Now, disclaimers aren't needed for things like Kellogg's cereal or the brand of bubblegum, Bubblicious. I figure people can guess I didn't make those up.
Acknowledgements to several of my aunts and uncles for help with a) verifying that you can indeed drive without an adult companion at the age of sixteen in some places, and b) how exactly full-time, part-time, and casual time jobs work: Uncle Isaiah, Aunt Adeline, and Aunt Shirley.
Anyways, this is the longest chapter I've yet written, and it's almost a bit 'filleresque', if you ask me...but you're not.
Chiclets - Chapter Six, Your Apples Are Running Away
It took John a good deal of driving around to find the grocery store, despite the fact that Dalton was, supposedly, so small. This didn't improve his mood much; gas wasn't cheap, and his mother had yet to find a job.
He parked the car and trudged into the building, shivering. John welcomed the blast of warm air that met him at the entrance.
It was awfully chilly for October, he thought, taking off his glasses. They'd fogged up with the change in temperature, and he wiped them clear on his shirt, wishing he'd thought to bring a sweater.
The list in his pocket was crumpled and wrinkled; John smoothed it out between his fingers and squinted at the already-fading words in pencil.
Milk, he read to himself, eggs, bread, fruits, vegetables, juice, candy bars. For Halloween. Bananas. Yogurt. For Mom. She's been wanting…uh, cornflakes. Peanut butter…milk. Why did I write that twice?
John yanked two cartons of milk off the shelves without looking at the expiry dates, as he would have on a better day. He repeated the action with raspberry yogurt and a jug of orange juice. He paused at the bulk foods aisles with all the candy and junk food, frowning. Too tired to care, he plunged his hand into the first bin with wrapped chocolate bars and bagged four pounds' worth of chocolate.
"How ironic," he muttered, twirling off a twist tie. "Peanut butter cups. At least these aren't for me." Tossing the bags into a shopping basket, he moved on.
"What came first? The chicken…" He yawned. "…or the egg? Age-old question." John made room for a dozen eggs, underneath the candy bars, and rubbed his arm for a moment where the wire handles of the shopping basket had left their mark. "I haven't had properly poached eggs in forever…"
The store was practically deserted. Two employees were stacking oranges in the produce section. John picked out a bunch of ripening bananas, retrieved a runaway orange for one of the employees, and chose several pears for himself. The employees smiled at him, one a middle-aged woman and the other a boy in his late teens. John raised his eyebrows and smiled back.
He rounded the corner into the aisle of canned goods and ran straight into somebody. Staggering back, John fixed his glasses, which had been knocked askew, and saw he'd managed to knock over a girl.
"Ouch," she complained, rubbing her side. "THAT hurt."
"Sorry…sorry!" John gasped, and stooped to offer her a hand. "I'm really sorry; I should've watched where I was going!"
She stood without his help, but didn't appear mad or upset. "You and me both, bro. But my ma always said I had two left feet. Hey, who're you? I've never seen you before. I've lived here all my life and I know every single person who lives in this town. Well, not really know, but at least I've seen them before. Uh, am I talking too much again? Ma says I do sometimes. Well, actually, she says I do it all the time, but I don't think so. I mean, I tend to babble when I get excited, which…is actually kind of often. But I'm not really that excited right now." She grinned.
"Oh… Okay." John wrinkled his eyebrows in a semi-frown. "Your…apples…are running away."
Sure enough, various kinds of apples were rolling around in the narrow aisle. One had made it nearly halfway down, past the jams.
"Oops! I hope they haven't bruised. They're for candied apples for Halloween, you see. You know, trick-and-treat and all that? Except if the student council approves, I can make them for the school dance party thing."
She dropped to her knees so fast John was afraid she'd hurt herself. He mmhmmed to show he was listening before he crouched beside her to help pick up the many apples.
"You are coming, aren't you? Wait – do you live here? Cuz if you don't, then you can just pretty much forget everything I've been saying and all." She scampered on hands and knees after what appeared to be a Granny Smith or an unripe Golden Delicious, brown-black braids swinging. "So do you? Live around – I mean – here. Not the 'coming to the party' part."
John laughed, partly to stall so he could process everything that the girl had said. "Uh…actually, yes, I do. Live here. That is, as of…last night. Naturally, I just moved in…I'm Johnathan."
The girl didn't offer her name, but handed John three apples to put back into her shopping basket. "Wow, no wonder I've never seen you before. What year?"
John gave her a puzzled look as he stood with the last apple. "What do you mean?"
"You know, year. School year. Grade? Like, I'm a grade ten. Third year at Dalton High."
"Wait, wait, wait. Third year? Don't you mean your second year for grade ten?" John asked, confused expression still in place. He offered the girl a hand up again, which she accepted as she answered him.
"Well, normally, yeah, but since Dalton's just a town, there's no middle school. So it's K to seven for elementary – "
" – and eight to twelve for secondary, instead of nine to twelve?" said John.
"Yeah, that's right. Like I said, Dalton's pretty small for a city."
"So I've been told," John responded, inching down the aisle backwards. He was afraid that if he let her, the girl would talk on all night, but he didn't want to offend her either.
"I mean, it's not like we're cut off from civilization or anything. Twenty-minute drive east takes us to Princely. Supermarkets, shopping malls, the whole lot. Movie theatre – us kids head out on weekends with older siblings, friends, to catch a late-night flick or whatever. Pretty cool arrangement, I guess. It all gets a bit boring sometimes, but it's okay. My parents like it. They don't want us to grow up in a world of models and Hollywood stars and Barbie dolls and all the rest, right?"
Unable to think of a suitable response for the girl's long spiel, John said, "Uh, well…did you want to be one?"
She tilted her head and sent her cornrows into action again. "What, a Barbie? Those stupid little plastic dolls?"
"No, no!" Flustered, John waved his hands and accidentally hit one on a shelf. Ow… "I meant, like, movie stars. Models, actresses. Not – not the Barbies."
"Oh." The girl shrugged. "I don't know. I guess. I mean, who doesn't want to make it big? To be rich, and famous, and well-known… But then again, I don't think living that sort of life is exactly all – all – glam, you know? Media at your doorstep – according to all the magazines, nothing personal is private. Now THAT I wouldn't like. So…maybe not."
"Okay…uh…" John exhaled nervously, running his hand up and down the shelf siding. "I…uh, guess…that you probably – "
The sudden sound of a cellphone's ringtone cut him off. Relieved, John picked up two jars of peanut butter and tried not to eavesdrop.
It wasn't that easy. The girl's loud voice demanded attention in such a quiet place where only the hum of multiple lights and refrigerators could be heard.
"Oh…hey…Ma…yeah, yeah. I know…I know! …What? Kelly wrote – She – ! Okay… Buttermilk, NOT chocolate. A few minutes. Sugar? Okay. See ya."
The girl snapped her cellphone shut and glanced at John. "My ma. I'm sure you guessed that already. You see, my sister decided to write up a shopping list of her own. Typical of Kelly; she's Korean. Not that that has anything to do with anything…oh, whatever. She put chocolate milk on the list instead of buttermilk, and Ma, well, she found the original list. Guess SOMEONE'S going to be in a bit of trouble, and it ain't going to be my fault!" She raised a triumphant fist, then lowered it with a shrug at John's curious gaze. "I've a dozen siblings. Sorta drives you crazy after a while. Like I said, Kel's Korean. She's adopted. So'm I and about five other of us. Anyways, you got everything you need?"
She'd lost John. "Huh?"
"Your groceries. Oh, you're buying peanut butter? I like the crunchy kind because it tastes good when you eat it by itself. But it's really hard to spread properly on anything. You need smooth peanut butter for that. Do you ever ear peanut butter by the spoonful?"
When John hesitantly shook his head no, she yanked the jar of crunchy peanut butter out of his right hand and put it back on the shelf.
"Come on," she said. "What else do you need?"
John checked his wrinkled paper. "…Bread. And…cornflakes. I think. Whoa!"
He lurched forward as the girl pulled on his arm. "The bread's in the pastries section over there, and cereal is two aisles over," she said. "Come on."
John picked up his basket and grimaced at the weight. "Um, okay. Don't forget your apples."
"Apples. Right. Can't forget those. Whole? White? Brown? Multigrain? If you wait for tomorrow, the bread will be fresh. It always restocks, Mondays. Not that the bread is bad now or anything. Come to think of it, you won't find a lot of bread left anyways. White bread'll probably be all gone. Kids like it. All the other stuff, you can just toast or make croutons or garlic bread or something like that. Whatever suits your fancy."
The girl walked as she spoke, and she walked fast. John kept nodding and following.
They reached the bakery at the back of the store, and she dropped John's arm, much to his relief. Ignoring her as she peered at the decorated jack o' lantern and little ghost cookies, he chose a loaf of multigrain bread.
"Um," he said to her, who was studying a bag of carrot-apple muffins with a reduced price. "You said the cereal was…?"
"Two aisles over from where we were; that's Aisle 6. Did you want the plain one, or Frosted Flakes? Tony the Tiger, rrr. There's so much sugar in them. Too much, in my opinion. But my brother says it isn't sweet enough. I'm like, 'Man, how can you stand it so sweet? That's just disgusting!' But he doesn't care. Whatever. It's his body, not mine. He already has…what, four? Five? Five cavities, and he's only nine. Gross. I hate the dentist. I've needed braces for four years to correct this huge freaking overbite. Thank goodness they're off now. I couldn't stand them. Here."
She handed John a box of Frosted Flakes, then frowned when he faltered.
"Wait. You wanted the plain ones, right? Here you go, then."
John accepted a box of Kellogg's cereal with a murmur of thanks. "I have everything I need. Are you, uh, done?" he asked the girl. He balanced the cereal in his basket.
"Yup. Let's go. You did bring money, right?" babbled the girl as she walked ahead to the only checkout counter with a cashier.
"Um, of course…" No, I don't generally go shopping with money; it's much more entertaining bumming it off other people. John left his sarcastic comeback unsaid and quickly followed the girl.
"Hey, Cassandra," she chirped, and set her basket of apples on the counter. "Boring night, huh? Not for long I hope. Here, take a gander!"
John watched as the girl with "Cassandra Higgins" on her nametag glanced at the apples skeptically. "Apples? I'm sure they can be interesting, Jody, but…what are you going on about?" Her gaze flicked past John. "I don't see…oh." Double take. "Never mind, now I do. Newcomer. You're not just passing through, are you?"
John smiled shyly. "Yeah. We officially moved in as of last night…good grief, I need some better way to say that…"
Cassandra smiled. "Oh, so you've been asked that a lot, have you? Easy solution."
John liked her easy smile, and put his basket on the counter beside the girl's. Her name is Jody. Right. "Really? How?" he asked with a slight grin.
Cassandra picked up a pen and wrote something down on a Post-It note pad. "All you have to do," she said, peeling off the Post-It note and leaning across the counter to stick it on John's hand, "is stick this on you somewhere. Your back or something."
John peeled the Post-It note from his fingers. "This'd better not say 'Kick me' on it," he warned, and turned the note over. Then he laughed. On the note in bold green letters was the word "Newbie". "So I get to start at beginners' level, huh?" he joked, chuckling.
"Oooh yeah," Jody chimed in from beside him. "And you level up by learning people's names and how Dalton works and how Dalton High works, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. All that crap. Actually, there's not a whole much to know about Dalton High; it's pretty much like any other public high school out there. The whole clique thing and all."
"Well, yes, Jody. Now before you talk the newest addition to our humble town to death," said Cassandra, then muttered under her breath, "which you already seem to have done," and raised her voice again to continue with, to John, "what's your name? I am Cassandra Higgins, as it states on my nametag, and you are?" She held out her hand.
John shook it, feeling much more at ease with her than he had with Casey. She smiled too much…even though she was nice. "John…Johnathan Mylen Colson," he said. "Johnathan with an H." He wasn't sure why he'd given Cassandra his full name, only that it had seemed fitting.
"Ah, yet another mortal not cursed with two middle names, eh?" Cassandra said, reaching for the debit card Jody was waving in her face.
"Cass, you say that to everyone," Jody complained. "C'mon. Apples." To John, she said, "Her full name is Cassandra Rochelle Annaliese Higgins. Pretty long."
Cassandra scowled, swiped her card, then shoved everything back at Jody. "You can kindly close your mouth now, thank you," she muttered, and turned to John with a mock-forced smile. "Might I have your purchases, please?"
John smiled, pushed his basket forward with one hand and his glasses up with the other, and got out his wallet. "It took me a long time to actually get here. Um, excuse my ignorance, but…how do you actually get back to the Larkspur apartment complex? You…know where it is, right?" He smiled again, sheepishly.
"I should hope so!" Cassandra replied indignantly. "Just a second, I'll draw you a map as soon as I ring all this up. "Eggs, milk…mmm…just a second, please. Okay…total comes to $19.08. Cash?"
John nodded and gave her a twenty, thinking. "Jody…right?" he said to the lingering girl. "Didn't you need buttermilk and sugar?"
Jody blinked, then dramatically smacked her forehead with the open palm of her hand before she let her head fall to the countertop with a loud 'thunk'. "I can't believe I forgot!" she moaned.
Cassandra made an unimpressed face. "Maybe you could go get them now?" she said dryly, accepting John's money. "And here's your ninety-two cents."
Jody obediently dashed off, cornrows flapping behind her. John watched as Cassandra began bagging his groceries for him.
"Because you're new, you get a bag for your groceries, free," she explained. "But I just want to let you know that here in this store, plastic bags cost twenty-five cents each. Most customers usually bring their own bags. It's in the interest of conserving the environment. Just this once, you get them free. Tell your parents and the rest of your family."
"It's just me and my mom. I mean, my mom and me," John corrected.
"I see. Sorry." Cassandra casually changed the topic. "So, you're how old?"
"Sixteen going on seventeen. Makes me feel old, sometimes," John chuckled, only slightly uncomfortable, and turned the question back to Cassandra. "What about you?"
"Oh, I've already graduated," she replied easily. "I'm not sure if that's good or bad thing," she added half-laughingly. "I am eighteen…and seven months…old. Yes, I am annoyingly exact. But what can I say? Live with it!"
John smiled. "Someone's looking forward to being nineteen?"
Cassandra shrugged. "Perhaps. I'm probably going to uni next year. So I'm here for one more year, then it's bye-bye, Dalton."
"Do you want to leave?"
"No, actually, not really." Cassandra shrugged. "I mean, well, all the younger kids – they want out of a place like this. It's small, pretty routine. None of the flashy things. It's what parents and people who want to settle down like, snug and homey. The community is very important here. For someone at eighteen and a half, you start to think about not wanting to have to deal with all the complications of life out in the big cities."
"Do you miss being, ah, 'sweet sixteen'?" John asked, making finger quotes in the air.
Cassandra stared past John, looking thoughtful. "Well, I was actually quite the rebellious child back then. Refused to wear my glasses because my parents wouldn't give me contacts, for one. Gave up after two months."
John smiled. "Two months? That's pretty impressive. How well can you see without them?"
"Oh," she laughed. "The checkout lane two down from here, I can't read the number. I know it's a 2, but I can't read it."
"CASSSSIE! Did you bore John to death yet?"
Jody with flying cornrows came barrelling down the aisle, and put down a jug of buttermilk along with a bag of brown sugar.
John couldn't help but wince. Cassandra did the same.
"Jody!" she hissed. "'Cass' if you have to, please, but I said, no 'Cassie'! And you don't have to yell like that, thank you," she added scathingly. "My ears are ringing." She looked at John as if expecting him to support her.
John smiled and shrugged noncommittally, not wanting to really get involved.
"…Sorry," he ventured, "but do you think you could just direct me to the Larkspur complex, Cassandra? A map really isn't necessary."
"Oh, I'm sorry! I completely forgot! Okay. You don't want a map?" Cassandra rested her elbows on her side of the countertop. "To get back to Larkspur, you turn left out of the parking lot onto Darrow. Go two blocks down…hm. Ah, yes…third block is Carnival. You turn right and go until you see Larkspur. It's the first street on the left. Sure you don't want a map?" She twisted a silver ring around a finger on her left hand as she spoke.
John noticed which finger exactly, and his curiosity was piqued, though he kept quiet. The suggestion behind the ring slightly shocked him. She's…barely out of high school, going to university, and she's already married/getting married?
He didn't have to wonder for very long when Jody inadvertently answered his questions for him.
"Come on, Cass, stop playing with your ring and ring these up!" Jody whined, then perked up. "Hey, ring…ring up…cool!" She turned to John. "She wears that on her ring finger cuz it's a purity ring. No sex before marriage. Cute, huh? Hurry up, Cass, I want to go!"
An embarrassed, red-faced John watched a silent, fuming, red-faced Cassandra ring up the sugar and buttermilk, swiping Jody's card somewhat vehemently and muttering under her breath. He caught the occasional word and phrase, things like, "A little discretion would be good!" and, "Privacy much?!" The rest sounded mostly like incomprehensible grumbling.
Jody, he noticed with wry amusement, was oblivious to it all. When he looked over, she was standing by the counter's magazine and candy rack holding a pack of watermelon bubblegum up to her nose, eyes closed as she inhaled its scent.
"Finished getting high on Bubblicious?" Cassandra drawled sarcastically, eyebrows raised and a hand on her hip. "I thought you had to…you know, go?"
John grinned despite himself, then suddenly yawned. "Mm, 'scuse me, and so do I. Left onto Darrow and three blocks to, um…"
"Right, Carnival. A…right? And Larkspur is the first street on the left."
Cassandra confirmed the directions with a nod. "I assume it took you a much longer drive to get here?"
John smiled ruefully and fiddled with the Post-It note still in his hands, folding it in half, and half again. "Much longer, unfortunately."
"Well, you know where to find me, then, for further 'assistance'. I work Mondays and Wednesdays four p.m. to twelve a.m., and Friday evenings eight p.m. to twelve a.m.; I'm just filling in for Rob today," Cassandra said.
"All right. Thank you. Uh, bye…good night. It was nice meeting you," John offered, gathering up his groceries.
Cassandra smiled amiably. "And I you. Good luck, and good night."
"Oh, THAT sounds reassuring," Jody muttered. "Bye, John! See ya around!"
John laughed. "Bye, Jody. Nice meeting you too."
He left the store with a tired smile and gracelessly piled the groceries into the front passenger seat, then got in himself. He repeated the directions in his mind as he turned out of the parking lot and headed for…home. I'm going home.
Akeryou-sama: Thanks for the review, and I'm glad you like it. Also glad that it amuses you...though I don't see how. ::shrug:: Dennis as punk, and Maria as punk or goth? Wow...um, more like jock and prep, really. Lol. Thanks.
HungarianPotatoFarmer: Smurf blue...are they those little creatures that have these white hats or something? Lol. And I like random, random's good! I'm random. (Why would blue hair be that much of a distracting hairdo?) Glad you like the story, and thanks for your review!