072 – Diligence/Distraction

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Oh, it is good to be back.

Even if I wasn’t in costume, it felt nice to be out and about in the territory again. It was refreshing.

What was not refreshing, though, was why I had to be out and about. Not exciting at all. Mundane, even.

I pushed the cart, and D threw more snacks inside.

We were just doing some shopping at the Fill Market – Philly’s as D liked to put it – and it wasn’t even for anything I needed. D just wanted to stock up my refrigerator and pantry again.

Not that I had any real use for either of them, but I still felt bothered by it. Her brazen disregard for other people’s personal space. Useful, when it wasn’t directed at me.

But, I wasn’t bothered enough to bring it up. I kept it to myself.

D tossed in a box of cookies, and then another. She kept taking things off the shelves as I passed, nonchalant, not being particularly picky in her choices.

The more snacks she collected, the more she was getting cramped. She was sitting inside the cart, facing me, taking boxes and bags as we went. I couldn’t see her feet, ankles, and shins, as the boxes kept piling on.

“Don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?” I questioned, giving her a wary look as she dropped in yet another box. Donuts, this time. “Or a lot overboard?”

“I don’t think so,” D said, monotone, reaching over to take even more. The pile was getting up to her knees, now. “Why? Do you think so?”

“I know so, D.”

We got to the end of the aisle. I turned us around, moving into another, but I pulled the cart away every time D tried to reach for another snack.

“Hey,” she whined, still monotone. Dry.

“That’s more than enough,” I told her. “You’re the only one who’ll be eating them, anyways. And besides that, you’ve gotten so much that people are starting to look.”

D took a quick look around as we left the aisle. From the expression she had on her face, she didn’t seem to mind at all.

It was true, though, people were looking.

The weekend, at the busiest hour, with a lot of people. Shoppers who had to stock up for the coming week and the following weekend. I didn’t know that people went out in their Sunday best to go grocery shopping, but here they were, doing exactly that.

Bustling, and the place wasn’t very big as far as produce markets went, it took quite a bit of effort not to bump into anybody. D was making it even harder, too, with how she kept trying to take something from the shelves, people noticing and getting out of the way to accommodate her. As if she had no awareness of her surroundings.

Which made me realize there was a point to what she was doing.

“You getting what you came here for?” I asked, eyes forward, more attentive in what I was seeing. Playing catch up.

“Hm. Most definitely. There’s a lot to chew on, here.”

I gave the cart a hard shake before walking forward again. D lurched, some of the boxes of snacks and candy were knocked out of place, falling past her knees, landing in her lap.

“Punny,” I said.

D rearranged the boxes, placing them around her or between her legs. She didn’t have much space to work with.

“We’re not being very inconspicuous, are we?”

D wasn’t making any attempt to bring her voice down.

I met some of the looks coming our way. The staring. All of them varied. From caution, to fear, to downright contempt.

“Not at all,” I said. “We’re sticking out like, um…”

“Like gang members in a public space?”

“Yeah. Something like that.”

“And how are they reacting to us being here?”

I observed.

The people around us were mixed in race, attire, background. I noted some of the clothes they wore, the colors. Some were well-dressed for a Sunday service. Others… They weren’t as holy.

Gang colors. Different colors. Blue, white, and black.

Of the ones repping a group, the ones in black outnumbered the rest. This was our territory, now. But what did concern me were the others, those who had chosen to wear either blue or white. The Thunders, and The Royals.

Neither gang was active nor functioning, we had made sure of that. No, this was their form of protest, making known their displeasure and disapproval over the new, local powers that be. That they wouldn’t accept the changes happening in their community, and show that their allegiance was still elsewhere, even if there was no group for their loyalties to be placed in. Lost, displaced, angry ex-gang members.

I could feel the glares from a distance, as if they were trying to penetrate through me by looks alone. I was sure they wanted to do much worse.

“Not well,” I finally answered. “Most aren’t paying us any mind, but then there’s the rest, and they look like they want to tear us to pieces.”

D rested her arms on the sides of the cart. She slouched.

“They’re more than welcome to try, but they aren’t going to get very far. They’re just salty that they’re not at the top of the food chain, anymore.”

“Still with the food puns?”

“It fits. But my point remains. There’s nothing they can do about it. It’s not like they can fight us on it. Them and what army?”

“Them and any other disgruntled ex-members,” I mentioned. “And that isn’t a small group. Did you forget that the Thunders and the Royals were on decent terms when we first came in?”

“Yeah, yeah, but even then. They saw what happened to their leaders, their friends. Do you really think they’re to try something, and so soon? Now that’s just suicidal.”

Suicide. They would throwing themselves to their deaths if they tried to take back the territory.

I brought my voice lower as I said, “You’re assuming that I’d fuck them up like I did EZ and Krown.”

D didn’t lower hers as she replied, “You wouldn’t?”

I pressed my lips together, briefly looking away.

Was that how she saw me? My role in the gang? The muscle? It wasn’t untrue, though, and it was a role I had accepted, but it still felt… weird, being defined by only I was capable of, what I could do. By one part instead of the sum.

“I can, but I don’t have to,” I said. “They got their warning, and it was a pretty big one. They won’t do anything now, and if they ever get dumb enough to amass that army and plan, we’ll have gotten even bigger in the meantime, even more equipped to handle other threats. And, hopefully, we get to the point that the locals don’t even want us to leave.”

“Good thinking. I’m along the same lines. It’s just a matter of everyone settling into their new place. And you’re right about getting on the local’s good side. Anyone can take over, but it’s much harder to stay. Getting into the underlying system, becoming it, and making welcome changes is one way to do it.”

Like roots, I thought. Seeds for something better, in the future.

“But, it’s good to have a look at how things stand, now. Gives us a better picture of what to do next.”

“You did say that places like this are deep in the heart of the community, or something. And if you want to be in the know, you check around here.”

D snapped her fingers. “You’re getting it. See, you’re a natural, Wendy.”

I pressed my lips together, briefly looking away. Again.

I thought we were just going shopping.

I moved us to another aisle, but with more purpose, this time. I knew what to look out for, what to keep in mind, and D did her thing, as well. We were on the same wavelength now.

Though, she kept trying to grab for more snacks. I adjusted the cart to move her away from them.

I noted how the stream of people parted to go around us, trying not to get in our way. There wasn’t much space as it was, yet they were still willing to make the concession. Even those dressed in blue and white. They’d rather keep their distance, not risk what might happen if they wandered too close. An air of uncertainty.

And we were just two girls, neither of us were eighteen, and one of us wasn’t even a teen. There was no real reason for anyone to fear us. Not really.

They probably didn’t even know who we really were, our positions in the new gang. But they saw our colors, what we represented. We weren’t from around here, but we walked around like we owned the place. Which, in theory, we did.

“It’s probably time for us to go,” I said. “We’ve given everyone enough here stress to last the week.”

D murmured. “Fine, but…”

She glanced to the side.

Exhaling, I gave in, and moved the cart to the side.

A large, toothy grin was plastered on D’s face. I minded the gap.

Yes!” she cheered, a slight hiss at the end. “Thank you thank you!”

She grabbed multiple bags of tortilla chips before sheer excessiveness of her gluttony forced me to pull away again. Extraneous bags fell and crinkled onto the floor before D had to a chance to catch them.

Very conscious of the fact that people were watching, I simply peeled out of the aisle, ready to pay for everything.

Consider how much of the store’s inventory D took, it might as well be ‘everything.’

I took us over to the front of the store, into one of the many, busy lines. They were all lengthy, no shortcuts to take, here.

We waited, falling into a slow, languid pace, alongside everyone else. Checking our phones, listening to the soft background music from the intercom, lulled to a calm silence by the mundanity of a normal routine. Refreshing in its own way, I supposed. No matter what, whether someone was a gang leader or a regular churchgoer, everyone could get bored. It was a shared experience. Universal.

The wait didn’t last too long, though, and we arrived to drop off our stuff at the rubber conveyor belt. I started moving the boxes and bags of snacks and cartons of ice cream. D helped, taking them from the pile that had grown around and on top of her. She was still stuck inside the cart.

Then we reached the register. The cashier started scanning everything, and it took time.

“That’s a lot of…”

He started his comment, but he never finished. He had glanced up as he spoke, then froze up as he saw me, and D.

He recognized us?

As if it was a reflex, he bent down, hovering over his workstation, back to scanning the snacks, not saying a word and not facing in our general direction.

Weird.

D seemed to have picked up on it, too, saying, “Yo, loosen up, we don’t have anything planned this time. No need to be all worked up.”

“You know this guy, D?”

“You don’t remember? He checked you out last time we were here. Oh, and speaking of, he was totally hitting on you.”

The boy visibly twitched, having overheard D. She wasn’t exactly keeping it down.

“Was he?”

“It was so obvious, I can’t believe you didn’t pick up on it. You must be really dense, Wendy.”

“I’m not dense, I just don’t recognize that stuff when it’s directed at me.”

“That’s what being dense means, silly.”

The boy lowered his head even more, rushing to get through the rest of the items. D did get a lot, though, and they didn’t seem to stop coming down the conveyor belt. I could sense he wanted to leave, but he wasn’t getting any reprieve.

I tried not to smirk or grin, but it was kind of funny, teasing this random stranger in a relatively harmless way. But then I caught myself.

Is D starting to rub off on me?

Darn.

If she was, I would hope it didn’t just go one way.

The boy finally got through about half of the snacks, but a hand on his shoulders made him freeze up even more.

We all turned.

Fillmore.

“I’ve got this, son, go help Omid at lane six.”

Without any hesitation, the boy switched with Fillmore, moving over to the other station. Fillmore took over, scanning, going even faster, but he wasn’t as tense about it.

“Ladies,” he said, greeting us with a curt nod as he worked.

I returned the favor.

“Fillmore.”

“Mr. Phil!”

D gave him a wave, both hands, cheery as ever.

“And hello to you, too, more specifically.”

Fillmore kept working as he addressed us more directly.

“Find everything alright?”

“Pretty much found and took everything,” I commented.

He let out a soft chuckle.

“At least someone’s buying from here.”

“Why?” I asked, checking the line behind us, the lines around us. “Looks pretty busy to me.”

Fillmore didn’t look up from his work.

“We’re running out of stock, inventory is beginning to thin out in the back. Weekends are usually the busiest times for us, so we have about, let me guess, two and a half months left? Give or take. Then…”

He didn’t continue.

“Then what?” D asked, “How come y’all aren’t getting any more stuff?”

I would have tapped D on the head, or messed with her hair. But, I was curious about the details. I wanted to hear more.

“Local farmers and manufactures don’t want to sell to us, none of the good ones. My guess is that they think we’re in a rough part of town, and they don’t want to do business where there’s potential risk. Which, well, I don’t see what the problem is now.”

He lifted his head, meeting my eyes. The first decent look I had of him in a while.

Weary, beyond exhaustion. The lines on his face were deeper, holding larger shadows. His beard looked greyer, his expression a touch somber. But even that had a sense of resignation to it, as if he didn’t have the energy to properly express himself. Just tired.

With his flat brim hat, his clothes from a bygone era, he was as old as he was old-fashioned. And even more withered, too.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” he breathed.

D answered him.

“It’s ‘cause you’re in trouble, and you’re reaching out for help. Nothing to be ashamed about.”

She gestured.

“How about we have a talk with these farmer guys?”

“Really?” Fillmore questioned.

“It’s nothing. We’ll show them we’re worth doing business with.”

His eyes squinted a bit. “I’d prefer if I didn’t have children taking care of something like this on my behalf. This doesn’t concern the streets. It’s proper business, between adults.”

“What happens on the streets is proper business, Mr. Phil, and we’re doing quite well in that regard. If I do say so myself. Besides, it doesn’t have to be us that takes care of it. We have other peeps who can smooth things out for you.”

“Do you?”

“You haven’t met him, but he’s capable,” I said. If we were still thinking along the same lines, we were both considering the same person for the job. “He’s also not a child.”

“His name’s Lawrence,” D said, “And if we were chess pieces, he’d be the knight. Tenacious, tough, and can move forward even when he takes a ‘L.’ You should meet him sometime, and you’ll know we’re serious.”

“I never doubted that you weren’t. Sure, let him visit. I’ll entertain this.”

Fillmore continued with the scanning, getting through more of the still huge set of sweets. Progress was incremental. I was growing more and more cognizant of the fact that we were holding the line up.

“Anything else we should know about?” D asked. She stretched her legs, now that she had more room to herself. “Any sidequests?”

I was starting to catch on why D had gotten so many snacks. To give us time, and more chances to get information out of Fillmore.

Fillmore scanned the last item, a box of thin mints. The register started beeping, and he pressed the keys.

Halfway done. He still had to bag everything. Everything.

He answered while he worked.

“Nothing worth reporting. Or if anything, see it for yourself. This is your land, now.”

“Ah, don’t be like that, Mr. Phil, you’re our eyes and ears! If there’s anything messed up, you should let us know. We might be able to do something about it.”

Look, don’t rely on the hearsay of an old man to get you anywhere. We’re your mess, now, so learn how to clean it up.”

“Boo, you’re no fun,” D grumbled.

Without another word, Fillmore finished bagging up our stuff and putting it back into the cart. I watched as D steadily disappeared underneath all the plastic.

“Ow,” she mumbled, as a bag bumped her in the head.

Fillmore dropped in the last one, and we were finally all done. He told us how much it all added up to – a staggering amount – and D only responded by giving him a credit card. I saw her fingers pop out from other side of the pile of plastic to hand it over.

“There was… one thing I wanted to say, though,” he said, words measured.

“Shoot,” I said.

He swiped the card, handing it back to D, but he had his eyes trained on me the entire time.

Then, his expression changed. The shadows dug even deeper, as he hung his head, the brim of his hat blocking my view of his eyes.

“It’s nothing,” he said, low.

“Now you’ve got me curious,” I said.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” D commented.

“No, I don’t want to keep you, and I do want you out of my store. I’ll let this pass.”

“I’m sorry, Phil,” I said, “But it doesn’t work like that. You have something to say, you tell us.”

I could feel it, now, the mounting pressure behind us. Pressing, pushing. The line was growing, the people were waiting, and the patience was thinning. People were moving over to other lanes because we were taking so long with Fillmore.

If this lasted any longer, I could imagine those in blue and white to use it as a reason to act out, make a sense of us being here. It would trouble, then, for everyone involved.

I waited for Fillmore.

He stood straight, taking one, long motion to get himself up. Nimble, smooth, for someone getting up there in years.

“I’ll keep it short then, to respect everyone’s time.”

“Fair,” I said.

With my undivided attention given to Fillmore, he said his piece.

“Look,” D said, “A sidequest.”

I looked.

A group, picking on an individual. Smaller, weaker than the rest of them. They were all boys, though.

All wearing white.

The smaller boy was backing away, but there wasn’t much room left between him and the wall. His hands were out, placating, as if he could tame the group that was inching closer. It wasn’t working.

D commented on the scene as it continued. A play-by-play.

“Oh. He fell. That’s not good.”

“Definitely not.”

“They’re laughing now, and I think he’s crying. I can’t tell from here, it’s too far. But I mean, he is rubbing his eyes, so it’s not a bad guess. And those guys, they’re laughing and, and, what’s the word? Look how they’re pointing and yelling at him.”

“Mocking?” I offered.

“Close. Wait, no… taunting, that’s it! Right, they’re taunting him, they want him to do something. That I can-”

D had stopped.

“What?” I asked.

She spoke. “That’s not good.”

What?”

“Gun. I see gun.”

I already had a hand on the door.

“Do we move?” she asked.

“Move,” I ordered, getting outside. D dropped her hands at the same time. She didn’t even have real binoculars, she just made pretend ones with her hands.

We both moved out of the van, and crossed the street.

Same neighborhood, different day. D’s rainbow spectrum of gelatos and ice creams would have melted hours ago if we had staked out all night.

Getting more familiar with the territory wasn’t a bad idea. Being more tuned in, learning more about the problems that plagued the area. What needed to be fixed and worked on.

But, it wasn’t just the bad. Learning about the good, the little charms that made the neighborhood unique was just as important, if not more. It wouldn’t do to simply take over a place and not take stock of the intricacies, the subtleties that make up the bigger picture. It would be, there, in the small details where we’d be more likely to slip up, if we weren’t aware of them, to know to look out for them. We’d have to be vigilant, and I’d have to be in the know.

Bikes braked and skateboards skidded into place as we moved through the Wellport construction site.

Abandoned after a building project fell through, the kids soon swept in to turn it into a skatepark, the flat, smooth surfaces and huge cement cylinders with the upper halves missing made for good spot to skate and ride, hanging out and trying out new tricks. The gang presence kept anyone else from coming in and stripping it all down, and left it alone for the kids to use, even if it was probably a hazard, in more ways than one. It had been at least a decade since the last time anyone took a hammer or drill to the place.

If we were going to be accepted by the locals, we’d have to be accepted by the youth as well. Keeping this place up and running was one way to go about it.

“Go, but wait.”

“Got it!”

I approached the group, and the boy they were singling out.

The angle I was coming in from put me at the group’s back, they didn’t see me as I advanced.

But, there was a framework of steel beams behind them, close to me. The beginnings of a skeleton of a building. The most that was achieved in that regard was a metal outline of a cube, sitting atop the dirt.

I ran my fingers against the steel, and I craned my head up.

I jumped.

The approach was threefold. First, the park was busy, an hour after most schools had ended for the day. There were others around. Kids shouted in surprise at my sudden, upward movement.

Second, sound could steal, take away attention from one thing to another. People turned whenever they heard something out of the ordinary, and they couldn’t see what had caused it. Humans were a curious species. The group had turned when they heard the shouts, the clanging as my feet stomped on metal.

Third, would be the slightly hard part.

I moved, quick but careful. I knew what this might have looked like to a normal person, and had to hold myself back accordingly. I acted, climbing to get on top of the higher beam that ran parallel to the ground. I was about ten feet up.

Jogging, I crossed the beam, getting even closer to the group and the boy. I was back in the air.

All together, it should have looked like one smooth, impressive stunt, something a trained professional could have pulled off. After weeks of practice  Me? I improvised.

It got the attention of everyone else, though, and I still found an opening to make my landing.

The group that had the boy wouldn’t have been able to see me. I had moved too fast, and with the sun at my back, high above me, I had the cover of a bright, blue, blinding sky. I soared for a time, my feet then finding hard ground. I crouched, then stood.

Everyone was lagging back a few seconds. They trailed behind, heads and eyes struggling to keep up.

When they finally did, though, they would have found me amongst the group, with the boy behind me.

And… there.

The group startled.

“Who the hell are you?” one of them asked. The leader? Maybe, he was tallest one here, but height didn’t necessarily denote power. And it was hard for me to gauge strength from just appearances, now.

“I’m just here to keep the peace,” I said, not offering any further. I’d let them guess.

“Cop?”

“I said keep the peace, not law enforcement. There’s a subtle difference.”

“Then fuck off, if you knew anything about this, about him, then you’d know we’re doing that all on our own. We don’t need you.”

Him. The boy on the ground.

“Something tells me you really intend to do none of those things.”

I looked at another from the group. His face, his hand, his gun, and his face again. I made it clear that I saw it, and that I knew what, exactly, I was here to stop.

I turned my head, slight, so the boy knew I was talking to him, now.

“Nathan.”

“Huh?” He sounded confused. Expected.

“Hey! How do you know him!”

“You can go. Don’t worry about these guys. They won’t be bothering you, anymore.”

It was as if my words only served to confuse him more. He rubbed his chin with his sleeve, and something fell out of a pocket of his jacket. Spray paint.

Being a place for kids to hang out, almost every square inch of cement was tagged or graffitied in some way. I could make out some of the designs and signatures, despite how it all mixed and clashed together. A crown, and a clouds with lightning bolts jutting out.

We’ll need our own tag, too.

No use, Nathan wasn’t moving. He’d probably be better off if I got rid of the group.

I turned back to them.

“Can’t have you kids causing trouble at a time like this, or any time, for that matter. It makes it harder for us, and that makes it harder for everyone. Don’t make this hard for us.”

“Oh, I know who you are,” the tall boy said.

“Do you?”

“You’re with those fucks that took over Krown and his brother!”

The overall feeling of the group changed in that instant. Or rather, it changed back. From anger at the boy, to confusion at me. Now, anger had snapped back in, but it was pointed in a different direction.

Me.

“And what of it?” I asked, admitting my affiliation with that question.

“You vultures, all you did was take advantage of Krown and EZ being taken out of the picture. And now you think you can boss the rest of us around? Fuck you.”

“EZ and Krown took themselves out, they were never going to stick around for much longer. They couldn’t see past whatever grudge they had between them, and they paid for that lack of foresight.”

“I saw,” the tall boy said, his eyes wide. “I was there. That night. It was dark, and it went even darker, everyone started screaming and running as we were all attacked-”

His voice cracked, and he stopped there. The reactions of the others, the way they gave him sidelong glances, suggested this was a story they’d heard before. Or maybe they had been there, themselves.

Weakness, then anger, begging for an outlet. They wanted something, or someone to take the blame on. They couldn’t go against us, not directly, and they wouldn’t even dare try to go against whoever intruded upon that night. The night he was there.

What, then, could they do?

Their surroundings. People, places, things. Tag more street corners to take back what they thought was theirs, wear colors to show that they didn’t accept the new changes. Beat up others who might have, even inadvertently, nudged things along to where it was now. Like using a specific tag that would have pissed off the other side, and, among other growing incidents, forced a confrontation between the two gangs.

Lash out, hoping that they could carve out a semblance of what they knew before. But the world didn’t work like that.

“So what?” I asked.

They stared at me like I was crazy. Especially the tall one.

“So what?” he repeated.

“Krown, or even his brother? Their reign was never going to last long. They weren’t strong enough. If they were, they would have survived this. They wouldn’t have let it get to this point. And now they’re gone. You shouldn’t mourn something that was never meant to be.”

The tall boy growled, and there was movement. A step forward, an arm stretched out, grabbing for something in another boy’s hand-

“You fire that gun, you’re only proving my point,” I said, raising my hands.

The tall boy had the gun now, lifted at an angle. Not at me. If he fired it now, he’d hit the ground, close to my feet.

I kept talking to keep his attention on me, and not that. I did what I could to suppress my own fear, my own weakness.

I took a second to regain my voice. My composure.

“If you’re angry, don’t direct it at someone else. Don’t shift the blame. Be angry at yourself. Your own weakness.”

He dropped his shoulders, deflating, as if I struck a nerve. Touched something raw.

There. Drive into it. Press harder.

I shifted my position, so my face was more to the sun. The glare hit the lenses of my glasses.

Close your eyes.

I closed my eyes.

“Hate it, recognize it, but learn from it. And don’t make the same mistakes as those who failed before you. Pick up the pieces, and grow. Fire that gun, here, now, you’re going to have this park officially shut down, once police and other ordinance remember that this place still exists. And it’s all you have, here, isn’t it? Do that, and now you’ll have people coming after you like you’re coming after Nathan. Don’t fuck it up for everyone else, and don’t make it harder for us.”

I watched, close, as his gun went back to his side. My fear gave way to relief.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Slow, hushed, he said, “Noah.”

“Noah,” I said. “We’re actually trying to build something, here, in this neighborhood. We, unlike Krown and his brother, want to see things improve. And not just here, but everywhere we expand into. It’s going to take time, and it’s not going to be easy, but it is going to get better. That, I can promise you.”

I thought about Fillmore’s words. I had promised him something, once, too.

“Why?” was all Noah could ask, through gritted teeth.

I answered him.

“Heroes aren’t real, but people can try. And it looks like no one has given an honest effort in a long, long time.”

The truth, insofar as he was concerned.

Noah’s response was without words, yet it was the most telling. He turned, walking away, parting the group that he was with. As he passed, they filled in the gaps again, leaving with him, leaving the park.

As they left, so did everyone’s attention on the scene. Skaters and bikers dispersed, going back to what they were doing before we had showed up.

I waited, and waited, until Noah and his crew were out of sight.

They were, and I fell forward, bending down, hands on my knees. I opened up my eyes.

“Shit, shit…”

I couldn’t help but smile.

I felt an odd sense of accomplishment, having been able to put an end to the situation without resorting to violence, or without anyone getting hurt. Diplomacy. I managed to pull it off.

All on my own.

Looking up, I noticed D peeking at me, from behind one of the steel beams I had scaled to distract them.

I motioned by moving my head, and she walked to me.

“I was waiting for your signal,” D said. “I thought you were going to get them to fight you, and I’d have all their shoelaces tied to each other, or something. Or anything, at least. Now I’m sad.”

She exaggerated a frown to illustrate her point.

You could have done that? I thought, but it was in passing.

“Not everything is about fighting, like how not everything is a game. I managed to talk them down from beating up on Nathan.”

“You did? What’d you say?”

I fixed my stance again, straight. I cracked a knuckle.

“A lot of it was from what Fillmore said the other day. Wickedness or weakness.”

“Oh yeah? I didn’t think you would still be ruminating on it.”

“I’m not, not really. Just food for thought… I guess. Anyways, they bought it, and they’re gone now, so… oh.”

I followed D’s eyes. She was looking somewhere else. I turned.

Nathan was still here.

Standing, now, but he was hunched over, can of paint in his hands. Eyes going this way and that way. Still in shock.

“They were going to, they were…” he stammered. He coughed, and he stopped.

“It’s okay,” I told him. “They shouldn’t bother you anymore. And if they do, I’ll make sure they regret it.”

“I told them, I told them it wasn’t my fault. They were… going to make me tag everything, everywhere, and then they were going to kill me after that.”

“We’ll see to it that it doesn’t happen.”

“Yes yes,” D said, smiling, flashing him a sign. ‘V’ for victory.

He drew in a deep breath, and let it out, audible. He sounded hoarse.

“They were going to kill me, they were going to-”

“Hey,” I said. I would have walked up to him, but he was already tense as it was. Couldn’t agitate him more.

He faced me.

“You’re a tough kid, standing up for yourself like that.”

“I fell,” he said, as if I had somehow forgotten.

“Okay,” I said. “You’re a tough kid, standing up for yourself like that. You were an initiate, weren’t you?”

He gave me a look. Curious. “I was. Now, I’m… Now I’m nothing.”

“Still need a job?”

His look maintained.

I put my hands up. “Nothing crazy. I’m just asking if you’re up for it.”

“Well, what?”

“One thing any group or organization needs is proper branding. That includes logos, slogans, mascots, and in our world, tags. We’re in a good spot, right now, but we’re still missing some important, key elements. I’ll try to come up with some designs in the coming days. I’ll run it by you once it’s all official. Then, you’re free to use it, spread it around. Teach your friends.”

“You want me to tag everything, everywhere? That’s the same thing they were trying to make me do.”

I had taken account of how hypocritical my suggestion sounded.

“I’m not threatening you,” I said. “I’m offering you work. Paid work. Services, too. Like protection, just in case. It’s the literal opposite of what Noah was going to do to you.”

The look on his face suggested that he was considering it.

“Alright, I’m in.”

“Good. We’ll sort it out the next time we meet. Say, this time, here, next week?”

Nathan nodded.

“And I’ll give you back your other cans then, too,” D said. “You should really keep an eye on your belongings.”

“Wait, what?”

“Oops, bye Nathan!”

D ran off first, and I had to catch up with her. Nathan could have followed, but he was too shaken up to gather up the energy.

Settling into a more relaxed pace, we left Wellport, the park behind us, and I was still riding the satisfaction of pulling off diplomacy.

“Oh, Lawrence texted in the group chat, by the way. He wants to meet.”

“Now?” I asked. “That was… fast. I hope that means it went well.”

“Don’t know. Didn’t say.”

“Alright, that’s fine,” I said. We went back across the street, heading to the van. Enthusiasm carried my steps. “Day’s still young, let’s keep ourselves busy.”

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3 thoughts on “072 – Diligence/Distraction

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