Eric never thought he’d be looking down the barrel of a gun, and never in his wildest dreams did he think he’d be seeing her at the other end.
It had only been an hour since he’d walked out his front door, fully intent on getting a Doritos Locos tacos from the Taco Bell a few blocks over, but it seemed like a lifetime away. Then again, it doesn’t take long for everything to be flipped on its head.
One moment he’d been peering curiously down an alley, wondering who could possibly be yelling so loudly in the middle of the night, and the next he’d been yanked into a van that didn’t even wait for the door to close before speeding away. They’d shoved an old Walmart shopping bag over his head and told him to keep his mouth shut, but it wasn’t necessary. Eric couldn’t have spoken or yelled for help if he’d tried. He’d fallen into something akin to shock, only minutely aware of the crinkle of the bag at every turn and the feeling of bunched up plastic around his neck. Something felt so taboo about having the bag over his head. His mother had always warned him not to play with them, or cover his head with them, fearing that he would suffocate.
And then they’d arrived there. There, at some dingy warehouse in the middle of who-knows-where. They’d patted him down like a convict, harsh and inconsiderate. As soon as they’d confiscated his wallet and phone, he’d been thrown into a room with no windows, and the walls seemed far too close to one another. They slammed the door as they left and Eric heard the thud of the lock falling into place.
He sat there for what must have only been minutes, though it felt like an eternity. As the seconds ticked by, he resorted to studying the desk resting by the wall to his right to occupy himself. It looked more like a block of wood than anything else, no legs to be seen and only two small locked drawers. He’d begun counting the scratches at its base when two women entered the room.
They took their time before acknowledging him, surveying the room then staring at him coldly. One of the women, who had the air of someone of great importance, spoke first.
“You handle this one.”
The other glanced at her questioningly, but in response only got a shake of the head and a gesture towards the young man sprawled against the wall in front of them.
“Who are you?” Her voice held less hesitation than Eric had expected. She spoke firmly, and it was evident she wouldn’t wait long for his answer.
“I… I’m—I’m Aaron.” He wasn’t sure who they were, or why he’d been brought there, but he didn’t want to risk putting his family in danger. The less they knew about him, even his name, the better.
“Aaron.” She spit the name out as if it were a burnt casserole. “Why were you in the alley?”
“I, um, I—” Eric hated the slight quiver to his voice, wishing he could feign apathy to the situation, maybe gain their respect, but with every word his voice shook more. “I was just, just walking to Taco Bell.”
“Were you?” She pulled a gun from seemingly nowhere. “Aaron. I don’t like liars. We—”
“I’m not lying!” He interrupted her, desperation lacing his voice. “Pl-please, I’m telling you, I wa- just wanted a taco, I swear, I—”
The woman slammed her fist down on the table. “Like I said—I don’t like liars. You’ll talk when I say to.”
Eric nodded silently, eyes locked on a piece of jewelry hanging from her neck—a small stone barely hanging onto a fraying gray thread.
“Audra, this is a bad idea!” Eric tugged on her arm, pulling her off the lawn and back onto the sidewalk. “We’re going to get in trouble!”
“No we won’t, not if we’re fast!” Audra pulled her arm free and stepped resolutely ahead, destroying the well-manicured lawn of their neighbor with each step. Eric followed behind, stepping where she had, eyes on his feet. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “It’s too dark anyways. They won’t know us, okay?”
Eric steeled his nerves, and nodded. “Okay.”
They walked up the porch steps, light on their feet, and stopped in front of the door. Audra grinned at him and said, “Okay, push it!”
“Me? Why can’t you push it?”
“Because you’re going to! Thought you said you weren’t a baby.” Audra pushed him forward, and Eric was suddenly standing in front of a door much taller than himself, and he was quaking in his slippers. Audra was looking at him, though, and waiting, so he squared his shoulders and held his finger in front of the doorbell.
Before Audra could tease him again, and before he really knew what he was doing, he’d pressed the button and Audra had grabbed his arm and they were running back across the street. She pulled him behind the electrical box they’d once painted purple, and they peeked their heads over the top, waiting.
Wood met wood as Mr. Paresse threw the door open, comb-over astray and bathrobe barely tied. “I’ll call the cops on you, next time! Hear me? I’ll call em!”
Audra and Eric stifled giggles behind their hands, crouching lower so he wouldn’t see them. The door slammed again and they collapsed against the purple box in fits of laughter, tears in their eyes.
Audra playfully shoved his arm and said, “I told you you could do it.”
“I should get a job.”
“A job?” Eric asked. “Can you even get one?”
“Some places hire fourteen year olds.” Audra clicked on something on the computer. “Like, McDonald’s, maybe. And my mom used to work there, so I probably have better chances.”
“I guess… Why do you need one?” Eric put his binder and pencil case in his bookbag, zipping it closed. “My parents won’t even let me get a job till I’m sixteen.”
“I just think it’d be good to have one, I dunno.” Audra didn’t look at him, just kept clicking and typing in front of the computer. “Besides, Dad could use some help.”
“With what, money?” Audra shrugged. Eric went on, “I mean, my parents could help you guys I bet, they donate places all the time.”
Audra shook her head. “No, we don’t need that. I just want to pay for my own things, that’s all.”
“Are you sure? Cause Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind—”
“I’m sure, okay?” She sighed. “Let’s just go to lunch.”
“Can you believe we’re juniors now?”
Eric was sprawled out on his bed, wearing sweatpants he’d gotten in eighth grade with his phone pressed against his ear, the cord wrapped up in his fingers. He replied, “Yeah, it seems so weird. I dunno what it’ll be like if we don’t have to wake up at six every morning.”
“I just can’t wait to leave, man. I’m tired of it here. Soon it’ll be no more shitty jobs, no more shitty teachers, no more shitty everything. No more shitty moms.”
Eric rolled onto his side. “You always say your mom’s shitty.”
“So, didn’t she give birth to you and everything? I dunno, you should appreciate her more. She’s your mom.”
Audra was silent on the other end of the line.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess.” Silent again. “I think I should go. Dad wants me off the line.”
“Okay… is everything alright?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“You’re moving?” Eric stared at her, at her hunched shoulders and bowed head. She didn’t look like she normally did; she looked small.
“It’s not up to me, okay?” Audra wouldn’t look at him. Her eyes seemed permanently glued to the rubber band in her hands, to every flick and stretch of the rubber. She snapped it back harder. “Mom wants us to go.”
“They couldn’t just let you stay for the rest of senior year? There’s only a couple of months left.” Audra shook her head. Snapped the rubber band. “That’s… that sucks.”
“What doesn’t?” She threw her head back, almost hard enough to hurt when her skull met the wall. “It’s not about me anyways. Something about her job.”
Eric looked at her, and tried to find words, but he had nothing. It seemed to be that way pretty often lately.
She pulled the rubber band, farther and farther and— it snapped.
“Sorry it took so long, was trying to convince my dad to let me out.” Audra climbed in the passenger door, collapsing into the seat like one would a bed. “I swear, it’s like he thinks we’re ten and breaking into the pool again.”
Eric rolled his eyes. “You’d think he’d at least let you out on your last night here.”
“You’d think,” she said, bitterness seeping into her voice. She took in a deep breath and forced it out, as if the problems were in her lungs and she was trying to get rid of them. “What should we do tonight? Prank Mr. Paresse, for old times’ sake? Buy a cake and eat the whole thing?”
Eric laughed, shook his head. “Why don’t we just drive for awhile?”
“Boring,” she drawled, a teasing lilt to her voice. “But okay, if you say so. Drive on.”
“Just one sec,” he said. “I’ve got you a present.” He leaned into the backseat, grasping around on the floor.
“A present?” She stretched her neck, trying to see what was back there. “It’s a little late if you’re trying to woo me.”
“Shut up, ya dumbass.” He popped up from the back with a small bag in his hand, and held it out to her proudly. “Just open it.”
She took the bag and peered inside. She pulled out purple tissue paper by the bunch, and at the bottom found a small stone carefully tied onto gray yarn. It was shoddily done, obviously amateur, but the emotion was all the same. She held it in her hand, rolled it once, twice over her palm, and put the thread around her neck.
“Cause you’re strong as a rock, ya know,” Eric said. Audra giggled like a child, and rubbed a few tears from her eyes.
“I’ll never take it off.”
How long had it been? A decade?
“I didn’t say to speak.” She had the gun trained firmly towards his head. Without shifting her gaze, she spoke to the other woman in the room. “What do we do with him?”
Her stare faltered. “He’s just some stupid guy. He doesn’t know anything.”
“He knows this.”
Eric heard them discuss his execution as if he were somewhere else, their words muted and sounding far away.
“It won’t happen again. He just reminded me of someone.”