Nora’s breath got sucked into her stomach as she opened the door and found herself face to face with him. She had always found him cute, for sure, but she had not noticed until that moment how exquisitely handsome he actually was!
“Hey, um, Ryan.”
So now what?
Ryan fidgeted. He was adorable in his pre-faded blue hoodie, pre-scuffed jeans, and flat-brimmed cap. She glanced down. Of course, he gripped his satanic board in one hand. Had he seriously ridden it across the street? Did it get any cuter?
“Wanna come in for a bit?”
“Yeah. I was just out, you know, over at Johnson Bear Park and figured I might as well stop by on my way home. Not in too big of a hurry to get there, anyway. I thought you might’a, you know, asked your boss about that volunteering thing?”
Nora opened the door wider. The way he stuttered, it was almost as if he were the nervous one. He glanced at her, half-smiled adorably, and passed her into the house.
What on earth was going on with her? She was feeling like an idiotic Tumblr girl high on red velvet cupcakes and pumpkin spice soy chai latte or something.
Ryan glanced around. He leaned his skateboard against the wall beside the door and bent to untie his high tops.
Nora jumped at the chance to talk to him while his face was not pointed in her direction, since it seemed to make her lose consciousness. “Um, so, yeah. My mom’s not here, so…” Good god, it sounded like she was inviting him for sex or something! “So, do you want any chips or anything?” How could anyone be so lame?
Ryan stood up again and kicked at his heels alternately to get off the shoes, which she noticed had adorable comic-book print all over them.
“Chips? Sure. Sounds awesome.” He followed her into the kitchen.
she reached up into the cupboard and pulled out a grand selection: Cheetos and guacamole-flavoured taco chips.
“Your house is, like, exactly the same as mine. I mean, not the furniture or whatever, but the layout. It’s almost eerie. Cool, Cheetos!”
Ryan took the Cheetos bag off her and started to dig in. Nora got two Cokes out of the fridge and they sat down at the table.
“So…” Nora said. “I actually did talk to Mrs. King, the witch who’s my boss at the old people’s place. She said it was totally cool for you to come and do your community service thingy, so… yeah.”
“Oh my god, that’s awesome!” Ryan’s lips were so cute coated in neon orange Cheeto dust. “I only have, like, two months or something, so when can I start?”
“Uh…” said Nora. “I guess just come in after school and we’ll get it figured out. You’re actually really lucky, because my bitchy boss Mrs. King doesn’t want to have anything to do with anything resembling work, so she said for you to just go to the receptionist and she’ll sort everything out. Her name’s Nicole.”
Ryan looked uncertain. “So, I just, like, walk into this place and start talking to some random stranger? Does this Nicole person even know about this?”
Nora hadn’t really thought about it. “I don’t know, I guess. Or you could, like, text me and I could meet you or something.”
“Meet me? Don’t you have to work?”
“I could meet you at the reception desk, or, like, the front door or whatever. The front door’s actually locked to protect the old people from rapists or whatever, so I guess I would have to buzz you in anyway, if Nicole doesn’t know you’re coming. So… yeah.”
“Okay…” Ryan shoved more Cheetos in his mouth, chewed thoughtfully, and washed them down with a big swig of Coke. “So, what do you actually do at this place?”
Ryan laughed. “That was definitely worth dropping out of school for, hey? Maybe I’ll like it so much I’ll drop out, too!”
Nora laughed, but inside she shuddered. She felt her heartbeat speed up and the blood pump into her eardrums like whisp-whisp-whisp. Was he making fun of her? “Anything’s better than Mr. Ratsoy’s social studies class.”
Ryan laughed, too. “I know, right? Is he even aware that the internet has been invented? I mean, what’s with the VCR? And what about math? Do you have any idea what we’re doing now? Pre-calculus! I barely passed trig. Seriously, when am I ever going to use that stuff, ever?”
Nora shrugged. “Might come in handy after the zombie apocalypse, if you have to design and build your own cross bow out of twigs and palm fronds.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so. Trig, maybe, but not calculus! What does anyone do with calculus? Like, I’m literally sure the only thing you can do with high-school calculus is become a high-school math teacher.”
They both laughed. Maybe he wasn’t laughing at her, but with her.
Ryan continued, “So why not quit now and get a job, like you? I think you got it right, Nora.”
It was so amazing the way he said her name. She must have blushed because her face felt unusually warm and tingly. Either that or she was getting a fever. “Yeah, well, I’m not sure what’s worse, calculus, or pulling piss-stained sheets off some grandpa’s bed while he tells me a totally boring story about the first time he drove his father’s tractor back in the eighteen hundreds for the fiftieth time.”
“Ick. Sounds pretty awful. Don’t they tell you about their interesting stuff from their lives? I mean, some of them must have lived through a war or something. Maybe you’ve got a World War Two veteran in there. Some of them might have been hippies and marched on Washington and done love-ins and stuff. I bet some of them have seen the Beatles in concert, and when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and stuff. All that history.”
“Yeah, you’d think. But no, it’s mostly stuff about their pets, their dead husbands and wives, their children and grandchildren who live in North Dakota and Alaska and whatever.”
Ryan looked thoughtful. “They must be so lonely.”
“That’s where you come in! While I’m laundering urine out of sheets, you can listen to their heroic stories of training parrots and using cloth diapers!”
“Yeah, sounds good!”
“You know what’s hilarious? They have bad memories, right, and they only have a finite number of stories each, and they always forget that they’ve told me their stories a hundred times already, so last week I started ending their stories for them and now they think I’m psychic!”
“No way! That’s awesome!”
“Yeah, they think I’m some kind of mutant super hero with special powers. Today they actually asked me to use my powers to solve the great mystery of the dying old people!”
“I know, shocking, right?”
“So what happens when someone dies? Do you have like these big funerals with all their crying loved ones and stuff?”
“There’s a funeral, but their families all live so far away, they usually don’t come. I mean, I’ve only worked there for like a month so I’ve only been to two funerals, but that’s what it seems like.”
“I’ve never been to a funeral. Do they get buried here in Fairfield, or do they get sent back to their families? How do you ship a dead body, anyway?”
Nora mulled that over. She honestly didn’t know. The funerary proceedings always seemed to take place at the OG chapel. “When you think about it,” she said, “it is kinda weird. Maybe the old people who want me to save the world with my ESP powers are actually on to something.” She looked at Ryan and tried to breathe and talk at the same time, counting her points off on her now fully-orange fingers in order to keep her hands busy. “They die out of the blue. None of them are sick first.” (point one.) “All their families live so far away, they never come visit, not even for the funeral.” (point two.) “I have absolutely no idea what happens to the body after the funeral.” (point three.) “And everybody seems really frightened of Mrs. King. I mean, she is frightening. But shouldn’t the boss of a retirement home be , you know, sweet and caring?”
They looked at each other for a moment.
“Maybe there is something fishy going on at Oleander Gardens,” Nora said.
“Maybe this community service graduation requirement will be cooler than I thought,” said Ryan.