The day Joey turned thirteen, which happened to be a Saturday, he got up to eat cereal just like any other day. His sister, Chyna, came down and got a bowl, and they sat at the table and ate.
“Where’s mom?” Joey asked.
Chyna shrugged and answered noncommittally. “Why?” she asked as an afterthought.
“Just wondering,” Joey answered. He dropped his spoon into the bowl with a gloop.
His sister’s hairspray smelled like electric rain – her hair was frozen into a stiff approximation of life, all curly and big. Her face was hidden beneath a layer of makeup that resembled colored flour. She smelled like cigarettes and a perfume he couldn’t name, not that it would matter if he could.
“Where you going?” He asked her.
“Jonesboro,” she said. “With the girls.”
He didn’t answer. “Hey, what’s today’s date?” He tried.
“Fuck if I know,” she said. He nodded and got up to rinse out his bowl. “You going to take a shower or anything?”
“I already did,” he said.
“Come on and go to town with me,” she said.
“I think I’m going to just stick around here in case mom needs me.”
She frowned at him. “Mom doesn’t need anything. Come on.”
He mumbled an argument, but she ignored him and headed out the door. When he didn’t follow, she honked, making him look back towards his mom’s and Tommy’s, her boyfriend, door in fear. She honked again, and he heard a noise from their room and ran out to her.
“Where are we going?” Joey asked. The car was filling up, and he was feeling pretty sorry for himself. He was in the back, squeezed between two hefty girl friends of Chyna’s whose names he could never remember. He thought of them as Thing 1 and Thing 2. A little blonde thing named Sara was up front. She frightened him a little.
“The getting place,” Sara said.
They pulled up to a liquor store, and the girls filed out. Joey tried to stay, but Chyna leaned in and looked at him. “Get out,” she said.
“I’ll just wait.”
She reached in and grabbed his shirt and yanked him to the car door.
“Fine,” he said.
Inside, the girls spread out in ones or twos, making jokes and pointing and laughing. Chyna led Joey to the counter.
“Hey Keith,” she said to the guy working there. “Long shift?”
His whole face spread into a smile. “Yeah, you know.” He kept nodding but Joey couldn’t tell what for.
“This is my brother, Joey. It’s his birthday.”
Joey’s head whipped around to look at her, but she was looking at Keith.
“Cool, cool,” Keith said, nodding. “Happy birthday, little man.”
“When do you get off?” Sara asked.
“Four,” Keith said, nodding. “What are you doing?”
“We might swing by.”
“Cool.” Keith nodded.
“All right.” Sara smiled.
Chyna headed back deeper into the store, with Joey following. “Okay,” she said. “What do you want?” Joey gave her a blank stare. “For your birthday.”
“Um,” Joey said.
Thing 2 appeared and leaned in to him “We’re going to get you fucked up.”
“What?” Joey said.
“You want tequila?” Chyna held up a bottle.
“Si, senor,” Thing 2 said in a bad Spanish accent.
“I don’t know,” Joey said. “What about cake?”
“They don’t have cake, here,” Chyna said. “So pick one.”
“He don’t know what he wants,” Sara said.
Joey looked at some of the bottles; they all looked very similar. He didn’t really know much about alcohol, and he hadn’t really been thinking about drinking.
“What does mom drink?” he asked.
“Rum. Ugh,” Chyna said.
He walked down the aisle a little and found one that looked interesting and held it up for Chyna.
He shrugged and started to put it back.
“We need salt,” Thing 2 said, coming up behind him. She grabbed the bottle. Joey glanced at Chyna who was holding the tequila bottle.
“Triple Sec,” Thing 1 said.
Joey had no idea what they were talking about. They gathered ingredients and took them to the counter, waiting until there weren’t any other customers to do so. Keith rang them up, no longer nodding, but instead glancing to the door every few seconds.
“You guys get caught,” he said. “Tell—“
“Tell them you traded us booze for sexual favors?” Sara said.
“We’ll be cool,” Chyna said. “We won’t get caught, and if we do, we’ll say we got it from our parents.”
“Cool.” Keith nodded again.
He rang them up and gave them the bag.
“Hey, what time do you get off?” Sara asked.
Keith got a pained expression. “Four.”
“Yeah. Cool,” Sara said. “Maybe we’ll swing by.”
He didn’t look convinced as they left, giggling, and Sara called out, “Not!”
They went to Sara’s trailer to mix the drinks. Her mom was home, but didn’t care what they did as long as they didn’t bother her while she watched TV. Things 1 & 2 mixed it and poured it in mason jars and put salt all along the lips and handed one to Joey. He wiped away some of the salt to take a drink, and Sara smacked him in the back of the head.
“The salt’s part of it,” she said in response to Chyna’s glare.
“I know.” He blushed. “I just wanted to try it without.”
He sipped and tasted a little bit of salt. The drink was good. Fruity. He took another big swallow.
The girls were giggling, talking about Keith and other people from school. After he finished the glass, the girls made him another one. Joey was feeling good, better than he’d felt that morning when he thought no one would remember his birthday.
“We should get some pot,” Thing 2 said.
“I can’t drive, though,” Sara said. “My mom doesn’t want me driving on my own with just a permit.”
“I’ll drive,” Chyna said. “My mom doesn’t care.”
They turned off the main drag of town – Highway 1 – into the parking lot of a strip mall Joey didn’t think he’d ever been in before. It had a bunch of stores with names he didn’t recognize. He assumed if he didn’t know the name of a store in a strip mall it probably sold women’s clothes.
Joey felt like he was floating in a beautiful sea of greeny/yellow goodness. He felt totally at ease and closed his eyes. On either side of him, Thing 1 and Thing 2 were mashed against him. They kept moving: leaning up to talk to Sara or Chyna. Their motions rocked him like the movement of water. They both smelled good, too, like girls: makeup and hairspray and perfume.
They pulled up next to another car, and Chyna was talking to the driver. Sara kept leaning over and yelling things in her garish, redneck voice. Joey kept his eyes closed.
“How you feeling there, Joey?” Thing 2 asked.
“Good. How are you?”
She giggled and he felt motion as she moved her hand on his leg. Suddenly, pinpricks erupted along his leg and stomach. The hand crept up his knee to his thigh. Thing 2 leaned in to his ear and whispered something Joey didn’t actually hear, but the thrill of her breath on his ear was the best thing he’d ever felt.
“What?” he whispered back.
“Do you like me?” Thing 2 asked.
“Sure,” he said, liking her a lot better in the last few minutes. “I like you.”
She slid her hand up to his crotch and squeezed what she found there. He waited for her to do more, but she was suddenly involved in the conversation with whoever was in the other car.
Joey was annoyed; his state of joyful flotsam had been shattered. The car beside them revved and jerked forward. The girls were haggling, that much he could tell. The other car jerked forward again and something flew in and hit Joey in the face. It was a Ziploc bag. He didn’t think about it, just grabbed it and threw it back, hitting the driver of the other car in the back of the head as he drove off. Bastard, Joey thought.
Chyna eased the car forward. “Where is it?” she asked.
Thing 1 and Thing 2 searched the floorboards and backseat while Joey tried to regain his zen-like state from earlier.
“We can’t find it!” Thing 2 said.
“Is Joey sitting on it?” Chyna asked. She pulled over, and they all got out. Thing 2 had to drag Joey out.
“It’s not here,” Thing 2 said.
“Joey?” Chyna asked.
“What?” He opened his eyes. It was bright out. They were standing in the Hardees parking lot. Sara advanced on him and grabbed his shirt.
“Where’s the weed?”
“Huh?” Joey thought. “Ah.”
“Ah?” Chyna asked.
Sara grabbed his nipple and twisted it. “Where’s the weed?” she repeated.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “It hit me in the face, so…”
“So?” Chyna said.
“So I threw it back.”
Sara slapped him in the head again. The two Things looked like they wanted to kill him.
“We’ve got to catch Barry,” Chyna said.
“We should leave dumbass here,” Sara said.
“He’s drunk,” Chyna said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Barry laughed a lot about it, but Joey liked him because he seemed to like Joey.
“You don’t take no shit, huh?” he said.
Joey shrugged. Barry acted like he was going to make them pay for it again until Sara promised to blow him. “I don’t want your skanchy mouth on me,” he said.
Sara sulked after that, and after Barry gave them the baggie and took off again, she turned around and punched Joey hard in the stomach.
“What the fuck, bitch?” he sputtered.
The two Things held him back and Sara reared up in the front seat. “Bitch? Who you calling bitch you little faggot?”
“Sit the fuck down, Sara,” Chyna said.
“That little shit called me a bitch,” she said, her voice indignant.
“Sit the fuck down, bitch!” Chyna said.
“Not a bitch,” Sara said, her voice whiny, now. She slumped in the front seat. Joey coughed in the backseat, his feeling of serenity totally gone.
Chyna headed out to Summersweet and the network of gravel roads that intersected it South of town, around the state park. Thing 1 rolled a joint and lit it and passed it up to Chyna who passed it to Sara and then Thing 2 who started to hand it to Joey.
“Oh hell no,” Sara said. “You’re not giving that him.”
“Why not?” Thing 2 said.
“He didn’t put in on it.”
“I put it on it,” Chyna said.
“I don’t want his mouth on it,” Sara said.
“I don’t want anything your skanchy mouth has been on,” Joey said.
“I got this,” Thing 2 said. “Shotgun.” She took a hit, leaned in to Joey, and blew a long train into his open mouth. “Hold it in,” she said. He held the smoke, searching her eyes, which were soft and joyful. He coughed, suddenly, and she passed the joint around to Thing 1.
The next time it came around, Thing 2 brushed her lips against Joey’s when she exhaled into his mouth. He didn’t cough, even though he wanted to. The third time, he started to feel himself sink back into the water. They finished the joint and Sara swallowed it. Chyna turned the music on, and all of them chattered over the top of it. Thing 2’s hand was on Joey’s leg. He was pretty sure he was in love.
They came into town to hit a gas station and use the bathroom. There was a line for the girls, but Joey went right in. The door burst open as he was peeing, and Sara strode in. Joey froze mid-stream.
“Screw that,” she said. “I aint’ waiting.” She went over to the toilet. “Did you piss on this thing?” Joey concentrated on finishing and didn’t answer. He stared straight ahead. There was a machine on the wall that sold condoms and other things. There were pictures that looked exotic and a little confusing to Joey.
“There’s a condom machine,” Joey said.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Sara said from right beside him. He jumped a little. She was staring at his penis. He put it away. “Not bad,” she said, a little impressed. Joey blushed sunburn red, and she started laughing.
Sara left but Joey stayed behind to wash his hands. The door opened again, and he ignored it until he felt a body pressed into his, breasts in his back, hands reaching around to his stomach. He shivered.
“Sara?” he said.
“No, idiot,” Thing 2 said. She pushed him into the sink.
“Oh, sorry. She was in here…” He turned around and saw the girl’s angry face. “I was freaking out.”
She relaxed a little. The awkwardness weighed on Joey. He stepped to her and kissed her. She let him. He felt like a fish just standing there, so he moved his hands over her body. She opened her blouse and let him kiss her chest. She uncapped her breasts, and he kissed her nipples. Her hand was on him and undid his pants. She wrapped her fingers around him, squatted down and took him in her mouth, and he was finished. She coughed, surprised, and laughed. He blushed again, and she kept working him. He stayed hard, and this time, it took longer. When it was over, she stood back up with a smile, and he said,
“I love you,” even though he still wasn’t sure what her name was.
She laughed, and said, “Happy Birthday.” And kissed him on the cheek.
When they got back out to the car, the girls all burst out laughing. Sara looked at him and he knew she’d told them something. In the backseat, Thing 2 didn’t put her hand on his leg again. He wasn’t sure what that meant, so he let it go.
After she dropped the girls off, Chyna pulled up to Hays Food Town. Joey started to get out, but she said, “Stay in the car.” She hopped out, left the car running and the door open, and ran up to the sidewalk. There were ferns and potted plants and no one was around. She grabbed one and ran back to the car and handed it to him.
“Happy Birthday,” she said. “You like ferns, right?” she added as an afterthought.
“Yeah,” he said, though he’d never considered it before.
“Cool.” She turned on the radio. It was Van Halen, “Jump.” “Sellout bullshit,” she said and turned the station. They didn’t find anything worth listening to all the way home, so they just listened to the sound of the car as it cut through the wind.
CL Bledsoe is the author of five novels including the young adult novel Sunlight, the novels Last Stand in Zombietown and $7.50/hr + Curses; four poetry collections: Riceland, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. He has two poetry chapbooks available online: Goodbye to Noise and The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize eight times, had twp stories selected as Notable Stories by Story South’s Million Writers Award and two others nominated, and has been nominated for Best of the Net twice. He’s also had a flash story selected for the long list of Wigleaf’s 50 Best Flash Stories award. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe reviews regularly for Rain Taxi, Coal Hill Review, Prick of the Spindle, Monkey Bicycle, Book Slut, The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.