Chapter 2:

Chapter 2: Ren

Ninjutsu Saga


“F.E. Valentine High School” read the large letters on the building. Below, Ren saw a wide, heart-shaped crest adorning the wall; the same emblem found across the student’s M.E.S.H. Card at the convenience store.

“This is the place.” Ren thought, sinking her gaze even lower to watch as a swarm of hundreds trekked tiredly up the concrete steps and funneled through the school’s narrow, steel entrance. “I’m bound to find some cards in here. Now let’s see…” She paused to examine her attire. “Black hoodie, torn jeans, filthy sneakers, and stolen books. This’ll make me stand out like a sore thumb in a crowd of thousands of other sore thumbs. In other words, perfect.”

Swiftly, Ren jogged across the street and entered the sea of noisy students, navigating through them like a slippery trout on her way up the stairs. But as she reached the entrance, she froze dead in her tracks. Large, imposing figures sporting grey polos waved students down with flashing, blinking wands, scanned their IDs which they took out of their wallets, and sent their bags through conveyor belt-like contraptions.

“Ok, so there’s no way I’m getting through here, even with my best smooth talking! I’ve got no choice…”

Ren spun around and hurriedly retraced her steps. She ducked out of line and into a crowd of bushes beside the staircase where students continued to pile in. Once safely out of view, Ren held her chin.

“Maybe I’m in too deep. Maybe I should just stick to what I’m good at. Maybe-” Right at that moment, her stomach growled. Her frown transitioned to a look of sturdy resolve. “Maybe this is just the breakthrough I need. I just gotta come up with a different plan.”

Maintaining her low center of gravity, Ren tiptoed away from the staircase. With the school’s white brick wall to one side and the bushes to her other to provide cover, she neared the building’s corner where she cautiously peered around.

“No one here, it seems.” Ren whispered to herself, scanning beyond the junction. All that lay on her horizon was a concrete lot, shaded from the sun by the building’s lofty roof. Her eyes traveled from the series of tall windows lining the wall, a steel dumpster positioned conveniently beneath them, and a lying figure on the ground next to it. A stack of textbooks acted as a pillow beneath his shaggy head of blonde hair. Under one of his wide, sleeveless arms sat an empty beer bottle. Protruding visibly from one of the many pockets of his cargo shorts was a piece of paper reading “schedule”. The gears in Ren’s mind once again fell into place as a sinister smile took form.

“I don’t think you’ll mind if I take this…” She muttered, rubbing her hands together as she approached him. However, as soon as she crossed his five-foot radius, both hands leapt to cover her mouth. Her brow scrunched over her eyes.

“Ugh! That smell!” She gagged. “He can’t honestly think all that cologne smells good!”

She removed one hand from her mouth and as if approaching a pile of toxic waste, holding her head back to avoid the noxious fumes as long as possible, Ren shuffled toward him. At last, she snatched the paper hanging from his pocket and pulled it free.

Immediately, she jumped onto the dumpster, sprung off its lid through the hollow frames and landed clumsily onto the linoleum floors within. Ren allowed herself to take a gasp of clean, odorless air while scanning her new surroundings.

Rows of steel lockers lined her on either side of the long corridor, stickers peeling off their iron surface. Opaque, black windows were bolted into the occasional wooden doors.

“This must be the inside of a high school. Or at least some part of it.”

Suddenly, Ren’s eardrums were pierced by a shrill ring. Her joints froze in shock. Then, hardly a moment before she could comprehend the sound she’d just heard, the oak doors swung open and gushing out of them came more people than Ren had ever seen in her entire life. It only took three seconds for the sea of hurrying students to swallow her whole. As it swept over her, the sound of wet sneakers against laminate flooring, the clamor of lockers slamming, and the endless voices coursed through the hall like lightning.

Without warning, Ren was clotheslined by several people all moving toward her at once, causing her to fall over and spill her contraband across the ground. Brightly colored sneakers and socks danced across Ren’s vision like a kaleidoscope through dirty glass. She squinted, preparing for the cold, bitter end in whatever form that took.

That same ring echoed through the hall once again. And just like that, the bodies quickly filtered back into the many wooden doors. It had gone from rush hour highway to a ghost town in what felt like five seconds flat. Ren sat up slowly and looked around to be sure she truly was alone. And once she was, she released her breath and wiped the sweat from her brow.

Ren looked back to find her books exactly where she had left them: scattered across the floor. Sighing, she stood up and bent down to sweep them into her arms.

Not after very long, a bout of laughter reached her ears. From the corner of her eyes, Ren spied a squad of three students stroll leisurely down the hall. Their arms swung with confidence with each stride. Their jovial voices sent nervous, embarrassed chills down her spine. Ren fixed her focus onto the floor, slowing her movements in a bid to remain inconspicuous.

“Please… please just don’t notice me…”

But as they neared her, the boy in the center of the group paused. Ren clenched her teeth.

“Oh no…”

“Hey, I’ll catch up to you guys later, kay?” She heard him murmur behind his back.

“Sure, later.” Replied one of his friends.

“Whatever.” Scoffed the other.

As they walked off, the remaining boy faced Ren, who continued to hunch over and collect her books. Feeling his eyes land against her turned back, her pace picked up. Her cheeks burned.

“Hey.”

Her breath snagged in her throat. She shifted her gaze up to the figure looming over her. There, she spied a cocky yet strangely sympathetic expression across his tan, scruffy face. However, what she really couldn’t pull her eyes away from was a dim, narrow scar. It ran from the crest of his forehead to the bridge of his nose before taking a sharp left turn and continuing down to the bottom of his sharp jawline.

“Yes?” Ren answered weakly.

“Need any help with those?” He asked, bending over and reaching toward the pile of books.

“Uhh,” Ren straightened out her posture. “Sure?”

The boy nodded and proceeded to gather Ren’s things. “You know, I’ve seen a lot of faces around here, but not yours, sadly.”

“I dunno.” Ren replied, trying her best to sound natural. “Maybe we just haven’t crossed paths.”

“Maybe not. But if there’s one thing I love, it’s meeting new people!” He faced Ren again, flashing his pearly teeth in a wide, friendly grin. His green eyes glowed playfully. “My name’s Diego. Diego Garcia.” He stuck out his hand.

“Ren.” She took his hand and accepted a firm, confident shake.

“Oops, almost forgot about your books.” He peered back down and continued. “Wow, King Lear? Shogun? Impressive stuff. What year are you anyway?”

“I’m fourteen.”

Diego snickered. “No, like freshman, sophomore… but I guess since you’re fourteen, that’d make you a freshman.”

An internal sigh of relief swept through Ren’s consciousness. She peered about the empty corridor. “Hey, thanks for helping me and everything, but aren’t you gonna be late to your class?”

“Not when you’re with me! C’mon, I’ll take you to your class and you tell ‘em you came with me. They’ll understand.”

“Thanks.” Ren said, feeling a genuine smile reach across her face. As Diego collected the last of her books and they started to walk, Ren opened the paper schedule that she took from the boy outside and scanned it quickly. “Says here my first class is in the west gym. Can you tell me where that is?”

Diego snapped his fingers. “Ah, you must be a transfer student. That’s why we haven’t met. And of course I’ll show you where it is. While I’m at it, I can tell you where the rest of your rooms are too.”

“Well, it looks like I got geometry, advanced literature, and introduction to business.” She recited off the crumpled paper.

“Looks like you’ve got a lot of knowledge under your belt already, especially with intro to business. How about clubs? In any of those?” He stepped in front of Ren as they turned a corner. As he did, she scanned his pockets to see if his student ID was visible. However, to her disappointment, his sweatpants lacked pockets altogether.

“Nope, still settling in here. You?”

“Karate club, Judo club, Kung-Fu club, and chess club.” Ren glanced up at him and hiked a surprised brow.

“That’s a lot of self-defense…” Ren remarked. “Is that where you got your scar?”

“Nah, that’s from chess club. You’d be surprised how competitive it gets.”

“So I was wondering, how do you get those M.E.S.H. Cards?” Ren finally worked up the courage to ask. “They forgot to hand mine out when I registered.”

“You’re kinda S.O.L. with or without it. The only reason I don’t keep mine on me is that seniors can go off the property for lunch. Ever tried the teriyaki nugget sauce from McBurger’s?”

Ren rubbed the back of her neck. “I’ll have to try it one day…”

“Well, here it is, right?” Diego paused outside a set of steel doors.

“I believe that’s what it says on the paper.”

“Great! Well, it was cool meeting you, Ren. See you at lunch. I won’t go off campus so I can continue with the grand tour.” Diego smirked one last time in Ren’s direction as he started off down the hallway.

“Hey, Diego!” She called after him. He turned around and found her once again with his lively, green eyes. There, he watched a wide smile occupy Ren’s face. “Thanks for all your help.”

“Anything for a friend!”

Ren peered at the door in front of her for a few moments, then back down the hallway toward Diego, wishing to get one last word of advice before she entered. What she found, however, made Ren scrub her fists against her squinted eyelids as if to scratch away her disbelief.

“I must’ve inhaled too much of that funny-smelling steam from the McBurger’s chimney because one thing’s for sure:” She peeled open her eyes and shot her gaze down the utterly deserted hallway, occupied only by lockers and drinking fountains. “No one can just vanish into thin air like that.” She quickly rattled her head from side to side and sighed. “Unless he went into another classroom. Pull yourself together, Ren…”

~~~

As soon as she emerged from the girl’s locker room in her “borrowed” uniform, Ren found one thing plainly obvious by the way everyone lingered about the capacious space. Within the lofty chamber, lined with basketball hoops hanging from the ceiling and blue mats stacked against the wall, everyone gathered into tight squads.

“Great. Everyone has their cliques and I fit into precisely none of them. But I can’t lose steam now.” Ren’s fists clenched firmly at her sides. “This isn’t the time or place for friends. There’s only one reason I’m here and we all know what that is: to get as many M.E.S.H. Cards as possible and get out before anyone can suspect a thing. And what better place to start than right here?”

As Ren’s eyes scoped out the scene, one target seemed to stand out in particular to her. Among the cliques of conversing friends, there stood one boy apart from the rest. His eyes lingered blankly at a neon-green tennis ball caught in the ceiling rafters.

“He’s distracted and there’s an open spot next to him. This almost seems too perfect.”

As Ren approached the boy, she had time to examine his appearance, starting with his awkward slouch. She could tell he had trouble fitting his tall, lanky body inside of his gym uniform. His arms barely occupied the space inside Ren’s gym tee, let alone his XXL uniform. Long dreadlocks dangled a full meter over Ren’s head at the least. Despite his gargantuan height, his shoulders were narrow and sloped and his build overall was slender. His calm posture matched his subdued aura.

Before joining him, Ren looked left and right to ensure one last time that nobody’s spied her. Then, she reached into his pocket and as carefully as she could, wrapped her fingers around the laminated tag.

“Fantástico! My first one!” Ren grinned. She tucked his M.E.S.H. Card into her pocket and before anybody could accuse her of anything, lifted her foot to start in the opposite direction.

But before her sneaker landed, the boy’s nudged her lightly with his shoulder. Sweat formed across her brow. Her nails dug into her palms. Ren’s back muscles went taut as she prepared to face the consequences.

“Oh, crap…”

Instead, the boy gave a short chuckle. His gaze continued to fix on the ceiling. “Hey, mate, what did one orphan say to the other?”

An English accent twinged his baritone. Needless to say, it wasn’t the first voice Ren expected to come out of him.

“Huh?”

The boy turned to face her and gave a defeated sigh. “Sorry, I’m not that good at first impressions. Just thought since I’d never seen you before, I’d make your acquaintance. You’re one of the only people to stand next to me in gym anyway.” The boy lifted his cheeks to show Ren a half-hearted smile. “The name’s PJ.”

“Ren.” She murmured.

“Ren, huh? Well I’m pleased to meet you.” His smile widened to an innocent grin as PJ offered out his hand. Ren accepted and gave it a firm shake.

“Isn’t this familiar? Not an hour in and I’ve already met two people. So much for being subtle I guess…”

The doors to the gymnasium swung open with a start. Everyone lingering about the room snapped their postures straight, including PJ. In through those doors marched a robust fellow sporting a jogging uniform that appeared to be sewn from parachute fabric. Thin strands of hair bridged across his bald dome, though a full, trapezoidal mustache sat beneath his bulbous nose. A particular odor began to infect the air, as if his pores emanated nacho cheese. Underneath his pits, hosting wide, dark crescent-shaped stains, he toted a red, rubber inflatable ball.

“Line up!”

Like clockwork, every student present scrambled to stand on the red line of tape bisecting the floor. Ren rushed to join PJ by his side. Along the row of students, the teacher proceeded to pace up and down. His jowls quivered as he cleared his throat.

“Dodgeball is one of the most primitive and violent sports of all time. It was invented long ago by old wizards you’ve never heard of in some far-off country you can’t pronounce. There are two teams. You get hit, you're out.”

“What if we catch the ball?” PJ raised his hand. “Doesn’t that other guy gets out?”

Without warning, the teacher lobbed the dodgeball straight at PJ. It proceeded to bounce right off his face with a sharp ping before landing in his hand once more. Ren watched PJ groan in pain beside her, tenderly cupping his sore face.

“Questions? No? Excellent. Divide into teams.”

In less than a minute, the crowd split into two parts. PJ stood next to Ren on the same half, watching her fold her arms as an angry vein pulsed visibly on her temple.

“I accept being picked last…” Ren muttered under her breath. “I accept our team losing the coin flip. No biggie. But why the hell does that mean we’ve gotta be team skins?”

PJ looked at his own shirtless torso and then at the rest of their teammates going half-frontal.

“Look at it this way, I guess.” He said. “At least it’s better for the girls.”

“I suppose you’re right…” Ren sighed, uncrossing her arms and letting them hang at her sides. “If you don’t mind converting your shirt into a crop top…” She looked down, watching her stomach try to escape over the elastic waistband of her shorts. “I don’t even get it. If we’re on different sides of the gym, why do we have to differentiate between teams? We should know what sides we’re on because, you know, we’re on different sides!

“Hm, yeah, that is a good point.” PJ pinched his chin. “Hey, teach! If we’re on different sides of the gym then who does-”

He was interrupted by another rubber dodgeball to the face. Once again, it bounced away before landing in the hand of the teacher, lounging off on the sidelines. “Quiet. Game’s about to start.”

As PJ massaged his brow again, he leaned forward, bringing himself closer toward Ren. “The answer to my joke, by the way, was ‘Robin, get in the Batmobile.’ I wanted you to hear it in case you don’t make it.” He whispered.

“W-wait,” She blurted. “What does that mean?”

She would soon come to know what it meant as soon as the teacher pursed his lips around the whistle and blew. A tweet split the atmosphere, commencing the match.

Immediately, Ren counted fifteen concussive rubber surfaces smack against her face with the speed of locomotives. The teacher didn’t even bother to whistle her out.

In between cowering in the corners and counting the stars exploding across her vision, Ren watched PJ maneuver past each ball with relative ease. That was until he stepped on top of one stray ball, sending his body flying backward one way and the ball careening in the opposite direction. After his back went splat against the laminated hardwood flooring, he attempted to lift himself up. However, that was when the ball that he inadvertently kicked away came ricocheting off the wall and into his own face.

“Now I see what he meant…” Ren thought, right as a ball crashed against her right cheek. Spit flew from the corner of her mouth. “Fantástico…”

~~~

Ren’s sneakers dragged across the linoleum floor. Traversing through the hallways at a trudge, her head sagged low. Her hair shimmered in the fluorescents beating down on her as it dripped with water. Memories played through her eyes of standing in the locker room’s shower, long after hearing the dismissal bell ring. Instead, she stood and watched as water dripped from the tip of her nose, ending in a long, sharp point, to splash against the drain. The same soreness that lingered in her body then continued to pervade her system. An all but pleased scowl creased the corners of her lips.

“Just what lengths am I gonna have to endure for a decent meal? So far, I’ve blown my cover to two people, took a barrage of balls straight to the face, and for what? One card? Gimme a break. If I don’t collect enough and just use one, people are gonna catch on!”

As Ren closed in on the entrance to the overcrowded cafeteria, she felt a casual tap on her shoulder. She turned around to see who it was, imagining either Diego’s glistening eyes or PJ’s oddly comforting presence.

Instead, a fist plowed into Ren’s face so hard, she flew a full inch off the ground and onto her back. The sparse crowds amidst the hallway quickly spread out, forming a wide ring just shy of the cafeteria’s entrance. Excited, encouraging hollers sang through the air.

“Hola, Ren! Fancy seeing your punkass here.” A deep, sassy voice boomed.

Ren’s hands absently drifted away from her face, revealing her terrified expression. Her eyes crawled open. “No… don’t tell me…”

A large shadow descended over her. Crawling up her gaze, Ren spied the figure looming above; the one who had thrown the meteoric punch. Veins puckered across her beefy, crossed arms. Her bloodthirsty grin lifted her chubby cheeks up to her squinted eyes.

“Fantástico…” Ren muttered. “Fancy seeing you here, Missy.” She put on her most convincing grin.

Missy reached down with those tree trunk arms and toted Ren up by the collar of her hoodie. She didn’t stop until her mouth lingered five inches away from the bridge of her nose.

“On your way to lunch, huh?” She snarled. “That’s nice. I was gonna head out and buy something from the store, but you and I both know I can’t do that without my money, chiquita.”

“Hey, let’s be reasonable…” Ren gulped. “You said I was good until Friday. I’ll have it by then, I just need a little more time.”

“Yeah, well what else did I say?” Her grip tightened. “I didn’t want to see your dirty, smug face until you could pay me back.” She held Ren up to her left eye. “And I can see you pretty well right now. So you better cough up my cash or so help me, I will-”

“You’ll do what, Martinez?” Blared a distant, British voice. Missy and Ren both peered to the right, just in time to witness PJ crash through the walls of students to enter the circle. He boasted a frightening air of fury. “You’ll eat her? Wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Oh-ho-ho, so this dog belongs to you? Should’ve known.” Missy barked at him. “She’s your type, alright. Filthy and low-maintenance. A match made in heaven!”

“I don’t know her and frankly, I don’t care.” He grunted. “Now, to me, it seemed like you two had a deal going. All I’m suggesting is that you hold up your fat end of it, as hard as that may be. Otherwise, I might just have to intervene if you catch my drift.” He clenched his fists, the joints in his fingers audibly cracking.

“You wouldn’t dare hit a lady.” The aggression in Missy’s tone retreated as she began holding Ren lower.

“And ladies stick true to their deal. So what’s it gonna be?”

Ren saw the flame in Missy’s eyes diminish as slowly, she lowered her to the floor. “You got lucky…” Her feet reunited with the earth at last. “Friday, Chiquita. Don’t make me remind you.” Martinez flicked her nose with her thumb before strutting away.

The crowd, groaning in disappointment at the lack of flying colors, dispersed and poured through the doors into the dining hall. Meanwhile, Ren and PJ approached one another.

“Sorry about that.” PJ cleared his throat, his tone resuming its note of calm. “I don’t like insulting women about their weight.”

“Well, you haven’t said anything to me, so I guess you’re fine.” Ren cracked a smile.

“I just hate seeing a friend get hurt. You quite alright?” Ren nodded her head. Her eyes sparkled. “Great. Now, you should probably learn how this place operates to avoid any more trouble. Let’s grab a bite and I can introduce you to the blokes here.”

“Why not. Can’t be much worse than anyone else I’ve met.”

The two entered the line for lunch. As they passed the aisle, they watched the food from beyond the glass.

“This slop smells like gutter trash and looks frankly worse, but I feel like a kid in a candy shop!” Ren grinned, piling on as much food onto her plastic tray as it could carry. While she gathered strange looks from the lunch ladies behind the counter, PJ appeared to pay no mind. “What a gentleman!” She helped herself to a third blueberry muffin.

“First off, I’d warn you to stay away from Martinez and her merry band of mouth breathers, but I can tell you’ve run into her before.” He said from ahead of Ren in line.

“I just didn’t know she went here.” Ren said, grabbing a strawberry milk carton. “I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”

“So, where do I begin?” PJ glanced over his shoulder, eyeing the crowded mess hall behind them.

“Actually, allow me.” Ren cleared her throat. She turned around to face the cafeteria and began to point from table to table. As she did, she narrated. “The jocks, bookworms, smart kids, cool kids, smart kids that are also cool, preps, goths, and goth kids that are also smart and cool. Right?”

PJ nodded in approval. “Yeah, I think that covers it.”

“Alright, now which one is your crowd?”

PJ’s expression sunk from amusement to slight embarrassment. “I, uh…” He murmured. “I don’t-”

“It’s alright,” Ren said assumingly. “Neither do I.”

PJ’s spirits visibly lifted. “Brilliant. Now usually I sit over there, but…” As he pointed his finger over Ren’s shoulder, he paused and squinted his eyes. She looked in PJ’s direction at the empty, two-person table ahead. Empty, that is, except for one boy wearing a large tee-shirt and baggy sweatpants. His black hair was so matted and tangled that it almost stood up on its own. One of his eyes were pointed at the two of them while the other was hidden beneath a black eyepatch. As soon as he noticed their sights set on him, he deliberately looked the other way. His grip around his backpack straps whitened.

“What is it, PJ?” Ren asked slowly. “You know him?”

PJ shook his head. “The opposite. I’m a perceptive chap and this is the first time I’ve ever seen his face before…”

“You’re up, beanpole.” The lunch lady called.

PJ came up to the counter and felt around in his back pocket for his lunch card. He searched for a few solid moments, with each second growing tenser than the last. Ren swallowed.

“Something wrong?”

“Nah, must’ve forgotten it at home.” He whispered. “Oh, well. I’ll grab a bag of crisps on the way home.” He handed his tray to the lunch lady and exited the line, head hanging low in embarrassment. When PJ stood far enough away, Ren quickly swiped his card to purchase her meal and followed him to his selected table.

As Ren crossed the cafeteria, a boy donning a loose, sleeveless shirt and a pair of airy cargo shorts absently ambled between her and PJ. His gaze passed briefly over Ren when he suddenly halted, dead in the center of her path. She was forced to pause. Noticing this over his shoulder, PJ paused as well, giving an irate sigh.

“What do you want, Angelo?”

The boy’s shaggy, sun-bleached hair fell partly over his eyes as he continued to undress Ren with his gaze. She felt a creeping sensation spread up her spine the longer he viewed her.

“You…” Angelo slowly raised a finger to point at Ren. “I know you from somewhere…”

“Correct, unfortunately.” Ren’s teeth chattered beneath her pursed lips. “I just stole your schedule! I knew he was asleep, but if he recognizes me, the jig is up!”

“Ah! Now I know where you’re from!” He snapped his fingers. Ren clenched her jaw, bracing for impact. “I see you in my dreams, baby…” Angelo raised his eyebrows flirtatiously. A wave of relief and disgust washed over her all at once. “My name’s Angelo, but you can call me anytime, baby.”

“Smooth.” Ren rolled her eyes.

“And what do they call you, Miss…”

“Beeswax. First name, None-a-ya.”

“Is that foreign?” Angelo smirked. “I got a thing for exotic women…”

Ren clenched her teeth. “Yeah, it means leave me the hell alone in a language I guess you’re too thick to understand.

“Ah, playing hard to get I see.” Angelo gave a dumb chuckle. “One day, baby. Mark my words.” At long last, he moseyed off. Ren and PJ’s thin gaze followed him away, seeing his step bounce with swagger.

“He’s a nasty piece of work, that one.” PJ shook his head. “Promise me that you’ll never actually get his number.”

Ren grinned and reached into her pocket. “Kinda too late for that.” She retrieved Angelo’s cell phone and held it in front of her for PJ to see.

“Woah, nice!” He remarked, admiring Ren’s handiwork. “Now say, where’d you learn to do that…?”

Before she could answer, a familiar, friendly voice sliced through the air.

“Hey, Ren! Knew I’d see you here!”

She turned in the direction of the voice and watched as Diego rose from a surrounding table. Hosting a welcoming grin, he marched toward her. She effortlessly matched his excited beam.

“Hey, Diego!” Ren chirped.

“Hey, Diego?” PJ muttered.

“Hey… you?” Diego spied PJ from the corner of his eye. “Anyway, Ren. I gotta talk to you about something. You got time?”

“Sure, I guess.” Ren shrugged. “I’ll be right back, PJ. Save me a spot.”

“Can do, mate.” He gave her a thumbs up.

As PJ walked away, Diego leaned close toward Ren as if to deliver some crucial secret.

“So, since you’re new and I figured you don’t know so many people yet, I’d love to introduce you around. There’s this party after school tomorrow that everyone’s going to. Except you, of course, unless you’re interested.”

“Gee…” Ren chuckled nervously. Although she laughed on the surface, her mind churned feverishly. “I gotta create a believable alibi so I can keep this up as long as possible, but I’ve already gotten in too deep. I don’t need more people recognizing me! I could get busted if I let my guard down. On the other hand, with PJ, Diego, and now this Angelo slimeball now knowing me, I guess it’s a bit too late to cover my tracks. I’ll just have to use my ultimate trump card: an ambiguous answer!”

“I’ll see.”

“Ok! I hope you can make it.”

“Cool, but I guess I have a few questions.”

“Like what?”

“Like what time does the party start?”

“Eight o’clock. Maybe eight-thirty.”

“Where is it?”

“647 Oak Park Avenue.”

“How late does it go for?”

“I dunno, when you’re too drunk to tell the difference between Mordecai and Hayman.”

“Sounds fun. Anything else I should know about?”

“As a matter of fact, there is. It’s a BYO. Entrance fee is a six pack or more.”

“Doable.”

“Yeah, nothing too fancy. After all, this is a high school party, not a royal affair for the city of England.”

“I thought England was a country.” Ren scratched her head. “Have you been paying attention in class?”

“Yeah, I just think I need this party more than I realized.”

Another voice cut in; a soft, honeyed tenor. “Hey, babe!”

Diego peered behind him. Ren glanced around his shoulder in the same direction, watching a girl approach them. Her straight, chestnut hair, as fine as silk threads, fell over her fair, radiant skin. A warm smile spread across her plush, pink lips. Each swaying step emanated beauty, appearing as though she approached in slow motion. Diego’s eyes sparkled.

“Erika, hey!”

She leaned forward and planted a long kiss against Diego’s stubbled jawline. Ren turned away, blood rushing to her cheeks.

“Oh, Ren,” Diego uttered, surprise ringing in his tone as if he just noticed she was there. “I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Erika.”

“How do you do?” She said, waving at Ren amicably.

Still blushing and facing away from them, the muscles in Ren’s face produced a wobbly smile. She gave a weary wave in return.

“Anyway, she’s the one hosting the party and it was both our idea for you to come.” Diego said.

“Really?” Ren said, but what she really wanted to say was “how do you even know me, Erika?”

“Well anyway, Ren, I don’t wanna keep you from your friend over there.” Diego reached down and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll catch you later, I hope. And hey, if you need help getting the liquor, I know a guy who has the hookup with the best fake ID’s south of Sunset Boulevard.”

A grin crawled across Ren’s face. “You know what, I think I have other methods.”

~~~

Her body went splat on the ground like a drenched towel. As she crawled to her feet, aching and fatigued, Ren heard the slam of iron bars behind her.

“What a pity,” A taunting voice reached her from beyond the jail door. “Not only were you stealing, but liquor? At your age?”

“They read my Miranda Rights.” Ren grumbled, shooting her gaze behind her at the police officer in front of the cell. She watched him shake his head, arms crossed.

“With no emergency contact and no home address, you better believe that you’re in over your head. Not like that’s hard to imagine, pipsqueak.”

“Don’t be rude!” Ren stomped her foot in frustration. “If that clerk hadn’t pulled his shotgun on me, I would’ve made a clean getaway!”

“Well, you better hope some kind soul bails you out, or else you might wanna get comfy in that bed.”

“I’m sorry to spoil the fun,” A new voice entered the air, dispelling the wrought atmosphere building above them. The voice emerged from behind the officer, who stepped back and turned around to see just who had interrupted their quarrel. Ren caught a full look of the person as well.

There, donning a grey sweatshirt and a long, white skirt, with messier hair than usual and a face that looked as though she had just crawled out of bed that evening, stood a wiry woman. Her pale mouth puckered into a disapproving frown.

“That’s the owner of the shop across from McBurger’s.” Ren recognized. “This must be Juniper. But what does she want with me?”

That was when she heard Juniper utter something that made Ren’s jaw drop:

“I’m here to pick up my niece.”

~~~

The two ambled down the street in utter silence. The only ambiance that filled the hushed void was the hum of dim streetlamps ahead and their mismatched footsteps against the sidewalk.

“You’re welcome, by the way.” Juniper grunted, shattering the silence looming over them.

“Were you expecting thanks?” Ren scoffed. “Sorry, but I don’t talk to strangers.”

“I’m no stranger. You know me and I know you, Incognito Bandito. Isn’t that what they call you? Once I caught wind that a burglary attempt went down in some low-end liquor store, I suspected it was the same petty thief who stole some of my favorite books.”

“Boy, am I off my game or what?” Ren sighed. “Look, thanks for bailing me out, but I’m on a tight schedule, so if you’ll excuse me-”

“Don’t go around thinking this is over.” June’s blonde brows furled. “What I did was no random act of kindness. You owe me for bail and those books you stole, and I expect you to pay me back in full.”

The two stopped when they arrived in front of her store. The banner hanging above the entrance read in bold, red letters, “Juniper’s Antique Boutique: GRAND OPENING!”

“No big deal, I’ll get it all to you in about a month.” Ren yawned into her palm and resumed walking. “See ya.”

“Not so fast.” June said behind her. Ren paused and shut her eyes, letting out an exasperated groan. “I won’t accept any stolen cash, and the only way I’ll know that for sure is if you earn it. From me.”

The metal bell behind her chimed as June pushed open the entrance to her store and placed her right foot within. Turning around, Ren found the woman holding the door open, clearly signaling for her to follow her inside.

“Sounds like you’re offering me a job.” Ren made her way in, scanning the darkened shop, stacked with unpacked cardboard boxes.

“Well, apart from that person I hired to help me unpack who never even bothered to show up, you’d be my first employee. And I am severely understaffed.”

“You must be really lazy if you think you need more than one person to run this oversized vendor cart.”

“Look, I could just use the extra hand, ok?”

“Hey, wait a second!” Ren raised her voice. “Doesn’t this break, like, all the child labor laws?”

“First of all, I don’t think you’re quite fit to talk legal stuff, Bandito.” Juniper barked. “Secondly, we can both peddle the same story we gave the police. Tell me, what’s your name again?”

“Ren.” She folded her arms.

“Just Ren?”

“Just Ren.”

“No parents?”

She shook her head.

“Perfect.” June clapped her hands together. Ren’s eyes blinked in surprise. “Well, not for you, just for our cause. If anyone asks, your name is Ren McCoy and you’re my niece. How does that sound?”

“Not a bad ring to it.” She shrugged.

“Alright. Now, let’s talk length of stay. Taking into consideration collateral, the five-hundred-dollar premium, and minimum wage laws, I’d estimate about four weeks of service.”

“Four weeks!?” Ren cried, panic flooding her voice.

“Be grateful. I’ll dock half to repay your debt, but the rest will be yours to spend on whatever the hell you want.”

“Then dock a hundred percent of my pay and make it two weeks. I wanna be outta here as quickly as possible. Deal?”

“Fine. Deal. But don’t forget, you still owe me those books you stole.”

“Yeah,” Ren rubbed the back of her neck. “I’ll have to fetch those out of my locker…”

“Oh,” A look of mild surprise appeared on Juniper’s face. “I didn’t know you went to school. If that’s the case, I’ll have you working evenings. Starting tomorrow.”

“That was one hell of an interview.” Ren stretched out her back, drowsily. “Well, g’night, boss. See you tomorrow.” Ren started to turn away again when June’s voice called after her.

“Wait,”

“What now?” Ren said with a hint of whine thrown into her sleepy tone.

“You say you have no parents. That must mean you’re homeless.”

“The hell does it matter to you?”

“Just that if you need a place to stay, there are storage areas upstairs that I’m not using. You can turn one into a bedroom for the time being. Just don’t steal anything else.”

For a while, Ren stood there, completely shell-shocked, unsure of what to say. Before she could come up with an answer, June ascended the staircase, leaving Ren alone, surrounded by her unpacked goods. Ren’s heart thumped. A million thoughts ran through her head. Too many to count. Too many to distinguish.

“What’s gonna happen now? Without the streets providing for me? Everything’s so uncertain…” Ren clenched her fists. “Then why am I so excited to start?”  

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