I could of sworn it was him. Same cap as our dad’s. Kind of the same, at least. It’s black, and it’s got the same blazing orange Miami Heat logo. This guy’s hat has a big number three on the left side though, and I don’t see it until I’m already outside, standing behind him and his car. Rick stays a few feet back from me, shaking his head, even though this guy’s jacket’s black too. I glance at him.
“He looked like Dad,” I say.
Rick keeps shaking his head, his mop of hair jiggling up and down. I look back at the guy, and now that I’m up here this guy really doesn’t look anything like my dad. But standing across the mall and searching for my parents, he had the same height, posture, body frame—he’s like a clone of my dad from the back, from far away. Until now, standing here looking up at him while he’s waiting to cross the street. Then it’s weird because I see him face to face and all the other things that made me absolutely sure this guy was my dad kind of get lost.
Dammit. This guy looks nothing like my dad. And now I’m just a stupid kid who ran out of the mall to the sidewalk for no reason.
The guy glances back at me and gives me this look, like he’s frightened or something, and I spin around so he doesn’t think I’m following him. But even as I’m doing it, I can’t help the image of a dog that pops into my head. We just did this chapter on psychology in science a few weeks ago and Mr. Sanchez talked about Pavlov’s dog and all that stuff about bells and saliva. And after hearing about that I’m almost 100% that Miami’s like a huge version of Pavlov’s experiment. So much stupid stuff happens here—not like, happening in your face or anything, but stories people tell us at school, teachers and A.P.’s and Principal Dawson. And then Mom and Dad when I get home, stuff popping up on the news all the time, people getting stabbed for no reason or other kids getting jumped by other-other asshole kids trying to look like gangstas—jumped for like, a couple of quarters too, crazy stuff—or cops getting shot or people eating other people’s faces for no reason or planes crashing into people’s front yards or whatever. All the stories, the way everybody has a friend of a friend who’s been, like, shot at or stabbed or hit by a car while they were grinding on their board or whatever, so they aren’t going to go to this place or that place anymore. Because they heard something from somebody. It’s like a bunch of Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned or whatever. Everybody’s gotten so used to being all sketched out by everybody else, even a skinny fourteen year old white boy and an even skinnier eleven year old with freckles like Rick.
I’m not saying the guy-that-kind-of-looks-like-my-dad is, like, a douche or anything. But still. It’s kind of weird when he walks fast to his car and looks back at me again then jumps in and speeds off. Like he’s running from us. Rick’s still shaking his head at me.
“Wasn’t Dad,” I say.
“Really?” he says, glaring at me and speaking in his nasally voice. I don’t know when the hell he started talking like that but it pisses me off. “How did you figure that one out, genius?” Rick says, staring at the guy’s car as it turns a corner and disappears. “Why did you follow him? He doesn’t look anything like our father.”
I stare at the sidewalk with my head hanging and shrug, keep my mouth shut. Sometimes I wonder who’s the older one. Rick skipped sixth grade last year, so he’s the youngest kid at his junior high, the same school I just left. And to be real, he’s still too smart for his classes right now. He’ll probably skip this one soon, then he’ll be a grade behind me and never let me hear the end of it. And don’t let him pass me. I think I’d just drop out if that happened. Not really but—you know.
“Father is going to be upset if he can’t find us,” Rick mutters.
“Shut up,” I say. “He’ll find us.”
“Or,” Rick says, cocking his head to the side and looking at me the same way he looks at his pet gerbil. “We could go find him ourselves and alleviate any tension before it arises.”
Alleviate. Who says that?
“Alright, Webster,” I say. “Where do you think they are then?”
“Inside would be my best bet, Scooby.”
I hate it when he calls me Scooby. I don’t even know where the nickname came from but it really gets on my nerves. It doesn’t help that he always rolls his eyes when he says it, like I’m too stupid to deal with. I remember being eleven, it was only like three years ago. You wouldn’t have caught me dead using words like alleviate and rolling my eyes at older kids. But Rick. Rick does it, then turns around and walks back inside the mall like he already knows where Mom and Dad are, like he knew the whole damn time and just let me make an ass out of myself so he could laugh about it.
Behind us, cars pass, horns honk, subwoofers bump in people’s trunks. Normal Miami Saturday. My eyes burn a little, and I realize I’m trying really hard not to cry, the feeling coming out of nowhere. I know it’s got something to do with how fast my brother’s walking right now, that I have to jog after him to keep up, but tears just seem like overkill. In any situation they’re overkill, unless somebody died or something. I mean, I know, yeah, I thought someone was my dad and he turned out not to be and now my little brother’s got one more thing to add to his list of Crap That Makes Him Better Than Me. But, really, tears? Not cool. So not cool. And way dramatic.
I sigh, close my eyes and wait it out.
“Rick,” I call. He’s already turned a corner by time I get through the mall door. “Wait,” I say, my voice cracking a little. Perfect.
I catch up with him as he’s walking into Victoria’s Secret, passing by a bunch of older women, younger than Mom but definitely closer to her age than mine. I don’t know why I follow him in; at that moment it seems like exactly what I should be doing. My brother’s a leader, just how it is. And me, I’m the guy that follows. It’s one of those things you can’t change, no matter how much I want to. It’s like, people sort of just fall into place once they’re an actual person, after they’ve passed that whole baby phase where they don’t really have to worry about talking to anybody but their parents. Far back as I can remember, I’ve always been walking behind people. Never in front of them. Rick’s face is so calm when he walks in too, so sure and just like, focused as we pass a table of thongs and my face immediately turns red. Like apple pie red, I can see it in a mirror over in the corner by some sweat pants with writing all over them, feel the heat rising in my skin, my shirt getting all itchy.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
Rick stays quiet and walks straight to the back of the store, near the fitting rooms.
“Rick, can you slow down?” I whisper, walking a couple of steps behind him, looking up just in time to see a familiar mane of curly, dirty blonde hair disappear behind a fitting room door. Rick walks up to the door and looks back at me with a smirk. I frown and I want to say something, but there’s nothing to say so I just plop down on one of the waiting chairs in the corner, next to a guy reading a magazine. He looks up when I sit, my chair making that half-farting/sighing sound chairs like that make, then he looks back down at his magazine right away. Barely even notices me. Like he doesn’t even see me, like he just felt the air shift and brushed it and me away like a scrap of paper.
I look at Rick and he’s still standing by the door, looking prouder than any eleven year old has any right to be about anything, and I hate him. Hate him and—I don’t really know why but it’s true—hate the guy reading the magazine next to me too.
Rick turns back to the door and he’s reaching up to knock on it when it opens again, and the woman with dirty blonde hair that looks like our mom’s steps out. And she’s actually really hot, like my face is just starting to get back to normal when she steps out in this thong that’s barely covering anything, her bra more like a ribbon over her tits than an actual piece of clothing and it’s like the thermostat in my head just shoots back up again. She’s in her twenties I think, maybe like nineteen, and she obviously thought the guy with the magazine was going to be the only person out here. She looks at him first with this really weird smile on her face, like she just got away with cheating on a test or something. Then she sees Rick, then me, and as I stare at her way too closely, like super-creepy, this little voice in the back of my head tells me that Rick thought this woman was our mom, and that she looks nothing like our mom.
My eyes widen and I quickly turn away, but not before I see Rick’s face drop, his eyes falling right on her tits. Like, he couldn’t hide it if he tried. The man next to me looks up again from his magazine and then there’s this sudden burst of heat and wind from next to me as he jumps up.
“Hey,” he yells, stepping in Rick’s direction. “You little shit!”
I turn back as Rick jumps, looking at the man with wide eyes, my brother’s hands balling into fists and tucking into his sides. I’m frozen in my chair, knowing I should be doing/saying something, but it’s like I’m watching it on TV, just wondering what’s going to happen next. The man takes another step forward and I’m sure that Rick’s going to get the first beat down of his life until I see his feet shuffle a little and he takes off, like a freaking Looney Tunes cartoon, full speed weaving in between tables and out of the front of the store. I stay for a second after he’s already turned the corner, telling myself to get up, go after him. Nothing happens until the man notices me too and I feel all his heat and anger shift in my direction. Then I knock my chair over—by accident—trip and almost crash into the table of thongs, spinning at the last second and breaking into this sort of stumbling run, basically falling my way out of the store.
I see Rick down the mall corridor, still running, and I break out after him, waiting for somebody’s hand to clamp down on my shoulder. I count five stores before Rick stops running and I catch up with him, my sneakers squeaking as I slide to a stop and bend over, panting. I glance back quickly and nobody followed us, nobody even really noticing two kids running full speed through the mall like somebody’s trying to kill us. Rick stands in front of me, his back turned, taking small gasps of air. I reach out to touch him, let him know I followed him, kept him close, but stop when I hear a familiar voice.
I turn and am genuinely surprised to see my parents walking towards us smiling, like nothing’s wrong. I turn back to Rick and he’s standing closer, right next to me, practically hiding behind me. He puts his hand on my arm and it’s shaking, looks so much smaller than usual, and I raise my eyes to his face, his bright red cheeks and eyes brimming with tears.
“Please don’t say anything,” he whispers, almost whimpering.
And there’s this look in his eyes, in the shape of them. I know it because I just saw it. When the man reading the magazine stepped up to him, the look in Rick’s eyes right then is what’s in his eyes now. Not just embarrassment, but fear. He’s scared. I don’t know of what, but I suddenly get this really strong feeling that being my little brother might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Which is…well, it’s something. And I can’t really say whether or not I like or dislike the feeling it gives me, but it’s something new. Which is good.
And I can’t help it, I really can’t help smiling, even as I’m nodding and putting my arm around Rick’s shoulder.