“Hi, can I talk to you about saving the planet?” Renee beamed at the passers-by, brandishing a clipboard. “Um, sir? Do you have a few minutes to talk about saving the planet?”
She noticed Andrew, and somehow her smile got even wider. “Andrew! Are you interested in saving the planet?”
She’d already signed his name down years ago, but she liked to play the same game every time he passed her on the way to Beanie’s. To be honest, and he tried to be, he wasn’t particularly interested in saving the planet- Andrew was very much of the nihilistic school of thought. Sure, it sucked for Kevin and the kids who’d have to grow up wearing oxygen masks, but Andrew wasn’t going to be around to see it. Bee would have words to say if she heard this, would lecture him on his ‘lack of empathy’, which was why he simply told her that he was donating to Greenpeace on a regular basis. Maybe it was only because he’d lost a fight to Renee and the price had been signing up to the charity of his choice, but Bee didn’t need to know that.
“You know, we’ve got lots of new ways you can contribute to Greenpeace’s efforts all around the globe.” She waved a pen and a clipboard at him enticingly, and Andrew gave her the usual treatment of a blank stare until she sighed.
“Andrew, you can pretend you don’t know me all you want, but I will know if those donations stop rolling in. Do you know about our new campaign to save the sea turtles?”
Andrew sipped his coffee. “Yep, been reading all the emails.”
Renee laughed, her voice floating on the wind. “Sure, the sea turtles that I just made up. Our latest campaign’s about getting food to children in Yemen, which you would know if you actually read my emails, Andrew.”
“Hmm, I definitely remember one about a sea turtle.”
“I know you only read the ones with ‘sparring’ in the title. One of these days, I might just send you petitions disguised as another meet-up for you to get your ass kicked.”
Andrew chucked his empty cup in the bin. “You’re too nice for deception, Christian Girl.”
It would have sounded nice if he didn’t say the word ‘nice’ with enough disdain that one would think it had personally offended him. Renee laughed and agreed, though, because she really was that nice.
This too, seemed to offend Andrew, because he raised a finger warningly. “You know that money you’re raising? You know how much of it actually goes to the sea turtles?”
“Well, none of it, I just made that up-“
“That’s right! None. It goes to line the pockets of some corporate bigwigs. If I was actually donating money by choice, Renee,” He enunciated her name very carefully. “Then I would give it directly to the people who need it. Luckily, I do not find myself consumed by your Catholic guilt, and am therefore perfectly capable of hoarding my cash until I die and then being buried with it like a dragon.”
“You’re a real humanitarian, aren’t you?” If it was anyone else, it would have sounded bitter, but Renee managed to sound both teasing and completely sincere in her belief that Andrew was a good person at heart.
“Yeah, yeah.” He grumbled, dropping his change from Beanie’s into the cash box sitting on her table. “As if I’m going to save the world single-handedly.”
Renee didn’t finish, because there was a crash from downtown that lit up the whole street, leaving them both dazed and half-blind.
Neil had noticed the crash, of course he had, it had lit up the whole street, but safe inside Beanie’s coffee shop he hadn’t realised how shit the weather really was. He grimaced as he stepped out into the pouring rain, holding his jacket above his head to try and keep the worst of it off his face. His grimace turned into a scowl when he noticed Seth sitting in his car smirking at his predicament, obviously still waiting for Allison.
Neil had never been able to keep his temper in check, and he was ready to rip Seth’s door right off it’s rusted hinges when Allison stepped out beside him, umbrella poised and hair as perfect as it ever was. He had quite a lot of respect for the way she hadn’t yet twisted her ankle walking across the cobbled pavement by the cafe’s staff door in those stilettos.
Seth rolled down his window. “Hey, Alli, you want a ride?”
Allison looked vaguely affronted at the idea. “In your shitty car? Yeah, I’d rather not crash and die. It’s fine, thank you.”
Admittedly, Seth’s car was a piece of junk. He scowled, then waved a piece of paper out the window. “Hey! Come grab your ticket, the show’s at 7!”
Allison held the now slightly soggy piece of paper advertising Mamma Mia! between two perfectly manicured fingernails as Seth drove off, before turning to Neil
“Hey, I’ll give you a ride home, okay?” Neil wasn’t going to turn the offer down in this weather, so he settled into the passenger seat of Allison’s barbie-pink convertible and watched with thinly veiled amusement as she stuffed the ticket into the glovebox, ignoring the way the fragile wet paper broke off.
She saw him looking, and laughed. “God, I’ve seen Mamma Mia! something like twenty times. I majored in theatre, remember? Besides, I have enough money to fly myself out to New York tomorrow and see the Broadway version, but Seth keeps buying me tickets and calling them gifts, because he seems to think that if anyone realises that he never misses a musical at the Old Starlight Theatre then they’ll think he’s less of a man, or something.”
Neil privately wondered why she was still dating Seth, but decided to keep that to himself in case Allison was for some reason in love with the bastard despite his overly fragile masculinity, general dickheadedness and frankly disgusting personal hygiene.
Andrew regretted agreeing to let Wymack drive him own, because he was loath to leave his Maserati in a company parking lot, but he still saw stars every time he closed his eyes and admitted he probably wasn’t in any state to drive at the moment. Still, he sorely regretted accepting Wymack’s offer- even Nicky’s endless chatter was better than listening to Wymack’s incredibly awkward and slightly painful attempts to relate to his son.
They crossed a speed bump, and the hand Wymack was using to hold his phone to his ear jolted. “Holy hell, it’s raining cats and dogs! Are you sure you don’t want me to pick you up?” There was a pause. “Okay, Yes, I got a ticket for Thea and after the show, we’re gonna go to your favourite restaurant!” Another pause, and the smile on the man’s face became slightly strained. “Red Lobster! Yeah, I know Thea’s a vegetarian because she’s dieting for the lacrosse season, they’ve got fish.” Another pause, and the smile fell completely. “Vegan? It’s crabfest! Kevin, you’re killing me!”
Andrew felt a slight jolt of satisfaction when Kevin hung up on him, followed by fearing for his life when Wymack swapped the hand on the wheel to reach over and rummage around trying to put his phone in the glovebox, causing a baseball glove and a pack of Kleenex to fall out. He did manage to shut the glovebox, albeit with with what looked like half a parking ticket sticking out the front.
Andrew fixed his tie in his bathroom mirror the next morning and considered drowning his radio in the bathtub. It chimed obnoxiously, because for whatever reason he couldn’t figure out how to change the default to anything but the local Hatfield news station. He swore it ran louder than any of his music channels, too.
“This is the morning news with Dan and Donna!” Andrew didn’t know what Dan looked like, but he was picturing a man who looked suspiciously like John Mulaney with whiter teeth.
“They said he wouldn’t make it!” Donna probably had one of those glossy newsreader bobs, and wore a cardigan. Her teeth were probably blindingly perfect, too, because he could almost hear the smile over the radio. Andrew remained bitter about the years of cigarette smoke staining his teeth, especially when he visited Aaron and had to face the evidence that smoking really does fuck up your teeth, because his brother, identical in almost every other way, had an irritatingly picturesque smile.
He briefly wondered if his dislike of the news was because Donna sounded exactly like Katelyn. Andrew bet Donna had been a cheerleader. God, Aaron was nauseating, with his perfect teeth and high-school sweetheart wife.
“They said he wouldn’t make it, didn’t they, Dan? That he had fallen from too great a height. But this little guy beat the odds and captured our hearts!” He had certainly captured Matt’s, that’s for sure. He could almost hear the man’s delighted exclamation of “Peanuts!” from whatever suburban house he’d crawled out of.
“Now weighing in at almost ten ounces, Peanuts the Hatchetfield Pocket Squirrel has outgrown his adopted father’s pocket!”
Maybe Neil liked squirrels. He’d bring it up in his lunch break- the daily trip to Beanie’s could fit a dry and aloof sounding comment, and maybe Neil would laugh.
“Luckily, proud Papa Ed has been squirrelling,” god, he disliked people who laughed at their own jokes. “away on his GoFundMe, to build Peanuts his very own, get this, Dan; squirrel house!”
“Huh, that’s amazing, Donna!”
Andrew decided his tie was acceptable, and ambled back into his bedroom.
“And something else has fallen to the ground here in Hatchetfield, this time from Outer Space! The meteor came-“
Andrew pressed the button on his alarm, reaching down to tie his shoes. He’d pass Renee on the way to work today, having to walk to work instead of driving because his Maserati was still at the office.
He supposed it was a pleasant enough walk. He cut through the park for most of it, thinking of new ways to start a conversation with Neil. Was Neil even attracted to guys? He thought he’d made it pretty obvious that he was flirting, but maybe it was time to try a more direct approach.
Renee smiled at him as always when he stopped at her table.
“Hey, are we on for Saturday at the gym? I booked us a room-“
He paused, because Renee’s facial expression hadn’t changed. She smiled, all her Christian do-gooder shining through, but completely ignored him. He stepped closer, and realised her eyes weren’t focused properly.
And then, she opened her mouth and began to sing.
“Hey, yeah! Just a typical day!” He’d heard her sing before, on Christmas when she and Nicky had dragged him to church, but that had been hymns and songs about Jesus, and this? This was something else.
“Got me feeling, in a beautiful way! No rhyme or reason! We can sing a duet-“ Renee grasped his arm, and he had a knife out in an instant. He wasn’t stupid enough to think he could beat her in a fight- he beaten her maybe five times in the last three years- but maybe it would get her to snap out of whatever was going on. She knew not to touch him; they’d known each other for four years and she’d never, not once, disrespected his boundaries or asked why they were there. She was a fighter, same as he was.
In fact, he realised as he looked closer, brandishing his knife, it looked like she’d already been in a fight. There were scratches on her neck, and her Greenpeace apron was ripped as if someone had held her down. It took a lot to hold down the woman who’d grown up as Natalie Shields, who’d carried knives on her for years and was still the most formidable person he knew, even with her Christian smile on.
There was something very wrong with her. She didn’t seem concerned with the knife, prancing around to some music that only she could hear.
Well, her and three teenagers he’d thought were loitering on a nearby park bench. A girl in a denim jacket did some kind of ballet move, jumping to land in the arms of another.
“Sometimes I just want to shout, atop of roofs and mountain tops, that all the world is paved in gold!” Renee sung, dancing towards him until Andrew was backed against the flimsy table still laden with sign-up sheets.
She grasped his shoulder, still smiling brightly. “So I threw all my worries, and my old skin away. Doing what I want to, on this Lah Dee Dah Dah Day!”
A homeless man burst out of the bushes, and joined the teenagers in what looked like a choreographed number as Renee vocalised. Andrew watched in horror, knife held in front of him, as they slowly advanced with jazz hands up.
“Lah Dee Dah Dah, Lah Dee Dah Dah, Lah Dee Dah Dah Day, Lah Dee Dah Dah Day!”
The homeless man advanced on his left, and the teenage boy on is left, flanking him as Renee and the girl twirled. Boxed in on all sides, the only thing Andrew could do was try and make Renee snap out of whatever haze she was in.
“Renee, listen to me, if they drugged you I can help you throw it up-“
Renee kept smiling, and pointed one finger at him threateningly. “Do you want to save the planet?”
The teenagers repeated back her words, slowly advancing forwards while tapping their feet. “Don’t you want to save the planet?”
“Do you want to save the planet?”
“There’s just one way you can do it!” Andrew started swiping, jabbing his knife into the homeless man’s arm when he reached for him. Whatever drugs he was on must be strong, because he didn’t even seem to notice it, dancing away with Andrew’s knife.
“By singing a song.... Singing aloooooong!”
Andrew was defenceless without his weapon, and he made a split-second decision before the Renee’s outstretched arms reached him. He didn’t want to leave her here in this state, but he turned on his tail, flipped over the table, and ran.
He sped away, cursing the decades of filling his lungs with cigarette smoke, and dared to risk a glance over his shoulder. Renee was dancing with the homeless man, and the group seemed to have forgotten he was even there as they spun through an elaborate choreographed dance break.
Something was very, very wrong in Hatchetfield.