There was a brunette theatre student in the Burger King, and Phil was trying out a new pick-up line. Simon watched from a booth at the back, making short work of his Whopper, and winced in sympathy as she made a 'let's just be friends' smile and patted Phil's shoulder before making her way back to her car.
"So what do you think, Simon?" said Phil, clearly unaware of the overtones of her gesture. "How was my form?"
"I think it, uh, shows potential?"
Phil groaned. "The kiss of death," he said. "So you're saying I'm never going to see her again?"
"Not until we're back at school," said Simon, capturing a piece of lettuce between his teeth where it was trying to escape from his burger.
"I don't know what I'm doing wrong," said Phil, shaking his head as he unwrapped his own burger. "Sam isn't even here yet to blame it on." He looked up at Simon like he thought the boy who couldn't even successfully navigate a first date should have some sort of advice for him.
"I don't know what to tell you, Phil," said Simon, using a tried-and-true tactic.
"Yeah, you're right, I just have to keep at it," said Phil. He might've said something else, but Sam finally arrived and slid into the booth next to Simon.
"Sorry I'm late," he said, "my parents made me tidy up the garage."
"Hey, do you have any old albums that you want to get rid of?" said Phil. "You know what happens when you leave an album on the radiator? I was thinking I could set a bonfire and throw the albums through it into a pile."
"I'm not doing anything that involves setting things on fire," said Sam, shuddering at the very thought. "I've had enough of that to last a lifetime."
"Yeah," agreed Simon. "I'm nixing the fire. If you want to burn things down, you're on your own."
"All right, all right," said Phil, "but I need to come up with some kind of idea since the pumpkins were a bust." Literally. "You guys got anything?"
"You could... well... uh... okay, I've got nothing," admitted Simon.
"You could dip someone in paint and have them roll around on a canvas," suggested Sam.
"It's been done," said Phil. "I've checked. Maybe I could dip a dog in paint?"
"I'm pretty sure the ASPCA would frown on that," said Simon.
"I could get a turtle to walk through paint?"
"Where are you going to get a turtle, Phil?" said Sam. Simon hoped Phil didn't take that as a challenge.
For a few moments there was just the sound of three boys deep in thought, which sounded a lot like dipping french fries in ketchup and eating them three at a time.
"I've got it!" said Phil suddenly. "Listen, I need you both to get everyone you know to contribute a toy animal."
"A toy animal?" said Sam. "What are you going to do with them?"
"It's conceptual," said Phil. "It's my tribute to Antiflux."
"And you're going to hang it in my father's office?" said Simon. He didn't even know what the idea was yet but somehow he liked it better all the time. It was certainly better than the turtle. "Just let me know what you need."
"I've got to go get things set up," said Phil. "Just bring everyone to the school tomorrow. With toys!"
Simon and Sam just looked at one another as Phil bounced out of the restaurant.
"So, meet you here again tomorrow after Phil's conceptual art goes badly wrong?" said Sam.
Simon nodded. "My mother discovered something called tofu," he said. "It's going to be a Burger King Christmas."
Simon shouldn't have been surprised how many people actually turned out, but he guessed it was some sort of last hurrah for Antiflux, something to remember it by. Simon, for his part, was going to remember it by the woods and not by whatever Phil was about to give birth to in that 5-gallon pail.
It was quite the collection he got, though; even T.C. showed up, though Simon suspected that was because he was staying in the guest room of someone Sam had invited.
"So now are you going to explain what we're doing here?" said Sam, hugging his thin jacket around his body. "And how long it's going to take?"
"It's simple," said Phil. "I'm going to collect all of the animals in this bucket and pour glue over them."
"So you're going to end up with... a bucketful of animals?" said Simon. Even for Phil, who'd once tied a wedding cake to his car and put it through a carwash, this was a little bit out there.
"No," he said, laughing as he read the directions on the back of the alarmingly large container of glue. "I got the quick-setting stuff. All I have to do is swirl the bucket for the ten minutes it's going to take and voila: a conceptual sculpture."
"You're making a conceptual sculpture out of toy animals and glue?" said Simon. "This is your big idea?"
"Yep!" said Phil. "And I'm getting paid twenty-five hundred dollars to do it."
And with that he started passing the bucket around the small crowd they'd gathered, collecting the contributions. Simon suspected he wasn't telling them just what he was doing with them.
Dino and Dina gave him a pair of what looked like bluebirds, Wendy tossed in a plastic wolf, and Bill had a handful of rubber pig-like creatures, which Simon figured likely had some relationship to the new novel he was working on. Johnny Zull was all over the idea as soon as Simon so much as mentioned it, and handed over what was probably the most fantastical animal that anyone brought: a tyrannosaurus rex.
Even Laura Dixon was there, contributing a tiny plush otter.
"My sister's baby hates it," she explained. "I thought I might as well put it to some good use."
"Anyone else?" said Phil, hauling the half-full bucket back to the front of the crowd. "Last chance to get in on it!"
Sam's contribution was a single plastic camel. "What?" he said. "It was on sale at K-Mart. You didn't think I was going to put something good in there, did you?"
When his collection was finally complete, Phil got out the vat of glue. "All right, here goes," he said, and upended the entire thing into the bucket, snapping the lid on quickly and beginning the ten-minute swing.
Some of their friends looked amused, some disturbed, but more than a few watched the project with a great deal of interest including, perhaps most surprisingly, Laura Dixon. Phil noticed and smiled back at her without even missing a beat in his swing. That was the thing about Phil: he always did try again. Maybe this time it was even going to work out for him.
His arms were noticeably tired when the ten-minute timer went off, but his enthusiasm hadn't flagged one bit.
"All right," he said, setting the bucket down on the frozen ground. "Let's see what we ended up with."
Some of the animals had, in fact, adhered to the sides of the bucket, but the majority did end up in an irregular ring-like blob that Phil pulled out and held up like his newborn child.
There was surprisingly enthusiastic applause, particularly from Johnny Zull, who probably thought it was the most potential Long Island had ever shown. Even the people who looked confused by the whole thing seemed to appreciate Phil's commitment to the project.
"So what does it mean?" said Simon, when the crowd began to disperse.
"It's sort of a tribute to all the woodland creatures that Antiflux saved."
"There are dinosaurs living in the woods?" said Simon.
"There could be, now that we've saved them," said Phil, gazing with pride at his monstrosity. "I call it Menagerie."
"I don't think it's going to fit in my dad's office," said Simon.
"Oh, we'll find a way," said Phil. "Antiflux always does."