Anxious to avoid a slip, Sam Puckett walked gingerly off the rain-slicked ribbed rubber steps of the #17 bus after it halted at the stop nearest Bushwell Plaza where her best friend Carly Shay lived. Wincing at the loud hissing of the bus's doors gracelessly closing behind her and the vehicle accelerating away, Sam adjusted her backpack filled with overnight supplies and headed slowly towards Carly's apartment building, which Sam spied mistily in the distance.
Holding a hand over her watch to protect its face from the incessant Seattle rain, Sam checked the time, which read 7:05. Perfect, she thought as she skulked along the darkly wet sidewalk leading up to the main doors of the Bushwell Plaza lobby. The top of her gray hoodie was drawn tightly around her chin, hiding both her face and the paranoid expression in her eyes from the umbrella-wielding pedestrians she passed by on the street.
Luckily, she remained virtually unrecognizable even to Carly's irascible doorman Lewbert as she slipped discreetly into the building. Focused as he was on cleaning his fingernails with a fork, Lewbert paid her no mind as she virtually tip-toed across the floor of his lobby toward the Bushwell Plaza stairwell and stuck her head tentatively in, listening for any tenants descending the stairs. At that moment, the stairwell was fairly quiet, so she decided to mount the steps - slowly.
A self-professed couch potato, Sam could've counted on one hand the times she'd taken the Bushwell Plaza stairs over the years, preferring as she did to ride the building's main elevator or the Shays' special cargo elevator up to her second home, apartment 8-C. But this time, Sam wanted to make good and certain not to run into Spencer and his new girlfriend getting on or off the elevator on the eighth floor or in the lobby of the building as they were heading out for the date she knew they had planned for tonight. She decided taking the stairs would help her avoid the couple, figuring that Spencer and his date would be unlikely to take the stairs, clad as they would no doubt be in evening wear.
Over lunch earlier, when Sam and Carly were sitting in the hallway making plans for their sleepover later that evening, Carly had mentioned that Spencer's date would be picking him up at the apartment at around 6:50 before heading out for their 7:30 dinner reservation at a trendy local restaurant.
The mention of food never made Sam sick to her stomach before, but the thought of Spencer with a new woman painting the town red together made her nauseous. Carly noticed Sam's queasy expression and, throwing the rest of her tuna salad sandwich away, commented, "Wow, Sam. You look like I feel."
Sam glanced over at her best friend and noticed she appeared even whiter than usual. "Hey, kid, you look kinda sick. Did you want me to find Freddie's backpack for you to yakk in?" Sam offered facetiously. Carly slapped Sam's arm playfully for all answer.
"Seriously, kid," Sam repeated the nickname, "You gonna be okay? Maybe you should go home. We can do the Girly Cow marathon we were gonna watch tonight another time."
Carly refused, making the reasonable point that no one knew when the next Girly Cow marathon would be broadcasted on the Cartoon Channel. Carly seemed to really want Sam over, so she gave in, mentally noting that if she arrived at the Shay apartment at around ten after seven, Spencer and his girlfriend were sure to be gone by then. Though it pained her to avoid him on the one hand, she knew it would break her heart even more to watch him escort his smiling date out the door of the apartment for a romantic evening out on the town.
Sam groaned with a lazy man's relief as she neared the top of the eighth flight of steps in the Bushwell Plaza stairwell, then peeped around the corner of the hallway to see if the coast were clear. Deciding it was, Sam pulled down her hood and walked up to the Shay apartment. She rapped smartly on the door.
Sam heard the clack of a pair of high heels crossing the floor on the inside of the apartment. The door opened wide, but it wasn't Carly standing in the doorway. "Yes," the Denise Richards look-alike who opened the door inquired coolly, eying Sam and her sodden gym wear suspiciously.
Sam wondered who this woman in the attractive black cocktail dress was. "I'm here to see Carly," Sam announced, letting herself in and walking around the strange woman as if she were nothing more than a lingerie-clad mannequin at Build-A-Bra.
Sam's heart leapt into her throat when she entered the living room and found Carly doubled over on the couch and Spencer standing concernedly beside his sister.
Spencer could wrap himself in a blue gingham table cloth and duct tape and still look great to Sam. But at this moment, he wore a handsome red scoop-necked shirt, black jeans, and camel-beige suit jacket. As Sam walked up to her friends, she caught a whiff of Spencer's musky cologne.
"Hey, Sam. Carly's not feeling well. She thinks it may have been the tuna salad sandwich she bought from the cafeteria at lunch today?" Spencer spoke the last sentence as if it were a question. Sam smiled inwardly. Spencer was the most adorable, playful man she'd ever known, except when it came to the safety of his sister. Then, he was as a sober as a bomb squad agent.
"You can bet the haute cuisine of the Ridgeway cafeteria is to blame for this," Sam averred, putting air quotes around haute cuisine. Looking down at Carly, Sam pretended to scold, "Did I not tell you to order the tater tots?"
The corners of Carly's lips turned up slightly. "Thanks for trying to cheer me up. I just feel bad about ruining the fun evening we had planned for tonight." Sam immediately sat down on the couch and rubbed her friend's back empathetically to let her know she wasn't to blame for anything.
Spencer looked over to the beautiful woman who stood next to the fire extinguisher at the other end of the room. "Diane," he apologized, "I'm sorry, but I can't leave to go to dinner with you while my sister is sick at home."
Sam examined the woman with large blue eyes and shoulder-length brown hair, realizing she must be Spencer's new girlfriend. Diane huffed and rolled her eyes at him, complaining, "I won't be free for several weeks. I actually had to clear some items on my calendar to make room for this date with you tonight."
Spencer looked around helplessly, as if he'd dropped the solution to his dilemma somewhere on the Shays' untidy floor. Snapping his fingers, he exclaimed, "Hey! What about having dinner here? I could whip us up some of my famous spaghetti tacos, huh? Whaddya say?" Spencer stuck his tongue in his cheek and pumped his fists and shoulders in an awkwardly goofy dancing motion.
His boyish charm evidently had no effect on Diane. "But what about our dinner reservations at Chez LaFleur?" she whined.
Sam got up off the couch and stepped into the breach. "I'll take care of Carly. You two go on and have dinner at Chez LaFloor."
"LaFleur," Diane corrected.
"But what if Carly needs to go to the hospital? I can't take that chance. I'd better stay here," Spencer protested.
Sam held up her hand. "Carly's just got a stomach ache is all. She can sleep in your room while I watch TV out here. If anything goes wrong, Freddie and Mrs. Benson are right across the hall. And I have your cell number, so I can call or text you if there's a problem." Diane raised her eyebrows at Sam mentioning she had Spencer's cell number.
Spencer thought about Sam's offer for a minute. "Carly, what do you think.? Sound like a plan?"
Carly got up and slipped her arm loosely around Sam's shoulders and smiled up at her brother. "Sam won't let anything bad happen to me while you're gone. Go ahead and enjoy your evening; I promise I'll get Sam to call you if I need anything. I think I just need to sleep this off."
Spencer rubbed his chin. "Mmmmkay," he agreed quietly. Then, turning to Sam, he blurted, "Promise me you'll call if she needs anything?"
"Yes, yes, I promise. Now get going," she growled, placing her hands on Spencer's back and pushing him lightly toward the door.
"We're going, we're going. By the way, I set some corndogs out on the counter to thaw for you for when you came over."
Sam's eyes lit up. "Did you remember the honey mustard?"
Spencer winked back at her from an angle only she could see. "Shoosh, yeah!" he inflected, grabbing Diane's designer red raincoat for her.
While slipping her arms into the sleeves of the coat Spencer held up by its shoulders, Diane curled her lips with disgust and repeated incredulously, "Corndogs and honey mustard?"
Spencer thought fast. "Yeah. You know, Carly and her friends seem to really like them, so I pick them up at Hey Food once in a while." Diane nodded in bored understanding.
Spencer spun around to watch Sam help Carly shuffle over towards his bedroom. "Promise you'll text if Carly needs anything?" he called out to Sam.
"I got this!" Sam yelled back at him without anger. Spencer held up his hands in mock surrender and closed the door after he and Diane left.
Sam walked Carly down the short hallway past Spencer's bathroom to his bedroom and helped her into Spencer's bed and under his fluffy blue comforter. "Do you need anything? Like an aspirin or something?" Sam asked, her hands perched maternally on her hips.
"Nah, I think I just need to sleep this off," Carly muttered, snuggling under the covers. "Truth be told, I'm kind of glad Spencer took his date out for the evening instead of having dinner with her here. Even when he's using his normal speaking voice he's kinda loud."
Sam chuckled at Carly's truthful comment. "Yup. He'd make a horrible librarian."
Carly giggled in the middle of her yawn. "I know, right? Well, good night, Sam. Thanks for being my friend," she mumbled, burying her face in her brother's pillow.
"Mama's got ya," Sam whispered, affectionately touching the foot of Spencer's bed before crossing the floor of his room to leave.
Shutting the door to Spencer's bedroom, Sam didn't have to wonder what to do next to amuse herself. She bolted over to the kitchen counter and easily found the two corndogs Spencer had set out for her on a plate to thaw. Removing their wrappers, she popped them in the microwave for a minute. While the machine whirred and spun the glass plate inside around, she removed a jar of honey mustard and can of Peppy Cola from the refrigerator. Five piercing beeps from the machine indicated that her meal was done.
Sam's mouth began to water as she pulled her steaming plate of food from the oven. Carrying her plate, jar of mustard, and can of cola over to the couch, Sam thought wryly, Diane can have her snooty food at Chez LaFloor as much as she wants. I'll take my carnival chow any day.
With one hand, Sam dipped her corndog into the sweet mustard and took a generous bite. With her other hand, she grabbed the TV remote and surfed the Shays' channel guide. While browsing, she remembered that her favorite cartoon Girly Cow was "now playing" on channel 147. Sam highlighted the channel and clicked.
A few minutes into the program, Sam noticed that Spencer had left his Game Station out on the floor and that a DVD-shaped black case with an eye-catching insert was sitting open right beside the gaming system.
Sam got up and walked over to Spencer's entertainment unit. She picked up the case and examined its cover. "Girly Cow Racing," Sam snickered deprecatingly, reading the cover aloud. For all that Sam made fun of video game geeks, she was excellent at electronic games and enjoyed them immensely whenever she "borrowed" a handheld gaming device from a Ridgeway freshman at school.
Ehh, she shrugged her shoulders while pressing the button in the middle of the case to pop out the plastic blue disc, I got nothing better to do. Might as well give this game a whirl. Punching the power button on the Game Station console and feeding the disc into the machine's loading tray, Sam pushed Input on her remote until the game's colorful demo flickered onto the TV screen.
Not one to "waste" time scanning instruction manuals, Sam sank back into the couch and immediately navigated to the character selection screen in the game. In typical style, she opted for the fiercest, most aggressive-looking racer available. After she made her choice, the game cued her to pick which track to race on. Sam selected the easiest course and pressed Enter to begin the race.
After doing poorly her first couple of forays on the beginner's circuit, Sam eventually found herself catching on to the game's mechanics with comparative ease and was especially pleased with all the boffo weapons at her disposal, including heat-seeking missiles and plasma blasters. All perfectly wonderful ways to hurt people, she smirked to herself, mashing the buttons on her black controller furiously.
The next thing she knew, the game screen prompted her to enter her initials, as one of her race times had evidently earned her a place on the game's high score screen. Sam guffawed with delight then, realizing Carly was still asleep, covered her lips with her hand as if to stuff the noise she just made right back in her mouth.
Using the game's virtual keyboard, Sam typed in her initials: PWN. I pwn you, Spencer Shay, she thought, licking her lips with satisfaction. She pressed the controller's X button to confirm her entry on course number one's leaderboard.
Feisty from her win, Sam got the mischievous notion to beat all twenty of Spencer's high scores for each track of the game. As she continued to play, she didn't notice she'd barely eaten half of her second corndog, which sat neglected on the plate next to her on the couch.
She had gotten through half of the courses by the time Spencer walked back into the apartment from his date. Sam pressed Pause on her controller and looked up at Spencer. "Hey, Spencer. Back so soon?"
Spencer seemed grumpier than normal as he took off his jacket and threw it on a nearby chair. "Whaddya mean soon? It's eleven o'clock. How's Carly?"
Sam checked her watch in disbelief. Ironically, she had lost all track of time while playing a racing game.
She shifted her focus back to Spencer. "Carly's still asleep. So, how did your date with Dana go?"
Spencer flopped dejectedly onto the couch beside his sister's best friend. "Her name's Diane. And the date went awful, actually," he pouted.
Sam tried not to look excited. "Why was it awful? Did you accidentally set her car on fire when you opened the glove compartment?"
Spencer shook his head. "No, nothing that harmless. It's just that I don't think I made a very good impression. Like when we were driving over to the restaurant, Diane politely told me to stop singing along with the song on the radio."
Sam stifled a snort of laughter. She and Spencer drowned out songs on the radio all the time with their singing whenever they drove around town together. She thought their spontaneous karaoke sessions were adorable. "That's it?" she nudged, "Or did anything else go wrong?"
"Well, after dinner at the restaurant, I took her to an art gallery to check out a new exhibit there."
"And … she didn't like it?"
"It wasn't that. It was just … She seemed to have a general appreciation for art without having a lot of respect for artists. In not so many words, she implied that I was wasting my life as an artist and should get a real job." Spencer noticed for the first time Sam's half-eaten corndog on the couch beside her. "You gonna eat that?" he inquired, pointing across her lap at the unfinished meal.
"Has she seen your art?" Sam asked emphatically as she passed him her plate. "You are an artist. It's not your job - it's who you are."
"She doesn't really look at it that way. And I highly doubt I'll be seeing her again. Probably for the best, as I wouldn't be able to hide my love for corndogs from her for very long. And I'm not really into chicks who want to change me anyway." Sam looked away, pressing her lips together.
Spencer placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, savoring a big bite of the corndog. "So what about you? What have you been doing all evening? What's this you're watchin'?" He pointed at the TV screen with his chin.
Sam gave her arms a stretch and bragged, "Oh, I've just been sitting here, beating all of your high scores on Girly Cow Racing."
Spencer nearly choked on his corndog. "What? You did not! Gimme that," he sputtered, putting down his plate on the coffee table with a loud clank and grabbing the game controller out of Sam's hand. Aiming the wireless accessory at the Game Station, Spencer navigated the screens on the TV until he found the game's main leaderboard. After a few seconds of skimming the results, he triumphed, "You did not beat all my best times. Like half of them, at most."
"That's because you walked through the door before I could break your records on the rest."
"Is that so?" Spencer smiled competitively, tipping his head slightly to the side. "Care for a little one-on-one virtual racing? Or maybe you're not up for the challenge."
"Oh, you are so on!" Sam accepted while walking around the coffee table to grab the second controller laying on the floor in front of the TV.
She returned to the couch while he set the game for a two-player match up. After they had both selected their characters, they began to race.
Much to Spencer's chagrin, Sam's time alone with the game that evening had allowed her ample opportunity to hone her skills quite nicely. Although he came in a close second in several of the races, he managed to beat her in only a couple.
Spencer eventually had enough. He set his controller down emphatically on the wooden coffee table and conceded, "Okay, that's it. Your skills are clearly superior to mine in this game. But I'm going to find one that I know you won't be able to beat me at." He got up off the sofa and walked over to the TV set. Kneeling down in front of the TV stand, he started searching through a stack of video game and DVD cases.
"What are you looking for?" Sam demanded after Spencer spent several minutes hyperactively sifting through his media library.
Spencer stood up and shushed her loudly. Turning around and marching back to the couch, he held a video game case close up to her nose and made mocking grunting noises. Grabbing his wrist, Sam pushed his arm back far enough for her to read to the title on the game case. "Oh. Pak-Rat," she sighed with disappointment.
"Yeah, baby! And who's the best Pak-Rat player in the world again?"
Spencer cackled as he crouched down to slip the disc into the Game Station's receiving tray and gently push it in. Returning to the sofa, Spencer rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Because of the game's simplistic mechanics and graphics, it loaded speedily.
It didn't take long for Sam to see why Carly's older brother was the reigning world champion at Pak-Rat. She spent most of the time watching Spencer rack up an obnoxiously high score, and what few turns she got to play were invariably short. Sam knew there was no way she could compete with him.
At around midnight, Sam ultimately decided to put an end to the gaming session that Spencer probably could have stretched out for days. "Spencer," she yawned.
"Yeah?" he answered hypnotically, not looking up from the TV.
"I'm tired. You've clearly won. Let's call it a night, okay?"
Somewhat reluctantly, he set down the controller. Standing up, he put his hand on his hips. "All right. We'll call it a night. But first you have to do one thing."
Sam's heart began to pound. "What's that?"
"You," he insisted, pointing at her, "have to concede that I am the Pak-Rat master!"
Sam stood up and beamed involuntarily back at him, lifting her arms up in a praising gesture. "Spencer Shay, you are the Pak-Rat master. Happy?"
"Yes. Actually, I am. And thanks for being here for Carly while I went on my stupid date. It meant a lot to me."
Sam waved a hand. "Yeah, well. You owe me," she joked. "And for what it's worth, I'm sorry your date ended up so lame."
"Actually, it was a pretty good night, when you consider. I mean, I had a lot of fun beating a good friend at my favorite game of all time." He gave her one of those small lopsided grins that always killed her. And even in the low living room light, she spotted a twinkle in his hazel eyes.
When he continued to stare at her face for a few seconds longer, heat involuntarily rose to her cheeks. Anxious to avoid embarrassment, she turned her head away from him and asked self-consciously, "What?"
Spencer walked up to her with a slightly serious expression on his face and placed his index finger on her chin. Turning her head gently toward him, he murmured, "You got a little honey mustard on your cheek." Then, with his thumb, he wiped the spot of mustard from her face as she gazed up at him, spellbound.
Spencer looked down at his thumb for a second before licking off the spot of mustard there. Sam swallowed hard.
"Anyway, good night, kid," Spencer said, ruffling Sam's hair with his long, slender fingers. "And thanks again for looking out for Carly while I was out."
With surprising energy for it being so late, Spencer ran around the sofa and bounded up the stairs to Carly's room where he would presumably crash for the night.
Sam found herself alone in the quiet living room with only the outside city lights providing any kind of illumination. Sam lay down on the sofa and covered herself with a nearby blanket.
As she closed her eyes and pulled the thin blanket up to her chin, she allowed the tape recorder in her mind to play back some of the conversation she'd had that evening. Sleepy with half-dreamy thoughts, Sam found herself concurring with Spencer that "it was a pretty good evening, when you consider."