almost midnight, October 31, 2003
She didn’t have anything against Rhonda. In another life, they might have been…well, no. They’d never be friends in any alternate reality. Rhonda was as mean as they came, and Josie, tired of being shoved into the lockers day after day, had crotch-punched her before biology class on Monday. A shot to the groin worked just as well on girls—at least, on Rhonda.
“Gimme a time check,” Josie said, yanking up the collar on her dad’s old plaid shirt. The desert night air cut through her Rolling Stones t-shirt like it was made out of tissue paper.
Marta Ruiz glared and dropped one of the four toilet paper rolls she was hugging against her pudgy torso as she dug in her jeans pocket. The errant roll of paper glowed white-blue in the moonlight as it unwound across the gravel driveway. A stream of Spanish and English curses spewed out of her mouth as her phone up-lit her face.
“Turn that thing off!”
“You asked me what the frickin’ time was. What am I supposed to do, chart the alignment of the stars?” Marta shut off her Nokia, but the moon was bright enough for Josie to see her eyes roll. “We’re still 17 minutes early. Nobody’s here.”
The fight was going down in the dry wash bed at the back edge of the Willson property. No one was home tonight because Otis Willson and her Uncle Jack were going to an antique car show in Scottsdale.
Josie scooped up the roll of T.P. with shaky hands and zeroed in on her target—the centerpiece saguaro in the turn-around. The cactus was twelve feet high and defiant like a middle finger, and she was about to mummify it in Charmin.
With a grunt, she lobbed the two-ply as high as she could and watched it arc over the closest arm of the majestic cactus. She would’ve aimed for the center trunk, but she knew her limits, and she didn’t want to look like a complete idiot in front of her only friend—“friend” in quotes. She’d met Marta three months ago in a lame-ass “transitional” summer school class for “smart but troubled” kids.
Josie was in her junior year. No parents. No friends. New school. New state. Wheeee.
As she wrapped the next roll around the branches of a creosote bush, thunder rumbled behind them to the west. Just perfect. She was going to die miserable and wet.
“This cold front isn’t normal. Halloween isn’t supposed to be like this,” Marta said, putting a mint in her mouth, though Josie suspected it wasn’t a Tic Tac, not with the way the girl’s eyes zipped back and forth. Adderall. Ritalin. Who knew. “Usually we sweat in our costumes. I blame you. You’re cursed.”
Nice. Now Josie was responsible for the crappy weather. The gloom and doom sky matched her mood, but she still missed fall feeling like a real fall. Leaves changing color. The air turning crisp. Her dad being alive.
“What is this, Quilted Northern?” Marta asked, squeezing the last two rolls with her pointy, painted nails. She looked like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark—or Catrina, one of those Day of the Dead dolls with the painted faces. Marta favored a lot of eyeliner, and, when she blinked her gunky eyelids, the whites of her eyes glowed like a jack o’lantern’s.
“Yeah—no…I don’t know. Who cares?”
“Everyone knows you don’t bring the name brands to TP a house.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s gonna precipitate. You always bring the generic brand, even if there’s only going to be dew. The materials adhere better to the cactus. You can’t remove it no matter what. It disintegrates and stays much better.”
“Thank you, Albert Einstein of vandalism.”
Marta’s shiny fingernail flipped her the bird.
In the distance, Josie heard a different kind of thunder—motors, the pricy 4-stroke engines. ATVs drew near, and she knew her time was up. Buzzing like a swarm of golf carts on crack, Rhonda and her gang circled Josie and Marta before cutting ignition.
Goodbye, crappy existence. Please let me come back in the next life as someone’s well-coddled lapdog—but not a poodle. Please, God, not a poodle.
As she dismounted her four-wheeler, Rhonda crumpled a silver beer can and threw it at Josie’s head, missing. “Tucker, get your ass over here.” Rhonda’s entourage—five scrawny minions of mixed gender—laughed in a way that caused Josie’s stomach to clench.
On loose knees, Josie approached. Behind her, one of Rhonda’s circling goons snatched the toilet paper from Marta, saying, “Gimme that, you remedial class lardass.”
“Leave her alone,” Josie said. She’d been glad to have Marta along for company, but now regretted it. When big hands grabbed the front of Josie’s plaid shirt, she told Marta, “Get out of here.” To Josie’s relief, Marta disappeared into the mesquites.
But now Josie was alone with the brute squad.
Maybe this is a dream. I’ll wake up and be in my bed at home in our house in Boston, and Dad will still be alive, downstairs watching The X-Files.
While her mind raced, the first hit came. Rhonda’s meaty fist connected with Josie’s left shoulder. Owww. Rhonda may have been a beast, but man, she had bad aim.
An echo of Josie’s dad’s voice ran through her mind saying, Get your hands up, Josie-girl. Block her. And while Josie appreciated the advice, she didn’t follow it. What was the point? After this fight, there’d be another. Then another. An endless line of punches aimed at Josie’s head…or shoulder, if the next bullies were as ineffective as Rhonda.
“Finish her!” one of the goons shouted. The rest of them laughed like cartoon hyenas.
But this whole thing was taking too long, and Josie was tired of waiting to be taken down. She balled her hand into a fist, feeling David-and-Goliath, and as luck would have it, pinned Rhonda’s chin with a sharp jab.
Aha, that angered the Hulk.
Josie watched the rusty gears churn inside Rhonda’s head as she built a head of angry steam. Rhonda grabbed the sleeve of Josie’s plaid shirt and yanked it off her.
The final blow caught her off guard, connecting with her stomach and knocking the breath out of her. She went down on her knees, fell off the shallow bank of the arroyo, and lay in a ball in the bed of the dry wash, gasping like a fish. A roll of toilet paper beaned her in the back, and she wondered, idly, where the last one had ended up.
As black spots floated across her eyes, a roar filled her ears, and a bright light opened up in the sky. She flipped on her back and stared upward at the gathering storm clouds edged in silver by the harvest moonlight.
But the light wasn’t heaven, and when Otis Willson’s quad cab with overhead flood lights came into focus, and she pushed back out of sight into the shadow of the bank. Thank God, he and Uncle Jack weren’t leaving for Scottsdale until the morning.
“You little turds thought I was out of town? Well, the joke’s on you. No more vandals attacking my yard on Halloween. Shut your mouths—don’t try to deny it. I got a motion-activated camera. I see that toilet tissue in your hands, Rhonda Hassey, and I see that plaid shirt you’re throwing on the ground, just like on camera. Looks like you just signed yourself up for community service. How good do you think you’re going to look with your pals cleaning up the highways in a bright orange vests? Get your butts in the truck. We’re going to have a chat with the sheriff.”
Truck doors slammed as Josie lay alone in the dirt staring at the night sky in silence. The crickets had grown quiet as thunder rumbled again, closer this time. Being alone wasn’t all that bad. It was just…lonely. A raindrop hit her cheek.
“Thanks for coming back,” Josie said.
“I didn’t leave.”
“Well, thanks for that, too.”
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