THE LIGHTS IN the old school gymnasium were on, a sure sign of habitation. I knew this, after a long, hard year of working there, cleaning and waxing the floor, and making sure that the stands were free of dust. Dad had put me to it, so that we could hang out here together on the weekends, or, if I wanted to bring friends (I had none, but go Dad!), I could, so I wasn’t complaining, but sometimes, it got tiresome. I didn’t mind working there, exactly—it was actually sort of fun, peeling the dirt away and revealing the real condition of certain things—but I had never really liked chores. Who does? But, it was nice, sometimes. Staying alone in a recently renovated (and cold) gym, shivering good-naturedly under one of the woolen blankets I’d stashed in the back as I read my books. Sometimes—oh, who was I kidding, all the time—I met a special little hooligan in the corner, next to the bleachers, and we would read together.
I smiled, striding across the gym floor to the bleachers, where I knew he’d be hiding, just like always.
“Oliver?” I called, craning my neck around the edge of the monstrous wooden beam, one of the ones holding the stands up. “You there, bud?”
“Yeah!” I heard him call out. “I’m here!”
I nodded. “Alright. I’m coming to you.”
I made my way around the side of the beam, and there he was, sitting on the floor. A book was in his lap, the spine cracked, pages yellowing around the edges, the cover barely holding on. His silver eyes were glinting under the ceiling light, hair a pretty, deep red, hanging around his ears like a curtain of scarlet silk. One bony leg was folded up, jutting out of his blue jeans, the other settled under the crook of his knee. He was wearing a dirty white t-shirt, but his denim jacket was new. Fingers were spread out on the protruding knee, the other hand stilled on his page. Oliver Green. My favorite little kid and the brilliant mastermind behind the change in my curfew. Why did it change, do you ask? Why, I was ‘babysitting’ Oliver, of course. He just came with me to all the stuff I wanted to do—not that much, if we’re being honest, I just didn’t like being in my apartment, it was small—and ignores me while he reads. Or we talk and look at the stars. Or we steal the food from the “parties” I go to. Or something. He’s a good kid. It’s a great system. I’m glad I’ve got him.
Oliver gave me a friendly wave, and his eyes dipped to my pocket. “Got anything good, Arne?”
I snorted. “Maybe. But I wouldn’t give it to you if I did. You’re a fiend, Ollie. An incorrigible
fiend. I don’t feed fiends.”
“Hey,” he said, shrugging. “I’m only six. What do you want me to do? Start eating salad?” He
wrinkled his nose. “No. No way.”
I cracked a smile and settled beside him on the floor, tucking my legs under me, my leggings brushing on the floor, the wood cool through the fabric. “I’ll tell you what. If you let me read that, I’ll give you what I’ve got in my pocket.”
His eyes narrowed. “You wanna read this?”
I nodded. “If it’s good.”
He handed me the book with a shrug. “Fine. But, it’s pretty beat up.”—understatement of the
century, that thing was deteriorating—“Don’t rip it. I’ll get skinned if Mama finds out. It’s an old copy. Mama said Grandma bought it in 1974.”
I looked down at the book, squinting at the faded cover. “The Outsiders? I’ve always wanted to read this.”
Oliver smiled. “You’re welcome.” His missing teeth were obvious when he smiled. “It’s a really good one. I finished in three days.”
I blinked, then smiled down at him. “That’s pretty fast for a kid, Ol.”
Oliver grinned down at his hands. “Yeah, Mom said that, too. Thanks, Arne.”
I reached out and ruffled his hair. “Any time, little one. Any time.”
He grinned, but didn’t miss a beat. “Food?” he asked, holding his hands out, his palms cupped. “I know you’ve got crackers in there, at least, Arrie.”
I snorted, but took the second bag of crackers out of my coat pocket and set it in front of him. He looked down at it, gave me an appreciative pat on the shoulder, then held out his hands again. “You’ve got more, and we both know it.”
I rolled my eyes, but it was good natured. Out came the Dr. Pepper I had bought him at the grocery store, cold and dripping.
Ollie’s eyes twinkled as he picked up the soda and popped the lid. “Thanks.” His right hand on its own was too small to hold it, so he had to use both hands. It was most likely the cutest thing I had ever seen. He took the crackers and stuffed four at a time into his mouth, spewing crumbs.
I laughed as he took another sip. “A fiend, I say. A fiend.”
“We don’t feed fiends,” he singsonged. “Even if they eat their salad.”
I smiled, flipping my Coke lid. “Even if they do.”
Oliver grinned at me, then slipped his tiny six-year-old head into my lap. “I’m going to sleep.”
I nodded, grinning at how quickly six-year-olds changed their minds. “Sure.”
“I hope you like the book. It’s really good.” Oliver’s bright eyes slipped closed.
I smiled, bent down to kiss his forehead, and then opened his book, careful not to rip the cover.