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Tragedies Stranger Than Fiction: Chapter 3
As he stands behind the register in 7-Eleven, seventeen-year-old Mateo De La Cruz can't help but despise his cashier job. The flickering lights above his head only add to his frustration, and the sight of the snacks and supplies on the dirty shelves does nothing to lift his spirits.

He longs to reach into his backpack and find his trusty Walkman, but the last thing he wants is to have his boss breathing down his neck. With a sigh, the skinny teen looks up at the night sky, lost in thought, as memories of his childhood hangouts with street kids and skaters flood his mind.

They didn't have homes or schools to go to, so the kids shoplifted stores, tagged every street with profanity and dick drawings, and smoked cigarettes until their visions got hazy.

However, as time grew, his friends drifted apart, leaving Mateo to fend for himself. He lied, stole from adults, and crashed on couches. Foster care damaged him, schools confused him, and all of his friends and family have either died or left Mateo - except Johnny and Cricket, of course.

Mateo thinks about the rent money his roommates owe as he glances at the cash register. He adjusts his orange beanie, letting his thick, black curls brush the back of his neck.

Mateo's eclectic style includes a Yin-Yang necklace, an oversized, bright red Hawaiian-print shirt, baggy jeans, and well-worn black Adidas sneakers. Though Mateo is shorter than his customers, his slim skateboarder build allows him to wear whatever he likes. As he unwraps a stick of bubblegum, the white sleeves of his undershirt cover his arms.

Shortly as Sonic Youth finishes singing "Bull in the Heather" from the mediocre speakers, 2Pac's "Picture Me Rollin" slides inside Mateo's ears, making his lousy shift feel less unbearable.

Once the customer leaves the station, Mateo almost chokes on his gum when he sees seventeen-year-old Nadia Swan taking out a pack of beer from the fridge.

Mateo coughs a few times before spitting a pink glob into the small trash can. He then picks out the pieces of broccoli stuck inside his teeth, uses the Ocean Breeze deodorant he stole from Walmart, smoothes out his shirt, and straightens his posture.

His eyes widened at her yellow floral blouse. Her layered choker drapes over her denim overalls. Her red Converse sneakers shift across the tiles as Nadia places all her selected items on the counter.

"Uh, hey, Nadia." he greets quickly.

"Hi." Nadia greets him back.

"Hey," Mateo repeats. "Did you find what you're looking for?"

Nadia places the massive bag of corn chips, cigarette packs, beer bottles, and rolling papers on the counter.

"Holy shit," Mateo remarks. He grabs the bag and then waves the price gun over the barcode. "That's a lot of stuff."

"They're not for me," Nadia giggled. "They're for my friends outside."

"Oh, right." Mateo nods, scanning the rolling papers with his gun. "Well, that explains the booze and the cigarettes. Your friends seem pretty hardcore."

Folding her arms, Nadia snorts, "Are you saying I am not hardcore?"

"Nah, Korn is hardcore," Mateo states. "Eating a big bowl of spicy wings without drinking a glass of milk is hardcore. I look at you, and I see a badass."

"What the fuck is the difference?"

Mateo stashes the items inside the grocery bag except for the pack of beers sitting near the jar of lottery tickets.

"Badass people don't try very hard to be cool, while hardcore people make everything seem easy on the outside."

"Well, duh," said Nadia. "No one can go on stage and perform a killer solo in front of thousands of people."

"Yeah, but I have seen people do awesome shit for dumb reasons," said Mateo. "Anyway, you got your ID? For the beer, I mean?"

Bobbing her head, Nadia reaches into her bag, whips out her ID, and gives it to Mateo. He blinks at the card briefly, then shoves it back into Nadia's hands.

"Jesus, Nadia." Mateo snorts. "My ex-boyfriend can make fake IDs way better than yours."

"Oh, come on, Matt," Nadia pleads, hoping to change his mind. "Just this once?"

"No."

"Please, for me?"

"Ugh, fine."

"Thank you so much," Nadia beams, watching him scan the barcode on the beer package. "You won't regret it."

Mateo flashes her a compressed smile. He's already regretting this moment, but hanging out with Nadia is the only thing exciting in his life. She has a nice body, a beautiful smile, and a therapeutic voice. He goes weak in the knees for the mysterious, artistic loner type.

Scratching the acne scar under his chin, Mateo gives her an awkward smile. "How's the movie theater biz coming along?"

"It's okay," Nadia shrugs, smoothing her Afro. "I mean, the pay is shit, and the job is boring, but it beats school."

Mateo scrunches his face. "So, what do you do again?"

"Sometimes, I help my father manage the theater," said Nadia. "Other times, I take phone calls, make popcorn, and take out the trash."

"Shit," Mateo frowns. "Isn't that kind of stressful?"

As she passes her fifty-dollar bill to him, Nadia shakes her head before responding, "It may not be ideal, but at least I can support my family."

Suddenly, her attention turns to Mateo behind the counter. "So anyways, how are you doing?"

"Bored as fuck." Mateo snickers, pushing the buttons on the keypad. "I want to go outside and nail some tricks on my board, but I need to help my roommates with the rent."

Nadia raises her eyebrow. "So, it's just you and your friends living at the apartment complex?"

"Yep."

"Do your parents mind?"

"They couldn't care less."

After Mateo hands Nadia her change, he yanks the receipt and shoves it inside his plastic grocery bag.

"Thank you so much," she beams. "I'll see you around, okay?"

"Sure," Mateo gives her a friendly wave. "Have a sexy Friday, Nadia."

As soon as Nadia leaves the store, Mateo's smile shifts into a frown. He buries his face in his hand and then squeezes his eyes.

"Have a sexy Friday?" he recounts quietly. "What the fuck?"

*****
After Mateo clocks out, he seizes the opportunity to go to Blockbuster. He rents movies, buys varieties of candy, takes the bus back to Emerald Cove, enters the living room, and works his magic. First, Mateo stacks five cassette tapes on the plywood table. Next, Mateo opens four popcorn bags and tosses one in the microwave.

Heated kernels explode like gunfire. Golden butter showers in the air. He placed four bowls underneath the microwave, opened the fridge, and gathered four Surge cans and other drinks he stole from the convenience store.

After spreading snacks on the table, Mateo is about to slip the cassette tape into the VHS player when he hears Johnny Castillo playing Nirvana on his guitar.

Mateo groans. He storms out of the break room and then trespasses into Johnny's dorm, where the boy sees the nineteen-year-old sitting on his bed.

He wears a white Buzzcocks t-shirt and black pants with monochrome patterns Mateo designed on the fabric. The soft light bathes his nose and lip piercings. After tuning his guitar, Johnny places it next to the pile of bills on his bed and looks up at Mateo.

"Hey." he greets, rubbing his nose and lip piercing. "I thought you were at work."

Mateo shrugs his shoulders. "I was until I decided to do a movie night."

Johnny smirks. "Okay, so what are you doing here?"

"I'm here to tell you to stop playing that "Polly" song," said Mateo. "It's depressing as fuck."

"Do you ever hear me piss on your loud rap music?"

"No, but I constantly piss on your DIY clothes because they're tacky as fuck," Mateo retorts, gesturing to his friend's shirt. "I mean, come on, man! No one listens to the Buzzcocks anymore."

A fake smile stretches across his mouth as Johnny coldly flips him off.

"Anyway," Mateo continues, "Why are you always moping in your room?"

Johnny's fake smile vanishes. "I'm not."

"Yeah, you are," Mateo insists. "You haven't been this depressed since Kurt Cobain died."

Johnny tunes his guitar some more. "There is nothing wrong with a little peace and quiet."

"Yeah," agreed Mateo boredly. "But there is something wrong with locking yourself in your room. That's why I think you need some relaxation."

The dark and brooding James Dean stretches his arms and sighs, "Okay, so are we going to watch The Raven or The Creature from the Black Lagoon?"

"Ugh," Mateo groans, cringing in reaction. "Seriously, Johnny, the obsession with old monster movies needs to stop."

Johnny takes a moment to close his exhausted eyelids, then reopens them. "Well, what movies did you rent?"

Mateo starts listing off their movie options. "I snagged The Candyman, Sleepwalkers, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle-"

Johnny's smile falters at the last title. "Wait, you got The Hand that Rocks the Cradle?"

Mateo nods enthusiastically. "Yeah, I had to con some old guy into giving me the tape."

Johnny's jaw drops in disbelief. "You conned him?"

"And I stole his wallet," Mateo admits. "But the point is, we have the fucking living room all to ourselves, and yet all you can think about is being locked in your room playing some Depeche Mode song and writing your book."

"First of all, it's Nirvana, asshole," Johnny snaps in frustration. "Second, I don't have the title yet, but-"

"Come on, don't worry so much," Mateo consoles his friend. "I know you want to be the next Stephen King one day, but you need to learn to chill out first. Hakuna Matata-style."

Slowly but surely, Johnny begins to relax, his tense stance melting into a more carefree one. After a moment, he turns to Mateo and gives him a warm smile.

"Alright, Matt, I guess I'll join," he concedes, "But quick question, though: did you rent any John Hughes films?"

Mateo raises an eyebrow in surprise. "Are you fucking serious? Of course not."

Johnny scrunches his eyebrows, a hint of a skeptical frown on his lips. "Are you sure? Because last time we had a movie night, you chose Pretty in Pink."

Mateo makes a face of mock disgust. "Come on, it wasn't that bad."

"Really?" Johnny chuckles, his stress and worry now temporarily forgotten. "Does your crush on Duckie have something to do with it?"

Mateo rolls his eyes when he glances at the door, puts on a goofy smile, and sprints like a jogger completing a marathon.

Johnny, on the other hand, inches towards the edge of the chair with caution. He eyes the machete in his backpack and then draws it out - only for Mateo to shake his head.

"Relax, it's just Chris," he reassures Johnny. "I paged her the details and told her to buy some snacks at the store."

Speaking of Cricket, she enters Johnny's bedroom, hauling a bag of chips and a bottle of Pepsi in her arms.

She wears a long-sleeved, striped shirt and denim overalls. Her worn, dark green flannel tightens around her tiny hips. Acne sprays her face. Her brown curls drape on her shoulders as she carries the bag in her armpit.

"Hey, Matt," said Cricket. "Where do you want me to put away the honey barbecue chips again?"

"Take them to the living room," he instructs.

"Cool," said Cricket. "Hey, Johnny, want to watch some movies with us?"

Johnny crawls off his bed and then pushes his dark hair from his eyes with his soft fingers.

"Okay," he declares, getting up from his chair. "But I call dibs on the couch."

"And I call dibs on the M&Ms!" Cricket chimes in.

Mateo's jaw drops in shock. "Hey, how come you two get dibs?"

"Because you hog all the candy," Cricket explained with a sly grin.

"And you torched my fucking car last week," interjected Johnny.

"First off, we were in a traffic jam." Mateo snaps. "And second, we killed that headless horseman like it was a piece of cake."

"Yeah, but that windshield cost me three hundred bucks," Johnny replies. "So, I call dibs on the couch."

With a condescending pat on Mateo's shoulder, Johnny heads downstairs, whereas Cricket shakes her head in dismay.

"He's never going to let that go, is he?" guessed Mateo.

"I don't know," Cricket replies casually, giving a dismissive shrug. "I mean, you did break his windshield."

Mateo lets out a frustrated groan, feeling a wave of guilt wash over him, but Cricket quickly lightens the mood by handing him a bag of barbecue chips and flashing a charming smile.

"Come on, Matt," she urges with excitement, "Let's head downstairs before Johnny eats all the popcorn."

*******
After letting Ichabod crash into his bedroom, Mateo closes his door. He reluctantly follows Cricket and Johnny to the living room, where he sees the former couple removing VHS cassette tape boxes from the stack.

"Damn, Matt," she said, grinning. "You have a good taste in horror movies."

"What can I say?" Mateo smirked. "Johnny taught me very well."

Speaking of Johnny, he peers at the movies and then asks, "Are you sure you're comfortable watching Candyman, Mateo?"

"And Sleepwalkers?" inquired Cricket, lifting another Cassette tape box from the pile.

Mateo snorted a laugh and told his friends not to worry.

"Are you sure?" repeated Cricket. "Because the last time you watched IT with Johnny, you refused to take a shower for three weeks."

Johnny shoots her a look.

"Look, it was just a harmless dare," he says defensively. "Mateo bragged that he had watched Stanley Kubrick films back-to-back."

"So, you dared him to watch a fucking Stephen King movie?" snorted Cricket.

Johnny sighed. "Looking back, it was a stupid idea."

"Yeah, it was," she agreed. "That's why we are going to watch a movie that doesn't have monsters in it."

Johnny swivels his eyes to the ceiling.

"We kill monsters every day, Cricket," he reminds her. "It's not my fault Mateo couldn't handle a clown."

"Oh, fuck you," Mateo answered back angrily.

"Hey, you two," Cricket said sternly. "How about we just watch some movies and go to sleep, alright?"

Tucking her dreadlocks behind her ears, Cricket looks in Mateo's direction. "Did you rent Reservoir Dogs?"

"Nah," he answered. "Some asshole beat me to it."

Cricket groaned. "Ugh, why am I not surprised?"

Seriously? Johnny thinks. Cricket hates horror movies with blood and guts in them. Yet, when it comes to Quentin Tarantino, she would quote every line from Reservoir Dogs - day and night.

And Mateo calls Johnny the weird kid.

Sitting on the living room couch, Johnny looks at Mateo and Cricket, then says, "Come on, let's watch Candyman and get some sleep. Is that cool with everyone?"

Cricket shrugs her shoulders. "Sounds good to me."

She pushes the videotape into the player's slot and turns on the TV with the remote while an eager Mateo squeezes himself between Johnny and Cricket on the living room couch.

"Is it starting?" he asks Cricket. "Is it starting?"

Cricket fumbles with the remote until the opening credits come on. Mateo and Johnny lean forward with curiosity, whereas Cricket gobbles down her popcorn and hums to the opening song.
© kstorm68q

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