Daylight had broken behind the overcast sky. The once dark neighborhood was well lit and safe with the most frightening vice still being the empty harness swinging in the breeze next door.
Missy’s porch was dressed for Halloween with sun-faded strings of orange and purple lights tacked along the railing with tiny, plastic pumpkins attached every third bulb. Two pumpkins were on display – one with carved out triangle eyes and a jagged frown; the other had a knife stabbed in it.
Freddie sat in a plastic lawn chair eating cereal next to a weather beaten table with a failed high school ceramics project turned ashtray saving a half smoked cigarette. He’d swapped his jacket for a zip-up hoodie he left unzipped, but wore the hood.
Pepper sat watch at the top of the stairs; her chest pressed against a wooden plank, painted up as Plank from Ed, Edd, and Eddy, serving as a gate.
Freddie finished the last of his bottom shelf brand cinnamon cereal and set the bowl down.
“Pepper, want some milk?”
Pepper turned around and happily plopped down with the bowl between her paws, lapping up the milk.
The front door opened, Missy stepped out, barefoot in galaxy print leggings and an oversized sweater. Her hair was a grown out bob and purple becoming lavender, her nail polish was chipped, and the bags under her eyes darkened the fire she’d had long ago.
She held an orange owl mug steaming with coffee as she sat down in the empty lawn chair.
“No wonder she likes you better.”
“Was I not supposed to give her milk?”
“It gives her gas and diarrhea.”
“She sleeps with you, so I’m not too worried about it.”
Freddie lit the half cigarette and put it back on the ash tray. Missy set the coffee mug down and took the cigarette; Freddie picked up the mug.
Missy squinted her eyes looking at the clouds hanging in the sky with slivers of sunlight breaking through. A breeze swept through the trees, knocking straggler leaves loose to flutter to the ground. The yard Pepper got lost in amongst the trees was far more innocent in daylight. The ground looked like a yellow, brown, orange, and red blanket had been rolled out under the trees.
“You gonna smoke that thing, or let it burn?”
Missy held the cigarette out to him. He slipped his fingers around the filter without touching her hand.
“You sleep okay?” She asked and took the coffee back.
Freddie let a long drag of smoke go. He watched Pepper take her spot at the gate, turning her attention from left to right, then focusing in something below.
“If you don’t believe me, why do you ask?”
“To see if you’re going to lie to me.”
“I don’t know why I bother.”
“I don’t either. You know I’m going to catch you and call you on it. Would you rather I talk behind your back like your family?”
“Is that too much to ask?”
“Yes… What’re you doing today?”
“Going to the cemetery, then working. Why?”
“Jerry wants to hire another person at the arcade, I told him he should hire you.”
“So you can be my boss at two jobs? Thanks, but no.”
“I’m the easiest boss you’ve ever had. You know how many write-ups you should have at the Castle?”
“The arcade has kids. You want me to work with kids? I’ll put one through the wall.”
“First, there really aren’t that many kids unless it’s a party. Second, who cares? It’s just that dumb flag store next door, no one will notice the hole.”
“Let me think on it?”
“Sure, but make sure you think about it.”
“Is there more coffee?”
“Yeah, will you refill my cup?”
Freddie took the mug and went inside.
The wind picked; tree branches rustled together, dry and crackled leaves rattled down the street. A chill swooped through the porch.
Pepper lowered her head, still keeping watch.
Missy pulled her knees to her chest and held her feet. She was aware of her edgy teen magazine good looks, but her feet were her own favorite part of her. She was flat footed with narrow heels and long feet. Her toes were stubby, so she rarely painted them, but in this cold, they were skinny and nearly bloodless. The mole on her inner right foot had been the cause of much unwanted attention when she was a kid. Its size was huge on a six year old’s foot, which led to podiatrists and specialists based on her mother’s worry. Poking and prodding to show it to people until she was old enough to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s, Missy didn’t bare her feet until Ray died. Until then, she didn’t think she was strong enough to be vulnerable.
Now she could walk over glass.
The wind whipped from another direction, blowing her hair around and sending cold spells through her body.
“Pepper, come on, let’s go inside.”
Pepper looked to the street once more for good measure before following Missy inside.
The funky smell lingering face level in the kitchen could have been blamed on the garbage by the door or the piled up dishes or the rank food left to fend for itself in the fridge. Whatever the source, it went ignored by Freddie stationed at the coffee maker pouring a heap of sugar in his mug.
“Make you a deal, I’ll give you a ride to your mom’s if you clean the fridge.”
The fridge was old enough to be pale yellow with wood panel door handles. Magnets dating back to an 80’s childhood held photos of Missy, Freddie, and friends from high school and barflies. On the freezer door was a poorly lit, disposable camera shot of Missy and Freddie on a small bar stage. They were younger; Missy’s hair longer and Freddie’s face cleaner, his eyes more innocent. Missy stood at the microphone in a long red evening gown with her arms exposed and catching all the camera flash. Her eyes were closed as her mouth formed to create a sound lost in time. Freddie sat on an amp behind her, his shaggy hair tossed to the side so his eyes stared at Missy.
“I don’t think that’s where the smell is.”
“Fine. Find the source of el stinko and I’ll give you a ride.”
“For that deal, I’ll walk.”
“Make sure you take an umbrella.”
Missy began walking toward her room, Pepper at her heels.
“Can you give me a ride to Doc Stephens?”
Missy turned around. “Find the smell?”
“I asked for a ride to Doc Stephens, not Ma’s.”
“Fine. I’ll make you a new deal.”
“If this involved medication-”
“No. If you get rid of the smell, you can lie to me all you want and I won’t hassle you.”
“That’s barely fair, the smell’s probably a dead squirrel in the wall.”
“Better get a shovel then.”
“Don’t you want to know the terms if you don’t get rid of the smell?”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“You tell the truth.”
Missy shook her hand out of her sweater sleeve and stuck it out to Freddie. He looked at her tiny hand that once strummed and picked a guitar in the park at night while he and Ray argued over the meaning of “Scentless Apprentice” and took it in his. He felt the calluses were gone from her fingertips.
Freddie stared into Missy’s eyes.
“If I do find the man with the terrible smell and dispose of him, you have to play your guitar again.”
Missy didn’t falter from his gaze.
They shook hands and gently released each other.
“You got any gloves here?”
“What’re you? A sissy boy needing gloves to do the dirty job?”
“Ain’t no sissy, leprechaun.”
Missy walked to her room.
Missy’s bedroom slammed shut.