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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Joyride

Anna Banks

Square Fish

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One



Mr. Shackleford shuffles in the front door of the Breeze Mart, jingling the bells tied to a velvet string on the handle.

Please don't die on my shift.

Please don't die on my shift.

Please don't die on my shift.

He's one of my regulars-maybe even the regular-and one of the only customers to come in past 1:00 a.m., which is why I wait to sweep and mop until after he leaves. I glance at the clock; 1:37 a.m.

Right on time.

The other reason I wait to mop is because Mr. Shackleford is the human version of stale bread. He's moldy-seventy years old with a white flaky exterior, crusty around the edges, especially in the eyes where the cataracts congregate. On the inside, slow chemical reactions decompose what's left of something that used to be soft and pliable and probably pleasant (I say probably because where old people usually have frown lines, Mr. Shackleford has smile lines). The only thing that keeps him alive is the alcohol, due to what I imagine is a pickling effect. And due to the alcohol, he sometimes mistakes aisle four for the men's bathroom.

As he passes the front register where I've got my calculus splayed, he gives me a slight nod, which tells me he's fairly lucid-and the odds of him peeing near the beef jerky are slim tonight. He doesn't even fidget with the zipper of his camouflage pants, which is usually the first sign that I should direct him to the bathroom immediately.

I hear him scuffle down the last aisle and back again; this time the sound of a sloshing fifth of vodka accompanies him. I try to clear my books before he gets to the counter but I'm too late; he sets the bottle on my scrap sheet of graph paper, magnifying the graph lines I drew ten seconds before.

"Evenin', Carly," he says. I know he's been drinking, I can smell it, but his words aren't slurry yet. He appraises the books and papers in front of me. "Math. That's good. Math'll take you a long way in life."

He's gearing up for the Question of the Night, I can tell. No matter what stage of inebriation he's in, he goes all philosophical on me before he pays for the vodka. I know he thinks I fail at the answers, but that's okay. I live in the real world, not in an alcohol-induced euphoria. Last night, the question was "Is it better to be sick and wealthy, or healthy and poor?" Of course, I had to clarify a few things, like how sick and how wealthy and how poor. Very sick, very wealthy, very poor, he'd said.

So I announced that it would be best to be very sick and very wealthy. That way you could afford the best health care imaginable, and if you died, you could leave your loved ones something besides broken hearts and a funeral bill. In this country, to rise above healthy and poor is just an ideal. An ideal that most poor people don't have time to contemplate because they're too busy trying to put food on the table or keeping the lights turned on.

Like me and my brother, Julio.

Yes, it sounds like a pessimistic outlook on life blah, blah, blah. But pessimism and reality are usually mistaken for each other. And the realists are usually the only ones who recognize that.

Mr. Shackleford thumbs through his dirty camouflage wallet-which is always full of hundred dollar bills-and pulls out a twenty, probably the only one he keeps in that fat thing. I give him change, the same change every night, and he pockets the bills but leaves the seven cents in the got-a-penny tray in front of the register. I put his new bottle in a brown paper bag and gear up for the Question.

He tucks his purchase under his arm. "Is it possible to be truly happy without ever having been truly poor?"

I roll my eyes. "It's not only possible, Mr. Shackleford. It's more likely." Okay, so I like these debates we have. Mr. Shackleford is easy to talk to. He's not judgmental; I don't think he's racist either. Most people don't even say anything when they check out at my register. I know I look Mexican through and through-not even mixed Mexican-just straight-up Mexican, fresh from the border. But that's where they're wrong. I'm not straight from the border. I was born right here in Houghlin County, Florida.

I am an American. And so is Julio.

Mr. Shackleford has never treated me like anything but. He acts like I'm his peer, which is both a little weird and a little cool, that I could be a rich old guy's sixteen-year-old peer.

Mr. Shackelford purses his lips. "Money can't buy happiness." This is the root of all our discussions, and his usual comeback.

I shrug. "Being poor never delighted anyone."

He chuckles. "Simplicity has its merits."

"Being poor isn't the same thing as being simple." And surely he knows how hypocritical it sounds, coming from him. After all, he's about to hoist himself into his brand-new colossal pickup truck and drive away to his family's plantation house. He'll probably watch some TV before drifting off into his nightly vodka coma. Sounds like the definition of simplicity to me.

But he sure as heck isn't poor.

Besides that, things can get real complex when you're just poor enough to have to choose which utility bill to pay and which one to let go. When you can't send enough money along to your family without missing a few meals yourself. When school makes you buy a calculator that costs one hundred something dollars just to take a calculus class-and if you don't take the calculus class you don't qualify for the scholarship you've been working for since Day One.

Being poor isn't simple.

"How is it complicated?" he presses. He counts to three with his fingers. "Work. Eat. Sleep. The poor have time for little else. There is a kind of peacefulness in that simplicity. A peacefulness that the wealthy will never know. Why? Because of the drama, Miss Vega. Higher taxes. More ex-wives. A cornucopia of lawsuits. Lengthy, tortuous family vacations with stepfamilies of stepfamilies. Slavery to hideous fashion trends-"

The list continues to escalate in ridiculousness. Not to mention, I doubt Mr. Shackleford has ever found himself the victim of a fashion trend. In fact, it doesn't look like he's even acknowledged fashion since somewhere in the vicinity of 1972-and the extent of that acknowledgment appears to cover what was hot among rednecks back in the era of starched flannel.

"Surely this exhaustive list of rich-people issues has a point," I cut him off, unimpressed.

He grins. "I haven't heard your counterargument, Miss Vega." He pulls the package from his armpit and slides the paper bag off the bottle. Fixing his eyes on the cap, he slowly unscrews it. "I require of you a list to match my own. Prove that a poor person's life is so terrible." He takes a swig and waits for my answer.

And suddenly I don't want to talk about this anymore.

I know Mr. Shackleford is wealthy. Everyone does. And he knows that I'm not working the graveyard shift at a gas station because my family uses hundred dollar bills for toilet paper. This conversation has become personal. Hasn't it? I mean, his list is full of things that everyone already knows about the lives of the rich and famous. All the drama they create. It's public knowledge.

But the poor people list? That's a different story. The media rarely covers the glamorous life of poverty. It's this hidden gem of truth that only the impoverished get to polish. For the list to be genuine, it can only be created from firsthand experience.

So Mr. Shackleford isn't asking what I know about poor people. He's asking me about me. He's asking how bad my circumstances are. Mine, personally. At least that's what it feels like. And I don't like it. Before, it felt as though we were equals in these conversations. I doubt it will ever feel that way again. Have they been personal all along? Have they all been an attempt to ... what, exactly? Get me to admit I'm poor?

Or am I being weird?

I just hope he doesn't want to make me his charity case or something. I could never take anything from him. How do you explain to someone that you were born with the need for self-sufficiency? And anyway, Mr. Shackleford should recognize this.

Just ask him if he wants help getting to his truck. Nooooooope.

"I have to get back to work," I say.

A glint of disappointment passes through his eyes, a reaction slowed by the liquor swimming in him. I've never spurned the Question of the Night before.

"Of course." With shaky hands, he finagles the cap back on the bottle and lowers it into the now-crinkled brown bag. "Some other time then."

No other time, I want to say. Anything theoretical, but nothing personal. Instead I take the bag and twist the top of it for him, as if doing so will keep the bottle from falling out or something.

"Thanks." He taps his fingers sloppily on the counter. I think he's going to say something else, and I'm gearing up to cut him off, but after a few seconds he says, "You have yourself a good night, Miss Vega."

"You too, Mr. Shackleford."

The jingle bells at the front door knock against each other violently when he leaves. I watch as he one-handedly fumbles in his pocket for his truck keys. I vacillate between going outside to help him or picking up where I left off with my calculus. Going outside might mean getting him out of here quicker, or it might mean another attempt at conversation suddenly gone awkward.

Calculus wins.

After about two minutes of not hearing the engine to Mr. Shackleford's truck roar to life, I glance up. And I wish I hadn't. But some things can't be unseen.

I swallow my heart as I take in the sight of Mr. Shackleford pressed against the side of his truck. His hands are in the air, shaking almost as badly as his knees, which lean in against each other in a need-a-restroom sort of way. The man pointing a rifle in his face is tall-or maybe the cowboy hat he's wearing is meant to make him appear that way. He's wearing an old blue T-shirt like a bandana around his face, nose to neck. I can't even see the guy's ears. Whatever he's saying to Mr. Shackelford, he must be whispering; I haven't heard a word of exchange yet. All I can see is the bandana moving-and Mr. Shackleford's corresponding responses-to the synchronization of a very serious conversation. And Mr. Shackleford's mouth quivers as he talks.

He could have a heart attack right here in front of the store.

On my shift.

The good news is, I'm short. I could easily reach the store shotgun just by lowering my arms behind the counter.

The bad news is, I don't know how to shoot a gun, and the chances of me taking aim before getting myself shot first are slim to none. Plus, I've never been robbed before.

Not that I'm being robbed just yet. In fact, the robber doesn't seem to be interested in me at all. I either pose no threat or he knows that Mr. Shackleford's wallet holds more money than my register does. I decide that this guy is either the world's stupidest criminal for turning his back on me, or I'm the world's dumbest clerk for not running out the back door and calling the cops. It's just that taking the time to run, to call the cops-that's time better spent on helping Mr. Shackelford now. Oh God.

Don't be a hero.

But I'm not being a hero. I'm just being a human.

I snatch up the shotgun and slide over the counter with it, which sends my homework sprawling to the floor with a thud. I almost bust my butt by slipping on one of the stray pieces of paper and I let out a pathetic little scream.

The robber whips his attention my way and that makeshift bandana hides everything but the surprise in his eyes as he takes in the sight of me: a five-foot-four-inch mess pointing the shaky barrel of a gun at him, hoping my finger is on the trigger-and at the same time, hoping it's not.

My legs involuntarily run toward the door, bursting through it, making the jingle bells angry. I'm not graceful, either, like in the movies when an organized SWAT team busts in on a hostage situation. I'm all elbows and knees, running like an ostrich in boots and coordinated as a dazed fly that just got swatted. Oh, but that doesn't stop me. "Get down on the ground," I yell, surprised that my voice doesn't tremble as much as my insides do. "Or I'll blow a hole in your ... I'll shoot you!"

Since I obviously can't decide which part of him sounds the scariest to shoot a hole through, I go for directness. Directness is my specialty, anyway.

"Now, listen here," the guy says, and I swear I've heard that voice before. I scrutinize the eyes widening just over the rim of the bandana but I can't tell what color they are because of the blue fluorescent beer sign in the window right behind us. And there's no way I can form a face out of his hidden features. "Take it easy," he says calmly, as if I'm the one who's cornering a helpless old man against a truck. "I'm not here to hurt you. This is between me and him."

To my surprise and terror, I take a step forward. "I said get down. Now."

Wow, I'm going to die. What if this guy is allergic to bluffing? What if he makes me pull the trigger? I don't even know if the gun's safety is on. Dios mio, I don't even know if the gun has a safety.

The robber considers for several terrifying seconds, then raises his gun at my head, takes three intimidating steps toward me. I back away, hating myself for being a coward. I stop myself before I hit the glass door of the store. Cowardice has a threshold, I guess.

"Here's how it's going to go," he says gruffly. "You're going to leave the gun right there and go back in the store and stand over there by the chips so I can see you." He motions with the end of the gun.

"No."

This elicits a huff from beneath the bandana. "Unbelievable."

"You leave your gun here." If he thinks it's a good idea, then I do too. Still, I'm not sure what I'll do if he actually does put his gun down. Secure him with plastic zip ties from the boxes of candy bars that need to be stocked?

"You're a crazy little thing. Do you have a death wish or something?"

Oh God. He truly seems interested in the answer. "I ... I don't want you to hurt Mr. Shackleford."

Rolling his eyes, he says, "Well, put the gun down and I won't."

I want to put the gun down. I do. I want to cooperate. I want to live. But this gun is my only leverage. "No." Did I say no? Did I just say no?

"Fine. Keep the gun. New plan." He uses the back of his hand to wipe some sweat off his forehead. "I'm going to leave. And you're going to let me."

"I'm calling the cops."

"Jesus, who are you? Look, you don't know how to shoot a gun, I can tell. And besides that, I definitely do know how to shoot a gun, so I have the advantage. If you fire at me, I'll shoot back. Understand?" When I hesitate, he adds, "When I start shooting, I'm aiming at the old man first."

"No!" I blurt. "Don't shoot him."

He nods. "I won't. As long as you let me back out of here. Just like this." He takes two steps backward, never dropping the gun.

"But you haven't robbed us yet," I say. Out loud. Idiota.

"Are you freaking kidding me? You want me to rob you?"

I raise my chin a little. "Well ... It's just that ... What did you come here for then?"

He shakes his head, then backs away more toward the end of Mr. Shackleford's truck, never lowering his gun. "You're crazy as a raccoon in daylight, you know that?"

I am crazy. He's right. "You should remember that, if you ever come back here again."

At this he runs, turning his back to me. Sprinting away, he pivots sharply and heads toward the side of the store. It takes me a second to realize what he's doing. Within a few breaths he emerges from the shadows pedaling my bike as if an angry boar were chasing him. The wheels wobble as he struggles to balance it, one hand gripping his gun and the other on the handle.

My.

Bike.

Right now I have the perfect shot. If I knew how to shoot a gun. And if the safety wasn't on. If it has a safety.

I take aim anyway, cradling the butt of the gun in my shoulder like some kind of hunter, and fantasize about blowing out the back tire of my bike. About this guy face-planting on the asphalt. About that stupid cowboy hat taking flight like a startled bird.

But his silhouette disappears into the night. And the moment is over.

I let out a huge breath and turn just in time to see Mr. Shackleford sink to the ground, wiping the truck clean of any dust with his descent. His legs spill out in front of him as he looks up at me. "You ... You saved my life," he says. His voice shakes like he's freezing.

I did save his life. I know that. I saved us both.

If Julio found out I did anything like this, he'd kill me. Heroics bring attention. Attention brings scrutiny.

And scrutiny exposes secrets.



Copyright © 2015 by Anna Banks