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The Pavement Kids

by Kelsey Syble 6 months ago in Short Story · updated 6 months ago
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Written By: Kelsey Syble

Source: Pexels

Even to this day, hot dogs are my kryptonite. Everything about them disgusts me. My chest tightens in pain when I smell one, and I have to leave the room if someone even so much as eats one in my presence.

It wasn't always like this. The irony is that Becca would think it's hilarious, but I can never tell her.

***

The downside to working remote at age twenty-six is that my parents demand I fly home for the Fourth of July from my shoebox studio in New York City to their sprawling retirement home in rural Alabama.

"I was just there," I complained into my phone a week ago.

"You mean in December?" Mom snapped back.

In the background, my dad's raspy voice called out: "Darlene, he probably has plans. Leave him alone."

"You guys are welcome to come here," I said. "My coworker has a house on Long Island. You'd love it there."

"We're your parents, Andrew, and we haven't seen you in months. You're coming home!" Mom insisted.

So here I am, on the second day of July, waiting outside baggage claim at the Birmingham airport. My hands are in my pockets and a Yankees baseball hat sits backwards on my head.

"You're such a bro," Becca would tell me if she could. She'd scrunch her pastel blue eyes at me in feigned disgust and fight the curving of her lips. I'd try not to smile, too. "What's wrong with you, Drew? Wear it the normal way, for God's sake."

My chest aches at this ghost of a memory. I haven't smiled in a long time, at least not genuinely.

"Drew?"

I turn and there's my father, wearing a collared shirt and khaki pants, even in the summer heat. He grins through his round glasses, and reaches out to hug me awkwardly.

"Good to see you, son. Let's go- your mother's in the loading zone."

Not much happens on the drive from the airport to my parents' new house. I go through the motions, telling them about my job in finance, my new apartment, and the girls I'm casually seeing.

"Why are you dating so many?" my mom asks at one point.

I shrug and reply, "Because I can."

"Don't you want a girlfriend?"

"Darlene," Dad says quietly.

If Becca were in the car, she'd lean forward, twirl a strand of her short chestnut hair around her finger, and tell my mother I'm what they call a "Finance Bro."

Suddenly an unpleasant thought pops into my head.

"Mom?" I say.

She sighs and flips a page of her book. "Yes?"

I swallow. "We're not having hot dogs on the Fourth, right?"

The book shuts abruptly. She glances at my father, who is ignoring us both, then faces forward from where she sits in the passenger seat. She draws in a deep breath and closes her eyes. "No, Andrew, don't worry. I know you hate them now."

***

Mom makes her infamous spicy spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. I listen to her and Dad gossip about the locals, people who never "made it out," unlike me and the rest of my childhood friends.

Well, all except for one.

I help Mom dry dishes as I stare out the window of her kitchen into the backyard, where my Dad is now walking their Dalmatian, Jax. As soon as I graduated college, they decided to sell the house I'd grown up in, move farther out to a deserted plot of land, and buy a puppy. Sometimes I wonder if they did all that just to keep me away from the old neighborhood.

Once the final dish is dried, I open the screen door and call out, "Hey, Dad, can I have the keys?"

"Sure," he replies without even looking up from Jax, who is now squatting into the grass with a perplexed expression.

"W-where are you going?" Mom stammers.

"I just want to take a drive," I tell her.

"Gas prices are through the roof-" she starts.

"I'll fill the tank, Mom."

"Andrew, don't go there, please," she pleads.

I ignore her and breeze out the front door towards Dad's red Chevy truck.

The girls I see in the city are usually from urban areas in Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Rhode Island. Miami is the farthest South they'll ever go. They like to compliment my light Southern drawl, and most of them ask if I grew up on a farm.

"No," I always smirk. "But I grew up near one."

The Vincents' farm hasn't changed, even after all these years. Situated on forty acres, its cows, horses, and series of light red barns are a blur as I drive past. The sun is setting now as I move along the crunchy country roads I'd worked so hard in high school to leave behind forever.

The same brick sign greets me at the entrance: "Blue Hills Drive." It's the kind of neighborhood you see in the movies, where each house is distinct from one another with their own character and charm. Families from other neighborhoods all over town take their kids trick-or-treating here, because it's picturesque and perfectly laid out for that.

The same manicured lawns of green and clean white sidewalks from my memories remain. I drive extra slowly as I turn a corner, because a group of four kids on bicycles are riding towards me. I watch them shriek with glee as they race each other, and suddenly I'm thrown into the past.

The Pavement Kids. That's what they used to call us. Ashton, Kyle, Becca, and me. Probably because we traveled through the neighborhood like we owned every part of it, from the river to the farm to the paved streets. Or maybe because at one point or another, we'd all scraped our knees on the pavement. Well, all except for one.

No matter what season it was, we'd ride our bicycles up and down the neighborhood everyday after school, and on weekends. In the spring, Becca's father would invite us on their boat, and we'd go tubing on the river. In the summer, we'd place a sprinkler under Kyle's trampoline and see who could jump the highest in the mist. In the fall, we'd "camp" in a tent in Ashton's backyard, and make campfires and tell ghost stories. In the winter, we'd play board and video games in my basement, because the amount of snow we got - if any - was too pathetic.

Rather than a knee, Becca scraped her face one summer while trying to prove she could ride her bike with no hands like the rest of us (she couldn't). Ashton found her while Kyle and I were inside my house, grabbing Gatorades for our next adventure by the river.

"GUYS! I think Becca's dying!" Ashton screamed as he burst through the front door of my old house.

I immediately dropped the bottles and took off past Ashton and Kyle, out the door, down the steps of my parents' old front porch, and ran so hard my lungs hurt. She was on the main road, holding her bloody face and sobbing.

Although I'd inherited my dad's height at age thirteen, I was too skinny to reasonably carry a curvy teen girl. Yet, somehow, I did it. I picked her up as though she were a feather, and ran through various neighbors' side yards; around Mrs. Quincy's freshly planted rose garden; across Mr. Whipper's front lawn where he and his young girlfriend sunbathed; past them, apologizing profusely as he cursed us ("You damn Pavement Kids!"); and finally to the Matthews' house on the opposite end of the neighborhood where the river sat.

I found Becca's dad by their dock, polishing his little motor boat like it were a precious yacht.

"Mr. Matthews, Becca's hurt!" I exclaimed.

He turned to look at us, and merely frowned. "What the hell did you do this time?" he snapped at her. "You're always being so dramatic."

"Daddy, I didn't mean to-" Becca wailed.

"Shut up!" he demanded. "Give her to me!"

He took her from my arms, and I watched helplessly as he loaded her into his SUV. The front door to their house opened, and Mrs. Matthews stuck her head out to ask what happened, but Mr. Matthews was already driving away, as if she didn't exist.

Later that year, Becca entered a poetry contest at school, and won. She'd written about dandelions wavering in the wind, silent and weak, despite the thunderstorm looming overhead. It wasn't until I was twenty-two, drunk in a bar in Los Angeles and silently wishing the blonde beside me was Becca, that everything clicked into place.

The poem wasn't just about flowers. She was upset with her mother, who'd never protected her.

A small part of me worried for years afterwards... was she also upset with me?

Becca liked boys who were mean to her, but not in the same way that Ashton, Kyle, and I teased her. She fell for boys who angrily called her "Drama Queen" and "Bitch"; boys who passionately told her to "Shut up." Boys who broke her heart.

Becca's relationship with Ashton and Kyle differed from mine. Sometimes, she and I would argue so heatedly about what game to play, that Ashton and Kyle would drop their bikes to the grass, sigh, and sit on the sidewalk to watch. They'd place their chins in their hands, bored and annoyed. I'll never forget the one time they ditched us to watch TV at Kyle's, and we didn't notice until thirty minutes later. Becca and I burst out laughing at the realization, and then just like that, our argument was over. We rode our bikes side-by-side to Kyle's, trying not to look at each other or else we'd start laughing breathlessly again.

Sometimes, I came close to calling her the ugly names she craved. Becca certainly never held back with her insults. But... I never did. It would have hurt me more than it would ever have hurt her.

Now in present day, I drive cautiously and slowly through Blue Hills Drive, past Ashton's parents' house where they still live; past Kyle's grandparents' house where they still live; past my parents' old house that a young family now owns; and finally, to the opposite end of the neighborhood, to the house that used to belong to Becca's parents. After their nasty divorce during our senior year of high school, they both left the state - her dad went to Nevada, her mom went to Tennessee - and gifted the mortgage-free house to Becca.

Becca lives there now, with her husband.

One year ago, on the Fourth of July, I sat on a rooftop in the city with friends. Pop music blasted and the smell of barbecue filled the air around me as I put a hot dog to my lips. Just as I took that first bite, my phone began to buzz in my pocket. I lifted it and was stunned to see a picture of Kyle, who has lived in Atlanta since college. We hadn't texted for a few months at this point.

"Hey, man," I said, my voice muffled around beef. "What's going on?"

"Are you sitting down?" Kyle asked.

I swallowed and paused. "Um, yes?"

Kyle chuckled nervously. "So at first, Ashton and I tried flipping a quarter when he was visiting from Denver last night, but it slipped through the cracks on my balcony. Then we played rock, paper, scissors, which was a mistake - I should have played something that takes more skill, like poker. You know Ashton can't win a game of poker to save his life. He has no acting abilities. Anyways, basically, he won rock, paper, scissors. And I really didn't want to have to be the one to tell you the news, but..."

I waited, but Kyle said nothing else.

"What news?" I finally asked.

"I don't know how to say it..."

"Just say it, Kyle."

"Okay..."

"Kyle."

"Becca got married..."

Here is where I nearly choked on my next bite. The tall redhead I'd been seeing at the time - God, I wish I could remember her name - panicked and began to slap my back.

"...to Trevor Wintry."

"What the fuck?" I cried out, tears filling my eyes.

"Oh my God, are you okay?!" the redhead exclaimed.

I swallowed everything down, threw my plate in the trash nearby, and turned away to hide my face from the small crowd that had formed to check on me. The sun blazed on overhead; fireworks began to crackle in the distance among the silver skyscrapers; voices of concern trailed behind me; but all I could think about was Becca's gorgeous freckled face, bruised and bloody, and Trevor's chiseled jaw, smug and haughty.

And all I could taste and smell was the damn hotdog.

"Hey, trespasser."

I'm hallucinating. Either that, or I've died and gone to Heaven somehow.

It's Becca, standing outside my dad's truck, smiling softly at me as she nervously plays with a strand of her chestnut hair. She's wearing a white cotton sundress covered in daisies, and her feet are bare, revealing chipped red toenail polish. Behind her, just beyond her childhood home, the pink sky and orange sun kiss the top of the river around the dock, which Becca clearly hasn't been maintaining. It's falling apart, missing wooden planks, and its handrails appear loose and unstable.

I stare wordlessly at this ghost I've been avoiding since the news of her marriage. Large bags sit under her blue eyes, and she looks a lot thinner than I remember. All our lives, her hair sat above her shoulders. But now, it is long, touching her waist.

She is beautiful. She always was. She always will be.

"Do you wanna come in?" she asks with a grin.

I shake my head instantly, and her smile falters.

"Trevor isn't home," she tells me.

"Why would I go inside?" I ask.

Becca narrows her eyes at me. "Why are you wearing that god-awful hat the wrong way? Come on, Drew, you're better than that."

"Better than the Yankees?" I humor her.

"Better than the bros," she quips.

Without thinking, I take the hat off. Becca's eyes widen. This isn't how our conversations usually go.

"Drew, I'm teasing you. Put it back on," she says uncertainly.

I just stare at her, taking in every detail I can, because I'm well aware it may be the last time I see her for a while.

"Can you at least get out of the truck?" she asks quietly. She takes a few steps back so that she's standing in the middle of the empty street.

I sigh, and then turn the keys until the engine shuts off. Reluctantly, I step out of the truck, shut the door, and lean against it.

Now it's just Becca, me, the chirping crickets, and the flickering lightning bugs.

She folds her arms and smiles tightly. "I thought I'd never see you again, after you found out."

"Is that why you did it?" I ask.

She stares at me. "Did what?"

"Marry him."

Becca shakes her head, annoyed, and mutters something I can't make out under her breath.

I run a hand through my curly hair without thinking, something I always do when I'm stressed. Becca's face softens.

She steps closer. "I miss you," she whispers.

"Then why did you do it?" I whisper back.

She blinks at me. "Why didn't you kiss me?"

"What?" I ask. "When?"

Her eyes are suddenly so sad, it pains me, and I look away.

"When we were alone in my tent," she tells me with a sigh so heavy, I wonder how long she's held this in. "Senior year. When Kyle and Ashton insisted we "camp" one last time before college. They were by the fire, making S'mores. I went into the tent Mrs. Bailey bought for me because she said I was too old to sleep in the same tent as the boys now, remember? She said I was too "blossomed," whatever that means."

Becca and I both laugh.

"And then," Becca continues now, clasping her hands together at her waist and staring down as she speaks, "you came into the tent, and we started talking about California. You said you couldn't wait to leave for USC, and I said - "

"- you wanted to come with me," I finish.

Becca and I gaze at each other in silence. Something in my chest burns.

The truth was, I wanted to kiss her that night in the tent. I wanted to run my hands through her hair and pull her close and never let her go. But I knew she couldn't come with me to USC. I was moving into a dorm, and she'd just accepted the responsibility of her childhood home. She was supposed to attend the local community college part-time, and waitress part-time. We were still just kids, and I was terrified. I wasn't ready to be a man. I couldn't take care of her the way she deserved back then.

But when I was finally ready, it was too late. By my junior year of college, she'd dropped out of school and started seeing Trevor, the jock from high school who became a carpenter.

I told myself I'd wait until Becca left him. She always left them after a while. But this time was different. Trevor wasn't just mean. He was abusive. And for some reason, Becca stayed.

"I always wondered how things might have turned out if we'd kissed," she says now as she takes another step towards me. She reaches out tentatively and grabs my hand, gently squeezing it. "If I knew you cared about me, maybe I would have waited for you."

"Becca," I say in devastated disbelief, "I didn't just care... I loved you."

"How could you not say it?" she cries out, gazing up at me tearfully.

I squeeze her hand. "How could you not know?"

She tilts her head now, moving closer, revealing a bruise on her left cheek in the light beneath the lamppost. Just to the right of her upper lip, I can see the faint scar from her bicycle accident.

She's leaning in for the kiss we never had...

...and I drop her hand, step back, and reach out for the truck door. "I'd better go."

"You never loved me," she declares angrily. She's sobbing hard now. "If you loved me, you would never leave me. But you're always leaving me, Drew."

Suddenly I can see it all so clearly, like I'm 18 again, back in that tent in Ashton's yard. Kyle's muffled voice drifts from beyond the walls of the tent as he argues with Ashton about how Star Wars is better than Star Trek.

Becca's in front of me, her hair short again and her eyes bright, and she's laughing and talking excitedly about how sunny California must be. But all I can think about are her long eyelashes and those freckles across her nose. Our knees are touching just barely, and it's taking every bit of self-control I have to not stare down at her body. She tells me she wishes she could sell poetry for a living, and I can't help but smile.

"You really have a way with words, Bec," I tell her.

She bites her lip and shoves me playfully. "Stop it, you're making me blush."

"I mean it," I insist. "Don't ever stop writing, Becca. You have a gift."

Her smile evaporates and she becomes serious. She says nothing. She looks from my eyes to my lips, and back to my eyes.

And like a fool, I ignore the hammering in my chest, and all the signs, and I don't kiss her.

But what if I had?

Would she have come to California, or waited for me in Alabama? Would I have gotten my degree, or stayed behind to marry her? Would we be living it up in New York City, or settled with kids in our hometown?

In present day, I start to cry. It dawns on me that no matter the outcome, I would have led a happier life with Becca in it.

I ruined everything.

She looks concerned through her own pain, and rushes forward to hug me.

But this time, I gently grab her face and press my lips to hers.

It's just a kiss, and it can't save her, or turn back time. A kiss can't cure my hot dog allergy, or stop me from seeing Becca's face in every woman I make love to for the rest of my life. If anything, it will exaggerate how lovesick I've been for her since we met at age four.

But for now, I don't think about those things. I just enjoy the kiss. I pretend that we're not adults with problems or bills or regrets. For now, in this moment, we're just The Pavement Kids again.

Short Story

About the author

Kelsey Syble

A Southern born-and-raised writer now navigating her twenties in the Northeast.

Follow me on Instagram: @kelseysyble

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