Authors: Kimberly Readnour
Dad always told me he loved me. I was only six when he left, but there were certain things I could still remember. His eyes—the same ones that reflected back at me when I peered into a mirror—and how he used to tuck me in at night. After snugging me in tightly, he always bent over and said, “I love you.” Then he tickled me, causing me to laugh and mess up my covers.
That happened every night. But the last time he tucked me in and said he loved me, I waited for the tickle bug, but he just sat on the edge of my bed, staring at me. His features hardened and he looked conflicted and concerned. He seemed lost and almost regretful. Too young to understand at the time, I knew something wasn’t right. After a few minutes, he kissed my forehead, saying, “Please remember how much I love you.”
“Of course, Daddy,” I replied. After waking the next morning and being told he was gone, I realized those were the last words I would hear my father speak...
The soft rapping at the door pulled me back to the present. Barry’s here. Distracted by memories of my dad, I had failed to hear him drive up. I exhaled before standing. The last thing I needed plaguing my thoughts was a man who’d been dead to me for the last eleven years.
My pace slowed as I walked to the door. I was stalling. My hands shook and I had to remind myself to relax and breathe. I didn’t want to be confined in a small crowded area and be forced to socialize, but I could do this for Barry. I could make it through the night.
As I placed one foot in front of the other, I uttered the words, “Just breathe.” No matter how I felt, I was going to The Gamer.
“Hey, you ready?” Barry greeted me with that half–grin I adored.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied.
He pulled me into his arms, planting his lips directly on mine. My mouth responded to the softness, opening while he ran his tongue inside. Heat flared within me, erasing all my wariness about going. He crossed the threshold and backed me up against the wall, sliding his hands down my sides. When they landed above my jeans, he wrapped them along the underside of my shirt. My heart raced as the warmth radiated from each finger, tracing against my bare skin.
All too soon, he pulled away. With a smirk, he gripped my hand, pulling me outside. He said, “There, that should help take away your worries.”
Did I mention he didn’t play fair?
I tried to collect my senses while I sat in his car, dazed for the entire drive to The Gamer. It was a short fifteen–minute trip, and I was still hung–over from his kiss when we arrived. He came around the car to open my door and grabbed a hold of my hand as I got out.
With a quick peck, much tamer than earlier, he leaned over to my ear and whispered, “You’ll be fine.”
Goosebumps prickled my skin. I nodded with a tight smile as he squeezed my hand encouragingly. We headed toward the one place I never thought I’d enter…The Gamer.
My eyes widened as we strolled through the single glass door. Impressive. Barry had told me they renovated the place, but…Wow! I didn’t know what to expect, but this certainly wasn’t it. I’d imagined some run–down dump, slapped together half–heartedly for kids to hang out. Not this. The walls were reddish brick with overhanging mortar. The effect worked well, giving it a rustic appeal. Knotty pine covered the high ceiling, with the exposed beams painted black. What awesome results.
Barry handed over the 5 dollar cover charge, and I continued to gawk, the hip–hop bass from the overhead speakers thumping in my chest. The tables adorning the left wall were packed, along with the bar on our right. Advertisements for different brands of soda flashed in bright neon colors above us, while the
towers at the bar offered a variety of fountain sodas and nonalcoholic beverages.
This place rocked. No wonder everyone liked going here.
“You made it!” Nicole screamed as she ran up to me, emerging from a group I didn’t recognize. She clapped her hands before reaching in to give me a hug.
Barry must have told her we were coming because she hadn’t discussed it with me since Monday. I glimpsed at Barry and he looked away, running his free hand through his hair.
“I don’t think I could’ve missed it even if I wanted to,” I said, returning Nicole’s one–armed hug.
“Well, follow me.” Nicole looped her arm through mine. “We have a table in the back. I’ve got to warn you though, there’s a mean game of pool being played.” Her eyebrow arched as she directed the last remark toward Barry.
The corners of his mouth grew into a smirk, making me question the hidden joke.
Did he harbor wicked billiard skills that I was unaware of?
Nicole whisked me forward, forcing Barry to let go of my hand. My legs stumbled as I glanced back at him. With a half–grin, he mouthed something about drinks and pizza. Lip–reading wasn’t a talent I possessed, so I wasn’t quite sure what he said, but I still nodded. I turned and let Nicole pull me along, trying not to trip over my feet.
“Nicole, slow down.” I stumbled and attempted to straighten myself.
She just laughed and tightened her death grip, dragging me behind her. Nicole led me into a back room and I halted, gaping at the space. The room was enormous.
Where did the extra square footage come from?
I quickly scanned the room and calculated at least six regulation sized pool tables and two air hockey tables. There’s enough space that they’re not even crowded.
Nicole released my arm and leaned into me. “Pretty impressive, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, too stunned to utter a more intelligent response.
She took off toward the benches lining the interior walls with me on her tail. The whole gang was here. I looked toward the right, noticing about five dartboards hanging along the back of the room. A large, dark backboard hung behind each one against the brick to catch any stray darts.
“Heather!” Caleb, Barry’s best friend, hollered above the blaring music. The rest of the guys from his group—Stan, Mike, and Phil—shifted to allow room. “Good to see you finally came out to play.” He teased.
“She probably hasn’t been around because she’'s avoiding you,” Stan said, punching Caleb’s arm as he took a huge bite of nachos.
“Hey, she knows I love her,” Caleb said, smiling with cheese in his teeth.
With a roll of her eyes, Nicole said, “Sexy.”
“You know it.” He shifted to plant a kiss on Nicole’s cheek.
I laughed when Nicole’s face scrunched up and she shrieked, “Ewww!” Trying to wipe away the remnants of cheese, she slapped Caleb’s back. The playful banter between them settled my uneasiness about coming here. Perhaps tonight wouldn’t be so bad.
My stomach grumbled, but went unnoticed. Now that my nerves had settled, I was hungry. I strained to see if Barry was coming.
Hurry up with that pizza
. I peeked a few minutes later, wanting to clap when he emerged from the corner carrying the tray stacked with pizza and drinks. Maybe I should have helped him.
“I thought there was a hot game of pool going on?” Barry asked.
After placing the pan in the center, everyone dove in and grabbed a slice of pizza. I smiled at him as he slid beside me. With a grin, he placed one arm over my shoulders, and snatched a slice with his other hand.
Yeah, tonight won’t be so bad.
“Don’t remind me.” Stan groaned.
“He’s just sore because he sunk the eight ball and now he’s known as the ‘Big Loser,’ ” Phil snickered, over emphasizing
“We get done, re–match. Then I’ll show you who the
is,” Stan countered.
They kept up their ribbing as we devoured the pizza. True to their word, the re–match game began after the last slice disappeared.
The rest of the evening was a mixture of laughing at the group’s stories and trying to improve my sport skills. Refusing to do anything that involved shooting balls into pockets, Barry talked me into throwing darts. It was disastrous. I’d have a high score if points were tallied by hitting the backboard. Even with Barry and Caleb’s advice on how to hold the dart, get into position, and aim, I still sucked. When it came to sporting activities, there was just no hope. The impromptu lessons were fun, but I foresaw being the recipient of jokes in the future.
We sat down and I squeezed my stomach, my abs hurt from laughing so hard. The hour was late, but we hardly noticed. My usual need to escape never surfaced, and for once, home was the furthest thing from my mind.
Movement from the corner caused my head to turn. I noticed a few kids I didn’t recognize sitting down at the adjoining table.
Were they from a different town?
A rather sweet place to hang out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see out–of–towners here. Not expecting them to notice, my gaze drifted back over. I gasped. The boy seated on the outer edge stared at me. No, he glared. My heart raced from his malicious stare and I turned away.
What the hell was that?
“What’s wrong?” Nicole asked.
Dang it! I was hoping no one heard that gasp
. “Um…nothing. I thought I saw a spider.”
God, could I be anymore lame?
Furrowing her eyebrows, Nicole said, “Spiders aren’t that scary, Heather. They’re cute.”
“Cute!” Caleb said. “They’re far from cute.”
“Are you afraid of a little spider?” Nicole teased.
They kept taunting each other, but I drowned them out. Perhaps I had misinterpreted that boy’s look. Why would he be glaring at me? I didn’t even know him. Unconsciously, I snuck another peek. The boy’s eyes narrowed and his stare bore through me. I swallowed hard, forcing myself to turn away. There was no mistake: he despised me.
I cleared my throat. “Do you think we can leave?” I asked Barry.
He nodded and I wasted no time in standing, mentally willing him to hurry.
“Hey, I’ll see you guys…”
Before Barry could finish his sentence the boy yelled, “Take your little witch home. We don’t want the likes of her around here.”
My breath sucked in and Barry’s body tensed beneath my hand as he turned to face the idiot. Nicole gasped, and Caleb slid out of the booth with his chest puffed out.
“Are you talking to me?” Barry demanded, taking a step closer.
“You’re the one who’s parading around the witch, so yeah…leave,” the idiot said.
Desperate to hold him back, I squeezed Barry’s flexed biceps.
He could not go after this guy. Not here.
I didn’t want him getting into trouble over me. Barry muttered something about teaching him a lesson, but his words clouded together in my mind. Barry’s arm jerked in an attempt to shrug me off, but I refused to let go.
“Barry, stop. He isn’t worth the trouble,” I pleaded, tightening my hold.
Eyes narrowing, Barry studied the idiot for a moment, working his jaw. He moved forward, but I pulled tighter on his sleeve. He hesitated before dropping his shoulders and relaxing his muscles slightly. He gritted his teeth before saying, “This isn’t the place, but if you ever say that again, I will come after you.”
The idiot smirked, but remained quiet and stayed seated.
I tugged on Barry’s arm and tried to steer him away. His fist unclenched while he turned to me.
“Let’s go,” I whispered, nudging my head toward the door. My body relaxed somewhat when Barry moved to follow me. We made our way through the pub with the rest of our group trailing behind.
,” Nicole said.
“Who the hell was that, anyway?” Barry asked.
The brisk night air blasted my face as I sucked in a deep breath before exhaling slowly. Each step closer to Barry’s car eased the worry of him getting into trouble. The last thing he needed was to go to jail.
“I know who he is!” Caleb said. We piled out onto the sidewalk as he continued, “His name is Micha Johnson. Remember, his parents pulled him out of public school about five years ago? They claimed there were too many
influences, so they chose to home school him. Heather, you know the church he attends, it’s the same one where the Boyers go.”
I stopped suddenly and spun around. I’d only been accused of being a witch one other time in my life, and it was by Richard Boyer. Detective Tanner had brought me to the Boyers’ house when their son, Ryan, came up missing. Richard, Ryan’s father, wanted nothing to do with me, ranting about witches and black magic. Fortunately, Ryan’s mother allowed my vision to happen, which led to his safe return.
“You’ve got to be kidding?” I asked. My mouth hung open as I stared wide–eyed at Caleb.
Caleb’s words still hung in the air when Micha himself raced through the door, spouting out insults at me. Barry whipped around and shielded me by stepping in front of me as he clenched his hands into fists. Dazed by what was happening, the pounding in my ears became deafeningly loud. Everything happened so fast.
Micha got right in Barry’s face, shouting.
Does this kid have a death wish?
The whooshing in my ears clogged my senses, leaving me unable to understand anything, but whatever Micha was saying, Barry looked like there would be no taming him that time.
“No!” I yelled, trying to stop the altercation.
A loud “oomph” rang out when Micha landed on the ground. My eyes shifted to Barry, finding him shaking his hand. He punched him?
Caleb and the others advanced behind, ready to pounce if needed. Micha and his friends had to know they were outnumbered. Micha jerked out of his friends’ arms, rubbing his cheek. With his face drawn tightly, he glared at Barry and then spat on the ground. But he didn’t speak. A few moments later, Micha and his friends retreated back inside, cowering.
I huffed out a breath, relieved by the slamming of the door.
What the heck just happened?
Caleb, Stan, Mike, and Phil gathered around Barry. Nicole softly patted my back, but my muscles stiffened under her touch.
That, right there… that
of pity was what I wanted to avoid. I should have stayed home. The fight was because of me. Nobody would have gotten hurt, or in trouble if I hadn’t decided to come to The Gamer. What would we do if that jerk pressed charges?