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More Precious Than Rubies

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Zacharia Livingwell was 17 years-old and in his third year of high school. He was almost 6 feet tall, bird-chested and lanky. He had wavy, dirty blonde hair, warm sandy colored skin, and lots of people had told him that despite his light hair and icy-gray eyes, he looked just like Shawn Mendes. He was wearing a fitted black cotton pocket tee-shirt, a stone-washed blue Denim Jacket, fitted black jeans, and black New Balance Classics MZ501v1 sneakers.

It was just another day in High School. He'd spent his milk money on a Coca-Cola on the way to school that morning. Like many frivolities of this world, the Cola gave momentary pleasure, but did not offer the bone-strengthening nurishment provided by the lukewarm skimmed milk being served with the spaghetti lunch.

He leaned against the cafeteria wall in a lackadaisical manner, his posture askew and showing his disregard for common courtesy at meals. Zachariah sipped his Cola, narrowing his eyes at Mrs. Burnside, the lunch room attendant. His disdain for authority figures hinted at his immaturity, but he didn't care. His parents would have told him to respect his elders, but Zachariah didn't care about THAT, either.

Any moment now, THEY would walk through the cafeteria... The GREASERS. He could remember the first time he saw them. They looked so cool with their leather jackets and pompadours gleaming black under the flourescent lights of the halls of Hidden Valley High. It was clear almost immediately that Ralphio Pepperoni was their leader.

Ralphio Pepperoni (nobody ever tried to make fun of his last name - the rumor was his great, great, great grandfather was one of the originators of the spicy sausage and changed the family name from the more common "Peppe" - because of his tough reputation) was tall for his age - 6'1 - and had lean muscles because he'd played soccer and basketball since elementary school. He had thick, perfectly groomed and arched eyebrows, jet black hair, and golden-beige skin. His eyes were almond shaped and so dark they looked almost as black as his hair. Even though he was younger than Zacharia, he already had a five-o'-clock shadow that was shaped neatly, showing off his sharp jawline and high cheekbones. If you haven't guessed yet, he looked just like Zayn Malik.

Zacharia had first seen Ralphio in Mr. Tabeltouser's homeroom class. Ralphio held his cellular phone in his hand, despite the no cell phone policy clearly stated in the student handbook, which Zacharia poured over every night before going to sleep, promptly at 8:00pm in the evening. Ralphio had a toothpick dangling precariously from his bottom lip as he played a rousing game of Flappy Birds. He was the most up-to-the-minute Freshman Zach had ever seen!

"Mr. Pepperoni! Put that cellular phone away this instant! You know the rules!" Mr. Tabeltouser had his hands on his narrow hips as he shouted at Ralphio.

Ralphio took out the toothpick and slowly turned and stared at Tabeltouser. "You got a problem, teach?" he said, voice as smooth as the pomade in his hair. 

"I would say so, Mr. Pepperoni. If you are not going to put that cellular phone away, I'm afraid I'm going to have to confiscate it until the end of class." With that, Tabeltouser snatched the phone from Ralphio's hand. 

"Hey! What's the big idea?" Ralphio exclaimed.  

"The big idea is that you have to learn to respect the rules of this classroom." 

Ralphio shrugged and reached into the pocket of his blue jeans, taking out a roll of Smarties. Leaving the pack unopened, he crushed the Smarties between his desk and his palm, opened the pack a tiny bit using his perfect teeth, and stuck it in his mouth like a cigarette. 

Zach raised his eyebrows and sat up in his chair. What was the big idea? 

Next, Ralphio sucked the crushed Smarties into his mouth and blew out a cloud of candy dust that looked just like cigarette smoke!

"Young man!" Tabletouser shouted. "Young man! Stop that!!" 

Ralphio exhaled a second puff of smoke and dropped the Smarties to the floor, stomping on them with his Converse sneaker.  But Ralphio wasn't done: he stuck the toothpick back in his mouth, pulled a Bic lighter out of the pocket of his black leather Moto Jacket, and lit it on fire!

"This is unacceptable! Give me that lighter!" Tabletouser held out his hand and Ralphio smacked the lighter into it.  Tabletouser pocketed the lighter. "Head to the principal's office right now." 

Rolling his eyes, Ralphio stood up and sauntered out of the classroom. 

Zach thought he might faint from excitement and dread. He'd never seen anything like it. What gave Ralphio the confidence to disrespect Tabeltauser like that? 

That was the first time Zach ever saw Ralphio Pepperoni. Zach didn't know it yet, but the course of his life was about to change drastically. 

Since that encounter, Zach had made a few changes to his appearance. His pastel polo shirts disappeared, and T-shirts took their place. He exchanged his khakis for denim blue and black dungarees. Sneaking his mother's mousse from the medicine cabinet, he sculpted his hair into his best approximation of a pompadour. Despite his pleadings, his mother refused to purchase a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors for him--she claimed his New Balance sneakers were "perfectly good." He hoped no one would look too closely at his feet. To add the finishing flair, Zach adopted the slumping posture and drawling speech of Ralphio and his greaser comrades.  

The greasers had taken notice of Zach's casual appearance.  Over the last few weeks, he'd become companionable with them, often chit-chatting with them in the lunch line. Recently, he'd even been occasionally invited to sit at their table. 

Any moment now, the greasers would walk into the cafeteria. They were always a bit late--just late enough to leave the distinct impression that they had something better to do than go to lunch. 

Then it happened. The doors swung open. It was Ralphio and the gang. Without meaning to, Zach broke into a grin. 

"Hey guys!" Zach cried, waving. "Hi Ralphio, hi Marc, hi Lukas, hi Phil, hi Rob, hi Jackson, hi Kristopher, hi Max, hi James, hi Fredrich, hi Fillmore, hi Drake, hi Darrell, hi Greg, hi Benjamin, hi William, hi Sam!! And hey, Babs, what's going on?" Babs was the only girl tough and cool enough to hang with Ralphio and the boys. She was about 5'5 and super curvy, shaped like Kylie Kardashian. She had perfect peachy-tan skin - people said her dad was from Spain or Portugal and that her mom migh be Puerto Rican - and dyed copper-red hair that she slicked into a high ponytail, and straight-across bangs. She wore make-up, but not a lot, just winged eyeliner and nude-brown lipstick. She was wearing tight black denim capris, a white v-neck cotton t-shirt, a red bandana tied around her neck, a pink and black fitted cropped cardigan, and Jessica Simpson Suzanna Red Wedge Pumps. She was gorgeous. Babs winked at him and waved.

Ralphio nodded towards him. "Zach, my man." 

"How are you? How did your math class go?" Zach said. 

"Ah, you know, you know," Ralphio said with a shrug. He stuck a toothpick in his mouth but didn't light it. "How are things with you, man?" 

"Great! Things are super. I'm great." Zach's heart was pounding a million miles a minute. Trying to seem calm, he took what he hoped was a leisurely sip of his Coca-Cola. 

"Oh, hey. You know what? Me and the boys are going to the movies tonight." Ralphio flashed a smile at the rest of the greaser gang, who were arranged in a semi-circle behind him. "Why don't you come with?"

Zach choked on his cola. "Really? You mean it?" he wheezed between coughs. 

"Of course, man. We need someone to watch our backs in case any rival greaser gangs show up." Ralpho gave Zach a friendly punch on the shoulder. 

Zach laughed. 

"So, I'll see you at the theatre at 4:30, yeah?" Ralphio said.

"S-sure." Zach smiled. He kept smiling as Ralphio and the rest of the greasers walked off and got in line for their plates of room-temperature spaghetti and boxes of chocolate milk.

Chapter Text

Zacharia leapt off the yellow school bus as it pulled to a stop in front of his house. It was 2:45. He had to be at the movie theatre at 4:30, but a considerate fellow ought to arrive at 4:15. Would he have time for another shower? He'd perspired greatly from excitement when Ralphio extended his invitation. The Mickey Mouse analog clock in his bedroom read 3:00pm. Plenty of time!

"Mom! I'm going out!" he shouted, shrugging out of his stone-washed Denim Jacket, running up the stairs.

"Zacharia Garfield Livingwell, it is a school night!" was his mother's exasperated reply from the kitchen.

"Come on, ma! It's a 4:30 movie! I'll be back by 8:00, no doubt about it!"

That wasn't entirely true. Zach a quite a few doubts. They flooded his mind...

What movie would they be seeing, and what was its rating? Would he really be home by 8:00pm? Did he have enough money to buy popcorn? He'd already had one Coca Cola today--was it wise to indulge in more sugary food and/or drink? What if Ralphio, Marc, Lukas, Phil, Rob, Jackson, Kristopher, Max, James, Fredrich, Fillmore, Drake, Darrell, Greg, Benjamin, William, Babs, and Sam wanted to hang out at the mall food court after the picture ended?

"Zachie, what about your homework? And your supper? Going out on a school night just isn't like you! Have you been hanging out with that Pepperoni boy again? Your father and I are concerned about the influence he has over you. Young man, I think the three of us need to have a real heart-to-heart, and soon" she shouted up the stairs.

Mom had never been so aggressive with him before, though Zach hadn't ever given her reason to. The thought of a family meeting with her and dad set his heart racing.

"Ma, I did my homework in study hall, I had a spaghetti lunch and am plenty full, and Ralphio is a real stand-up kid. He and the boys are cool dudes and I like hanging out with them! I'm not gonna let you cramp my style, Susan!”

Zacharia gasped, and clasped his hand over his gaping mouth. He couldn't believe he'd said those things or used that tone with his mother. The words seemed to have left his mouth on their own accord. And calling her by her first name! He'd heard the boys brag about doing so when their folks were giving them guff, but for him to have done it... His mom and dad were once his best friends, but his behavior was putting a swift end to that.

He heard his mother bound up the stairs. He tried to shut his bedroom door before she got there, but she was too quick, stopping him from closing it with her foot.

"How dare you speak to me that way! You aren't going anywhere!" Mother's eyes were ablaze behind her Sears Optical Daisy Fuentes Collection glasses.

Zach pushed past his mother, causing her to stumble. "I'm going to that movie. I'll be home after it ends--or maybe never!"

As he ran down the stairs, he could hear his mother's cries for him to come back, but he just kept running. Zach hopped on his Cobalt Blue Schwinn Bicycle that his parents bought him for his last birthday and pedaled as fast as his legs would carry him towards the theater. He hoped the tears staining his face would be dry by the time he arrived.

After parking and locking his bike, Zacharia took a few deep breaths and smoothed his hair in the reflection of the window of a nearby parked car. In his haste, he'd left his Denim Jacket at home. He shivered, but still rolled the sleeves of his black cotton pocket tee. He wanted to make a good impression as afterall, it was his first real outing with Ralphio and the gang.

He sauntered into the theatre, giving a brief lift of his chin in greeting to the gang, though in his heart he wanted to shout 'Hello!' and wave in excitement. "Keep it cool, kid" he muttered to himself through his clenched teeth.

"Zachariasaurus-rex, you made it!" Ralphio smirked at him from his perch seated a-top the concession stand counter. The boy working behind it rolled his eyes at him.

"Y-yeah, of course!" Zach cleared his throat and absentmindedly scratched the back of his neck. A nickname! Ralphio Pepperoni had given HIM a nickname!

"You got a curfew? Me and the guys were thinking of gettin' some burgers at the Red Robin after the movie. Mi madre gave me a coupon and said I could stay out till 10:00."

"Uh, um, I um, got a test tomorrow. Mr. Johnsington's calculus class. That guy's always riding us." Zach shoved his hands in his pockets. There was no test, but neither was there money for Red Robin burgers, and he was in enough trouble as it was.

"Huh. Well, too bad, man. I hate that math B.S. It's for the birds!" Ralphio declared, the boys nodding along with him. He pulled out his cellular phone from the pocket of his leather jacket - good, Tabeltouser had returned it to him after all! - and said "Let's get those tickets. Movie starts in five."

They lined up, waiting to hand their tickets to the ticket-taker. She was short and looked to be about his age, with curves that she tried to hide with her baggy work uniform. Her skin was creamy porcelain whilst her hair was inky black and tied into a thick braid that hung over her shoulder, stopping just a few inches above her waist. Her cupid lips were stained with just a hint of Cherry Chapstick, and her nose was peppered with freckles. But her eyes-- he'd never seen eyes so big and emerald green or with such thick, long lashes. She was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen, and he couldn't stop staring.

"Let's go, Fester," Ralphio said meanly. "You can rip faster than that!"

"Ralphio, why don't you try being nice once in a while? You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!" The girl continued to methodically tear the tickets, saying "Enjoy the show!" to each customer with a bright smile that showed her row of perfectly straight, blinding-white teeth.

"Whatever, Fester. You're just mad that you have to work at the movies instead of seeing 'em, loser. " The boys snickered at Ralphio's mean dig. He was a guy who knew what was what, but why was he being such a goober towards this beautiful and perfectly nice seeming girl?

The ticket-taker sighed sadly. "Ralphie, you know I'm saving up to take first-aid courses this summer. My allowance alone doesn't cut it. Mom and dad are pretty generous, but you'll understand when you want to get something more expensive than movie tickets."

Mom and dad? This beautiful angel and the coolest boy in school are--brother and sister?? Zach's mind was blown.

"Ugh, Fester. You're such a drag. I'll save you some fries from Red Robin--not!" Ralphio laughed and high-fived Drake - or was it Fillmore? -and walked into the theatre, crumpling up and throwing his stub on the ground as he went.

It was Zacharia's turn to hand his ticket to "Fester". What a terrible nickname, he thought. Being an only child, he'd heard about but never experienced sibling rivalry. Could it be that Ralphio was taking things too far?

He reached out to hand the girl his ticket, looking for a name tag on her red polo shirt. "Esther. That's a beautiful name."

"Oh, thank you!" she said brightly, tenderly fiddling with the name tag. Oh no-- he'd said it out loud! Zach wanted to curl up and die!

"Yeah, um, you're welcome. I, um-- here's my ticket or whatever. I-- okay." Zach shoved the stub into his pocket, his eyes focused on the well-worn checkerboard patterned rug.

"What's your name?" Esther asked softly.

He gulped before answering. "Zacharia Livingwell" he practically whispered.

"Well, it's awfully nice to meet you, Zacharia Livingwell. And your name is awfully nice too. Enjoy the show!"

"Yeah, you too. I mean, good. Er, thank you-- I gotta go." Zach rushed away and into the darkened theatre.

Though the movie was called A Quiet Place, the theatre certainly was not.

"Hey monster-freaks! Can you hear this?" Ralphio shouted before pressing his open mouth against his inner arm, blowing on it in such a way that mimicked the sound of flatulence. The gang shrieked with delight.

Zach slumped down in his seat. He'd never seen a PG-13 film in theatres before. They were viewed, on very rare occasions, at home under the watchful eye of his mom and dad, only after they'd consulted www.commonsensemedia.org's detailed reviews, of course. He pulled at the collar of his t-shirt, which suddenly felt as if it were choking him.

Jackson stood up and threw popcorn at the screen. "This movie sucks! If I wanted to read I woulda gone to the dang library!"

Ralphio stood on his seat, a maniacal gleam in his eyes visible even in the dark. "Reading sucks! Reading sucks!" he chanted.

"Reading sucks! Reading sucks! Reading sucks!" The gang joined in on the mantra, whooping and screaming, popcorn and soft pretzel bites flying in the air like edible confetti.

As it was a weekday afternoon showing, there were only a handful of other viewers in the theatre. One of them got up and stormed out to return moments later with Esther and an angry, middle-aged man Zacharia assumed was the manager, both carrying flashlights. He slumped down so far, his hindquarters practically touched the sticky floor!

"Ralphio, I can't believe you! I am so embarrassed!" Esther hissed, pulling on Ralphio's sleeve with one hand while the other shined the flashlight up and under his face, giving it an other-worldly, terrifying glare.

"All of you, out this instant! And don't you dare come back without a parent or guardian!" The manager shone his light on each of their faces. Zach covered his with his hands, hoping much the way he did as a little tyke, that if he couldn't see the manager, the manager couldn't see him.

"Get off me, Fester!" said Ralphio, roughly snatching his arm out of her grasp. "We were just about to leave this dumb movie anyway. And this theatre smells like farts!"

With a nod of his head, Marc, Lukas, Phil, Rob, Jackson, Kristopher, Max, James, Fredrich, Fillmore, Drake, Darrell, Greg, Benjamin, William, Babs, and Sam obediently followed Ralphio out of the theatre.

"I- I'm so sorry, I d-don't know what happened, p-please--" Zacharia weakly stammered.

"I don't want to hear it! Out!" barked the manager. Esther shook her head sadly, watching Zach skulk away.

"Mom's on her way now. She's driving the Escalade tonight, sweet!" Ralphio said happily as they waited outside. He behaved as if absolutely nothing had happened! "This guy is the meaning of chill!" Zach thought to himself.

The shiny black luxury vehicle purred up to the curb. The windows were tinted so dark that he couldn't see inside. It slowly rolled down, presenting Mrs. Pepperoni to the world.

She wore dark shades even though the sun had gone down. Her jet black hair was as shiny as glass and pin straight, parted severely down the middle. Her skin wasn't ivory like her daughter's, but almost bronze. "Must have been to Florida recently" thought Zacharia.

Mrs. Pepperoni's lips were painted blood red and had a vaping pen in between them. She took it out, blowing a plume of sickening-sweet smelling smoke out of the window. "You and your friends ready to go, then?" she practically purred. Zacharia felt deeply uneasy, but didn't understand why.

"Duh, mom" Ralphio sneered. He held the door open and the gang piled in. He turned to Zach and said "You sure you don't wanna come? Mom said we can order virgin dacquiris!"

"No, I rode my bike and I gotta study for that A.P. history test" he said quietly.

"History? I thought it was Johnsington's calculus exam." Ralphio cut his eyes at Zach, studying him closely.

"Oh, right. Calculus. I got a paper to write for history too. Guess I just got confused" he chuckled nervously.

"Whatever. You're the only cat I know that'd pass up Red Robin for homework. Don't get too square on us, Zachariasaurus-rex. We ain't too keen on squares." With that, Ralphio hoped in the passenger seat and slammed the door shut.

Before Mrs. Pepperoni pulled away from the curb, Ralphio rolled down the car window. "Oh yeah, do me a favor and tell my dumb sister that mom'll pick her up after her shift. Stay gold, dino-boy!" and the Full-Size Premium Luxury Cadillac Sports Utility Vehicle rolled away.

Zach swallowed hard and walked back toward the theatre. Before he could open the door, the manager pushed it open and stood in his way.

"Oh, no you don't. I told you not to come back here unless you were with an adult!"

"But I have to give Esther a message!" Zach whined pitifully.

"Well, tell me and I'll pass it on" said the manager with a roll of his eyes.

"Just tell her that her mom'll pick her up after her shift."

"Okay, I'll tell her. And I'll also tell her to keep clear of you. Good girls like Esther don't need your kind bothering her. Bad enough that brother of hers is the way he his. Damn greasers."

Zacharia gasped at the man's use of foul language. Shocked and afraid, he turned and ran for his bicycle. He pedaled for the consequences awaiting him at home, hoping that some of Ralphio's bold and nonchalant attitude had rubbed off on him.

*************************************************************

Zacharia threw himself on his twin-size bed, covering his eyes with his forearm. Hot tears ran down his cheeks and he gulped for air. Dad had been waiting for him in the garage and silently took his bicycle and locked it in the truck of his Honda CRV.

"Good thing your mother didn't buy you those Chuck Taylor's, because you'll need proper footwear for all the walking you'll be doing, Zacharia Garfield." His father hardly looked at him before turning and walking back into the house.

Zach followed him into the living room where his mother and father sat on the couch. Dad held mom's hand as she cried silent, angry tears.

"No television, no between meal snacks, no extra-curricular activites, no cellular phone--"

"Mom, Dad, I'm sorry" Zach whispered.

"I'm not finished. No library card--"

"But Dad!"

"No bicycle, no computer. Definitely no time "hanging out" with friends. And if I can think of anything else, consider that gone too."

"This isn't fair!" Zacharia wailed.

"Isn't fair? Isn't FAIR?" Dad roared. "You disrespect and disobey your mother, lay hands on her, and you want to tell me what isn't fair? Go to your room this. Instant. I can't even look at you, Zach. Can't even look at you." His father put his head in his hands while his mother cried even harder.

Zacharia wept as he replayed the events from the living room. He rolled over and pulled his copy of the student handbook from underneath his mattress. Reading it always made him feel better, and it was the one thing his parents hadn't thought to take away.

The words simply blurred in front of his eyes. He couldn't focus on a thing he read, not even his favorite section on grade appeals. He threw it down and buried himself under his covers.

"Please, if anybody's out there, please make me more like Ralphio Pepperoni. He'd know what to do."

Zach fell asleep with his whispered, irreverent prayer still on his lips.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Zach woke up with a funny feeling in his stomach that had not gone away by the time he stepped through the doors of Hidden Valley High. How could he face Ralphio and his fellow Greasers after the earful his mother and father gave him last night? Shoving his backpack into his locker, he remembered his mother's tears and sighed. Knowing he had disappointed them was even worse than being grounded--yet he couldn't help but suspect they were being the slightest bit unfair. After all, Ralphio was three whole years younger than Zach, and Mrs. Pepperoni let HIM do whatever he wanted. It had never occurred to Zach before to question whether his parents were in the right, but it did now.

In Tabletouser's homeroom, Zach arrived early, as usual, and took a seat near the back, hoping Ralphio wouldn't notice him. When Ralphio came strolling in late, Zach's breath caught, but Ralphio slid into a seat without acknowledging him.

"Late again, Mr. Pepperoni," Tabletouser droned. "And spit that toothpick out of your mouth, please."

Ralphio kicked his legs onto his desk. "And what if I don't?"

"Hey!" Tabeltouser's eyes widened in rage. "Feet down on the ground where they belong. That desk is school property."

"So? It's my tax dollars paying for it anyway, right?" Ralphio said with a smirk.

Wow! Ralphio really must have been paying attention in economics class, Zach thought to himself.

Tabeltouser rubbed his forehead. "That's it. I've had quite enough of you, Mr. Pepperoni. To the principle's office--stat."

"Aw, what for, man?" Ralphio cried.

"Do you really need to ask?" was Tabletouser's snappish reply.

Ralphio jumped out of his seat. "I can't believe this! You're being totally unfair!"

"Mr. Pepperoni, you know perfectly well that I am being reasonable, especially considering that you have a history of being disruptive and disrespectful in this classroom and--"

"Get bent," Ralphio spat.

Zach audibly gasped. Ralphio turned to look at him and winked before walking out of the classroom--presumably on his way to the principle's office, but who knew?

Mr. Tabeltouser groaned and took his seat behind his desk. "If there are going to be any more disruptions, I'd prefer if you'd tell me now."

The room was deathly quiet.

"Fantastic," Tabletouser said.

At lunch, Zach nervously slunk into the cafeteria, his hands in the pockets of his denim blue dungarees. When Ralphio and the Gang followed a few minutes later, bursting through the double doors like fireworks on the Fourth of July--which Zach always celebrated at home with his parents, sipping milky decaffeinated tea while watching the Boston Pops on TV until eight thirty pm rolled around and it was time to go to sleep--Zach gulped.

"That Pepperoni boy has too much influence on you," Zach's mother had told him. And maybe she was right. But when he saw how cool Ralphio looked, gliding across the cafeteria with his greaser brethren, the leather jacket Mrs. Pepperoni had purchased for him from Nordstrom ($200.00!) for his thirteenth birthday gleaming whenever he moved, Zach was glad Ralphio had influence on him, and hoped Ralphio would influence him even more as time went on.

"Zachiariasorus-rex. What's crack-a-lack'n?" Ralphio said. Marc, Lukas, Phil, Rob, Jackson, Kristopher, Max, James, Fredrich, Fillmore, Drake, Darrell, Greg, Benjamin, William, Babs, and Sam were close behind him.

Zach smiled and waved. After a confrontation like that with Mr. Tabeltouser, plus a trip to the principle's office, Zach would have been tear-stained and miserable, but Ralphio was as sprightly as ever.

"Come on, lets get in line! It's tacos today!" Ralphio smacked Zach on the back as he whisked past him toward the lunch line.

Zach scampered after him. "I hope they're not too spicy."

"Why not? Spicy food is good, right?"

"Spicy food is great," Babs interjected from behind Zach. She tossed a package of potato chips onto her tray. "Sour Candies are good, too. I love strong flavors, neon colors, and caffeinated beverages. Who doesn't?"

"My mother always says too much spicy food will give me a stomach ache," Zach said without thinking.

Ralphio's eyes glittered. "Your mother? Heh. Well, your mother never has to know, does she? Try it out. Live a little."

"I--" Zach hesitated and glanced at Babs, who was smiling encouragingly at him. "All right. One taco, please."

The lunch lady dumped a taco onto his tray.

"Last night was sick," Ralphio announced as they walked towards their table. "You really missed out, dino-boy."

"Man, that waitress was a real square." James slammed his tray onto the table and slid into his seat.

"Yeah, dames like that really grate on my nerves," Ralphio said, sticking a toothpick in his mouth and lighting it.

"I can't believe she called the manager on us!" complained Fillmore. "We were only having a little fun..."

"She didn't like us because we're greasers." Babs took a sip of her Mountain Dew. "Ralphio, could you put that out while we're eating? The smoke is giving me a headache."

Ralphio rolled his eyes and dropped the toothpick into his soda, extinguishing the flame. "There, happy? Geeze, you're just as bad as that waitress."

Babs looked down at her lunch tray. Zach wondered if perhaps Ralphio had been too short with her, but quickly forgot his reservations when Babs suddenly said, "So Zach, tell me, why didn't you come to Red Robin with us? It would've been great to have you there."

Zach blushed. "Um..."

"He had to study for a test," Ralphio said. "Right, dino-boy?"

"Yeah," Zach said softly.

"Well, you can come next time." Babs smiled.

"S-sure," said Zach.

"As long as his mom lets him," Ralphio muttered. "Oh, speaking of squares, Tabletouser sent me to the principle's office again. Can you believe it?"

"What did you do?" Marc asked.

"Nothing!" Ralphio snapped. He was really angry! "That guy's outta his mind. He hates me for no reason--just 'cause I wear Converse Chuck Taylors ($49.99 at DSW) and a leather jacket and can see right through squares like him."

"Yeah, Tabletouser's the worst," Zach agreed, his voice a little strained.

"Tabletouser shouldn't get away with picking on us greasers like this. I bet he sits in his office all smug, thinking about how he's gonna get me in trouble next." Ralphio frowned and looked into the distance. When he spoke again, his voice was much quieter. "We should get even with him."

"Ha, yeah. If only. That would be nice," Zach said.

"No, I mean it. I'm going to get even with him. If he thinks I'm gonna sit there and let him treat me however he feels like, he's crazy." Ralphio grinned. "One way or another, Tabletouser's gonna find out what happens when you mess with greasers."

Zach scratched the back of his neck.

"Zach, you're gonna have to help me. You're the only other greaser in class," Ralphio said.

"But I'm sure you can do it on your own. I'd just be in the way," Zach said in a small voice.

"Are you kidding, man?" Ralphio exclaimed. "I can't do this without you." When Zach hesitated, Ralphio went on, "We're not gonna, like, hurt him, man. We're just gonna play a little prank on him, is all. He's been picking on me for no reason all year. And he thinks he can get away with it! It doesn't bother me much, but what about the next kid, you know? Someone's gotta show him who's boss. It's the right thing to do!"

Zach thought about this. He felt as though his decision would be important--one of the most important choices he'd ever made in his life--but he wasn't sure why he felt that way. Before he met Ralphio, he would have said playing a prank on a teacher was wrong--no ifs, ands, or buts. Now, though, he could see Ralphio's point. Maybe Ralphio was right about looking out for the next kid. If they only had their classmates' best interest at heart, it couldn't be wrong, could it?

Last night, he'd prayed that God would make him more like Ralphio Pepperoni. It looked like God had answered his prayer.

"Sure, I'll help you," Zach said.

Marc, Lukas, Phil, Rob, Jackson, Kristopher, Max, James, Fredrich, Fillmore, Drake, Darrell, Greg, Benjamin, William, Babs, and Sam errupted into whoops and applause. Zach felt like a superstar!

Ralphio grinned. "I knew you wouldn't let me down. Greaser bros for life, right?"

"Right," said Zach.

"All right. Let's meet up and walk across the street to Dunkin Donuts (TM) after school lets out so we can figure out what we should do next. You don't have to go right home, do you?"

Zach most certainly did have to go right home. His mother would be expecting him. Tonight she was making vegetable soup for dinner--Zach's favorite, though he wasn't sure he could stomach a bowl of soup after such a zesty lunch; already he felt the need to lie down in a darkened room with a cold compress. "No, no, of course not."

"Great! This is gonna be awesome!" Ralphio looked happier than Zach had ever seen him. In a million years, Zach never would have guessed that one day Ralphio Pepperoni would smile so ecstatically at him.

Later, his hands shaking, Zach called his mother to tell her he was staying late to help Mr. Johnsington grade papers. She didn't question him; she brusqueley reminded him to come home immediately after he was finished and promised to keep his vegetable soup warm. When Zach said goodbye and hung up, he was wracked with guilt. His mother had believed him only because he'd never lied to her before. What sort of precedent was he setting? How long would it be before he lost his mother's trust entirely? He put the thought out of his mind.

It was the first time Zach had ever been inside the Dunkin Donuts across the street from Hidden Valley High. He trembled a bit as he opened the door. Inside awaited an orange-and-pink universe of caffeinated beverages and sugary snacks. The bright florescent lights were a bit of a strain on his eyes. Ralphio stood in line, arms crossed in front of his chest. In his white T-shirt ($5.00 at Target) and Converse high tops, he stood out among the other patrons of the coffee franchise, who had on colored T-shirts and Adidas sneakers.

"Ralphio," Zach said, joining him in line.

"Oh, hey, dino-boy. Long time no see. What're you thinking of getting?"

"I'm, uh, not sure."

"Better decide quick. This line is moving fast!"

The line was moving fast. Zach's heart pounded. "I don't--well--I can't get anything. I don't have any cash on me." His mother and father did not allow him to carry much money, as in his earlier years of high school larger, more assertive students frequently relieved him of his five dollar bills.

"Oh, it's fine. I'll pay for you."

"Really?" Zach couldn't believe his ears!

"Sure. Pick whatever you want. My mom just gave me my allowance."

"Thank you! You're the best, Ralphio!"

"Don't mention it."

Zach made a B-line for the refrigerated case and selected a bottle of Revive (tm) flavor Vitamin Water (tm). The bright purple liquid sloshed around in the bottle. Revive (tm) tasted of delicious fruit punch and packed a helping of B-vitamins and potassium--just what Zach's immune system needed after such a stressful day. He smiled to himself, knowing he'd made a solid choice.

Until they sat down at a table in front of the window and Ralphio took a sip of his coffee Coolatta and said, "So, let's get down to business," Zach had almost forgotten about the prank. Nervousness shot through him; he hoped it didn't show.

"Yeah, Tabletouser." Zach forced a laugh.

"Okay, so, here's what I've been thinking...."

After planning the prank, Zach and Ralphio tossed their empty cups into the trash and headed outside into the fading orange sun.

"Do you want to do something else? My mom can drive us to the mall," said Ralphio.

Zach looked at him. He would love nothing more than to go to the mall with Ralphio Pepperoni: to glide down the highway in Mrs. Pepperoni's Cadillac Escalade, the saccharine smell of her vape smoke filling the car; to meander through department stores and smell candles at Yankee Candle with none other than Ralphio Pepperoni at his side. But it was getting late. If he stayed out much longer, his mother would surely become suspicious. And who knew how long Ralphio planned to stay at the mall?

"I can't. I'm sorry," Zach said regretfully.

"That sucks, man. Well, see you around." Ralphio took a toothpick out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth.

"Yeah, see you."

As Zach retreated into the horizion, Ralphio lit the toothpick and watched him go. The setting sun cast a menacing shadow over Ralphio's face.

Chapter Text

Zacharia Livingwell was in Trouble with a capital T. He gripped the sides of the bench outside of Principal Cinemateca's office, knuckles white, fingernails digging into the laquered wood. His face was damp with a mixture of sweat and tears. His lip trembled and it took all his strength to stop the wail that desperately clammored to escape his chest, which was tight with anxiety.

Next to him sat Ralphio Pepperoni, as cool as the meat product who's name he shared piled high on a Subway brand Italian Combo. He scratched at the impressive stubble on his chin and gave a loud, bored sigh. He'd changed his pompadour up, shaving the sides to mimic the haircut popularized by film actor Jacob Benjamin Gyllenhaal, son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal. If Zach had been in a better state of mind in a far less stressful situation, he'd have asked Ralphio for the name of his barber.

"Dino-boy, you need to chill, bro!" Ralphio hissed. "It's not even a big deal. We'll get a week of detention or maybe suspended for a day or three, but so what? Who doesn't want time off from school?"

"I-I can't b-believe you don't care!" Zach squeaked. "My parents-- my parents are gonna freakin' kill me!" Zacharia didn't even internally gasp at his use of crude language; he was too far gone.

"Dude, my mom and dad don't care about this kinda crap. It's not like I'm getting arrested or nothin'. And even if I was, my dad's cousin is a cop, so." Ralphio shrugged, the shoulders of his distressed denim shirt hardly folding at the motion. He made sure that his Revend Super Slim Coated Jeans, that Zach knew cost at least $100.00, were tucked just-so into his Retro Combat Boots purchased from AliExpress.

Zach was temporarily distracted from his trepidation as he studied Ralphio's outfit. Despite everything, he couldn't help but compare his appearance to his friend's. Zacharia relied on Mom and Dad for his wardrobe as 20% of his allowance was faithfully deposited into a bank account each week. They didn't understand or truly approve of his new style, so coated jeans, distressed shirts, and anything from AliExpress was out of his reach. He had on yet another cotton pocket tee with rolled sleeves, this time in gray, American Eagle Core Flex Skinny Jeans, bought, of course, on clearance, and his trusty - and frankly, dusty - black New Balance sneakers. His dirty blond hair was limp and greasy with sweat and hair product. He felt ugly, both inside and out.

"Pepperoni, Livingwell. My office. Now." Principal Cinemateca's voice was tense and clipped. She turned quickly on her heel and stormed back into the office from whence she came.

Ralphio stood up slowly and let out an exaggerated yawn, raising his hands over his head before sauntering into her office. Zach jumped to attention and scurried in, much like a rat that was caught stealing cheese.

Principal Cinemateca was behind her desk, hands folded, lips pursed in a grim line. "Sit" she barked and pointed to the two chairs facing her desk.

Ralphio slouched in his seat, legs akimbo, while Zacharia crossed his arms around his torso and stared at the floor.

"Where do I even begin?" Cinemateca sighed, putting her hands on her temples and closing her eyes. "Frankly, Mr. Pepperoni, I hate to say that I am not surprised that you were the mastermind. But Zacharia-- how on earth did you get wrapped into this?"

Ralphio smirked and shrugged yet again. Zach whispered "I don't know, Principal Cinemateca. I don't know."

"Mr. Tabletouser doesn't know if he'll ever be able to get those stains out! And where did you even find all that sawdust?" Principal Cinemateca threw up her hands in frustration.

"Yo, I don't even know what you're talking about, Miss Cinema" said Ralphio, trying to hold in laughter.

"It is Principal Cinemateca, young man, though I dare say you are acting like a child. You two ought to thank your lucky stars that we didn't have to call an ambulance!"

"Principal Cinemateca? Are- are the police gonna be involved? 'Cause my parents--" Zach burst into tears and covered his face in shame.

"Dude, you gotta chill!" Ralphio nudged his arm with his fist, his onyx orbs cut into thin slits.

"Mr. Livingwell-- Zacharia" Principal Cinemateca sighed and reached out her hand toward Zach. "No, Mr. Tabletouser doesn't want the police involved. We've instead decided on two weeks of in-school suspension and 40 hours of community service to be completed by next month."

"Aw, come on!" cried Ralphio. "But my A.P. homework!" gasped Zach.

"I don't want to hear another word! You two have got off scott-free while Mr. Tabletouser doesn't know if they'll ever find his stamp collection! Now both of you sit with Secretary Niezen while I call your parents."

***********************************************************************************************************************

Needless to say, Zach cried himself to sleep the night after the prank--and for several nights after that. His parents were furious with him. He wasn't sure if things would ever go back to how they'd been before: mirthful family conversations over dinners of blanched potatoes and pasta drizzled with one teaspoon of Smart Balance per person; Saturday afternoons spent helping Dad in the garden; family game nights every Friday evening. Now all that seemed so far in the past!

The day after Zach and Ralphio justly received their punishment, an unfamiliar number rang the land line at the Livingwell household. It was Mrs. Pepperoni! Zach had watched nervously while his mother spoke to Mrs. Pepperoni, twirling the phone cord around her pointer finger. As his mother listened to what Mrs. Pepperoni had to say, she furrowed her brow and nodded. Eventually, she said, "Yes, of course. Wednesday is fine."

"Who was that?" Zach asked once she hung up.

"Mrs. Pepperoni would like to invite us all over for dinner at her house. She wants to patch things up between our families after--" she narrowed her eyes at Zach "--all that unpleasantness with the postage stamps."

Zach blushed and his stomach churned at the memory of what he and Ralphio had done to Tabletousser. Still, he wasn't sure he regretted it, exactly--Tabletousser had been mistreating Ralphio, after all--but he certainly wished he hadn't had to deal with all those angry, disappointed adults afterward. "Dinner," he said.

"Yes." Mrs. Livingwell placed her hands on her hips. "I agreed to it, but only because I think it's best to be kind to others and to accept goodwill where it is offered. Don't think this is going to be a night off. You're still in trouble, and the rules of your grounding still apply. Ralphio will be there, but I don't want to see you sneaking away to goof off with him. You'll be staying where your father and I can see you."

That was two days ago. Now, it was the evening of the dinner, and Zachariah fidgeted in his Sperry 2 Eye Suede Boat Shoes, bought for a steal at $19.99, and tugged at the knees of his Old Navy Slim Ultimate Built-In Flex Khakis in a muddy brown color called "Wined Down" that he hated. He hadn't worn the $10.97 pants in ages, but his parents said that jeans weren't appropriate for a dinner out. Mom had made him pair it with the Old Navy Regular-Fit Built-In Flex Classic Shirt she'd also bought on clearance in a color the store described as "Squid". Squid. How fitting. He felt like a slimy, weird-looking creature that people only liked once it was chopped up, breaded, fried, and dunked in spicy Marinara sauce.

"Enough with the squirming around, kid" his father muttered through clenched teeth. He sighed and pressed the doorbell for a third time.

After a beat, it opened to a woman in cheetah print and leather and long elaborately painted nails in which was clasped the stem of a goblet filled to the brim with dark red liquid.

"Sorry about that. Couldn't hear you over the TV. Real Housewives is on." Mrs. Pepperoni smiled with a closed mouth, taupe lipstick perfectly in place." "It's the Livingstons, right?" she said flatly.

"Uh, no-- no, ahem, it's Livingwell" Dad stammered.

"Oh, right. So sorry." Ralphio's mother smiled again without opening her lips. "Well, don't just stand there, come in!"

Zach and family followed her into what could only be described as a lobby. The Pepperoni house was huge. The floors were shiny white and gray marble, the walls a gleaming ivory, and a crystal chandelier hung above their heads. "Whoa" Zach whispered. This must be what it's like to go to New York City!

"I'm Evelyn, by the way." Mrs. Pepperoni extended her empty hand the way a mighty queen would to her peasant villagers.

"Oh, yes, I'm Susan, and this is Roger, and of course, Zacharia." They all took turns nervously shaking her hand.

"Zachy! Aren't you adorable!" She squeezed his cheek and cooed at him. "Can't believe a sweetie like you let my Ralphio get into so much trouble!"

Zach chuckled awkwardly.

Zach's mom spoke rapidly at Evelyn. "We just want to thank you again for inviting us this evening. I think it's so important to get to know each other since the boys have-"

"Shh-shh, it's fine. Wanna glass of Pinot?"

Mrs. Livingwell looked at her husband, startled. "Oh, no thank you. We-- we don't drink alcohol."

Zach wanted to die. His parents were such squares. Ralphio's mom was so glamorous in her Steady Leopard Marilyn Sweater Bolero, black Wacoal Lace Impression Lace Camisole, black Helmut Lang Stretch Lambskin Leather Leggings, and black Steve Madden Softey Fur Spa Slides. Meanwhile, his mother had on a frumpy white Floral Crinkle Knit Dress, a Sear's brand Laura Scott Petites' Textured Cardigan in Egret, and Payless Comfort WOMEN'S CLAIRE SCRUNCH FLATS in Beige.

"Follow me. I've set out apps in the parlor" Mrs. Pepperoni said over her shoulder as she sauntered away.

Zach's dad jogged to keep up. "I'm sorry, apps?" he asked.

Mrs. Pepperoni stopped and turned around. She let out a strange sound that might have been a laugh and tossed her silky, obsidian hair over her shoulder. "Appetizers, honey!" Mrs. Livingwell's eyes bulged out of her reddened face.

Zach didn't follow the grown-ups and instead paced the floor. "Yo, yo, yo, Dino-Booooooy!" Ralphio slid down the banister as he screamed out in greeting, each hand arranged into a peace sign. Zach's heart raced at the sound of Ralphio's voice.

Zach was startled by his ensemble. Not only was he in leisurewear, but any semblance of his Greaser gear was gone. Instead he had on a Gucci GG jacquard cotton jacket and matching jogging pants in blue and ivory, bare feet, and inexplicably, only one sock on.

"You ready to eat? I'm freakin' starving, bro. My mom's cooking kinda sucks, but sometimes she does alright."

Zacharia followed Ralphio into the parlor where an array of cheese, crackers, cut up veg, and of course, pepperoni was on display. Zach shyly picked up a cube of pepper jack and popped it into his mouth. His mother raised her brows in surprise at his flavorful choice.

Ralphio shoved food in his mouth greedily and sipped on his mother's goblet of wine that she'd set down, coasterless, while she talked to Zach's dad. Zack gulped and tugged at the collar of his shirt. Ralphio winked at him.

"Okay, let's head into the dining room, folks. My husband will join us in a minute. He's always late" she grumbled. She led them into the glamorous dining room decorated in gold and cream. Hot buffet trays lined one room of the wall.

Mrs. Pepperoni gracefully gestured her arm towards the silver trays. "We've made Italiano for you."

Everyone lined up quietly to help themselves to food. There was Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo, Stuffed Chicken Marsala, Lasagna Fritta, Freshly Baked Garlic Breadsticks with Dipping Sauces, and Famous House Salad. Mrs. Pepperoni went first, putting only a tong-full of salad on her plate. Zach found this troubling, but said nothing.

"Hope you all saved us some!" boomed a voice. In strutted a tall, barrel-chested man, dressed in an identical Gucci sweatsuit as Ralphio. He heartily shook everyone's hands as they balanced their plates with the other.

"Hello, everyone! I'm sorry we're late. It's my fault; I got held up at work."

Zach spun around at the sound of the voice, his heart dropping in his stomach. There stood Esther, a vision in a Vero Moda Gingham Smock Dress, Microfiber Opaque Navy Blue Tights, and Long Time Pointed Ballet Flats decorated with a large pink heart on each toe. Her long hair was in soft waves around her cherubic face and she smiled shyly.

"Hi, Zacharia! I'm so happy to see you again."

Chapter Text

Zacharia held on to his Cream Gold-Trimmed Premium Plastic Dinner Plate with a steely grip, suddenly embarrassed by the amount of Steak Gorgonzola Alfredo he'd heaped onto it.

"H-hi, Esther! It's good to see you again. Really good," he said shyly. Esther beamed at him, showing off her pearly whites. He watched her tenderly as she helped herself to appropriately-sized samplings of each available food offering.

"You must be Dino-Boy!" boomed Mr. Pepperoni, coming up behind Zach and clapping him roughly on the shoulder. Zach lurched forward, barely keeping hold of his plate! "How are ya, kid? Heard a lot about ya!"

Zach opened his mouth to answer, but Mr. Pepperoni quickly continued speaking, close to Zach's face and in hushed tones.

"Zach, I'm not too worried about what you and RJ got up too. Just good clean fun, amiright?"

"RJ?" asked Zach.

"You didn't know? I'm Big Ralphio! RJ's named after me" he exclaimed proudly.

"Big Ralphio" looked around the dining room and flung his arms out to his sides, as if to embrace all those present. "Why're the kids just standing around in here? They ought to be hanging out in the kitchen away from us old farts! Ev, why didn't you set up the kids in the kitchen?"

Mrs. Pepperoni dramatically rolled her eyes and sucked her teeth, turning away from him to pour herself another glass of wine.

Mr. and Mrs. Livingwell looked panicked at Mr. Pepperoni's declaration that the teens have their supper unsupervised in another room. Zach remembered his mother's vow that she and Dad would be keeping a close eye on him.

"Uh, Mr. Pepperoni, we'd rather-" Zach's dad began nervously.

"Kids, fill up your plates and get the heck out of here!" interrupted Ralphio's dad. "You can watch the Netflix on the kitchen TV while us senior citizens chew the fat in here."

Mr. Pepperoni ushered Zach, Esther, and Ralphio into the kitchen attached to the dining room, closing the French Doors between the two rooms and on The elder Livingwell's worried faces.

As the friends sat around the kitchen table, Ralphio pulled out his cellular phone. "I'm texting Babs. I'll tell her to go to the back door and I'll let her in."

"Ralphie, come on. You know sneaking in a friend, and I hate to say, especially Babs, isn't a good idea," said Esther, her jade eyes wide.

"Esther, no offense, but could you just shut up for once and let me have fun?" Ralphio snapped. Zach and Esther gasped simultaneously. "Ralphio, take it easy," Zach said softly, wanting to stand up for Esther but afraid of angering his friend.

"Whatever. I know you wanna hang out with her, right DB?" Ralphio sneered. Another nickname! Zach was so conflicted.

Redness rose in Esther's cheeks. "Well, if you guys are so keen on hanging out with Brianna, I'll just go to my room," Esther said, crossing her arms.

Zach leapt to his feet. "No, no! Stay! It's okay, we'll all-- I don't know. It'll be fine."

Esther sighed, looking down at her lap. "I'm not taking the fall for this if something goes wrong, Ralphie. But fine. I'll stay for you, Zach." She looked at him shyly and sweetly.

Suddenly, there was a light tapping on the window of the kitchen door that led to the deck - overlooking the in-ground swimming pool! - and Ralphio rushed to answer it.

Babs snuck in and Zach immediately averted his glance. She was wearing a blood-red sleeveless crop-top turtleneck under a loose, over-sized vintage denim jacket; high-waist "sailor girl" black denim shorts with anchor buttons; black fishnet stockings, and motorcycle ankle booties. Her copper hair was loose, long, and straight and she wore winged eyeliner and matte mauve lipstick. Babs' newest addition to her look was a silver hoop in her right nostril.

"Ralphio, I'm so glad you texted me!" Babs whispered, flinging her arms around his neck. Ralphio smirked at her, looking her up and down. "'You look kinda hot," was his reply.

"Hello, Brianna," Esther said stiffly.

"Esther, I told you, it's Babs now, " she said with a roll of her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Babs. I guess I'm just having a hard time getting used to it," said Esther.

"Hey, Zachariasaurus-rex, "Bab's cooed.

"Hey," said Zach, still looking down at the floor.

Babs looked hurt for a moment, but then rolled her eyes. "Okay, whatever. Ralphie, can I get a plate? I love the Olive Garden!"

"Yeah, but I'm putting mostly salad on yours. You don't want to get fat, right?"

She blushed furiously and tugged at the crop top. "Yeah, duh!" she chuckled awkwardly.

Ralphio left the kitchen and Babs sat in his vacant seat. An uncomfortable silence hung over them. "So... did that hurt terribly?" asked Esther, pointing to her own nostril.

"What? Oh, no. It's, like, fake. You have to get your parents' signature for the real one."

"Well, good for you for not forging it!" Esther said with a saccharine tone.

Babs ignored her and turned her attention back to Zach. "I've never seen you dressed like that, Zach," she giggled.

He tugged at his trousers. "Really? I used to dress like this all the time."

"Hmm. Guess I never noticed you. I don't know why." Babs held his gaze for far too long.

Esther cleared her throat. "Does anyone want dessert? Mom bought tiramisu, but it has alcohol in it, so I'm just having strawberry frozen yogurt," she said as she walked to the freezer.

"I-- I'll have some yogurt, Esther. Thank you," said Zach.

"Not me, I'm having that tiramisu. It'll go great with this." Babs reached into the pocket of her jean jacket and pulled out a ciggarette.

Zach pushed back from the table in shock. "Babs... what are you doing with that?"

"Don't even think about smoking that in here!" Esther hissed.

Just then, Ralphio came back into the room with a plate of salad and a measly speck of Lasagna Fritta. "What did I miss?"

Babs sneered at Ralphio. "These two just freaked out because I brought this along so we can really party!"

"Oh, sweet! I'm tired of just lighting toothpicks," said Ralphio, abandoning the food on the table. "Come on, let's go outside!"

Babs and Ralphio quietly crept through the kitchen door. Zach was shaken; he'd never been up close and personal to a cigarette.

"What do we do?" he hissed.

"I'm going out there. I don't know what to do, but he's still my brother," said Esther as she marched out the door.

Babs and Ralphio were sitting on the deck railing, feet dangling over the pool, passing the lit cigarette back and forth. "Mmm, it's so smooth," Ralphio choked through coughs. "Is this a menthol?"

Babs took a puff and choked on the smoke, shrugging her shoulders. "Dunno. I swiped it from my step-dad's stash. My mom thinks he quit."

"Ralphio Fitzgerald Pepperoni, you are gonna be in such deep trouble if Mom and Dad find out!" snapped Esther.

"Esther Dogface Pepperoni, I don't give two craps and neither do they!" He turned to Babs, an evil smile on his face. "You know what's even better than smoking, Babs?"

"No, what?"

"DRINKING!" he yelled, pushing Babs off the railing and into the pool while she screamed bloody murder. "CANNONBALL!" he cried, as he did the move, throwing himself into the pool.

"RALPHIE!! Oh my gosh, oh my GOSH!" cried Esther as she ran down the deck stairs.

Zach was mortified. What on earth was happening? Ralphio was out of control! Smoking, cursing, and now swimming in his GUCCI sweatsuit?! Did he have respect for anything? And poor Babs! He really pushed her hard; was she hurt? Zach rushed down the stairs after Esther.

The two surfaced from the leaf-covered water, Babs gasping and flailing frantically, her winged eyeliner and mascara running down her face. Zach took off his Sperrys and pulled his button-down over his head, diving into the pool in only his Hanes undershirt and Old Navy slacks. He was thankful for all of those years as a junior lifeguard at the local YMCA.

"Calm down, Babs! I've got you! Just hang on to me!"

Esther ran from one end of the pool to the other, screaming at the top of her lungs, absolutely frantic. "Ralphio! What have you done?!"

Just then, the deck light flicked on and four figures appeared, looking over the railing.

"Ralphie, stop screwing around and get out of the pool!" drawled Mrs. Pepperoni. She turned to her husband, berating him. "I told you to put the damn cover on the pool weeks ago, Ralph, but you never listen to me!"

"Roger, he's in his undershirt! Roger, what's going on, I can't bear to look!" Mrs. Livingwell buried her face into her husband's shoulder.

"Susan, it's alright! He's performing a rear approach rescue!" he cried, grabbing his wife's hand and running down the stairs.

"Woo! Ha-ha! Babs, you should have seen your face!" Ralphio shrieked with joy as he treaded water.

"Get your ass outta that pool, RJ, before I drag you out!" Mr. Pepperoni blustered.

Zach made it to the side of the pool and pulled Babs up with him. His parents ran over, Dad throwing his blazer over Babs' shoulders. She was weeping and shaking from cold, shock, and humiliation.

"Let me help her!" said Mrs. Livingwell. She reached out her hand to Babs, but stopped short once she got a look at her outfit. She quickly composed herself, but her upset was still clear. "Young lady, do you need me to call your parents?" Mrs. Livingwell said softly, grabbing and squeezing Babs' hand. Seeing a child in distress, no matter how scandalously dressed, tugged at her heartstrings. No matter what, she was a mother, not just to Zacharia, but to other children who were in need of one.

"N-no, you c-can't," Babs hiccuped, teeth chattering. "T-they d-don't know I'm h-here. They’re g-gonna k-kill m-me! M-my phone was in my p-pocket!" she wailed.

Ralphio pulled himself up and swung his legs over the edge of the pool in one fluid movement, purposefully splashing Esther on the way out. The smirk hadn't left his face.

"Ralphio, you're a real jerk, and I'm embarrassed to call you my brother," Esther seethed before stomping away, up the stairs, and inside the house.

Esther passed her father on her way up the stairs. Neither paid the other any mind. When Mr. Pepperoni reached Ralphio, he grabbed him by the collar of his soaked and very expensive sweatshirt.

"You're grounded," he growled. "You're paying for that girl's phone and whatever else you messed up. I don't know why I'm surprised: you're a screw-up, just like your uncle, wherever the hell he is. You wanna be so much like him. He'll be proud to know he's rubbed right off on ya." Mr. Pepperoni pushed his son away with such force Zach thought he'd fall.

For the first time, shame and hurt could be seen on Ralphio's face. It lasted just a moment, and then the smirk was back. "Whatever, Pop," he mumbled.

"Tell the girl you're sorry!" his father shouted. Ralphio jumped ever so slightly in response. As disappointed as he was in Ralphio, Zach couldn't help but feel sorry for him.

"Sorry," he muttered through closed teeth before running up the stairs. Babs only wailed louder.

"Go straight to the laundry room, young man. And you better not drip on my floor!" shouted Mrs. Pepperoni, wine glass still in hand.

Zach's dad sighed. "Son, I think it's time for us to go. Babs, we'll drive you home and help you explain what happened to your mom and dad."

Babs nodded. "Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Livingwell," she sniffed. She looked longingly at Zach, who gave her a sad smile in return.

Mom and Dad didn't bother walking back up the stairs to the deck. "Thank you for dinner," Dad shouted. "We-- we, uh, better get these kids home before they catch their death."

"Sorry about this whole thing. You know how kids are," Mrs. Pepperoni said with a shrug. Her husband said nothing as he paced the deck floor.

"Right," said Zach's dad. "Well, thanks again."

As they walked to his parents' Honda CRV, Zacharia looked back at the Pepperoni's impressive home. He had a feeling he wouldn't be seeing it, or Ralphio, again anytime soon.

Chapter Text

Enough was enough.

At least, that's what Zach's parents said. According to them, over the course of the past month or so, Zach had gone completely out of control, and it was all Ralphio Pepperoni's fault. On the ride home from the Pepperoni's house, after they dropped Babs off with her parents, Mrs. Livingwell listed everything Zach had done wrong recently.

"You've developed an attitude," she said. "You've stayed out past curfew."

"Only once!" Zach cried out from the backseat.

"Watch it," his father warned, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel as he waited for the light to turn green.

"This evening you ate pepper jack cheese. Yes, I saw you! You thought I wasn't watching, didn't you? Well, I was, and I saw you scarf that little cube down like it was going out of style. That's a very spicy cheese, Zach. And you didn't even flinch! Where on earth did you develop such a taste for spicy food?"

Zach blushed, remembering the tacos he'd had for lunch with Ralphio and the gang on the day he'd agreed to play the prank on Tabeltosser. That afternoon felt so far away now. He remembered how happy he'd felt when the table cheered for him. In that moment, the consequences hadn't seemed real. All he'd cared about about were the approving faces of Ralphio, Marc, Lukas, Phil, Rob, Jackson, Kristopher, Max, James, Fredrich, Fillmore, Drake, Darrell, Greg, Benjamin, William, Babs, and Sam. But their approval hadn't kept him out of detention--or in his parents' good graces. How could he ever have been so naive?

"Hmm?" said Mrs. Livingwell.

Zach snapped out of his reverie and back into his father's Honda CRV. His mother expected an answer from him. "I don't know," he said softly.

Mrs. Livingwell sighed irritably. "Well, I can think of something that might jog your memory."

"What?" Zach asked.

"Tell him, Roger," she said to Mr. Livingwell.

"Son," Mr. Livingwell said, "we want you to start attending youth group again."

Zach's stomach sank. "Youth group?!"

"Now, Zach. Your mother and I have given this a lot of thought and prayer, and--"

"But I can't!" The vehemence in Zach's voice surprised him, but once he'd opened his mouth, he couldn't stop the words from pouring out. "You don't understand. Sunday service is fine, but I can't go to youth group!"

Mr. and Mrs. Livingwell exchanged a nervous look.

"Why not, Zach?" Mrs. Livingwell said. "Youth group is good clean fun, and there are a lot of nice kids your age to hang out with. The youth pastor and his wife are such a charming young couple. And sometimes there are even fun outings--I think they went mini golfing last week, didn't they, Roger?"

Mr. Livingwell nodded. "Yes, they did."

"Mini golf is fun, right, Zach? What's not to like?" said Mrs. Livingwell.

Zach shrugged, then remembered his mother couldn't see him. "I don't know," he said again. "I guess--oh, I don't know, Mom."

He didn't have the heart to tell his mom and dad he didn't fit in with the other kids at the youth group. Three years ago, as a freshman in high school, he'd tried out the youth group. The few months he spent going to their Wednesday night meetings and joining them for activities and outings were some of the most miserable of his life. After a bowling outing spent sitting by himself at a table, fighting back tears while he watched the other kids enjoy themselves, Zach had come home and told his parents he didn't want to be in the youth group anymore. At the time, they'd been startled, but accepted it. Now it had been so long since Zach had gone to a meeting, he was afraid the entire group--youth pastor and all--would stare daggers at him the moment he walked through the door, or maybe worse, had forgotten all about him.

Mr. Livingwell chuckled. "Not a very convincing argument, son."

"I--" Zach was at a loss for words. He scratched the back of his neck.

"You what?" asked Mr. Livingwell.

Zach didn't answer.

"Zach, I know you didn't think much of youth group on the first go-around, but your dad and I need you to give it another shot. Some new friends and new faces would do you some good. No more of this business with those loud boys in their leather jackets." Mrs. Livingwell shifted in her seat, pulling her cardigan closer to her as if it would protect her from its leather counterpart. "You need some clean-cut, well-behaved friends."

Somewhere deep inside him, Zach knew his mother was probably right. Before he'd met Ralphio and the gang, Zach's life had been smooth sailing. He was a good student, he had a solid relationship with his parents, he had the school handbook memorized, he ate his vegetables, and he went to bed every night at eight pm on the dot. Back then, he'd been bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But he'd also been lonely. His khakis were always freshly ironed, but he had no one to wear them with on an early-Friday-evening trip to Friendly's. His skim milk nourished him, but he drank it in the lunchroom by himself. Ralphio, Marc, Lukas, Phil, Rob, Jackson, Kristopher, Max, James, Fredrich, Fillmore, Drake, Darrell, Greg, Benjamin, William, Babs, and Sam gave him something he'd never had: a feeling that he belonged. That was nothing to sneeze at.

Anger quickened his pulse. You don't know what I need, he thought viciously, glaring at the back of his mother's head, and an undercut is clean-cut.

* * *

That Wednesday night, as his parents pulled into the church parking lot, Zach's heart felt like it would explode out of his chest. Despite his discomfort and fear of being looked down on by the other kids, Zach had done his best to keep up his "greaser" appearance. But when he stepped out of his bedroom in his blue jeans, T-shirt, and denim jacket, his mother had thrown a fit.

"Just what do you think you're wearing?" she'd exclaimed. "Is that really appropriate for church?"

Zach tugged at the hem of his T-shirt and considered his casual apparel. "I guess not." Suddenly he thought of Ralphio. "But the thing is, I like this outfit."

"But would God want you to wear it to His house? That's what you should be asking yourself, Zacharia. At least put on a button-down shirt."

His mother's face looked so pained that he capitulated--or, at least, came to a compromise. He went back to his room and slipped a button-down dress shirt over his T-shirt. But he chose a gray button-down, neglecting his pastel options, and he kept the jeans and the denim jacket.

It's a greaser-light look, he reassured himself, unconvincingly.

Now it was the moment of truth, and second thoughts swarmed Zach's mind. What on earth was he thinking? His mother was right. Jeans were no way to dress for church--not because God would disapprove, but because none of the other kids at youth group would be in jeans. Zach would stick out like a sore thumb! Regret oozed through his veins.

Sweating through his button down, Zach closed his eyes and conjured up Ralphio. He remembered how confident Ralphio seemed sliding down the banister at the dinner party, or kicking his feet onto his desk and lighting up his toothpick in homeroom. I have to be more like Ralphio, Zach resolved. To get through youth group tonight, I have to pretend I'm as confident and cool as Ralphio Pepperoni himself.

Once inside the church, Mr. and Mrs. Livingwell said their goodbyes to their son and headed into the sanctuary for the main service, leaving Zach hesitating outside the door to the youth group room. He peeked through the window. From where he stood, he could see the youth pastor, Brother Maxwell, leaning on the podium and chatting idly with some teens.

Zach reached for the doorknob, then stopped himself. He shrugged off his denim jacket, tossed it on the floor, and speedily unbuttoned his dress shirt to reveal the T-shirt underneath. Then he pulled his jacket back on. Feeling a little more Ralphio-esque, he opened the door to the youth group, carrying his balled-up dress shirt in the crook of his arm.

"Oh, hey Zach! Long time, no see, my man! High five!" Brother Maxwell said, extending his palm toward Zach.

Zach reluctantly high-fived him. "H-hey, Brother Maxwell. Good to see you, too."

"So tell me, how have you been?" asked Brother Maxwell excitedly.

The teens Brother Maxwell had been talking to fixed their eyes on Zach. One girl popped her gum and waved as she smiled at Zach, whose heart was pounding faster by the minute. He hoped no one noticed him wiping his sweaty hands on his jeans.

"I've been good, Brother Maxwell," said Zach. "Really good, actually."

Brother Maxwell nodded and smiled. "Well, I'm glad to hear it. We missed you around here! Why don't you go ahead and take a seat? We'll get started in a minute."

"Okay." Zach turned around. Several other teens were sitting in a circle, some on the floor, others in chairs, waiting for the message to start. They chatted quietly, giggling, and showing each other what Zach imagined were clever memes on their cellular phones. Any moment now, they would notice his greaser attire. He gulped and tried to think like Ralphio. Heh, bunch of squares, he imagined Ralphio saying to him. Just look at their lame outfits.

A boy in the front row wore a red windbreaker, a white T-shirt, and denim blue jeans...wait. Denim blue jeans? Zach couldn't believe his eyes. Could this boy be another greaser? He smiled, trying to catch the boy's eye. Then he caught a glimpse of a girl sitting on the floor with some other kids close to the front the room. She wore black skinny jeans, Converse sneakers, and a black sweater. The boy she was speaking to wore shiny athletic shorts and a sweatshirt--maybe not a greaser, but still pretty casual. Zach's eyes darted around the room. Left and right, he saw nothing but denim. It looked like everyone was trotting out their jeans!

What would Ralphio say about all this? Zach wondered.

"Zacharia," a young woman said softly from behind him.

Zach spun on his heel. Standing in front of him was none other than Esther Pepperoni. His heart fluttered. "Esther! I didn't know you came to youth group."

"I just started recently. Is this your first meeting?"

"No. Well, yes. No. I mean, it's my first in a while." A familiar face should have put him at ease, but for some reason, he felt even more nervous than before. His nervousness skyrocketed when he noticed her outfit. Esther wore a fluffy Free People Cuddle Up sweater in ivory, mid-rise roll cuff boyfriend crop jeans in medium wash, and lavender Converse. "I, uh, didn't expect to see you in blue jeans," he blurted out.

She furrowed her brow. "Oh, but it's Wednesday night. Youth group is more casual than Sunday service."

"Someone has to tell that to my mother," Zach felt himself saying.

"But you're wearing jeans too, Zach."

"What? Oh, these?" Zach stared down at his pants. He felt as if his skin were on fire. "Do you feel warm? Is it too hot in here?"

"I feel fine. Are you all right?"

"Me? Oh, yeah. Sure. I'm great. I'm A-okay." He grinned and gave two thumbs up. "Ha ha."

"Zach, there's something I need to tell you."

"What is it?"

Brother Maxwell clapped. "Settle down, ladies and gentlemen. It's time to get this show on the road."

"Bible study is starting," Zach said.

Esther took a step closer to him and spoke quickly. "Listen, I'm not happy about it, but Ralphie asked me to tell you something if I saw you, and he's my brother, so..." She shook her head instead of finishing the sentence. "Ralphie wants to meet up. He wants you to meet him at the town park at six pm this coming Saturday. Do you think you could do that?"

"Won't I see him at school?"

"No, he's not coming to school for the rest of the week. He's sick."

"Oh, I hope he feels better."

"Thank you."

"Come on, you two Chatty Cathys! Time to sit down," Brother Maxwell said with a chuckle. Zach glanced up to see the two talkers Brother Maxwell was teasing, and realized with embarrassment that the statement was directed at himself and Esther.

"I'll do it. I'll meet Ralphio," Zach said before he could think better of it.

Before she took her seat, Esther repeated, "Six pm. At the town park."

Zach nodded firmly. Esther easily sat down on the floor and crossed her legs, applesauce style. He glanced at the top of her glossy raven hair as he thought for a moment about joining her, but decided to sit on a chair, feeling conspiratorial and exhilarated. He found it impossible to focus on what Brother Maxwell and the other kids were saying with his heart beating so fast and his head swimming so much. Maybe he'd just made another mistake. Meeting Ralphio at the park would require breaking more than a few house rules, and he'd have to lie to his parents about his whereabouts, but he was too excited to care. Ralphio wanted to see him, even after everything that had happened at the dinner party! With this meet-up with Ralphio to look forward to, things suddenly didn't seem so bleak anymore. Plus, Esther's presence at the youth group meant he wouldn't be all alone. For the first time in a while, things were looking up, and Zach's spirits were lifted considerably! For now. . .

Chapter Text

On Saturday, Zach nervously made his way to the town park. He'd told his parents he was going for a walk, which wasn't technically a lie, but also wasn't the whole truth.

It's a lie by omission, a little voice inside his head told him, but he shook that voice away.

Zach's heart was pounding so fast he thought he might faint! Dusk had fallen, casting a blue light over the town park. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen the park so deserted. There were no families eating at the picnic tables or kids playing on the swing-set. Usually there were at least some people tossing coins into the fountain and taking pictures in front of it, but there was no one there, either. According to Zach's watch, it was 6 pm on the dot--much later than he'd ever been to the park before.

Maybe a bit too late. He wrung his hands together, his eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of Ralphio. But Ralphio was nowhere to be seen. It was just Zach--all alone in the town park.

"I'm not scared," Zach told himself out loud. "Ralphio will be here any minute!"

The chipper tone of his voice sounded strained as it echoed through the empty park. His hands shaking, he took the can of Mountain Dew he'd purchased from the vending machine at the strip mall on the walk over out of the pocket of his denim blue jean jacket. The can popped open with a satisfying snap. He'd been sneaking caffeinated sodas for about two weeks now. When he couldn't get his "fix," he found he felt irritable, jittery, and headache-y.

Oh, how far he'd fallen!

Just as Zach began to wonder if Ralphio wasn't going to show up after all, a familiar Cadillac Escalade screeched into the parking lot. Zach drew closer. The car blasted loud music. It sounded like a rock and roll song, but Zach wasn't particularly well-versed in that kind of music. Would he have to familiarize himself with it if he wanted Ralphio to think he was cool? Thinking about it made Zach a little queasy. He didn't have the faintest idea how to go about that. Once he got his library card back, he would have to check out some "rock n' roll" CDs--though how he was going to sneak those past his "eagle-eyed" parents, he wasn't sure.

One thing was for certain: any websites where he could read about rock music, like TNZ or Entertainment Daily, were blocked on the family PC that sat in the living room. For the most part, Zach only really heard music at church, and from the Lite 100 station his mother always put on while they were cleaning the house on Saturdays. Zach was partial to some of Ariana Grande's and Josh Groban's ballads, but he didn't think a guy like Ralphio would be into slow songs. One of his guilty pleasures was "Barcelona" by Ed Sheeran, which was on the faster side--but still too tame by Ralphio's standards, he was sure.

"Of course Ralphio's not into Ed Sheeran. Ed's from England!" he muttered under his breath.

While these thoughts buzzed through Zach's mind, the Escalade pulled to a sudden stop, breaks squeaking. Whoever's driving that Escalade sure is putting it to the test, Zach thought as he stepped up to the curb to greet Ralphio. Now that the car was so close, the rock music was very loud indeed, and Zach fought the urge to cover his ears. His mother always reminded him that listening to music with the volume too high up would damage his eardrums, but apparently no one had told that to this daring motorist. Zach had a bad feeling in his stomach, like something might be not-quite-right, but he wasn't sure why and tried to ignore it.

The window rolled down to reveal Ralphio sitting in the passenger seat. He took a swig of cream soda from a glass bottle and grinned at Zach. "Hey, hey, hey! What's up, Dino-boy?" he said.

"H-hi, Ralphio," Zach said in a soft voice.

There was a man driving the Escalade, and it certainly was not Mr. Pepperoni. The man could have been anywhere from his late twenties to mid-forties---he was half-concealed in shadow, and it was difficult for Zach to tell. His jet-black hair was combed into a slick pompadour, and he had on a plaid flannel shirt worn unbuttoned over a white t-shirt. A long leather necklace with a shiny circular pendant dangled from his neck. He had a carefully-maintained beard and mustache. The sleeves of his flannel shirt were pushed up just enough that Zach could see the man's arms were covered in tattoos. Was this guy...a greaser?

The man noticed Zach's wide-eyed stare, and amusement flickered over his face. "Hi there, little guy," he said. "The name's Enzo. Enzo Moretti. " With this thumb, he motioned to Ralphio. "This guy here is my nephew. You must be Zach. Ralphio just won't shut up about you."

Ralphio's cheeks flushed, much to Zach's surprise. He'd never seen Ralphio look embarrassed. "Enzo," Ralphio groaned.

Enzo laughed.

"Nice, uh, nice to meet you, Enzo." Zach shot a fleeting, panicked glance at Ralphio.

"Yeah, good to see other greasers in the neighborhood," Enzo said. "Hey, do you know what song this is that I've got on right now? What band it is, even?"

"Huh?" Zach really wished Ralphio would get out of the car so they could hang out.

"You don't, do you?" Enzo snorted in disbelief and shook his head. "And you kids call yourselves greasers. Well, I guess that's what people like me are for, right? To mentor you in the greaser lifestyle and all that jazz."

"Oh, yeah, totally." Zach said this with as much confidence as he could muster, but he was uncertain if it was true.

"This here is some music from a band by the name of The Cramps, heard of 'em?" Enzo raised an eyebrow at Zach, but didn't wait for an answer. "They're sort of the cat's meow when it comes to real greaser music. The song playing right now is called 'Human Fly.' Pretty sick, right?"

"Right!" said Zach in a nervous, high-pitched voice. He cleared his throat. "I'll have to, uh, look 'em up sometime."

"Sure thing, daddy-o." Enzo took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. Smoke filled the air, making Zach and Ralphio cough.

"Well, thanks for the ride, Uncle Enzo, but me and Zach had better get crackin'. You know how it goes." Ralphio unbuckled his seat belt and popped open the car door.

"No problemo, little man," said Enzo between puffs of his cigarette. "What time should I pick you up?"

Ralphio exchanged a look with Zach. "Um, seven?"

Zach nodded.

"Seven," Ralphio repeated, glancing over his shoulder at Enzo.

"Cool. See you around, Dino-boy." Enzo gunned the engine.

"Yeah! Good to meet you! See you around!" Zach shouted as Enzo sped away.

For a second, Ralphio and Zach just stood there, watching the Escalade tear out of the parking lot. Finally, Zach said, "So, that was your uncle?"

Ralphio rearranged his blank expression into a cheerful one. "Yeah, it was! Isn't the the coolest? Lemme tell you, I'm so freakin' lucky to have an uncle who's a greaser like me. You know, my folks don't really understand the whole greaser thing. My mom's always like, 'Ralphio, for Pete's sake, wash that gunk outta your hair!' But Enzo, he gets me."

"That must be so nice. Nobody in my family understands this--" Zach motioned to his T-shirt and denim jacket--"whole thing at all. They think I must be nuts."

"You've got me, though, right? That's what friends are for."

Zach's heart glowed. "Yes!"

Ralphio tossed his empty cream soda bottle. It smashed to pieces on the pavement. Then he slapped Zach on the back. "Come on, Dino-boy, lets take a little stroll. No point standing around here."

Zach and Ralphio made their way through the park, past the swing-sets and down the gravel path toward the fountain. Now that Ralphio was here, Zach felt comfortable and happy. He hadn't noticed it before, but the park looked beautiful in the dusk. There was a bit of a chill in the air--a sign of autumn's approach--but his denim jacket insulated him well. Zach thought back to when he purchased the jacket at Target with his mother. It was late last summer, right before school started again. Back then, he wasn't even friends with Ralphio yet. At the time, his mother hadn't guessed the jacket was part of Zach's new greaser look--she just figured it was a nice casual jacket he could wear to school. The memory made Zach a touch melancholy, so he tried to put it out of his mind.

"I'm sorry you were sick," Zach said. "Oh! That reminds me. I went to your biology teacher and got the notes from your class for you, so you wouldn't get too behind. I borrowed Fillmore's algebra notes, since you guys are in that class together, and I was gonna make a copy of them, too, but they were just a bunch of cartoons and doodles so I didn't end up doing that. They're in my backpack. Tomorrow at school I'll give them to you."

Ralphio looked stunned. "Thanks, Zach."

"No problem! What did you have, anyway? If you don't mind me asking."

"It was nothing serious. I just got kinda sick from jerking around in the pool at that dinner party. I got all wet, you know, and it was kinda cold out that night. When I woke up the next morning I had a fever. Didn't you get sick? You were in the pool, too, weren't you?"

Without thinking, Zach blurted out, "I didn't get sick because Mom and Dad gave me two children's aspirin and made me take a warm Epsom salt bath and slather Vicks Vapor Rub on my chest the moment I got in the house!"

"Really? My mom only cared about me getting her floors wet, and all my dad did was yell. But, I mean, Esther gave me a towel, even though she was super pissed at me."

"Oh, my parents were disappointed in me, but no matter how angry they were, they would never let me go to bed with wet hair." When he saw the sad look on Ralphio's face, he rushed to add, "But still, your parents let you do whatever you want. That must be so great! Mine baby me so much, half the time I forget I'm a senior in high school. I think they forget, too."

"You should be happy they worry about you, man."

"But I feel like such a dork sometimes with them making a big fuss over me. I--" Zach hesitated "I wish I were as cool as you!"

"You do?"

"Yeah, I do, sometimes."

Ralphio shook his head and leaned on the ledge of the fountain. "My life's not that great. Do you think because I've got a leather jacket and Uncle Enzo will drive me wherever I want and my mom lets me have a TV in my room, that means everything's awesome?" He shook his head again. "No way, Dino-boy. Tell you the truth, I sometimes wish I were more like you."

"What do you mean?"

"Do I have to spell it out for you? You get good grades. All the teachers like you. Your parents love you so much!" Zach opened his mouth to object to this last part, but Ralphio cut in, "Zach, c'mon man, they gave you aspirin even though they were pissed at you! My mom never remembers to give me aspirin. Half the time it's me bringing her aspirin, if you really want to hear the truth!" Ralphio's cheeks colored a little, and he stopped talking to take a breath.

"How can you think all that? I'd give just about anything if it meant I didn't have to be Zachariah Livingwell anymore."

"That's crazy, man. If someone told me I didn't have to be Ralphio Pepperoni anymore, I'd take 'em up on it. I wouldn't think twice!"

"Maybe we should switch bodies," Zach said.

"Yeah," Ralphio said with a snort.

"I wish we could," they said simultaneously. The boys looked at each other and laughed at the coincidental utterance.

Ralphio took two pennies out of his pocket, handing one to Zach. With a wink, he motioned for him to toss the coin into the water and they threw them into the fountain together. They landed with a soft ker-plunk.

Zach and Ralphio didn't stay in the park for long after that. Both of them had to get home, after all. Tomorrow Zach had to wake up early for the Sunday morning church service, and Ralphio had his own things to do tomorrow, Zach was sure.

Laying in bed that night, Zach reflected on everything that had happened in the past few weeks. It felt like such a whirlwind! He and Ralphio had really bonded at the park, and he couldn't help but think that from now on, the two of them would be closer than ever.

Chapter Text

It was Sunday morning, or, at least Zacharia thought it was.

Most Sunday mornings he'd awaken to the sound of Dad whistling along to Pandora.com's Christian Contemporary station playing from the family PC, while the gentle buzz of his Philips Norelco shaver hummed in the background. Meanwhile, Mom would be busy in the kitchen, as on Sundays the family indulged in rich foods, like scrambled eggs, nitrate-free bacon, or even Kodiak Cakes brand Buttermilk & Honey Frontier Flapjacks! His favorite part of Sunday breakfast was his tall mug of Ovaltine: piping hot in Fall and Winter, or ice-cold in Spring and Summer. But something about this Sunday just felt off.

His face was buried in his pillow, his blanket thrown over his head. Zach didn't usually sleep face-down or with bedding covering his head as he was the tiniest bit claustrophobic. "Must have been really tossing and turning last night" he thought.

The house was strangely quiet. As Zach had a near-perfect internal body clock, he was certain that it was between 7:45am and 8:30am. Things were normally bustling in the Livingwell house by a crisp 7:00am on a Sunday morning, unless Mom or Dad had come down with a cold. He worried that perhaps one or both of his parents weren't feeling well and decided to check on them. Even if things had been rocky between them lately, they were still his mom and dad. They'd always been there in a flash, as he'd told Ralphio the night before, with Children's Aspirin and Vick's Vapor Rub if he had so much as a sniffle. The least Zach could do was poke his head in and make sure everything was alright.

Zach threw off his blanket and rubbed his eyes. His room was pitch black and his vision hadn't adjusted to the lack of light. He always made sure to keep his curtains and blinds open a bit so that the first rays of morning sun would both wake and warm him. "I guess I just forgot" he thought.

He swung his legs over the side of his bed and stood up, only to fall to the floor. It was as if his bed was perched on stilts! He grunted as he pushed himself upright and rubbed his eyes again. Still the room was dark and blurry. He'd have to use some Visine from the medicine cabinet to set himself right.

Zach stumbled towards his bedroom door and felt for the knob. His hand flailed, landing only on empty wall. Zach shook his head and scratched the back of it in confusion. Instead of feeling fingers-full of his thick, dirty-blonde waves, his hand scraped across prickly stubble. Zacharia ran both hands back and forth across his head, his heart starting to pound. The sides of his hair felt cropped short while the top was long and silky. "What the-" he started.

Zach clasped his hands over his mouth and just as quickly pulled them away. Even though he'd said only two words, he knew that the voice coming out of him was not his. He frantically pawed at his face as he felt a layer of pretty impressive stubble. At 17, Zacharia still didn't have the need to shave, but today? Today he'd need Dad's Norelco without a doubt!

Zach cleared his throat over and over again as he pulled at his chin with one hand and his hair with the other. "H-hello? Testing, 1, 2, 3..." The voice was foreign, yet so familiar. He was beginning to really panic. What was happening to him?

He stopped pawing at his head and frantically felt around for the door knob. He needed to splash some water on his face and forgo his Ovaltine for a cup of dandelion tea and he'd be alright. Everything would be fine.

Finally finding the knob, he opened the door and stumbled into the hall. Though not as dark as his bedroom, there was still no light on in the hallway, nor, it seemed, in the rest of the house. "Dad? Mom? I- I need to talk to you guys. I- something's not-"

"What are you doing? Mom's gonna kill you for making so much noise!" hissed a voice from behind him. He squinted in its direction.

"M-mom?" he whimpered.

"Ralphio, what are you doing? Stop messing around and get back to bed! You're gonna wake the whole house up!"

Ralphio? Ralphio?!

"...Esther? Is-is that you? What's going on? How are you in my- Why did you call me Ra- Oh my gosh, what- what the h-heck-" Zack felt weak and dizzy and fell to his knees, breathing raggedly.

He heard Esther suck her teeth and sigh. "Ralphy, you don't have to be so dramatic. I know you're not coming to church with me, so just go back to bed. You don't have to pretend to be... I don't know, whatever it is you're pretending to be!" With that, he heard her turn and stomp away.

"No, please. Don't go. I'm so scared" he whispered as he lay in the spot where she'd left him.

Zacharia didn't know how long he'd been laying in the hallway. He was curled into a ball, his eyes shut tight. "I just need to go back to sleep. When I wake up everything will be normal. This is just a bad dream" he thought.

"Ralphy! What are you doing? Why are you just laying in the hall like this? Get up!" It was Esther back again, and this time she was roughly pulling him by the collar of the t-shirt he was wearing. Zach, despite his fear and disbelief, couldn't help but be impressed by how strong she was.

"Esther, please, you don't understand!" he cried.

Esther reached up on tiptoe and clamped her hand over his mouth. "Do you want to get grounded?" Esther huffed and sucked her teeth again. "What am I saying; it's not like that stops you from doing whatever you want. Do you want Dad to shove you around again? Scream the whole house down? Have Mom lock herself in her room for a day or three?" she whispered.

"What? No, no, I- Of course, I-" Zach stumbled.

"Then shut. Up. And come with me downstairs." With that, Esther dragged him behind her down the cold marble staircase.

Esther stood at the front door, checking her Michael Kors Jaryn Pavé Rose Gold-Tone Watch and impatiently tapping her foot. Zach sat on the bottom step, stunned into silence. He rubbed his eyes and squinted hard, trying futilely to get his bearings.

He'd seen a few science-fiction movies about people who suddenly found themselves in the wrong body, like the 1976 version of "Freaky Friday" and Kirk Cameron's "Like Father Like Son", but surely things like that couldn't happen in real life! What was happening to him? Zacharia wrapped his arms around his knees and rocked back and forth, trying his darndest not to cry.

"Esther, something's wrong. Like, really wrong, and I know it's gonna sound crazy, but I need you to hear me out-"

"Ralphio, I don't have time for your antics. Every Sunday you pull an elaborate stunt to get out of coming to church with me. Like last week when you said you thought that you were having a brain aneurysm. Do you think I bought that for even a second? Haven't you even noticed that I've stopped asking you to go with me? So just give it up, okay? I know I have" said Esther, sadness creeping into her voice.

"But Esther-"

Before Zach could finish his plea, there were several frantic knocks at the door, followed by a succession of doorbell rings. He stood up and squinted to see who it could be, but his - or rather Ralphio's - vision was so poor that it was all just a blur.

"Huh, it's Zach. I thought it'd be the church carpool. Are you expecting him? He doesn't look so good" said Esther.

"W-what? I'm- I mean, he's here? You- you gotta let him in!" Zach stumbled towards the door.

Esther turned the lock and before she could open the door, it swung open. "Holy crap, it really happened!" Zach heard himself cry.

"Hey, Zach! What brings you here so early?" Esther said cheerfully.

"Can't talk to you now, gotta go to my room. I mean, his room" said Ralphio as he ran up the stairs. Or was it Zach? But Zach was Zach, only he was Ralphio! What a conundrum!

Esther made a small noise of surprise and softly said "Oh. Okay then." Zach heard a car pull up outside and worried that it was his mom and dad. "How am I gonna explain this?!" he thought with panic.

Two toots of the car's horn followed and he knew it wasn't his parents. The Livingwell's had a strict practice of using the car horn only when necessary: to avoid collisions, to try to get “eye contact” with other drivers, and on narrow mountain roads, where one cannot see at least 200 feet ahead of one's vehicle.

"That's my ride. Mom and Dad probably won't be up till noon, but there's cereal and milk and stuff for sandwiches" said Esther with authority. "I'll see you after church. Just try to behave until then." She said that gently, closing the door behind her, before Zacharia could answer.

Zach let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and stood up. He began pacing the floor, his mind swimming with confusion. Just as he was about to head back up stairs, he heard Ralphio run down.

"Here, put these on and come with me" he said, pushing a pair of glasses into Zach's hands. Ralphio Pepperoni wears glasses?

Zach slipped them on, and his vision was clear again. "Shouldn't we tell your parents that we're leaving? I mean, we could leave a note-"

"No, no, it's fine" said Ralphio as he pushed Zach through the door. Zach would finally be able to get a good look at himself, but he hesitated. As much as he wanted to know what he looked like through someone else's eyes, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Not yet. How would he go on if he didn't like what he saw?

"What did you tell my parents when you left?" Zach squeaked as he jogged to keep up with Ralphio. He didn't know his body could move that fast!

"I don't know, I made something about up going to church with my sister. Don't worry, I didn't call her my sister; I said Esther. I didn't really give them a chance to answer" Ralphio said rapidly, still speed walking down the street.

"And- and they just let you go?!" shrieked Zach. His voice - no, Ralphio's voice - sounded so odd without the cool drawl he'd come to know and admire. "I can't even be cool when I'm actually Ralphio" he thought sadly.

Ralphio stopped and turned on his heel. Zacharia looked away before their eyes met. "Yeah, Zach, they just let me" Ralphio spit angrily. "What were they gonna do, call the cops? Why are you so afraid of them?" Ralphio sighed and out of the corner of his eyes, Zach could sense that he was shaking his head.

"They knew something was wrong right away. They were worried about me. I mean, you. Your mom tried to give me some nasty chocolate stuff to drink and your dad kept patting my shoulder. They really cared, Zach. And what did my parents do? I'm sure you were freaking out. So what did they do to make sure you were okay?" Ralphio's voice - no his voice - cracked. He knew what that sound meant. That sound meant that he was on the verge of tears.

"They... um, Esther said they're not early risers" Zach mumbled.

Ralphio scoffed. "But I bet you called for them. I bet you sounded pretty scared" he said with a sniffle. Zach finally looked up to see Ralphio wipe at his eyes with the sleeve of Zach's button-down Oxford blue dress shirt. "And they never came, did they?"

"No. They didn't. I'm sorry" Zach said softly.

"Yeah, well, whatever." Ralphio's signature bravado was back. Zach wondered if he'd be able to sound like that when he was back to being himself again. If he was ever back to being himself.

Ralphio continued to race ahead. "Where are we going?" Zach asked.

"Back to the park. To fix this" Ralphio said.

"Yeah, yeah, that's a good idea. We've gotta fix this" Zach nodded his head.

They arrived at the park minutes later. Ralphio stormed up to the fountain and glared at the stone angel perched atop. Zacharia raised his eyebrows, startled by the look on his own face. He looked older, like an actual high school senior and not a sniveling 8th grader. His jaw was strong and his cheekbones high. The severe acne he was convinced he suffered from was just a couple of harmless-looking pimples. And he had to admit that he had a great head of hair. "Is that what everyone else sees when they look at me?" Zach whispered.

"Take it back" snarled Ralphio. "We don't want it. We want it how it was. So- so just freakin' take it back!" Ralphio took a deep breath, balled his hands up into fists, and squeezed his eyes tight.

Nothing happened.

"Ralphio, I think we have to do everything exactly how we did it when we made the wish. I think that's what happens in the movies." Zach would have to re-watch them to be sure.

"Fine. Your pockets are empty. You got any change on you?" Ralphio said.

"I don't even have pockets!" Zach laughed nervously, motioning to the sweatpants Ralphio must usually sleep in.

Ralphio swore under his breath. "Let's use some rocks or something" he said, bending down and picking up a handful of stones. "Here, these are like the same color of pennies. Take one." He handed Zach a smooth, copper colored stone.

"Okay, now we have to throw them in at the same time and make the wish. Or maybe we made the wish first. I can't remember" said Zach.

Ralphio rolled his eyes. "We'll throw them in on three. 1, 2, 3!" The boys tossed the stones into the fountain. "I wish I was me again!" Ralphio cried.

"Yeah, me too! I mean, I wish I was me again too!" said Zach.

Nothing happened.

Ralphio sat at the edge of the fountain and tugged at his hair. Zach reached his hand into the water and pulled out the stones, timidly handing one to Ralphio.

"Let's make the wish first this time. And make sure we say it together."

"Yeah. Fine."

"I wish I was me again" said the boys in unison before throwing the stones into the water for a second time. Zach closed his eyes. "Please, please, please" he whispered.

Nothing happened.

Ralphio roared and kicked the base of the fountain, letting out a stream of cuss words Zacharia wasn't even sure he knew. To hear them said in his voice frightened him. His eyes began to well with tears.

"What are we gonna do?" said Ralphio. Tears streamed down his face. He didn't bother to try to wipe them away this time.

Zach gulped and turned away. He couldn't bear watching himself cry. "I don't know. I have no idea. I can't go home. Not like this. And neither can you."

"Oh my god!" Ralphio wailed.

"We're gonna have to wait it out. Be each other until... I don't know. Until we don't have to anymore."

Ralphio said nothing, staring off into the distance. After what felt like an eternity, he nodded. He stood up and walked over to Zach and stared into his own eyes, searching. For what, Zach couldn't begin to guess.

"We have to do our best to act just like each other."

"And not screw anything up."

"Yeah, yeah, of course."

"We'll meet up every day if we have to to make sure we're doing everything right. We're gonna have to tell each other practically everything. No secrets."

"And we can't tell anyone. They'll think we're crazy, and who knows what they'd do to us then."

The boys nodded. Ralphio held out his hand and Zach took it. They shook hands, firmly, before letting go and turning back to stare at the fountain. Zach could tell from the corner of his eye that Ralphio was watching him intently.

As scared and bewildered as he was, something deep inside of Zacharia Livingwell was dancing with glee. He was going to live as Ralphio Pepperoni. He was going to be cool, and rich, and popular, and able to do practically whatever he wanted.

"Please, don't turn me back too soon. Not yet" Zach thought.

"Maybe not ever..."