I’d had only one true interaction all day, with a very perky girl named Deb who was, in her words, a “self-appointed Jackson ambassador!” She’d appeared at my homeroom with a gift bag holding a school calendar, a Jackson football pencil, and some home-baked cookies, as well as her personal business card if I had any questions or concerns. When she left, everyone stared at me as if I were even more of a freak. Great.
Now that I was alone, though, I wondered what to do with myself. I couldn’t go home yet, as there were still a good two hours until dinner, the same stretch of time I’d dreaded even before my brother was sent away. Suddenly, I felt so helpless. If I hated the crowds but also my own company, where did that leave me? It was the saddest I’d felt in a long time. I started my car, like if I drove off I could leave the sadness there.
A block from school, I was at a light when I looked across the street and saw a little strip mall. There was a nail salon, a liquor store, a weight-loss company, and, in the corner, a pizza place.
After school meant pizza to me as much as or even more so than my popcorn-and-Big routine. Just one block from Perkins, there was also a small shopping center, and the Italian place there, Antonella’s, served as the de facto clubhouse for the entire school. They had gourmet brick-fired pizzas, a coffee bar, gelato, and the sweetest fountain Cokes I’d ever tasted. Meredith always went straight to the U for practice, but Jenn and I hit Antonella’s at least once a week, splitting a ham, pineapple, and broccoli pizza and ostensibly doing our homework. Mostly, though, we gossiped and spied on the more popular kids, who always sat at the long, family-style tables by the window, flirting and blowing straw wrappers at one another.
Everything today had been new. With pizza, I could finally have something familiar. Before I could overthink it, I put on my blinker, switched lanes, and turned into the parking lot.
I knew the minute I stepped in that this place was very different. Seaside Pizza was small and narrow, lit not with modern light fixtures like Antonella’s but with yellow fluorescents, some of which didn’t work. The seating consisted of worn leather booths and a few tables, and the walls were covered in a dark paneling and lined with black-and-white photographs of beaches and boardwalks. There was a tall glass counter, behind which sat a row of different kinds of pizzas and a wide, beat-up oven with the word HOT painted in faded letters across its front. A TV playing a sports talk show hung from the ceiling above the drink machine, next to which was a tall, tilting pile of plastic menus. Overhead, music was playing. I could have sworn I heard what sounded like a banjo.
Once inside, I let the door shut behind me but kept my hand on the glass as I realized that this, too, was probably a mistake. Clearly, this was not a popular place with Jackson students, or anyone, for that matter: I was the only one there.
I turned around to leave, only to find that there was now a guy on the other side of the door. He was tall with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, and a backpack. He waited for me to take a step away from the door, then another, before slowly pushing it open between us and coming in.
I felt like I couldn’t dart out without seeming like a freak, so I turned back to the counter, taking down a menu from the pile. I figured I’d pretend to study it for a second, then slip away while he was ordering. When I glanced up a beat later, though, I saw he was behind the counter, tying on an apron. Crap. He worked there. And now he was looking at me.
“Can I help you?” he asked. His T-shirt, I saw now, said ANGER MANAGEMENT: THE SHOW. WCOM RADIO.
“Um,” I said, looking back down at the menu. It was sticky in my hands, and I made out none of the words even as I read it. Panicked, I glanced at the row of pizza slices under the glass counter. “Slice of pepperoni. And a drink.”
“You got it,” he replied, grabbing a metal pizza pan from behind him. He moved the slices around with some tongs for a second before drawing out one that was huge and plunking it on the pan, which he slid into the oven. Back at the register, he shook a lock of hair out of his eyes and hit a few buttons. “Three forty-two.”
I fumbled for my wallet, sliding him a five. As he made change, I noticed there was a cup next to the register filled with YumYum lollipops. TAKE ONE! said a sign in pink marker behind it. I’d loved them as a kid, hadn’t had one in years. I started picking through them, past the plentiful green apple, watermelon, and cherry ones, looking for my favorite.
“Dollar fifty-eight’s your change,” the guy said, holding it out in his hand. As I took it, as well as the empty cup he’d set on the counter, he said, “If you’re looking for cotton candy or bubble gum, I’ll save you the time. There aren’t any.”
I raised my eyebrows. “They’re popular?”
“To put it mildly.”
Just then, the door banged open behind me and someone rushed past, their footsteps slapping the floor. I turned just in time to see a blonde girl disappearing into a back room marked PRIVATE before the door shut behind her.
The guy narrowed his eyes at the door, then looked back at me. “Your slice will be up in a minute. We’ll bring it out.”
I nodded, then walked over to fill my cup and grab some napkins. I sat down at a table, then studied my phone just for something to do. A few minutes later, I heard the oven opening and closing, and he came out a set of swinging doors with my pizza, now on a paper plate, and slid it in front of me.
“Sure thing,” he replied, and then I listened to him walk to the PRIVATE door and knock on it.