and movie night for young adults at the church. I could bring her along. I would have to be careful about PDA, for sure. What was the movie? Pirates of the Caribbean? In any case it would be a chance to talk to her about Jesus.

The next day I found out that would have to wait. Pastor Dave asked me to come into his office. Amos was there. Mom was there, too. Amos looked nearly fuming. Pastor Dave sat regally (after all, he was the senior pastor). Mom looked to be the softest—just there simply because Dad was working.

And they discussed what I had feared: my skipping the ministry, brushing off my parents, and—yes, the girl.

“I want you to read this book,” Pastor Dave said toward the end, handing me a thin paperback. “When I walked away from the Lord, it helped me.”

I took it mechanically. “Thanks.”

We ended the session with prayer.

“I'll be heading to the coffee shop,” I said, throwing the book into my backpack. I imagined it wouldn't stay here. I imagined it would end up in the garbage. Before I left my mom asked me to make good choices.

As I was waiting for the bus, Anna send me a text. “How ya feeling?”

The coffee shop could wait. I needed a friend I could talk to.

Eventually I found myself seated on her creaky futon, leaning forward. I didn't feel like leaning back.

Anna wore jeans and a white tank top, legs spread flagrantly over an easy chair. She sometimes took a sip of soda. Surprisingly the living room she shared with her friends didn't smell like cigarettes, though it looked as if Picasso's thirteen-year-old daughter was tasked with decor.

“It seems like your parents really care about you,” she said.

“Yes but—”

“You want your freedom.”

Damn. (Oh, sorry!) She knew me well.

She sighed. “I get it. It's a parent thing. My mom and dad do it to me. Had a talk the first time they saw me making out with a girl. Now I just say fuck off and hang up the phone. That, and if they talk about Trump.”

I smiled. “It's like...I don't want to abandon Jesus.”

“You don't have to abandon yourself.”

“I kinda do, though.”

“But since meeting me you feel more alive, don't you?” She paused, letting that sink in. “I gave you your first kiss!” she said, beaming playfully.

“I do, but—”

“Stop lying to yourself. You're not perfect you know. You fuck up just as much as me.”

I had to admit that I did. Her phone on the floor chirped. She leaned over and unlocked the screen. Her face brightened. “Oh my God, Will, you have to see this. Come here.”

Tentatively, I got up from my seat and walked over. She stopped me. “Okay, just promise you won't tell anyone, alright?”

I shrugged. “Uh, okay.”

She showed me a video. It was from cell phone footage. A driver in a hat and sunglasses displayed a wide-mouthed grin. “Dude, this guy's getting fucked!” he said, pointing his thumb behind him. The passenger holding the phone pointed the camera out the car window, toward a storefront. It was difficult to see at first, but figures were inside, moving about. Then, a man ran out of the establishment, carrying a duffel bag. He stumbled once, then got up and continued running. A dark-skinned angry man appeared in the doorway. Suddenly Will noticed the man with the duffel bag also had a gun in one hand.

The driver burst out laughing, as did the passenger. The man with the duffel bag ran to the car and opened the door. “Go! Go! Go!” the passenger with the camera said, and the car sped away. The store owner simply stood outside outside the store, brazenly shouting obscenities.

“Isn't that funny?” Anna exclaimed.

I tried to smile.

“Kevin really knows how to get the most shit.”

“So, wait you—”

“Told you not to tell anyone.”

“Or what?”

She leaned in close and whispered. “I'll track you down...and kill you.”

I should have been freaked out. I should have run out of there, called the cops. I should have told Pastor Dave, asked for forgiveness. I should have repented, prayed, stayed in the Word.

But I, again, felt the rush of feeling alive. Anna had that—that spark—that passion.

After all, surely she was joking. I rubbed her back. “After I kill you first.” She cackled like a cat, browsing through her phone. “Hey, real quick! A selfie!” She held up her phone in front of us.

I stayed there the rest of the day. Cooked a meal. As the clock struck 9PM I realized I knew I needed to get back home. My parents would undoubtedly be waiting for me on the couch again. Anna gave me a kiss before I walked toward the bus stop.

They were watching TV, but my dad ended the night with, “We need to talk tomorrow.”

I sneaked out almost every day, going on adventures with Anna. At one point I even saw her in her panties, she was that comfortable changing in front of me. I couldn't bring myself to cover my eyes. Yet she didn't pressure me into sex. I don't think I would live with myself if that happened, and she knew it.

I ended up missing dates with Jessica. She started to sound annoyed in texts. I wondered if this was her way of raising her voice.

My times with Anna were wonderful, magical. We did whatever. We watched movies. We danced to her favorite music. We make cookies. We made out on her couch. We hung out with her roommates, playing Cards Against Humanity, my arm never leaving her waist.

I got a text a few weeks later. “Come meet me by the dog statue in Washington Park.”

I did. She gave me a big kiss. “Do you love me?”

I'm pretty sure I'd said that a few times the past few weeks. So, yes, I definitely did.

“You also told me you hate your uncle, the owner of Unger & Sol?”

Well, I didn't exactly hate him. But I did tell her how he screwed my dad by promising a return on investment if he invested in the firm. It was a dry spell for his company. Now Unger & Sol was thriving, owning thousands of franchises from electronics stores to supermarkets. My uncle (the Unger part) has yet to share a cent.

“Well,” Anna continued, her hands remaining around my neck. “Today's the day you can get the money for your dad.”

I gasped. I would never—! Well, that wasn't true. And my parents were being (okay, I'll say it) asses, nagging me about coming home earlier. Maybe finding a blank check from a mysterious stranger for the amount he's owed would be a nice distraction.

Anna kept looking at me. She could see my wheels turning.

A beat-up Nissan pulled up. Two guys waved to Anna. They were the driver and passenger from the video.

Anna greeted them (thankfully, not romantically). They laughed and joked, and I heard mention of “Marty's Drug” and “equipment.”

I was just about to walk away when Anna skipped up to me, planted a huge kiss on my lips, then asked, “So, are you coming?”

She took my hand. I followed her. She and I took the back seat. The car smelled unusually fresh for people who stole for a living. Wait—did I finally name it? Was Anna a professional thief?

And what was I doing? What the hell was I doing? Seriously? A wide grin crossed my face. Anna must have seen it. She displayed an open-mouth grin, and laughed, tongue wide in delight.

We pulled up to Marty's Drugstore. “Guess I'm up,” Anna quipped.

Wait, she was, the—!

Anna took a gun from the passenger and stuck it in her jeans. “Remember,” the driver said, “at least $2,000.”

Anna scoffed. “Please, I can get that with pennies I find on the ground.”

I was about to reach for Anna's hand, but she was already out the door. All I could do was wait. My feet bounced nervously on the floor of the car. The other two men sat patiently. They might as well have been waiting for a parade to start. They started talking about their personal lives. Gus had a 3-year-old daughter. Stephen was studying to be an architect.

“So, Will, what do you do?” Gus asked.

“Fortnite skins,” I squeaked.

“Oh,” both said, nodding in unison.

Gus pointed to a motion in the store. Anna running. She was carrying plastic bags of small boxes—looked to be medicine and small equipment. She was grinning ear to ear.

“Will! Open the door!” Gus demanded. Moving through putty, I reached over and opened the other door. Anna jumped in, threw the bags in between us. “Go! Go! Go!”

We didn't head back to the park like I had hoped. I waited in the car while Gus and Stephen met a guy under an overpass, handed the guy the bags, and got a wad of cash counted out.

Stephen counted out the cash, giving us an equal amount. “And you get $628,” he said to me. “Not bad for your first rodeo.”

As we drove back to the park, the wad of cash sunk lower into my pocket. With a few more jobs like this I could pay back my uncle's money. I would just need to do it anonymously and make it look like it was from my uncle. But even that penance wouldn't make up for the immense guilt and shame I felt.

Did I deserve to go to hell?

Anna reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said. “You did great today.”

Again, I felt a rush that covered over that guilt and shame.

While I spent time with Anna I continued to join her in her little “quests.” Gus and Stephen didn't join every time. Kevin joined sometimes. I helped where I could as we robbed small establishments, never visiting the same place more than once. They were getting pretty close to being done with one area of town, then a previous area they covered would get a slough of new businesses.

I hid money where I could. I soon had $5,000 saved, in addition to the $1,000 that I had in mind to secretly give Dad. I ignored the pestering of my parents, the calls for repentance from pastors. I even got the “Who are you? You've changed” talk from Jessica, who was now begging for me to join her on her next housing project.

I got my license, and Anna promoted me to driver. One time we robbed a convenience store together. She performed the theft, while I waited for her. I couldn't stop laughing. So I laughed, then I settled down, but then her laughter would start up again, and she'd kick her feet up and down in excitement, then I would giggle, doubling over the steering wheel in glee. And this would continue until we were both in tears, leaving the vehicle parked in Gus's driveway.

When summer rolled around again I was actually well off enough to be looking out for a new place...for both me and Anna, of course. Church was a memory, and my parents' nagging was now background noise.

We still weren't intimate. I still wouldn't feel right drinking or smoking pot, but I allowed her to whenever she wanted, and was getting used to the smell of cigarette smoke. It was even comforting. Because wherever Marlboro was, Anna was there, too.

We finally planned on a heist will all five of us, crammed in the car. Me, Anna, Gus, Stephen, and Kevin. Kevin liked to take the big ones, and he suggested the pharmaceutical lab right close to the bay. He expected we could easily get between $500,000 and a million.

Again, I was commissioned as the driver. Gus was demoted, and didn't mind in the least. My nickname was Speed Demon, after all.

I arrived, and dropped everyone off. This was an all-hands-on-deck, so nobody except the driver (me) waited in the car. Anna and Gus crouched behind a wall, waiting for Kevin and Stephen to disable security. Finally they disappeared.

I waited for several minutes. This turned into a half an hour. Then, I jumped when I heard an echoy gunshot. Then another. After a few seconds I heard a few more. Then it was quiet.

My heart pounded. Should I wait? For how long? Was I in danger now? My eyes were wide, scanning the building facade for any type of movement. Finally, I saw Anna, supporting Gus, who was bleeding from his stomach.

Anna reached the back passenger door, opened it, and guided Gus inside. He groaned, holding his oozing side. She got in the car, too, demanded, “Go! GO!”

“What about Stephen and—”

“Just go!” she screamed.

I hit the accelerator. I found out later they were dead. Anna stayed in the back, putting pressure on Gus's wound.

“Should we go to a hospital?”

“Fuck no!” she cried. “We have to get out of here!”

“But we don't have any money,” I shot back.

Anna hadn't considered this. “How much money do you have saved up?” she yelled. She must have moved, because Gus grunted.

“About ten at this point. Eleven” (Sorry, Dad)

“Good enough. Your house is on the way out of town. We'll grab it.”

I soon got to my place, set the car in park, then put my entire focus on getting to my bedroom. I paid little attention to what my parents were doing. I grabbed all my cash, stuck it in a backpack, and headed back down the stairs.

My dad stood in the way. I stopped cold. “Where are you going?” he asked. “What are you doing?”

“Nowhere. Just leave me alone.”

“Will, talk to us—we—!”

“Leave me the fuck alone!” My own voice surprised me. It was the voice of a monster. But at the same time it was thrilling. “I hate you! Get out of my way, you piece of shit!”

Suddenly my dad's face turned pale. His shoulders fell. He stepped back away from the door as I charged outside.

Hot tears touched my cheek; I wiped them away, and jogged toward the car that I had parked about a block away. Anna was still in the back seat. By this point she was covered in blood. Gus's eyes were getting heavy. “You got it?” she demanded.

“Yes,” I said, choking back tears.

“Then get us the fuck out of here!” she ordered.

My foot was heavy—I forced it to press down on the accelerator. My arms were rubber. I gritted my teeth, grunted. I tried everything to leave my parents behind. My dad's face stuck with me. Whenever I blinked I saw the sorrow. I wished I could drive back and wrap my arms around him, apologize, tell him everything.

But I couldn't. I'd already made that choice.

“Gus! No! Gus!” Anna screamed.

Once outside of town in a quiet area, we disposed of Gus the best we could. Underneath a drainage ditch by a creek. As we stood there in silence a moment I remembered he had a daughter.

Anna started to cry, wipe tears away, then noticed the dried blood on her arms. “Aw, shit,” she said, and started to wash herself with rocks in the creek.

I stood there, watching her. I tried to get a thrill from looking at her butt, at her waist. Anything to distract me. But I felt nothing. No, I felt something. Fatigue...regret.

After a few minutes Anna shook her arms. Most of the blood was off. Her arms were red from scraping them with a rock. “That's the best I can do. Let's get going.”

We drove until the forested areas gave way to desert farmland. Then desert nothing...the kinds of areas where you wonder who owns the land, and what would happen if you wandered onto it.

We soon found out. Nothing happens. Even if you collect sticks and build a fire...nobody's gonna bother you.

“Gus had a daughter,” I said, breaking the silence between us.

“Can we not talk about him?” Anna asked. “Please?”

I waited. “Then what should we talk about?”

“God, I don't know! Something fucking nice for Chrissakes!”

The venom in her voice hit a nerve. I started to cry.

Anna looked over. She softened, and reached out to my hand. “I'm sorry.”

“How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

I threw my hands in the air. “This! This life. Robbing places!”

“It's what I know.”

“I hate it.”

“Today wasn't normal. We went in blind.”

Another fountain of tears burst from me. “I told my dad I hated him.”

Anna was silent for a while. The fire crackled. She reached down to play with the sand.

“I'm—sorry,” she said.

“No, you aren't!” I seethed. “Shit, Anna. You act like you know me but you don't!”

“And I'm just a fucking whore to you!” she spat, and stood up, walking into the darkness.

Another flood of emotion washed over me, the fire crackling a foot away. Again, I was alone. Wherever Anna had gone, I didn't know. At that point I didn't care.

I wanted Jessica back again. I wanted the safety of the church, the comfort of my friends. Who could I go back to? Who would even want me anymore?

Only Anna did. She was the only one who truly cared about me.

Minutes later I calmed down, drained of energy and emotions. I looked for Anna. I found Anna sitting on a rock, facing away from the fire. When she turned to me, the glow of the fire glistened off her tears.

“I never told you about my dad,” she said in a whisper.

I knelt down, and rubbed her shoulders. She started sobbing again. “He was there for me. My mom—she was religious. Forced me into church functions. Literally smacked a Bible over my head.” she slapped her hand for emphasis, and sniffed, wiping her nose. “The courts wouldn't do anything. Because they found little cause for abuse. My dad couldn't bring himself to divorce her. But he wanted to legally get her as far away from me as possible.

“No restraining order, but my Dad still tried. He encouraged me to spend time at other peoples' houses. Would try to get my mom out of the house to spend time with me. But being at other peoples' houses, I started to get friends. Finally. I started to feel like myself. Finally.

“But I also started to be a regular teenage self. Sassing him. Cussing him out. Eventually, I said I—” the words caught in her throat. “—that I hated him. I ran away. Lived the two girls who wouldn't judge me.

“My dad still tries to reach out to me. Sometimes texts me and puts in lyrics to the pop songs he'd hear me sing. God, I was going to be the next American Idol, wasn't I?” She laughed and shook her head. “It's like he knows details nobody else knows. Why the fuck would he do that?”

“It seems like he wants to reconnect. He loves you.”

She shot me a glance. Her eyes were daggers. “He's trying too hard.”

“He's trying the best way he knows how.”

Anna looked down suddenly. “I—I guess you're right.”

I guided Anna to her feet. “Let's get closer to the fire. Ooh, looks like it's starting to go out. When I was involved in church,” I said, looking for a good stick in our stockpile as Anna lay back against a rock, “there were many stories of reconciliation. Old friends angry at each other. Brothers. Parents and children. I always found hope in those stories.”

“Why's that?” Anna asked.

“It's like—you never know when you're going to go—or when the other person is going to go. We like to pretend we'll live forever. We treat family like shit. We don't appreciate when they're here. So love becomes hate. We end up hurting those we love.” Again, flashback to yelling at my dad, not even ten hours before. “It sucks. So then we feel guilty. And we act like we can never reconcile. That we can never make things right. But there is always time to go back and reconcile. Why leave a relationship sour if you can mend it? Right?” I turned to Anna. She was pouting, lost in thought.

I joined her on the ground. “You can still reconcile with your dad,” I said. “It's not too late.” Or was I talking to me?

She turned to me, her eyes piercing. She was ready to fight. I imagined her screaming profanities at me, hitting me, but she just stared at me—breathing. “You—” she began, and her face broke into tears again. “—you are a better person than I'll ever be.”

She crawled over to me, and we embraced. There was something about the desperation of our situation. Our locale of open desert. The doors that we thought we had nailed shut. But all inhibitions broke loose. I drank her in. She begged for me. We cried, we laughed, we sighed, we lay under the starlight, naked.

Again, guilt rose to the surface. And I understood, finally. This was not who I was. While I had said “fuck you,” to my dad, I said “fuck you” to myself a long time ago. And here I was, miles away from how I saw myself. Driven by someone's need for me.

Was Anna feeling the same?

When it got too cold, and the fire died out, I put my clothes on, wrapped a sleepy Anna in some spare blankets from the car, carried her to the driver's side, and got in beside her. I fell sleep within a few minutes. It wasn't until the sun broke the horizon that I opened my eyes.

Anna, hair disheveled, was already awake. I rubbed my eyes and yawned. I pushed aside any guilt or shame I felt from last night. “Good morning,” I said.

Anna was stoic. She looked down at her lap, then at the sunrise. “I can't do this,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Anna breathed heavily. She looked down, then back at me. “Last night. I'm not talking about crime. I can do that. I just can't do—us.” I was speechless. I waited for her to continue. The silence hung over us. “You've changed, Will. I remember when we met. You were so—stiff. I softened you up. I wanted to see that playful you. I thought I did. I wasn't trying to manipulate you into this whole robbery thing. No, I really do have feelings for you. I would even say...I would even say I love you.

“I thought you were different. I thought you had abandoned yourself and that you were wild and free to do whatever. That you finally weren't yourself and I truly had someone I could see myself with forever.” A fuel truck traversed the highway, its chrome frame catching the morning sun. I was grateful for the break in the heavy silence.

“But then there was last night. You—” her voice came out thin. “—broke me.” She swallowed. “I've never shared that about my dad with anyone. No one. And I didn't because of what you did. Because you got in my head and you were talking about it so fucking selflessly!” She struck the seat cushion. She regarded me in silence for several seconds, then said, “You're not the man I thought you were.” Again, she sat there.

This was news, and my mind was reeling with how I felt. And what I could tell her. So many thoughts were clamoring for attention. I wanted her. But I didn't. Things were moving fast. We're on the run. Four guys just got killed. We made love last night. I miss my parents. What the hell was I going to do?

Again, Anna spoke, but she started shifting her weight away from me. “I'll give you the car. Our journey together ends here.” She opened the door and stepped out. I moved over to the driver's side, when Anna ducked her head inside the window. “And don't follow me,” she said, maintaining eye contact. After a few seconds she looked away, and turned, walking away from the car.

I think I saw her wipe a tear from her eye. Please, please turn around, I begged. I want to see your face one last time.

While part of me thought of following her, I knew that wouldn't do any good. Instead, I sat in the front seat of the car, and watched her walk down the desert road. She soon became a dark figure, blending in with the mirage of the desert morning. Then, a pickup truck drove by. Up ahead, it slowed. The small figure in the distance disappeared. The truck sped up again.

I exhaled and closed my eyes. All the tears I could have cried were gone.

I drove back home, thinking how far I'd come. Thinking about Anna.

I like to think that she's somewhere safe. Not just safe physically, but safe emotionally as well. I like to think that she rode with a kind old truck driver, who noticed her disposition and asked what's wrong. I like to think she opened up to her, and that, maybe, the truck driver gave her encouragement.

I like to think Anna continued robbing stores, but that each time she did, the thought of me tugged at her, and the desire to reconnect with her father. I like to think each time she sold merchandise to the black market, each purchase she made, that the emptiness she felt widened.

I like to think she spent nights sleeping with strangers, each time asking deep questions about who she was, never being satisfied with the answers her partners gave. I like to think she would extinguish her cigarette, and ask the guy to leave her room.

I like to think that on a dark, lonely night, when the wind was howling, when she was alone, by herself, that she thought of her father. And reconciliation. I like to think that the next morning she hitchhiked her way to town, took the bus, and arrived at her father's door.

I like to think she knocked on the door. Maybe a dog barked. Maybe her father scolded the dog. Would the sprinkler be on? Would kids be playing in the street?

I like to think her father opened the door, and that he was taken aback for a second, disbelieving tears filling his eyes.

I like to think they embraced, and that her father cried tears he'd abandoned just to move on. I like to think Anna was just as emotional, holding tightly to her dad, telling him how she loved him.

I like to think they spent time together. I wouldn't know how much time. I hoped it was enough. Because what I did—I did something I hadn't done in a while, except with Anna. I told the truth. I told my parents. I told the police. My church disowned me, and I began serving prison time.

Wherever Anna was (in prison, most likely) I like to think that she was truly living with integrity.

Because I've found it's miserable not to.

CW: brief language and violence

The K-Pop drowned out the sound of the vehicle. Even with the sunglasses, Tucker had to continually squint as the low September sun filtered through the tree limbs. The placid, predictable concrete of the city was miles behind him, replaced with the wild, untamed...whatever this was. Trees? He guessed.

In between songs he caught glimpses of his father's music—quite a variety, he observed, but still not really what he liked. His phone chimed. A message from Heather. “So no hangout?” she asked.

He wanted to pour all his feelings into this message, but didn't. Instead, he cleared the screen, put his phone in his lap, and continued to look out the window.

It wasn't long before the car slowed and turned down a gravel driveway. They were plunged into the dense woods, and the day turned into a faux night until Tucker's eyes adjusted. He thought about sending Heather's chat reply just then, but he was out of service. He wondered if Uncle Henry had WiFi.

His dad tapped him on the shoulder, then tapped his ears. Tucker reluctantly took his earbuds out and put them back in the charging case. “You excited?”

Tucker shrugged. At least his dad had the decency to turn the radio off.

“I feel ya.”

“I could have just stayed at home.”

“We talked about this.”

“I know.”

“You're not old enough.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Soon though,” his dad said with a smirk. He always tried to lighten the mood with these kinds of serious talks.

They passed by a rusted—something. Tucker thought it looked like a robot with teeth on the bottom. Probably an abandoned project from the 1920. At this point moss had claimed it.

The car finally stopped and Tucker's dad turned off the engine. Tucker's skin tingled from the absence of asphalt of the 2 hour car ride. He and his dad got out and stretched their legs. The lake was visible through the fall foliage. The air was a few degrees colder than on the road.

His Great Uncle Henry—from Tucker's dad's side—was already out the door. The two men greated each other warmly. Despite being a recent inductee into the 90's, Uncle Henry was pretty mobile, still not needing a cane or walker. His wife, Nancy, died ten years earlier after being bed-ridden for nearly three years.

But Uncle Henry's appearance still mirrored that of his dad's and—annoyingly—his own. Although Tucker still didn't sport the pure white beard of his great uncle or the peppered one of his dad he was still cursed with the wide jaw and pronounced underbite. One thing he did have going for him was the sparkling eyes, that grew more jovial with age.

Tucker still kept a stoic face, thinking back to a good reply to Heather. As his father and great uncle continued to catch up, he wandered around to the side of the house to take a look at skeleton of the addition. Fresh lumber was already encased in plastic sheets, and the outline of a stairway snaked around the outside of the walls. Moister was on the wood, but Tucker still smelled the fresh timber.

His dad and uncle were actually discussing the project right now, Uncle Henry waving his finger toward the work progress, mentioning “vacation rental” and “before the good Lord takes me out.”

Okay, yeah, Tucker admitted, this would be a neat place to have a vacation.

But not when your original weekend plans were to hang out with a cute girl.

“Tucker,” Uncle Henry beckoned. “I just baked a pie. Come on in and have some.” His dad was already up the porch and inside the house. Uncle Henry looked back coyly, and said, “And I have some beer for ya,” only to be met with Dad's scolding, “Henry!”

Inside the two men continued to talk about life, leaving tucker to hang out by the unusually comfortable couch. A slice of pie was eventually brought to him. “Sorry, burned the crust,” Uncle Henry apologized, as he did every time he cooked the pie. He swore by his late wife's cherry pie recipe, but was never able to execute on it.

Tucker remained by himself, scrolling through his phone, waiting for a signal, and trying to seem like he was listening to the conversation. Eventually he grew bored after finishing the pie and trudged upstairs.

The room his uncle usually set aside for him was cluttered. At first it just looked like trash, but upon closer inspection Tucker noticed the yellowed pages, the typewriter font, the faded pictures of a 20-year old Nancy, glammed up and smiling broadly at an angle toward the camera.

And a revolver, just lying there.

And...a detonator?

After recovering from his early-stage heart attack, Tucker recalled—Uncle Henry did espionage work for the CIA in the late sixties and and into the seventies. It never really interested him much. But there was something about seeing the old work stuff, in person, that piqued his interest.

“Oh, that stuff, meant to clean it up,” Uncle Henry said, who had appeared beside him. “But you can stay in this room for the time being.” Uncle Henry led the way to the room across teh hall.

“So you did some spy shit?” Tucker asked.

“Watch your damn mouth.”

“Sorry. You were a spy?”

Uncle Henry opened the door to the adjacent room. Cold air rushed out. “Yes, I thought I told you about it.”

Tucker shrugged. “I guess you did when I was younger.” Tucker's dad called out a farewell to both him and Uncle Henry. Uncle Henry replied. Then Tucker said, “Did you ever kill anyone? Like 007?”

Uncle Henry smiled. “No. I was lucky.”

“You ever almost die?”

“Yes, one time in particular.”

“Can you tell me about it?”

“Yes, but first, I want to get your help getting the walls up on the addition outside. I'm hoping we can finish before the sun sets.”

Tucker sighed and his shoulders dropped. “You got any WiFi yet?”

Uncle Henry wasn't phased. “No.”

Tucker shrugged. He could either sit on his bed bored or help his Uncle out. “Okay, fine.”

Tucker grabbed his duffel bag, threw it on his bed, then donned some fall gear to combat the cold. When he ventured outside, the sun had already set behind the hill and cast an evening red onto the lake.

“Over here!” Uncle Henry called, three nails hanging from his lips.

Eventually the lure of the Internet-connected world wore off, and Tucker was even tempted to conclude that it was therapeutic to help his great uncle. Mostly he just held boards in place as Uncle Henry nailed them, trying not to laugh any time Uncle Henry smacked his thumb and threw a flurry of obscenities. “Don't tell your folks I said that,” he would say after the pain wore off.

But soon Tucker would have to squint to see what they were doing. “Well, we have a few more boards, but we can finish in the morning. Let's grab some more of that pie.”

Instead of sitting at the dining table, Uncle Henry brought the pie tin up to the room with the scattered paperwork. “It's alright—all this is declassified. The worst that you could do with it is get a scammer trying to buy it on eBay for free. Here, try to eat the pie over here. I don't want it to mess anything up.”

Now Tucker was able to take a closer look at some of the papers. Most of the writing was in either Russian or German. Some French. Uncle Henry was a busy guy.

Tucker reached for a folder when Uncle Henry beat him to the punch, abruptly yanking it out of the pile and raising an eyebrow. “First,” he said, opening the folder. Inside was a fuzzy black-and-white photograph of a man in a trench coat, about to cross the street. Balding except for a strong ring of hair. Sunglasses. Tucker thought of joking that they needed zoom-and-enhance in the seventies.

“The most dangerous mission,” Uncle Henry said, settling himself into a chair. Tucker leaned against the wall, picking up his pie. “You have to remember, my only job was intelligence. I wasn't supposed to take this guy out; Bedivere Filipov. I was supposed to find the name of his major customer.”

“How'd you do it?”

“He was a Russian weapon's dealer post Cold War. Didn't like how the Cold War fizzled out. So I thought, 'Weapon's dealer. What if I was a weapon's supplier?' I worked closely with other Russian spies to establish a business, and feed a paper trail to make it look like I'd been around since the thirties. The ruse worked. We got our man. Filipov did it covertly, but we were able to set up an appointment.

“We didn't want to risk having a wire or anything surveillance-related. Filipov was powerful and had many layers of security. I would have to go in without any protection or wire, get the info, and get out.”

“Were you scared?”

Uncle Henry nodded. “But I had to do it. Lives were at risk. So on the date of our meeting I got through every level of security. My heart was pounding. Everybody was greeting in their usual Russian way. I was still playing an American, so I didn't need to worry about appearing Soviet. Anyway, I finally entered Filipov's office. He was very tight lipped. But I hedged a bet that he was desperate. There were other, more notorious, arms suppliers in Russia. If I walked out on this deal, there was nowhere else for him to turn. Which gave me some leverage.

“Anyways, Filipov wasn't saying anything. I was hoping the names of his customers would slip out, but they never did. But then I took a risk and I said, 'Americans must pay. I need your assurances that the weapons will be distributed to the right people.' I remember Filipov's eyes flashed. His mask slipped. I got him. He told me five customers. Though he said he had seventeen, he teased me with five, which was plenty.

“His assistant started to get nervous, and then discretely walked up and whispered in his ear. After a little back and forth, Filipov tensed up. He slowly reached under his desk. His assistant carefully reached behind his back.

“I sprang from my chair. A bullet grazed my arm, right here!” He rolled uphis sleeve and pointed to the back of his arm, revealing a scar. “I was out in the hall. His security was all over me. But there was a window down the hall, so I sprinted for the window, took a breath, and jumped out the window.

“Bushes broke my fall, but I was caught. I scrambled to get out of the bushes as I heard a siren go off. I realized that was for me. They were after me and they were either going to kill me or torture me. Didn't want to find out which. Just as I came to my feet two nurses walked by. They eyed me with a fearful curiosity. I grabbed on of them and shoved a knuckle in their back, feigning a gun. 'Get away!' I screamed in Russian, 'I'll kill her!' Her assistant did run away. 'Now, get me out of here,' I said to the nurse that I had.

“She hesitated so I pushed my knuckle further into her back. Her feet started shuffling toward a door guarded by a soldier. He raised his rifle, but the emotional pleas from the nurse won him over, and he backed away from the door, keeping his weapon trained on me.

“I carefully backed into the door. Then, at the last possible moment, I kicked the woman toward the guard, opened the door, and closed it before I got shot. I raced back to base, and, boy, I had a story to tell!

“During debriefing I told all the details. But everyone was stern-looking. I wondered why. Finally, the director asked, 'What are the names of the customers?'” Uncle Henry's face fell, then he continued. “'I forgot,' I said. And I really did, truly forget. I forgot every single one of the names. I sat in the room for half an hour, racking my brain. The other agents waited. I worked through the alphabet, I retraced the steps in my head, but I could not remember a single name.

“They brought doctors in. They hypnotized me. They told me to go home and get some rest.” Uncle Henry snorted. “Yeah, you try sleeping if national security is dependent on faulty memory.

“Days go by...months go by...still—nothing. I was so distraught I had to leave my job. I took early retirement, before they fired me. Even now, to this day, for the life of me, I can't remember their names!”

Uncle Henry looked down at the folder, lost in thought. Tucker could almost see the reflections in those sparkly eyes—the disappointed faces of the other agents. His distraught uncle at a dining room table at night, crying in front of Nancy, unable to keep in together. Then, abruptly, he closed it. “Well, that's all for tonight.”

“Got any more stories?”

“Yes, tomorrow. It's getting late.”

Uncle Henry got up from his chair and turned off the light, leaving the hallway night light on.

Tucker sat in the darkness for a bit, still absorbing the story. He took the phone out of his pocket. Still no signal. He put his phone on flight mode to preserve the 75% battery life, then took his great uncle's suggestion and went to bed.

He again scrolled through the Heather's messages before falling unconscious. Did she like him? Jury was still out.

He put the phone aside and closed his eyes. The room lacked curtains, but without city lights and with the overcast sky, the room became pitch black.

He heard his great uncle snoring in the other room. Or was he snoring?

“Mfr—Shyam!” He thought he heard. Strange, he didn't know his Great Uncle talked in his sleep. Ah, that was because he usually slept in the room across the hall so he didn't hear him. Now the wall carried over his sound.

He still breathed—were they words? Almost. Hey! Maybe a new language! “HrrrrmmmmmmmSssssshhhYam! FarrrrrraGOoooo!” This continued for a few minutes. Eventually the murmuring stopped and soft snoring was heard.

Entertainment for the weekend, Tucker thought, and turned to his side, snuggling into his bed.

The next morning Tucker and Uncle Henry continued to work on the addition. The walls were finally up. They took a trip into town to buy the siding. Uncle Henry bought a Rockstar and a muffin for Tucker. Henry just stuck with coffee and a trail mix. They returned to work until it started to rain. Uncle Henry claimed rain was a sign from God to stop work. Tucker couldn't agree more.

“You talk in your sleep,” Tucker said as Uncle Henry made sandwiches.

“Yeah, that's what Nancy told me. I told her she farted in her sleep. That shut her up.”

“You had more stories?”

“Yeah, that one I told you last night was definitely the most harrowing. Should have given me PTSD, but the most it did was prove to me I'm senile. There are other stories that are more entertaining.”

Tucker listened as Henry told another one about a clumsy partner who never let his clumsiness show because Henry was good about covering for it. “I kept him around because he was really good at connecting unrelated ideas,” he explained. “Saved a lot of lives.”

Eventually the rain gave way to sunshine, and they continued to put up siding, Henry on a ladder, lips playing with the iron nails, Tucker handing him the slats. Then, finally, evening hit. Henry toasted some bread and peanut butter. They both ate it ravenously, too beat to prepare anything more substantial, and retired to bed.

Tucker closed his eyes. He didn't last long. Again, his uncle with the talking.

This was just too good, Tucker thought. He had to record it to show Dad.

Quietly, he retrieved his phone, turned down the brightness all the way, then tiptoed out into the hall. He quietly turned the knob, and slowly pushed Henry's bedroom door open.

Just barely illuminated by barely-dim lighting, Henry lay sprawled on his bed, wearing just his underwear. Tucker opened his video app, just as Henry started talking again. The audio quality was gonna be good.

He hit record, and the camera app chirped, causing Uncle Henry to stir slightly. But he didn't wake. He still continued to murmur gibberish.

After the five minute mark, Tucker felt it was enough. He closed his phone app, then quickly tiptoed back to his room.

His dad was so gonna get a kick out of this!

The next morning, during breakfast, Tucker looked at the video of his Great Uncle talking in his sleep. He wasn't sure if the audio would be loud enough.

Oh, no, it was. Tucker grinned.


Tucker snickered. He didn't know he would have this much fun at his uncle's place.

“Is that me?” Uncle Henry demanded. He stood in the kitchen doorway, bleary-eyed, wearing a stained t-shirt and sweat pants.

Tucker was about to hide the phone, but—despite Uncle Henry's half-awake appearance—he snatched the phone away. His face flushed. “You went into my room and recorded me—” Then it went pale. “Well...I'll be damned.”


“Shyam Hahn,” he repeated. “That's right. Hahn. And Tsvetan Miles.” His face suddenly brightened. He kept the phone and walked away, muttering nonsense to himself.”

“Uncle Henry?” Tucker asked. “My phone...?”

His pace quickened. “Tucker, put on some pants. We're heading to the Langley!”

Within 5 minutes the two were in Uncle Henry's growling tuck, speeding down the freeway. “Turn it up! Turn it up!” Uncle Henry demanded. “Put it close to my ear! Haha! Yes, That's it!” Then, as he continued to look at the road he repeated to himself. “Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...”

He continued this mantra until he checked into Langley and asked to see the director immediately. A fifteen minute waltz of talking with a retired director shortcutted the process, and Tucker was then following his Great Uncle into the director's office as he chanted “Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles....Presley...”

Despite Henry's suddenly flamboyant display of enthusiasm, the director at Langley regarded him with professional disinterest. “May I help you Mr. Carter?”

“I got it! I got the names! The Filipov case from 1974!” I can't believe it! Can you believe it Tucker!” He then repeated the names to the director, who nodded curtly, then turned to his computer, typing a few things, clicking a few things, then printing something out a piece of paper.

“They thought I had forgotten! But I hadn't! It was all in there! All it took was this young MySpacer here—” as he tossled Tucker's hair— “to jog this old coot's memory! Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...”

Without ceremony, the director handed Henry a sheet of paper. “What's this?” Henry asked.

“A report of the Filipov case. Turns out a rogue operative took care of the job. A few minutes after your escape, the operative used the chaos of your escape as a distraction to set off a bomb. Filipov and his entire staff died in the blast.”

“And the customers?”

“They disbanded. We soon arrested them. They're in an Austrian prison for war crimes.”

Henry's shoulders sagged. “Oh.”

“Thank you for bringing us the intel, though.”

“No wonder they were declassified.”

The director nodded solemnly.

Suddenly Uncle Henry brightened. “But I still remembered!” He exclaimed. “Come on, Tucker, let's go get some ice cream!”

“It's 9 in the morning.”

“Best time for ice cream!” The two left Langley, Henry dancing to his new rhythm: “Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...Faragó...Hahn...MacKenna...Miles...Presley...”

Tucker still had one more day with his crazy uncle. And he had to admit, that didn't sound like such a terrible idea.