“The Buddy” by Michael J. Lee
--page 3

        This time, they saw the truck before they felt it. It idled at a bent stop sign, as if contemplating its next move. Cars gathered impatiently behind it, and one even dared to honk. Suddenly, the truck roared and peeled out, spraying dust and gravel up onto the hoods of the hapless minivans. The boys around Robert began to lose control. “Oh, shit,” they cried. “Holy shit.” The truck cooked at a dangerous speed until it jerked into the bus lane and skidded to a stop dead even with the tip of Scott’s skateboard.
        “Hey guys,” said the loudspeaker. Some of the boys nodded. Others, unable to hide their enthusiasm, jumped and waved. The tinted glass slid down and a reedy arm extended a finger through the open window. The driver was neither particularly old nor was he particularly young, and he held a PA in his hand and spoke into it, although he would have been quite clear if he had just talked plainly. “Hey man,” he said, the nasal voice full of static. Robert had expected greater things, though only much later would he admit to himself that the sight of the sharp-jawed man with slicked red hair was actually something of a letdown. “Hey man,” said the driver, his finger stabbing through the open window; Robert realized he was actually addressing somebody. He turned and realized that driver had targeted Scott.
        “You hang around the Shell station sometimes, with that kid brother?”
        “Sure,” Scott said, “Once in a while. My brother’s a dumbshit. Follows me everywhere.” Robert was impressed with his friend’s easy grace. Had he been addressed, chances were good he would have sneezed.
        “You need a lift home?” the man’s expression said that it didn’t matter one way or another.
        “If it’s on your way.”
        “Sure it’s on my way.”
        Robert watched Scott pass his skateboard up to the man, and then use the small silver ladder embedded in the chassis to climb up. Below, Scott’s friends elbowed each other in the ribs excitedly, as if a little part of them had also climbed into the truck. Robert couldn’t bring himself to look up at the window as the truck peeled out, as he was trying not to cry.
        Robert was still standing under the tree five minutes later when the truck swerved to a stop in front of him. The passenger door popped open, and Scott motioned to him secretly. Some of the other kids began to jeer, arguing they were better friends with Scott than Robert was.
        “We live off the same street, you guys,” Scott said with an ingratiating face. Robert sprinted to the truck, almost diving inside. He watched happily as some boys gave them the finger as they drove away.
        The truck was full of cigarette smoke. The driver reached a hand across to Robert.
        “Name’s Clay,” he said. He had big, searching green eyes that shone murkily like two mirrors at the bottom of the ocean. “We were halfway home when Scott said you’d kill someone if you never got to ride in this truck.”
        “Okay,” Robert said. He didn’t know what else to say. He tried to offer a firm handshake but his fingers were slippery with sweat.
        “Awkward, man,” Scott said.
        “Sorry. I’m Robert.” He worried that Scott now regretted having Clay pick him up. “How old are you, Clay?” he said.
        “How old are you?” Clay said, opening his eyes wide so that the pupils dilated.
        “We’re both almost fourteen,” Scott said.
        “Just double that,” Clay said. “Piece a cake.”
        Robert’s brother had gotten married at twenty-eight and he wondered why Clay was not married. He checked his hands for a ring but saw only grease-stained knuckles.
        “Is that too old?” Clay said.
        “Course not,” Scott insisted.
        “Course not,” said Clay. “I’m really not that much bigger than either one of you guys.”


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