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I strolled aimlessly up and down the narrow aisles of the deluxe convenience store off the Parkway. I barely had any money on me, and I wasn’t hungry. I couldn’t tell if Pete being there was adding to my panic or not. On one side he was a piece of home, a piece of who I used to be, but on there another hand, having Pete on my side as I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life thus far only added to the miscalculation of all of it.
What was I doing? Besides pacing back and forth, I wasn’t sure. I considered speaking up, saying “Hey guy’s lets go back.” But instead, I walked in rhythm with my accelerated heartbeat as I waited for others to finish whatever it was they were doing. The heaviness of the missteps we were so obviously taking filled the air, suffocating me more by the second. I was confident that others were feeling it too. No one spoke as Molly drove way too fast down the parkway in the abyss of the unknown. All the windows were rolled down allowing all the harsh wind to whip into the car. In the summer going to the shore meant sitting in unmoving traffic for hours getting a sunburn before even getting to the beach. But, driving to the beach in the winter, was an effortless journey. Winter on the beach cast a whole different impression to the water touching the sand. The business of the summer was a drastic contrast to the deadness of winter. It was the difference between hope and the hopeless. Night and day needed each other to maintain balance.
I turned the corner into the candy isle. Lincoln’s army green hoodie and mess of dark brown curls were the first things I noticed—key elements that signaled to my brain that this was Lincoln. Just as I was about to say something to him, probably along the lines of wanting to go, he grabbed a handful of Snickers and shoved them in his pocket. Then he grabbed a handful of Swedish Fish and slid them under his shirt.
One thing my mother really hated was stealing, or really any version of dishonesty, but especially stealing. Once when we were grocery shopping, I was around seven or so, and I wanted a bag of cookies, but I didn’t want to ask her for them because I knew she’d yes, but I was also already well aware of the fact that we didn’t have much money. I put them under my shirt a lot like what Lincoln just did with the fish. I still remember the disappointment on her face when the bag of cookies fell from my shirt as I climbed into the car. She made me go to the store and explain to the cashier what I had done. I was mortified. On the way home from the store my mom went on and on about trust. Her words, “People who steal aren’t trustworthy, plain and simple,” circled through my head as I approached Lincoln.
“Where is everyone else?” I asked tugging on a loose part of his sweatshirt.
His shoulders arched up in surprise, but when he turned around, his face was nothing but dangerously smooth. “Who cares, I know where you are.”
I shook my head, flustered by his flirting. He was so much more experienced than me it was hard to ignore. In fact, at the moment it was yelling in my face.
“What are you shaking your head at?”
“You.” A nervous smile pulled at my mouth.
“Why is that?” His smiled faded, his shoulders taught.
“I don’t know.” My heart was still rapping around in my chest. I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t know what to do about it. “Just nervous about all of this,” I muttered trying to keep my voice from doing that embarrassing cracking thing when I’m upset—which I was. The problem was that I wasn’t able to figure out what to do about it.
Pete and Malachi strolled up the aisle. Pete wore his usual lazy grin. Malachi was anything but lighthearted; his eyes showed signs of being some place only Malachi knew about.
We were all reeling. When we first started gathering our things to put in Molly’s car, I was excited but the further we got from Paramus the worse I felt. Without planning to, my hand slid into my hoodie pocket and grabbed the camera, but instead of being creepy and weird about it I said, “All get together, I want to take a picture.” I waved my hand back and forth signaling them to get closer.
“Good step calling it out El,” Pete’s lazy smile widened. It is hard not to feel like the most important person in the world when Pete focused his blue eyes on me.
Lincoln grimaced, eyeing Pete with dark eyes.
“Are you documenting our downward spiral?” Malachi crossed his arms as he scooted closer to Pete.
“I’m fine where I am,” Lincoln grumbled.
I wished I could look into Lincoln’s mind and begin to learn how his mind worked.
“I think that’s exactly what I’m doing.” I snapped two shots, both without Lincoln smiling, as I churned the idea of doing something purposeful with pictures.
Pete nodded his head in approval.
I was doing something crazy, and I was going to document every moment. “I need one with Molly in it,” I said glancing around for her.
“There she is….and she’s stress eating…fabulous.” Malachi sighed this, hanging his shoulders in permitted defeat. He turned to me with wide, knowing eyes, “This is gonna be a shit show,” he warned before stalking over to the counter, where Molly unloaded an armful of candy, chips, and other sweets—at least she was paying for them, I thought.
“Whatcha doing?” Malachi forced an upbeat voice, but the attempt was a fail and only caused him to come across as even more stressed out.
Molly rolled her eyes and tossed her head back, “I don’t even want to hear it, Malachi.”
“Okay.” He put up his hands as if he was a soldier surrendering in a war.
“Picture!” I cut in, trying to keep my own mind off the reality of what we were doing. Never in a million years did I think I would be a runway—at least not before my mom died.
“I can do pictures!” Molly winked. She brought her right shoulder up, threw her hair to the side and gave me a full, professional model smile. Something so flawless one could only assume she spent hours practicing it. My thumb pressed the circle button two times. I glanced at the screen of her beautiful face smiling back at me.
For some reason taking those couple of pictures helped me relax, even if it was just for few minutes. There was something about taking photographs of something that made it feel substantial.
A screaming voice penetrated the speakers of Molly’s SUV as she raced down the last stretch of parkway before the exit. I sat in the back between Lincoln and Pete, which was really not that bad, but probably only because Lincoln was bruiting and quiet and Pete had his head in a notebook, and he was obsessively writing songs. Though he was playing off like going solo was something he wanted for awhile—even though that may be true—Pete was clearly spinning.
I often wondered what it felt to be driven. I wasn’t. I was completely lost and wasn’t at all sure what would make me happy, especially not forever. When my mom died, the person I was before also did, leaving behind this stranger who I was still trying to figure out.
My mom would have hated Lincoln.
“Hand me my Sour Patch Kids,” Molly barked as she snapped her fingers together.
For all the times I saw Molly pick at her food like a bird watching her binge eat everything in the overflowing paper bag one after the other was disturbing all itself. I had never seen her so high strung before. Her eyes were quick and darting revealing that there is a whole lot she wasn’t telling me. I guess Molly and Lincoln have more than a few things in common. There was something about their obviously off-the-track nature that made me feel like I belonged. Belonging anywhere felt good.
“Last call girl,” Malachi moaned, his loose wrist offered an open bag of Sour Patch Kids. Molly shoved her hand into the bag, pulled it out almost as quick then emptied the handful into her mouth.
Lincoln laid his hand on my thigh with his eyes focused on the blur of sparse trees and lines of identical houses in the distance rushing past. I reached into my pocket for my camera knocking my elbow into Pete’s writing hand.
“Sorry,” I turned surprised to find his face so close to mine. His eyes could tell a million tales of the impossible, but he only said,” No worries,” before turning back to his writing. As much as I did wonder what it was like to be so driven, it also appeared to be painful.
Once the camera was in my hands, I brought the lens to my eye. I often felt safe when there a barrier between me and everything else. My thumb clicked over and over as the night began to fall, the sky a dark gray with a blue hue. Lincoln’s curls accounted for one-third of the shot adding dimension. My thumb moved across the top of the camera as I focused in on small details of my life and not someone else’s for the first time, really ever.
“It’s our exit!” Molly cooed as she peeled off to the right, veering into the off-ramp at least thirty miles over the speed limit. She slammed down on the breaks at the stop light and shoved her hand into the bag of Sour Patch Kids simultaneously.
“Watch it, would you? Do you need me to take over?” Malachi asked.
“Lincoln, how far are we?” Molly glanced into the leopard print covered rear view mirror.
“About five minutes. We are really close to the beach.” Lincoln mumbled this out of the window. He gave my thigh a squeeze before bringing his hand back to himself. At the moment I didn’t look at Pete, but I knew somehow that his were on us.
I couldn’t shake that something was wrong, but it was manageable if I kept taking pictures. I was anxious to get out of the car, nervous about where we would be staying. There was a lot Lincoln hadn’t told us. I was just really hoping the set up wasn’t as shady as it sounded.
After driving through a quiet and dead center of town, larger and more extravagant houses began to file in around us. The smell of the ocean filled the car lifting away so much anxiety and replaced with an emotion I wasn’t sure what to call. For everything there was to complain about New Jersey, the shore was something otherworldly, something that felt worlds away from mall country.
After several quick turns, left, then right, then left again Lincoln said the house is 6775. Rex said it was yellow one with a deck.
“No,” Molly said her mouth open.
“This can’t be right,” Malachi shook his head.
“Well, ass you did it,” Pete jutted his chin forward, “you’ve impressed me. This might actually be fun.” Pete’s eye matched a child’s in a toy store. Classic Pete. Exuberant and misdirected optimism.
Molly pulled into a cobblestone driveway of a large yellow house with bay windows and a wrap around deck. The yard was immaculate. My stomach was a raw knot.
“This house is worth at least a million.” Molly shut off and climbed out of the car.
Everyone followed her lead and piled out of the truck. The elaborateness of the house only highlighted our mistake further. Whoever owned this house sold a lot more than just speakers. My mind went back through the files of conversations with Lincoln. His parents. His bouncing around. The money he owed. The fact that we could stay at the house on the condition that we sold speakers. Some very critical information, the pieces that tied it all together, were missing. As my heart rate picked up, I pulled out my camera again and started snapping shots of our new temporary home.
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