LEAVING WAS EASIER THAN JOSH THOUGHT IT WOULD BE. Sunday morning, when he woke, for the first time all week his stomach did not hurt. After the service, voices melded into a thin hum. People drank coffee in partisan clumps, looking at watches, waiting. Josh told his parents he was walking over to the Pizza Palace to wait for a friend to pick him up for play rehearsal.
“What time do I need to pick you up?” his mom asked. She kept her eyes on his father, snuffing out the candles at the altar.
“I’ll get a ride back,” he said. “I’ll be late.”
“Maybe ten. It’s dress rehearsal.”
She nodded and deposited her cup on the table. No one noticed him leave with Nikko and Gemma. The three walked out together. Carrie sat on the bench, smoking.
“You really should stop smoking,” Nikko said. “It could kill you, you know.”
Carrie glared at him. “And you should stop talking to grown-ups like the punk you are.”
“Right.” Nikko laughed. She stubbed out her cigarette against the poured concrete floor and huffed into the building. They were half-way down the sidewalk when Nikko stopped and held up his right hand.
“Wait,” he said. “Eine moment.”
He turned and jogged back to the building.
“Bet he’s got to pee. Again.” Gemma pulled out her cell phone. “Vee,” she said and turned her back.
The sun reflected off the sidewalk, making Josh sweat. His stomach gurgled, then cramped, and he was sure he was going to shit his pants, so he headed back to the church, to go to the bathroom, when Nik came running out of the door.
“Booya!” His held his right hand in the air, green spilling out.
Gemma looked up from the phone. “Where did you get money?”
Nik grabbed Josh by the elbow. “Come on, let’s go!”
“Did you hit mom up for money?”
Gemma ran behind them. The car doors slammed behind them. The engine roared. Sounds Like Teen Spirit screamed from the speakers. Nik pulled out of the parking lot in a cloud of dust. Tears streamed down his cheeks, his head bobbing from laughter.
“Hell no, I didn’t ask Mama J for coinage,” he said. “I went to go piss and there it was, just waiting for some punk. As Carrie herself would say.”
“What was waiting?” Josh asked.
“The freaking collection basket! Just sitting there, on the shelf by the door to the bathroom. Seventy-six bucks. I left three quarters.”
“But that’s stealing!” Josh said.
“Stealing, Schmeeling. We are O-fish-ill-ee on the streets, as of now. Survival of the fittest, you know. Darwin’s theory put into practice.”
Nikko pressed on the gas. The car sped towards Baltimore, towards Penn station. A mile from the exit that would take them back home, Gemma leaned forward from the backseat and tapped her brother on the shoulder.
“Get off here,” she said.
“No way, we don’t have time.”
“I mean it, Nik.”
“You’re wussing out on us?”
“I don’t want to survive if it means stealing,” she said. “That’s just wrong.”
“If we stop I’m gonna have to duct tape you to a chair,” Nikko said.
“I won’t tell anyone you’ve left,” she said. “Promise.”
Nik wrenched the steering wheel a hard left and the car glided off the exit. At the intersection, Gemma opened the door. Her long brown legs slid over the vinyl seat. She leaned in the open window, held out her hand. Nikko tapped his fingers against hers. Her hand floated before Josh’s face, and he grabbed it, kissed the inside of her palm, smelling of chocolate from the cookie she had eaten at coffee hour, and he heard her laugh, but the laugh sounded sad.
“Good luck you guys,” she said. "Be safe."
She shouldered her bag and walked away. The car behind them honked. Nikko pulled out of the intersection. Josh turned around and Gemma waved. She got smaller and smaller. Panic filled Josh’s gut. They were doing it. They were really running away.
The saga continues. To catch up, read the last installment HERE
and work backwards. Thank you for reading, and peace...