Andrew Minyard was annoyed. He finally had some time to himself and he wanted to finish that book Bee had let him borrow at their last session. But of course today Nicky decided that they needed to visit the local smoke shop. Which made no sense. Nicky didn’t smoke; there was no reason why they needed to go. Kevin was irritable, too, because he didn’t want to leave the dorms but he could fucking suffer for all Andrew cared.
The shop was in a miserable strip of stores that were located a few streets away from the heart of the downtown shopping area. From the outside it didn’t look like much—correction—it looked sleazy as hell, the windows dark tinted, ads pasted and peeling from the glass. The sign looked like someone’s idea of “trippy”: wobbly black letters on a tie-dye background. The place was called Pipe Dream and it was, according to the sign, a “smoke shop & adult book store.”
Andrew stared at the store while Nicky fidgeted in the back seat.
“What are we here for, Nicky?” Andrew asked. “Hookahs? Porn? Illicit drug deals?”
Kevin slouched down in the passenger seat, arms crossed over his chest.
“I just want to pick up some stuff for the room,” Nicky replied evasively.
“We don’t need anything they’re selling,” Kevin stated, shooting Nicky a disapproving look.
“Guys, we’re already here, can we please go in? We look like creepers right now.”
Andrew scanned the mostly empty parking lot. Pipe Dream was bordered by a derelict tattoo parlor called Lowkey Tattoo, a chicken wing takeout, and a liquor store. Andrew could already imagine the types of people who would migrate to this spot, hitting up one shop after the other and ending the night wasted, watching porn, sporting an ill-advised tattoo, and getting indigestion from 3am chicken wings and hot sauce.
“Yeah, we’re real creepers,” Andrew drawled. But he got out of the car, pocketing his keys and stretching. At the very least this should be amusing.
Nicky led the way, followed by Kevin, with Andrew bringing up the rear. A bell chimed as each of them crossed the threshold. The shop smelled strongly of incense, with a barely detectable undercurrent of pot. Andrew glanced around the space, taking in the layout and looking for threats. The only person was the guy sitting behind the counter. Once Andrew noticed him he had a difficult time looking away. The kid was cute; his curly hair dyed a deep violet that drew attention to the freckles on his cheeks. His eyes were black and Andrew instantly pegged that the kid was wearing contacts. His earlobes were stretched and acessorized by skull plugs and he had a wicked little lip piercing. The only problem was the guy’s wardrobe: an oversized Grateful Dead t-shirt and worn jeans.
Andrew kind of hated the whole hippie throwback culture. In his opinion the good times that so many of his illogical classmates idolized never actually existed. If people wanted to do drugs, sleep around, and chill then they should just do it and not make it all about reliving the Golden Years that not even their parents experienced. Which meant that Andrew was already predisposed to dislike the guy, good looks notwithstanding.
“Hey,” the guy said, “let me know if I can help y’all find anything.” He was going for a southern accent but it didn’t quite work. Maybe it would have fooled most people but it didn’t fool Andrew. Dyed hair, contacts, fake accent…who was this kid?
“Thanks,” Nicky said cheerfully. He started browsing the shelves of merchandise, peering into the cases like he might actually buy some of the pipes displayed. His eyes strayed to the room in the back, the one separated from the rest of the shop by a beaded curtain and the handwritten sign declaring it off limits to anyone under the age of 18.
“Did I really bring you here so you could buy porn?” Andrew asked Nicky. He didn’t bother to whisper and Nicky blushed, shooting embarrassed looks towards the guy at the counter, not that the kid was paying them any special attention. Kevin snorted and shook his head.
“Guys,” Nicky hissed, “shut up.”
“Oh no, Kevin, Nicky is mad at us!” Kevin started snickering. It really wasn’t that funny but whatever.
“Y’all are the worst,” Nicky muttered, and walked purposefully into the over 18 room. Andrew followed out of boredom and Kevin followed him out of necessity. Andrew snuck a peek at the worker dude but he was seemingly engrossed in some magazine.
Nicky started browsing the shelves of eclectic DVDs, but not with any real interest. Andrew had a sneaking suspicion that Nicky had some ulterior plans at work but so far he hadn’t figured it out. Kevin was examining a pinup of a very voluptuous anime girl being attacked by tentacles. Andrew did not get the appeal but apparently other people did because there was a small section labeled “hentai” in the corner.
“Kevin, if you buy that you are not putting it up in the dorm,” Andrew warned.
“What?” Kevin startled, looking almost ashamed. “No, umm, I was trying to see who the artist is. I think I recognize the drawing style…”
Andrew shook his head once, not buying that excuse at all.
“Oh my god!” Nicky squealed. “You guys! There’s Supernatural porn! How did I not know this existed? Look! Look!” He was holding up a DVD case with a man wearing a trench coat, angel wings, and nothing else. A strategically placed pizza box covered his junk and the title was The Pizza Man Cums. Nicky was beaming like he had found buried treasure. Andrew had seen enough; he left the two college boys to their fantasies and went to see what the smoke shop sold that wasn’t porn or sex toys.
The guy at the counter looked up and offered a small smile. “Need any help?” Andrew drifted closer, pretending to look at the lighters displayed at the counter. Some of them were really cool, much better than the disposable Bics he carried.
“This one’s pretty nice,” the guy said, picking up a sleek black lighter. He thumbed the wheel back and a green flame shot up. The kid stared into the flame with an intense look on his face and Andrew used the moment to read his nametag. The word RAIN was written in neat capital letters. No way was that his real name.
Andrew reached out and took the lighter, his fingers brushing against the other guy’s for a moment. A small skull was etched into the metal.
“How much?” Andrew asked.
“It’s $20. Want me to hold onto it while you look around?” The kid’s eyes were so…haunting. It had to be the black contacts, merging the iris and pupil together in a seamless circle of darkness.
“I don’t need anything else. Unless…” Andrew’s attention snagged on the cigarettes. They were all imports, lined up above a selection of pipe tobacco and flavored shisha. Andrew recognized some of the brands, not that he had a lot of time or interest to be any sort of connoisseur. “Can I get a pack of the Black Devils, chocolate flavor?”
The guy retrieved the pack and put it on the counter next to the lighter.
“You know, smoking will kill you.”
“You work in a smoke shop…” Andrew gestured at him.
“Rain, my name’s Rain,” the kid supplied. He was grinning in a way that Andrew felt was completely uncalled for.
“Yeah, okay. I’m Andrew.”
“Andrew,” Rain smiled again. “Are you a student?”
Rain shook his head, spending those purple curls falling over his forehead. If Andrew just focused on him from the neck up he could forget about the kid’s awful wardrobe.
“You’re not in high school are you?” Andrew didn’t think underage kids could work in a place like this but you never could tell.
“Oh, no! No, no. It’s just, college isn’t in the cards right now, if ever. Life. You know.” Rain’s voice was disingenuously light; he was trying to act like it didn’t matter to him but clearly it did.
Kevin took that moment to join them. His hands were empty and Andrew sneered at him.
“It’s okay, Kevin, I won’t judge you for your hentai fetish,” Andrew said. Kevin scowled and glared at him, then at Rain, who was trying to hide his smile.
“Look, man, I don’t judge, either. I’ve seen a lot of strange shit and trust me, hentai barely makes the list.”
Andrew gave Rain an appraising look. “Oh? What kind of ‘strange shit’?”
Rain shrugged. “I’d rather not say.”
Nicky had also emerged from the room and was poking around the store. He eventually joined them at the counter and set down his findings: sandalwood incense, a gay pride flag, a poster of Johnny Depp playing the piano, and the Supernatural porn. Rain rang it up without comment and put it in a purple bag that had the store’s name printed on the front.
Andrew paid for the lighter and cigarettes. For some reason he wanted to linger but then Kevin started huffing and complaining.
“Jesus, Andrew. You need to quit that stuff. You’re an athlete, you can’t perform your best when you’re poisoning your body like that.” Andrew flipped Kevin off. He had heard this ad nauseam.
Rain raised his eyebrows, glancing back and forth between Kevin and Andrew.
“What sport do you play?” he asked.
“Exy,” Andrew, Kevin, and Nicky replied in unison.
Andrew could have sworn that Rain’s skin paled.