Chapter Three

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I go into the garage and unlock "The Maxx", my 1999 Dodge Neon. Fredo and I named it after the popular cartoon and comic book hero because of its deep purple paint job and bright yellow skunk stripe. My father bought it for me for my sixteenth birthday at a police auction in Atlanta back in April. It runs great, but I hated the paint style until I got used to it. I toss my backpack in the back seat, get in, and hit the remote for the garage door. I light a cigarette and start the car, letting in warm up while I decide what music to listen to today. I need to relax and lighten up, so I insert beautifulgarbage into the cd player and crank up Cherry Lips. The fast beat fills the car and lifts my spirits as I back out into the gathering light and head over to The Grind.

The Grind is in an old four-story brown house apartment building, with the first two floors having been converted into a coffee shop about 4 years ago, and the top two floors still being apartments. The front half of the second floor has been removed, leaving the rest as a balcony overlooking the main bar and a stage. The Grind is only two blocks from the dorms of the University of Georgia and since Dad and I live over behind the main campus, it only takes me three minutes to get there. It's only five minutes away from my high school, so Fredo and I have been hanging out here for about a year now. Being so close to the college, it caters to the younger crowd with reasonable prices, a very wide selection of great coffee, and a decent kitchen. They are open 24 hours a day and have local bands playing on the weekends and the college kids get to impress each other with bad poetry and skits during the week. It is a melting pot of culture, ages, and ideas; an ideal environment for a high school kid like myself to explore and enjoy such a diverse atmosphere.

I'm friendly with most of the people who work there, and when I walk in, I see Penni Junker sitting near the door, smoking, with her things next to her. She's a senior at my school, but has been living on her own since her parents kicked her out for coming out to them. She's been working third shift here for about two months now while living with her girlfriend and still going to school. She looks impatient, and I quickly figure out what's wrong.

"Suzy not here to pick you up yet? It's already almost 6:45." I say, sitting down across from her.

No," she responds with a dejected look. "She told me she was going out with an 'old friend' when she dropped me off at 11:30, and that she'd still be here to pick me up no later than 6:15. I called the apartment, but she wasn't there and she hasn't called me at all. I still need to go home, shower, change, and get the rest of my books, then have her drive me to school. I can't be late this morning, I have a history test first thing." She snubs out her cigarette angrily. .

I think about it for a second, and pull out my wallet and keys. "I'll tell you what," I say, taking 30 dollars out of my wallet, "If you pick up a carton of Marlboro Red 100's for me and make sure you're back by 7:40, I'll let you borrow my car. Just honk when you pull up and get in the passenger seat, then we'll go pick up Fredo and I'll give you a lift to school. If you still haven't heard from Suzy by the time school gets out, I'll at least drop you off here, if not take you home to get some sleep."

Her whole face lights up, and she almost knocks over the table leaping up to give me a huge hug. "Oh my god Tommy, that is so sweet! That is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me! I'll be super careful with Maxx, and make sure I'm back in plenty of time." She snatches the keys and money out of my hand and gives me a peck on the cheek. "If you weren't a guy...," she laughs as she darts out the door.

I feel good about being able to help out Penni and I know she won't let me down, but the last thing she said bothers me a little. I've always had a little crush on her, but I really respect her for being true to herself and I want her to be happy. Suzy is almost ten years older than her, and should be able to help Penni discover herself. I just don't want my friend to get hurt.

I head over to the bar to get some coffee with a smile on my face, but when I see who's working, I am glad helping Penni boosted my spirits, because Emma is working. Emma graduated last year, and is a hardcore ice queen with a flair for the punk image. Her pink hair, multiple piercings, leather and chains wardrobe, and "Don't fuck with me" attitude rubs me the wrong way; just the way she likes it. It's not that I don't like people who are different; she just seems to go out of her way to be disagreeable. She always has a snide, sarcastic comment just waiting to be used on her next target, which is usually every person she talks to. I wouldn't mind it if she meant it in jest or if I had done something to her to deserve such treatment, but my only crime is being young and uncool in her eyes. Seemingly to prove my point, she unleashes a stream of rather harsh remarks when I order a mint cappuccino.

"What are you doing in here so early, kid? I didn't think the elementary schools opened until 9. Where's your mommy? Does she know you're ordering a grown up drink? Are you sure you don't just want a cup of hot cocoa?" She cackles at her own words as she begrudgingly rings up my order. I pay for it and get the newspaper off the other end of the bar as she makes my drink. I make a point of tipping her just to show she can't get under my skin, and am rewarded with her slamming my drink down on the counter. As she stalks off to the kitchen, she mumbles quietly, "Idiot mundanes."

Since there doesn't seem to be anyone else to talk to so early, I take my drink and paper over to the table Penni was sitting at and promptly get engrossed in reading the comics, smoking and waking up with caffeine. Several people come and go, and I ignore them for the most part. At 7:30, I decide to go up to the payphone on the second floor to call Fredo and tell him I'll be a little late and that Penni is riding with us. He says he doesn't mind and looks forward to seeing her.

As I'm returning to my table, I see that Locke, my psychology teacher, is standing at the end of the bar farthest away from the cash register with a to-go cup, talking with Emma. His name is actually Anthony Whitlocke, but he's a really cool teacher, and has his students call him Locke. Not quite 30 yet, he's really in touch with his students. Humorous, charming, and laid back, he is popular and respected by most of the students and viewed as a rebel by the other teachers. He caught me smoking during lunch a few weeks ago and instead of turning me in, he asked me if I had another one he could bum, then showed me a better spot to sneak a smoke. I decide to go over and say hi.

As I approach, I notice that Emma is wiping glasses while talking with Locke and that they are both smoking clove cigarettes. They seem to be chatting idly, but are staring intently at each other. This strikes me as a little strange, but I go ahead and walk up to the counter quietly.

Emma ignores me at first; continuing to wash glasses and talk about a tv show she saw yesterday. She does, however, think it would be cute to blow her smoke in my face. I quickly try to avoid it, but I'm not fast enough. As the smoke blows into my eyes, two voices blow into my mind!

" that little bastard!" "emma, you shouldn't be so rude to tommy. he's been through quite a lot and doesn't need you to add to his frustration. besides, he seems to show quite a bit of potential. i wouldn't be surprised if he needs our help soon." "locke, you can't be serious. we couldn't pry his eyes open with a stick, and if we did, his mind would snap." "you judge too fact...WHAT THE HELL!?!?"

The world becomes chaos as an incredible might forces my mind to be alone again. I hear Emma scream in pain as she shatters the glass she is cleaning in her hand, tearing a deep gash in her hand. Locke is looking about the room franticly while the dozen or so customers look up at the noise, with a few sitting close by are getting up to see if Emma is all right. I'm scared shitless of what just happened. Could Locke actually tell what was going on, and exactly what was going on? I'm even more confused now, but this is when Penni decides to pull up honking the horn. I glance at my watch and see it's ten 'til eight. I grab my things in a daze and head out to the car.

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