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“Happy birthday, Mads!”  Madison looked up from her notebook to see her friend Bryce handing her a tall cup. “It’s an iced caramel swirl with almond milk and three sugars!” he said with a satisfied grin.

“Oh my God, you are so sweet! But it’s not my birthday,” she said.

“Well it was your birthday. This is the first time I’ve seen you since then. Did you have a good one? Any presents?” he raised his eyebrows in anticipation.

Madison reached into her back pocket and pulled out her phone. She showed it to Bryce across the checkout counter. He gasped. “Is that the new one? With the special camera?”

She nodded, smiled, and bounced on her toes a little.

“How? Those things cost a fortune!”

“I know, right? My stepdad got it for me. I think my mom is a little pissed. She never wants him to spend his money on us.”

“I love him. Your mom hit the fucking stepdad lottery. Same number as your old phone?”

Madison shook her head. “No. Unfortunately he was trying to make it a big surprise, so he had the phone store set it all up and put it on his plan. Which was really sweet, but a huge pain in the ass. I’m still getting everything moved over to it.”

“New phone, who dis?” Bryce joked.

“Yeah, except not really because nobody even has my new number,” she explained. “In fact—check this out.” Madison tapped at her screen a few times, then handed her phone to her friend.

“Who’s Judy?” he asked.

“I guess it’s some old lady that used to have my number. I keep getting texts for her. Podiatrist, ophthalmologist, blood work, and on and on.”

“Sucks to be old,” Bryce said.

“Better than the alternative,” Madison shot back.

Bryce looked at her, confused. “I don’t get it.”

“Oh,” Madison laughed. “It’s something my Grampa says. Like it sucks to be old but it’s better than being dead.”

Bryce furrowed his brow. “Grampa’s sense of humor is fucking dark.”

Madison laughed again. “Oh, I don’t think it’s like that. It’s like—” she paused to think a moment. “Okay, so people our age—we think we’re never gonna die. And people my mom’s age, are like trying to get everything done because they are afraid they could die any minute. And then people my Grampa’s age are like, ‘Oh my God, let’s just get it over with already!’”

Bryce laughed. “You get your sense of humor from Grampa, I see. That goth motherfucker.”

“Oh stop! Shouldn’t you be opening the sunglasses hut or something?”

“Nah, I still have a couple minutes.” Bryce turned to look out of the clothing store where Madison worked, across the corridor toward a shoe store. “I like the mall at this time of day. Before the craziness starts. Just the old ladies walking laps. It’s nice and quiet.”

“I agree,” she said. “How’s your schedule look this year?”

“Not bad. Most of my core stuff is all set, so I’m cruising with a lot of electives. You?”

“Brutal, to be honest.” Madison grimaced. “I’m loaded up on AP.”

“Why?”

“Money,” she explained. “If I have a bunch of credits going into college, that’s less I have to pay for to get my degree.”

“What are you working on?” Bryce peered at the notebook sitting next to the cash register. “Oh my God is that a new Moleskine? It’s pretty!”

“Yeah, that’s what my mom got me for my birthday. My new reporter’s notebook,” she replied with a satisfied grin. “I’m getting my thoughts together for an interview I’m doing after school tomorrow.”

“Tell me!” he said. Bryce was always so dramatic in his reactions, she usually had no idea whether he was seriously excited, or sarcastically teasing her. She decided to assume the former.

“Okay, so a couple weeks ago, I was at the National Forest, down in Shawnee. Have you been there?”

“No, is it nice?”

“Yeah, my mom and I went there for a hike. It’s cool. Waterfalls and shit. But while we were wandering in the woods, I kept seeing these little plastic straws. Like you use to stir coffee, you know?”

“Yeah?”

“Right, so then we got back to the ranger station, and I see that they have one of those coffee machines with the pods, and the stirrers and all that. And I’m thinking, that’s really weird. Because here we are in this like total environmental oasis, and like there’s all this crap that we know is bad for the environment.”

“What a scandal!” Bryce said.

“I never know if you’re fucking with me.” Madison narrowed her eyes at Bryce, who smiled softly in return. “Anyway, I have a telephone interview with the main ranger guy after school. I thought it’d make a good story for the paper.”

“Hypocrisy in The National Parks!” Bryce said, spreading his hands in the air to show he meant it as a headline.

“Right? I think it could be good.” Madison turned toward the sound of her supervisor coming out of the back room. “You should go,” she whispered to Bryce. “That bitch hates it when I talk to my friends in here.”

Bryce smiled, turned on his heel, and walked briskly out of the store, stopping for a moment in the hall to blow Madison a kiss. She pretended to catch it and placed her hand on her cheek. Bryce laughed.

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