It took me two months. And over 13,000 words.
This is the end, my friends. I finished it.
Behold, the seventh and LAST part of Cheetos, Kittens, and Paint Cans.
I stepped into the gym.
All the benches were stacked against the wall, hibernating in preparation for tomorrow’s game. The two basketball hoops were up and hidden. The court glimmered from a recent clean.
Levi and King were attaching the home side with paint cans, drawing random patterns that covered the lines. The hiss of their cans must have silenced my entrance, for they didn’t look up when I closed the door behind me.
It would have been wise to take a moment to think of a plan. But, the part of me that believed it was logical said that if I let myself stand there and wonder what to do, I’d never get moving. So, like the smart man I am, I shouted the first thing that came to my mind.
“Hey, your Ugliness! You missed a spot!”
King whirled around. My heart spasmed, beating so hard I was sure it would knock me off my feet. I was too far away to determine what flickered across King’s face at that moment. Shock? Anger? Whatever it was, it ended in that slow, overconfident smile.
Levi lumbered to stand beside King.
“Samuel Jones,” King drawled. It was the first time he’d used my real name the entire night. “What have you gotten into this time?”
I clenched my fists. “You…you need to stop, King,” I said. My feet were stuck, like the wood laminate had suddenly decided it was wet concrete. It took all my willpower to inch forward.
“It’s wrong.” I brought Timber’s van to mind, and it strengthened my voice. “And you’re hurting people.”
King threw up his hands. “Come on Sam. It’s just a little fun.”
“Fun that hurts someone else isn’t fun.” I took a couple strides forward. I couldn’t believe I was actually moving toward King. Who knew I had this much courage?
Courage or stupidity.
“Yes, it is,” King said.
“No, it’s not,” I replied.
“Yes, it is.”
“No it’s…just stop, ok?” I said.
“Mmm, no,” King said.
“Then…” What was I going to do? “I’ll tell the police!” I paused. You know, that would have been a great first step, not a last resort. My feet decided they were close enough to King and froze.
King tossed his paint can up into the air. “Get out of here, Sam.”
“There will be consequences.”
I pointed to my gash. “I’ve figured that out.” Levi edged toward me, trying to be inconspicuous, as if he thought I wouldn’t notice him.
“We can make your life miserable,” King said.
Cliché, but true. I bit my lip. I had to go to school with King and his posse. Every. Single. Day. There was an endless amount of drama they could cause, now that I didn’t have James. Liam went to a different school, so he couldn’t help.
All of which I should have thought about earlier. Swell job, Sam.
“I’ll tell who I want.” My pitch rose on its own accord. Levi slid forward, and I took a step back. Why had I walked in here alone? I needed Timber. I whirled around, ready to see my good ol’ friends, the doors, again.
I had no idea millennials knew how to punch.
A fist threw itself toward me, tripling in size.
There was no time to react, and even if I had some, knowing me, it wouldn’t have helped.
Pain exploded through my nose and lip as Dylan’s fist struck my face, and I hit the ground with a bounce.
I sat there, blinking back the water that sprang to my eyes. Blood trickled out of my throbbing nose, and I was pretty sure my lip was bleeding too.
Three unhappy bullies towered over me.
Levi, though he was the farthest from the ground, was given the job to stare at me. King and Dylan whispered to each other in some sort of conference.
I tried to rise, but Levi shoved me back down. King and Dylan ended their meeting.
“You’re going to promise never to speak of this night, ok?” King said.
I gulped. “What…what are you going to do?”
“Nothing. If you swear to keep quiet.”
I blinked. Hesitated.
Then figured this was the perfect time to make up for my lack of defiance. My name is Samuel Jones. You made me lose my Cheetos. Prepare to be defied. I opened my mouth.
Everyone turned. James jogged toward us. My heart jumped and hit the roof of my chest, if there was such a thing. James!
He stared at me for a second. “Sam?” He turned to King. “What is this?”
King crossed his arms and stepped between James and I. “I thought little Glitter Kid wasn’t going to show up.”
Little? Excuse me…
“He wasn’t supposed to. Still, didn’t mean you had to shove him to the floor.” James brushed past King and knelt beside me.
I exhaled. Wait, don’t relax. James is still a traitor. I glared at him.
“Sam, how did you–?”
“What are you doing?” I interrupted.
“You shouldn’t be here, Sam.” James looked back at King.
I stared at him, dragging his attention away from King. “What. Are. You. Doing?”
“Just playing a little prank, that’s all.”James attempted a grin.
I glowered. “A little prank? You’re destroying other people’s stuff.”
James tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re being dramatic again. What happened to having a little fun, making a little trouble?”
I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t care.
But I did.
“He’s going to tell someone what we’re doing,” King said.
James palled. “No, he isn’t.” He looked at me. “Right, Sam?”
A black hole sucked away my insides. “You’re going to go along with this?” I asked.
James didn’t have an answer to that and again looked to King, as if for deliverance.
I stood. Levi stepped behind me, breathing down my neck, quite literally. I moved forward. “Well, I won’t.”
That’s all Levi needed. He shoved me to the ground. Again. My palms stung as they slapped against the floor.
“Levi! Don’t—” James started. King threw him back, and Dylan grabbed his arm. James didn’t struggle, his eyes wide. He was too afraid.
King bent down to my level. I was afraid too.
But there was a difference.
I wish I’d had time to write down that philosophical thought, given the rarity of their occurrences, but I didn’t.
“Last chance, Glitter Kid.”
I gulped. Of course, all defiant words fled my mind, but I knew I couldn’t give into him like I had before.
So I just stared at him like an idiot. Levi tossed him a second paint can and he shook it. I didn’t move.
A howl echoed through the hall, and I swear even King’s black heart skipped a beat. The ball inside the paint can came to rest with a small clack.
A lanky shadow darkened the doorway.
My internal organs shoved my heart into my throat, like a battering ram hitting a door. So that’s why they call him Timber Wolf.
Does that mean Matt can imitate a Komodo Dragon? And Jade can act like a monster?
The doors on the closest side of the gym flung open, and inside stepped Jade, armed with her killer kitten, and Matt, fists up and ready.
Timber strolled forward. He glanced at me, eyes glowing like…well, like the eyes of an angry person. He saw the paint cans in King’s hands. “This King?” He motioned to the beach boy.
I nodded, crawling to the left and back, inching my way out of the group. King straightened, sneering. “Back off, freak.”
Was he not the slightest bit afraid? Granted, King had an inch or two of muscle on Timber, but Timber had height.
“You destroyed my van,” Timber said, his voice low, sending an army of chills marching up my spine.
King tilted his head. “It needed another layer, Westender.” He spat on the floor.
Wow. So I was right. King had noticed Timber went to Westend. That’s why he picked him as a target.
A vein in Timber’s arm jumped as he clenched his fists, and I realized his sleeves were rolled up. He was going to deck King. They were going to get into a fight.
I scrambled to my feet. “Guys…” Suddenly Jade and Matt were beside me. Jade shoved the kitten into my arms and backed up a few steps, as if she wasn’t sure she should watch or help, lip between her teeth. Matt took his place beside Timber.
Oh gosh. They were going to fight. I retreated. Could this night get any worse? I couldn’t let them kill each other.
But what was I going to do? Timber was now ten strides away. Eight. Six.
King shifted, Levi and Dylan flanking him, though it wasn’t really heroic like in the movies cause Dylan was hiding behind King.
“Whatcha going to do about it, freak?” King taunted. Timber didn’t reply. He stopped, an arm’s length away.
What was I going to do? I searched the gym, as if a taser or other weapon would show up by magic. None did. Come on Sam! Think!
I bumped against the wall right as Timber launched himself at King, eyes flashing like they were on fire, which was pretty disturbing if you thought about it.
Matt followed Timber’s lead. Jade screamed for them to stop.
No! Don’t think about fire! Fire never works out for you!
I glanced to my left. A red box covered in plexiglass was bolted to the wall. A fire alarm.
I ran up to the alarm, fiddling with the clear cover, trying to open it with one hand. Come on, open!
Huffs, thuds, and grunts moved the air behind me. I pried the lid open and yanked the handle down.
BEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEP BEEEEEP!
I doubled over, and the kitted shivered. From what I could see out of the corner of my eye, Timber and the rest were cowering too.
The sprinklers hissed to life, and the kitten dug its claws into my chest.
It was all I could do to keep it under control. I bent farther, trying to shield it from the water.
Then, before I knew it, Timber, Jade, and Matt were jostling me, pushing me out the door. King and his gang were crowding out the opposite end of the gym.
James was the last to leave. Our eyes caught. Was he sorry?
Then he disappeared, and I was shoved into the hall.
“And that’s what happened.” I searched mom’s face for some reaction.
One eyebrow was arched. I think she was getting used to my escapades by now. Last time I’d told a story involving King, both eyebrows had been raised.
We pulled into the hospital, bright lights warming the insides of the now familiar building.
“And why didn’t Jade take the kitten back with her?” Mother asked.
“The kitten’s name is Trip.” I huffed. “And she said her mother wouldn’t let her keep it.”
“And you thought your mother would?”
I shrugged. “What was I supposed to tell Jade? Besides, I couldn’t let it go. It gave me scars.” I leaned forward. “Scars, Mother. Scars.”
Mother shook her head.
I leaned back. “I know,” I replied, even though she hadn’t said anything.
Dad parked and shut the car off. He popped open the door.
The heavy bowling ball in my gut started rolling. Mom slid out of the car and disappeared.
I stepped outside. The throbbing in my head renewed its attack.
Cars moseyed past the hospital, traffic thin. It must be at least eleven by now.
All the prominent events of the night came back with the movement of traffic. Meeting Timber and his gang. Running into a wall. James’ betrayal.
We’d stopped King. I’d lost James. And I never got my Cheetos.
“Sam…” Mother called. She and Dad were already heading toward the hospital.
I jogged to catch up. It had only taken a few hours for my life to change.
She glanced back at me. “Yes?”
“Can we get some Cheetos after this?” I asked. I held my breath.
Mother sighed. “If you promise me something.”
“That next time you get in trouble with King, you tell one of us, or, in the case of tonight, the police.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. “Yes, Mom.”
She stared at me. Hard.
I met her gaze. “I promise.”
She nodded and turned back toward the hospital.
I fell into step beside her. “Does this mean I get Cheetos?”
My heart leapt. At least that was a plus. I–
“After we go to the police station and tell them what happened.”
I deflated. “But Mom…”
“If you’re so desperate for justice, you’ll tell them,” Mother said.
I sighed. She was right. Again.
“Then we’ll get Cheetos,” she said. We stepped up to the sliding doors, and they opened.
Mother watched me for a second, then echoed my sigh. “You are something else, Samuel.”
I grinned, despite myself. “Love you, Mom.”
“Love you as well, child.”
I didn’t want to face school after this. I’d messed up pretty badly. So had James. The police would go to King after I told them what happened at the school. King would know I’d confessed.
But at least I’d learned my lesson, I think.
I walked into the emergency room, a parent on each side.
And we were going to get Cheetos.
I can’t believe it’s over! I know I’ve said this before, but thank you for sticking with me, all you awesome people! Now, please excuse me while I go celebrate with some Cheetos.
-Gabrielle Pollack (a.k.a. A intensely relieved Great Rising Puzzlement)
P.S. If you haven’t read the other parts of Cheetos, Kittens, and Paint Cans, here they are: