“Twenty-five cents, please,” Edd said, holding up the glass jar to Johnny. The nearly bald boy dug into his pocket, pulled out a shiny quarter, and deposited it. Although Edd would be happy to let Johnny enter, he knew that Eddy would demand everyone pay. “And Plank?” he asked, turning the jar to the painted wooden board that Johnny cradled in the crook of his arm.
Johnny turned to Plank, watching his painted face for an answer. “Sure I got it, buddy,” he said and pulled another quarter out of his pocket. A forged wooden quarter. “Plank says he’s a little short this week. He can pay you on his next allowance.”
Edd plucked the quarter out of the jar, examining it and frowning. He didn’t want to make waves, but he knew Eddy wouldn’t accept that excuse. Then again, it was unfair to gouge Johnny twice for his unique friendship, so he lifted the curtain and welcomed the pair inside. “This way, please” Edd said, waving him inside the giant patchwork tent. “Follow the painted line.”
“Oh, boy, Plank! Let’s go! You think it has five stomachs too?” Johnny nearly tripped over himself running inside with his best friend.
Sighing, Edd read the signs topping the tent. “See the Amazing Five-Headed Ed!” and below it “25 cents to enter” were crudely painted on old bits of pink and green fences and strung to the frame of the tent. He walked back to his table with the jar and set it down. Fishing out the wooden quarter, he looked it over. Eddy wouldn’t be happy about this at all.
Near his feet, he spied the bucket of metallic grey paint they had used to paint the sign and inspiration flashed in his mind. Surely he wouldn’t notice, he said, dipping the quarter into the paint until it was a solid grey. Once their scam was complete and Ed had finished removing the fake extra heads they had spent hours building, Eddy would gleefully snatch the jar and only see a few days’ worth of jawbreakers. The jar could accidentally lose one quarter one day. I’ll just go without a jawbreaker, he said, airing off the quarter and placing it back in the jar. His friends would protest, but he would play the martyr and no one would be the wiser.
Edd shoved off the thought of missing out on that mouth-watering ball of sugar. He straightened his polka dot bow tie and dusted the non-existent dirt from his long red shirt, waiting for the next customer. Yet none of the other kids from the cul-de-sac were in sight and there wasn’t much to do, but wait. So Edd stooped down and grabbed his label gun from off the ground. He typed out “Money jar” and placed the new sticker next to the glass jar, then examined all the labeled contents. He had covered the jar, the table, the paint, the paintbrush, the curtain covering the table, Marie Kanker…
“Oops, missed that one,” he said, setting up his label gun. “Let’s see. M-A—” He stopped and nearly dropped the tool in terror. “K-K-Kanker,” he said in a hushed whisper, taking in the girl lying on his table and propped up on one elbow. There could be no doubt it was Marie Kanker. The camo green cargo pants, the ratty black tanktop, the fluffy blue hair that exposed one half-lidded eye that zeroed in on him to put him through another harrowing experience.
“Hey, cutie,” she said, a half-grin inching up her face. “Miss me?”
If one Kanker was here, that meant the whole trio was there. Which meant Ed and Eddy were in trouble or they were about to be. He had to warn them. Their best chance was to get out of here quickly. He eyed the money jar, thought better of it, and backed up a step. “What, uh, how are you?” He tried to see inside the tent, hoping he could flag down someone inside.
Marie snatched him by the arm in a tight grip and pulled him back to the table, knocking the wind out of him as the edge slammed into his gut. “Better now,” she said, running a finger under his chin and twirling his bow tie. “And you?”
“Um, I, I,” he checked the tree line nearby and the alley to their side. No sign of the other Kankers yet.
“Relax,” she said, yanking his black beanie and head down to her level. “May and Lee are in the woods. They’re nowhere near here. It’s just you and me.” She puckered her lips and planted a brief kiss on his own. Thankfully, he didn’t have to clean a mess of red lipstick off his face this time. And he appreciated not being suffocated to death with a mass of smooches, so that it actually felt a little pleasant.
However, Edd kept his guard up. What’s she up to? Visions of past trauma raced past his eyes. He gulped and sweat poured down his face. “What brings you here?” he asked, cursing the fact that they had set-up the tent on the far side of the cul-de-sac and not closer to their homes.
“Can’t a girl want to spend time with her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day?”
“Valentine’s Day is a few days away.”
“Close enough. And we haven’t seen each other for a while.”
And my days have been less nerve-wracking because of that.
She sat up and swung her legs over the side, staring him down. “We should hang out more. After all, we have a lot in common.”
He balked at that. “I’m not so sure I’d say that we do.”
“Oh, yeah? Then let me ask: what brings you here?” She leaned to the side, noting the tent on display. “Another scam?”
“Not necessarily,” he said, but she had already caught on with the signs and the money jar on the table.
“You know, I like a bit of sneakiness in a man. It’s good to have a strong, dark side.” She hopped off the table and leaned on it. “But you have to use it for yourself sometime. You can’t always let yourself be a doormat.”
Given the Kankers’ messy trailer and the junkyard it was located centrally in, Edd was half-surprised she knew what a doormat was. “I don’t let people walk all over me.” She raised an eyebrow and picked up the jar, spinning it in her hands. Present company excluded, he hated to admit to himself.
“Yeah, sure,” she said and lifted the jar. “And was this scam your idea or did Eddy rope you into it?” He almost suggested Plank’s quarter as a counter-point, then realized that he had been planning to sacrifice his jawbreaker instead of putting his foot down to Eddy. He sheepishly studied his shoes and gave a lame shrug. “Look at me. You think I let Lee or May boss me around? No. I do what I want, when I want.”
Although not entirely accurate, Edd didn’t argue. “So what? I should be more like you?”
“No,” she said. “I like how you are. You just have to stand up for yourself.” She cocked an ear and threw him the jar. “Here’s your chance to be assertive.”
He listened close. Coming down the alley, he heard the distinct voices of Jimmy and Sarah approaching. “Quick, hide!” he told her and to his amazement, she ducked behind the table and out of sight. When the two youngest children of the neighborhood rounded the corner, Edd ran to the table, setting the jar on top of it.
“Welcome!” he said, catching their attention. They stopped and studied the tent, reading the signs.
“Look, Sarah! A circus!” Jimmy said, clapping his hands.
“More like a freak show,” Sarah said and they approached the table.
“Only twenty-five cents to enter,” Edd said, pushing the jar forward.
Jimmy pulled a quarter out of his pocket, but before he could drop it in, Sarah grabbed his hand. “We want to see this thing first. Then we’ll pay.”
“Um, uh, that’s not quite,” Edd said as Sarah started to drag Jimmy to the tent. He looked down at Marie, who punched her fist into her palm and grinned. “No,” he said, shaking his head.
“You do something or I will,” she whispered.
Refusing to let the children be pulverized by a Kanker, Edd stepped in front of the pair. “I’m sorry. You must pay twenty-five cents to enter.”
“Out of my way,” Sarah said.
Another glance at Marie under the table. “Please, Sarah.”
“It’s really no trouble,” Jimmy said, offering the quarter again.
“I’m not paying until I see it for myself. Now move,” she said, raising a threatening fist. “And it had better be worth it.”
Edd was caught in a bind, as Marie was starting to creep out from under the table, cracking her knuckles. And Sarah’s intimidating growls low in her throat pushed his stress level even higher.
Be assertive, he told himself. And he thrust the jar out at her. “It is worth it. And that’s why you must pay beforehand. Twenty-five cents.”
“You have five seconds,” she said.
And suddenly, he found himself caring less and less about Marie right behind them. This was a contest of wills and he was tired of always being the nice guy, especially to people like Sarah, the Kankers, and everyone else. “You have three,” he said, using what little of his lanky height that he could to intimidate them. He adopted his best firm face and tone. “Twenty-five cents, please,” he said, through gritted teeth. “Or leave the premises.”
Whether by sheer luck, actual assertiveness, or Jimmy’s whimpers of reluctance to watch his friend fight over such a small issue, Sarah conceded. “Fine.” She deposited a quarter in the jar and Jimmy followed suit.
“Thank you,” Edd said, resuming his friendly nature. He opened the curtain and welcomed them inside. “Right this way, please. Follow the painted line.”
Once they were gone, he faced Marie, who put her hands on her hips and smiled. The full nature of what he had done hit him and his knees buckled. “There it is,” she said.
“I think I need to sit down,” he said, reaching out for the table. Marie yanked him by the arm and helped him down onto the table rather roughly.
“Got to say, I’m proud of you,” she said.
He placed a hand over his rapidly beating heart. “I suppose I should thank you for the push.”
“Eh, I knew you had it in you. But you’re welcome.”
“So,” he said, setting the jar down, and giving her a shrewd look, “you didn’t really come all the way here just to see me and give me a pep talk, did you?”
“You got me,” she said and walked over to a tree near the alley. “I really did come to see you. On the way, I also picked a present.” A well-placed kick to the tree rustled the boughs and a body fell out, suspended and bound by a thick bungee cord. Even behind the gag, Edd recognized that red baseball cap.
“Kevin?” he asked, running over.
“I saw him sneaking around back on my way here, trying to ruin your little show. Figured he would make a nice early Valentine’s Day present.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. Although he tried to remain concerned, he couldn’t deny a certain satisfaction deep within at Kevin on the receiving end of a bully. He removed the gag from his mouth, giving him some air.
“When I get out of here, you’re toast, Double Dork!” he yelled, fighting the cord to free his arms and swinging around.
Marie bent over, sticking her face into Kevin’s. “You do anything and I won’t be so nice next time.” She took the gag and stuffed it back in Kevin’s mouth. “You could start with a ‘thank you’,” she said to Edd.
“Er, yes, I suppose. Thank you,” he said.
“Anything for my man,” she said, leaning forward on the tip of one foot and crashing into him so he was forced to support her. She wrapped her arms around his waist firmly. Not too hard that he couldn’t breathe, which was an improvement. And he found he didn’t mind this so much. It was kind of nice and, dare he say, normal.
Maybe the adrenaline is affecting me more than I thought, and he resolved to check his pulse later on.
“Of course, a guy should get his girl something for Valentine’s Day too,” she said, eyeing him knowingly.
“And what did you have in mind?”
She dropped the hug, tugged on the cord, and Kevin zipped back into the tree. She sat on the table and crossed her legs. “I think you know,” she said, winking, then tilted her head at the money jar. “Or I’ll take some good old-fashioned payment.”
It didn’t take long to put it together and he stammered. “W-W-What?” Is she serious? She wore a smirk that reinforced the notion that she was. He was at a loss of what to do. On the one hand, the very idea of instigating such physical intimacy made his body weak. On the other, he couldn’t very well give away their hard-earned money. Okay, hard-earned is a stretch, but Ed and Eddy would never forgive me.
“I’m waiting,” she said.
“Curse my luck,” he muttered under his breath. “Very well.” He shuffled to Marie, who opened her legs and leaned forward. “H-Here I go.” He closed his eyes and stuck out his head and nervous lips, hoping she would meet him halfway.
Marie chuckled and he cracked open an eye, realizing he had barely poked his head out an inch. “Oops,” he moved closer and tugged on his collar. The bow tie was suffocating him. “How’s this?”
“Perfect,” she said, pulling him by his shirt the rest of the way into a kiss.
The immediate shock settled down after the first couple of seconds and he realized it wasn’t half bad. Unlike the other kiss-fests he had been subjected to, her lips were soft, if a little cracked. And she was surprisingly gentle as they mashed their mouths together. Without thinking, he moved his lips against hers and his hands instinctively reached up, needing to hold onto her face or body, but not quite sure where to go. They settled on her hips and he lost himself to the kiss, sensing a warmth bubbling up from his toes.
“Woah,” she said, breaking the lip-lock. “Careful. A make-out that long will cost you extra.” However, he couldn’t help notice her face seemed a little bewildered, which was about how he felt. What had all that been? “Thanks for the present, Oven Mitt.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, stepping back around the table.
“I’ll take my fee and get out of your hat,” she said.
“What?” he said. “But you said the kiss or the money!”
“Yeah, for the loser in the tree. I’m talking about holding off my sisters for a bit. May and Lee would kill me if I didn’t tell them where their boyfriends are so close to Valentine’s Day. My sisters are in the woods nearby and we know some shortcuts here. I can either hold them off for an hour so that you and the other Eds can get home or I can go let them know where their boyfriends are now and we can have some longer lip action.”
“That’s not fair.”
“I gave you a pretty good deal. Stopping your scheme from getting ruined and helping you get money from those kids. And the kiss? Don’t act like you didn’t enjoy that too.” Heat colored his face and he pulled his hat lower to hide himself. “So what’s it going to be?”
As a last resort, he summoned up whatever assertiveness he had in his reserves from earlier and puffed up his chest. “No. Now please leave.”
She shook her head. “Nice try, but that won’t work on me. You look pretty cute doing it though.”
She was right that it would have no effect and he didn’t have the stomach for another head-to-head confrontation so soon after the first. “Fine,” he said, reaching into the jar and thrusting a quarter in her outstretched hand. “You promise?”
“Sure,” she said and pecked his cheek. “Don’t take it so hard. You’ve only had four people. Four quarters, four of us. Splits it even.” She had a point, but he didn’t tell her that. “See you later.” And like that, she was off down the alley.
Edd sighed. “Well, three quarters aren’t bad. I’ll tell Eddy that—” Then he looked closer at the jar. Wait a minute. He dumped out the quarters on the table and rubbed his fingers over them. They were all real. Plank’s fake quarter was missing.
“Oh, no,” he said, turning to the alley. It was too late. Marie was long gone and she would soon realize that she had a fraud. That hadn’t been his intention, although she wouldn’t take it as such and he couldn’t catch up to correct the mistake.
“I better warn the others.” He gathered up the money into the jar and rushed toward the tent. He stopped at the entrance, touching his mouth and glancing back at the alley. Marie was right about two things. He should start being more assertive.
And, brushing his tingling lips, he would privately admit that the kiss wasn’t half-bad.
* * *
Marie reached the woods in no time flat. In the distance, she heard May complaining about how tired she was. “Can we go home now?” she asked, whining.
“Not until I find my ring,” Lee said. “I already checked it all over our house, so it’s got to be out here. Keep looking.”
Marie reached into her pocket, feeling Lee’s ring to ensure she still had it. She would give it back in a few days. Until then, Lee could go crazy searching the whole neighborhood for all she cared. That would teach her sister to not steal her nail polish.
Her fingers also closed around the quarter in her pocket. She pulled it out, wondering what she should buy with it. Then she examined it closer. There were poorly made inscriptions on it that were barely visible and she sniffed a waft of paint on the quarter. A fake.
She snapped the quarter in two, exposing the wood inside. “That double-crossing, sneaky man of mine.” She couldn’t be mad. He had moved up to being very crafty and she found that all the more appealing. Also, this meant more time with him sooner rather than later.
“Here I come, cutie,” she said, clutching the quarter and racing off to tell her sisters where their men were.
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