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I hid deep in the bushes with Ann as Jerome walked past us with his army green jacket. He took out his pack of Marlboros and took one out as he fumbled with his half-working lighter.

When it succeeded, he muttered “Finally!” before we snuck away, quietly crawling across the lawn.

I had known Ann since she walked into my homeroom in a Catholic school uniform, nervous and meek in the middle of 6th grade. She spoke slightly fast as if she just wanted the mandatory introduction over with and at that moment, I couldn’t really blame her. In middle school, kids were mischievous, manipulative and ruthless. Even her quick introduction didn’t save Ann from any ridicule as I heard laughter and mocking taunts from the kids in front of me.

When Mr. Porter told her to take a seat, she hurriedly took the seat next to me. We made eye contact and I casually slouched in my chair. I looked around to see if anybody was looking at us. Nobody was looking at me but a couple of the more popular and ruthless kids were trying to stare daggers into Ann.

I leaned in towards her and said “Hey, don’t worry. They’re just upset that they didn’t make through their intros with that little to say.”

She giggled despite her best attempts to avoid doing so. It was a mildly high laugh, slightly childish but not annoying or grating. The kids in front of us were definitely unhappy after that. The bell rang and we went on to Social Studies in small clusters, loudly talking to each other. I waited for Ann outside of the door and we walked side-by-side to class.

Later that day, at lunch, I sat alone by myself as usual while Ann wandered from table to table. Jeff Dunlin suddenly sat next to me, his taco lunch on a plastic tray. Dunlin was a jerk, more so than most and he would take any chance he would get to mock and humiliate others. So it would be understandable that I had a bad feeling when he and three of his boys came over.

Dunlin said “So Porker, heard you making jokes with the new girl. Is she your girlfriend now or have we finally found somebody that will pity your skinny butt?”

I took a bite of my burger and slowly dipped one of my French fries through a lake of ketchup on my tray. The amount of fries itself was ridiculous. In fact, it was practically a small mountain made up of French fries. Dunlin leaned in closer to me.

He continued “I mean, she’s almost as ugly as you are so it would make sense that you two would be dating. Have you heard of ‘birds of a feather’, Porker?”

I sighed and replied “Look, Dunlin, you’re actually both boring and pathetic. I don’t care what you do to me but could you leave her alone? She’s new and the last welcoming she needs is yours.”

He stood up and shoved me with a smirk. Dunlin’s best friend, Royce Del Mara, grinned as he and Dunlin’s other two cronies also got up. Their eyes were heavy with violence-fueled excitement.

Dunlin responded with “What are you gonna do about it, huh, Porker?”

I looked around the lunchroom, now strangely quiet. It was four on one and I would most certainly lose but it wasn’t like I had a choice. I was going to get beat up either way so the least I could do is try to land a few punches. I pushed Dunlin back and to my and everyone else’s shock, he actually fell over. I quickly grabbed my bag and ran past him. Dunlin got up while his three pals chased me up the stairs.

I hid while the four soon gave up and went back to the lunchroom. I heard rustling and froze. I looked up and saw Ann with a small smile on her face.

She said “Thanks, Parker.”

I replied “For what?”

She said “For sticking up for me when nobody else did.”

We became friends and got to know each other. She was a girl with divorced parents from Milwaukee. Her mom and dad split up with her mom going to L.A. and her dad coming here. Ann was with her mom at first until her dad fought for joint custody. Then Ann went to her dad who put her into Catholic school. The family moved across town so Ann had to transfer schools. Her dad got remarried and she had a stepsister, Emily and a stepbrother, Jerome. Emily was nice enough, a wise, sly kid but Jerome was a massive pain. In middle school, he and Dunlin tied for being the most obnoxious person I knew at that time. He would pick on me any chance he got. He did it less as he got older but he was always an annoying punk, just less of one with every year that went by.

Ann grew taller and more beautiful. She got less and less shy and when we got into high school, she actually had more friends than I did by the end of freshman year. Ann also dabbled in art and video games and was surprisingly good at robotics. I never pegged Ann for a gearhead but her days, weeks, months of slaving over a bunch of computer parts in an oil-stained Ridgemont High T-shirt paid off. She got second place in the school’s robotics competition in her sophomore year. The trophy was put on a shelf over her bed in her room and Emily was overjoyed about it. Even Jerome was a bit happy, despite the fact that he rolled his eyes as he said his congrats.

One night during our junior year, Ann got the idea to pull a prank on Jerome. She knew that he would always go out of the house to smoke a cigarette just before he would take his car and drive to a pool hall in Stallwood. She wanted to spray paint his car and mess with it. I’d be doing the tagging while she would deal with the technical aspects. I initially refused, not because I liked Jerome but because I was actually having a good, drama-free year and the last thing I needed was an angry Jerome Hallis wanting my blood.

Ann said “Come on, Parker. He’s going to be madder at me than you. What’s the harm?”

I replied “Exactly, Ann. I couldn’t live with myself if Jerome went over the edge and hurt you. You know how he gets with that stupid classic of his. He practically worships the thing.”

Ann responded with a scoff before she said “Look, Parker, I’m going to do this with or without you so you might as well join in. Think of it as payback for all the stuff he’s done to you over the years.”

We headed out to Jerome’s car, parked down the street from Ann’s house on Thursday night. It was just before 7 and the streetlights were all on, albeit dim. Ann had her tools with her while I carried a can of purple spray paint in the pocket of my hoodie. I spray painted “Pitiful loser” and “Psycho” on the doors of the car while Ann tampered with the engine and other controls in the car. She slammed the hood shut and I spray painted “Creep” on it.

Ann turned around and saw Jerome coming out of the house.

She whispered “Hide!” and we crouched down, running to a nearby bush. I hid behind one while Ann hid behind another and we crouched, looking to see what Jerome would do. He did exactly what we expected him to. He then continued on towards his car but stopped in shock when he noticed our work or at least mine.

He stomped his foot on the ground and swore.

Jerome said “I bet those little punks from Stallwood did this! When I get my hands on them…” before he went into the car and tried to start the engine.

The engine stubbornly stalled for ten or twenty seconds before it started with a loud rumble. That was when the trouble started with the windshield wipers coming on and the radio playing “Amish Paradise” by Weird Al. He growled and slammed his fists on the steering wheel which only made the loud, screeching horn come on. It was a good thing we put earplugs on or else it might have damaged our eardrums. Jerome got out of the car and paced the sidewalk as we quickly decided to take our exit.

We ran down the street as Jerome noticed us.

Jerome shouted “Parker! Ann! You two are so going to pay for this!” as we quickly turned down the corner and ran towards my house.

It wasn’t egging Jeff Dunlin’s house but it was good enough for us.

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