The Taste of Luck

Fiction
Amy E. Ochterski


The joke begins after Kelly and I enter the 7-Eleven. That’s when Kelly’s older brother Scrubs and his gang of dirtbiker buddies swoop in behind us, squashing us up against the store’s countertop, knocking down the displays of beef jerky, Bic lighters, and cherry incense.

“Hey, Nishia,” Scrubs says flicking the top of my ear with his thumb, “Wanna flick my Bic?” At that, Scrub’s posse roars with laughter, the noise overriding the store’s cheerful musak. My ear throbs. No longer is the store’s air-conditioned cool comforting.

“Cut it out, moron,” I shout, shoving Scrubs back, sending him staggering into a rack of chips that hit the floor with a crash. That does it. The store’s manager blasts out of his shadowy backroom office, a look of intolerance spreading across his ham-sized face.

I’m the last out the door. Fearing the worst, I take a few steps forward, but it seems that Scrubs and company have peddled their bikes onward, for the parking lot’s deserted. I breath a sigh of relief that quickly ends in a scream when Kelly seizes my arm saying, “Nish, let’s go behind the store. It’s shady there. I’m too hot to walk home right now. Besides, Scrubs said he’d be waiting for us down the street. Let’s let cool it here awhile. Okay?”

Nodding, I tag along behind her.

Shade bathes the back of the store. Two large Dumpsters rest at an angle from the ramp that leads up to the store’s back door. I’ve just settled up against the store’s graffiti-filled wall, popped the top off a pixie stick when Scrubs darts out from behind one of the Dumpsters hooting like a monkey, pinning my arms to my side. I squirm and wriggle. “Quit,” I say wrinkling my nose at the scent of discarded, tarry gum that coats the wall near me. The stale fruity odor mixes with the fresh scent of cut grass from the field that lies between the store and the Conrail lines.

“We’re gonna play kiss-kiss,” says Scrubs, a toothy smile overtaking his thin lips. “Kiss-kiss Nish, and you’re it,” he says. Eyes closed, he leans forward. To cure him of his smirk, I spit, laughing when a glob lands on the bridge of his nose, dripping into his surprised, open mouth. “You—” he says, his eyes narrowing to slits just as the store’s back door whooshes open.

“What the hell are you kids doing now,” snarls the manager. Scrubs jumps back, releasing me and I take off, the Six-Million Dollar Woman burning across the field, never looking back to see if Scrubs and Kelly follow. I disappear into the poplars and willows that border the tracks.

Taking the tracks home means a longer walk. The sun’s intensity slams into me, frying my already sunburnt skin, sapping my superpowers. My mouth feels sandpapery. Each step forward is a Herculean effort, a Superman versus kryptonite battle that I energize with my candy—my Popeye power aid. Stuffing a handful of Lemonheads in my mouth, the candy’s sourness bites into the sides of my cheeks seconds before surrendering into a burst of sugary sweetness. I shudder at this powerful mix of sweet and sour.

My walk becomes a game, the sun my spotlight. Suddenly, I’m a world-famous gymnast. Mounting train track rail, I’m straight as an arrow. Eyes forward, head erect, I peer up the track. The shimmering headlights of an approaching train swallow up my glance. Moments later, the distant crossing signals start to clang.

Dismounting the rail with a flourish, I turn toward the tree-lined service road. That’s when I notice a change in the scene. A pudgy, shirtless guy in loose hanging blue jeans, black biker boots, and long greasy hair leans against a battered, blue van partially concealed by the surrounding brush. The van’s side door is wide open. Pink-orange shag carpet covers the floor and the walls. Its color reminds me of a gaping cartoon wolf’s mouth. “The better to eat you with” creeps into my head.

“Hey Sunshine, where you headed?” the man asks as he pushes himself off the van and saunters toward the tracks. He’s whistling at me—summoning me as if I’m a dog—while trying to hop over a water-filled ditch. His leap comes up short. “Aww… Christ!” he yells as one leg lands in the stagnant water.

Just then, the train blows its horn, and the tracks thrum as the Conrail’s nose thunders toward me.

On the other side of the tracks stands a field of long weedy grass infused with brambles and burdocks. A line of barbed wire fence towers above the field. I consider heading for the fence, but hesitate for I know that prowling somewhere behind the fence is Trasher, the junkyard dog—legendary for his vicious welcome of trespassers.

Indecisively, I take a few stumbling steps forward until an eroded railroad tie gobbles up one of my sneakers. I lurch forward, spilling a few Atomic Fireballs from my pockets. They wobble like marbles across the tie’s hot surface. As I fall to my knees, one of my bathing suit straps slips down past an elbow.

Seeing this, the man catcalls and then hollers, “Ohhhh, yeah…!” The rumble of the train’s approach guzzles the rest of his words. I peek over one shoulder and register the huge wolfish grin pasted on his face. It’s a look that makes my stomach twist. He shares the look Scrubs wore the day I snuck up on him in my father’s tool shed. Staring into one of my father’s well-thumbed magazines, Scrub’s face bore a strange smirk as his eyes consumed the pages. He was so lost in what he saw that I had to thump him on the back to gain his attention. After giving a strangled cry, he sprang forward, shoving me against the shed’s metal wall. Rapping his fingers hard against my chest, he made me swear on a hundred of my family graves that I wouldn’t tell.

The man’s coyote-like howls bring me back. My face burns as I yank up the strap. This man is staring to make me feel like a piece of coveted candy—the kind of candy that is simply, mouthwateringly, wanted. The kind of candy that cannot be exchanged for a spitty game of kiss-kiss. I guess that the man lurching after me thinks of me as a better kind of candy—the kind of candy that he plans to own, and not to trade. I’m his candy, candy that when he gets it, he will devour with his glistening teeth.

His crazy, wild-eyed look drives me to my feet. Still uncertain of where to flee, I race down the rocky embankment that slopes away from the tracks and that leads to the fenced field when Trasher lurks. Blood trickles from the knee I skinned on the rocks surrounding the weathered tie.

“Hurt yourself?” I hear a few beats behind me. “Let Junior take a look. Heck, let Junior play doctor. I bet you like playin’.”

His tone releases the sob that’s been caught in my throat. Above me, the stones grind as they shift under his weight. My stomach tightens, twists, and dives; all at once, the butterflies within cease their urgent fluttering.

“Sunshine! I am talking to you. C’mon. C’mere. Be a—” he snarls, the train’s blaring horn and lumbering approach squelching the rest of his taunts.

Nearing the fence, I see Trasher pummeling his muscular body against a section of the fence that’s begun to sag. Frothy foam drips from his mouth. Staggering sideways, I dodge the menagerie of rusted car parts that surround my feet. I run so fast my lungs feel like two overfilled balloons ready to explode. Turning back to the tracks, my hope of escape rises as I watch the man tangle his feet on some junk embedded in the grass. He lands heavily on his side reaching for one of his ankles.

The train’s horn is ear splitting, nearly constant, as it issues its rhythmic patterns of blasts. Seeing my hesitation, the man sits up and cups a hand to his mouth. His frantic mouth shouts words I cannot hear. The train’s din dominants all—its mechanic roar shaking me to the core.

Swallowing, I sprint for the tracks. Thousands of tiny black spots dance before my eyes. I run, propelled on legs that feel like Jell-O. With the backs of my hands, I’m wiping tears from my cheeks. It’s a wild dance, a tango between girl and train. The man ceases to exist. I’m no longer aware of him as he lumbers to his feet, as he awkwardly lurches after me. It seems I’m on a collision course with the train’s engine, and, yet, I continue on—a graceful deer that bounds up and over the rails—that flees somehow unscathed. The train’s diesel exhaust bathes my body seconds before its powerful back draft thrusts me down the embankment.

Crumpled, my heart a roaring rush in my ears, tears streaming down my face, I lie there, staring up at the sky. Then, I roll to one side and see Scrubs and Kelly staring at me. Kelly’s got a hand to her mouth. Her cheeks are translucent—they’re so pale. And Scrubs… he tosses his bike down as he runs frantically toward me—his face a mottled mask of emotions. Shakily, I sit up just as Scrubs reaches me, grabbing my hands to pull me to my feet. “N—Nish—Nisha, you okay?” he shouts at me, shaking me. But rather than answer, I crazily pat my pant’s pockets with jittery, boneless, rubbery hands. I’m searching for the candy—for my power aid, for my good luck talisman.

Later, when I think of that day, it’s the pungent taste of Lemonheads that I remember most. As my mouth begins to water and my cheeks begin smarting against the memory’s sharp, sourness, I know what I’m tasting is more than Popeye power. The sensory experience runs deeper than the unusual kindness that Scrubs bestowed upon me as he pulled me to my feet, as he half-carried me to his bike, before peddling me home. What I taste is the sudden, savory flavor of having a childhood bully turn into a lifelong protector and friend. The aftermath of that day bears a gritty sugariness that coats my good fortune, making it as lucid as sun shining through a coating of ice. What I taste when I think of that day is the sharp taste of luck, a taste more fulfilling, more enriching than any kind of taste imaginable.

 

pencil

Amy E.Ochterski scribbles her work on the backs of envelopes, during (boring) meetings, while driving (carefully of course), in her sleep—in essence—constantly. She lives in New York’s Southern Tier region and teaches writing full-time at Corning Community College. Given her hefty workload of reading student work paired with her other academic duties, she is often faced with the choice of sleep or writing. Large quantities of free trade coffee often tip this tossup. She has been published most recently in Starry Night Review, Beginnings Magazine, Wild Child Magazine, Bewildering Stories, and Dogwood Journal. E-mail: ochterski[at]hotmail.com.