The best thing about being the first out the door, Shades believed, was that you didn’t have to stand in line behind half the school while ordering dinner.
He could get an early start, take his time, and still get things done. Having beaten the after-school rush, he quickly reached the front of the line at Tim’s Grill, his favorite burger joint. It had been there for as long as he could remember, having outlasted other food court fixtures come and gone over the years. Tim’s Grill was one of a dozen reasons why he liked the old mall better than the new one.
He had decided to go take-out, as someone else had managed to get here even ahead of him. Near the middle of the food court, Shades spotted Carlos and a couple of his friends as he waited for his food. His best guess was that their class must have ended early for some reason or another.
Fortunately, neither Carlos nor his companions had noticed him, so he still had a chance of leaving without incident. This still bothered him, though, since he couldn’t recall ever seeing Carlos here after school. When his order arrived, he just shrugged, wondering offhand why stooges always seemed to come in threes.
Right before he turned to leave, he overheard Carlos declare that he could down an entire hamburger in less than ten seconds. Then he watched him open his mouth a couple inches farther than he would previously have thought possible and chomp almost half of the sandwich in one bite. Shades could barely keep a straight face as he watched him wolf down the rest of it. And in less than ten seconds.
In his own way, Shades was impressed. He had never seen him do that before.
Seeing that Carlos wasn’t about to do anything else that would win him ten grand if he only had video camera, Shades decided to go find someplace less annoying to eat. Down the way, he found a quiet, little-used bench and sat down to eat. In addition to grabbing some of the best burgers in town, he also had a couple errands to run here before work, making for a very convenient dinner arrangement.
He was still munching fries and contemplating his plans when a bronzed hand panted itself on his cheeseburger.
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Dexter.”
A voice so ear-grating in its familiarity after all these years. Though he didn’t need to anymore, Shades looked up to see Carlos leaning over him, hand resting on top of the burger resting on the bench’s broad armrest. He was not surprised to see Carlos’ two friends flanked behind him.
“Hands off, Carlos…” On the surface, Shades appeared rather casual for such an unexpected confrontation, but underneath it all, he had had enough. “I don’t know where you’ve been.”
Carlos kept his hand firmly planted on the burger.
“I said…” With a swift motion, Shades pounded his fist on Carlos’ hand before he could retract it. “Hands off!”
“Gah—” Carlos sputtered, wincing at the ketchup now splattered on his brand new shirt.
“What do you want, Atom-Boy?” Ignoring the ketchup on his own jacket for now, Shades focused a moment on his poor cheeseburger, seeing, fortunately, that it wasn’t ruined. Squashed yet edible. “I don’t want to know if you can eat that in less than ten seconds.”
“That’s Atom-Man to you, Dexter!”
His friends couldn’t help laughing, undermining Carlos.
“Mr Doppler,” Carlos started, in a high, squeaky voice neither Shades nor Carlos’ companions could keep a straight face at, “Aren’t atoms composed mostly of empty space? Do you think you’re funny, Dexter?”
“Not as funny as you. And don’t call me Dexter.” Shades tried not to blow up on people, but after six years he had precious little patience for Carlos and his stunts anymore. He simply asked him, point-blank, “What’s your problem, man?”
“You,” Carlos told him, leaning forward until he was right in Shades’ face. Until he could smell mustard and pickles, and it nearly made him gag. “My beef with you—”
And again Carlos’ friends laughed in spite of themselves.
“Dammit! Ever since I first met you, you’ve been a pain in the ass.”
Shades thought of reminding him that the first time they met, in gym class, Carlos had thought it amusing to keep spiking volleyballs at him when he though he wasn’t paying attention and saying over and over that it was an accident, to ask who was a pain in whose ass, but simply let him continue.
“I challenged you once before” (more than that, but only once formally) “and now I’m challenging you again.”
Carlos stepped back, which was probably a good thing; if Shades had had to smell Carlos’ breath any longer, he might have seriously considered violating one of his most serious principles:
“Don’t look at me,” Shades replied. “I never throw the first punch.”
“You won’t have to,” Carlos answered darkly. “I’m gonna be throwin’ all the punches this time. You’ve humiliated me for the last time. I’m challenging you. I’ll see you—”
“You’re seriously serious about this, aren’t you?”
“That’s damn straight.” Shades was now certain their unspoken truce was crumbling by the minute. “And, well, I respectfully decline.”
Carlos stared at him, visibly surprised. “Why?”
Can he do that? one of his friend’s faces seemed to ask, the other’s seemed to say, I think he just did.
“I’ve got nothing to prove,” Shades replied, taking a bite out of his smooshed burger, chewing it slowly, swallowing before he finished. “It’s your beef, not mine.”
Carlos glowered at him for a long moment before he finally spoke.
“Fine, if you want to play it that way. Come on, guys. We don’t need to talk to this loser.” He turned and looked Shades right in the eye before he walked away, saying, “This isn’t over yet, Dexter.”
“It damn well better be.” Shades watched them as they walked away. As Master Al always told him: A smart warrior walks away from a pointless fight. A wise warrior looks over his shoulder while doing so. He trusted Carlos about as far as he could throw him, and he didn’t wish to find out the hard way exactly how far that was. “And don’t call me Dexter.”
Once he was certain Carlos wasn’t going to pull anything else, that he would actually be able to eat in peace, Shades used some napkins to wipe the ketchup off his jacket, then decided to finish eating while his food was still warm.
As always, Carlos only half made sense to him. There was some piece of the puzzle that had been missing all these years. Something that might put his attitude in perspective. He was willing to listen, but assholes like Carlos were seldom willing to talk.
Shades tried to shrug it off, but as his day unfolded, he had had an increasingly strange feeling. At first, he thought he was just excited about tomorrow’s hike, but now he wondered. As he took another sip of his drink, he decided to keep an eye out.
Just in case Carlos wasn’t finished with him yet.