Kernels

With every heel-to-toe step, my Starbury sneaks stuck to and then peeled off the popcorn-butter layered floor.  With each step it seemed more likely that I would leave the sole of my shoe behind.  This was as clear a sign as ever that we weren’t welcome here, that we should have stayed home.  Tate, my big brother, my only brother, shoved me in the back: “Hurry up!”  We wore bent-brimmed baseball caps, and Tate donned an old pair of eyeglasses with the lenses popped out.

For an eleven and twelve year old, it had been surprisingly easy to get into an R-rated action movie.  After buying tickets at one of those ticket kiosks using Mom’s Visa, we told the ticket taker that our Dad was already inside the theater waiting for us.  He poked his head in the door, looking as if he wanted to accompany us in, find our Dad for us, but there was no one to watch his post, so he just waved us through.

Tate’s big hand grabbed my right shoulder and tugged me into a row of seats.  I followed him and sat down next to him.  As soon as my ass hit the cushion, Tate stood up and moved down a seat.  He put his backpack in the seat between us and zipped it open.  “Help yourself,” he said.  Inside were value-size bags of candy, whole boxes of cookies, twenty-ounce bottles of soda, juice boxes, and several packs of flavor-changing gum.  I wondered if he’d charged these to Mom’s Visa, but knew it was more likely that it was all stolen.

Chocolate chips and cookie crumbs poured into my lap as I shoved a dozen or more cookies in my mouth throughout the previews.  These previews were better than the ones I’d seen before Disney movies.  These were R-rated previews: explosions and swears, nearly naked women and dirty jokes that I didn’t quite understand. I knew enough to know they were funny.

Thank God Tate had convinced me to come today.  I didn’t want to at first, but he told me we have to.  He told me this is Mom’s punishment.  She would be mad right now—wooden spoon mad.  She would smack Tate across the back of his head and cover my ears while she cursed at him, thinking I couldn’t hear.

But she wasn’t here; she had left us after breakfast to visit her new boyfriend, and this was her punishment.

As the last preview ended, something small and hard fell on the top of my earlobe.  I rubbed my ear and looked around, but didn’t see anything.  Then again, on my shoulder this time, another tiny little object.  I felt around on my lap and found it, pinched it between my fingers: a popcorn kernel.  I turned around in my seat and saw a couple boys with a tub of popcorn sitting three rows behind us, giggling.  It was too dark to make out their faces.

The moment I spun back around, a barrage of kernels rained down on my scalp and the back of my neck.  Tate was apparently under assault as well, because he turned around and said in a loud whisper, “Fuck off, will ya?”  There were several gasps among the audience.

The swear seemed to work, anyway, and the kernel throwers kept themselves in check as the movie began.  In the first scene, my heart beat fast and something in my stomach stirred as the hero sprang out of bed with not one, or even two, but three panty-clad women.  They begged him to stay, reaching out to him from the foot of the double king-sized bed as he walked out the door, but for some reason they couldn’t go after him.  They are stuck in that bed forever, I thought.  How sad.

My jaw hung open and spittle sprayed from my mouth as a much larger object bounced off the back of my head.  The plastic popcorn tub landed in front of us, kernels flying everywhere.  Tate bolted up immediately and began climbing over the chairs and people behind us.  His fearlessness was a natural law, like gravity or soccer moms driving minivans.  Laughing, the kernel throwers ran from their seats down the aisle and out of the theater, Tate on their heels.

I should have gone, too.  I should have run out the other exit and cut them off.  Even as I sunk lower into the cushions of my seat, not moving a muscle, I imagined myself cutting them off, knocking them on the ground.  Their heads would hit the ground and they would be unconscious.  Tate would spit on them and we’d go back into the theater and watch the rest of the movie without a seat between us.  Even as I finished this daydream, the doors to the theater opened again.  Only two pairs of footsteps returned. Anxious, I pushed another whole cookie in my cheeks.

The sticky, peeling footsteps made their way into my aisle.  As they got closer I realized neither of the approaching boys were Tate.  I remained frozen as one sat down in the seat to my right, the other picked up Tate’s backpack and sat in the seat to my left.  They were both giggling again.  I looked back and forth between the two exits, but Tate was nowhere to be seen.  Finally unfreezing, I stood, but the boys on either side of me pulled me back into my seat.  Did no one in the theater see what was happening to me?  I would have screamed, but I couldn’t.  Every muscle, every tendon and nerve in my body forbade it.

Up close, I could see the kernel throwers much clearer—in fact, one of them was not a boy.  The one on my left, with Tate’s backpack, was a girl, a teenager with a short, bowl haircut.  There were budding breasts beneath her sleeveless t-shirt, not like the breasts of the panty-clad women on the silver screen, but I had an odd feeling that they could be.  The kernel thrower on my right was shaved bald and his hands were slimy from the popcorn.

“Check out this stash,” the girl said to her friend (brother? cousin?).  She held out the backpack and the two of them stared in awe at the piles of junk food.  At first they stuffed their pockets with our snacks, but soon decided it would be easier to just take the backpack, too.  I wished Mom had never left us alone at the house.  I wished she’d stayed at home and made us do chores all day long.  I wished Tate had never convinced me to punish her, stolen her credit card.  I wish our bike tires had fallen off on the ride to the mall.  I wished the soles of our shoes had been cemented to the sticky floors so we couldn’t make it to our seats.  I wished Tate had never run out of the theater.  For a moment, I hated him for leaving me alone.

I also wished that I didn’t have a stiff bulge in the crotch of my denim shorts.  Silently, I prayed the girl sitting next to me wouldn’t notice, but it seemed tragically inevitable.  In the movie, the hero ran down a long hallway with a lady police officer in his arms (wearing what couldn’t possibly be a standard issue uniform).  Each door the hero passed exploded until he reached the end of the hallway and jumped out of the window.  Just before falling fifty stories to their deaths, they landed in the basket of a hot air balloon.

The kernel-throwing girl pulled a bottle of Wild Cherry Pepsi out of Tate’s backpack and twisted off the cap.  After taking a swig she said, “Thanks for the goods, kiddy.”  She turned the Pepsi bottoms up over my lap.  It gurgled out slowly, slower than liquid should flow out of a bottle, but I just sat there and let it run all over me, down my legs and into my Starburys, between my thighs, and under my ass.  The kernel throwers laughed their way out of the theater.

After they left, I imagined Tate coming back in the theater.  In my imagination, he brought me a clean pair of shorts and we watched the rest of the movie.  He told me everything was okay.

Half the credits had already rolled before I stood up and walked out, my whole lower body as sticky as the floor.  In the lobby, I found Tate.  Next to him were a mall security guard and Mom.  Mom bent down and pointed her finger at Tate.  He stamped his foot and threw his arms down at his side.  Mr. Mall Security put his hand on Mom’s shoulder.

Tate saw me and ran in my direction. “Why didn’t you follow me?” he asked. “What were you doing?”  He saw my shorts then.  “Did you fucking piss yourself? You’re such a little baby.  Where’s my backpack?”

Mom’s heels clicked as she made her way over.  Her right hand slapped Tate across the back of the head.  She grabbed us both by the wrist and dragged us out of the mall.

That night, after we were sent to bed early, I had a dream.  I dreamed that Tate and I were in the double king-sized bed from the movie.  Tate jumped out of the bed and ran.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t follow him; I could only reach for him from the foot of the bed and call out his name.  Never once did he turn and look as he ran directly away.  Two panty clad women pulled my back flat against the bed sheets.

I woke up in a cold sweat.  My sheets were wet and sticky.  I thought of Wild Cherry Pepsi.

by Mike Duncan

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