"So, you guys want to go out or something?" asked Daniel as he stood up from the table and stretched. They'd been playing Dungeons and Dragons for most of the afternoon, but he found he was enjoying the geeks' company.
"Sorry, my mom made me promise to come home for dinner," said Gordon.
"I have a date with Judith, and if you will excuse me, I cannot keep my lady and her insatiable appetite waiting," said Harris.
Bill looked like he might vomit, but then Bill looked like that a lot. "Me and Neil have to help his mom clean out the attic."
"Why do you have to do that?" asked Sam, confused.
"It's a long story," replied Neil with a wave. "Don't ask. Trust me on this."
Daniel looked at Sam and smiled. "C'mon, Logan the Huge, don't leave me hanging here."
"Well, uh, yeah, sure," said Sam. He carried his soda cans into the kitchen and then followed Daniel out to his Trans Am.
Daniel turned the keys in the ignition and gunned the engine. "Where to?"
"Um...." Sam flipped through his mental list of places, trying to identify the coolest one, but he was drawing a major blank. Grasping, he named the first place that popped into his head. "The mall?"
"The mall?" asked Daniel, his voice laced with disgust.
"Or not. I don't know. Wherever you want to go. You're driving," said Sam, the words tumbling out quickly.
Daniel shrugged and put the car in reverse. "Nah, we can go to the mall."
In the car, Daniel drove the way he always did: fast, taking corners tight and speeding up through yellow lights. When he looked over, he saw Sam hanging onto the door handle, a greenish tint to his face. Reluctantly, Daniel eased off a bit because the last thing he needed was someone puking in his car.
The mall parking lot was jammed with cars and Daniel found he didn't have the patience to hunt for a spot. He drove to the overflow lot and left the car there, even though it meant a a long walk across hot pavement.
The air conditioning inside the mall felt like heaven compared to the muggy Michigan day outside. It was one of those days when you wished for a storm to clear out the air.
"So, what do you do at the mall then?" asked Daniel as he stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked around. He couldn't remember the last time he'd hung out in the mall. Junior high, maybe.
"I don't know. We just hang out. Maybe play some video games at the arcade. Sometimes, Bill acts like he's stealing things, just to see if the mall security guards will stop him so he can make them look like fools. And we watch girls - there's a bench outside the pet store where you can sit and see lots of girls."
"The pet store, huh?"
Sam nodded. "Girls love puppies and kittens."
"Well, puppies and kittens," muttered Daniel, gesturing for Sam to lead the way.
At the bench near the pet store, Sam sat down, wincing when Daniel sat on the top part of the bench.
"Um, I don't think they really want you sitting up there," said Sam.
"Is that so?" asked Daniel, wondering if he was ever as high-strung as this kid. He doubted it, somehow.
"Yeah, you know, I mean, I don't care, but it would kind of suck to get thrown out when we only just got here."
Daniel hated the anxious and accusatory look on the kid's face, so he sighed and let himself slide down onto the seat part of the bench.
Sam nodded absentmindedly, his attention on two girls who were now in the pet store. They must go to Taft, since Daniel didn't think he'd ever seen them before.
"Which one?" he asked.
"Which one of the girls over there are you interested in?"
The two of them sat there quietly, then Daniel gently kicked Sam.
"What was that for?"
"Go talk to her," said Daniel, nodding in the direction of the pet store.
"Oh, I'm not going to talk to her. I'm just looking."
Daniel sighed. "Then what's the point?"
"I don't know. I just don't know how to talk to girls. Everything I say sounds stupid."
"You make things way too complicated."
"I don't make things complicated. They just are complicated."
"Look, Sam, just go up to her, say whatever to start a conversation, and then ask for her phone number. It's simple."
"Yeah, simple for you maybe." said Sam, rolling his eyes. Daniel stood up.
"C'mon. You're going to have to learn how to do this sooner or later," said Daniel, grabbing Sam's arm. Sam protested futilely for thirty seconds and then gave in, sullenly trailing behind.
Daniel walked into the pet store, headed straight for the girls. When he got close, he stopped and leaned against the glass, keeping his attention on the puppies. Then ever so casually, he eased over until he accidentally knocked into the redhead.
"I'm so sorry," said Daniel, offering them his best smile. "I was just distracted by the sheepdog there. He looks just like my dog."
"It's okay," replied the girl, giving Daniel a shy smile.
"He died a few weeks ago, my dog. Got hit by a car."
"Oh my god," said the girl's friend. "That's horrible. Are you here to get a new puppy?"
"I'd like to, but my parents are being ridiculous about it. You know how parents can be."
The girls both nodded and Daniel elbowed Sam, getting him to join the conversation. Fifteen minutes later, they walked back to the bench with both girls' phone numbers.
"See, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
"No....uh, I'm sorry about your dog. I had no idea," said Sam awkwardly.
"That's because it didn't happen," replied Daniel, stretching his arm out across the back of the bench. He lazily crossed his legs and grinned at Sam.
"Wait a minute...you lied to them?"
"I broke the ice. I'm never going to see either one of them again, so what's it matter?"
Sam nodded slowly, like he was coming to some sort of understanding or agreement.
"So, you're going to be a senior next year," asked Sam.
"Yeah, maybe. I probably failed algebra though. Again."
"Oh...so, what colleges are you thinking of applying to?"
Daniel laughed and Sam blinked a few times, his forehead wrinkled in confusion.
"I don't get it. Why are you laughing?"
"Kid, I got a better chance of winning the lottery than getting into college," said Daniel, pulling threads from the hole in the knee of his jeans.
Sam shrugged. "Then what are you going to do?"
"No idea. Get a job pumping gas or picking up garbage, I guess."
"You know you have options, right? Like junior college or learning a trade or getting into one of the auto plants," said Sam, his face all earnest.
"You sound like your sister," said Daniel with a grin.
"How's she doing? I haven't seen her since school got out."
"She's okay, I guess. I don't know. She's just been really...weird, since she went to that academic summit thing."
"Maybe all that time around all those other brains made her even smarter and she's too good for this place now."
"No, I don't think that's it. I don't know what it is. She spends most of her time in her room, listening to records and she seems really...I don't know, my dad calls it 'flighty'."
"Flighty? What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
Sam shrugged. "You got me."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Well, you think your sister would go out with a guy like me?"
"You like my sister?"
"No. Maybe. I don't know." Daniel raked his hand through his hair.
"Aren't you like practically engaged to Kim Kelly?"
"No. We broke up."
"Yeah, but you guys always break up and always get back together. Lindsay says that's part of the rush for both of you." Sam snapped his mouth shut.
"Is that what Lindsay thinks? Well, I can tell you, it looks like this breakup's for real."
"Why'd you go out with Kim so long anyway? She's a psycho."
"Yeah, she is," said Daniel with a fond smile.
"Don't tell me that's part of her charm."
"It was, kind of. I guess. I could always count on her. I always knew what to expect from her."
"Yeah, crazy and more crazy."
"How can you go from dating someone like Kim to liking someone like my sister?"
"Who said I even liked your sister?"
"No, I never said that. I just asked you if you thought your sister would ever date a guy like me."
"Why don't you ask her that?"
"What do you mean it's complicated? You just got phone numbers from two girls without even trying."
"But that didn't mean anything."
"Oh," said Sam, suddenly getting it.
"Never mind," said Daniel. "Forget I ever said anything about it."
"Can you give me a ride home now?"
"Why? Are you mad because I like your sister?"
"So you do like her?"
Daniel rolled his eyes and pressed his lips into a thin line. Then, he grudgingly nodded his head.
"Drive me home and you'll get a chance to talk to her."
"I'll drive you home, kid, but what if she doesn't want to talk to me?"
"You can do it. You gotta learn sooner or later, right?" Sam stood up and reached out, laughing when Daniel slapped his hand away.
"I can't talk to her if your mom is around. Your mom makes me nervous," said Daniel, folding his arms.
"Really? Well, you don't have to worry about that. She's in Cleveland, visiting my aunt."
"What about your dad? He's even worse than your mom."
"He's at the store until 7. Come on."
Daniel looked at Sam's earnest grin and reluctantly peeled himself off the bench before the kid gave him a pep talk. He could do this. He talked to girls all the time. He used to talk to Lindsay all the time. And besides, he'd had a feeling, when she was helping him cheat on that math test, that she maybe had a tiny crush on him.
Daniel and Sam walked out to the car, which was stifling hot after sitting in the sun. They opened the doors and leaned against the hood, hoping that the worst of the heat would dissipate.
"You know, it's probably just as hot out here as it is in your car," said Sam.
"Nah, I don't think so. Just give it a few minutes."
"I think you're procrastinating." Sam's knowing smile was made all the more annoying by the fact that he was right.
"No, I just don't want to get all sweaty and gross before I get to your house."
"Right. So that's why we're standing outside in air that you almost need scuba gear to breathe when we could be inside your car, at least driving and getting air circulating through the open windows."
"OK, fine. You're right. I'm maybe procrastinating a little." Daniel pushed away from the car and aimed a half-hearted kick at the front tire. "I just got no idea what to say to her."
"Um, well, if I can make a suggestion about what not to say to her?"
"Don't lie to her about your non-existent dead dog," said Sam, fighting back a laugh.
"You know what? You're not helping. Maybe you should walk home."
"Okay, okay. Look, just talk to her like you would talk to any of your friends. What would you talk to Ken or Nick about?"
Daniel shook his head. "Somehow, I don't think Lindsay's going to want to talk about weed, beer or carburetors. And I can't talk to her about any of the stuff she likes. I suck at math and school. Forget it. This is a stupid idea."
"You really think Lindsay sits around and talks about math all day?"
Daniel smiled, even though he was feeling extra dumb.
"Look, she loves music. Talk to her about music."
"All right. I can do that. She got any Ramones or Dead Kennedy albums?"
"No. She seems to be really into the Grateful Dead right now."
"No way. I can't talk about some stupid hippie band."
"Do you want to talk to her or not?"
Daniel jammed his hands in his pockets and looked down, taking a minute to consider the question. He was almost surprised to realize that the answer was yes. Yes, he really did want to talk to Lindsay, so much that he nearly didn't want to talk to her because he was afraid he'd say something stupid or mess things up.
"Yeah, kid. I do. I just don't know what to say."
Sam was quiet for a few minutes, then he jumped off the hood of the car and headed for the door.
"I have an idea. She'll be listening to records when we get there, because that's all she ever does. So you just knock on the door, say hi, ask her how things are going. You can handle that much, right?
Daniel nodded, hoping Sam's idea involved more than just lame small talk.
"Then you ask her what she's listening to. She'll tell you it's the Grateful Dead, you'll say you've never listened to them. Then she'll invite you in to listen with her. You won't have to talk at all after that."
"What if she doesn't invite me in?"
The question wiped the smile off Sam's face. His shoulders slumped. "Well, if she doesn't invite you in, then I guess that means that she's not interested in you. But at least you'd know, right?"
"Okay then, what are we waiting for?" said Daniel with more confidence than he felt.
Inside the car, he popped in his favorite Ramones tape and turned the volume up. He drove slowly, nervously drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
The drive was over far too quickly. Daniel followed Sam into the house, the sound of jangly guitars and tambourines floating from Lindsay's room.
"Go. You'll be fine," said Sam, elbowing Daniel in the ribs. He elbowed Sam back, then took a deep breath and walked through the living room and down the hallway.
When he reached Lindsay's door, he hesitated and leaned back against the wall, trying to steady his nerves.
"Just do it," hissed Sam from his spot at the beginning of the hallway.
"All right, all right," he muttered, waving his arm to tell Sam to clear out. He stepped up to the door and knocked, then leaned against the door frame.
The volume of music was reduced by half. Then the door swung open and Lindsay took a half-step back, her expression changing as she realized it wasn't just her little brother. Daniel watched her face spin through a range of reactions before settling on a surprised yet welcoming smile.
"Hi, Daniel. Uh, what are you doing here? I mean, not that you shouldn't be here, I'm just surprised that you are."
"Gave your brother a ride home, thought I'd stop by and say hi."
Lindsay laughed, then covered her mouth with her hand. "My brother? When did you start hanging out with my brother?"
"What? He's a cool kid, for a geek. Anyway, how's your summer? How was that academic thing?"
"Oh, you know, boring," said Lindsay, her eyes shifting uneasily. "How've you been?"
"Okay. I guess you probably heard, but me and Kim broke up for real this time."
"Yeah, she mentioned it. I'm sorry, I guess. I don't know. Maybe it was for the best."
Daniel looked down and nodded slowly. "Hey, what are you listening to? I don't think I've ever heard this before."
Lindsay's face lit up as she began to talk excitedly. "The Grateful Dead. You really haven't heard American Beauty before? It's a classic. Really amazing. You want to come in and listen to it with me?"
She swung the door open wider to let him into her room.
"I don't know, I don't want to bother you or anything."
"It's no problem. Really," she said as she reached out and took his hand.
"Great," he said. He looked down at their hands, then looked up and gave Lindsay a slow, warm smile. She smiled back, a little awkwardly at first but then he felt her relax. She turned to pull him into the room and he stole a quick look down the hallway.
"Told you so," mouthed Sam as he flashed a grin and an excited thumbs up. Daniel allowed himself to be pulled into the room, then shut the door quietly behind him.
At least he knew.