No One Way Things Happen
Angie did not live in this development but knew the gate code and had given it to her friend Taylor so that Taylor’s mother could pick her up in a couple hours. The ease of sharing the code made Angie wonder how secure these gated communities really were and what they were trying to protect against. She’d grown up in Las Vegas, was used to living in such a community, and hadn’t thought twice about this arrangement until recently.
Still two years away from being old enough to drive, she felt conspicuous punching in the code and walking through the gate meant for cars. If she had been a resident, she would have had a key to the pedestrian gate, but she was only a babysitter on her way to her job.
She walked the twisted streets to Mr. Smalley’s house. This development was several blocks away from the one where she lived, yet the houses were identical: beige stucco with terracotta roofs, yards with cacti and palm trees, stones where grass used to be—except for a few defiant lawns. The afternoon winter sun forced long and sharp shadows. Garages and their short driveways were designed more to expedite getting in from the heat than to facilitate serendipitous interactions with one’s neighbors. Angie’s own neighbors remained much a mystery to her for this very reason.
Many of the houses were decorated for Christmas, some even with plastic snowmen standing on the yards of rust-colored rocks. Angie had never experienced the stereotypical snowy and cold holidays she had seen on TV. While it was not as hot all year round as some of her internet friends from other parts of the country assumed—in winter, the days tended toward cool and comfortable and, of course, sunny, but the nights could be cold—she had never been out of Vegas during the winter, so she had never felt anything colder than thirty degrees. Some of her friends from places like Chicago made fun of her for calling this cold.
Angie walked along the garage to the front door and rang the bell. The house to the left was for sale. The house to the right had a foreclosure sign on the yard. A house in Taylor’s neighborhood was likewise foreclosed. She and Taylor found a way to sneak in to play, hosting fake parties for imaginary friends, acting out real-life family squabbles but with more favorable outcomes. However, one day when they entered the house, all the kitchen appliances were gone and the copper pipes ripped out from behind the walls, creating a mess that fractured their alternate life.
Mr. Smalley opened the door and let Angie inside as he offered his usual greeting. “You’re looking as cute as ever.”
According to her parents, Mr. Smalley was well into his sixties, but to Angie, he seemed much older. He had thin gray hair, saggy jowls, a hunched back, and thick glasses. She recalled being scared of him when she first met him three years prior but had since come to like him because he was always kind and generous and relied on her exclusively whenever he needed someone to watch his grandson. He wore long-sleeved dress shirts all the time, even during the summer when he had noticeable sweat stains and smelled like an old man wearing long sleeves on a 110-degree day.
Mr. Smalley offered to take her jacket, but Angie politely declined. She was wearing a shirt her mother did not approve of, and if her mother disapproved, she was certain that someone even older might take offense. Not that she was particularly concerned with what Mr. Smalley thought, but she could use a lecture-free day. She was able to get out of the house with that particular shirt on because her family was visiting her aunt and uncle in Pahrump. At first, Angie wanted no part of babysitting on a Saturday afternoon, but once her parents started talking about spending the day in Pahrump, she jumped at the opportunity. Two boring hours of watching Jay was a small price to pay to not have to spend the entire day with her extended family. Two boring hours, and then Taylor and her mom would pick her up and drop the two friends off at the Miracle Mile Shops to meet up with a few other friends. She had been unable to go over to Taylor’s a couple weeks ago because her parents had already made plans to take Angie and her little brother to the Springs Preserve for some environmental festival. Taylor had given her a hard time then and a hard time ever since, and Angie wanted to make it up to her.
“Thank you for doing this.” Mr. Smalley put on his jacket. “I shouldn’t be long. Just need to go to the doctor’s for some tests.”
“No worries. I don’t have to be anywhere until five.”
Mr. Smalley looked at his watch. “I should be home before then. Jay is in the kitchen finishing his lunch. We got a late start today.” He called out for Jay, his voice sounding tired and barely louder than his speaking voice.
Jay, still in his bathrobe and pajamas at nearly three in the afternoon, came out of the kitchen, walked past Angie and up to his grandfather. “Why can’t I just go over to Ryan’s?”
“You know why.”
“As I said before, I will not do anything like that again.” Jay had a peculiar way of speaking. He never said anything inherently bizarre; however, the way he phrased things and his choice of words reflected his being raised by his grandfather. He often came across like a sixty-year-old man trapped in a seven-year-old’s body.
“Well, this is the situation as it stands. It’s not like you’ll never see Ryan again. It’s just for today, and I want you to be here when I get home.” This apparent drama surprised Angie. She had no idea what Jay could possibly have done, but he was the least likely kid to ever get into trouble.
After Mr. Smalley left, Angie asked Jay what he wanted to do. She took off her jacket and threw it on the couch and pulled on the bottom of her shirt to smooth it. She was not exactly sure what her mother’s objection to it was. Yes, it was tight and, yes, it had lace in the V over her chest, but Angie didn’t find it particularly revealing. She was thin—too thin according to her mother—and had yet to develop anything resembling cleavage. Sandy blond curls came to rest on slight shoulders. A bracelet hung loosely on her wrist. Jeans tentatively grasped straight hips. She did not have much to show, and her shirt certainly revealed less than most of the clothes her friends wore.
“Normally on a Saturday afternoon, I like to watch movies,” Jay said. She followed him to the TV and turned it and the DVD player on while he rifled through a pile of discs. Two weeks away from Christmas and there were no signs of the upcoming holiday anywhere in the house. She knew from past years that Mr. Smalley did nothing more than put up a small artificial tree a few days before Christmas. They would spend Christmas Day with Jay’s Aunt Debbie. That is, unless Jay’s mom was around, in which case, Jay and his grandfather would stay at home with her. Jay’s mom and her sister had not spoken to each other for nearly five years.
Jay’s parents broke up when he was two. His father, who used to work with Angie’s dad, developed a gambling problem and ended up bankrupting the family and disappearing. His mom coped by drinking heavily and moving to Los Angeles to try to get her life together. Her father agreed to watch Jay under the assumption that within a few months, she would come and take him back. At first, she would visit several times a year, but Jay’s grandfather found her behavior unreliable and had dictated that he would be the one to decide when her life was together enough for her to take Jay with her. There had been some talk of Jay staying with his Aunt Debbie and her family, but she already had four kids of her own. Angie learned all this from her father, who speculated that Jay’s mother wasn’t trying very hard to get her son back. He often referred to the situation as “colossally unhealthy.”
“This is one of my favorites.” Jay held up Casablanca.
“Whatever you want.” Angie never had to worry about him picking out anything inappropriate, his options being limited by his grandfather’s tastes. She put the disc in and joined him on the couch where he curled up with his knees held against his chest with tightly crossed arms. Leather slippers poked out from beneath his robe.
She was glad he wanted to watch a movie. She would sit through that, and then it would almost be time for Mr. Smalley to get home. In a couple hours, she would be off with Taylor and could put an end to the teasing she had endured the past two weeks. Taylor had not always been so difficult. She and Angie had been friends since first grade and had had a lot of good times together. Angie hoped that getting together today would help heal whatever had gone wrong.
She and Jay sat quietly through the movie. When it was over, Jay asked her if she liked it. She was reluctant to admit that she had, in fact, enjoyed one of his weird, old black-and-white movies. She tried to resist finding pleasure in what she assumed would be a slow-moving story, but she had quickly found herself engaged in the political intrigue and complicated romance. By the time it was over, the late December afternoon was slipping into night.
“I’m sorry you had to come over and watch me today. Usually, Grandpa will let me go over to Ryan’s or even let me stay home by myself if he’s not going to be out long.”
“No worries. We got to watch a movie together, and I didn’t have to go to my aunt and uncle’s place.”
“I still feel bad that you had to spend your Saturday over here. I’m sure you wouldn’t have been called if I hadn’t gotten into trouble.”
“What did you do?”
“It’s really stupid that this is something I got in trouble for. Ryan found a dead dog and asked me to help bring it home. My grandfather thought it was a stupid and dangerous thing for us to do. That we could have gotten a disease from it or been attacked by other dogs or something. Which, OK, fine, I get that, but I don’t need to be punished for something I now know not to do again.”
“That really is a gross thing to do.” Packs of dogs had become something to worry about in certain neighborhoods. With all the foreclosures, many people were moving out, and some of those people left their dogs behind to fend for themselves. Those dogs would find other abandoned dogs and try to survive together.
“Ryan was curious as to how it died and wanted to bring it home and examine it.”
“Sounds like Ryan is as weird as you.” As soon as she had said that, she worried that Jay would get upset, but he laughed instead.
“He is even weirder, if you can believe that. Grandpa says the problem with Ryan is that there’s no gap between thought and action, whatever that means.”
“Well, your grandfather is right about the dog. That was not a smart thing to do.”
“Yes, but keeping me in on a Saturday isn’t what will convince me.”
“He’s probably more worried about Ryan learning a lesson and keeping you away from him until he does.”
Jay paused before saying anything. “You know, that’s a good point. I hadn’t considered that.” Apparently satisfied with that explanation, he jumped off the couch and disappeared upstairs for a minute before returning with Monopoly, the game he always chose, under his arm.
“I’m not sure we have time for a game.” She pulled her cell phone out of the back pocket of her jeans to check the time. “Your grandfather really should be here any minute now.”
“We can start a game and see what happens. It doesn’t usually take me long to beat you.” He said this without smugness. He stated it like the fact it was. Her indifference to the game resulted in a lack of competitive effort.
“OK, but let me call my friend first. We can start, but I’ll have to go as soon as he gets back.”
Angie called Taylor and explained that Mr. Smalley wasn’t home yet, but she was certain that he wouldn’t be much later than five. Taylor said she wasn’t quite ready anyway and for Angie to call when he got back. Taylor lived about a ten-minute car ride away.
“Where are you supposed to go?” Jay set up the game on the living room floor. Angie got down on the floor with him.
“Miracle Mile Shops with some friends.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“It’s just kinda like a mall.”
“It’s on The Strip, right?”
“I’ve never been anywhere on The Strip.”
Angie was not surprised. Jay’s grandfather never seemed to take him anywhere fun, and after what had happened to Jay’s father, Mr. Smalley tried to keep him as far away from gambling as he could, which was pretty much an impossible task unless he wanted to keep Jay out of grocery stores and be very selective as to which restaurants they went to, since a slot machine could be found nearly anywhere. Jay only ever mentioned going to the movies, museums, or the library.
“It wouldn’t be much fun for a seven-year-old.” Her parents had rarely taken her to The Strip when she was younger but had done so more often recently for restaurants, shops, and shows. Once she turned fourteen, they started allowing her to meet her friends at age-appropriate places like the Miracle Mile Shops. She had seen the insides of casinos when her parents brought her to shows and dinners and when she and her friends poked their heads inside while wandering. She imagined that living somewhere without anything like The Strip would be terribly boring.
“I’m sorry if you are going to be late. Grandpa is usually very good at being places on time.”
“That’s OK. I’m sure he’ll be here soon enough.”
They started the game, and Angie, anxious about the time despite her words otherwise, played even worse than her usual indifference to winning allowed. About fifteen minutes into the game, her cell phone rang.
“No, he hasn’t come back yet,” Angie said in response to Taylor’s question. “I said I would call when he did.”
“But Nicki and Cheryl are there already,” Taylor said.
“Well, what do you expect me to do?”
“Call the old man and see what’s going on.”
“He doesn’t have a cell phone.”
Taylor laughed. “That’s crazy. I can’t wait around forever. If I don’t hear from you by 5:30, I’m going without you.”
“If your mom doesn’t pick me up, I can’t get there.”
“Then I guess you’re out of luck. That’s two times in a row you’ve stood me up.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“And that helps me how?”
“OK. He’ll get here soon. I promise.” Angie hung up, fighting the urge to cry.
“Your friend doesn’t seem very nice,” Jay said.
“She can be when she wants to. She just doesn’t always want to.”
“What do you do at the Shops that’s so important?”
Surprised by the question, Angie laughed. “We don’t do anything important. I just want to see my friends, and, well, I guess that’s important.”
“Just like I want to see Ryan.”
“Yes, like that.”
“Ryan would wait for me, so why won’t your friend wait for you?”
“Taylor has a boyfriend who works at one of the stores, and she wants to see him.”
“So, you and your other friends just sit around while this friend talks to her boyfriend?”
“Well, we walk around and stop in to see him and, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. There’s like no one way things happen.” She wasn’t going to tell Jay all that they did. Usually, against their parents’ rules, they would spill out onto The Strip and wander around. They would make fun of the tourists who oohed and aahed over the pirate show at Treasure Island and who would block traffic to see the water fountains at the Bellagio. And they would try to guess which of the young women were prostitutes. They often dressed like normal people and not like what she had seen on TV. The ones who looked more like TV hookers were more likely to be tourists. The real prostitutes were nothing more than pretty girls walking around, and Angie and her friends wouldn’t know until one of the pretty girls approached some guy walking by himself.
Their friend Nicki liked to collect the cards the Mexican men handed out. They snapped the cards and held them out for people walking by. Many of the tourists didn’t know what would be on the cards and took them. Once they saw the naked women and read the promise of having one delivered to one’s hotel room, many of them would toss the cards on the sidewalk. Nicki joked that she wanted to “collect the whole set,” but there was a never-ending flow of new cards. Angie was amazed that those men—and sometimes women—did not hesitate to give cards to fourteen-year-old girls, but she figured they had one job: hand out as many cards as possible. After a while, they probably stopped even seeing the people. It became mechanical. Snap the card and hold it out. Snap the card and hold it out.
Angie and Jay resumed playing Monopoly, and she kept checking her phone for the time. At exactly 5:30, she got a text message from Taylor saying her mom was going to take her to the Shops without Angie.
“That bitch,” Angie said.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
“Do whatever you want.” Angie got up and looked out the window as if this simple act would bring Mr. Smalley home. Even from nine miles south of The Strip, Angie could see the light from the Luxor blasting into the sky. On rare cloudy nights, the sky above the MGM Grand glowed green from the hotel’s aggressive lights.
“You’ll just have to wait and go out another night. That’s the kind of thing Grandpa tells me all the time. Sometimes you just have to wait for the things you want.”
Angie started crying. “Just leave me alone.”
“I don’t understand. I was just trying to help.”
“I don’t want your help. What do you know, anyway? You’re just some emotionless seven-year-old who doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t do anything. Where do you get off trying to give me advice?”
“I’ve seen a dead dog, and you haven’t. That’s worth something right there.” Jay ran upstairs to his bedroom and slammed the door. Angie fell onto the couch. Another half an hour crawled by before she got a text from Taylor announcing that their friends Chelle and Melissa were there too. That was followed up by “miss you.” Angie couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm or not. With Taylor, Angie never knew.
Several minutes later, the house phone rang.
“Hello?” Angie wondered if the caller could tell she had been crying.
“This is Jay’s Aunt Debbie. Is this the sitter?”
“Yes. It’s Angie.”
“Listen, Angie. Dad, I mean, Jay’s grandfather, is still at the doctor’s. The tests revealed something. I’m going to come by in about half an hour and pick up Jay. Can you call your parents and let them know they can get you?”
“My parents are out of town.”
“Oh, but you live close by, though, right?”
“I do, but I was supposed to meet my friends. One of them was going to give me a ride but I missed my chance.”
“Well, I guess you’ll just have to wait to see your friends another night.”
Angie hesitated, wanting to find some truth that could convince Jay’s aunt to drop her off at the Shops, that could convey the importance of seeing her friends that night, that could convey the sense of dread she had at the thought of going home to an empty house. But what could she say to a woman whose father was possibly dying? Before Angie could think of anything, Jay’s aunt promised to give her a ride home—a ride she didn’t really need—and nothing more.
Tom Ipri is a librarian, writer, reader, and amateur photographer living and working in Philadelphia, PA. His short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including Ayris Magazine, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, The Casserole, Contraposition, and The Penmen Review. He also has had poetry published in Small Brushes, Superior Poetry News, and The Vermillion Literary Project. His photography has appeared on several travel blogs, The Huffington Post, and the websites for Forbes and Discover. He can be found at tomipri.com.