a real conversation
A short while later, Shades walked out of a sporting goods store with a new retainer strap for his sunglasses, as his current one’s rubber grips had started to turn brittle during the winter and he no longer trusted it.
He glanced across the corridor at the arcade, fondly remembering the small fortune in quarters he had blown over the years. As he looked among the video revelers, though, his fond memories were crowded aside by the sight of Carlos and Company at the air-hockey table. Seeing that they hadn’t seen him, he again decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
At least he was fairly sure they hadn’t seen him. He really didn’t think Carlos was up to that kind of thing. Still, he had to admit the bastard did have a knack for showing up when he was least expected. And least convenient.
And to this day, he still didn’t know what it was even about. Though Carlos had caused trouble for him off and on over the years, he had never figured out the source of the guy’s enmity. Though, since the beginning of their senior year, Carlos had mostly put on the attitude of having “better things to do” than harass him.
Not that Shades was complaining.
Now that he thought about it, a while back, he had heard a rumor that Carlos had been dabbling in martial arts these days. In light of his earlier confrontation, it offered little hope that his old friend had grown up or decided to get a life. Now he wondered if Carlos wasn’t planning to do something spectacularly stupid, like starting a brawl at the graduation ceremony next month. He had done things like that before, so if Carlos had any bright ideas, he would have to be on his—
Shades jumped in complete surprise, pivoting on his feet and trying to figure out how Carlos had gotten from the arcade to right behind him so quickly, realized just a hair before he turned that that voice wasn’t even Carlos’.
Amy O’Connor jumped, too, taken aback by Shades’ unexpected reaction. There was an awkward silence before Shades rediscovered his words.
Then it happened again. The moment he saw her, Shades felt his mind retreat several miles back in his skull to a place so far away. It was as if he was watching her in a dream. It still struck him as odd that he should feel like this whenever he met her out of the blue. What he felt was perhaps the only way he knew to react to her presence. As he had since he was in middle school, back before they carted the boys and the girls off to different rooms and unveiled the mysteries of adult life in far more detail than he had wanted to know when he was only eleven.
Since middle school… Has it really been that long?…
Now he stood before her, feeling those eternal seconds slipping away before it happened again. As it had since he was in the sixth grade, come to think of it, and she was still the pop-quiz he was never prepared for. In the intervening years, he had had only a handful of opportunities to talk to her face to face, and always before he would lose his nerve. Always he would let himself get sidetracked by someone or something. Or, if they did talk, he always let it drift into meaningless social ritual.
“Oh, hi, Amy…” Shades finally managed, deciding that he couldn’t afford his own silence any longer. Somehow, after all these years, he had never even had a real conversation with her, let alone dared to ask her out on a date. He would understand if she brushed him aside, as he had seen her do to other guys, dodging them as casually as if they were standing still, but their days as students together were numbered; if he was going to find out if they had anything in common, it would have to be right here, right now.
“You okay?” Amy asked. “You look a little… surprised.”
To her, Shades genuinely looked as if he was expecting an attack or something. With Shelly off to a dental appointment, and none of her other friends around, she realized that this was the first time she could remember walking around the mall alone in ages. But that was just fine because she had caught Dexter by himself, as well. Aside from his crew— Arthur, Tom, and John and the band— she knew he was something of a loner. As far as she could tell, he was quite talkative in the company of his friends and associates, but otherwise was often quiet, even aloof. She had seen him in company he didn’t like— remembered him dealing with people who refused to call him “Shades” back when he first chose that name— how he could ignore you so completely as to almost make you question your own existence. As if anyone who over-stayed their welcome was just a figment of his imagination. But she had also seen his kindness, often to total strangers, and knew that he was really just a spook (but a sweet spook), a mostly harmless one.
Yet she was still taken aback by how startled and wary he had been only seconds ago.
“Just lost in thought,” Shades replied. Carlos was his problem; he wasn’t going to dump it in her lap. She had taken him completely off-guard, but in a pleasant sort of way. Found he wished she was stalking him instead of Carlos. “So, what’s up?”
“Not much.” The usual “hanging out” dialogue, which she had never really liked. Hers was a quiet affinity for intelligent, meaningful conversation, though Shelly was the only person she knew who offered any opportunity for it. This wasn’t as interesting as she had hoped, but she decided to give him one more chance to take the initiative. “So what’s up with you?”
“More of the same,” Shades said, wishing he could think of what to say next. Determined to communicate— this was not going degenerate into a conversation about the weather. Thinking fast, he asked her, “So, are you really interested in paranormal stuff, or were you just tryin’ to bug the hell out of old Nimrod?”
“A little of both, I guess,” she told him, looking at her reflection in those opaque lenses staring back at her. Yet at least his half of the conversation was becoming less opaque. “I’m not very familiar with most of that stuff, but I do think there are things in this world science has yet to explain. And I’ve heard you like to write about stuff like that.”
“Yeah.” It looked like he was going to get to hear more of what she had to say after all. “But I really do more reading than writing about it. I get a lot of my ideas when I’m out in the woods… I’m not boring you, am I?”
“No. But I’m surprised you didn’t say something earlier.” Before, Amy had originally felt somehow provoked by Shades’ silence to speak about the subject. Now she could see that she had finally broken the ice. Since none of their classmates were around to hear this, there was something she had wanted to know for a long time… “Tell me,” she asked, before he could say anything else, “why do you always do this?”
Then she gave him the V.
“Well…” Now that she asked, Shades didn’t really know. He had been giving her the “victory” V for so many years, and it had seemed so obvious, so natural, when he was doing it. “Well… it just seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Another awkward pause.
Into which Amy finally interjected, “So, what are you doing this weekend?”
Right after which, she wondered why she had asked him that. The only answer she could come up with was that it just seemed like the thing to do at the time. As obvious as it apparently was for Shades to salute her.
“Well, I’m going hiking with John tomorrow,” Shades told her, before her words sank in fully, and he immediately regretted it.
“Oh.” Disappointment and relief struggling in equal measure as she tried figure out when this conversation had detoured.
“But I’m free Saturday night,” Shades quickly tacked on, though he knew it was going to be a logistical challenge. He never got to talk to Amy like this, and he was certain she wasn’t just messing with him, as a few other girls had before, just trying to psych him. “What did you have in mind, Amy?”
“I don’t know…” Now she found herself in the same boat she had placed him in only moments ago. But at least she wasn’t alone. Disappointment had gained the upper hand right before he spoke, and now it was relief. Only now it was relief at being rewarded for her strange gamble. “Maybe a movie…”
Shades turned aside in mid stride, swooping past a rack of free publications, passing a newspaper whose headline read Black Van Strikes Again!, grabbing one of those Community Events-type sheets.
“Let’s see what’s playing…” they both said in almost perfect unison as he flipped to the cinema page.
As they took turns scanning the listing, Amy realized that any lingering doubts about this turn of events were quickly fading. Though otherwise a loner, Shades seemed to have lots of fun when he was with his friends. She had wanted to join them on several occasions, but the situation never seemed to be quite right. Much as she had pondered asking him about the “V” on several occasions, but it somehow made sense in a way that apparently neither of them understood. It seemed perfectly natural to return his salute with a helpless grin; she just didn’t have the heart to pretend not to know him. That, and she was half afraid that if she ever returned his gesture, he might be too embarrassed to do it again.
And for some reason, she knew she would miss it.
Then again, this had been a year for exploring the mysteries in her life. Ever since she was sick over Christmas break, things just hadn’t been the same. All semester, she had felt lost and adrift in the world she had spent the last few years of her life building around herself.
Much earlier than most of her peers, she had begun to notice that there were things beyond the shallow trappings and empty rituals of high school; she suspected these somethings might actually be life. The events of recent months had revealed to her just how shallow most aspects of her life had become. How much of a prisoner she was becoming to her own “success” in the Game. How, over the years, she had given in to society’s flatteries (she didn’t like to think herself conceited, but she couldn’t help noticing how increasingly people noticed her as she got older, how it had crept up on her) and insidiously gone along with the bandwagon.
Found she was ashamed at the realization that all of the reasons she could think of for not hanging out with Shades weren’t even her own. She was glad Shades had accepted her offer; she had felt an increasing need to get out of her life, and she was now certain he could help her. Though the same handful of people remained at his side at the core, people passed in and out of their circle of friends with uncommon ease. Just as her old friends used to before they all started playing the Clique Game.
All the while they both browsed the listings, hitting almost simultaneously on a movie called The Crossfire Gang.
“That one!” they blurted, this time in perfect unison.
The listing read Action Comedy of the Year! and Shades wondered why Amy would pick it— at least until he looked at the cast. For her part, this wasn’t really about the movie, but at least he had picked something without too much plot to keep track of when she wanted to talk to him.
Shades still couldn’t quite believe he was doing this. Resisting the urge to pinch himself, he asked her, “So, your ride or mine?”
“Yours.” It might be her only chance to ride on the back of a motorcycle with someone who wouldn’t do anything too stupid while trying to impress her.
“Okay.” Trying not to be self-conscious that he could see how much she liked the idea.
“What do you want to do now?” Making no secret of how pleased she was to already be able to read that much in spite of his shades. Of course, tomorrow night she had every intention of taking those things off and finding out what color his eyes really were. In fact, she had a strong intuition that not only would he not mind, but was perhaps looking forward to it himself. They had been in all of the same schools since at least the third grade, and somehow she knew she should remember, it bothered her that she didn’t.
“Hmm… I’ve got to go to work soon…” Yet he didn’t want to end such an interesting and pleasantly surprising meeting on such an abrupt note. “But I don’t have to go for a little while.”
One of the perks of being ahead of schedule.
“Then why don’t we pick up where Nimrod left off?”
Though the topic didn’t linger long on the paranormal, instead turning to local fort-building history, the surrounding trails, the mountains in general. Shades kept looking at his watch, hoping that she didn’t think he was bored when he was really just worried about being late and wishing he had more time. And Amy tried not to laugh when she saw the flicker of nervousness his shades just couldn’t hide whenever he looked at his watch. Finding out for themselves how often the two of them had been to many of the same places in the mountains west of Lakeside.
How many times they could potentially have crossed paths.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “The Crossfire Gang” is the title of a short-lived series of stories this one wrote in high school— and not a particularly good one, at that— and the reference is an inside joke.