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“Carl, I’m not telling you again. No.” The teen shook his head emphatically as he shut his locker. John started to walk away, with Carl close behind. Most of the students had already escaped after the release of the final bell, leaving the two teens mostly alone as they exited the grimy public school halls.
“Aw c’mon, man, my first shift starts tomorrow and I promised you’d be there,” Carl begged.
“I don’t understand, why did you even take the job if you knew you needed another person?”
“Because I knew I could count on you. My oldest, most bestest friend. Buddy, Old Pal?” He nudged John in the ribs, who rolled his eyes and started walking faster out of the building. John could feel his resistance waning under the shallow arguments and incessant prodding. Saturdays were valuable, but it was almost summer and getting a job wouldn’t be so bad if he could do it with a friend. He could still make Carl work for it though.
“I don’t know, I’m not liking all this peer pressure,” he teased. “Mrs. Campbell would be very disappointed in you.”
“Peer pressure doesn’t include perks like Coaster Town has,” Carl clarified.
“What perks?” John questioned.
Carl stopped and faced him, taking a dramatic, deep breath.
“Fifteen percent off park entry!” He exclaimed, inciting an amused eyebrow raise from John and a chuckle from a passing teacher. “Plus a free pass for the Twister of Doom and free hamburgers from the café!”
“Oh, I’m sure unlimited hamburgers won’t get old fast.”
“They pay over minimum wage, too. Seriously, this could be our big opportunity for some cash before summer hits.”
They were nearly outside, the fresh late-spring air drifting in through the open door. It was a nice change from the mustiness and body spray overdoses, and it made John almost look forward to working at a theme park. He felt the call of freedom in the form of sunlight breaching through the school windows. Stepping outside, the afternoon warmth of the sidewalk between the brick institution and the emptying parking lot won him over.
“Did you say we get to work outside?” John asked. Carl’s face lit up with optimism.
“Yep, at least most of the time.” John stepped next to his bike, one of the last few chained nearby. He ignored the eager inquisitiveness emanating from Carl as he unshackled the bicycle and stood up.
“Well, I suppose I could give it a try, anyway,” he conceded. Carl did a strange sort of clapping dance motion as his grin grew its customary vastness.
“Thanks John, you won’t be sorry,” he promised as he proceeded to unhook his own bike. “And don’t worry, they provide our costume and everything.” John halted.
“Wait, our costume? Singular?” John could have sworn he heard the job description as entertainers, plural.
“Yeah, the mascot costume. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m sure we’ll fit.” Carl climbed onto his bike as John filled with horrific regret.
“I’m not wearing that.”
Carl wiggled the Coaster Town Camel costume he was holding.
“C’mon, just take one feel of this sweet-ass velour.”
They bickered for a bit but John knew he’d cave, even about having to be the back half. The money was pretty good, but more than that he liked the energy of the park, the groups of kids from all the neighboring towns, everyone laughing.
John made eye contact with a cute girl and quickly looked away.
“Fine, but we gotta change somewhere private,” he said.
It turned out to be pretty fun. No-one knew who they were. They were free to clown around like children.
Their shift ended as the sun dipped low on the horizon. John still had his legs in the camel when he spotted the cute girl from before. She was wearing a Coaster Town t-shirt and sitting with a friend across the room in the employee lounge.
“Hope that last fart wasn’t too much for you, man,” said Carl, his voice carrying through the space.
The two girls giggled. John glared at Carl.
“You’re such a fuckin’…child!”
Carl raised his hands in mock surrender. His face was amused as he said, “What the hell?”
But John pushed past him and out of the room. He paced quickly away from the theme park, following a faint trail up the hill that overlooked it. He stopped next to a lonely shed and looked back, unable to enjoy the view of the rides lighting up for the evening.
He was angry and embarrassed with himself, knowing he’d made a much bigger fool of himself than Carl’s joking ever could. John consoled himself with the thought that he never had to come back and face anyone here if he didn’t want to. Carl could find someone else.
Rustling leaves drew his attention to the trail. Just his luck, it was the cute girl from the lounge. She stopped short when she saw him, but then her mouth widened into a grin.
“You’re one of the camel guys,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess,” said John, praying she couldn’t see him blushing. “Today was kinda just a favor.”
“Oh, no. Don’t let the costume scare you off. It’s how I started.”
“What? You wore that too?”
“Yup. Look, just come in on time for a few weeks and that’ll put you ahead of most of the morons working here. You’ll get moved to something better real quick.”
John smiled for real. “How do you know I’m not one of the morons?”
Her dark eyes met his own for a long moment.
“I can tell,” she said. “You go to Leesville?”
They talked as the sky grew darker outside of the ring of yellow light where they stood. Their conversation flowed naturally from school to music to movies and back to school again. Every time she laughed, his chest felt fuller.
“Hey, do you think…,” John started.
She looked over and her face lit up so brightly John’s breath caught in his throat. A second later she moved past him. He turned to see her wrapping her arms around a guy. The breath he was holding came out in a gasping cough.
She cheerfully introduced John to her boyfriend.
“Cool, nice to meet you. Ready to go, babe?”
After they left, John waited. Nothing happened. He’d expected pain or heartache. Instead, he felt disappointed, a little, but mostly tired.
When he got back to his bike, Carl was there. He lay in the grass, looking up at the sky.
“Hey man, did you wait for me?”
Carl unfolded his arms from under his head and pushed himself up to standing.
“Yeah, of course,” he answered. “Ready?”
John nodded and chewed on his lower lip. Just as Carl swung his leg over his bike, John blurted out, “Sorry about before.”
“I’d probably lose it too if you farted in my face that many times. Just like you’re gonna lose it when I beat you to the Dairy Queen and you have to pay,” he said, launching himself onto the road.
“Asshole!” exclaimed John, chasing after Carl and joining in his laughter.